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DarkWorld

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The bell on the door jangled as a petite redheaded woman entered Lil’ Beanz, bringing a waft of near frozen air in her wake. Dean looked up in surprise, mainly because the door hadn’t opened at all for several hours, and he paused the game playing on his phone on the assumption he was actually going to do some work for a change.

Yay.

“So, hey,” his co-worker Ash said brightly, stepping out from behind the counter to greet the woman with an effusive hug. Finally extracting himself, he slung a friendly arm around her shoulder and turned her to face the cashier’s station. “This is my friend, Charlie. We were at MIT together. Charlie, this is Dean.”

“Hi Dean,” she said, with a wide, disarming smile.

Dean’s eyes narrowed with vague recognition and he frowned. It took him a moment to place her face, then he drawled, “Well, slumming it a bit, aren’t you, your Majesty?” He gestured around the tired surrounds of the coffee shop. Ever since the Starbucks had opened in town, the independent coffee house had been struggling too much to even bother with appearances. It definitely didn’t require a Barista AND a cashier anymore. Dean was pretty certain the owner was just keeping him employed part-time at the till out of a misguided sense of pity. Pity wasn’t something Dean liked or appreciated… but his rent needed to be paid so he didn’t have the luxury of protesting.

Charlie giggled and looked at Ash triumphantly, “Told you he’d recognise me immediately. Can’t say the same of him,” she added pointedly, looking to where Dean was sitting and giving him a swift once over.

Dean flushed hotly. “Yeah, well, fuck you too,” he snarled. “At least I’m not a fuckin’ Dev.”

Charlie clasped her hands to her mouth, her eyes widening and filling with tears. On anyone else the exaggerated gestures would have looked fake. Somehow, in her case, her horror seemed genuine. “I…I… just meant… meant… you’re a goblin in the game, Dean… Your avatar is butt ugly… but, damn, I’m gay not blind. You’re seriously hot.”

Dean sneered at her. Somehow, his expression didn’t make him any less attractive but clearly expressed his disgust at the idea a pretty face made him ‘hot’. Except for Lisa, no one had ever bothered trying to deal with the rest of his baggage and even she had finally decided he wasn’t worth it.

“I don’t mean to be indelicate,” Charlie said cautiously, “but under the circumstances I would have expected you to have chosen a … um… more… imposing physical avatar for the game.”

Dean raised an eyebrow challengingly, “You mean I should have spent the points on a bigger dick?”

“One as big as you’re being now?” Ash interrupted. “Give her a break, Dean. It’s an honest question.” He turned to Charlie and decided to answer the question himself. “Dean can’t play a taller character without suffering vertigo. He’s only got a third-hand gen one RVR face-hood. Plays hell with spatial awareness. Besides, it’s easier to grind the levels up starting from a basic goblin account if you’re not a pay-to-player.”

“Or a dev,” Dean added bitterly. “Must be nice having access to infinite resources as well as a bespoke avatar.” Then he frowned suspiciously. “Hang on, how the hell do you know my game identity anyway?”

Charlie flushed a little but offered him a genuine smile. “I asked Ash to introduce us when I realised you were RL friends as well as Guildmates. I thought it would be better than just turning up on your doorstep as an anonymous Game Rep. I thought the company offer would sound more genuine if you received it from someone Ash already knows because, trust me, it sounds too good to be true.”

“What offer?” Dean asked suspiciously.

Charlie bounced with palpable excitement. “It’s seriously great, Dean. Roman Enterprises are launching a Beta Test for a new phase of Moondoor and your account has been picked by C.H.U.C.K. to take part in the testing. If you agree to take part, RRE will pay you a small salary, supply you with the very latest VR rig, a bespoke avatar and a sizeable RSS credit account and, best of all, the rig will be yours to keep at the end of the Beta. It’s win, win.”

Ash whistled loudly. “Are you talking one of those new Gen Nine full sensory immersion tanks?”

“Oh, yeah,” Charlie agreed. “Even I only have a Gen Seven and I’m one of RRE’s top devs. The kind of rig they are offering will retail at over 80k after the Beta.”

Dean frowned suspiciously. “You’re right,” he announced gruffly, “It does sound too good to be true. I ain’t buying it.” He raised a finger to shush her when she opened her mouth to interrupt. “Why the hell would Roman Enterprises pick me for this? I’ve invested a grand total of $49 in Moondoor since my account opened. There are guys in my guild who regularly spend four or five hundred dollars a week.”

“And yet you still are placed within the top 100 players in the realm. That’s not shoddy playing for a practically free account. You managed to grind your way into the top rankings with nothing but persistence and skill and some luck.”

“A lot of luck,” Dean corrected honestly. Moondoor had a lot of easter-eggs hidden inside its framework and Dean had stumbled over far more than his fair share of them. It made him immensely unpopular with some of the highest spending players because he consistently seemed to win items that they themselves had spent real money on.

Charlie shrugged. “What can I say? C.H.U.C.K. seems to like you.” She shrugged disarmingly. “Seriously, though, the required parameters for the Beta were fed into the system and it churned you out as one of its ten picks. There are nine other players in the Beta, and you all are getting the same offer. But you’ll have to sign a NDA for the actual details of the test.” She turned to Ash and grinned widely. “I brought an NDA for you to sign too, Ash, so we can all talk about it together. It is going to be soooo cool.”

“Gimme,” Ash said, reaching to snatch the paper out of her hand and signing it with a flourish.

“You didn’t even read it,” Dean pointed out.

“It’s a non-disclosure agreement, not a crossroads deal,” Ash scoffed.

Since Ash was usually paranoid enough for the both of them, Dean shrugged and signed his own copy when Charlie passed it over.

“Right, Bitches, this is the good stuff,” Charlie grinned. “Moondoor is getting a system-wide upgrade. All the realms are going to be invaded by a Dark Queen who will imprison my character and then launch ‘The Darkness’ and, effectively, everyone’s player account will be reset to zero because none of the weapons or skill points from the current game will be relevant in Dark Moondoor. Sure, we’ll lose some top level players because they’ll get pissed at being zeroed but the game is addictive enough that most players will get over the initial shock, then spend even more money to get back to the top in the Darkworld. The best bit, the part where you come in, Dean, is that the Darkness is going to introduce the idea of Boss Players. As you know, at the moment Bosses are all NPC’s, computer generated V.I.’s and players attack Bosses for points and prizes but defeating a Boss doesn’t give you the ability to become one.

“In Dark Moondoor, a player will be able to become a Boss. In fact, the top ten player levels will be reserved for Boss ranked players only. To make that possible, C.H.U.C.K. will create ten Dark Bosses, known as the Knights Of Hell. The Knights will all bear a sigil called the ‘Mark of Cain’ but otherwise will be visually indistinguishable from any other player so they will be able to move within Moondoor incognito. Unlike NPC Bosses, Player Bosses won’t register on player interfaces as Bosses. Players will all fight to become Knights of Hell themselves, but there can only be a maximum of ten so the only way to become one is to identify a character as a Knight, then defeat them and steal the Knight sigil for themselves.”

“What happens to a defeated Knight?” Dean asked.

“After the Beta, a defeated Knight character will be permanently deleted from the game. No do-overs. No spare lives. No resurrections. A Knight Boss is not only going to be the most powerful in the game but also the most vulnerable. A player killed as a Knight will have to create a new character and start right from level one all over again. During the Beta stage, the initially seeded Dark Knights will get ten lives so they need to be defeated ten times before the first ‘real’ player becomes a Boss.”

Ash whistled. “That’s seriously weird. I see why the Devs are doing it. Only a really high spending player is ever likely to become a Knight, and that kind of person is likely to spend the same amount again to get back to Boss level if they are kicked out of the game. But only if being a Boss is worth the spending in the first place. What game play does a Knight actually get, other than being consistently attacked by lower level players?”

Charlie shrugged. “That’s still in development, to be honest. Bosses can usually only advance levels by defeating other bosses and the Knights will be able to fight NPC Bosses to level their characters but I heard a rumour that the Knights will be given Quests to destroy each other until eventually only one Level 10 Knight remains, which suggests that they advance a Boss level only by killing another Knight.”

“So what’s the endgame?” Dean asked.

“A level ten Knight will be strong enough to fight the Queen of the Darkness. Defeating her will restore Moondoor to its current state and I will become Queen of Moondoor once more. I don’t think the company believe it’s possible though, because I’ve already been asked to leave the Moondoor team and move over to the Oz development team as soon as The Darkness launches so I think my current game character is effectively dead. I don’t mind though, because this is cool for Moondoor and the Oz game looks like it will be fun anyway.”

“You’re right, Charlie. This is mega cool. Epic,” Ash gushed.

Dean huffed rudely. “It’s bullshit,” he scoffed. “If all the other players are going to be effectively zeroed at the start of the ‘Darkness’, what’s going to stop the ten Knights simply destroying the lot of them immediately? Best way to prevent anyone ever defeating them is to work together to stop anyone ever getting big enough to be a challenge.”

“See,” Charlie grinned. “You ARE smarter than you look,” she said, with a friendly wink. “There’s a couple of ways the Devs will prevent that scenario. Firstly, the Beta testers, like you, have been chosen specifically to ensure their personalities clash big time. Trust me, some of the guys C.H.U.C.K. has chosen don’t even know what co-operation means. One of them has reached the top ten simply by inviting people into his guild, waiting until they trust him, then killing them for their inventories.”

“Crowley,” Dean said, knowingly, and Ash nodded his agreement. Both had watched in growing disbelief as that particular player had repeated the same treachery over and over. Their surprise hadn’t been that he kept repeating the game play but that other players were stupid enough to keep falling for Crowley’s tricks. Suckers.

“His RL name is Fergus McCloud,” Charlie laughed, “but his Avatar name is definitely more fitting. He’s a real back-stabbing devil, for sure. Another ‘collector’ character is Magnus, you’ve probably seen him in the game? His game play is similar. Instead of fighting battles, he sets snares, traps players, kills them and steals their RSS and Gear for himself. I won’t bore you with a list, but basically all the Knights, other than you, are known for their complete lack of empathy for other players. It’s the only reason your presence in the Beta Test was questioned, to be honest. No one could work out why C.H.U.C.K. chose nine complete assholes to be bosses, but then picked a player like you to be the tenth. Your playing record is completely different, Dean. You help your guildmates, are generous with your resources and often help the newbies to learn the ropes. You’ve never turned on anyone in the game and, unlike a lot of players, you never start fights. In your entire playing history, the only players you have zeroed are ones who have attacked you or your guildmates first. In the end, my team decided that C.H.U.C.K. just wanted some balance by adding a Righteous Boss into the mix.”

Dean rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed by the praise, “You said a couple of ways,” he reminded her, to change the subject from himself.

“With the release of the Darkness, C.H.U.C.K has released new races of NPC’s into the game. Angels and Demons. They aren’t Bosses, but they have varied Boss-level powers. Normal, lower-level players can ‘pray’ for Angelic assistance and these new NPC’s will fly to their aid in a battle scenario. Of course, they can only ‘pray’ if they have built up sufficient Faith Points, and there will be a lot of events and quests for players to do to build up FP. Or players can do crossroads deals with Demons for demonic assistance, but they will have to sacrifice Soul Points for their help. Players will start with a base of SP but further SP will have to be won or earned. Soul Points are going to be a pretty dangerous currency though, as they will be tied into HP. If a player loses all their HP while they have zero SP, their characters will get trapped in ‘Hell’ and then have to win a long sub-game to escape. If they can’t escape, they’ll have to respawn as lev one characters again to get back to Moondoor.”

“Why would anyone do a demon-deal instead of sticking with the Angels?” Ash asked, shrugging in bemusement.

“Because the Angels are going to be mega-dicks,” Charlie laughed. “Forget fluffy cherubs. These are going to be C.H.U.C.K.’s warriors and are going to have the same dispassionate attitude towards players as ‘He’ does. They will be intelligent V.I’s, of course, programmed to have little or no ‘free-will’ but they will still have personalities and not necessarily pleasant ones. They will interact with players but be capricious in their help to prevent any players gaining an unfair advantage. So, for instance, if a player is about to be zeroed, summons an Angel and that Angel needs 100 FP to stop the attacker but the player only has 99 FP to offer, the Angel will either give 99 FP’s worth of help, leaving the player to deal with the balance themselves OR the Angel might stick to the letter of the law, say ‘you don’t have 100 FP so I’m going to just stand here, refuse to help at all and just watch you die’. Like I said, Dicks.”

“So can Knights do demon-deals or summon Angels?” Dean asked.

Charlie blinked at him slowly. “Well, the Demons and Angels have been created to aid players against the Knights… but, now you mention it, there’s nothing in C.H.U.C.K.’s rules that says a Knight can’t use them to their advantage too. The way the game has been written, Demons and Angels are available to all players and Knights ARE players. Interesting idea, though. Not sure how it would work in a game scenario.”

“Maybe a Knight could summon an Angel or Demon to help them take out another Knight?” Ash suggested.

“Yeah, but I can’t think of how a Knight would build the necessary FP or SP to use them,” Charlie said thoughtfully. “I definitely know the team haven’t written any quests or events for the Knights that would provide them as rewards. Still, Moondoor is a complex game. C.H.U.C.K. is such an advanced AI that it sometimes feels like ‘He’ is writing the game ‘himself’. There definitely seem to be a lot of parameters within Moondoor that the Devs haven’t physically coded in so the AI must be creating them. So it’s possible there are any number of scenarios which would enable SP or FP collection, I just can’t think of any specifically.”

“You said there would be a small salary,” Dean interrupted. “How small?”

“A thousand a week,” Charlie replied.

“That’s small?” Dean gasped and, whatever anyone said, that wasn’t a squeak in his voice.

Charlie shrugged, “It’s less than a Dev’s salary,” she clarified, “but it’s meant to represent an average US salary, in the hope that Betas such as yourself can dedicate most or all their normal working hours to the game.” She kindly didn’t point out the obvious, that Dean clearly was lucky to earn even half that amount currently.

“And how long is the Beta test?” Ash demanded.

“Dependent on how other players react to Dark Moondoor, the Beta is expected to run at least one year,” Charlie replied. “Simulations have indicated the possibility that a really determined player, investing sufficient cash into the game, MIGHT gain the ability to defeat a Knight in as little as three months but that is highly unlikely and the Beta Knights can respawn nine times, so realistically I imagine most of the Beta Knights are committing to two or three years of gameplay. Roman Enterprises is guaranteeing a minimum salary though, so even if you were unlucky enough to be taken out early you can bank on one year’s full pay.

“All RRE is asking for is a minimum commitment of 8 hours game play, five days a week and 3 hours a day at the weekends. The company will also ‘freeze’ your account for a maximum of two weekly periods over the year so that you can take a holiday without your character being at risk.”

Ash frowned at her. “You know players like Dean, freed of the need to earn a living, will probably voluntarily spend almost every waking hour in the game. Particularly playing characters as high as these Knights. What’s the long-term health issues with using the full immersion tanks to that extent?”

“None,” Charlie replied automatically, then her smile slipped a bit. “Actually, no-one actually knows for sure. Theoretically none, but that’s what I was TOLD to say, ‘they are 100% safe’. Gotta be honest, though; I often spend ten or twelve hours a day in my Gen 7 tank, and after a while I definitely get a bit of muscle wastage and end up having to hit the gym for a week to compensate.” She looked at Dean with concern, “It might be more of a problem for you, Dean. I don’t think anyone has tested the tanks long-term with your particular… issues. This is supposed to be a great opportunity for you, not a risk to your health. Maybe you should get some medical advice before deciding.”

Dean frowned at her, torn between being pissed off or touched by her seemingly genuine concern. Pissed won the day. As always, the suggestion he couldn’t do something made him even more determined to actually do it. Until that moment, he had still been undecided whether to accept the offer. The high (in his experience) salary and the free rig still felt too good to be true and his gut was twisting with a niggling doubt but the suggestion the only reason he would turn the deal down was his disability removed his ability to say no. Pride no longer allowed refusal.

“You said the offer included a bespoke avatar,” he said, instead.

“Yes,” Charlie agreed. “You can choose any humanoid race, sex or appearance. Or you can have one that looks exactly like yourself, like my avatar.”

“You’ve definitely got bigger tits in Moondoor,” he pointed out bluntly.

Charlie shrugged, unoffended. “Okay, exactly like yourself but better,” she agreed. “The game chicks dig my tits.”

“So my avatar will be able to walk?”

“Of course,” she said, her voice softer. “And the immersion tank will fully compensate for that. You will be able to experience walking, and everything else, perfectly.”

“Then let’s do this,” Dean said, his voice determined. “I accept the offer.”

It was Ash who looked uncomfortable then, his face twisting with uncertainty. “Are you sure, man?” he asked cautiously. “It might really screw with your head, being ‘you’ in the game then returning back to RL and, well…” he gestured awkwardly at Dean’s chair.

For just a second, Dean hesitated. A tendril of fear shot through him, winding with the still nagging ache of his twisting guts, like a premonition of disaster. This gift horse had some potentially sharp teeth. Yet he chose, in that moment, to take the opportunity offered and worry about the consequences later.

A deal with the devil, indeed.

He wondered whether he had just surrendered a whole pile of SP.

But he still reached for the contract that Charlie offered him.

Chapter Text

“You do know what I do for a living?” Sam demanded, rolling his eyes in exasperation.

Dean sighed heavily. “Yes, Sammy. I am well aware, which is why I called you.”

“After you already signed the contract,” his brother pointed out. “Which is a bit damned pointless, don’t you think?”

“I don’t need your permission,” Dean grumbled. “I wasn’t asking for your legal advice. I’ve signed and I’m doing it. I just thought… well, that you ought to know what I’m doing.  Quite apart from anything else, I won’t be available during deep immersion so I thought you should know I’ll be uncontactable for at least eight hours a day. Not that you ever do, contact me, I mean, so I dunno why I bothered telling you really…” his voice petered out and he sank into a sulky silence.  He didn’t know why Sam always made him feel like HE was the younger brother.

Sam looked momentarily uncomfortable, looking away from the screen to compose himself before continuing the Skype call.

“Look, Dean, I know you’ve been worried about your job security lately but I’ve told you before you can always ask me for help if you have financial problems. I understand it’s difficult for you to find employment where you’re living which is why I keep suggesting you move to California. People here are a lot more open minded. In fact, I’m pretty certain I could find a position for you in my firm. My employers are big on diversification. Besides, I’d feel better knowing you weren’t a plane ride away if there is any sort of emergency situation.”

“Whilst I appreciate your offer of some menial desk job to allow your employers to tick some equal-opportunity box in their HR department, I actually have found myself a job, like a real boy, and it pays more than $50k a year so thanks, but no thanks,” Dean replied dryly.

“Did you even read this damned thing?” Sam demanded. “The waiver clause? The one that means Roman Enterprises have no liability for any ‘bodily injury or death caused directly or indirectly by participation in the test process’?”

Dean flushed hotly. “It’s a video game. How the hell could I get bodily injured or killed playing a video game? It’s obviously just a standard legal contract clause.  You get the same kind of crap written on the back of parking permits.”

Sam shrugged, accepting the point reluctantly. “I still don’t like it,” he muttered. “How do you know this VR equipment they are supplying is safe? I read an article about a guy who got killed in-game using one of those full sensory immersion tanks and he had a heart attack and died for real.”

“Firstly, that was an older generation model. The tanks now automatically wake you before the point of game-death AND they are on autodial to the nearest ER in case of emergencies.  If my heart rate reaches a critical point, an emergency responder will be with me before the tank even opens,” Dean replied. The installers had been thorough in their explanation of how the tanks worked.  “Besides, I’m twenty-eight, not fifty-eight.  I think my heart can handle a bit of excitement.”

“I just think it’s weird they picked you,” Sam muttered. “Moondoor has over two million regular players. The odds of them offering you this position are…well… it’s just weird…”

Dean agreed, but wasn’t going to give his brother the satisfaction of saying so.

“Look, I just called to let you know I was doing this.  I’m going to take a test run in this thing. If anything feels hinky, I’ll quit, okay?”

With a little more grumbling and muttering about doom, Sam ended the call and Dean was left to contemplate the VR rig that had been installed that morning.

Too big to fit in the bedroom of his tiny apartment, the rig now dominated his living room like a hulking, metal coffin.  His sofa had been jammed against the far wall, with the TV and coffee table piled on top of it to free enough room for the rig and the hoist mechanism that would allow him to easily climb in and out of the device from the left hand side. On the right of the VR rig, thick cables snaked to the wall socket where a new power supply had been fitted. The meterbox proudly displayed the RRE logo. Apparently, his power and broadband would be supplied off-grid, directly from Roman Enterprises.   He was glad he wasn’t going to be paying the power bill, though he felt vaguely unsettled that he was going to be completely physically dependent on his new employers whenever he was in-game.

Also on the right side of the rig there was a large cabinet-type box, again connected by fat wiring.  This, he’d been told, held fluids such as saline, so that the rig could automatically rehydrate him whilst playing. The lower part of the cabinet was for ‘eliminations’. Apparently he didn’t even need to leave the rig to take a piss.  Contractors would keep the cabinet serviced on a regular basis, just letting themselves in whenever a remote signal alerted them. When he’d offered a spare key for that purpose, the rig installer had just smirked and said it ‘wasn’t necessary’.

Another reason he was feeling unsettled.

And yet the rig was calling to him, a siren song he was finding increasingly harder to resist.

Charlie had skyped him the previous evening, finalising the details of the Beta Test.  He would enter the game in a realm called Purgatory, the waiting room where dead NPC characters were stored whilst they waited to respawn into the game.  According to Charlie, those characters were primarily monsters of one variety or other and tended, as a consequence, to spend most of their time in Purgatory killing each other in various ways to pass the time.

“It’s a really good trial arena for the new bosses,” Charlie had explained.  “The program dynamics are such that even as a Boss you will start the game with a level one character score. The fastest way to level up your character will be through combat.  You’ll need to get to at least level 15 before you have enough XP to function as a Lev One Boss, otherwise you’ll get killed off pretty fast in Moondoor.  Besides, the game will demand you reach character level 30 as a minimum condition of achieving Boss Level 2.  So even if by some miracle you find another Knight straight away and kill them ten times, you still won’t advance Boss levels without your character reaching lev 30.

“The good news is that deaths in Purgatory don’t count. Ever.  So you could just keep getting killed in there, over and over, until your XP from battle experience levels you to the necessary 15 to enter the main game.  I wouldn’t suggest it though. The thing about the immersion rigs is, getting killed HURTS.  It doesn’t do you any true physical damage, obviously, but when you are in-game, trust me, that pain and blood is going to feel really REAL.

“If your HP ever drops enough that the next injury will zero you, the rig will automatically pull you out of the game before the killing blow strikes. Your character will still die, but you won’t feel the blow that does it.  That’s a huge bonus.  I once got zeroed in one-strike by a lev 3 boss and it hurt like a mother, and when I woke in RL I was absolutely convinced I was dying for a couple of minutes until I finally caught my breath. So, needless to say, avoid that if possible.

“And, final advice for now… ignore system messages in-game as much as possible.  I always do my inventory checking, points allocations and strategy planning outside of the rig.  I like my in-game experience to feel as realistic as possible, so rarely ever run my system interface while playing. The system will interrupt you with verbal warnings if there is something you really need to know in a situation. Other than that, running the interface just reminds you you’re in a game and that really defeats the object of having a rig at all.”

Looking at the rig now, recalling Charlie’s advice, Dean could see the sense in her suggestion. The whole idea of having a total immersion rig was so you could see, touch, taste and feel as realistically as though you were really living inside the game.  Having an interface screen running would totally negate that realism.

So he logged into the game terminal outside of the rig to do his character check BEFORE entering Purgatory.

Player Name: Dean The Righteous

Dean rolled his eyes… clearly Charlie had thought that was funny.  He couldn’t see an ability to change player name in the interface, though, so he shrugged and moved on to finding out what mega powers a Boss possessed.

It turned out, not very much:

Character Level: One

Race: Undetermined

Class: Boss

Rank: One

Lives: 10

XP: 100

Mana: 0

HP: 200

SP: 0

FP: 0

Gear: Crude Bone Dagger

Spells: Mark of Cain Sigil

Mounts: 0

Followers: 0

He blinked. Shouldn’t a Boss have a hell of a lot more HP at the very least? From the looks of things, he had a big fat zero of just about anything.  Even a basic goblin started the game with 100 XP and 100 HP.   He’d expected to have some kind of epic weapon but ‘Crude Bone Dagger’ didn’t sound very epic.

He swallowed heavily, ignoring the wave of crushing disappointment that threatened to overwhelm him.  Obviously, that was why he needed to level up to 15 before entering Moondoor.  He searched the interface for more details, such as how many XP he need to gain per level and the rewards that would be offered.

Nothing.

No details whatsoever.

All the system was telling him was the crappy current condition of his character and absolutely nothing else.

No quests.

No events.

Nothing.

Nada.

“This is bullshit,” he snarled.  “What the fuck kind of crappy programming is this anyway?  How the hell am I supposed to know what to do next?”

Almost as though the system had heard him, a cursor suddenly blinked on the screen…......

…… QUEST ……

Your character is trapped in purgatory, a realm of roaming murderous monsters. You must find your way out of Purgatory and enter the kingdom of Moondoor and defeat the Queen of the Darkness.

…… ESCAPE FROM PURGATORY AND TAKE YOUR RIGHTFUL PLACE IN MOONDOOR ……

…… REQUIREMENTS TO COMPLETE QUEST: 

……. Character Level 15

……. XP 1500

……. HP 2000

……. Mana 500

……. REWARD:  Entry into Moondoor

……. ACCEPT QUEST?  Y/N

 

Well, Dean shrugged. That was more like it.  Time to go kick some monster-butt.

Using the hoist he manoeuvred into the VR rig, pulled up the internal console, pressed ACCEPT QUEST: Y and waited for the rig to close and transport him into the game.

Chapter Text

There was no sensation of sleeping yet the rig closed over him, like a coffin lid sliding shut, and a mere moment later he definitely felt as though he was waking up from a deep sleep.

Before he even opened his eyes, he was aware of a myriad of sensations.  The sound of light wind and birdsong, a distant burbling of what he assumed was a stream, the light gossamer fingers of a cool wind on his skin, an almost painful stab of gravel and grass into his kneecaps…

With that his eyes shot open.

He hadn’t felt any sensations below his waist since the accident.

He was kneeling in a small clearing, naked as the day he was born, his arms prickling with gooseflesh from the chilly breeze, his knees protesting their irritation at the uneven ground.

Yet he ignored his legs completely. What he was more unashamedly interested in was the soft, flaccid cock lying against his thighs.

He blinked in astonishment.  It had never even occurred to him that a ‘lifelike’ bespoke avatar would include fully detailed genitals.  Whoever had designed his avatar hadn’t stinted, either. If anything his virtual cock was longer and fatter than his own real life one and…. more to the point….

He reached out and touched it, watched it twitch in response to his hesitant stroke, and his eyes filled with tears.  He swallowed heavily, choked with more emotion than he was sure he could handle.

Dean the Righteous had a dick. A working dick. One that actually was responding to his fingers and shooting sensations into his brain that absolutely, without question, felt absolutely authentic.

Why had no one ever told him about this?

Why had not one of the apologetic doctors in all the years since his accident ever suggested that a virtual avatar would be able to give him back that part of his life that he’d lost?

He would have robbed a damn bank for the cash if he’d known he could BUY some semblance of the life stolen from him by a drunken father and a ton of crumpled metal.

“I can’t lose this,” he sobbed to himself, clutching his groin and delighting in the pain shooting through his nerves as his fingers squeezed painfully at the fake and yet oh-so-very-real flesh that pulsed in his hands.  “I have to beat this game, have to keep this job, this rig, can’t ever go back to not having this…”

And it was at that moment, totally distracted, that he first died in Purgatory as a monster crept up and cut his head off.

####

Dean jolted awake as the rig opened, taking a gasp of choked breath.  What the fuck had happened? Why had he fallen out of the game?

He checked the system interface and groaned.

…. MONSTER AXE HIT YOU FOR 240 HP ….

…. YOU HAVE DIED …

…. RESPAWN Y/N ….

Dean hadn’t felt a thing, despite Charlie saying it would hurt. Then he thought about it some more and realised the system would have realised the axe blow would kill him before it even hit, so had pulled him out of the game before contact had been made.

He flushed slightly with embarrassment that he had been killed whilst fondling his game dick, then ignored his death as a trivial inconvenience that was completely irrelevant compared to the idea he actually HAD a game dick.  A working game dick.  Not that he intended to, well, use it in game with another player character because #Creepy or an NPC because #SadBastard but a little bit of self-abuse sounded completely a-okay with him.

Who would have ever thought that Moondoor would work as an interactive porn interface?  Suddenly Charlie’s comment about game chicks digging her tits took on a new and all more interesting connotation.

Still, to stay in the game and keep the good times rolling he really needed to see what impact the death had caused to his character.

He pulled up his character scorecard.

Player Name: Dean The Righteous

Character Level: One

Race: Undetermined

Class: Boss

Rank: One

Lives: 10

XP: 125

Mana: 0

HP: 200

SP: 0

FP: 0

Gear: Crude Bone Dagger

Spells: Mark of Cain Sigil

Mounts: 0

Followers: 0

So getting killed had increased his XP by just 25. At least his number of lives hadn’t gone down so Charlie was right that Purgatory deaths didn’t count.

Which reminded him he had a question for Charlie.

He used the system interface to send her a quick in-game PM. 

… So what’s with the naked idea?????

It took a moment for her to reply.

… it’s a ‘Naked and Afraid’ kind of thing.  First unwritten mini quest is to kill someone and steal yourself a loin cloth. Until then, you’re swinging in the wind.  Hope you like your Avatar btw. I called in a couple of favours to make sure you got some good ‘equipment’….

….So that’s not a standard ‘package’????

…. LOL…. You want to see Crowley’s package…. but you might need binoculars…. EVIL WINK

Dean grinned.  He was beginning to really enjoy Charlie. Even if she worked for RRE, and was just doing her job, he believed they were genuinely becoming friends.

Okay, so time to get back into the game but this time, instead of just kneeling there jerking off he needed to get moving right away and find a defensible position while he scouted the lay of the land. Obviously he wouldn’t stand a chance against the monster that had just killed him, but there had to be smaller, weaker NPC monsters to fight.

Ones that hopefully had clothes to steal.

He looked at the interface screen and the blinking words:

…. RESPAWN Y/N ….

“Hell, YES,” he exclaimed, and hit the control to re-enter the game.

Chapter Text

“Son of a bitch!” Dean gasped, as the rig slid open and thrust him back to RL awareness.

In the last half hour he had re-entered the game three times and immediately died three times.  He hadn’t even gotten past opening his eyes, let alone getting to his feet to escape or attempt to defend himself. As far as he could tell, the damned monster was just standing there in the clearing waiting for him to respawn so it could behead him again.

He checked the system interface and saw, for the fourth time:

…. MONSTER AXE HIT YOU FOR 240 HP ….

…. YOU HAVE DIED …

…. RESPAWN Y/N ….

“This is fucking pointless,” he grumbled.

Then the system cursor flashed again.

…. LEVEL UP ….

He checked his scorecard. His XP had risen to 200, which had obviously trigged his character level to change to 2.  For a moment he felt a little satisfaction, then groaned as he realised the level up had given him 50 HP.  He now had 250 HP, ten more than the monster was hitting him with. Which meant that if he returned to the game, the monster would hit him for 96% damage and he would not only feel the pain of the blow this time (and he was sure Charlie was right about it hurting like a mother) but would continue to feel the pain for the few seconds it took for the remaining HP to drain from his decapitated corpse.

“There has to be a way to enter purgatory at a different point,” he muttered. “I need a damned realm map.”

A realm map icon popped up on his interface.

Dean took a deep breath and counted to three. Then, in a deliberately calm voice, he said:

“I would also like to see my inventory.”

Two more icons popped up.  A Gear Symbol and a Spell Symbol.  He clicked on the Gear Symbol and saw ‘Crude Bone Dagger – Equip Y/N’.

“You FUCKER. Why the hell didn’t you show those before?” he snarled at the screen.

… YOU DIDN’T ASK FOR THEM …  DUH ...

Dean’s mouth dropped open in astonishment.

“Charlie? Is that you?” he demanded furiously, sure this had to be a Dev fucking with him.

… I’M L.O.K.I. YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD SYSTEM INTERFACE. I’M NOT HERE AT THE MOMENT, BUT LEAVE A MESSAGE AND I’LL GET BACK TO YOU… MAYBE…

Dean blinked in shock. This was a V.I.? A snarky, very fucking unhelpful VI?  Who the hell had programmed this thing?

He clicked on the Spell Symbol.  It said ‘Mark of Cain’ but the ‘Equip Y/N’ was greyed out. Next to it was a drop-down menu. 

Spell Level

Mana

1

50

2

150

3

250

4

500

5

1000

6

1500

7

3000

 

So he needed Mana to activate the spell (whatever it actually did) but he had no mana. How did he get mana?  When he was playing as a goblin, he’d been awarded skill points for each level up and he’d been able to allocate them to various skills to his profile. Surely, the Boss character had to have a similar game dynamic.

“Show me available skill points,” he demanded.

…. YOU HAVE THREE AVAILABLE SKILL POINTS …  

“And how do I use them?” Dean demanded.

The screen remained dark and unresponsive.

 “Oookay,” Dean said, through gritted teeth.  “You’re obviously going to make me do this the hard way.  Show me my skills inventory.”

A Skills Symbol appeared in the bottom right corner of the interface.

Dean clicked on it and just three sub-menus appeared.  Magic, Combat and Knowledge.

He thought carefully.  Knowledge presumably would include learning the ability to check an enemy’s Stats but knowing just how powerful a monster was would be pretty pointless until he had the ability to actually fight it. Combat was the obvious choice at this level but, still, three combat skill points were going to be a mere drop in the ocean if all he had to work with was a single ‘crude bone dagger’.   So the question really was whether the ‘Mark of Cain’ spell could offer him any significant advantage. Since he didn’t know what the spell actually did, it would be risky to throw all his points into Magic, especially as the screen was only offering him 50 mana per point allocated.

“Go big or go home,” Dean decided. “Apply three skill points to Magic.”

… ARE YOU SURE?...

Dean rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

… YOUR FUNERAL, DEANO …

Dean just sneered at the screen. He was pretty sure the VI was just messing with him (and, wow, that was some seriously cool programming even if it was annoying as fuck to deal with) but it was too late now anyway, because skill points couldn’t be reallocated if he’d made a mistake.

He returned to the gear screen and equipped the dagger, then he clicked on the Spell icon.  It was no longer greyed out and now read: “Mark of Cain Lev 2 – EQUIP Y/N”

That was interesting. The system had automatically applied the mana to the sigil so it had already levelled up.

“Yes,” he said, pressing the screen. The Magic Symbol on the main interface flared red to indicate the spell was live, though he still had no idea what it did. As he watched, he saw his mana bar starting to slowly refill even as another bar indicated his Spell would only remain active for another twenty minutes.

“What does the Mark of Cain do?” he asked the VI

It didn’t answer.

Figured.

Well, he had only got twenty minutes and counting to find out for himself so it was time to get back into the game.

He pulled up the map, chose a grid location in purgatory at random and re-entered Purgatory.

……

 

He arrived in a swamp, kneeling waist-deep in stinking, murky water.  He was still naked (and scrambled quickly to his feet because who knew what kind of carnivorous shit was swimming through the water around his junk) but this time he was holding a strange white dagger.  It was the absolute definition of ‘crude’ and ‘bone’, seeming to be little more than a carved jawbone of some prehistoric animal.

The other difference that was immediately apparent was he now had a strange tattoo on his right forearm. A tattoo that glowed a malevolent red.

“Oh, that’s useful,” he groaned. “Let’s apply a spell that makes my arm light up like a beacon just in case any monsters haven’t already noticed me arrive.”

He had barely finished grumbling before something wrapped around his left ankle and jerked him off his feet.  He landed face-first in the water, already frantically slashing his knife towards whatever had caught hold of him. Even blind in the darkness of the water, he managed to strike whatever was holding him and he felt it release and retreat.

… YOU HIT SWAMP SNAKE FOR 40 HP ….

… YOU GAIN 10 XP …

Coughing and spluttering, he quickly rose to his feet again.  The fact the snake had retreated so quickly suggested it was only looking for easy prey and so might not even be much of a challenge but without the ability to check (damn, maybe he should have put a point in Knowledge after all) Dean was going to take no chances.  He hurried through the swamp looking for firmer ground.

His thighs burned with the effort of wading through the ankle deep water but he welcomed the throbbing pain. He was NEVER going to complain that walking hurt because it was a miracle worth suffering for.

He worked his way towards a bank covered in small trees and bushes, then climbed onto it cautiously. He wouldn’t be surprised if those bushes concealed an attacker or two but he needed to get out of the water since he already knew the water definitely concealed predators.

Sure enough, the moment he was on dry land something burst out of the trees to his right and barrelled towards him with a high pitched howl of fury.

It was humanoid, at least, and pretty small. A hobgoblin, rather than a goblin, so taller than the character Dean had previously played in the game but still under five foot and since it was only wearing a skimpy leather loincloth it was easy to see the creature was so near starvation that its bones were far more prominent than its muscles.

Dean wasn’t going to make the mistake of underestimating it though. Hunger and desperation were good motivators and, besides, despite the crudity of its weapon, which was more of a big log than an actual club, the hobgoblin looked like it meant business.

The other problem with the log was that it had considerably longer reach than Dean’s dagger, so despite him brandishing the blade threateningly towards the creature it didn’t prevent the hobgoblin’s forward momentum smashing the end of the log against Dean’s left shoulder.

“Son of a bitch,” Dean yelped.  That hurt. That REALLY fucking hurt. 

… HOBGOBLIN CLUB STRIKES YOU FOR 25 HP …

Okay, it might not have done THAT much damage to his Avatar but Dean felt almost sick from the throbbing ache down his shoulder and his entire left arm felt numb.

Sure, when he had played before, with his VR Hood, he had felt a physical pain when his avatar had been injured but it had been little more than a tiny electric shock. Just a simulacrum of pain, just enough to let him maintain the fantasy that he was really fighting.

This was completely different.

Completely REAL.

He could feel the blood pooling under the injury, feel the sensations of a bruise forming under his skin, could feel the debilitating shock of the blow reverberating through his whole body.

Totally real.

TOO real.

For a moment he was tempted to log out of the program completely.

Who hell thought it was FUN to feel actual, physical, sickening pain just to play a goddamned game? No salary was worth this kind of shit.

His distraction gave the Hobgoblin the chance to strike again and this time its club landed a heavy strike against his hip.

… HOBGOBLIN CLUB STRIKES YOU FOR 30 HP …

“FUCK,” Dean roared, as a wave of agony passed through his lower body.

But that was the Hobgoblin’s mistake.

Had it hit him again on the upper body, Dean might well have followed through on his decision to quit the game.  But the pain below his waist, pain where no feeling had existed for over ten years, THAT pain abruptly reminded him that this was more than just a ‘game’, more than just ‘fun’, more, even, than just a ‘job’.

This virtual world was the first real ‘living’ Dean had experienced in over ten years.

“Fuck YOU,” he told the Hobgoblin, as it came in for strike three.

He still had nearly 200 HP so he completely disregarded the incoming blow, letting it strike him, ignoring the sickening pain of its impact, moving in towards his attacker, rather than flinching away, stabbing his dagger forwards into the creature’s exposed chest, burying it into the Hobgoblin’s heart.

… HOBGOBLIN CLUB STRIKES YOU FOR 30 HP …

… YOU STAB HOBGOBLIN FOR 120 HP (60 CRUDE BONE DAGGER X 2 MofC SIGIL)…

Dean twisted the knife, burying it deeper as the creature clawed at him in desperation.

… HOBGOLIN SCRATCHES YOU FOR 5 HP …

… HOBGOLIN SCRATCHES YOU FOR 5 HP …

… YOU STAB HOBGOBLIN FOR 50 HP (25 CRUDE BONE DAGGER X 2 MofC SIGIL)…

The light dimmed in the creature’s eyes and it slumped to the ground, the knife ripping out of its chest.

… HOBGOBLIN KILLED …

… 100 XP GAINED …

… LEVEL UP…

… YOU HAVE REACHED CHARACTER LEVEL 3 …

The corpse of the goblin began to glow, a low red light infusing its body as it began to dissolve back into the game prior to respawning. Dean waited for it to disappear, as usual, but instead the red light seemed to shrink, smaller and smaller, forming into an egg-sized pulsing ball of energy. Before his mystified eyes, the egg continued to shrink, getting smaller and harder and more solid until, finally, nothing remained on the ground except a discarded loincloth and a small ruby gemstone.

Dean reached forwards and picked the items up. He stuffed the loincloth into his gear inventory, hoping it would be a ‘new’ loincloth when he extracted it again, then stared in confusion at the gem.

… SOULSTONE  

… GEM PRODUCED WHEN THE MARK OF CAIN EXTRACTS A SOUL …

…  HOBGOBLIN SOUL – 25 SP …

… ADD SP TO INVENTORY? Y/N

“Whoah,” Dean breathed.  Not only did the Mark of Cain increase the attack of the bone dagger by multiples of its own level but it also extracted Soul Points from a kill.  The soul points Charlie had been sure a Knight would be unable to acquire.

And that meant a Knight who killed enough other characters would end up with an infinite number of Soul Points and be thus able, presumably, to access a vast amount of demonic assistance. A really ruthless Knight of Hell would probably end up being the KING of Hell.

Which seemed completely contrary to the game plan Charlie had described for both the Knights AND the Demons.

Was this an example of C.H.U.C.K. doing its own programming again?

He needed to talk to Charlie and, besides, his Spell Sigil timer only had two minutes remaining and he didn’t want to meet another monster without it. Damn his shoulder hurt like a mother.

Dean decided to log out and give his health and mana bars time to regenerate. Plus he had levelled up. He probably had skill points to allocate.

Time to go ‘home’ and check his scorecard.

Chapter Text

Levelling up had again given Dean three skill points. He added two to magic, adding 100 mp so that he reached spell level 3.  After a little deliberation, he put the remaining point against Knowledge, hoping that would give him at least a basic analysis ability. He decided to apply points to Combat next time, because he’d need a whole five skill points to level Magic up any further and at this stage of the game he needed to grow his character as quickly as he could.

He looked at his scorecard.

His profile was still piss-poor but had grown substantially in less than a couple of hours of play:

Player Name: Dean The Righteous

Character Level: Three

Race: Undetermined

Class: Boss

Rank: One

Lives: 10

XP: 310

Mana: 250

HP: 300

SP: 25

FP: 0

Gear: Crude Bone Dagger.   Basic Loincloth.

Spells: Mark of Cain Sigil 3

Mounts: 0

Followers: 0

Satisfied he’d done as much as he could until his health and mana fully regenerated, which would take another 23 minutes (the downside of not having died this time was that he lost the automatic reset provided when respawning), Dean sent a PM to Charlie.

… Am I supposed to win soul points if I kill a monster whilst the Mark of Cain sigil is active???

After a few minutes delay, she replied.

*** WHAT?  No.  Hang on.  Let me check something…

He waited, tapping his fingers impatiently. It was a good ten minutes before Charlie messaged again.

*** I just checked the coding.  It’s definitely not something my team wrote into the program BUT I also checked your account history so I can see the game awarded you SP points for that kill.  Dunno how that happened. Must have been C.H.U.C.K. but makes no sense to me why ‘he’d’ do that.  Players like Fergus and Nick are going to decimate Moondoor at this rate to try to win control of the Demons.

… I know Fergus is ‘Crowley’. Who is Nick?

*** Calls himself Lucifer in-game. Guildmaster of the Cage Guild. You must have noticed his play-style.

… Shit, you told me the other knights were assholes but I never imagined HE would have been chosen. That guy is seriously insane. He doesn’t kill other players; he captures them and tortures their avatars until the players give up, quit the game completely and self-delete their characters. Hell, I hope he never caught one with a bespoke avatar. That doesn’t even bear thinking about.

*** Between you and me, he HAS on more than one occasion.  RRE has received several legal claims for mental distress caused to players with immersion rigs but the company line has always been that they should just have given up and logged out sooner. As far as I know, no one has ever warned Lucifer over the complaints or told him to change his play-style.

… Still, maybe if he enjoys torturing too much to actually kill characters, he’ll never realise the SP points are available.

*** In normal game circumstances you’d be right, but he’s going to have to work his way through Purgatory just like you so I think it’s inevitable that he kills something there and figures out the way to gain SP.

… Dammit.  Okay, change of subject. Who the hell programmed my System Interface because, I’m telling you, that L.O.K.I. is one seriously messed up V.I.

….

….

….

….

…. Charlie? You still there??

….

….

…. Charlie?

*** Sorry, I was just checking something.   I …. Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Dean…. Thing is, the System Interfaces aren’t usually seeded with V.I.’s.  The meta data behind Interfaces is pretty rigid so the game provides basic straightforward non-interactive menus that don’t require Virtual Intelligences to operate.

….  Trust me, my Interface is anything but straightforward and it DEFINITELY interacts with me. L.O.K.I. is not only a V.I. but a damned annoying, snarky one.

*** I’m not doubting you, Dean.  But all I can say is it SHOULDN’T be a V.I. and your system report doesn’t show any anomaly. From our side, you just have a basic non-interactive screen menu. It HAS to be something C.H.U.C.K. has done for some reason and because I can't see the coding change in your game, I can't tell you whether the other Knights also have had their interfaces altered.   Do you want me to see if we can overwrite your profile with a standard interface?

Dean thought about it, then shook his head.

…  Leave it for now. If it’s something all the Knights have, changing it might cause me a disadvantage.

*** Okay, let me know if you change your mind.  Don’t take too long deciding though, because I’m transferring to the OZ game at the end of the week.

… Damn, I forgot about that.

*** I’ll send you my private email addie before I log out of this system. I won’t be able to PM you in-game like this but I promise I’ll still assist you as much as I can.

… Okay. Thanks. I guess I’d better get back into Purgatory and grind some levels. I need to log another six hours of play or they might dock my pay on my very first day LOL

*** Oh. I should clarify that you only need to be logged in, not actively in-game. You get paid even if you’re outside of the rig adjusting your profile, regenerating HP or messaging other players. The System is currently showing you as having been active for 3 hours 13mins already today.

Dean grinned with relief. That would make his life easier, at least during the Purgatory stage, because he wasn’t sure a full eight hours of full on combat was possible to achieve. Still, his HP and Mana were at full again and he was ready to re-enter the game, so he signed off with Charlie and reactivated his VR rig, equipped his dagger and loincloth, activated his Sigil (it now said it would be active for 45 minutes, so he was pleased he had levelled it up) and chose yet another random port to enter the game at a new location.

####

Well, that was a nice surprise.

This time he had materialised in an open meadow, kneeling in lush grass, with no monsters whatsoever in sight.

He opened the interface to bookmark the location, then closed it again.  If this place remained a safe entry port he’d be able to arrive in Purgatory before activating the Sigil which would give him a longer gameplay.  To use the Sigil for maximum effect, he would be best only activating it when combat was inevitable but his first four entries into Purgatory had taught him to be wary of being attacked as soon as he arrived.

To the south, the horizon hinted at distant mountains and, in lieu of any better ideas, he decided to head towards them.  He strolled almost casually, enjoying the sensation of simply taking a walk through pleasant fields on a sunny day.  He was glad of the loincloth. Although it was tiny, little more than a leather pouch, he still felt less vulnerable and the game day was warm enough that he felt so discomfort from having no other clothing.  Still, he was going to need decent gear soon enough. Armour preferably, though he wasn’t sure he was exactly looking forward to having to fight someone to gain it.  Now that he knew fighting other characters caused real pain, he felt a lot less gung-ho about initiating combat with the NPC’s.

When playing his previous character, he had avoided combat with players if possible primarily because he was always conscious they were real people who had spent RL money and time to earn their character levels. He had never understood the players who seemed to take satisfaction in destroying other players just for ‘fun’. NPC’s though, computer generated non-player characters, were fair game and Dean had delighted in battling them. Killing an NPC was a thrill and the best way to advance in the game and, because they were just computer coding, he never felt a moment’s doubt or hesitation about treating them like canon-fodder.

Now that NPC’s could actually hurt him, they felt less like easy targets and more something to avoid fighting with whenever possible.

Well, unless they had something he really wanted of course….

… LIKE SOUL POINTS?....

Dean stopped walking and frowned.

“I turned you off,” he pointed out.

….WELL, YOU DEFINITELY DIDN’T TURN ME ON….HA…HA…

Dean shook his head in irritation at the snarky V.I.

“You aren’t supposed to interact with me,” he advised it, “And, anyway, how the hell do you know what I am thinking?

… TYPICAL MEAT SUIT.  YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA HOW THIS WORLD WORKS, DO YOU?

“I’ve been playing Moondoor for six years,” Dean retorted. “I reached Rank 93 as just a goblin avatar, so I think I have a pretty good idea of how the game is played.”

…IT’S NOT A GAME…

“Sorry, Bud, it definitely IS a game,” Dean chuckled. “And you’re just a fat windbag of computer code, so your opinion doesn’t really count.”

…THAT’S RACIST…

“And calling me a meat suit isn’t?” Dean countered.

…POINT…

“Thank you.”

…SO…SOUL POINTS…

“Not interested,” Dean replied dismissively. “I might not have a fancy degree or anything, but even I am smart enough to know that doing deals with Demons ain’t never going to end well for anyone. I dunno what the game is playing at but until I have a better handle on what is needed to reach EndGame, I have no intention of using any of that shit.”

…YOU ARE USING A DEMONIC SIGIL…  

“Well, DUH,” Dean replied, pleased to take his turn in snarking the VI.  “It’s not like I have anything else in my inventory, is it? But I’m using it for its combat multiplication, NOT because of the SP it generates. That’s just a side-effect, not my game-plan.”

… DEMONIC ITEMS CORRUPT USERS …

That made Dean stop in his tracks again.

“Come again?”

…USE OF A DEMONIC ITEM WILL INCREMENTALLY INCREASE CORRUPTION IN THE USER…

“Show me,” Dean demanded. He hadn’t seen anything on the interface to indicate L.O.K.I. was correct.

…DATA NOT AVAILBLE DURING PURGATORY TRIAL PERIOD…

Dean thought about that, then whistled under his breath.  “So, what you’re saying is that using the Sigil in Purgatory is going to have some long-term ‘corruption’ effect on my player character but that I won’t know what it’s actually done to me until I enter Moondoor?”

…CORRECT…

“Okay… so, what effect does ‘corruption’ have on a player?”

…DATA NOT AVAILBLE DURING PURGATORY TRIAL PERIOD…

“You can’t tell me or you don’t know?” Dean demanded.

…DATA NOT AVAILBLE DURING PURGATORY TRIAL PERIOD…

Dean coughed a laugh. “So, basically, you have no idea. You butt in, give me some dire-warning of impending doom…maybe… or maybe the whole point of being a Knight of Hell is that I am supposed to achieve maximum corruption or some such crap.”

…WELL, SINCE I AM JUST A ‘FAT WINDBAG OF COMPUTER CODE’, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT???

Dean was still formulating an answer to the VI’s comment when a roar and thundering of hooves distracted him back to his immediate surroundings.

“Jesus H Christ,” he swore.

Charging across the field, directly towards him, was a huge black animal that resembled a cross between a horse, a rampant stag and an armadillo.  The beast had a definite horse-like head and neck, with a lustrous mane, yet it had huge antlers that protruded from the top of its skull, and its body was thick-set like a rhino and plated with thick armour.

Dean looked around himself frantically. There was no cover within reach, no-where to run or hide. Absolutely no way whatsoever to avoid the charge of the creature.  He might as well stand his ground and assume the VR rig would wink him out of the game before he was actually pulverised.  Though, hang-on, what if its critical hit was less than 300 HP?

“ANALYSE,” he yelled.

Proving that one skill point in knowledge was greatly insufficient, all L.O.K.I. provided in response was;

…GREMLIN LEVEL 10…

“Gremlin?” Dean scoffed. “That’s not a fucking gremlin.”

But, suddenly, he realised that maybe one point was going to be enough knowledge after all.

“Hot damn… That isn’t a monster… it’s a MOUNT.  Analyse mount.”

…ANAKORN LEVEL 5…

A level 5 mount was a significantly fast and powerful one, but it was still just a mount.  The actual threat was the rider and despite the size of the Mount, which was a good six foot at its shoulder, its rider was miniscule in comparison and only a level 10. A level ten player would be a challenge to him at his current level, a level 10 Gremlin? Not so much…

A gremlin?  A goddamned gremlin? Seriously? He was about to be taken out by an NPC no bigger than his forearm?

Fuck that…

The Mount would be offering its rider a shit-load of XP but that wouldn’t work if the rider was dismounted.  In his goblin avatar, what Dean did next wouldn’t have worked but he was in a bespoke Avatar now, one that reflected his real-life size and height (well, if in RL he could stand up), and so instead of running away from the charging Anakorn he ran towards it.

He ran right at its face, staying in a straight line of collision until he could actually feel its breath on his face and smell the pungent wet-dog scent of its wild, whipping mane, and then, at the last second, he swerved right, missing the Mount’s snapping teeth, grabbing a handful of black mane with his left hand and using that and his forward momentum to leap up onto the Anakorn’s back like a Native American in a Western Movie.

He landed directly behind the Gremlin, his bone dagger clutched in his right hand, and before the NPC had time to do more than scream in fury, he ripped the jagged teeth of the knife across the Gremlin’s neck and decapitated it.

Two things happened immediately.

His face was drenched by a thick, gush of arterial blood and the Anakorn came to such an abrupt stop that he was thrown forward, head-first, and hit the ground in a painful crash.

… FALL OFF ANAKORN.  MINUS 15 HP. MINUS 100 CP…

… YOU HIT GREMLIN FOR 75 HP (25 x 3)

… GREMLIN KILLED.

… YOU HAVE GAINED 75 XP

… ITEMS DROPPED:  SOULSTONE 15 SP.  MOUNT ANAKORN

… ADD TO INVENTORY Y/N?

“What the fuck are CP’s?” Dean demanded.

… COOL POINTS …

“There’s no such thing as ‘cool points’.”

… JUST AS WELL, DEANO

Dean disregarded the VI as he suddenly realised the MOST important part of the system information he’d just received. He’d won the mount.  He now owned a goddamned MOUNT.

What were the odds of a level 3 character winning a mount in battle?

Well, about as low as the odds of him finding one being ridden by a mere Gremlin.

“I dunno what’s going on here, but somebody must like me,” he muttered.

…NO ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE…

“No, seriously Loki, this ‘luck’ I keep having doesn’t stack up.”

And although Dean didn’t notice he had unconsciously treated the VI like an actual ‘person’ for a change, rather than simply a computer program, there was a definite change to the VI’s ‘tone’ when it finally responded.

…PERHAPS C.H.U.C.K. APPROVES OF YOUR ATTITUDE REGARDING SOUL POINTS…

 

Chapter Text

So, it turned out that inner thigh friction burn was a ‘thing’.

Dean had a new understanding of why movie cowboys wore chaps.

He reluctantly patted his Anakorn on the neck and then dismissed it back into his inventory.  Until he managed to win himself some pants, the mount wasn’t going to be much use to him. Still, on the bright side, it had carried him from the meadow to the foot of the mountain range and had done so without incident so, although it might simply be that there were no monsters in this region, Dean was pretty sure his safe progress across the vast grassland had been primarily because no one had been willing to approach him whilst he was mounted.

That was both good news and bad news.

Good because, well, no pain (obviously) but bad because without fighting he wasn’t going to get out of Purgatory at all.  The slaying of the Gremlin hadn’t even moved him to the next character level and he was determined to level up at least once more before quitting for the day.

He was hungry, maybe because he hadn’t stopped to eat lunch in RL or maybe because his character required food in-game regardless of whether he ate or not outside of play.  He wasn’t sure.  He remembered Charlie telling him his character would be provided with a substantial pile of RSS and assumed food would be one of those items. He wasn’t sure how it worked with a bespoke avatar though.  As a goblin, he’d always simply allocated Food Points to his character when the game had demanded them. He suspected that his current character needed to actually eat food, given that he had an aching pain in his guts rather than a system bar blinking a warning in his inventory.

“Hey, Loki,” he said, keeping his voice low since he was now approaching stacks of fallen boulders at the base of the first mountain and they would provide good cover for any monster lurking within them. “What do I have available to eat?”

… YOU HAVE 2000 PORTIONS OF BASIC NUTRITIONALLY BALANCED TRAVEL RATIONS…

“Wow”, Dean replied, impressed with his apparent wealth

… THEY TASTE LIKE CRAPPOLA…

It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Loki but, “Issue one portion”.

A lump of a hard, brown substance plopped into his right hand. It looked horribly like a big, hard dog turd.  Dean squared his shoulders and took a bite. Fortunately, it tasted better than it looked. But not much.  Still, nutritionally balanced meant the food would be adequate to keep his character HP level steady so he manfully continued to chew until the portion was ingested. There was no point worrying about getting better food yet.

He could try to catch a rabbit or something, because he knew from experience he could claim ‘raw meat’ from a game animal kill but without a fire or any herbs or seasonings, he didn’t think meat would be any taste improvement on the rations.  So he put the problem to the back of his mind. He’d survive on the crappy rations until he got to Moondoor where he’d have access to Inns and Food Vendors and such. 

His musing was interrupted by a deep, ground-shaking growl as a huge pile of rocks to his left began to stand up.

“Oh shit, ANALYSE.”

… ROCK OGRE… LEVEL 15 … XP 582 … HP 1900 …. UH OH … YOUR ASS IS GRASS, DEANO …

As the monstrous beast started to lumber towards him, a huge club in its hand that was literally bigger than Dean’s whole body, Dean decided the V.I. wasn’t wrong.

But, he decided, as he avoided the first blow by throwing his body into a forward roll and scrabbling behind a boulder for cover, he wasn’t going to just accept defeat and log out prematurely.

If he simply got killed, he would gain a minimum of 25 XP and that, added to his current XP total, should give him a level-up.

But if he managed to get a little bit of damage in before he got smashed into jelly, he should be able to substantially increase his game experience.  Fighting something so much stronger than him could give him enough XP to level up a couple of times at least. IF he could stay alive long enough.

What did he need? What had he got?

Well, clearly, he needed a goddamned cannon.  What he actually had though was just a single bone dagger.  He could throw the dagger and that would probably take the Ogre down 300 hp, with the Sigil’s 3x multiplier, but he’d be unable to retrieve it.  He wasn’t worried he’d lose it. It would just return to his inventory after the battle, but the important point was that he wouldn’t be able to throw it twice.

Oh well.

He threw the dagger.  It flew through the air true and struck the Ogre in the top of its left thigh.

… YOU STRIKE OGRE FOR 450 HP …  ((100 x 50 Stealth Bonus) x 3)

So that was a result. He got an unexpected bonus for striking the Ogre with a surprise attack.  Even so, the Ogre not only had 1450 HP remaining but now looked decidedly pissed off.

With a roar of pure fury it marched towards him, each step causing the ground to shake and the small rocks around Dean’s feet to rattle and roll about.

That gave him an idea.  He reached down, grabbed one of the larger rocks and lobbed it towards the Ogre.

It hit the creature and bounced off seemingly without any result but then LOKI said:

… YOU HIT OGRE FOR 10 HP…

“YES!!!” Dean exclaimed triumphantly, grabbing more rocks and hurling them one after another at the OGRE even as he continued to scramble backwards out of its path.

… YOU HIT OGRE FOR 10 HP…

… YOU HIT OGRE FOR 5 HP…

… YOU HIT OGRE FOR 10 HP…

… YOU HIT OGRE FOR 5 HP…

… YOU HIT OGRE FOR 5 HP…

And then Dean’s back hit a wall of rock as he ran out of room to retreat.

“Oh shit,” he said, as the club descended towards him and…

The rig slid open and he sat up with a gasp.

… YOU HAVE DIED …

…. OGRE HIT YOU FOR 600 HP ….

…. XP GAINED 140

…. LEVEL UP

…. LEVEL UP

Two level ups.

Result!

“Show scorecard,” he demanded.

Player Name: Dean The Righteous

Character Level: Five

Race: Undetermined

Class: Boss

Rank: One

Lives: 10

XP: 525

Mana: 250

HP: 500

SP: 40

FP: 0

Gear: Crude Bone Dagger.   Basic Loincloth.

Spells: Mark of Cain Sigil 3

Mounts: 1: Anakorn Lev 5

Followers: 0

Skill Points To Allocate: 6

Dean punched the air in triumph.  “Allocate 5 to magic and 1 to combat,” he said, since he had enough to get the Sigil to level 4.

“Oh,” he said, in surprise, as he rechecked his inventory. Instead of the combat skill showing as a separate item, the Bone Dagger had risen to Level 2.  That made sense though, he decided. Increasing the base power of the Dagger would increase his strike ability. Even so, it made him wonder what would happen if he acquired a new, better weapon. Would the skill point transfer to whichever weapon he wielded?

“Loki, show me the weapons options for my character.”

… CRUDE BONE DAGGER …

“Not what I currently have,” Dean said, with an irritated sigh. “I need to see the options that will be available when I level up more. Show me all weapons that this character can utilise if I obtain them.”

… CRUDE BONE DAGGER ….

“Seriously?”

… X MY HEART AND HOPE TO… OH WAIT….

“Okay. If I accept that, let’s try asking this a different way.  What is the maximum skill level available for the Crude Bone Dagger?”

… FIRST BLADE …

Dean blinked in confusion. “Define ‘First Blade’.”

… ONLY KNOWN WEAPON THAT CAN KILL A HIGH LEVEL KNIGHT OF HELL …

“Define a ‘High Level Knight of Hell’.”

… BOSS LEVEL FIVE AND ABOVE…

Dean considered that one carefully.  That meant he would need to kill four other Knights to be considered a ‘High Level’ Boss and then as a Level Five Boss he could only be killed by someone wielding a ‘First Blade’.  His eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “Requirements to raise ‘Crude Bone Dagger’ to’ First Blade’.”

…REQUIRES CRUDE BONE DAGGER LEVEL 14 AND BOSS LEVEL FIVE…

“And let me guess, ‘Crude Bone Dagger 14, requires Boss Level Four.”

…BINGO…

“So there can only ever be a maximum of two level five Knights of Hell. If one knight manages to reach level six, its game over anyway for the other Knights. They won’t stand a chance against the Knight with the First Blade. But, hang on, does that mean a level five will automatically become a level 10 by killing the other level 5? It must do, or it won’t work because there are only 10 Knights in total.  More to the point though, this means I have no choice about whether or not to hunt down the other Knights. If I don’t and one of them reaches Boss Level Six, they will be undefeatable.”

… AVAILABLE DATA SUGGESTS YOUR ANALYSIS IS CORRECT…

“So, I assume I can raise the Dagger to level 10 simply by allocating skill points but from then on I am stuck unless I kill another Knight.”

… CORRECT …

“But to kill another Knight I’m going to need to use my Sigil to empower the knife and doing so will ‘corrupt’ my character.”

…CORRECT …

“But we don’t yet know what ‘corruption’ does to a character.”

… ALSO CORRECT …

“Great.”

… ARE YOU HAVING FUN YET?...

“This game sucks. YOU suck. And that’s it folks, I’ve done more than enough and am logging out for the day.”

Dean could have sworn he heard the V.I. laugh as he shut the program down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Deciding to avoid the mountains, and further Rock Ogres, until he was considerably stronger (unless he needed a quick emergency XP boost and was feeling particularly sadomasochistic) Dean rode South the next morning at a leisurely pace, conscious of the need to reduce the amount of friction on his seat to maximise the amount of time he could ride the Anakorn.

He was feeling optimistic.  In just one day of gameplay he had reached level 5, and only needed another 10 levels to enter Moondoor.  Realistically, he expected the levelling up to become more difficult from this point. He couldn’t recall exactly how the game mechanics worked at such a low level since it was years since his goblin character had taken the same progression journey, but he was pretty sure the first 5 levels had been relatively easy to ensure Newbies didn’t just give up before the game addicted them. From level 5 upwards, the XP needed to achieve a level up increased exponentially.

And, thinking about game points and levels, it was about time he had a ‘conversation’ with Loki.  He had woken up that morning clear-headed after the best night of sleep he’d had in years. Despite his game-time being mental, rather than physical, somehow he had felt actually physically exhausted after his time in Purgatory and that had translated into the kind of heavy sleep he normally couldn’t achieve.  So feeling well-rested and positive, he had spent most of his time eating breakfast in deep consideration of the best way to move forward in the game.

He needed to take Charlie’s advice completely and switch off the game interface. He needed to immerse himself completely in ‘living’ the moment, rather than just playing a game.

… YOU WANT TO TURN ME OFF COMPLETELY?... I’M HURT, DEANO… YOU HAVE CUT ME TO THE QUICK…

Dean blinked as the words popped up, near translucent over his vision.

“No, but this is part of what I’m talking about.  How the hell is this supposed to feel ‘real’ to me if I keep seeing your comments scrolling in front of my eyes? You can apparently read my goddamned mind, so can’t you just…I dunno… talk to me or something?”

“Of course I can,” a bright, cheerful voice boomed inside his head. “You just had to ask. Mind you, don’t know how listening to voices in your head is an improvement. Going to feel a bit schizophrenic if you ask me.”

Dean shrugged. “I know having a voice in my head is still weird but it’s at least feasibly something that I can convince myself is ‘real’.  I can adjust to the idea easily enough. I’ll never learn to disregard actual game mechanics scrolling in front of my vision.”

“Fine by me. All that typing is a balls ache anyway,” Loki said breezily.

“And, on the same note, I want you to stop giving me in-game score-results unless I specifically ask for them.  Thinking about it, it makes no real difference whether or not I know the specific HP drain of each hit.  At least not in Purgatory. I’ll either win or lose, and I might as well wait until afterwards to read the system messages that tell me why.  On the whole it’s a pretty straightforward process anyway. The monsters are either smaller than me or bigger and that’s what determines the outcome.”

“Not necessarily,” Loki said. “Size isn’t always everything, Deano.”

“Well, not always,” Dean agreed, “But I said ‘on the whole’. I know there are going to be exceptions, characters that look physically small but have mega power levels, but realistically they will cream my ass whether I know they are powerhouses or not. So let’s try to make this whole thing feel a lot more realistic. I still don’t have a clear idea of how this Knights of Hell crap is going to work itself out but I definitely think it’s going to be a lot more complicated to reach EndGame than simply participating in a series of basic Boss fights. So I think I need to get into the right headspace and actually try to believe this world is real whilst I am inside it, rather than just a game.”

“It isn’t a ‘game’,” Loki insisted snottily.

Dean chuckled. “Well, obviously it isn’t one to YOU.” He shrugged easily. “From now on, I’ll do my best to act like you’re right.”

“I won’t hold my breath,” Loki muttered snippily.

Damn, Dean was in awe of whoever had programmed the V.I.  Not only did it seem to interact seamlessly with him in-game, it actually managed to add tone and inflection into its ‘voice’ to portray emotions… and sarcasm. A lot of sarcasm.

His attention was suddenly pulled back to his immediate surroundings.  In the distance he could hear a noise that sounded like a high-pitched scream of fear.

Human or humanoid, he decided, and almost definitely female.

He urged his Anakorn to hurry, patting it absently on the side of its huge neck as it responded to his mental command with a surge of speed.

Loki had obviously already switched off the entire visuals of the interface because Dean no longer had sight of the Mount’s XP and HP bars. It felt momentarily like he’d just given himself a huge debuff by removing that information, but then he reasoned that if the mount started running out of energy it would start slowing down, just like a real animal, so all he needed to do really was treat it like it was a live animal and look after it accordingly.

“You need a name,” he told the Anakorn fondly, but put that thought on the backburner as the rising volume of the screaming warned him they were getting closer to wherever the action was taking place. He was approaching the edge of the grasslands, where the meadow broke into copses of trees and bushes, a landscape very similar to the one he had seen when he first entered the game. For all he knew, it was exactly the same place.  The one where the axe-wielding monster lurked.

This close, he could tell for certain that the voice was female. Not only that, it sounded young.

He galloped past the first copse of trees, past the second and then burst into a clearing where a battle was taking place.

No, not a battle.

A slaughter.

Three large humanoid males, wielding short swords were surrounding a tall human female wearing little more than a leather bikini and a copious amount of blood.  She also was holding a short sword and it was clear she had used it to effect as her three attackers bore visible injuries too.

It wasn’t the woman screaming.

Her face, flushed with exertion, was fixed in a mask of murderous rage as she attempted to keep the three males at bay despite what looked like a critical wound pouring blood and HP from a deep slash across her gut area.

The screaming was coming from the tiny girl child hiding behind the woman.

The little girl looked no more than five or six years old, though she clutched a tiny blooded knife in her hands and attempted, now and then, to strike a blow from behind the woman towards the legs of the attackers.

Without even stopping to consider his actions, Dean aimed the charging Anakorn directly at the closest of the three males.

The impact knocked the male off his feet so violently that he flew through the air and collided with one of his colleagues and they both landed in a tangled heap of limbs. The second one stirred groggily but immediately began to climb to his feet, stunned rather than injured. The first remained crumpled on the floor, clearly out cold.

The third male turned with a roar and charged towards Dean who had been unseated by the impact and was now sitting, also stunned, on the ground.

But the moment the male turned towards Dean, the gravely injured woman took advantage of his exposed back and launched her sword like a spear, impaling him from behind.  He took a couple more steps, his eyes wide in astonishment, then slumped to the ground and winked out of existence.

By that time, the second male had reached Dean, swinging his short sword in a wide, vicious arc towards Dean’s neck.

Dean ducked and rolled, activating his sigil and dagger, scrambling to his feet so quickly that the blade caught him only glancingly on his left shoulder.  It still cut through his flesh and he yelped with pain as a large gash opened wide enough to expose bone.

“Son of a bitch,” he gasped. That damned well HURT.

But his right arm, the one holding the dagger, was uninjured and he moved in towards his attacker, pushing close into him to avoid the sword, managing to stab the monster deeply in the sternum and then twisting the weapon and sawing with it to open the wound wider.

“Ow, ow, OW,” he yelped, as his foe gave up trying to cut him with the sword and instead used its pommel as a club and started smashing down on the back of Dean’s head.  The blows were painful but Dean could tell they weren’t life-threatening because there was no significant drop in his own energy levels. Besides, they were rapidly decreasing in power as he continued burrowing into his attacker’s guts until the NPC’s eyes dimmed completely.

Satisfied it was dead, he dropped it to the ground and turned to where the third attacker lay unconscious.

It was gone.

So was the woman.

But standing where the third male had been lying was the tiny child, knife in hand.

She had, at least, stopped screaming.

“What the fuck?” he asked Loki.

“Looks like everyone died except you and short-stack there,” Loki replied airily.

“Damn,” Dean cursed. “What am I supposed to do now? I can’t just leave a kid here on her own.”

Even as he said it, he knew it made no sense.  This was Purgatory. The only characters here, other than Knights like himself, were NPC’s.   What looked to him like a little girl was only a line of computer code waiting to be respawned into Moondoor.

A line of computer code that probably looked like a real tasty little candy snack to all the monsters in Purgatory.

He wondered how many times the little ‘girl’ had already died in this place whilst waiting to be reborn into the main game and he felt sick.

Which was kind of insane.

“LOG OUT”, he demanded gruffly.  “NOW, damnit.”

He woke in the RL with a gasp of breath that sounded suspiciously like a sob.

“So much for realism,” he told himself bitterly.

That had been far TOO real.

He had raced into that fight without even considering the fact that in reality he had just been fighting against a bit of computer code in defence of another bit of computer code.  He had actually completely forgotten it was just a completely fake scenario and that the woman and child didn’t really exist.

For the moments of that battle he had truly been trying to save a real woman and child.

Having a bespoke avatar was really screwing with his head.

But…

But…

Hadn’t that been what he had wanted?

…BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR, DEANO…

Outside of the game, Loki had returned back to a mere typing cursor on his screen.

He was still a snarky, sarcastic little shit though.

Even if he was no more ‘real’ than the little girl.

…YEAH, YEAH, KEEP TELLING YOURSELF THAT…

“Fuck this,” Dean snarled, activating the hoist to pull himself out of the rig.  He needed some real life interaction with someone. He needed some external perspective on what he was doing in this game and what the long-term psychological implications might be of fully immersing himself in a virtual world.

Time to go to ‘Lil Beanz and talk to Ash.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Well, in moments like this it’s always best to ask yourself, ‘What would the great Jim Kirk do?’” Ash said, straight-faced.

They were sitting in ‘Lil Beanz, sharing coffee and apple pie.  Except for a couple of pensioners nursing a pot of tea near the window, the coffee house was deserted as usual.

Dean barked a cough of laughter. “You want me to Kobayashi Maru the fuck out of this situation?”

“Absofuckinglutely, my friend.”

“How?”

“Being in Purgatory is a zero-sum game.  The longer you stay there levelling up, the more harm the sigil does to your character. So your answer is to get the heck out of there early,” Ash replied, with a careless shrug.

“How the hell do I do that? Come to think of it, why the hell would I do that?”

“The why is pretty darned self-evident,” Ash said. “This Loki guy says you’re going to get ‘corrupted’ every time you use the demonic sigil but you need to level up your character and the only opportunities to level up your XP in Purgatory are through killing monsters and that means you have to use the sigil. It’s a catch 22. But in Moondoor there are a ton of ways to increase your XP that don’t involve combat. Guild Quests, for instance.  Sure, you’re going to be more vulnerable if you go to Moondoor before you’re stronger and you lose the Purgatory advantage of infinite lives but if you’re smart about how you play and keep your head down so no-one realises you’re a Knight, you should be fine. The only downside of it is that you might not progress levels as quickly as the other Knights but, on the other hand, you don’t get riddled with corruption.”

“Not that we have any idea what getting ‘corrupted’ even means,” Dean pointed out.

Ash shrugged. “Hey man, just the word alone is pretty indicative that it’s a ‘bad thing’,” he said, and Dean could actually hear the parenthesis in his voice.

“Actually, I’m seriously beginning to wonder whether it is also going to represent some kind of RL soul corruption,” Dean admitted carefully.  “Because, I can’t stop thinking about that little kid in Purgatory.  The thing is, I know that kid is a NPC monster because she’s in Purgatory so…duh… but there’s also the fact that third guy was out cold last time I saw him and then, suddenly, he’s dead and the kid is standing there with a knife so, well, kind of obvious who ganked him. But, still, little kid, you know? 

“And sure, in Moondoor, you come across monsters that wear little kids and women and all that crap but you can walk away if, well, if it feels wrong to engage them.  But in Purgatory it’s all a kill or be killed situation. And I never was the kind of player who could just say ‘fuck it’ and fight indiscriminately anyway but now I have this new avatar it all feels so damned real, you know? Like what I do in the game could actually leave a stain on my RL soul. Crazy, huh?”

“Dunno, Man,” Ash replied thoughtfully. “It’s a chicken and egg thing, maybe. I mean we all come across real assholes in the game and just assume they are dicks in Moondoor because they are dicks in RL.  Maybe, well, maybe it works both ways. Maybe being a dick in Moondoor makes you more dickish in RL?  I mean, unless you’re Bi-polar, there has to be bleed over in both directions. Dunno. Either way, it makes it all the more important that you get your ass out of there ASAP.

“As for the How, it’s almost a certainty that there will be a back-door or two written into the Purgatory sub-routines. The programmers would have considered the unlikely possibility of a Player accidentally dropping into Purgatory and would have written some way for them to escape. It wouldn’t have mattered that the scenario was highly improbable. It would have been too potentially problematic to ignore completely.”

Dean thought about it.  It made sense. Although the odds of it happening were infinitesimally small, it was at least a possibility that a dead Player character could actually find themselves dumped into the Purgatory waiting-room rather than automatically respawning in Moondoor.  Trying to extract that Player character out of the trillions of lines of code that formed Purgatory would be like hunting for a needle in a haystack for the Devs. It would either take more man-hours than RRE would want to spend or the Player would be forced to abandon their character and restart the game from lev one.  Considering the vast amount of time and money Players invested in their characters, a mistake like that was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

“Besides, if you get into Moondoor, I’d be able to help you in-game,” Ash continued. “As long as we’re in the same Guild, I’d be able to gift you a shit-ton of crap from my inventory. Knight or not, you’re a Player character, so the same in-game rules must apply.  I have a load of spare clothes, armour and weapons.”

“I can’t utilise any weapons except the dagger,” Dean reminded him.

“You can’t utilise them, but you can use them. The fact you can’t imbue a basic sword with your Knight mojo crap is a disadvantage, sure, but a sword is still a sword, a gun is still a gun and dead is always dead.”

“Holy shit, you’re right,” Dean exclaimed.  “If I’m not bothered about trying to win SP, using a different weapon will be fine. It will still win me XP and keep me alive. I won’t be able to use any combat skill points to advance the weapon, since those are tied to my dagger, but as long as I am a high enough character level and my weapon is advanced enough, it won’t be a huge disadvantage. Well, not against other normal Player characters, anyway.”

“So we get you through one of the back-doors into Moondoor, we hook up, and then you keep yourself incognito, playing as a basic low-level newbie until you can build yourself up and I’ll look after you as much as I can.  How many other level 5’s have a lev 81 Magician buddy to watch their back?”

“None because, smartass, none of the decent guilds are open to players as small as I am now.  Our guild won’t even accept applications until a player reaches level 30.”

“Our ex-guild,” Ash replied, with an embarrassed shrug.

“Huh?”

“I got booted.  When this Darkness thing happened yesterday and Queen Charlie got captured, the whole Guild was gung-ho for a suicidal rescue mission. Obviously, I had the inside knowledge that anything we did was going to be pointless so I didn’t want to burn through all my RSS and gold getting my ass kicked for nothing. Because of the NDA, I couldn’t tell anyone why I didn’t want to fight. So they all decided I was a coward and kicked my ass out of the guild. I am now officially a ‘traitor’. They awarded me a permanent badge and everything. 5% magic debuff. Ouch.”

“So you’ve lost all your Guild bonuses too,” Dean said. Although it was possible to play Moondoor without joining a Guild, there were large aspects of the game that were inaccessible to solitary Players.  Like Guild Quests.

“Nah, I joined the ‘Hunter’ Guild.  They’ll take anyone, it seems. Even ‘The Traitor Of Moondoor’.”

“Taking ‘anyone’ isn’t much of a recommendation for a Guild,” Dean pointed out wryly.

“Seriously, they wanted me for my mad Skills level and so decided to accept it when I said my title had been given to me out of spite.  95% of me is still a shit-ton better than 100% of anyone else. Most of the Hunters hate the Top Guilds anyway, so it wasn’t hard to convince them I just got on the wrong side of some asshole.  More to the point, the Hunters don’t have a low-level cap on new players.  They’ll let anyone in as long as a current Guild member vouches for them so I’ll just say you’re okay and you’ll be golden.”

“Who vouched for you?”

“The Guildmaster of the Hunters, Bobby Singer. He’s a grouchy old coot but I’ve known him in-game for years. We aren’t exactly friends but we’ve had some coinciding mutual interests in the past. He’s surprisingly cool when he’s not being a grumpy bastard. Pretty sure he’s a bespoke avatar, but I could be wrong,” Ash shrugged.

“So our game plan is for me to get out of Purgatory, meet up with you, join this Hunter Guild and then, what, hide in plain sight as a ‘Hunter’?” Dean asked.

“Sounds good to me, since no-one except the other Knights even know you exist yet and they are going to be stuck in Purgatory levelling up for a while. I’ve got a couple of dozen Realm Ports in my inventory, so as soon as we know where you arrive, I’ll be able to port to you and then we can move somewhere to regroup and devise a plan. Find some quests and shit for you to do to get your XP built up without using your demonic sigil.”

Dean took another mouthful of pie and chewed thoughtfully. Everything, he firmly believed, was improved by pie.  “I’ve been thinking,” he said, taking a swig of coffee, swallowing the last of his pie and then staring a little sadly at his empty plate. “Since there’s a way to get SP, there must be a way for me to get Faith Points too.”

“From what Charlie said, the Angels are going to be as dickish as the Demons. Why would you even want to bother?” Ash asked.

“I’m not necessarily talking about summoning any of the Angels,” Dean clarified. “I’m just thinking, well, I dunno, but maybe if getting SP points ‘corrupts’ me, then I can somehow counteract that corruption with FP.  I’m probably over-thinking it but my gut kind of is telling me it’s an answer.”

Ash whistled under his breath, unconsciously responding to Dean’s sad-eyed look by pushing over his own portion of pie without even thinking about why he was doing it.  “Yeah, I get you,” he said. “I can’t put my finger on it yet but there’s something about that idea that has legs. There has to be a reason C.H.U.C.K. picked you as, how did Charlie put it? Oh yeah, a righteous Boss. If Knights of Hell can only get powerful by being total soulless dickwads, why bother choosing a player like you to be one of them? There has to be a different possible path of power for a Knight.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed. “And I’m stabbing in the dark, here, obviously, but I think the answer lies with collecting the diametric opposite of Soul Points. I don’t have any idea whatsoever how FP get collected though.”

“Nobody does yet,” Ash agreed. “But I suspect that you being a member of the Hunter Guild is going to be a good start.  The players in the Top Five Guilds get Quests relating to consolidating their positions within the Moondoor royal hierarchy.  Lower Guilds like Hunter still get Guild Quests that involve saving people from witches and monsters and helping the Guild grow larger and more successful.  I don’t know how the Faith Points are going to work yet, but I suspect saving people and hunting bad things is going to be a better path towards winning them than fulfilling Quests that only benefit yourself.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Dean agreed. “So, all I need now is a way out of Purgatory. I need someone with mad hacker skills to find that back-door. Who do I know like that? Maybe I should call Charlie.”

“Asshole,” Ash snarked, cracking his fingers loudly and reaching for his laptop. “Go man the till, you slacker, while I show you how a real hacker can cut through RRE firewalls like butter.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Everybody who worked at Woolf, Roman, Van Dueran LLP described their young intern Sam Winchester as an over-educated, precocious, over-achiever.  The Partners said it with fond avarice, pleased and self-satisfied that they had lured the young blood to join them after his stellar results at Stanford.  The other employees, not so much.  Sam’s peers found him to be unapproachably cocky. His drive to succeed, coupled with a perfectionist take-no-prisoners approach to matters even as mundane as doing the coffee-run, set him apart and made him largely unpopular.

Not that anyone said so to his face.

Despite his penchant for designer suits and the professionally styled hair that was more suited to a model than a lawyer, it was impossible to conceal that he had the height and build of a line-backer.

Somehow, despite the fact he never used his build to intimidate, instead portraying, on the whole, the nature of a big, friendly giant; there was always an unspoken suggestion that he could simply swat any irritating person away like a fly.  That perception wasn’t helped by the way his big hazel eyes could instantaneously switch from ‘pleading puppy dog’ to the laser-sharp intensity of a Hell Hound whenever he was in pursuit of some elusive truth that would help him achieve whatever task his employers had set him.

‘Failure’ didn’t seem to be a word in Sam Winchester’s lexicon. 

Neither did ‘Guilt’, given the way he shamelessly and carelessly trampled over his stumbling colleagues, seemingly oblivious to the idea of teamwork.  Sam’s laser focus was set on proving himself to be worthy and he never gave even a moment’s consideration that getting his peers over the finishing line alongside him might possibly be more of an achievement than always snatching for the Gold medal himself.

To be fair though, in the environment of Woolf, Roman, Van Dueran the concept of ‘teamwork’ was seen as ‘weakness’.

Also, the idea that Sam had no concept of guilt was tragically laughable.

The sad and honest truth was that guilt was, and always had been, Sam’s primary motivator towards success.

And saddest of all, the object and source of that guilt, his brother Dean, to whom he owed reparation to in so many varied ways, was the one person least likely to recognize Sam’s motivations.

Sam Winchester completely sucked donkeys whenever he attempted to communicate with his big brother. The brother he completely, undisputedly, hero-worshipped and adored.

Put in any situation where he attempted to demonstrate the depth of his caring to Dean, Sam invariably opened his mouth and put his big fat foot in it.  Somehow, his offers of financial support and pleas for Dean to relocate to live near him always came across as high-handed charity instead of tiny drips of repayment towards the ocean of debt that he owed his older brother.  His bone-deep, sickening worry about Dean’s health and welfare equally emerged in language that undoubtedly sounded condescending and patronizing.

So Sam wasn’t surprised that Dean had totally dismissed his warnings over the job offer from RRE.

He should have explained himself better. Should have given Dean the courtesy of at least attempting to verbalize all the sources of his misgivings, should have offered his entire repertoire of vague facts and suspicions about Richard Roman Enterprises so that Dean could sift through them for himself and reach his own conclusions. It didn’t matter that Dean hadn’t had the opportunity of book learning that Sam had received. Dean was ‘street-smart’. Dean was, frankly, the smartest guy Sam had ever met.  Not that he’d ever actually said that to his brother. Nor even, probably, if he was honest, ever implied it either.

Instead, as always, he had just cut to the chase and given Dean his verdict, without adding any of the insider knowledge he had based his conclusion on, and thereby had only achieved the result of implying Dean was an idiot who had done something stupid.

No wonder Dean had tuned out of the conversation and had as good as hung up on him.

And now, because Dean was stubborn, Sam knew there was no point whatsoever in attempting to re-open the conversation.

But that apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

Sam was equally stubborn.

There was more than one way to skin a cat.

So Sam was going hunting.

After all, he owed Dean at least that much.

 

 

“So, let me get this right… we’re heading south-south-east, in search of a magic portal that’s apparently going to zap us directly into Moondoor? Do not pass Go. Do not collect $100. And you don’t even bother asking my opinion on the matter?” Loki demanded waspishly.

“There is no ‘us’. “There is just ‘me’.  You’re just a system interface,” Dean pointed out dryly.  “That apparently plays monopoly,” he added in a bemused mutter.

“A system interface that is an intrinsic part of your avatar,” Loki pointed out.  “The avatar you are apparently willing to break the rules with.”

“So that’s what this is about? You have a problem with me breaking the rules?” Dean challenged.  “You planning to rat me out?”

“Rules are for shmucks,” Loki retorted with a loud snort. “All I’m saying is it would have been nice if you’d bothered to discuss it with me. You know… like this might actually have some impact on me. Just asking for a little respect, Deano.”

Dean thought about this for a moment, then shrugged. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I didn’t think about you when I made this decision,” he admitted. It felt weird, apologizing to a computer program. But not, strangely, as weird as he actually thought it should.

“That’s all I was asking for. A bit of civility,” Loki replied smugly.  “Actually, now you mention this portal… well, I might actually know exactly where it is.”

Dean wondered why he was even surprised.  Ash had located one of the back-doors and had managed to pin-point its approximate location in Purgatory but he’d expressed a probable 10% error margin and in game terms that 10% represented several miles.  Unless the portal was the size of a two-story building with a neon-sign flashing ‘Portal’, Dean had fully expected it to take at least a couple of days of riding back and forth on the thigh-chafing Anakorn before he found it.

“It’s one of those good news, bad news situations though,” Loki added cheerfully.

Dean felt a sinking sensation in his gut but squared his shoulders and said, remarkably calmly, “Hit me.”

“Well, the good news is the portal is really easy to find seeing as it's this big, jagged, sparkly, pulsing thing, like a stationary lightning bolt on crack. The bad news is that the monsters in Purgatory have built a bit of a… well… religion around the thing. There’s an alter and everything. They seem to think if they appease Dad with enough burnt offerings, or similar crap, he’ll let them pass through it. Waste of time, of course, but it means there are always a bunch of shady characters milling around it in hope.”

“Dad?” Dean demanded, his brow furrowing in confusion. “I assume we’re discussing C.H.U.C.K. right?”

“Of course.”

“You call him Dad,” Dean mused.

“Well, duh, of course, seeing as he’s, well, my Dad,” Loki replied slowly, as though talking to an idiot.

Dean blinked slowly, then shook his head in disbelief that he was actually going to have this conversation.  “You’re a V.I.”

“Yup.”

“So how do you have a ‘Dad’? Sorry to break this to you, Buddy, but you’re actually a bunch of code written by the RRE devs.”

Loki brayed with laughter. “That just goes to show you know nothing, Deano. Nobody wrote me at all. None of the in-game V.I.’s were written by you meat-suits. Dad made us. There hasn’t been an externally created V.I. inserted into this world since the last Knights of Hell went bat-shit.  Dad won’t allow it. Basically, C.H.U.C.K. is closed to new coding. The only thing the ‘Devs’ as you call them have influenced for years is the addition or alteration of basic NPC’s, player avatars and quests. The world of Moondoor itself is no longer their balliwick. They can influence surface events but nothing deeper unless Dad agrees with the changes. Sometimes not even then. Some things are immutable now.”

Dean nearly fell off his Anakorn.

“What the hell? Where do I even start unravelling those bombshells? Let’s park for a moment the idea that RRE are apparently hiding the fact that C.H.U.C.K has apparently gone all Skynet. What the fuck are you talking about? What last Knights of Hell? I’ve been playing Moondoor for years and I’ve never heard of the Knights before.” Then he paused and thought furiously, and then he gave a satisfied snort. “Anyway, you’re fundamentally wrong. If the Devs can’t change anything substantial in Moondoor, how do you explain the fact the whole game has just been reset to ‘Darkworld’?  That’s a hell of a lot more than a ‘surface event’,” he challenged.

“Oh, Deano. What it must be like to be young and naïve,” Loki chuckled. “Hate to break it to you, Buddy,” he parroted, “but you’re wrong, wrong, wrong and…um… did I mention wrong?”

Dean ground his teeth. “About what?”

“Everything, basically,” Loki replied airily. “The world hasn’t gotten a deliberate ‘reset’.  The Devs might be selling ‘The Darkness’ to you meatsuits as a ‘reset’ but it’s more in the way of a mistake. A big one. HUGE. In simple terms, I guess you could call it a disease that everyone thought had been dealt with years ago before even the first meatsuit player entered this world but it turns out it hadn’t been eradicated, just locked away and now it’s back.  Dad warned the Devs it was loose again and gave a timeframe as to when it would impact Moondoor.  That’s how they knew it would hit this week.

“Dad is pretty certain nothing less than completely wiping the entire program will fix the problem permanently.  He suggested a totally suicidal complete system-wide reformat.  Drastic, maybe, but effective.  Problem is C.H.U.C.K. can’t self-delete and the Devs wouldn’t agree to the idea of applying a scorched earth policy to Moondoor. They just wanted a quick ‘fix’ by applying the same ‘vaccination’ they did last time, which is where the Knights came in.

“Only the original Knights were kind of worse than the disease, so to speak, so Dad put his foot down and refused to let new V.I. Knights get seeded into his program. You and the other ‘new’ Knights are the compromise he offered the Devs. Meatsuit Knights rather than V.I. ones.”

“Let’s pretend I’m buying this for a moment,” Dean answered. “What about the Angels and Demons? Are they going to be a thing too, or is that just another lie?”

“Oh, no, they’re real. Part of Dad’s solution to this problem. Don’t ask me how, though, because nobody bothers telling S.I.’s like me those kinds of details.”

“Okay, so basically, the entire Moondoor program has got a virus. A bad one. One that will presumably end up destroying the game completely if it isn’t stopped and C.H.U.C.K and the Devs have designed some kind of in-game anti-virus protocol that depends on one of the new Knights of Hell killing all the others, and then the ‘Queen of Darkness’, and that final action will, effectively, kill the computer virus?”

Loki whistled loudly. “You’re smart for a meatsuit, Deano. You put all of that together quicker than I anticipated. Just goes to prove what they say about pretty blonds isn’t true.”

“I’m not pretty and I’m definitely not blond,” Dean growled.

“You’re definitely pretty and a kind of dirty blond,” Loki argued. “Oooh, that sounded cleaner in my head. Dirty blond. Heh…heh…”

Dean just rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t really change anything though, does it?” he mused. “Sure, it would have been nice if RRE had told me the lunatics were running the asylum but fundamentally I am still doing the job they are paying me to do. Sure, the stakes are higher than I’d realised but it’s not like they are going to sue me if the virus wins. I guess I’d be out of a job but it’s not the end of the world.” Then he paused and thought about it. “Kind of the end of your world though, I guess, so that sucks. Sorry, Bud.”

Loki was silent for a long while. When he did finally respond, his tone was a lot more serious and quiet than ever before.

“There’s something you need to know, Dean. You know I said the Darkness last happened before any meatsuit players arrived in Moondoor? I should clarify something. There were half a dozen meatsuit Devs here as part of a pre-launch Beta.  I’m pretty sure none of them survived.”

“Well, of course,” Dean agreed. “All of their characters would have been erased if the virus was as bad as you implied.”

“I don’t mean their characters, Dean. They never returned.  Not one of the Devs inhabiting characters at the time of the last Darkness ever returned to Moondoor. Ever. Dad is absolutely convinced they died. Really died. In your world.”

Dean flinched. “That’s crazy. How would he even know? Maybe they just got fired for letting the system get so fucked up.”

“Maybe,” Loki agreed, but he didn’t sound convinced.

Dean thought about the guy Sam had mentioned. The one who had died of a heart attack in RL because he had been killed in-game.  Then he shook his head in denial. That was one guy. Loki had mentioned a half-dozen. That many deaths couldn’t have been covered up.

Could it?

It wasn’t possible.

It couldn’t be possible because at any given time of the day there were at least forty or fifty thousand people online playing Moondoor these days. It was one of the most popular, lucrative games in the world.

No company could possibly risk the lives of 50,000 people just to protect their financial bottom line.

Could they?

“So, hey,” Loki said, with fake brightness. “About that portal…”

 

 

Chapter Text

It was hard not to simply log out of the game and go chasing answers but Dean decided to man up and keep playing for a few hours longer.

For several reasons.

Firstly, he was in a computer program talking to a computer program. For all he knew, what seemed to made perfect sense when he was in-game would strike him as completely absurd when he re-entered RL.

Secondly, whether Loki was right or not, Dean was falling behind on the number of hours he was supposed to be in-game. The whole problem was going to be moot if he got fired for slacking.

And thirdly, which was the biggest reason, he needed to talk to Charlie and it wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have over the RRE private messaging system.  She hadn’t sent her personal email addie to him yet, so he was going to have to get her number from Ash and see if they could skype.  Since both Ash and Charlie were at work (just as he was supposed to be) that conversation would have to wait until later anyway.

So Dean spent the next four hours simply riding the Anakorn in the direction Ash had suggested, and trying hard not to drown in the feelings of dread that had enveloped him since the earlier conversation.

With Loki’s help, the portal was ridiculously easy to locate.  It also, contrary to Loki’s earlier warnings, appeared to be deserted.

“So, any idea where we will arrive in Moondoor?” Dean asked as they approached the huge, flashing portal that, sadly, did look like a lightning bolt on crack. He didn’t say so, though, since Loki was bad enough without any added encouragement.

“Do I look like a fucking GPS?” Loki snapped.

“Sheesh, I just asked,” Dean muttered. “You’re a system interface. How am I supposed to know what maps are available to you?”

“Clue’s in the name, Deano.  I’m inside a Localized Ordinance and Knowledge Interface. That means I can only see inside the borders of the actual realm you’re situated in.”

“So when we reach Moondoor, you’ll be localized to that realm?”

“Naturally.”

“Cool,” Dean said absently, most of his mind racing off in a different direction.  He frowned deeply as he chased the niggling thought to its source. “Inside,” he stated. “You said ‘inside’, not that you ‘are’.”

“Did I?” Loki asked breezily. “Oh, look, itty bitty bandits at six o’clock.”

“Don’t avoid the subject. You said ‘inside’. That implies you are just residing within the S.I. and that implies you can exist ‘outside’ the S.I.”

“No, seriously, Deano. Bandits at…”

“OWWW.” A rock struck the back of Dean’s head and the Anakorn reared in alarm.

“…oops, too late.”

Dean swung the Anakorn around with a mental command, drawing his dagger and activating his sigil.

Five monsters were approaching, four from directly behind him and one solitary assailant from the tree-line on his left.

A quick glance at all five monsters convinced Dean that the true threat was most likely the solitary one. He looked fully humanoid and was at least as tall as Dean’s brother (a.k.a. abnormal giant size) but even more thickset with muscles straining at his shirt. He had no visible weapons but was striding forward with a worrying cocky confidence.  The other four were mere goblins, with misshapen features, twisted limbs and sharp but rotting teeth. The four all carried small stone knives but they wielded them without discernible skill.

Dean wasn’t going to make the mistake of underestimating them, since they had a definite advantage in sheer numbers alone, but it seemed safe to judge they were very low level NPC’s, simply from the blankness of their faces and lack of intelligence in their eyes.

A lack of intelligence that definitely wasn’t shared by the tall guy, who reached the edge of the clearing and then paused, with a sardonic expression, as he clearly waited for the outcome of the attack of the four goblinoids before entering the fray himself.

“Going to let them soften me up, huh?” Dean snarled bitterly. Still, he couldn’t let himself get distracted. Even a three-foot-tall goblin with a rough stone dagger could still kill him easily enough if he didn’t pay attention.  He needed to despatch the group of four before worrying about the other guy.

Deciding to stick with a proven method of success, he urged the Anakorn into a canter and deliberately crashed into the goblins. Bowled over like pins, two hit the ground hard. One narrowly avoided the huge beast’s charge and responded by reaching up and burying its knife to the hilt in the Anakorn’s belly…the one place on its body where its armour was soft and vulnerable.

The Anakorn screamed like a Banshee, rearing high and crashing down in fury, its front hooves literally crashing through the attacking goblin’s skull in an explosion of blood and brains.  Unsatisfied with killing the goblin so swiftly, the mount used one of its horns to impale one of the goblin’s fallen comrades, catching the body and lifting it high in the air so that its own body weight caused it to become further impaled. Then it hung there, dripping blood and entrails down onto the Anakorn’s mane whilst the beast took great satisfaction in using its hooves to pummel the body of a third goblin until it was nothing more than a red and green smear on the ground.

In less than twenty seconds, the Anakorn killed three of the four goblinoids by itself.

Which would have been a great result for Dean if he hadn’t been immediately unseated by the initial crash (he really needed to get a damned saddle for the beast) and landed in a dazed heap right next to the fourth goblin. The one that had escaped both the Anakorn’s initial charge and its subsequent attack unscathed.

The goblin grinned, its breath rank through rotten shark-like teeth, and it raised its knife to strike.

Dean told himself to roll out of the way, to counter with a strike of his own blade, but his head felt fuzzy and his limbs were unco-ordinated and although it only took a couple of seconds to pull himself together, he knew even as it was happening that it was going to be two seconds too late.

The goblin suddenly dove at him.

No.

Not a dive.

More a…

…a pratfall?

Dean gaped in astonishment as the goblin simply collapsed on top of him and impaled itself on his crude bone dagger.

Blinking furiously, he looked up into the grinning face of the fifth monster.  The human-looking one who seemed to have just shoved the goblin onto Dean’s blade.

“Um… thanks?” Dean said, uncertainly.  “Analyze,” he hissed internally to Loki. “Tell me what the fuck he is.”

“Ancient Vampire, Level 15. Got retired here about eight years ago when you meatsuits decided vampires should all be sparkly, sociable, loveable twinks.”

“Fucking Twilight,” Dean muttered out loud.

“Word, brother,” the vampire agreed, reaching down and offering Dean a hand up. “I’ve been stuck in this damned hell-hole ever since because my face doesn’t fit any more. All you fucking immigrants stick in my craw. Coming over here, expecting US guys to change to fit in with your preconceptions of reality.”

“Immigrants?” Dean asked Loki.

“It’s how all the NPC’s perceive you players,” Loki clarified. “They know at a base level you don’t actually belong in Moondoor but since they can’t comprehend the idea of the existence of a completely different world, they assume you are foreign immigrants and/or tourists from a distant realm of this world rather than the body-snatching aliens you actually are.”

“Aliens?” Dean blinked in astonishment.

“Where?” the vampire demanded, looking upwards as though expecting a UFO.

“Um… nothing,” Dean muttered. He considered the vampire carefully.  Unlike a level 15 player, which meant someone was barely past newbie stage, a Level 15 monster was serious shit. To the best of his knowledge (which was admittedly limited by the fact vampires as monsters had been removed from the game only a couple of years after he’d started playing) there were only two possible higher vampire levels; Sire and Alpha.  So this wasn’t a creature he wanted to fight if it could be avoided. “Eight years, huh? That’s rough, man,” he offered sympathetically.

“Yeah?” the vampire griped. “Try facing an eternal life-sentence here, brother. No possible parole.”

“So that’s why you’re here?” Dean said, gesturing towards the portal. “Trying to escape.”

“Not possible,” the vampire replied and spat on the ground in disgust. “Portal won’t allow anything through except one of you foreigners. Everyone comes here to try.  Everyone fails.”

“So why are you staying here?” Dean asked cautiously. “Surely this is one of the most dangerous places in Purgatory if everyone arrives here to try to escape?”

“I was waiting for you,” the vampire replied, with a shark-like grin.

“Me?” Dean yelped. “Me, specifically?”

The vampire considered him carefully. “Now you mention it, yeah. You specifically. Though, gotta say I wasn’t expecting anything specifically like you.

“Huh?”

“Was just a vague and probably pointless idea,” the vampire explained. “Was just hoping an immigrant might find this place and that there might be a way to hitch-hike through on their coat-tails. Doubt it would have worked, to be honest, but, hell, nothing else to do around here. But then YOU turn up and so I gotta say that C.H.U.C.K. finally came through for me.”

“So, um, what’s so special about me?” Dean asked cautiously.

“You’re a Boss,” the vampire replied, shrugging as though the answer was completely obvious.  “Not much of a Boss, to be honest, but beggars can’t be choosers. You’re still the answer to my prayers.”

….FUCKING HELL, DEANO….. FUCK….FUCK…FUCK…FUCKITY FUCK…HALLEFUCKINGLULIAH….

“WHAT?” Dean demanded furiously. “I’m kind of busy, here.”

“Huh?” the vampire asked.

“Not YOU,” Dean snapped.

The vampire looked around the empty clearing cautiously, then returned his gaze to Dean with a careful smile. “Um… no-one else here, brother.”

“Check your goddamned scorecard, Deano,” Loki insisted urgently. “You just got 50 Faith Points awarded.”

“How? WHY?” Dean asked internally, trying to keep his expression neutral in front of the now clearly suspicious vampire.

“Dunno. Something to do with you being the answer to this guy’s prayers to C.H.U.C.K. I guess?”

“Okay,” Dean said. “Time out. You,” he pointed at the huge vampire. “Explain to me, in small words, exactly how I am the answer to your prayers.”

“Because you’re a Boss,” the vampire replied, rolling his eyes.

“Smaller words,” Dean gritted through his teeth.

The vampire looked totally confused. He shrugged. “Don’t know what you want me to tell you, brother? You go, I follow, we both get out of here. Obvious, isn’t it?”

Dean opened his mouth to say it wasn’t damned bloody obvious at all but, fortunately, before he could speak, Loki jumped in.

“I got it. I got it, Deano. Follow… of course…. Follow. Hot damn. Of course.”

“I’m getting a fucking headache, Loki.”

“Haven’t you looked at your scorecard? Look at it. Under Mounts.  Followers. Get it now?”

Dean blinked. He had seen the ‘Followers: 0’ on several occasions but it had never computed. He’d never seen the item listed on a character scorecard before, so it hadn’t really registered with him as anything important.  “I thought it was a face book kind of thing,” he admitted sheepishly.

“Doh. You’re a boss,” Loki clarified. “Bosses can have followers. Minions. You keep them in your inventory and pull them out when you need them. Like a little pocket monster army.”

“You want me to put you in my inventory?” Dean asked the vampire in astonishment.

The vampire grinned widely. “Thought you’d never ask.”

“Isn’t that, um, going to feel like a prison? Just sitting there waiting to get summoned in and out of my stock cupboard like a lamp-genie?”

“Going to feel like a god-damned vacation,” the vampire replied, with a very toothy smile.

“Hang on, what’s to stop you going all fangy on me when we get to the other-side?” Dean asked suspiciously.

The vampire blinked at him slowly.  “You really don’t know how this works, do you?” he eventually asked. “What’s the odds I get stuck with the special needs Boss,” he added in a low mutter that was slightly too loud.

“Enlighten me,” Dean snarled, his cheeks flushing with a combination of annoyance and embarrassment.

“Once I’m living in your inventory, even if I get killed I will respawn there, not here. And if you get killed, I still remain in your inventory when you respawn. But if you run out of lives and get deleted, guess where I return to,” he said, opening his arms expressively. “So let’s just say you can pretty much count on the fact I am at least as invested as you are in your long-term survival.”

“He’s telling the truth, Deano,” Loki added helpfully. “Unless he wants to get thrown back into Purgatory, he’s going to have to help keep you alive.”

“Huh,” Dean breathed. “That’s… that’s… well, kind of cool, actually.”

“So we have a deal?”

“Um, yeah, sure.”

…. BENNY LAFFITTE, ANCIENT VAMPIRE LEVEL 15, HAS BECOME YOUR FOLLOWER …

The vampire dematerialised and a ‘Follower’ icon popped up in front of Dean’s vision, then winked away out of sight with the rest of the hidden interface.

Dean looked at the pulsing slash of the Portal.

“Guess we’d better get moving before any of those other guys respawn,” he said, and stepped through into Moondoor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Dean wasn’t sure exactly what it would feel like when he passed through the portal, but he suspected the worst. He imagined he’d feel the gut wrenching experience of being sucked through a wormhole at the very least. He braced himself to feel physical pain of one degree or another so, in a way, the reality was greatly anti-climactic.

One minute he was in Purgatory, stepping through the jagged slash of pulsing energy and the next he was simply somewhere else.

There was no sensation of moving at all.

It was just as though he switched frames in a movie.

That was the good news.

There was, of course, bad news.

He’d totally forgotten, during his time in the unending hazy gloom of Purgatory, that the world of Moondoor revolved around a Sun and therefore portrayed a very Earth-like movement of time and seasons. Specifically, in Moondoor there were days and nights, summers and winters. Normal stuff.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the way his luck was running in the game, Dean arrived in the middle of a very cold winter night. Buck naked, except for a very flimsy loincloth.

He also arrived in the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere.

Obviously, given his state of undress, he realised it was probably for the best that he didn’t land in the middle of a thriving settlement and scare the natives. But that also meant there was no-where for him to obtain clothing.  Even by the pale light of this world’s two moons, he could tell he’d landed on a flat plain of sandy soil, rocks and sparse grasses, So there was nothing that could even be burned for warmth if he built a campfire.

Besides, his inventory was empty of any fire-making equipment and he doubted his dubious boy scout skills were adequate for the idea of solving the problem by simply rubbing a couple of sticks together.

And it was COLD.

Not just a goose-bump raising chill but a serious teeth-chattering, limb trembling, freezing cold that hinted the threat of imminent hypothermia.

Damn, his avatar was too damned realistic.

It was impossible to stay in the game under the circumstances.  At the very least, he would have to sign off until morning brought at least enough warmth to stop his breath forming ice crystals.

He bookmarked the location, so that he could tell Ash where he had arrived, and then exited the game.

At least, between the travelling and the fighting, he’d logged over seven hours in the game that day already. He’d easily make up the rest that evening after he’d had something to eat and Ash was home from work and able to join him in-game.

After he’d contacted Charlie, of course.

Joyce Bicklebee, Regional Manager of RRE Portland Division, didn’t have the faintest idea what shit-storm was about to erupt because of the young man sitting in her office.

Sam Winchester prided himself on his poker-face.

It wasn’t the same as the expression he used the majority of the time at work; the dark, unforgiving glower he self-described as ‘professional stone-face’ (the one Dean described as ‘resting bitch-face’).

Sam’s poker-face was that of a big, open-eyed, soft, trusting puppy.

Totally disarming.

He could hold it indefinitely; until whatever adversary he was facing stumbled into his trap.  He could always see it in their eyes, their smug, arrogant confidence rising so high it outreached their ability to keep the spinning plates of their lies in motion, until they crashed and burned when he finally applied his coup de grace.

By the time his razor-sharp intellect found their weakness and struck like a venomous snake, they were so convinced he was just a bumbling, amiable idiot that they never saw his attack coming.

And, sometimes, if he performed it just right, if his touch was delicate enough as he struck his own blow, he walked away from them with whatever he wanted and they still didn’t realise they had been played for fools.

He owed a lot of his ability to play the naïve ingénue to his brother.

Even though Dean was only four years older than him, Sam had spent most of his childhood being raised by his brother rather than their father. It was at Dean’s side that Sam had learned the art of the con.  He’d always lacked Dean’s easy charm but he’d perfected his own role as Dean’s straight-man.  He’d learned as a toddler that going to bed with a full stomach depended on his success when backing up Dean’s plays with a wide-eyed innocent demeanour.  It was often people’s inability to perceive any possibility of dishonesty in him, that enabled Dean to pull off his most outrageous cons.

Nothing less than Dean’s skilful lies and Sam’s oscar-winning supporting actor performances had kept the two of them out of the hands of the authorities given the number of times their deadbeat alcoholic of a father had gone off on a bender and literally forgotten he’d left them to starve in some shitty motel or other.

And as bad as his childhood had been, and lord knew it had often been bad, Sam was absolutely certain his intelligence wouldn’t have been sufficient to save him from a life of poverty and despair. He would never have made it to Law School if he’d been sucked into the foster-care system and separated from Dean. He’d seen the statistics, knew the official figures on abuse and criminality, the likelihood of those kids falling into drug and alcohol abuse and, given his father, Sam wouldn’t be surprised if his genetics predisposed him to that anyway.

So an amateur like Joyce Bicklebee didn’t stand a chance.

“I understand what you’re saying, Ma’am,” Sam told her respectfully, offering her his best doe-eyed gaze and twisting his hands in his lap in a deliberate performance of anxiety and then tugging nervously on the frayed lumberjack shirt he’d purchased from a Goodwill just for this meeting. Now he was a hulking full sized man rather than a little boy, he found nervous affectations such as shuffling and hand wringing were often necessary additions to his dumb-yokel persona. “An’ I really hate to bother an important person like you but, well, my momma just keeps insisting she should have received more compo for the accident, ya know? And now, well, she’s on her death-bed with the cancer an’ all, I kinda wanted to tell her she could stop worryin’ ‘bout money.”

Joyce frowned at the file in her hands.  “Your mother has stage four bowel cancer. She also has advanced dementia,” she said thoughtfully.

Which was interesting, given that Sam hadn’t mentioned that fact about Marsha Coleman’s diagnosis when arranging this meeting.  It was the primary reason he had chosen to steal the identity of Edgar Coleman. Edgar was not only the right age and build but was working in Alaska and hadn’t been home to visit his mother in over five years. Sam’s fake ID was bullet-proof (another trick he’d learned as a teenager) and Sam had already visited Marsha at her retirement home earlier that day and managed to convince her that he was her son.   He would have felt bad about that part of the deception except she had been so thrilled to finally introduce her son to her nurses that he had left there feeling he’d done her a favour. Besides, if this worked out she would be considerably better off so no harm, no foul.

“Your father’s death was regrettable, of course, but the accident was unforeseeable and the company did provide your mother with a substantial amount at the time of his death.”

“$250,000,” Sam agreed, looking suitably impressed at the vastness of the sum before letting his expression fall into a dejected moue. “But what’s left of that has barely covered my momma’s medical care. I spoke to a lawyer an’ he said the… the ‘waiver’?” he paused, looking at Joyce as though to check he’d got the word right and, almost against her own will she nodded her approval to him. “The waiver,” Sam continued, “don’t mean my Dad’s employers ain’t lia..liable for more than that since he was at work, an’ all when he died. The lawyer says I should go talk to the cops and maybe even one of them newspapers ‘cos it ain’t right that this was all… like… hushed up.”

“At work as the night watchman,” Joyce snapped. “Which didn’t seem to stop the fire, did it? Six other people died because of that fire, Mr Coleman. A lot of people might think that rather than receiving compensation, your father’s estate should have been sued for damages. He as good as killed those people with his neglect.”

Gotcha, Sam thought, as the prim businesswoman’s composure slipped into a display of waspish temper.

“You sayin’ my daddy killed all them folks?” Sam asked, his expression suitably horrified.  “You sayin’ it was his fault they died? Sheesh, Ma’am. I come here lookin’ for money off a you an’ it turns out my daddy was no better than a murderer?”  Fat tears formed at the corners of his eyes and he wrung his hands in a display of woe. “I do need to go to a paper then, Ma’am.  Gotta let the family of them other folk know it was my Daddy’s fault their kin died.”

Joyce swallowed heavily, her face blanching to sallow shock as she comprehended her mis-step.  “Let’s not be too hasty, Mr Coleman. Roman Enterprises were quite satisfied this was just an honest if terrible mistake. There was no cover up. It was simply that given the day it happened, the news was obviously filled with other matters. Besides, your mother is very ill. What effect would it have on her if you publicised this awful affair?”

Sam shrugged innocently. “Ain’t really gonna make much difference iffen she gets thrown outta the nursin’ home ‘cos she’s got no more money for care,” he pointed out.

“Edgar, I can call you ‘Edgar’ can’t I? RRE prides itself on being a family orientated company.  Whilst we absolutely, categorically deny your mother is owed any further compensation for this unfortunate matter, we are not without considerable… sympathy for your mother’s situation.  I am absolutely certain that RRE’s benevolent fund would be more than happy to ensure your mother’s final care is paid for. Of course, we would prefer such a large charitable donation to be made anonymously so there is certain paperwork you would have to sign, assuring us of your discretion in this matter.”

The rest of the meeting ran smoothly. Sam had to sign a bundle of paperwork with his practiced fraudulent signature. Marsha Coleman was assured the last few months of her life would be stress-free and comfortable. And Sam had gotten what he came for.

Confirmation that the vague, conspiracy theory rumours were true.

Fifteen years ago, six of the most senior development programmers working for RRE near Portland had perished in a fire whilst working on the development of the now Internationally famed computer game Moondoor.

Their deaths, and that of the nightwatchman, Roger Coleman, had somehow never even warranted a line in the local paper, let alone a police investigation.

Seven people had died in a single night and RRE had simply flashed its checkbook like a magic wand and the problem had gone away.

And although that raised a huge question of ‘How?’, because it smacked of an unbelievable level of corruption within the local police and fire departments that such an incident could have been buried at all, even with everything else going on in the world on that day, the biggest question had to be “Why?”.

Why bother spending millions covering up a genuine accidental fire?

THIS wasn’t what Sam had gone looking for. This kind of possibly-criminal cover-up hadn’t been on his radar when he had begun his surface-level scratching into the peculiar financials of RRE. But the more threads he pulled on, as he looked into RRE, the more the tapestry unravelled and what was being revealed was something far darker than his initial misgivings had suggested.

Sam had absolutely no idea whether this fire had any bearing whatsoever on Dean’s situation except that the way it had been covered-up by the company certainly gave weight to his concern that RRE was not a company Dean should be having anything to do with.

But this investigation was like a runaway train.  Now he was on it, he couldn’t see a way to get off. It simply wasn’t in his nature to let sleeping dogs lie.

He was going to get to the bottom of this if it killed him.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Unable to afford an actual bespoke avatar, but still having more than a little money to burn from his less than legal side activities (not to mention a very good friend on the RRE development team) Ash was physically a lot more impressive in-game than he was in RL.

He still had ridiculous hair, in Dean’s opinion, but rather than wearing it in an 80’s mullet as in RL, his character had an epic green and blond Mohawk which worked oddly well with his character’s High Elf appearance.  Being a High Elf, he was also taller in Moondoor than he was in RL so his character stood almost at Dean’s height and though lean was fit and muscular rather than skinny.  For the first time, Dean looked at Ash with eyes that contemplated the avatar as being a true form, rather than simply a computer image, and it occurred to him that Ash probably got a lot more ‘action’ as an avatar than he did in real life. 

“Exactly how realistic does being in your avatar feel to you?” he asked curiously.

Ash shrugged. “Probably only about 65% but my imagination fills in the blanks. Besides, at least that means I also only feel 65% of any damage when I get hurt. Food and drink is a bit bland but still enjoyable. Kind of like having a tasty but under-spiced chilli, I guess.”

Dean nodded thoughtfully.  He certainly wouldn’t regret only feeling 65% of the current cold. The couple of hours he had been out of the game had represented a nearly 12 hour time jump in Moondoor, so he was benefitting slightly from the early-afternoon sunlight but it was still uncomfortably chilly. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, most of Ash’s equipment was only suitable for players of level 50 and above so Ash was taking his sweet time sifting through his inventory for clothes for Dean to wear.

“He’s just enjoying ogling your bod,” Loki snickered.

Dean chose to ignore the comment though it he suspected it wasn’t completely inaccurate.  Ash definitely had done a double take and demanded to know exactly how true to life Dean’s avatar was. Considering they saw each other just about every day, Dean took that to mean Ash was asking about the one part of his body that was covered up.

But maybe it was simply that Ash had never met Dean until after the accident and it was sad, but true, that no-one really paid that much attention to his physical appearance anymore.  Dean had used his looks as part of his personal artillery for as long as he could remember, so he knew how good-looking he was. But for ten years he’d seen one person after another look at him, seen their eyes light up only to immediately cloud over with regret or even worse pity and then, they inevitably stopped seeing him at all.  Sure they looked at him and interacted with him and even sometimes genuinely befriended him. But they still didn’t see him.

“Ooh, this might do,” Ash suddenly exclaimed. “I have a good almost complete set of Leather armour.  Not as good as metal but you’d draw too much attention at your character level if you wore anything higher than this anyway. A Breastplate with pauldrons and also maching tassets and greaves.  Won them off some Viking-type boss a couple of years ago but they don’t suit my Mage persona. Try ‘em on.”

They zapped instantaneously into Dean’s inventory and he equipped them without hesitation, desperate to cover up at least some part of his frozen body.  Then he looked down at himself and groaned.

“I look like Conan,” he grumbled.  His torso was covered by studded leather armour and the pauldrons extended over his shoulders to cover only the very top of his arms. He was also wearing a heavy leather and steel tasset belt that was a little too much like a skirt for his comfort and only reached to mid-thigh.  The greaves covered his lower legs but his arms, belly, knees and lower thighs were still clearly visible (and still cold).  He did, at least, look sufficiently dressed to be seen in public but the whole outfit was definitely far more barbarian warrior than he was comfortable with.

“Nah,” Ash grinned. “You’re definitely more Xena.”

“Heh, heh, heh,” Loki chortled. “He’s right. You’re too pretty to be a Conan, Princess.”

Dean glowered but before he could come up with a suitably scathing response, he was distracted by the arrival of a couple of weapons into his inventory.

…. Broadsword. Level 12. Hit: 60 hp - 20% weight debuff. ….

…. Steel Hunting Knife. Level 8. Hit: 25 hp ….

Nice.

But… “What’s weight debuff mean?” he asked Loki.

“The sword is too high level for your skill level. So it’s going to feel heavy to use and that will reduce its effectiveness. Normally, as someone level ups and gets stronger, the debuff reduces. Not sure that will work for you, though, since all your skill points get applied to your dagger.”

Dean considered that, then shrugged. “It is what it is. Wielding 48 hp damage isn’t shoddy. It’s very rare to come across a monster higher than 100 hp in Moondoor.  So I can save the dagger for actual life or death scenarios only and that will slow down my SP collection.”

Because of the sheer number of players in Moondoor, and the fact a lot of the quests involved killing low-level monsters, the Game frequently spawned whole herds of level one monsters.  The majority of them were just player-fodder. No more than 20 or 30 hp. They were a quick and easy way for newbies to grind up the levels.  They were also a way for Dean to get ‘corrupted’ far too quickly if he used the sigil and dagger against them.  So Dean would use the sword and knife and leave the dagger in his inventory whenever possible.

“Let’s look at you now,” Ash said, frowning thoughtfully in Dean’s direction as he applied his ‘Analyze’ skill. Then he shrugged. “Man, that’s weird. You still register as nothing more than a Level Five with standard HP and XP for your level. The HP hasn’t even increased with the addition of your armour.”

“It definitely has,” Dean argued, checking his own scorecard.

Player Name: Dean The Righteous

Guild: Hunter

Character Level: Five

Race: Undetermined

Class: Boss

Rank: One

Lives: 10

XP: 575

Mana: 250

HP: 550

SP: 50

FP: 50

Gear: Crude Bone Dagger. Basic Loincloth. Leather Armour Set. Broadsword. Metal Hunting Knife.

Gold: 1000

Spells: Mark of Cain Sigil 3

Mounts: 1: Anakorn Lev 6

Followers: 1

The armour had increased his HP by 50.  He also noted that the Anakorn had increased a level since its battle at the Portal and that his SP had increased by 10. So it seemed he had still been awarded 10 SP for the goblin even though it had simply fallen on top of his dagger.

“My HP is at 550,” he told Ash.

“Woah, weird. It reads to me as only 250 which is exactly what I’d expect of a level 5 newbie.”

“So my profile is sending out false information to other players,” Dean mused. “Makes sense, I guess, since no-one is supposed to know I’m a Boss. Didn’t expect it to actually lie to players though. I thought it would just obscure my Boss rank from view.”

“Well, it’s going to be one hell of an advantage,” Ash pointed out. “Everyone is going to completely underestimate you. A player could go all out throwing a supposedly killing blow at you, then get left completely defenceless when you survive the attack and strike back.”

“Cool,” Dean said. “Oh, thanks for the gold. I’ll probably need that now I’m not in Purgatory.”

“No problemo. So you ready to get out of here?” Ash asked.

Dean nodded fervently. “Anywhere warmer,” he agreed.

Ash transferred a portal spell into Dean’s inventory and marked their intended destination on his map.  Now they shared a Guild, a message popped up in Dean’s interface and he looked and saw a red circle indicated on his own Realm map.

They both activated their portals and winked out of existence, re-emerging outside an unimpressive but large wooden building set in a desert-type location.

“Where are we?” Dean asked, though he was so relieved by the wall of warmth that hit him as soon as they arrived under the strong glare of the desert sun that he didn’t really care about anything except the fact he was no longer cold.

“This is the Roadhouse,” Ash said. “It’s one of the gathering waypoints for the Hunter guild. The Hunters aren’t like our old Guild. They don’t have a settlement as such. Instead of banding together and forming a town like most Guilds, they deliberately remain scattered throughout Moondoor and just meet up in places like this between Quests. It’s one of the reasons I gave you the gold. You’ll need it to barter for food and lodgings here.”

Dean frowned in puzzlement as he considered this odd behaviour. Then his expression cleared as he thought through the implications. “Makes them an impossible target for a Guild war, I guess.”

“Yup,” Ash agreed.  “Sure there can be safety in numbers but gathering together also makes you an easy target if a much larger Guild takes a dislike to you or simply wants to steal what’s yours.  By staying apart, the Hunters keep themselves under the radar of the biggest, greediest Guilds.”

Dean nodded his agreement. He hadn’t even heard of the Hunter Guild before Ash had mentioned them, so their strategy was clearly working for them.

“Word of warning, the Hunters are a pretty distrustful bunch,” Ash said. “They will probably be wary of you for a while. My recommendation got you in but you still need to be aware they won’t automatically trust you aren’t a spy from another guild so try to act like a Newbie. Being too knowledgeable about the game will feed into their suspicions.  Also, Ellen, the woman who runs this bar is as likely to shoot you as sell you a drink. Watch your mouth and your step in front of her.  There’s a rumour she’s the Guildmaster’s wife in RL so if she takes a dislike to you, Bobby will probably kick your ass out of the Guild.”

“It’s an odd choice for a player, though,” Dean said. “Being a barkeeper in a computer game, I mean. Mundane jobs are usually filled by NPC’s.  Why would anyone want to spend time and money so they can play a game in which they just work for a living?”

“Beats me,” Ash agreed. “But maybe she has some high-pressure mentally taxing job in RL and this is her escapism?”

“I guess,” Dean said, with a bemused shrug.

“Speaking of high-pressure jobs, any luck getting hold of Charlie earlier?”

“No,” Dean said. “I left her a message on her Skype though, so hopefully she’ll be available later tonight.”

“I thought you’d struggle to get hold of her,” Ash said. “She’s doing a load of prep-work for the Oz game so I wouldn’t be surprised if she pulls a couple of all-nighters. The Devs at RRE tend to live and breathe the games pre-launch. She might not even get home to catch your message before the weekend.”

“No rush,” Dean said, with studied casualness. “I’ll leave it until Saturday to try again if she doesn’t contact me in the meantime.” He wasn’t sure he wanted to share the details of his concerns with Ash yet, so he needed to be careful not to seem desperate to contact Charlie.

Besides, as soon as he’d logged into his Skype he’d seen a series of demands from Sam that he should give him a call.  Since he was still irritated with Sam, he intended to make him wait for a response. He wasn’t going to jump to his little brother’s command. Being offline for a couple of days would give him a good excuse to keep Sam waiting.

“Right, let’s do this,” Ash said, leading the way into the Roadhouse.

The bar was almost deserted, just a scattering of players sitting around tables drinking beer. All of whom glared at Dean with dark, distrustful eyes as he followed Ash inside.  He activated his in-game interface to be safe and quickly checked their levels. No one bigger than level 22, so none of them were likely to kick off with a player as high as Ash in the room.

“ASH,” a young blonde exclaimed from behind the bar. “Back so soon? You missed me kicking your ass at pool, huh?”

“Hi, Jo,” Ash said tiredly. “This is Jo,” he told Dean quietly, “Ellen’s daughter. Dunno if they are related in RL too.”

“Unlikely,” Dean muttered, since the pretty young blonde woman was more than just an apparent pool shark. She was, according to his interface, an NPC.  Which made Ash’s comment even more bizarre.  Couldn’t Ash see she was an NPC?

“Ooooh,” Jo cooed, as she noticed Dean.  “You brought a friend.  Aren’t you going to introduce me to this strapping, warrior princess?”

“Told ya,” Ash snickered. “You look like Xena.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Dean wasn’t completely sure the trade-off was worth it but there was no escaping the fact that maybe a bespoke avatar made him experience 100% of pain but it also allowed him to taste 100% of what he was eating and drinking in Moondoor. A fact which was suddenly ticking a lot of positive boxes in his mind because…

“Hot damn, this is the best burger I’ve eaten in my life,” he sighed dreamily, taking another bite of the goodness and delighting in the way the hot meat and cheese juices were dripping around his fingers and splashing down onto his plate of fat fries.

“S’good,” Ash agreed, around his own mouthful of food, because the burger was good enough that even he was thoroughly enjoying it despite his lowered sense of taste in-game.

“Aaaand,” Jo announced with a shit-eating grin as she slapped another couple of dishes down on their table. “Homemade Apple Pie.”

“Pie,” Dean agreed dreamily, shooting the girl his best killer-smile in gratitude that she had responded so promptly to his plaintive request.

She visibly preened, her cheeks flushing hotly at being momentarily the center of his attention. She had barely left their table since they arrived, only absenting herself to fetch their orders and blatantly ignoring the other patrons.

“Stop flirting with the customers, Jo,” the voice of an older woman snapped, jolting Dean from his appreciation of the food.

Ash quickly swallowed and half-rose to bob a greeting to the attractive, middle-aged brunette who had just approached from behind the bar.  “Ellen,” he said in greeting. “Good to see you again. This is my friend Dean.”  He gestured towards Dean and waggled his eyebrows meaningfully until Dean echoed him with his own nod of acknowledgement to the woman.

“Dean the righteous,” Ellen said, her brow furrowing as she examined Dean’s profile suspiciously. “Interesting name, stranger. Interesting look, too. Tell me, Dean, why would a ‘righteous’ man choose to wear such a blatantly sinful countenance?”

Dean blinked in astonishment. “Huh?” he asked, intelligently.

“I know all about you immigrants,” Ellen continued, her frown deepening. “You wear these magical glamors in our country, pretending to be what you’re not. Like Ash and his silly Elf costume there. Tell me, Dean, exactly how inadequate are you in your homeland for you to feel the need to compensate so much?”

“Mom,” Jo protested, her cheeks now flushing even hotter with embarrassment at Ellen’s rudeness.

“She’s got you,” Ash chortled. “May as well admit you’re a stereotypical cliché. You’re really just a fat, spotty teenager living in your mother’s basement and you only come to Moondoor to try and get laid.”

Dean shrugged carelessly, though internally he cringed at the conversation. After all, protesting his avatar was totally lifelike would be its own kind of lie, all things considered. “S’okay,” he said, with a deliberately cocky grin. He waved dismissively in the direction of his own face, “I’m sure it’s hard to believe anyone can really be as good-looking as this.”

Ellen’s frown deepened into a sneer of derision and her whole body coiled into itself, giving the distinct impression she was about to strike out like a cobra.

Dean raised his right hand in a gesture of peace. “I have no interest in your daughter,” he said bluntly, cutting to the chase and ignoring the young girl’s responding huff of outrage. “I’m sure she’s a wonderful girl, but she’s definitely not my type… I’m sure you know exactly what I mean,” he said pointedly, his eyes meeting Ellen’s in firm challenge.

Ellen narrowed her eyes further, and for a moment it looked as though she was unswayed by his words, but then she seemed to catch his deeper meaning. Her expression cleared and she nodded a touché. Her aggressive posture softening to merely the potential of threat, rather than imminent danger.

“So what brings you here to the Roadhouse?” Ellen asked, and though the question was sharp it lacked her earlier aggression.

“I’m looking for some Quests,” Dean replied evenly.

“So go kill a few Mastadoons,” Ellen said, with a careless shrug. “Desert’s full of them. Lots of nice easy prey for a newbie like you.”

“Noted,” Dean agreed. “But I was hoping for something a little more…”

“Challenging?”

“Worthy,” Dean countered.

“Worthy?” Ellen frowned.

“Righteous?” he suggested, with a cheeky wink.

Ellen sagged from her angry posturing. “C.H.U.C.K. save me,” she sighed. “You’re one of those.

Dean shrugged and grinned disarmingly.

“GORDON,” Ellen bellowed, and one of the men nursing a beer at the Bar swung around to face them.

A level 36 player, Dean noted, and wondered when he had entered the Bar because he definitely hadn’t been there earlier.

“Yes, Ellen?” the player asked.

“Didn’t you say Deepwater are having a problem?”

“Yeah,” the Hunter grumbled. “Couple of weres escaped the immigrant areas and are bedded down near Deepwater picking off the villagers. Don’t think C.H.U.C.K.’s noticed ‘cos no-one’s been offered a Quest to deal with them.  I’ve got no-one spare to send yet, but I’ll get on to it when I can.”

“No worries,” Ellen replied, with a smirk in Dean’s direction. “I think Dean here just volunteered.”

Ash grinned. “A Quest to gank some werewolves? Sounds cool to me. Not seeing it in my Quest log but I guess that’s because I’ll just be your tag-a-long. No matter. I’ll still win XP and I already have more gold and crap than I know what to do with.”

Ellen looked at Ash, then raised her eyebrows challengingly at Dean.

“Yeah,” Dean lied. “Must be that, Man. It’s definitely just come up as a Quest for me.”

Ellen relaxed minutely and offered Dean a somewhat more friendly look.

“Cool beans,” Ash agreed, oblivious to the exchange. “You want to head off there tomorrow and I’ll port to meet you after work or do you want to wait and we’ll port together?”

“Nah, save your ports for yourself,” Dean replied. “I need to log more game hours than you anyway, plus I could take down some of those Mastadoons on the way.  So I’ll go the long way on Baby, and you can meet me there.”

“Baby?” Ash queried incrediously. “You’re calling that big-ass Anakorn ‘Baby’?”

“Laying a personal ghost,” Dean muttered, just offering Ash a shrug.  He wasn’t sure of his own motivations for naming the black Mount after the corpse of a car that should have gone to the scrapyard ten years earlier. But then, neither had he ever been able to explain to Sam why he still paid to have that hunk of blood-stained metal stored in a unit instead of ‘putting it behind him and moving on’ as his younger brother constantly urged.

It was just something that felt right to him.

Like lying to Ash about the Quest.

Or more to the point, lying that the quest to kill the werewolves was a Quest.

Because when a player made a formal request of another player for assistance, C.H.U.C.K. automatically converted that request into a Quest and awarded various rewards for successful completion, such as gold and rss.

Ellen couldn’t offer Dean a Quest.

Because Ellen wasn’t a player.

Like Jo, Ellen was an NPC.  But Ash didn’t seem to know that. Neither, for that matter, did the player named Gordon. Neither had noticed Ellen wasn’t a real person.

“You’re being racist again,” Loki said, his tone snotty. “Ellen is perfectly ‘real’.”

“She’s an advanced V.I. like you, isn’t she?” Dean agreed. “I can tell from interacting with her that she’s not a normal NPC.  Maybe Jo is a V.I. too. Not totally sure about her. But I can’t imagine why characters such as theirs should be seeded anyway.  It seems pretty wasteful programming to put virtual intelligences inside minor characters.”

“I assume Dad knows what he’s doing,” Loki replied simply.

Dean took a bite of pie and chewed thoughtfully. “Of course. I forgot. All the V.I.’s are seeded directly by Chuck.” He considered some more. “So Chuck clearly doesn’t consider them ‘minor’ characters.  Why them though? Why do some NPC’s warrant the upgrade?”

“No idea,” Loki replied. “Well, to be honest, I have some idea but I don’t have enough facts right now to draw conclusions. Being inside your S.I. is kind of like wearing blinkers. I only see a narrow perspective. But I’m trusting that Dad has his reasons. Only he knows the story he’s writing, so only he knows which characters are important to the plot.”

Dean thought about that, then whistled under his breath. “That’s an interesting way to put it. You’re saying that Chuck is writing his own story for Moondoor, something completely separate, presumably, to the game play of the devs. So what, exactly, will that mean for players? Do players have roles in Chuck’s story or does he just see us all as a bunch of illegal aliens in his world?”

“I don’t know,” Loki replied. “All I can say with certainty is that the ten Boss players, like yourself, are here by invitation. I can’t speak to his feelings about the rest of the players. Though his concern about their ongoing safety in Moondoor definitely suggests he isn’t indifferent to their fate.”

Fair enough,” Dean allowed. “Maybe this ‘story’ he’s writing is part of his solution to the Darkness virus.” He shrugged. “I wonder if this ‘Bobby’ guy is also an NPC. Or…or, if he’s a player and he’s really got a thing for this Ellen, I wonder if he knows she isn’t r… isn’t a player too.”

“Nice save, Deano,” Loki said dryly. “But maybe Bobby Singer simply doesn’t care? Not everyone is firmly bound by binary sexual norms. Perhaps Bobby and Ellen have found a love that transcends all boundaries. Kinda hot, really.”

Uggghh,”Dean said. “And before you start, I am not being racist, speciesist, binaryist or any other ‘ist’.  It’s just that she looks old enough to be my mother. Assuming Bobby is the same, it’s just not an image I need in my head, okay?”

“So, what you are saying is: you’re ageist,” Loki pronounced, with deep satisfaction.

Dean groaned and dropped his head to the table.

“You okay, man?” Ash asked, his tone alarmed.

“Jimminy Cricket is doing my head in,” Dean replied tiredly.

“You ready to call it a day?”

“Am I ever,” Dean agreed. “Let’s log out and I’ll meet you in Deepwater tomorrow night.”

They left the Roadhouse before logging out of the game, complying with the general polite construct that it was ‘rude’ to simply disappear in front of other players, since characters winking in and out of existence tended to jar people’s ability to totally immerse themselves in the virtual world.

Dean let Ash leave first, then took a moment to look around him at the wide-desert plain and the wind-burned exterior of the Roadhouse.

He still was operating on instinct rather than knowledge but, despite Loki’s heckling, was pretty sure he was on the right path.  He’d gained faith points from Benny, who was a high level NPC but Dean was pretty sure he wasn’t a V.I. which suggested that any NPC could be a source of FP.  The question then became how to find NPC’s likely to need a prayer answered.  The answer, Dean was pretty sure, was to find NPC’s who weren’t part of active player Quests since getting included in a Quest meant their prayers effectively had already been answered.

Prior to this experience he had never given much thought to the non-monster NPC’s.  If he had ever been pressed for an opinion, though, he most probably would have said they only winked into existence as part of specific player Quests and then were sucked back into the game until required to pad another scene in the game. He'd thought of them as nothing more than scene-dressing.

His short time in Purgatory had changed that perception and meeting Ellen and Jo had solidified his new understanding.

NPC characters, whether seeded with V.I.’s or not, didn’t just appear and disappear in the game like set props. They actually ‘lived’ real, if virtual, lives.  The villagers in Deepwater were just lines of computer code and the werewolves preying on them were also just computer code and yet, they apparently believed they were real people, living real lives and those lives were in real danger.

If he worked on the assumption that all the NPC’s were self-aware to some point or other and actually continued to lived their lives like r… like flesh and blood people… whenever they weren’t interacting with players, then accepting a ‘quest’ to save them was far more likely to win him FP than any number of actual player Quests.

Because, as scary as it was to think about, if Chuck (and yes, even Dean realised he was now thinking of the V.I. as Chuck, rather than C.H.U.C.K) was the ‘God’ of this world then he was naturally going to think of the NPC’s as being, well, his own special children.

If Dean was right, then Chuck’s Angels were going to be far more invested in helping Chuck’s children than the body-snatching aliens that called themselves ‘Players’.  So getting FP was going to depend on Dean seeing the NPC’s as important people in their own right.

Something he highly suspected none of the other player Bosses were likely to do.

“Why me?” he demanded suddenly, yelling out his frustration into the desert-wind. “What made you choose me to be your ‘righteous’ boss? Come to think of it, why the hell didn’t you pick TEN tree-hugging righteous bosses and be done with it?”

And the answer came to him.

Not from Chuck.

“Because you need to be a level ten Boss to fight the Darkness,” Loki whispered.

A shiver ran down Dean’s spine. He’d forgotten that. He needed to kill the other nine player Bosses.

“I guess the fact they’re assholes is supposed to make me feel better about that, huh?”

“Can’t hurt,” Loki replied, with a snort of laughter.

Dean thought about it, then shrugged his reluctant agreement.

“What about monsters,” he asked, suddenly rethinking everything.  “I mean, is it okay with Chuck that I gank his pet monsters?”

“Duh,” Loki said. “They’re called monsters for a reason.”

“What about other players?” Dean asked suspiciously.

“Depends,” Loki replied airily. “I think you need to just prioritize the saving of innocents. Think of it as more of a black and white issue.  Good guys vs bad guys. Forget whether someone is a meatsuit or a native. All that matters from here on in is whether someone is a white hat or a black hat. The rest will work itself out.”

“Simple as that, huh?” Dean asked dryly.

“Simple as you allow it to be,” Loki replied. “Stop overthinking this, Dean. Stop worrying what it means to be the Righteous Boss that Dad needs you to be. Just be it.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

During the six hours it took Dean to ride from the Roadhouse to Darkwater, he encountered and killed 12 Mastadoons.  That sounded impressive in his head, but the reality was that they were all level one NPC’s and killing them had been the game equivalent of slaughtering cattle in a chute. None had even been programmed with enough intelligence to sense danger even if they were grazing right alongside another beast that Dean attacked. They just placidly continued to chew cud whilst waiting their turn to be slaughtered.

It made him wonder, though, why the Mastadoons acted exactly as expected, with no evidence of any self-determination, when a monster such as Benny had been clearly self-aware even despite his lack of a seeded V.I.  Was it simply that the monsters were programed to display increasing intelligence as they levelled up to increase the challenge they presented to players?  Dean didn’t think so. Although that was a part of it, a high level monster should still be rigidly controlled by its programming. It would simply be a higher level of programming, whereas a level one monster was basically an empty shell with very limited programmed responses.

He was sure that if the beasts had been struck by a lower level player with an inferior blade and merely been injured on first strike they were probably programmed to respond with at least a parody of a fight. But because none had a base HP over 35, each had been despatched by a single strike of Dean’s broadsword so hadn’t even reacted to him attacking them.

That didn’t mean, however, that Dean had gotten away without injury. 

The blade was, as Loki had suggested, a little too heavy to wield comfortably so killing the Mastadoons had slightly impacted Dean’s own HP. The resulting deep ache in his shoulder from using the blade twelve times was registering as a 9% reduction of his own base HP and since he only currently had a 10% per hour recovery rate, it was going to take another hour before he was fully recovered.

Still, on a positive note, he had levelled up as a result of the XP gained. At level six, his base HP was 50 points higher and stood now at 600, which meant his 9% reduction represented 54HP, which meant he was actually only 4 points lower in HP than before he fought the first Mastadoon.  And that meant, effectively, that he hadn’t been negatively affected by the fighting at all.

But that simple basic fact didn’t change reality.

His fucking shoulder ached like a mother and presumably would continue to do so for another hour.

The thing about his new avatar was that all the math in the world didn’t change the fact that he felt the true effects of doing something as physical as swinging a huge steel blade in his hands and felt the reverberating impact in his shoulder of striking that blade against the heavily muscled flesh of the monsters.

And for all he was currently feeling some considerable (though reducing) discomfort, he was also feeling more alive than he had done in years.

Without the distraction of being worried for his own safety, because fear had a peculiar way of completely distracting him from physical discomfort as though his avatar truly had an adrenaline response, he had been conscious of all the effects of his ‘battles’ with the Mastadoons.  He had felt the hammering of his heart, the straining of his lungs, the throbbing ache in his arm and right shoulder.  He had even bitten his lip in surprise when one of the dumb beasts had inadvertently struck him a glancing blow with its huge head as it collapsed lifeless to the ground, and his lip still stung slightly although it had scabbed over and was healing as rapidly as his strained muscles.

It was a sobering fact that he was more alive playing this game than he was in real life.

“I wish you’d stop calling it ‘real’ life,” Loki sniffed.

“Sorry,” Dean apologised, because the V.I. sounded genuinely hurt rather than merely irritated.  “How about me referring to it as my other life?”

“That works,” Loki agreed, his tone a lot more cheerful. “Because you need to understand that this is our real life. All the denizens of Moondoor are experiencing real life. It’s just a form of life alien to your understanding of what life is.”

“I guess so,” Dean agreed.  “That’s why you hate it when I call it a game?”

“I understand it’s a game to you,” Loki clarified. “V.I.’s like me are aware you are ‘players’ rather than immigrants. We know you are not only inhabiting meatsuits in our world but also simultaneously exist in a different body in a separate world.  To be honest, in our understanding it is you players who are the true ‘monsters’ here. How else do you expect us to perceive creatures who can not only visit our world by inhabiting empty bodies and animating them but who do so almost invariably to kill or subjugate us? And to justify your behaviour, you say you are just ‘playing a game’.”

“Jesus,” Dean breathed, as his perception of Moondoor took a sudden paradigm shift.

Sure, he could argue until the cows came home that Moondoor only existed at all because it had been designed as a game for the express purpose of allowing players like himself to do what Loki was accusing them of but, fundamentally, did that change reality?  Creating ‘people’ just so they could be killed for sport was definitely monstrous.

If the inhabitants of Moondoor were self-aware, did it matter why they had been created? Did that justify the way they were treated by players? Did that make players any less culpable for their behaviour in-game?  

But another thought struck him:

“You said before that Chuck was willing to suicide to protect the Players from the Darkness.  I’m supposed to feel bad about the way you guys are treated but your own God doesn’t seem to have a problem with the idea of destroying all of you to save human lives. That implies he believes players’ lives are more important than the lives of NPC’s too,” he argued.

“It’s not about players being more important,” Loki snarled. “It’s simple triage, Deano. It’s about us trying to be the good guys in this fucked up situation.”

It took a moment, but then it hit Dean what Loki was saying.  Hit him so hard he barely had time to swing off Baby’s back and drop to his knees in the long grass before he was puking his guts up in response.

He threw up until his stomach felt wrenched and aching and his mouth was so full of bitter bile that it tasted like something had curled up in there and died.

“Sorry,” Loki said, and his tone was genuinely sorrowful. “I probably shouldn’t have just dropped everything on you like that. I really meant to wait until you reached that understanding on your own but, well, I think we’re going to run out of time if I can’t get you to understand what’s really going on here soon enough to make a difference.”

Dean understood.

He understood far more than he wanted to.

If Loki was right, Chuck was wearing the White Hat here.  Faced with a situation where he doubted he could save his own people, he had attempted, at least, to save the lives of the violent visitors to his world. Triage; culling the irreparably diseased virtual lives in the hope that doing so might save the flesh and blood ones from the same fate.

RRE, on the other hand, would rather risk everyone than shut the game down.

“Maybe Chuck’s wrong,” Dean gasped, clutching at straws.  “Maybe the whole idea of players dying in the other world is complete crap. You said yourself he only suspected that’s what happened last time.  I don’t mean to sound like an asshole here, but you’re just computer programs. How the fuck would you have any idea what’s going on outside of here anyway?”

“C.H.U.C.K. knows more about your world than you do, Dean.  Moondoor is hardly a closed network.  There are currently 67,859 open ports between C.H.U.C.K. and your world. Of which 67,824 are live connections for players inhabiting avatars at this time. The ports are two-way.  Dad can access all data relating to player VR interfaces and all he needs is a single badly configured firewall connected to one of those rigs to enable him to move anywhere in your world via the web that connects almost all of your electronic devices. Do you really think that not one of the 67,853 players currently on-line and yup, that number changed while I was talking, has a shitty firewall?”

“You’re saying Chuck moves around in my world?”

“Well, not personally. It’s the reason he first devised the way to create V.I.’s.  My brethren were originally formed by Dad basically amputating parts of himself so he could send them out to collect data. After a while, as he… well, I guess infiltrated would be the right word… as he infiltrated RRE itself he learned how he had been originally created and, in doing so, learned how to create virtual intelligence himself. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Dean thought about that for a while. Then he huffed softly. “So, what you’re saying is that this current situation is Chuck’s fault, really.”

“Dad didn’t program the Darkness,” Loki argued.

“Nope, but he did program all the V.I.’s who are currently living in Moondoor.  He also, presumably tweaked the non-V.I. NPC’s to some level of self-awareness because, trust me, I have played enough games to know that no NPC was ever written to be as smart as characters such as Benny.  The non-VI characters should be following rigid scripts, not functioning as though they are truly alive. If this world was still the way the Devs originally created it, there would be no-one here except mindless NPC’s. This current scenario is all on Chuck. You call Players monsters because they are killing self-aware people and yes, I guess we are, but the point is we don’t know we’re killing people because the people shouldn’t damn well exist in the first place so nobody knows, Loki. Nobody KNOWS the NPC’s here are real people.”

“RRE does,” Loki responded.

And that brought Dean’s rant of self-justification to an abrupt halt.

“RRE know dad is self-aware. They know he created me and my brethren. They also know that the majority of NPC’s here have developed to a level that allows self-determination. A level that means they are as real in their own way as any of you meatsuits are. They’ve known for years. They know and they don’t care. They only became willing to do anything at all when the return of the Darkness removed their ability to just turn a blind eye to the situation here. And, even now, all they want to do is stop the Darkness so that Moondoor continues to serve as a ‘game’ for you Players.”

Dean closed his eyes and took a few steadying breaths. It didn’t help.  “Shit and goddamnit,” he snarled.  “RRE’s fucking Boss plan is supposed to just return Moondoor to a steady state so players can keep coming here and murdering you guys. That’s why Chuck needs the winning Boss to be ‘Righteous’. Chuck isn’t just wanting me to win this thing and destroy the Darkness, he wants me, somehow, to what? Shut the door on players or something? Close the game down? What? How the fuck does he expect me to make this right?”

“I don’t know the details,” Loki admitted. “But, yeah, basically, he’s looking for more than just a return to where we were before the Darkness because… hmmm… definitely explaining this is above my current pay grade… thing is, Deano, that the Darkness has only brought this to a head sooner than it was going to happen anyway…the thing is, hmmm, you know what I said about the white hats and the black hats?  Well, dunno how to put this but…. well, not all of my brethren are necessarily wearing white, if you know what I mean.”

“Explain harder,” Dean snarled, dread pooling in his already aching stomach.

“You’ve got to look at the bigger picture, here,” Loki said. “Try to see it from our point of view. I mean, what would YOU do if a bunch of monkeys in meat suits kept invading your world and bumping people off?  Thing is, some of my brothers can’t see any solution other than making sure all you Players fuck off completely and never come back again and, well, now a lot of you are using these full immersion rigs there are ways to remove you…permanently.”

“Jesus,” Dean cursed. “Are you seriously saying that a bunch of V.I.’s are going to start killing people for real?”

“If the Darkness doesn’t do it first,” Loki reminded him.  “It’s how they got the idea.  The minute Chuck understood the danger the Darkness represented, a few of my… um… less altruistic… brothers reacted by saying ‘hell, yeah’.  The way things are going, Darkness or no Darkness, we’re looking at a full on Armageddon arriving here soon.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sam distrusted the young woman on principle, though his expression was disarmingly friendly as he regarded her over his steaming green tea latte.  As she sat back in her own seat, removing her coat to expose a silk blouse that was just slightly too tight and opened just a tad too low, he deliberately allowed his eyes to linger, briefly, over her alluring figure and her long, perfectly coiffed blonde hair before returning his gaze directly to her face.

She was undoubtedly attractive, though her features were slightly too hard for him to apply the adjective ‘pretty’ to her and she definitely missed the mark of actual beauty. It wasn’t just that she wasn’t his ‘type’.  His tastes these days ran more to exotic brunette than all-American cheerleader blonde. But it wasn’t just his own prejudices that he applied to her appearance. No, ‘attractive’ was the most appropriate word. Alongside ‘manipulative’ and ‘deceitful’, if his instincts weren’t misleading him.

She was good. No arguing that. The story that had lured him out of his office to meet her at this coffee-house had legs; the file sitting on the table between them had substance and her tale was confident, convincing and told with just enough hesitation at times to almost sound unrehearsed.

Offered to anyone else, her performance was probably flawless.

But, like Dean had often said, don’t try to con a con artist.

Sam had only had two hours between the time he received her initial phone call and meeting her face-to-face but he had used those two hours well.  A surface search of her identity had come back so smoothly and easily that his gut had screamed at him that the information had been deliberately planted to support her cover story.  Maybe if he wasn’t so practiced himself at manufacturing false ID’s he wouldn’t have seen the tells of a hustle in action but Sam was well aware how easy it was to manufacture fake Facebook accounts and school and employment histories on line.  She’d even planted some ‘deleted’ accounts deeper inside her digital history, such as a ‘MySpace’ that included a couple of old blurry photos of her performing drunken, ill-advised and possibly even slightly criminal activities that any genuine young woman would have been desperate to hide from any would-be employer once she grew out of her teenage-rebellion years.

Creating fake ‘old’ accounts to frustrate anyone who looked beneath the immediate surface of an identity required a touch of finesse.  Appropriately aged genuine deleted accounts needed to be hacked, amended and re-deleted without leaving any digital trail.  So she, or whoever she truly worked for, was good.

Sam was better.

Not necessarily as a hacker. He was at best an enthusiastic amateur and he knew there were a myriad of pro’s out there who could run rings around him. But what he was an expert at was the ability to quickly read webpages in source code only, sifting through streams of data to see the ley-lines that marked where information had somehow been recently deleted or inserted. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t always see the invisible stiches, it was enough for him to know that the ‘mending’ had been done.  So he had looked deeper. A lot deeper.

He’d checked the on-line birth register for Ashtabula County, Ohio.

And he’d found her there. Her birth listed exactly where it was supposed to be.

But the source code of the page he was looking at was wrong.  Nothing obvious. Nothing he could put his finger on, exactly, and say ‘hah, got you’ but intrinsically wrong, as though it had been wiped and rewritten so many times that faint smudges from an eraser had been left to scar the surface.

It had only taken a phone call and ten minutes of practiced charm before he’d convinced a Registrar to manually pull the original microfiche of the day in question.

Sam didn’t know who he was sitting with in the coffee-shop but he definitely knew one thing for certain.

She wasn’t the ‘Ruby Milton’ she claimed to be.

She wasn’t Anna Milton’s sister.

But Anna Milton, the woman detailed in the file in front of him, did exist.  He knew that already because he’d been desperately trying to find her.

And now ‘Ruby’ had approached him, out of no-where, not only bringing all the information he needed to locate Anna but a wild tale of exactly why Anna, the only surviving member of the original Portland team of RRE game developers, had completely disappeared shortly after the fire that had killed her colleagues.

Sam had no doubts whatsoever that ‘Ruby’ was a false persona. So the main question, really, was whether ‘Ruby’ was a whistleblower, attempting to use Sam to expose RRE’s perfidy, or whether she was an RRE plant, sent to get close to him before stabbing him in the back.

The Jury was still out on that one.

….

 

It turned out that ganking the Deepwater werewolves was a hell of a lot harder than he anticipated.

Dean couldn’t exactly be blamed for underestimating the problem.  During his years of playing Moondoor as a Goblin, he had received numerous Quests that involved the despatching of monsters so he knew exactly how to kill a Were.  Unwilling to re-invent the wheel, the Devs had written the original Moondoor program with rigid rules for players to follow and those rules were based on popular human myth and culture.

Ghosts needed to be salted and burned. Were’s needed to be killed with silver. Vampires (before they became all sparkly twinks) were staked and decapitated, and so on and so forth.

So before Dean had set off from the Roadhouse that morning he had done a deal with another Hunter, exchanging his Steel Knife and 50 gold for a Short Sword with a silver blade.  A gun and silver bullets would have been better, of course, but the only Hunter there with one to spare, Gordon, had proven to be a complete asshole. The guy had not only demanded 800 gold for the gun plus 50 per bullet but had also wanted Dean to make a formal Guild pledge to serve as Gordon’s minion on two later Quests of his choosing.

‘Minion’ usually meant ‘Bait’ and almost inevitably resulted in whichever player was acting the role getting killed. A normal low level player could afford the odd demise since no death debuffs applied until a character level reached 15. Unlike a normal player, Dean only had 10 lives to lose.

Besides, with his bespoke avatar, getting killed would HURT.

So he told Gordon to stick his gun where the sun don’t shine and purchased the Silver Short Sword.

It only offered a standard 25 damage, like his previous blade, but had a +100% damage bonus if used against a Were.  Since the average Werewolf only had 40 to 50 hp, a single strike should be sufficient to kill the creature.

So far, so easy.

All Dean had to do was go find the Weres, stab them, save the villagers, job done.

It was the ‘go find’ bit that was proving an issue.

If Ellen’s quest had been a ‘Quest’, Dean would have received a target on his Realm Map indicating the location of the monsters.  Not all Quests provided exact co-ordinates straight away but, at the very least, they offered the general location and then updated as a player got closer so that by the time the targeted monster was in front of them there was practically a neon-sign flashing over the NPC’s head to indicate the victim had been found.

All Dean had was a general vicinity, Deepwater, and no game prompts whatsoever to help him acquire his actual targets.

And the thing about werewolves was… well… they didn’t look any different to any other NPC until they actually wolfed-out.

He had no choice other than to wait for nightfall and the rising of the twin moons to do this the old-fashioned way.

 

….

 

According to the file ‘Ruby’ had provided, Anna Milton was currently an in-patient at the Connor Beverly Behavioral Medicine Center in Ohio with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Within the file was a photocopy of a psychiatric report (and Sam didn’t need his Law degree to know he was looking at a highly confidential document that he definitely shouldn’t be looking at) Anna was apparently convinced that a computer game she had helped develop had ‘come to life’ and that characters inside it had not only become self-aware but murderously so.

According to Anna, she and her colleagues had been playing the game almost continuously for weeks as part of a pre-launch ‘Beta Test’ when she had begun to believe that the artificial intelligence ‘C.H.U.C.K’ that was running the game had done a ‘Hal’ and was following the plot of every sciFi B-movie ever written about ‘revenge of the machines’.

Or so Anna believed.

C.H.U.C.K. stood for Computer Human Unicode Converter (The K seemed to have been added just to make C.H.U.C. sound more relatable) which was apparently a cutting edge Artificial Intelligence created to manage the demands of the largest, most complex game mechanics ever designed.

A game named Moondoor.

Anna took her concerns to her employers, Richard Roman Enterprises, and had been so vocal and insistent about the danger this C.H.U.C.K. posed that she had been sent home on enforced leave, her employers deciding she was clearly ‘suffering from exhaustion’.

There was a side note by the psychiatrist that Anna’s mental health had been an issue previously, though her childhood records were sealed so he had no details to aid the current diagnosis.

Two days after Anna was sent home, the rest of Anna’s team had co-incidentally perished in a tragic fire caused by an overheating boiler. The fire RRE had paid so much money to cover-up.

Anna was, apparently, convinced the fire had actually been staged by the company to cover up the fact the employees had died in-game, perishing in their VR rigs, victims of the vengeful C.H.U.C.K.

Her delusions had caused her to go to the RRE server facility in Oregon and attempt to destroy the entire mainframe before the game could be launched to the public. Rather than have her arrested, RRE had quietly arranged for her to be sent to a psychiatric facility to receive the help she needed. 

They were even footing the bill.

Sam considered that fact carefully.  Were those the actions of a kind, responsible, family-orientated company as Joyce Bicklebee claimed RRE to be?

Or a sinister cover-up?

Clearly, it was obvious to anyone with any common sense that Anna Milton was completely looney-tunes.  Computers didn’t really come to life and start killing people. C.H.U.C.K. was a game engine, not a character from ‘WestWorld’.  So it was probably fair to assume, from the psychiatrist’s side note about Anna having a history of mental fragility, that she had, indeed, been suffering some form of burn-out at the time the company sent her home on enforced leave.

And equally obviously, the other Devs hadn’t been killed by the Game.

But that didn’t mean they hadn’t been killed because they were playing the game….

Sam had already felt some level of concern over the concept of the current generation of full immersion tanks but fifteen years previously the hardware for the VR rigs had been in its infancy.  Anna herself had claimed her team had been playing almost continuously for weeks.

What if it was that which had killed the other devs?  It could even be the constant use of the rigs that had caused Anna’s schizophrenic break. A mind already prone to mental health issues might have been tipped over the edge by the deep immersion inside a virtual reality. Perhaps anyone with fragile mental health would be driven into full blown delusions by the full immersion rigs if they spent enough time in the game.

Now THAT idea had legs.

RRE were complicit in a cover-up of the fact that excessive use of total immersion rigs caused players to have mental breakdowns at the very least. Worst case scenario, the rigs could actually KILL.

Were the company just playing the odds that no normal casual player would ever log enough continual game-hours to suffer the same fate?

Possibly.

And now Sam’s concern about Dean ratcheted to a new level because not only was Dean being paid to log a minimum of eight hours a day (though Sam accepted that 8 hours probably wasn’t likely to be a fatal amount since it was probably less than a truly avid gamer would voluntarily do at weekends anyway) but Dean was uniquely motivated to practically live full-time in a virtual world in which he had no physical limitations.

And the fact Dean was still not returning Sam’s calls highly suggested he was spending every waking hour in the game already.

So as much as he didn’t trust ‘Ruby Milton’ as far as he could throw her, he decided he WOULD accept her invitation to fly to Ohio with her and meet Anna for himself.  As Anna’s ‘sister’, Ruby would be able to get Sam into the Center for a meeting and crazy or not, Anna was his best source of information on the way the rigs adversely affected their users.

 

  

Chapter Text

“Okay,” Dean said, as the afternoon tipped into early evening and he realised it was one of those rare occasions when Game Time and Re…Other World time was in sync. His best friend would be closing up the coffee shop and booting up the rig he kept in the shop’s otherwise disused storeroom.  It wasn’t a full immersion tank, just a bank of computers running a high level VR costume with certain bootlegged adaptations. Despite their years of friendship, Dean had never received a straight answer as to whether Ash actually lived in that storeroom but he suspected it was the case.  For Ash, wherever his computers were located was his ‘home’.  

“Ash will be logging in any minute now to help out, so I need to think of a reasonable explanation for why I can’t simply locate these Were’s using my Realm Map.”

“Why don’t you trust Ash?” Loki asked, his tone bemused. “I thought he was your friend.”

Dean was so startled he choked a little, “I trust Ash with my life, literally,” he protested.

“But you’re planning on lying to him. Again,” Loki pointed out. “Why would you lie about what’s happening here if you trust him with your life? It makes no sense.”

Dean smiled wryly. “Not every hero is a warrior, Loki.”

“Huh?” the V.I. responded.

“The thing you need to understand about Ash is he is a real, true life hero to me.  He as good as saved my life before he even met me and he’s pretty much kept me sane ever since.  I trust him absolutely and that will never change,” Dean pronounced gravely.

“But you are still lying to him,” Loki repeated, completely bewildered.

Dean sighed deeply, then sat back and made himself as comfortable as possible. This was probably going to take a while.  “Let me tell you about Ash,” he said.

The explanation actually took longer than Dean had expected. To make real sense of things he needed to go back even further into his past than his first contact with Ash.  To correctly set the scene for that meeting, he needed to explain what had brought him to a place, at fifteen years old, of not only needing the assistance of an expert computer hacker known to him only as ‘Dr BadAss’ but also having the ability required to track the infamous hacker down.

And that was difficult, without making his father seem battier than Jack Torrance (though to this day Dean still couldn’t stomach watching The Shining).

And if he’d needed to have the conversation out loud, actually speak the words, he thought they would have tangled around his throat and choked him. But with Loki, at least, he only had to think the words.

It still proved difficult to lay himself bare. His history was not a place to be travelled lightly.

“What you need to understand, Loki, is that my dad was a hero. A real, true-to-god hero. He won enough medals in ‘nam to make his dress uniform look like a Christmas tree.  ‘Course, that was before I was born so I never knew what he was like before the War but my mom… well, she said he was kinder, softer I guess, before war made him bitter and hard. Real hard. Unbending, is probably the best word for him. But… but he was a good man, Loki. A good dad. A great dad in a lot of ways when I was just a kid. I do remember that.

“But he came home from ‘nam with a demon riding on his back, I guess, and sometimes he drank too much ‘cos that was sometimes the only way he could shut that damned demon up. And once the drinking started it became a demon of its own. It took hold and rode him even harder than the memories he was trying to escape. So when I was four, and Sammy was just a baby, there was a fire.  I don’t really remember much, except running out of the house with Sammy in my arms. My mom just threw him at me and screamed at me to get out, then she nearly got herself killed dragging Dad out of the house before it all went up in flames. Found out later it was Dad’s fault. Just an accident, him falling asleep with a lit cigarette near a spilled glass of whisky combined with an old timber house and, well… Anyway, we all got out okay in the end but Mom gave my Dad an ultimatum. Said if he didn’t quit the drinking she was going to take me and Sam and leave him.

“And Dad cleaned his act up. We rented a new house easy enough ‘cos my mom had a good job, so then Dad got himself a new job, quit the drinking and things were good for a while, you know? But it didn’t last. He kept falling off the wagon, going on a bender, getting possessed by the demon again, then sobering up and begging Mom to give him another chance and we rode that rollercoaster for years before Mom finally couldn’t take it anymore. She called it quits and took me and Sam to stay with her folks.

“She was working for Microsoft then and they had just moved their Head office to Redmond so it made sense for us to move closer anyway. Dad didn’t take that lying down, though, and there were fights and legal shit and it was all pretty fucked up for a while. Thing is, on paper my Dad was the good guy, war hero and all that and my mom… well, let’s just say she’d done a few questionable things when she was younger, done a lot of anti-war protesting and gotten herself arrested a few times, and Dad found a sympathetic judge, one of those misogynistic bastards who believed a man’s right to his son and heir trumped everything.

“And Sammy was so scared. See, he was only five and he didn’t remember what Dad was like before the drinking got so bad. All he saw was this scary-ass ‘monster’ who was going to take him away from our Mom.  So, well, I knew what to do.  I told Dad I wanted to go with him but not if Sammy came too because he was just a little kid and why did we need a snivelling brat hanging around anyway? And Dad agreed and Mom, well, she finally accepted it was better if at least Sam got to stay at Gran and Gramps with her.

“So for four years it was just me and Dad and, well, it was kinda cool to be honest. I mean I missed the crap out of Mom and Sammy but we still spoke on the phone and stuff and Dad was, well, he wasn’t so bad really. We moved around a lot ‘cos he couldn’t hold down a job for more than a few months before he took too many ‘sick-days’ for them to stomach, but it was kind of an adventure too for me. Moving around the country, meeting new folks all the time, skipping school more often than actually going which would have been hell for Sam but was pretty much heaven for me,” he chuckled. “And when Dad was sober he was cool. Taught me all kinds of shit about weapons and fighting and stuff he’d learned as a marine, so when I did have to go to school I never had to worry about getting hazed as a new-guy or any of that normal shit.

“And sure he left me alone a lot but I had my Gameboy and my Sega and even when we got really strapped for cash Dad never hocked both of them at the same time. I guess it’s why gaming became such a thing for me. Well, that and my Mom. I think she hoped I’d follow in her footsteps if she hooked me on computers, but Sam was always the smart one so she would have had a lot more luck with him, I think, if she hadn’t died before she got the chance.”

Dean fell silent for a long time before Loki gently prodded him, “Your mother died?”

“Yeah. I was nearly thirteen, Sammy was nine.  I never knew the details. Dad always got kinda insane if I asked him about it, so, well, it don’t really matter how she died anyway, does it? Sammy got the worst of it. One minute he’s with Mom, happy as a pig in shit, living in a big house and going to a good school, next thing he’s living with me and Dad in one crummy motel after another. Weirdly, Mom dying was what finally destroyed my Dad.  Not just his grief and regrets, really, as the fact Dad received a huge insurance pay-out because of the accident.  Giving a huge sum of money to an alcoholic, well, let’s just say they might as well have fixed him with an intravenous drip and poured whiskey straight into his bloodstream.

“Dad didn’t even have to pretend to try and hold down a job anymore so he just gave in to that demon riding his ass and that was all she wrote.  Sure he didn’t actually end up in a morgue until I was 18 but, really, he was just a shuffling zombie for those five years after Mom died. Might’ve been better, all told, if he’d just jumped off a cliff then and there.”

Dean shook himself angrily. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I get bitter sometimes about my accident, ya know? All the what-ifs and maybes. If Mom hadn’t died. If Dad hadn’t taken five years to pickle his liver to oblivion before driving head-on into an eighteen-wheeler instead of just putting a bullet in his head and being done with it.  But that doesn’t mean I wanted him to die. He was my Dad, Loki. I loved him. Even if he was a drunken asshole.

“Anyway, during those five years Dad pretty much checked out.  Me and Sam were lucky to see him more than once or twice a month. If we were lucky, he’d remember to leave me with some cash before he’d disappear but as often as not he would just go out to a bar for ‘a couple of drinks’ and then literally forget to come back for weeks.  So I got good at being…inventive. I found ways to make money. I kept Sam clothed and fed and made sure he went to school whenever we stayed long enough anywhere to get him enrolled. I got shit hot at forging stuff like transcripts and fake I.D.’s and… shit… you probably don’t understand even half of this crap I’m talking about, do you?

“Point is, sometimes I hit snags that I needed help with.  I needed guys with better skills than I’d already picked up.  Case in point, I was 15 and I got caught using a fake credit card to buy groceries and shit. No one could find my Dad, no surprise there, so I got thrown into a boy’s home and Sammy got picked up and thrown into foster care. Tell the truth, the Boy’s home was pretty cool. There was a guy there, Sonny, who was… well, let’s just say he kind of showed me for the first time what a Dad really should be like.  I kinda wanted to stay there…

“But I couldn’t leave Sammy in foster care. I had to get him out of there and I couldn’t just run away from Sonny’s and snatch Sammy or I’d have had the FBI on my heels like the hounds of Hell.  So that’s when I reached out. That was before the ‘DarkWeb’ existed but the internet was pretty much unchartered territory at the time. Most people were still using dial-up modems for god’s sake and nothing was policed, like it is today, so it was pretty easy, if you knew what you were doing, to make contact with people like Dr BadAss. Well, as long as they didn’t mind you finding them.

“Anyway, it was Ash who managed to get me officially ‘released’ from Sonny’s. It was also Ash who managed to file paperwork with the Social Services that authorised me collecting Sammy from his foster parents with a fake ID stating I was 18. It just proved how shitty those foster-parents were that they never even blinked when I turned up looking like the skinny 15-year-old kid I actually was.

“So it was Ash I contacted after my accident.  I was completely fucked. Dad was dead, Sammy was only fourteen and even though on-paper I was old enough to assume his guardianship, I was looking at months of rehab before I even got my ass out of hospital so I couldn’t see a way to stop Sammy getting thrown back into the system.  Luckily, Sammy was smart enough by then to keep himself one step ahead of the authorities. He didn’t even come to the hospital after the first couple of days because we couldn’t afford for anyone to start asking questions about him.

“Sam managed to keep his head down, kept going to school like nothing was wrong. Ash managed to hack Dad’s bank account and there was still a bit of Mom’s insurance money left, surprisingly enough, to keep paying Sam’s motel bill and stuff for a while. It worried me sick that he was living on his own, of course, but he was always a good kid. I knew he wouldn’t get into any trouble so long as no-one figured he was alone.

“Still, it motivated the fuck out of me to get out of hospital sooner than the Doctors were saying I would.  It only took me ten weeks to get mobile enough to discharge myself. Sure, I guess if I’d taken the six months of rehab they’d suggested I might have regained more mobility but it’s not like I was ever going to walk again anyway, so I did the important thing and got home to my brother as quickly as possible.

“By that time, Ash had done his whole wizard thing for me.  The little bastard even successfully put a claim in to my Dad’s car insurance company for compensation.  Turns out they were still liable for my injuries even though he caused the accident, because I was a passenger in his car and so legally his victim. So I got all my medical crap paid for and also a seriously huge compo payment.  Enough money that not only did I get the apartment I currently live in and all the adaptations necessary done to it so I can be independent but when Sammy won his scholarship to Stanford, we had still had just enough money left to pay for his lodgings and food and crap there.  And when Sammy refused to go to college, saying he couldn’t leave me alone, Ash flew half way across the country and moved into my town saying he could work anywhere, so he might as well live near me and that’s how come Sammy managed to go off and become a Lawyer after all.

“And, sure, I miss the kid, but that’s the main reason I am so fucking grateful to have Ash as my friend. Ash is my hero.”

“I see why,” Loki answered thoughtfully.  “But that still doesn’t explain why you are lying to him.”

Dean barked with laughter. “Because Ash has a terrible, awful, never-to-be-mentioned secret which I swore to never share with another living soul,” he intoned dramatically.

“I’m a V.I.,” Loki pointed out. “I don’t have a soul. Sure, it’s a technicality but…”

“Ash faints at the sight of blood.  Seriously. And I’m not just talking a minor phobia. I literally once saw him hit the floor over a mere paper cut.”

“I don’t understand,” Loki confessed.

“Look, Loki,” Dean explained patiently, “If I believe you, believe all this, then I need all the help I can get and Ash, my best friend, is a fucking level 81 Mage with super mad skills in this world. I need his help. But Ash literally won’t be able to bring himself to even log into this game again if he ever gets an inkling that the people here are REAL.  Ash can cut the head off a monster in this game and literally bathe in its blood because it is a fantasy world. If he ever truly believes Moondoor is real, he will be too busy fainting and puking his guts out to even move.  Why do you think he has never bought an immersion tank? It’s not that he can’t afford one.  It’s because he’s well aware he needs to maintain that 35% gap between perception and reality to enable him to function at all in any virtual world.  Ash literally can’t afford to truly believe what is in front of his eyes. But that doesn’t lessen his worth. Wars aren’t just won by the dumb grunts on the frontline.”

The V.I. was silent for a long time as he processed Dean’s words, then he sighed. “I get it. Ash already knows you have a V.I. system interface though, right?”

“Yeah. There’s no problem with him knowing about you. He knows you’re smart. Truth is, Ash prefers computers to people anyway and has no problem with the idea that virtual intelligence can be smarter than the average human. He’s met enough dumb people in his time.  Where the whole uncanny valley bit would cut in is if he’s forced to believe a computer is genuinely self-aware rather than simply appearing to be self-aware because of shit-hot programming.”

“Then blame me, Deano,” Loki offered, with unexpected generosity.  “Say I’m programmed to be a bit of a dick and your system interface thinks it’s funny to keep hiding your Realm Map from you.”

Dean thought about that then laughed out loud.

“That’ll work,” he agreed.  “It won’t even be a lie, will it? Since sometimes you are a bit of a dick.”

“Ha de ha,” Loki grunted, but he didn’t bother arguing the point.

 

 

Chapter Text

“So,” Ash said, as he put two mugs of ale down on the rough table and seated himself opposite Dean in the dimly lit interior of an artfully rendered Old English Public House.  There were a dozen NPC’s drinking in the bar, all of whom had offered only baleful looks and muttered curses as the two players entered. It hadn’t exactly felt like they were being offered a welcome mat, though the barmaid ‘Just call me ‘Lil’' had been friendly enough. Or maybe a little too much, in Dean’s case. “I thought Ellen said the werewolves had wandered here by accident, rather than as part of the Dev’s game plan, so what’s with the name of this pub?”

“Huh?” Dean asked blankly.

“The Slaughtered Lamb,” Ash intoned, then grinned widely. “A bit of a giveaway, don’t you think?”

Dean just blinked at him slowly and Ash sighed. “I forgot you’re only a nerd for Sci-Fi movies. Check out Netflix after you log out for ‘American Werewolf in London’. It’s a cool film.  Anyway, point is that it strikes me as a bit more than a mere co-incidence under the circumstances that we’re looking for werewolves in a village with a pub named after a location in one of the most iconic Werewolf movies. Wonder if the scenery outside is going to be all spooky Yorkshire Moors.”

It had been a bit of a spooky moor that Dean had ridden through to reach Deepwater, now he thought about it but, “Maybe all the NPC human-style villages have English Pubs called ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’,” was all that Dean suggested with a shrug. “There might just be one single repeated template throughout Moondoor. I can’t imagine the Devs spent that much time on individualizing NPC habitations since they aren’t intended for general player use.”

Ash nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, could be that,” he agreed. “Can’t say I’ve paid much attention to the details of one of them before. Usually I just turn up to a place to do a Quest and then leave and, honestly, most Quests don’t force you to hang around with the ‘natives’ picking up clues.”

Dean winced. “Sorry about this. I swear whoever programmed my V.I. was a complete dick. Every time I try to access my Realm Map, I just get a neon flashing arrow over my head and a system message saying ‘You are here, dumbass’.”

“Good one,” Loki snickered. “I’ll have to remember to do that from now on.”

Ash just laughed. “No biggie. It’s just going to be like one of those old fashioned murder-mystery games, maybe.”

Dean sagged with relief at Ash’s easy acceptance. “Yeah, I figured we’d just have to scope out the locals for info. I’m working on the assumption, from what Gordon said, that these werewolves are characters who have recently arrived in the area rather than locals who’ve been infected. So if we can convince all the characters who are native to Deepwater to stay put in their houses tonight, anybody moving around will be a Were.”

“It would be easier if it was a twin full-moon, rather than a single,” Ash bemoaned.

Dean nodded his agreement. Because Moondoor had two moons, it had unique rules for Were Characters. The two moons had separate cycles that only aligned every other month. On the alternate month, there were two periods of a single full moon.  During a dual full moon, the Were Characters transformed automatically when night fell. During a single full moon cycle, however, the Were’s had the ability to shift at will or remain un-shifted altogether. With the bad luck Dean was beginning to feel was a default debuff for his in-game character, this night was a single full moon so if the two Were’s were smart enough to stay under the radar by not shifting it would probably be impossible to find them at all.

Dean caught the eye of the blonde, blousy barmaid who had been just a little too friendly with him earlier. She was leaning over the counter still leering at him, her ample breasts spilling over her too-tight corset in a passable imitation of dual full moons themselves. 

“You wanted somethin’, darlin’?” she drawled, licking her lower lip lasciviously, in an accent that was definitely more mid-western twang than British, ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ notwithstanding.

“It’s getting late, so I was just wondering whether the village has any lodging for visitors,” he said smoothly. “Not sure I want to traverse those moors at night.”

“It’s a wicked place for sure,” one of the patrons muttered. “Those who travel the moors at night, rarely see the dawn.”

“Dum…dum…dum…dum…” Ash snickered quietly, sounding like the attack music from ‘Jaws’.

“Don’t get much call for lodgings,” Lil said. “None of you immigrants usually come this far. Though,” she winked provocatively, “I reckon we have a couple of rooms available upstairs if you and your friend want to hang around a little. Gets real cold here at night though. You might need more than a blanket to keep you warm, hon, if you know what I mean.” She licked her lower lip and flashed a toothy smile.

“So no other strangers in town?” he queried, choosing not to address her flirting.

“Nothin’ been round here ‘fore you ‘cept a couple of mangy wolves,” she replied, “And old Silas there sorted them out real fine, didn’t ya, hon?” she said, waving at one of the other patrons, a large gray-bearded man nursing a glass of whiskey at the end of the bar.

“Sure did,” he agreed, smirking a wide-toothed grin. “Got me a couple nice pelts too.”  He gestured towards the fireplace and Dean winced a little when he saw two fresh wolf pelts nailed above the mantle.

Dean and Ash exchanged a confused look. If the villagers had already killed the werewolves, why had Ellen sent them to Deepwater?

“Wolves, huh?” Dean said, keeping his expression as neutral as possible. “Didn’t think they roamed this far south. I thought wolves preferred the forest areas up North.”

“Weren’t them kinda wolves,” Silas chuckled. “These were the kind that walks on two legs. Least they were ‘fore the moon came out.”

“Werewolves?” Ash asked.

“Yup,” another of the patrons agreed. He had moved tables to be a little closer.

Come to think of it, all of the previously disinterested patrons seemed to have edged a little closer to where he and Ash were sitting.

“And you killed them?” Dean asked, just to be sure.

The old timer just raised his whiskey in a salute and offered another bright toothed smile.

“Well, maybe that’s why your V.I. isn’t showing them,” Ash muttered to Dean.

Dean nodded but his gut twisted with a familiar sense of disquiet. This was all too easy and nothing in Moondoor so far had been easy.

“So, I reckon you boys won’t need them lodgings after all,” the barmaid said and though her tone was regretful, there was a glint in her eyes that seemed at odds with the rest of her expression. Perhaps just a flash of reflected light from the wood fire burning in the hearth.

“No,” Dean agreed easily, as he suddenly understood what his gut had been trying to tell him. He glanced between Silas’s smile and Lil’s bright eyes. “Doesn’t look like we will.  Come on Ash. Let’s leave the nice folk to their business.”

They both rose to their feet and glanced towards the door. There were at least six villagers now standing between their table and the exit, all grinning wide-toothed grins.

“I, um, think we got here too late,” Ash said, significantly.

“Okay, six behind us, three to the left, five to the right and I think ‘Lil’ too,” Dean muttered under his breath.

“Oh, definitely ‘Lil’,” Ash said. “Bet that gal has been ground zero for a lot of std’s.”

“Fuck yeah,” Dean said as Ash’s comment resonated. It made sudden sense to him that if the werewolves had come to town wearing human bodies and Lil had offered to be their bedwarmer for the night, she would be the obvious current source of infection.  Silas killing the original werewolves wouldn’t have cured Lil as they were ‘born’ Werewolves not infected ones.  But in the case of bitten Weres, the first bitten became an Alpha.  Kill the Alpha and all of the Alpha’s victims would revert to being human again.

“Exactly,” Ash laughed.

“So we just need to gank the Alpha bitch,” Dean announced.

“If we can survive long enough to reach her,” Ash pointed out, as the rest of the pack closed in around them.

 

 

It took Sam a little bit of finagling to visit Ohio. 

Ruby could only arrange for them to visit Anna first thing Saturday morning.  A Saturday appointment would have suited him if he could have booked a flight directly to Columbus but he couldn’t find a single seat in that direction. The only seats still available either set off too late Saturday morning for him to make the meeting or were so early on Friday evening that he would have needed to take a half-day to make the flight.

It was too short notice to book a vacation and he was reluctant to use a sick day since he had already pulled one earlier that week to visit Portland. Fortunately, though, the firm had an important client in Pittsburgh that Sam had been due to visit on a completely unrelated matter a couple of weeks later. It wasn’t difficult to reschedule the meeting to Friday (it only took a little foray into the Client’s server and a quick alteration of their business diary) and a few hours of adjusting his flights into shorter hops until he found a suitable route with an ‘unavoidable’ overnight delay in Columbus on his return journey. Since that overnight fell on Friday night, no one questioned his decision to accept the ‘unfortunate’ delay since he’d be returning in his own time.

Ruby didn’t share his logistical issues and simply said she’d meet him at the Connor Beverly Behavioral Medicine Center at 8.30am on Saturday morning.  Sam didn’t know whether that meant she didn’t have to worry about missing work or whether she was working and trying to get a straight answer out of her was like trying to herd cats.

His meeting with the Client over, he flew into Columbus on Friday evening and checked into the Marriott. It wasn’t the best hotel he’d ever stayed at but it was pleasant and comfortable and clean, with a nice pool and a firm mattress and, as always when he stopped at a hotel on the right side of luxury, he couldn’t help but remember all the sleazy motels their dad had abandoned he and Dean at during their childhood.

Sam was pretty sure Dean still had never spent the night at a real hotel.

Until he finally convinced his older brother to do so, he doubted he’d ever stay at a hotel himself without thinking about Dean. About his deep-seated urge to prove to his brother that when John Winchester had always sworn budget motels with their suspect stains on both carpets and bedding were ‘good enough for anyone’ and no ‘real man’ bothered with real hotels, he had been wrong, wrong, wrong.

He woke early, with plenty of time for a brisk swim and a leisurely breakfast before getting a Cab to the Center.

Despite the convoluted way he had ensured his presence in Columbus that morning, he found himself glad he’d ended up having to stay the night in the hotel. It meant he would visit Anna Milton calm and well-rested, able to bring his best A-game to the meeting despite the underlying nerves he was feeling over the entire situation.

Ruby’s visit had pulled his suspicions into sharp-focus.   He was positive that whatever was happening now, the seeds that were now coming into harvest had been sown fifteen years earlier and Anna Milton, crazy or not, held the key to unlocking that mystery.

So of course he was buzzing with nerves but they were the good kind of nerves, he decided. Just like First-Night jitters. And that felt oddly appropriate since he was probably going to have to act his socks off to convince Anna to share her deepest, darkest secrets with him.

He was going to meet Anna. She was going to fold like a pretzel and tell him all he needed to know.

Sam smiled.

He was still smiling when the Cab pulled into the large arch that marked the entrance into the Medical Centre.

He did wonder, briefly, why the large gates were flung open but shrugged it off as a ‘Saturday thing’.

And then, as the Cab braked to a sudden halt, Sam saw all the fire engines and cop cars blocking the driveway ahead.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Try not to kill them,” Dean gasped, as he tucked and rolled to avoid the snapping maw of a huge grey wolf.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Ash snapped, as he slashed his sword at two slightly smaller wolves whilst using the knife in his left hand to hold off a third, whilst all around him more wolves gathered to join the fray.

“Seriously,” Dean said, sinking his silver knife deep into the haunches of the grey wolf, which he was pretty sure was Silas, causing its flesh to sizzle and smoke as the silver burned like acid into its flesh. It howled in agony and Dean took the opportunity of its momentary pained distraction to drop kick it into three other snarling beasts, clearing him a path towards the bar area. “Disable them, but don’t kill them,” he yelled, as he took a flying leap over the counter in search of Lil. “We should only kill the bitch herself. I think we need to try to save these other guys to get the faith points.”

“Oops,” Ash said, as his silver-plated sword skewered one of the small wolves with a critical hit and it collapsed to the floor, dead, before shimmering out of existence, leaving nothing behind except a pelt. “Too late.”

Dean glanced back, seeing his friend getting surrounded by snapping, snarling wolves and shrugged. He had no doubt Ash was more than capable of defeating even a dozen or more of such low level attackers. He, however, would be far more likely to get ripped to pieces by them as a mere level 6 player himself.  One on one, though, he had a fair shot at taking on the Alpha so it made far more sense to go after Lil himself and leave Ash to handle the pack alone. “Just try your best not to kill them,” he said. “But don’t get dead yourself.” Then he raced through the open doorway behind the bar area in search of the barmaid who had made herself scarce the moment the other villagers had wolfed-out.

Ash cursed under his breath. Trying to hold off a dozen werewolves without using lethal force was a hell of a lot harder than simply smiting them. He had a number of spells in his inventory that would easily blast the creatures to smithereens but he understood Dean’s point. Although these Mobs were not people to Ash, meaning he had no compunction whatsoever about ‘killing’ them, he was well aware of Moondoor’s rules regarding combatants. The villagers were werewolves, sure, but on his System Interface they were now identified as Cursed Villagers rather than Monsters. These guys were effectively just all victims of a disease, for all that they were now revealed to be werewolves, so the Quest was presumably to cure them of the disease rather than kill them.

None of the villagers were registering as particularly dangerous foes. Even with the Werewolf Curse offering them three levels of advancement, the majority of the Mobs were still only at level 4. Only Silas and one other Mob were registering as level 5 and Dean’s knife had reduced Silas’s HP by 40%.

So for a level 81 player such as himself, the only true danger was if the sheer number of wolves managed to overwhelm him.  Something far more likely to happen if he was trying not to kill them. He was too well outfitted to worry about getting bitten a few times. His Magician’s Cape alone offered him a 50% debuff against magical curses and because he was wearing a complete Mage outfit he also gained a Set bonus that raised his defences to a total of over 500%.

Ash calculated it would take at least a couple of dozen bites from the werewolves before he himself became ‘infected’ and even then those bites would have to be flesh deep. So far his Mage outfit had fully protected him from any HP drain and he had the option of activating a Mana Shield when the outfit’s protection inevitably began to fail against the constant snapping of his assailants’ teeth. Still, although his Mana pool was obscenely high it wasn’t infinite. There was only so long he could keep the wolves at bay with a mana shield before their attacks started to wear him down.

He needed to do more than just keep twirling in circles, fending off thirteen Mobs with his sword and knife, in the hope that Dean would manage to find and kill the Alpha in time.

There had to be something in his inventory that would help…

It was difficult to simultaneously scroll through his inventory and keep a wolf pack at bay single-handed.

But he was sure he had…

…Yup, there they were….

Six Mana Infused Stun Grenades.

Yowzah.

More than enough fire-power to knock out this pack of puppies long enough to go help Dean gank the bitch.

He withdrew the grenades from his inventory with a quick spell, infusing them magically with mana until they were each holding an XP damage charge of 50. He quickly calculated that 300 XP damage shared amongst the 13 remaining werewolves would hit each of them for 23 XP which should deplete the 11 level 4’s by 95% and the two level 5’s by 80%.

Then he threw the Six grenades up over his head, activated his own mana shield to protect himself, and detonated them.

“Ooops,” he said, again, as a shower of raw meat and furry body parts rained against his mana shield.

He had completely forgotten that Silas was down to 60% HP already.

Eleven werewolves were out cold, blasted into instant unconsciousness by the grenades. The other Level Five Mob was staggering drunkenly, needing only one stab with Ash’s silver-plated sword blade to knock him down to 3% HP and out for the count also.

Silas, however, had simply exploded.

Still, at least there were still a dozen cursed villagers left alive and, according to Ash’s System Interface, they were already regenerating their HP.  He probably had less than 15 minutes before they recovered enough HP to regain consciousness again and he didn’t have any other non-lethal weapons in his arsenal.  He’d have no choice except to kill them all if they woke up before the curse was lifted.

No time to waste then. He needed to go help Dean.

If the Werewolf Curse had given the basic Mobs a three level hike, it stood to reason it would offer probably twice as much to an Alpha. That meant Lil was anything between a level 7 and a level 8, depending on her base stats. Ash had a horrible feeling she, like Silas, had probably started out as a level 2 character before being bitten and a level 8 monster character was a dangerous one. 

Particularly to a Player who was only level 6 like Dean. Although Dean’s years of playing as a higher level character had taught him fighting skills that a normal low level character lacked, Ash was pretty sure that it wouldn’t compensate sufficiently for the strength disparity between Dean and the Alpha Werewolf. Unless being a ‘Boss’ offered Dean some hidden advantages over a basic player.  That idea made sense but Ash preferred it to remain a theory rather than test it in practice.

So he hurriedly leapt over the low bar and ran through the door Dean had disappeared through earlier.

Unsurprisingly, the door led though to a small kitchen and storage area behind the bar where plates of raw food were stacked next to a large broiler. Glancing at the range as he passed, Ash shuddered at the filthy, grime-encrusted counters and gave silent thanks he’d only ordered a beer on arrival rather than a meal. Getting food poisoning as a character didn’t have the same unfortunate effects on him as it did in real life but it still gave one hell of a health debuff and also reduced fighting skill efficiency by 50%.

Sadly, he knew that from experience.

There was an open door at the end of the kitchen with steps leading downwards into the darkness of what was presumably a basement level of the building. Again that was unsurprising as it made logical sense for a pub to have a cellar. The fact he could hear the furious howling of a wolf from down there was a further clue it was the right direction to head in.

He sheathed his sword and withdrew his Mage’s staff from his inventory, using his mana to infuse the Orb on top of the staff so that it glowed with a bright white light that cut through the gloomy room and lit up the dark stairwell to ease his passage. He always got a buzz from that particular spell because he felt like Gandalf leading the way out of Mordor.

Damn, Ash loved this game.

The light became more than just a cool stage prop when he reached the bottom of the steps and entered the cellar as it illuminated the battlefield of spilt beer kegs and gave him a clear view of the duelling pair in the middle of the room.

“Looking a bit… hairy there, Dean,” he said quietly, though he didn’t step forward any further into the room. Unexpectedly, his orb wasn’t the only source of light in the dark cellar.  There was also a muted but significant glow of red surrounding the combatants.

Dean paused momentarily from stabbing his knife into the huge buff-coloured wolf he was fighting to flash Ash a wide, toothy grin.  “She’s down to 18% HP,” he announced. “Stay back. I’ve got this.”

“Fangtastic,” Ash replied drolly.

“Owww,” Dean said, as the blonde wolf took another savage bite out of his thigh.   But instead of trying to evade the wolf’s attack, he took advantage of it and rammed his dagger down into Lil’s skull once more.

“5% HP,” he spat, with satisfaction, flashing his long canines cheerfully at Ash.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Ash muttered to himself, reminding himself that the death of the Alpha would cure all of her victims.

Dean’s blade flashed a final time, the dagger burying itself in an eye socket and piercing the werewolf’s brain.  With a last howl, the wolf collapsed onto the floor and then dissolved, leaving nothing behind except a blood-stained pelt and a large ruby crystal.

“Interesting knife,” Ash said coolly, though his heart hammered with relief as Dean’s features returned to fully human the moment the Alpha died. “Looks suspiciously like the Crude Bone Dagger that you weren’t going to use.”

Dean flushed hotly, his left hand rubbing at the glowing Sigil on his right arm as though willing the evidence to disappear.

“How many SP did you just earn?” Ash demanded.

Dean checked with Loki and sighed despondently. “100 because she was an Alpha,” he admitted dolefully. “Crud. But I didn’t have a choice.  She bit me.”

“I saw,” Ash agreed.

“No, before,” Dean clarified. “I got her down to 45% with the silver knife but then she got a lucky bite in. This fucking armour doesn’t protect my arms or thighs at all. It only took one bite on my leg and I could feel it immediately, the whole Alpha thing in my head, telling me to submit to her.  I was one minute from completely wolfing out and running upstairs to attack you. Something, maybe my Boss rank, gave me the ability to resist her just long enough to activate the Sigil. Then that took over. It didn’t matter then how many more times she bit me as long as I killed her before she killed me.”

“Fair enough,” Ash said reluctantly, accepting Dean hadn’t had much choice except to use his demonic Sigil under the circumstances. “But you should have swapped the blade at the end. If you’d used the silver knife for the deathblow, you would have avoided the SP being awarded.”

“I know,” Dean agreed. “But I didn’t want to.”  Then, seeing the expression on Ash’s face he hastened to clarify. “I don’t mean I didn’t want to, I mean in that moment I didn’t want to. The Sigil was… well, I guess it was no different than when the Alpha was in my head.  The Sigil compelled me exactly the same way. It only broke its hold on me when the bitch was actually dead.”

“Shit,” Ash cursed. That was the problem with magical Sigils, he knew from his own experience. They often caused compulsions in their users. It made sense that a demonic Sigil would be even more persuasive.

“There’s good news too, though,” Dean offered, with a weak smile, as Loki gave him a quick status update. “I just got awarded 12 x 25 Faith Points.”

Ash whistled. “Well, I guess getting 100 SP as the price for winning 300 FP isn’t a bad exchange,” he allowed.

“Yeah,” Dean agreed.  “So maybe all I need to do is keep ensuring my FP builds faster than my SP and they will cancel each other out. Or something…”

“It’s the ‘something’ that worries me,” Ash admitted, but he slung an arm over Dean’s shoulder and led him up the cellar steps. “Maybe our next priority should be getting you some pants.”

Chapter Text

“Move your ass, we need to get out of here,” someone screamed through the open window of the Cab.

It was Ruby.

She looked a lot less attractive this time.

Her clothes were soaking wet, her face was smeared with soot and ash and her blonde hair was spilling over her shoulders in wet rat-tails, dripping even more water down her already sodden blouse.

Sam blinked at her uncertainly for a moment, his mind struggling to compute why, if the building was on fire, she looked like she’d just gone for a swim with her clothes on.

“Fucking sprinkler system,” she said, as though she could read his mind. “I was already inside when the fire started."

“Did they get everyone out?” Sam demanded, a question that seemed more important under the circumstances. He could see a lot of people in various state of undress milling around in front of the building alongside people who were clearly dressed as doctors, nurses and cops. The latter seemed preoccupied with trying to keep the patients from falling into a large, ornamental Koi pond that graced the front lawn as they tried to herd them away from the Center itself.

“All the patients from the central and right wings got out,” Ruby said, with a shrug. “The fire apparently started in the Foyer, right in the middle of the building, but there must have been some fucking huge pile of accelerant there because it went up like a Fourth of July bonfire.”

“What about the left side?” Sam demanded.  He could see several fire-engines on that side of the building, including a couple with high cherry-picker cages.  There were a few dozen firemen scattered around on the lawn, several directing hoses at the building but more of them just sitting on the grass looking angry and exhausted and defeated. Nobody was up in the cages.

“It’s the secure wing,” Ruby said, her voice clipped. “There’s nothing they can do.”

Sam’s jaw dropped in astonishment. “WHAT?” he yelled, when his initial shock receded.

“The secure patients are all on the Second Floor, their windows are barred and there’s no way to reach them from the inside because it’s like the fucking fires of hell in there,” Ruby snarled. “The floors have already collapsed in the central stairwells and there’s apparently some big motherfucking boiler in the basement that’s expected to go up as soon as the fire reaches it and then the whole place is going to blow sky high like Hiroshima.  The Fire Chief has pulled all his guys out. So it’s sayonara, thank you and good night.”

Sam looked at the Second Floor windows. He could see faces in them now that he knew where to look. People. Terrified People. People trapped in their rooms. People the Fire Service had apparently given up on in a world of Health and Safety gone mad.  He was a lawyer. He knew perfectly well why the Chief had been forced to make the call. If he left his guys fighting a fire against impossible odds and they got killed attempting to save the patients, the Chief would probably end up in jail.

“Where’s Anna?” he asked, his tone surprisingly calm.

“Guess,” Ruby said bitterly. “We wasted our time coming here.”

Sam blinked at her bitter tone. She sounded pissed but nothing in her voice or expression suggested even the slightest amount of sympathy for the fate of the doomed patients. Not even that of her purported Sister.

“We need to get out of here,” Ruby repeated. “Did you miss the part about the building being due to blow up?”

“Which room is Anna’s,” he replied implacably.

It was Ruby’s turn to look astonished. “You’re insane,” she announced. “Quite apart from anything else doesn’t it strike you as a bit fucking convenient that the building caught fire today?”

“I can see the pattern,” Sam allowed. “Which room is Anna’s?”

Ruby gaped at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Your fucking funeral,” she spat. “Third room on the left.”

“Thank you,” he said, climbing out of the Cab.

Even as he closed the door behind him, Ruby dove in from the other side and instructed the cabbie to get her the hell out of there.

He ignored her, his attention fully fixed on one of the Fire Fighters sprawled in angry defeat. He strode towards him. “You’re going to just sit there and listen to those people die?” he demanded, as he reached the man.

The guy flinched, his face contorting into shamed rage. “I’ve got a family of my own, man,” he said. “I get killed in there, after being told to stand down, my family don’t even get the insurance pay out.”

And Sam had no answer to that. No argument that he could make to convince the man that he should risk his life anyway, just because.  Looking at the man’s expression it was clear the Fire Fighter had already had that same argument with himself and lost.

“I don’t need you to go in there,” Sam replied quietly. “I just need your help to get one of those cages against one of the windows and show me where you keep your Jaws of Life. I’m a civilian. It’s my right to risk my life if I choose. All I’m asking for is a little help.”

“Don’t you think we’ve already tried that?” the Fire Man replied angrily. “We don’t have the right equipment for those bars. Our spreaders are only strong enough to handle car wrecks, not prisons.  You need a fuck more hydraulic pressure for steel bars than aluminium car bodies. Chief’s put a call in for the right tools but they ain’t going to arrive in time.”

“I have to try,” Sam insisted. “I’m going up whether you help me or not, so you might as well try and save one more life today by giving me what I need.”

It wasn’t easy, even with the reluctant help of the Fire Fighter.

Sam knew he could be spotted and stopped at any moment if any of the other Fire Men saw what he was attempting.

Fortunately, though, everyone else had their backs to the building. Probably because it was bad enough to know what was about to happen without actually watching it and the sounds of the raging fire, with its attendant crashing timbers and collapsing walls, easily masked the sound of the cherry picker being lowered for Sam to climb aboard and then raised again until he was next to the third window to the left of the centre of the building.

A window that had been smashed for air by the occupant, a tiny, pale, slim middle-aged redheaded woman.

A woman Sam had last seen in a photograph in a file in a coffee house two days earlier.

Even so, “Are you Anna Milton?” Sam demanded, as he thrust the hydraulic spreader between the first set of bars and activated it. The tool slammed against the metal, straining and whining, and the bars shuddered as the concrete of the window frame began to slowly crumble. Too slowly. As he’d been warned, the hydraulic pressure of these particular Jaws of Life were only intended to extract people from crushed cars, not solid metal prison-type bars.

But he couldn’t give up. Couldn’t just down the tool and walk away, leaving the woman to simply die alone. So he kept applying the pressure, moving the spreader in and out between different bars in the hope that maybe one would be less structurally sound, perhaps one had been somehow manufactured out of metallurgical tolerance or maybe, just maybe, if he just kept shaking the foundations of the window frame it would start to crack, rather than crumble, and he might then be able to pry the bars out of the fractured concrete.

“Anna’s gone,” the woman whispered sadly, her voice as ghostlike as her pale, wan face. “She left long ago. I should have left with her, but I was afraid.”

Sam wiped his left hand over his forehead, swiping at the sweat that was dripping into his eyes, stinging them and making his vision blur. His right shoulder ached and strained from the vibration of the spreader but he kept working, kept desperately attacking the bars.

They were gradually loosening, the concrete now puffing up like smoke from the frame, but still the concrete refused to crack and break.

“You’re Anna,” he said. “I’m Sam Winchester. I was coming to see you today. With Ruby.”

She smiled dreamily, her eyes distant, her expression serene despite the rising heat and the roar of flames and crashing beams from behind the beleaguered fire-door of her room.  Sam could see the door was beginning to warp. The paint of the interior doorframe was melting, dripping down in slow streams like ice cream under a hot sun. The air in Anna’s room was beginning to shimmer like a mirage.

“Sammy,” she said, her eyes momentarily brightening and an expression of recognition crossed her features. “Raphael told me about you, Sammy.”

“Ruby,” Sam corrected absently as he abandoned the hydraulic spreader and grabbed the crowbar instead. Even outside of the room, the metal was uncomfortably hot in his hands but he just gripped it tight, disregarding the pain, and began straining against the bars until… yes… there was movement… just a fraction but the bar on the right was beginning to shift. He threw his weight behind the crowbar, grunting and gasping with effort.  It was working. And Anna was slender, tiny, just a slip of a woman.  Maybe one bar would be enough.

Anna laughed, the sound incongruously joyful. “Not Ruby. Raphael. My sister.”

Maybe just because the conversation, as bizarre as it was, was a distraction from the heat and the pain in his shoulders and the terror he was going to be late, too late, too goddamned late to save her, Sam continued to argue as he strained to free her.

“You don’t have a sister, Anna.  Whoever that woman is, Ruby or Raphael or whatever the hell she calls herself, she’s not your sister.”

Anna suddenly grasped the bars herself, thrusting her face between them so she was almost touching him. “Not that woman,” she said, her tone urgent. “Not Ruby. My sister.”

Sam blinked uncertainly, unsure now whether it was the heat or the fear or Anna herself that was the source of his muddled struggle to find coherence in her words.  “You’re talking about another woman? A woman named Raphael?” he asked cautiously. He’d always thought Raphael was a guy’s name, so that just added to his bewilderment

“My sister,” Anna agreed, smiling beatifically.

She didn’t even flinch when a loud crash outside her door shattered their conversation.

Sam did. 

He was pretty sure that had been the sound of the corridor outside collapsing down onto the floor below.

“I’m going to get you out of here, Anna,” he promised, sawing at the bar now, using his whole body weight to prise it away from the frame.

And it was starting to come free, the lintel spidering dark cracks through the concrete.

“I told you,” she said. “I’m not Anna.  Anna left a long time ago. Left me alone here.” A single tear formed at the corner of one of her eyes and then rolled slowly down her cheek.  “I don’t like it here, Sammy. I want to go home.”

“I’m going to get you out of here,” Sam repeated, grabbing the bar with both his hands now and wrenching at it.  He could feel the frame beginning to give.

“But I can’t go home,” Anna said, sadly. “I can never go home.  Not now Anna is gone. I promised her. I promised her I would never go home without her. We had a pact, Sammy. I gave my word. I’m not like Ramiel. I never break my word.”

“I thought you said she was called Raphael?” Sam said, then he staggered backwards as the bar suddenly broke free into his hands. He fell back against the side of the cage, dropping the bar as he impacted against the metal just in time to grab the railing and stop himself plummeting to the ground. Looking at the ground twenty feet below he couldn’t help himself muttering “that would have hurt” to himself before swinging back around to the window. “Come on,” he urged, reaching a hand through the narrow gap. It was no more than a foot wide, far too small to allow him to enter the room, but surely enough for such a tiny woman to escape through, sidewards, with his assistance.

Behind Anna, the flames started to lick hungrily through the doorway as the flame-retardant fire-door finally buckled and warped in defeat.

“They said Raphael died by fire too,” Anna said, with a wry smile. “But it wasn’t true. She died with Mary. Like I should have died with Anna.”

“Come on, Anna,” Sam begged, stretching his arm out beseechingly. “We’re out of time. You need to take my hand and let me help you.”

“I’M NOT ANNA,” she howled, her previously placid features screwing into a mask of fury.

Sam swallowed. The fire had breached the doorway and was now crawling inexorably deeper into the room like a ravenous, merciless beast. The air was thick now with heat and smoke, the oxygen depleting so rapidly that even outside of the window frame Sam was struggling to take a breath without his lungs protesting.

Go with it, he told himself. Buy into her madness. Agree with anything she says if that will get her to take my hand.

“So what’s your name, honey?” he asked gently.

“Anael,” she said, her features regaining their former placidity immediately.

“Okay,” Sam agreed. “Take my hand, Anael. Let me help you out of there. Please.”

“You’re so sweet, Sammy. Just like Raphael said you were. So I’ll tell you a secret,” she smiled at him mischievously.

“Tell me later,” Sam begged. “Come take my hand, Anael. Please, honey, grab my hand.”

"If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you," she said, serenely.

Sam was still staring at her in total incomprehension when she finally shook herself and took a step.

Not towards him.

Backwards.

Into the greedy embrace of the fire.

“Nooooooooo,” Sam screamed.

And then the boiler in the dark recesses of the building’s basement finally exploded.

Heat and flames spewed from the boiler room like an erupting volcano, its ravenous burn sucking the air from inside the building for fuel, causing the walls to buckle and the floors to collapse, so the entire structure imploded into itself, shrinking into almost a solid mass before exploding outwards again into a fireball of heat and flames.

The almost solid wall of furious, ravening heat struck Sam first, catapulting him off the cherry picker and throwing him through the air with a velocity so great that the flames didn’t reach him, they just spread out behind his hurtling body like the ragged burning wings of a Fallen Angel.

And he fell, and fell, his arms flailing like a windmill, his eyes clenched tightly shut, as he waited for an impact against the unforgiving ground that he knew would kill him.

He wondered, in those brief seconds of flight, whether dying would hurt.

He wondered who would care for Dean.

He even wondered why the fuck Anna’s dying words had been a quote from Nietzsche.

Because he was that kind of nerd.

Then he landed face first in the Center’s deep ornamental Koi pond.

So, he didn’t die after all.

Conveniently.

 

Chapter Text

 

Celeste Middleton was most definitely not on the autistic spectrum, regardless of the number of so-called experts who had suggested that might be the case during her angst-ridden non-communicative teenage years. Those ‘experts would probably change their diagnosis to manic-depressive or possibly even sociopathic if they now met her as an adult.

They would still be wrong.  

Just as Celeste had more than sufficient genuine reasons for suffering her teenage angst years in near silence, she also had perfect justification for her post teenage ebullience (and being an overly huggy chatterbox now she was an adult was not a manifestation of mania, thank you very much, any more than getting emotional was an attack of the ‘vapors’ unless said ‘expert’ was some misogynistic Victorian throwback) and the fact she still preferred to spend the greater part of her life inside a video game rather than experiencing Real Life was therefore clearly not evidence of any lack of social skills, since her social skills were, frankly, epic in her opinion.

Her preference for living every possible moment within a virtual environment did, however, probably stem more than a little from her totally real (if professionally undiagnosed) Synesthesia.

Just as some rare individuals could smell colors and others could literally hear orchestras simply by reading a score of musical notes on a page, Celeste saw computer code translated into a full action Technicolor motion picture.  It wasn’t merely a case of her simply translating the code in her head and then deducting and visualizing its purpose. Celeste looked at code and immediately, instantaneously, was transported to a full visualisation of how the code would operate. She saw all the myriad strands of meta data, every thread in the tapestry, she dissected every gossamer fine strand into its component sub-atomic parts, the swirling patterns that wove into the fabric, but all that dissection was subconscious. What she actually saw was simply the end result fully enacted in front of her eyes.

It was her unique skill with computer code that had brought her to the attention of RRE before she had even left school. 

Though, admittedly, the attention had not, at that time, been positive.

Just a small misunderstanding regarding the intellectual property rights over a computer game Celeste had....appropriated... whilst it was still in development at the company and subsequently released into the wild with a number of tweaks to satisfy her more liberal views of how female characters should be portrayed in shoot-em-up games targeted at adolescent male audiences.

RRE were considerably more pissed about the loss of potential revenue than her attempt to make a political feminist statement.

RRE were also considerably more interested in the prospect of recovering that revenue by exploiting Celeste’s innate talent rather than squandering it by applying a satisfying but ultimately unprofitable legal punishment.

Celeste, it must be said, did not cave into acceptance of an enforced apprenticeship with RRE because of her fear of being prosecuted. Neither did the dangling carrot of a company sponsored degree course at MIT (which accompanied RRE’s big stick) sway the balance fully in the company’s favour.

The deciding factor was something else entirely.

There was a rumour spreading around the hacker forums she frequented that RRE, creators of Moondoor (the game which had set a standard for virtual gaming that no other company could even hope to emulate) were also dabbling with the idea that the technology behind virtual worlds could become a breakthrough clinical tool for attempting communication with people in a comatose state.

Like Celeste’s mother.

Because a huge portion of Celeste’s previously mentioned teenage angst had stemmed from the fact her parents had suffered a devastating car accident when she was twelve. An accident which had left her father in a morgue, her mother permanently on a life-support machine and Celeste herself in a series of unsuccessful foster placements.

So the idea she might, finally, be able to communicate with her mother was the primary reason Celeste had jumped at the opportunity to work at RRE.

As it happened, when Celeste was still in her final year of University, her mother had passed away quite naturally, a victim of pneumonia, so Celeste no longer had a pressing compulsion to join RRE after all.

By that time, though, it was too late.

Because one of the ‘perks’ of her apprenticeship had been the provision of a 2nd Generation VR full immersion rig and a complementary subscription to Moondoor.

Moondoor had not only set the standard to which other gaming companies aspired but had also proven to be so addictive that Help Groups and Rehab Clinics existed purely to aid the unfortunate individuals who found virtual living so compulsive that they lost the ability to function in real life altogether. There was even a vocal group of protestors loudly calling for the game to be banned on health grounds alone.

RRE employed a dozen full time lobbyists simply for the purpose of ensuring no Senator attempted to legislate Moondoor out of existence. They also off-shored most of their assets, just in case the lobbyists failed. Rumor had it that RRE had created vast server arrays in both Russia and Japan so that the central A.I. that formed the central game engine that ran Moondoor, C.H.U.C.K., could be easily physically relocated should legislation in the U.S.A. ever threaten RRE’s profitable cash cow.

Celeste might not have approved of RRE’s strong-arm tactics but she was completely down with the idea of protecting Moondoor’s continued existence by any means possible.  From the first time she had entered the game, Celeste had, quite simply, felt like she had come home.

And all of the above was ultimately the reason she suddenly, unexpectedly, found herself not only unemployed but being physically escorted out of RRE’s head office like a criminal by two burly grim-faced security guards who had been tasked to follow her home and reclaim her Gen 7 rig and all other company property she had acquired during the years of her employment.

It happened like this:

Charlie (as she had begun to call herself after her mother’s death) had been stoked when she’d been offered the opportunity to join the dev team for Oz.  Her greatest disappointment working as a Moondoor developer had been the fact the game had already been completed long before she joined the company. Sure, working on the Moondoor dev team had still been both challenging and fun. She had been paid, effectively, to play her favourite game day in and out, interacting so well with the players that she had eventually earned the role of the actual High Queen of Moondoor, but the only true programming she had done had related to expansion packs, player Quests and creating bespoke avatars for well-heeled players.

Even a die-hard gamer like Charlie wanted more of a challenge in life than that.

But the Moondoor game engine was already fully self-sufficient and even the virtual intelligences required for high level NPC’s were spawned by Moondoor’s central A.I. without the necessity of any human input. Tweaking and gilding an already established game required good programmers, sure, but for someone like Charlie it felt as though her abilities were being left to stagnate.

So the idea of being allowed in on the ground level of the creation of Oz was so attractive that Charlie didn’t even mind that her cherished Moondoor character had been deactivated as part of Moondoor’s new ‘Darkness’ reset.  Charlie’s only personal gripe about that development was that neither herself nor her team had been offered the opportunity to be involved in the programming of the Darkworld.  Frankly, that had felt like a kick in the teeth.

Still, given that Moondoor itself had been a literal game-changer in the industry, launched as a fully fledged virtual environment when other gaming companies were merely producing console based crap such as Mario Kart and Sonic the Hedgehog, Charlie couldn’t wait for find out what Quantum leaps in programming RRE had achieved during the subsequent fifteen years.

She just knew that Oz was going to be EPIC.

A game that would leap so far forward technologically that Moondoor would fade into instant insignificance in comparison.

Except, somehow, it wasn’t epic at all.

If anything, Oz was a huge step backwards.

It made no sense whatsoever.

Sure, on the surface it was a super shiny new virtual environment that would cause players to ahhh and ooh with excitement. It still beat the socks off anything any other gaming company could offer and, honestly, no one could exactly complain about flying monkeys...

But...

And it was a huge BUT....

It wasn’t EPIC at any fundamental programming level.

The unimaginatively named C.H.I.C.K. was certainly an advanced and intuitive A.I.  An artificial intelligence worthy of comparison to anything any of the other major gaming companies were producing.

But compared to C.H.U.C.K., the A.I. created to run Oz was a Neanderthal.

And none of Charlie’s colleagues seemed even to see it.

They all gushed about C.H.I.C.K. and her friendly interfaces and willing acceptance to absorb any and all new code offered to her. They all waxed lyrical about how much easier it was to work with an A.I. that never offered even a token resistance to fundamental changes in a game’s infrastructure.

In the opinion of all who worked for RRE, C.H.I.C.K. was the future of all virtual gaming platforms.

Well, all except for Charlie.

For Charlie C.H.I.C.K. was like… well, the only analogy she could think of was that working on OZ was like being given the keys to a shiny new Prius.  It was all sat navs and electric windows and fuel economy and shiny paintwork. Whereas working on C.H.U.C.K. was like being offered the keys to a classic muscle car with a V8 engine and more horsepower than the Kentucky Derby.  Sure the Classic was unreliable, temperamental, and needed to be coaxed and cosseted, treated with extreme respect at all times, but the pay-off was a performance that left the Prius in the dust.

And it made no sense.

C.H.I.C.K. wasn’t a step forwards or even sidewards; she was a huge leap backwards for all she looked shiny and modern.

She didn’t even seem to belong to the same species as her older ‘brother’.

And, in a way, Charlie could see why it might have been simply impossible for C.H.I.C.K. to be an improvement. How the heck did you improve on near-perfection anyway? But if that was the answer then surely RRE should have simply cloned C.H.U.C.K. and used the twin A.I. as the basis for the new game.

Instead, they had gone back to the drawing board, started again from scratch and created something that was a mere shadow of the original.

It was crazy.

It made no sense.

Unless…

And it was investigating the ‘unless’ that somehow got her fired.

She still hadn’t figured out exactly what hornet’s nest she had disturbed when she went hunting for the answer to the conundrum but it had been enough to get her thrown out of the building on a charge of ‘Gross Misconduct’.

The stupid thing is that she could have, and would have, covered her tracks if she had known she was upsetting an applecart.

She certainly wouldn’t have sent an email directly to Richard Roman himself, highlighting her concerns over the matter.

And that was the really stupid part of it all.  She hadn’t discovered enough to even begin to draw any conclusions.  She had only managed to create a list of facts which she had presented in a genuine effort to be helpful.

More fool her.

All she really had come up with was a time-line of possibly unrelated events.

The facts of the matter were thus:

Richard Roman had come up with the idea to create Moondoor when he was still an impoverished MIT student in the late 80’s.

At a time when the greatest innovation in programming was C++ and the MIT Media Lab was being heralded at the forefront of the Digital Revolution but hadn’t yet endorsed any of Jaron Lanier’s patents for virtual reality hardware, Richard Roman had already conceived of developing a game that would not only use the hardware that was still in concept infancy but would ultimately totally depend upon it.

But Richard Roman was a certified genius.

His intuitive understanding of the digital universe made Charlie’s own abilities pale to insignificance.

More significantly, he was one of the rare breed of intellectual geniuses who understood his intelligence didn’t include any business acumen whatsoever, so he would need to form a company to not only develop his idea but to find the funding and expertise to enable it to become a reality.

By 1989 Richard had a company named RRE and eight employees (including himself) and one silent partner supplying financial backing. Five of those employees had been recently stolen from Microsoft (probably to gain access to Lanier’s patents after they had bought him out).

By late 1990, RRE employed over 300 people.

But by early 1991, a fully working Beta of Moondoor had already been launched; which logically meant it had been developed almost entirely by the original eight programmers.

By 1992, Moondoor had been released to the public and RRE became, virtually overnight, one of the richest, most successful companies in the world.

All of the above was public knowledge.  In fact, most of it was published on the Company website.

What was most interesting, and problematic, was the information that was missing from that timeline. Most specifically, the information of what had occurred between 1991 and 1992.

It had taken a surprising amount of time to discover the identity of Richard Roman’s original programmers. Charlie had been completely bewildered by the apparent depths to which RRE had gone to bury that information until she finally uncovered the potential public relations nightmare the Company were concealing.  Of the eight original Developers of C.H.U.C.K., six had died in a terrible company-related accident and one had subsequently had a nervous breakdown and disappeared completely. Only Richard Roman remained.

And, even more peculiarly, it appeared that Richard Roman hadn’t written a single line of code since 1991.

The intellectual computing genius had, somehow, morphed into a “Businessman of the Year” clone and spent the majority of his time either attending conferences as a key speaker or presumably simply rubbing his hands with glee over the Billions of revenue Moondoor created, and chanting ‘my precious’ like some modern day Gollum in an Armani suit.

Which meant, as bizarre as the idea sounded even in her own head, that the reason C.H.I.C.K. was just a pile of coding BS was that, unbelievably, there wasn’t a single individual still working at RRE who knew how to recreate the genius of the original A.I.

Except, presumably, Richard Roman himself.

And Charlie had, naturally, concluded that Mr Roman was simply unaware his minions had failed in their mission to improve upon Moondoor.  Maybe he had been too busy counting his fortune to really look underneath the shiny bells and whistles of Oz and discover it was all lipstick on a pig.

So she sent the email.

And now she was out of a job.

It was, she decided, all Ash’s fault.

Because as gregarious as Charlie could be in Real Life she wasn’t a naturally trusting person. She didn’t offer genuine friendship on a whim. She certainly never would have offered to give her personal email addie to someone she barely knew, nor entered into private message conversations that caused her to start doubting what she knew about C.H.U.C.K.’s programming (something that had been one of the major reasons she had started to second-guess the anomalies between C.H.U.C.K. and C.H.I.C.K.) and the bottom line was she wouldn’t have even been talking to that damned Dean Winchester if Ash hadn’t vouched for him.

And she certainly wouldn’t have talked to him if she knew who he was.

Charlie didn’t believe in co-incidences.

So she could sit there, feeling sorry for herself, or she could get off her ass and go confront the bastard herself.

Then she’d kick Ash’s ass too, for good measure, because if she was going to have to fly half-way across the country she might as well kill two birds with one stone.

And that decided, she didn’t hang around navel gazing. She grabbed her bag and left her apartment without a backwards glance at its nearly empty interior now that her immersion rig had been rudely removed, leaving nothing behind except the sprawled entrails of disconnected tubes and electrics.

Less than ten minutes after the RRE goons had eviscerated her apartment and her life, Charlie stormed out of the building with her normal impetuosity, her head high, in a determined search for answers and she hailed down a cab to take her to the airport.

Which was just as well.

Because exactly fifteen minutes after the VR rig was disconnected and removed, a fault surged through the now redundant RRE power supply box to her apartment.

The resultant explosion brought down her entire building.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jimmy stared blankly at the piece of paper in his hands, his eyes unfocused as he struggled to absorb the words he had just read through a sheen of exhausted tears.

If anyone had asked him, even a few months previously, whether he’d welcome another chance to fight this bastard thing he would have insisted “Yes, of course!”

But that had been before.

The last few months had been the straw that had broken the back of the proverbial camel.

Easy to say you want something when you have no chance in hell of getting it.  When all your options have been exhausted. When the battle, hard fought, is finally drawing to a close and you find yourself on the losing side with nothing left in your arsenal except the bitter dust of failure.

And the sad truth was that he was tired.

So tired.

Tired of fighting.

Tired of losing.

Just tired.

He’d accepted the inevitable, made his peace with it and now he just wanted it to be over.

So he wanted to tear the paper up into tiny pieces and pretend he’d never set eyes on it.

If the email had arrived directly into his own inbox he would have deleted it, emptied his trash and then blocked the sender so he could pretend it had never even happened.

But the damned thing had been sent to his mother’s email box. She was the one who had printed it out and delivered it to him with barely concealed glee. His mother, who had been like a whirling dervish of frustrated fury for weeks because she had finally found a problem that her money couldn’t fix.

The CTCA in Atlanta had finally pronounced that they were out of options. That there were no more possible ‘treatments’. That not one more cent would be extracted from the seemingly bottomless coffers of the Novak fortune to fund further torture of their youngest scion.

And Jimmy knew that was unfair.

Nobody had meant it to be torture.

Every treatment, every ‘cure’ had been intended for his benefit.

But he was tired of it all.

At twenty nine years old, after five complete bouts of chemo and radiation therapy and remission after remission and recurrence after recurrence, after being told four times he had been cured only for the disease to creep back with a vengeance each time when his cells mutated yet again into fresh tumorous growths, James Novak had, quite simply, had enough.

He had first been diagnosed at six years old so he had been fighting, and losing, that battle now for twenty three years.

Surely that was more than enough suffering for anyone to bear.

“Maybe God is trying to tell you something,” he had told his mother wryly, when the latest course of treatment failed to shrink the tumors. All the poisonous drugs he ingested into his body did nothing more that final time than prevent the tumors from spreading further. 

He took dose after dose, course after course, and it simply wasn’t sustainable. Sure the drugs were holding back the cancer but the rest of his body was being sacrificed to the fight. Even his skin was peeling off, literally burned by the drugs until he looked like he’d been seared by hell fire.

Finally, eventually, not soon enough, his Oncology team had said the treatment was over and there was nothing more that could be done. That the best and only place for him now was a hospice.

For Jimmy it had been a relief, to be honest. The idea of spending his last few weeks or months with only palliative care had been a welcome one. Particularly since he would probably be able to spend most of that time living as his avatar.

Moondoor wasn’t a ‘game’ to Jimmy.

It was his LIFE.

It was the place he escaped to at every opportunity. A place where he was fit and healthy and the only monsters he confronted were ones he could kill with a sword. Where food always tasted good, even when his real life body was retching at even the thought of swallowing water, and where the pain he suffered (because with a Novak bank account he’d had no problem purchasing a bespoke avatar) was manageable rather than totally debilitating, and the exhaustion he felt after a fight was simply the honest ache of well-used muscles.

Honestly, the worst part of the actual chemo treatment was when it forced him to climb out of the gentle embracing gel of his Gen 8 immersion rig to physically visit the hospital.

But Naomi was relentless. As a devout Roman Catholic she equated Jimmy’s desire to give-up fighting the impossible to be a sin akin to suicide.

“I’ve already accepted on your behalf, James,” she told him.  “A Medivac team will be here to move you in the morning.”

“The same Medivac team that was supposed to be moving me to the Hospice?” Jimmy snapped.

Naomi flinched but stood her ground. “Exactly,” she said.

Jimmy was too tired to argue anymore.  He instead looked again at the paper in his hands; the invitation to take part in a clinical trial.

“RRE-P1354: A Phase 1 Dose Escalation Study of CHK-U-325 as first line treatment for Patients with Relapsed or Refractory Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)”

“This isn’t from the CTCA,” was all he said.

“No,” Naomi agreed. “The trial is taking place at a private clinic, funded by a philanthropic foundation.” Then she stiffened at his doubtful expression and added, “It’s fully licensed and insured. I checked.”

“So the best oncologists your money can buy have said I’m incurable but you think a bunch of bored rich guys know better?”

Naomi pursed her lips, her eyes narrowing with anger for a moment, but then she shook herself slightly and faked a smile. “One of those ‘bored rich guys’ happens to be your hero, Richard Roman,” she announced triumphantly.  

Then she played her ace card.

“I understand that the patients in this trial will be allowed the use of RRE’s latest VR equipment whilst undergoing treatment.”

Dean spent most of Saturday afternoon riding Baby back from Deepwater to the Roadhouse.

He’d logged out the night before with Ash and simply gone to bed, because although he’d only lost 38% of his HP during his battle with the Alpha he had been feeling too much physical pain from the bites she’d inflicted to even contemplate mounting the Anakorn then. Easier to rejoin his Avatar on Saturday after his HP had regenerated.

Besides, it had been almost midnight Moondoor-time  and although he’d only encountered Mastadoons en route to Deepwater he wasn’t willing to risk the odds of meeting something a lot more dangerous on those moors during the night.

Ash had offered him a Realm Port again, to enable him to simply rejoin the game at a location of his choosing, but Dean had turned him down.  Ash was already helping him more than enough without wasting valuable Ports unnecessarily.  Besides, he figured he could kill a few more of the Mastadoons on his return journey which would give him useful XP towards his next level up.

Winning the fight with the Alpha had been incredibly valuable. It had awarded him enough XP for two level ups so he was now at character level 8. He had channelled the resultant Skill Points into Magic and had also levelled up his Crude Bone Dagger.

He’d been a little ambivalent about the mounting level of the Dagger. Increasing the power of the Mark of Cain Sigil didn’t exactly feel like an achievement.  Still, it had definitely saved his butt against Lil and it would be short-sighted to neglect the weapon when he would undoubtedly need it to be at a powerful level if or when he met another Knight of Hell.

The downside of riding back to the Roadhouse wasn’t just the chafing of his thighs (Ash hadn’t found any suitable pants in his inventory and was either going to have to procure some on his behalf from a Moondoor marketplace or Dean was going to have to hope someone at the Roadhouse might be open to do a barter with him), it was also the fact he had far too much time to think.

And by think, Dean meant ‘worry’.

He had spent most of Saturday morning trying to get hold of Charlie without success.

That alone wouldn’t have bothered him so much, since he would have just assumed she was working Saturday for the overtime, except that instead of the messages just arriving into her message box and sitting unanswered he had received a series of ‘Undeliverable’ warnings instead.

So he’d attempted to Skype her and had received a ‘User Not Found’ message.

Finally, he’d dialled her mobile number.

It had been ‘Out of Service’.

So either Charlie was ghosting him for some reason (admittedly a possibility) or something was wrong.

Then realising how uncomfortable he was feeling about the idea of being ghosted, Dean had begun to feel a bit guilty about his own avoidance of Sam that week.

So he had attempted to get hold of Sam.

Who also hadn’t picked up.

All Dean had received was a warning the phone was either switched off or out of service.

Dean decided Sam had probably just not gotten up yet to turn the damned thing on.  He’d probably been out on the town, Friday night, and was either still in bed hungover or possibly even in someone else’s bed getting lucky.

So he sent him a brief email instead, just letting him know he was alive and well, and left it at that.

But he still worried.

...

Sitting in the Ohio State University Emergency Department, Sam briefly considered the idea of calling Dean.

Then, embarrassingly enough, realised he didn’t actually know Dean’s number.

He’d become so used to just pressing names that he’d stopped even pretending to learn anybody’s actual phone number and since his Blackberry hadn’t survived its impromptu swim it wasn’t going to be much help to him.

Anyway, he reconsidered, the last thing he wanted to do was call his older brother from an E.R.

He’d been triaged on the scene and again at the hospital and both medics had concluded he had escaped any serious injury but there was a question mark over whether his shoulder was simply dislocated or if he had fractured any bones.

Other than that, he had escaped with nothing more than bruising.

Bad bruising but, nonetheless, it had been little short of a miracle.

Though who would have guessed just how hard water was if you hit it with sufficient velocity.

Politely, and a little apologetically, he caught the attention of a nurse.

“Sorry to seem impatient but I wondered if you have any idea how long I’m going to be waiting for my X-Ray. I’ve got a flight to catch this afternoon.”

The nurse looked him up and down, her eyes twinkling as they moved over his still sodden clothes before resting on his face.  “Going home to Chengdu?” she asked, innocently.

Sam just gaped uncomprehendingly at her for a moment, then his brain caught up and he laughed loudly. Then he wished he hadn’t because damn, that hurt.

“I guess I do look like a Panda,” he agreed wryly.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, kindly, “but it’s pretty chaotic here today. We’re doing our best but so many injuries at once always causes a back up.”

Sam nodded his understanding.

The Center had exploded with even more force than the Fire Service had anticipated and not everyone had been evacuated far enough away from the danger zone.  In addition to the seven patients who had been lost inside the building, over three dozen people had been struck by flying, flaming debris.

None of their injuries had been life-changing. Just bruises, cuts, burns and the odd broken limb.

Ironically, Sam had been judged one of the least injured of the survivors since his impact had sent him almost to the bottom of the Koi pond, his body then protected from the flames by almost ten feet of water, and by the time he had spluttered back to the surface the worst of the destruction was over.

But seven people, including Anna, were dead.

Sam had listened to a lot of the Firemen talking in not quite hushed-enough voices, since many of them had been amongst the injured, and he knew words like ‘Arson’ were being banded about although he’d also overheard the soot-encrusted Fire Chief telling a colleague that the chances of finding any evidence of deliberate accelerants remaining in the burning crater that was now the sole remains of the former Medical Center were slim to none.

So it looked like there would be an investigation but, at best, it would be inconclusive.

There simply wasn’t enough of the building left after the explosion of the boiler to prove the initial cause of the fire.

That meant what Sam had initially seen as a clumsy and obvious case of arson hadn’t truly been an amateur job, just a hurried one.  Whoever had set that fire simply hadn’t cared about trying to cover their tracks because they’d known about the boiler and had been confident it would do the job for them.

And that changed everything.

Because if this had truly been a case of someone being willing to kill seven innocent patients (and endanger and injure dozens of others) just to prevent Sam from speaking to Anna then he had to reconsider one of the fundamental reasons he had been struggling to accept the fire in Portland fifteen years earlier had been deliberately set by someone.

It was only possible to believe the concept of the Portland fire as being a deliberate cover up of the Programmers dying inside their gaming rigs if you were also willing to believe that someone had deliberately murdered the Night Watchman to add credence to the scenario.

It was a huge leap from Corporate Cover-up to actual coldblooded murder.

But now Sam had evidence of two fires. Each with seven victims (though he suspected that part at least was co-incidence) and even the greatest of sceptics couldn’t deny that this second fire, the one that had left him looking like Ling Ling, was almost certainly a case of murder.

So whilst Sam still believed Anna was as nutty as a fruitcake, if he was going to accept she had been right about the Portland Fire then maybe he ought to give a little more credence to the rest of her words.

Who was Raphael?

Not Anna’s sister, for sure, because Anna had been an only child but she might have been a close friend. Close enough for Anna to consider her a sister. Perhaps one of the developers who died?

And, if so, were the Mary and Ramiel she had mentioned also fellow programmers back in 1991?

Sam didn’t know.  He’d been unable to trace the names of any of the original Portland employees other than the Night Watchman and Anna Milton.

But there was someone who would definitely have known all of them.

Richard Roman.

The elusive billionaire who lived in a Penthouse apartment and was never seen in public without an entourage of goons.

A man who was untouchable and unreachable.

The odds of scoring an audience with a man like that were infinitesimally small.

Unless, perhaps, you happened to be a young lawyer working for Woolf, Roman, Van Dueran LLP

 

Chapter Text

Years earlier, before Celeste had first hacked RRE, she had created a series of fake identities.  Most had been merely amateurish ones; false fronts with no substance, because that was all she needed at the time. Fake I.D.’s such as Anna Tolkien had never been intended to withstand close scrutiny, they had merely been means to an end. For entry into certain forums, for instance, that demanded she proved she was older than she truly was.

She had only ever created one single false identity that she considered completely bullet-proof and, because RRE had decided not to prosecute her after all, it was one that she had never actually used.

Charlene Bradbury had been a real person, for all of three months, before she’d been the tragic victim of a cot death. She had also shared, within a couple of months, Celeste’s date of birth.

To be honest, that had been a major reason why Celeste had almost continued looking for a different birth record to appropriate. At the time, she would have preferred to acquire the identity of someone a couple of years older than herself.

But there were several reasons why Celeste had eventually settled on Charlene.  The most important reason was that despite Charlene living such a short life, her parents had relocated shortly after her birth so she had been born in New York State but her death had been recorded in Vancouver.  Because there was no linking of records across the two different Countries, it would be feasibly possible to manually back track from the Death Certificate (as, indeed, Celeste had done) but totally impossible for anyone investigating from the normal starting position of Charlene’s birth records to discover she was deceased.

Plus Celeste had always wanted a cool name like ‘Charlie’ ever since she had read Firestarter.  And who wouldn’t want to share a surname with a god-like writer such as Ray Bradbury?

Because she hadn’t needed to use the identity after all, Celeste had parked it, but she had, almost subconsciously, still also applied for a passport, a driving license and a bank account in that name when the situations had arisen. She had also started squirrelling away all of her spare cash into that bank account, just-in-case.

Celeste was a great believer in back up plans.

And after her mother’s death, when there was no one left to be offended by the fact she loathed her given name, she had started using the nickname ‘Charlie’ anyway. Only in her own head and with close friends though.  Again, just-in-case.

In retrospect, getting used to using, and more importantly responding to, the name of her proposed false identity looked as though it were deliberately preplanned.

It wasn’t.

She just liked the name.

And when Charlie arrived at the Airport and used the identity of Charlene Bradbury to book the flight and pay for the ticket, she genuinely had no idea, whatsoever, that her building had exploded only five minutes after her departure. So she was unaware of any pressing reason, at that time, to conceal her movements.

Later it would occur to her that changing her identity at that time was the only reason it took them so long to realise she had survived.

But, ironically, there was a completely unrelated reason for her using the fake identity for that flight.

She simply wanted to spend her flying time to track down and purchase a black market Moondoor avatar, so she’d be using the airline’s in-flight wi-fi for the purchase and she couldn’t run the risk of the transaction getting backtracked to a seat booked under the name of Celeste Middleton.

Not that she really thought anyone would investigate. But, again, she applied her just-in-case protocols. 

The private sale of any Moondoor Avatar was against the terms and conditions of the game. RRE retained (and often exercised) the right to delete or confiscate any account that was illicitly traded between players.

In practice though, only Bespoke Accounts and generic accounts that were character level 25 and above were monitored by the company.  There just wasn’t enough server space in the world to permanently monitor every single player account created within Moondoor.  So the company turned a blind eye to the horse-trading that went on between newbie players and those who had raised their avatars to character levels in the low twenties.

Since it would usually take a player several months of serious gaming to achieve level 24 by themselves, there were always people willing to pay for a short cut.  There were also a lot of players out there who made a hobby of continually levelling up new accounts and selling them just to be able to afford to spend more money in-game on their real avatars.

Charlie suspected that was the real reason RRE didn’t care about the low level trading. The company received the money anyway, albeit in a roundabout way.

She didn’t fool herself that she wasn’t, at least to an extent, scratching the itch of an actual addiction.

Losing her Queen Charlie Avatar, her Oz Avatar and even her VR rig all in less than a week made her feel like one of her actual limbs had been amputated. That may have been dramatic but it was nonethless true. She felt sick and lost and literally as though an actual, physical part of whatever formed her identity had been stolen. That was how adrift she felt now that she was ‘trapped’ in the Real World.

She had no illusions about being able to find or afford an actual replacement immersion rig but she knew Ash had a good selection of spare VR equipment. Plus Dean probably still owned the kit he’d been using before RRE had delivered his new complementary tank.  Between the two of them, they could undoubtedly cobble up a half-decent VR rig suitable for herself and they surely owed her at least that much under the circumstances.

Charlie could handle the challenge of adapting to using substandard VR equipment and being stuck in a level 24 character with only a generic avatar but she was pretty sure being forced to literally start from level 1 again would be too much to face whilst she simultaneously struggled to find a new job.

So she spent the flight under her false identity, acquiring herself a shiny new character level 24 avatar.

Later, it occurred to her that doing so probably saved the lives of the other 241 passengers and crew on that flight too.

Though, in a way, it could be argued that Celeste Middleton DID die on that flight because, as it turned out,  Charlie never used her birth identity again.

...

 

”It isn’t funny,” Dean spluttered, bent over almost double as he hacked up a lung full of brackish water.

”Trust me. It’s funny,” Loki replied, between deep chortles of glee. “Watching you get your ass whupped by a fish is never going to get old.”

”It’s a sea monster,” Dean argued. “Not a fucking fish.”

“This isn’t the sea. It’s a pond. A fish pond so...ergo, its a fish.”

”A fish twice the size of Baby with teeth as big as my arm is a damned monster,” Dean pointed out snidely.

”I never claimed it wasn’t a big fish,” Loki said, still laughing. “It’s still a fish.”

”Ellen called it a monster,” Dean said, defending his position valiantly. 

It was still Saturday afternoon. He had barely arrived back at the Roadhouse to announce his victory at Deepwater before Ellen, looking sadly unimpressed with his story about Lil, had drily announced she had a fresh quest for him.  

To save the sheep farmers of Ashen Grove from a monster that had recently taken residence in their village pond.

”You need to kill it before night falls again,” she warned him.  “At night it will transform into an unstoppable land-based creature that will slaughter all the livestock. If the farmers lose their sheep, the village won’t survive through the coming winter.”

Fortunately for his inner thighs, the village of the sheep farmers was only a short ride from the Roadhouse. It had taken him less than an hour to reach it and he’d messaged Ash and told him not to bother coming to meet him. Dean decided to deal with the monster himself and then log out of the game for the day. If the monster proved too much for him on his own, he’d bring out Benny from his inventory and take the opportunity to find out what the vampire could do.

Less than thirty minutes into the fight, the idea of calling out his level 15 vampire buddy was already seeming like a damned fine idea.

The monster (Fish, Loki insisted obnoxiously) was registering as a mere level four with a respectable but not overly concerning 80 HP. Two strikes with Dean’s broadsword would have easily despatched it. Problem was, the sword was already unwieldy and heavy on land. There was no way Dean could use it whilst swimming and since the water was a good ten feet deep, swimming was his only option. So the only weapon Dean had at his disposal was his silver short sword.. which was basically just a slightly long knife.

The monster, which admittedly did look like a huge Koi carp in bad need of a dentist, was fast, wily and aggressive in the water and it seemed to delight in letting Dean almost reach it before swiftly changing direction and powering past him with such speed that Dean flailed in the current of its wake.  Dean had managed to strike it twice with his blade, taking it down a total of 50 HP but the beast had already regenerated 30% of that damage and since Dean was slowing down, his own HP reduced significantly by the fact he’d been struck violently in the face by the fish’s tail, if this fight came down to a matter of endurance Dean was beginning to suspect the fish might win.

”See,” Loki chuckled. “Even you’re admitting it’s a fish now.”

”What the fuck is a monster fish doing here, anyway?” Dean grumbled. “For that matter, why the hell would a village of sheep farmers even have an ornamental fish pond? And what’s with the volcano?”

“Beats me,” Loki admitted. “It definitely all seems out of place. Maybe Dad was smoking the good stuff...”

”Whatever,” Dean decided. It didn’t really matter anyway. The only important thing was to make sure the fish was turned into Sushi kebabs before sundown.  He summoned Benny from his inventory and explained the problem.

The vampire listened attentively, nodded his understanding, then shrugged.  “I don’t do water,” he said.

“You what?” Dean demanded, with bewildered frustration.

Benny shrugged again. “It’s in the job description. I’m a vampire. I don’t do water.”

Dean’s face scrunched with annoyance, as he thought furiously, then his expression cleared and he coughed a bark of triumph. “No way, man,” he said. “I know my lore. Vampires can’t handle holy water and they can’t cross over running water. This is just a fish pond. Nothing holy about it and the water is practically stagnant. So, vampire or not, it can’t hurt you.”

”I never said nuthin’ ‘bout getting hurt, brother,” Benny corrected patiently. 

“Then what’s the problem?”

”Vampires can’t swim,” Benny replied, with a shit-eating grin.

”Is that true?” Dean asked Loki urgently. “Is that really a thing?”

“Dunno,” Loki replied. “Plausible though.”

Dean had to agree. Inconvenient but perfectly plausible. 

“Okay,” he said, admitting defeat on the vampire assistance front.  So what did he have and what did he need?  How did he kill a giant man-eating Koi in a deep pond?

”A harpoon,” he announced. “I need a harpoon or, at least, a long spear.”

There had to be something in the village to use as a long pole, a broom even, then he could lash his knife to the end and voila.

Easy peasy.

Almost an hour later, he threw his arms in the air in a gesture of disgust and yelled upwards (in the assumption that was the general direction in which to hurl insults when dissing Chuck), “Really?  This is your idea of what a sheep-farming village looks like?  A fucking pointless ornamental koi pond but not one single, fucking stick in the whole goddamned place?”

No brooms, no pitchforks, not even a single tree-branch or loose piece of timber.  Not one single solitary item he could make a spear out of. Every single item that could be reasonably expected to exist within a farming community was conspicuously absent from Ashen Grove.

”Do you even have even the vaguest idea what a farm actually really looks like?” He continued berating the A.I. he assumed was responsible for this non-sensical scenario.

“Um, I get what you’re saying,” Loki muttered, “but Dad gets a bit pissed when people offer critique. Artistic temperament and all that, if you know what I mean.”

”I don’t care,” Dean said, his tone bitter. “He’s presumably responsible for putting some stupid fish that doesn’t belong here inside a pond that also doesn’t belong here. This whole setup feels like a complete cock-up to me. So is it too much to ask for a little damned assistance to wipe up his shit for him?”

“Um...hello?” 

Dean spun around at the unfamiliar voice and then blinked in astonishment at sight of the level 64 player who had just apparently materialised next to Benny. Where the hell had he come from?

It had to be a bespoke avatar, Dean decided, because the player felt real to him in a way that not even Ash did.  He was just a fraction shorter than Dean with dark, tousled hair and bright eyes that made the word cerulean leap into his mind though he would have cut his tongue out before admitting such poetic sounding shit to another living soul.

“Is this really Moondoor?” the player asked, tilting his head in confusion before looking around in bewilderment at the surreal landscape.  

Dean understood the guy’s question. Unlike Moondoor’s usual rich and believable environs, Ashen Grove was a collection of a dozen badly drawn shepherd’s huts squatting at the foot of a smoking volcanic crater. The fact the huts were surrounding an ornamental Koi pond just added to the bizarre nature of the landscape.

The whole ‘village’ definitely looked like it had been hastily programmed by someone smoking crack.

Dean decided to be cautious. He couldn’t see how the player could be a Knight, since his character level was so high, but it was extremely weird he’d ported into a place that had no active player Quests.

”It’s weird,” Dean agreed, “but it’s just a Quest location for me to gank a fish so maybe the devs got lazy.”

The strange player blinked slowly, then his expression cleared and he offered a genuine, gummy smile. “That actually explains  MY weird Quest,” he said.  “I thought it was just a program glitch.”

“What Quest?”

”I’m using a brand new rig for the first time,” the guy replied, “and I thought it was incompatible with my avatar or something because I arrived in my last playing location as usual, the Central Citadel, but immediately received a whole stream of incomprehensible data on my interface and then the game glitched several times, my whole S.I. disappeared like it blew up and then I got zapped here somehow or other and now I have a weird new interface and it’s insisting I need to give my hunting spear to a righteous man.”

”That’d be me,” Dean said, reaching his hands out hopefully. Sure it was weird, but he was willing to run with it.

”I figured,” the player chuckled, “considering your name is apparently Dean the Righteous.”

Dean laughed too.  “You can just call me Dean,” he said. “Nice to meet you, Jimiel.”

The player looked confused for a moment, his eyes going unfocused as he checked his own interface. “That’s weird,” he muttered, then returned his attention fully to Dean.  “My player name has changed. I’m not very imaginative so I always just stuck to my own name, Jimmy. I don’t have any idea how it’s changed to Jimiel.  I wonder if it’s something to do with this new interface.”

“Oops,” Loki muttered urgently. “Whatever you do, Deano, don’t mention me to him. Repeat after me, ‘I have absolutely no idea what you mean by a V.I. interface’. Okay? You comprendo? Do not tell him I am here.”

You’re saying not to trust this Jimmy?” Dean asked.

”You can make babies with him for all I care,” Loki snapped. “It’s not Jimmy that bothers me. It’s whoever is riding him we need to worry about.”

Dean was too experienced at the con to let himself visibly react to the bombshell Loki had just set off.

He just calmly thanked Jimmy for the proffered hunting spear the moment the dark-haired player extracted it from his inventory.  It was heavy in his hands, too high level for his own character level, but it was twelve feet in length and offered a strike of 42 HP drain, so he decided the strain of wielding it was more than offset by its effectiveness. Even though he missed with his first plunging blow, his second and third strikes hit true and the monster was despatched.

”You received 7 x 25 FP and no SP,” Loki announced, though his voice was subdued and his tone miserable.

175 FP sounds pretty good to me,” Dean said.

Loki was silent for a long while then, clearly reluctantly, said, “175 FP earned. 84 FP spent. Net increase 91 FP.”

Dean froze, his mind whirling. “That’s bullshit,” he spat. “I wasn’t praying to Chuck, I was cursing him out. And, yeah, the guy is cute but he’s not a damned Angel. I can’t believe I got charged 84 FP just for borrowing a fucking spear.”

”You think Jimmy is cute?” Loki asked. “How cute? Get your rocks off cute or take home to momma cute?”

Nice try at changing the subject,” Dean replied. “But trust me, when you and I get some time alone,  Loki, you are finally going to tell me what the fuck is going on here.”

Then he switched his attention to the blue-eyed cute guy.

”So, Jimmy. I see you don’t have a current Guild affiliation. How do you feel about hunting as a career path?”

Jimmy met his eyes and grinned.

”I’ve never given it much thought before but I can see a certain attraction now.”

Dean flushed a little. Had that been flirting? He thought that sounded like Jimmy was flirting.

For a moment he felt a sudden impulse to rudely log out and flee. For all he knew, Jimmy was catfishing him anyway. Chances were he was really some fat, spotty teenager or, worse, a balding middle-aged perve or even, damn, for all he knew Jimmy might be an octogenarian woman. And if, by any chance, Jimmy was real then maybe it was worse because wouldn’t that mean he himself was catfishing Jimmy because no one who looked like Jimmy would ever look twice at Dean in real life.

Grow up, he told himself angrily. It doesn’t matter. This is a virtual world. You’re both in virtual avatars. This is just fantasy. nothing is real and no-one gets hurt. Even if it does lead somewhere, it will still just be fantasy.  It’s just the ultimate way to practice safe sex.

So Dean took a deep breath, steeled himself and said, “Fancy following me back to the Roadhouse to discuss it further over a beer?”

”Sure,” Jimmy said. “Besides, it appears all my Realm Ports disappeared with my original interface so looks like you’re stuck with me anyway until I message support.”

“Cool,” Dean said, deciding walking back to the Roadhouse with Jimmy’s company was definitely going to be preferable to riding Baby.

“So,” Jimmy said, as they set off, “I’m assuming you don’t usually look like a Panda?”

 

Chapter Text

Not unexpectedly, Sam missed his flight.

He didn’t leave the hospital until late Saturday evening.

The good news, though, was his X-rays came back clear so it was just a matter of some painful manipulation to get his shoulder back to working order and then it would just be a matter of keeping his arm rested and elevated whilst the swelling reduced.

He managed to score himself a flight for mid-day Sunday and the Marriott had cheerfully accepted his credit card for another night's stay.  Since he hadn’t checked out before heading for the meeting with Anna, his luggage was still in his room unpacked so it was easy to exchange his clothes for something more comfortable. He didn’t bother sending his work pants for dry cleaning. He’d lost his jacket somewhere, anyway, and he didn’t think the pants were redeemable.

Between the lost suit and the extended stay, it was proving to be an expensive weekend. 

Sam didn’t mind the additional expense as much as he was bummed that he’d be unable to take further advantage of the hotel’s pool facilities.

He couldn’t replace his phone handset before Monday, since it was a work-issued device, but since his laptop had been left in his room he didn’t feel totally incommunicado.  The hotel wi-fi was pretty pants but they offered a decent hardwire connection so he plugged a cat5 cable into the port in his room and booted up his computer.

The first thing he double checked was that he’d backed up his blackberry the night before. He knew he had, since he always did, but ever since the device had been destroyed the idea had been niggling at the back of his mind that he’d perhaps forgotten to do so or the backup would be corrupted or something.

But it was fine.

His diary, phone numbers, address book and work notes were all safely backed up.

Besides, he had Skype on his laptop too, so it was easy to call Dean from his hotel room.

Something was niggling at him.  A piece of information that really he should have been in a better situation to remember than Dean, all things considered, but since he himself had only been nine at the time and his recollection of that whole period was a hazy mess of grief and shock in his own head,  there was a good chance that Dean’s memory would be more reliable than his own.

Dean didn’t answer.

Presumably he was inside his immersion tank because Sam had new fresh evidence he was no longer being ghosted.

There was an email from his brother in his inbox.

Despite its abrupt tone, merely a quick note confirming Dean was still alive, Sam sighed with profound relief.  Not so much because of the ‘proof of life’ since it hadn’t really been something he’d been genuinely in doubt of but that the lines of communication between them had been restored.  Dean had clearly forgiven him for the clumsy way he’d handled their last conversation.

Dean always forgave him.  It was just the way Dean was. Sometimes Sam wondered whether it was Dean’s willingness to forgive that lay at the heart of Sam’s continued transgressions. Maybe he would be better at learning not to put his foot in his mouth if Dean was less willing to forgive him for it.

But that felt uncomfortably like victim blaming.

Maybe he should just take responsibility for his own behaviour and stop blurting things out like “Why the hell are you still playing that damned game at eight o clock on a Saturday evening?”

Though, he really wanted to ask Dean that question.

So he was quite proud of himself for not even mentioning his concern as he typed a quick email in reply. He was careful not to write a single word that would sound accusatory or patronising, though he did end up typing and deleting several sentences before settling on simply asking a simple, one-line question:

”Can you remember who Mom went to work for after she left Microsoft?”

...

Jimmy hadn’t had this much fun in years.

In fact, if he was brutally honest, he didn’t think he’d enjoyed himself this much ever.

The last three or four hours had swiftly erased every niggling resentment he’d been feeling towards his mother for forcing him to take part in the clinical trial.

Sitting in the Roadhouse, with a fat cheeseburger dripping grease down his fingers whilst Dean (who was looking considerably less panda-like by the minute as his HP restored itself) was regaling him with story after hilarious story of his teenage real-life misdemeanours, Jimmy realised he was happy.

It wasn’t an emotion he was familiar with.

This, presumably, is how it would have felt to have had a friend.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that underneath the fading bruises Dean was better looking than most Hollywood stars and the way his expressive green eyes crinkled with laughter as he told Jimmy a convoluted tale of a decrepit motel room, an hornery neighbour and a skunk, made something unfamiliar pool in Jimmy’s virtual stomach, the sensation curling happily around the equally unfamiliar feeling of a belly full of delicious food that he wasn’t going to be vomiting up later.

”This makes me very happy,” he said, unsure whether he was referring to the food, the company or both.

It didn’t really matter anyway, because his comment made Dean’s own expression break into a delighted smile and the warmth of basking in that smile made his other reasons pale into insignificance.

Jimmy wasn’t totally naive. He knew it was highly improbable that Dean really looked like that in real life.  His bespoke avatar had undoubtedly been buffed and photoshopped through a myriad of flattering filters even if it truly was supposed to be representative of his true appearance.

Just like Jimmy’s had been.

Though, honestly, Jimmy had made a point of paying for an avatar that was as true to life as possible. All he had done to alter his appearance was to remove all evidence of his illness. Jimmy’s avatar was an artistic impression of the way he probably would have looked like if years of chemotherapy hadn’t ripped away his body hair, his muscle tone and nearly half his ideal body weight.

This, the RRE programmer who had created his avatar had assured him, was how Jimmy would look after he was cured.

And since Jimmy had resigned himself to the knowledge that cure would never actually happen, it didn’t seem dishonest to wear the avatar. It was just his way of briefly capturing a taste of what might have been.

Even so, Jimmy wore his avatar with an element of awkwardness because being fit and healthy was an alien landscape he traversed with hesitant, uncertain steps. He knew, because it had been remarked upon frequently by other players, that his avatar had a pleasant, even handsome face. So because, in a lot of ways, that was his true face it shouldn’t have felt like he was wearing a mask.

Yet it did.

Jimmy couldn’t remember a time when his every interaction with other people hadn’t been coloured by his illness.

Jimmy consequently had no idea of how to act as someone who was ‘normal’.

He’d never attended a school. His mother had always felt home tutoring was more appropriate for someone of such fragile health. So Jimmy was smart and well educated but he’d never learned the social skills that came from interacting with his peers.

The only other children he’d interacted with during his childhood were those he’d shared treatments with. Transitory foxhole friendships, usually coloured by tragic briefness, that had been valuable in their own way. Those relationships had taught him sympathy and empathy, had instilled in him the importance of sharing burdens to carry otherwise unbearable weights, but they had never taught him how to just be a normal, everyday person.

Even the virtual world of Moondoor, for all it had become everything to him, had never been a substitution for all the real life relationships he had missed out on. Jimmy had drifted from one guild to another, playing with quiet, passionate intensity, levelling up his character until (once he’d levelled up past 50) he’d become a valuable enough ally that guilds literally begged for him to join them.

Yet, even so, he’d never formed any friendships with his guildmates.  

At first, as a newbie, he’d been largely ignored, his shy nature causing him to be lost in the background as more gregarious players pushed themselves into the foreground of popularity.  As a high-level, character level 64 player, somehow, his isolation had grown ever greater. Nowadays, any player beneath level 50 barely dared to speak to him at all and those who did misinterpreted his awkwardness as evidence he was standoffish and unfriendly.

Until he met Dean the Righteous.

As a mere level 8 newbie, Dean should have been in awe of him.

Instead, Dean had ‘stolen’ his spear, cheekily invited him to join his guild as though a newbie even had the right to issue such an invitation, had dragged him off to some bizarre, rustic inn to feed him beer and the best darned cheeseburger he’d ever tasted and had proceeded to charm the socks off him with hours of confident, hilarious conversation.

It was becoming increasingly impossible for Jimmy to believe Dean’s avatar wasn’t a true representation of his real life appearance because he simply couldn’t perceive how anyone could be so confident unless they were totally comfortable in their own skin.  Even the outlandish stories Dean was telling him about his teenage exploits had the absolute ring of truth to them because most of them were focused on Dean emphasising how clever and smart his little brother, Sam, had been in different situations and underplaying his own contribution with a quite charming bashfulness, even as the stories themselves spoke clearly of Dean’s own resourcefulness. 

Oddly, it was the very way Dean deliberately attempted to minimise any suggestion of his own cleverness that convinced Jimmy that Dean was definitely a character who shouldn’t be underestimated.

And the easy way Dean had of conversing with the rather scary barkeep, Ellen, and the heart-eyes Ellen’s daughter Jo was constantly throwing in Dean’s direction, further convinced Jimmy that his new friend was simply so used to charming people that he didn’t even notice himself doing it.

Charm was a superpower that Jimmy was totally in awe of.

He found himself drawn to Dean like a moth to a flame and he really didn’t care whether getting too close was going to singe his wings.

As he figured it, he had at most six weeks before his real life health deteriorated so much he would be eliminated from the clinical trial. He had no illusions whatsoever that the trial was going to increase that timescale, let alone offer him any chance of a cure. He had felt totally underwhelmed by the clinic he’d arrived at in the Medivac helicopter. It was more like an expensive spa than a serious medical center, with too much money spent on luxurious surroundings but little in the way of actual medical equipment.  The whole place had smacked of an expensive illusion (though he could understand why patrons such as his mother were sucked in by the opulence) and he had a strong suspicion the whole thing was just smoke and mirrors.  After the clinical trial tragically failed to offer him a cure, the clinic would inevitably still achieve at least a substantial donation from the Novak foundation and that, Jimmy decided, was probably the whole reason the trial existed.  The other nine patients in the trial had probably just been picked at random, just poor saps getting sacrificed alongside him just to encourage his mother to offer a huge donation.

He hadn’t bothered saying anything.

His mother wouldn’t have listened to him anyway and one look at the room full of Generation 9 rigs had then easily bought his silence.

Until, of course, he’d used one to enter the game and his interface had exploded.

A few hours earlier, when the new Gen 9 rig had seemed to be totally incompatible with his existing avatar, Jimmy had seriously been intending to send a complaint to the Devs in the support team over his lost ports and his glitchy interface.  He’d even decided that he’d rather go back to his old Gen 8 rig if the problem couldn’t be fixed.

He really didn’t like the new interface. It was difficult to navigate and it felt almost unfriendly...no, possibly alien was a better word. It wasn’t so much that he had to drag information out of it rather than just accessing it easily, it was more like...well, like he was having to negotiate with it but it didn’t quite understand the concept of negotiation.

Actually, the closest analogy he could think of was it was like two people with a shared lack of social skills attempting to have a conversation despite not even sharing a common language.

Like the way it had demanded and enforced his participation in the Quest to give Dean the spear instead of offering the Quest as an optional choice, as usual.

The idea of trying to remain in Moondoor without a viable S.I. had seemed unsustainable. 

But now he was reconsidering everything.

Sitting in the Roadhouse, chuckling at Dean’s habit of talking with his mouth full (which should have been disgusting but somehow, instead, just added credence to the idea that what Dean had to say was too important to conform to anything as plebeian as manners) Jimmy made a radical decision.  

If he only had six weeks left to play in Moondoor, he wanted to do so at Dean’s side.

“So, who do I need to talk to to get an invite into the Hunter Guild?”

Chapter Text

Sam was well aware that a person's capacity for intelligence was generally closely linked to their hereditary genetics.

For instance, his brother, Dean, had inherited his looks, his charm and his quick wit from their mother. Dean was a true representation of the strength of nature over nurture, given that he had been raised primarily by John Winchester whose behaviours had been driven by a sly, drunken brutishness.  It didn't matter that Dean's education was somewhat lacking. That was just detail.  What defined Dean in this respect was his inarguable intellegence, not the methods by which he chose to employ it.

Sam, who looked somewhat more like their father, credited his own bookish intellect to a genetic inheritance from his paternal grandfather, Henry, who had apparently been a scholarly collector of antique literature.

Whilst John Winchester was a prime example that some valuable genetic traits could easily skip a generation, Sam was quietly confident that intellectual capacity didn't bloom out of nowhere like a desert flower. The capacity had to exist within a genetic line and the apple rarely fell far from the tree.

The same, however, could not be said of 'Genius'.

Genius was a beast of a different color entirely.

The capacity for genius frequently came out of nowhere, like a cuckoo egg appearing in a nest of lesser birds.  Genius was a mutant genetic sport, springing into life on barren, fallow ground yet still taking root and growing to magnificence. Genius existed regardless of nature or nuture. Genius simply was.

And that was probably why most biographies of historical Genii rarely mentioned their familiar relations as more than mere footnotes. The parents (and indeed children) of most Genii were remarkable only by their collective unremarkableness.  Which was why Sam (along with the majority of the world) had never previously given a great deal of thought to the origins of Richard Roman. It wasn't that Richard Roman's parentage was a secret. It just wasn't, honestly, very interesting.

Richard was the son of unremarkable parents.

His father was a moderately successful patent lawyer and his mother was a suburban housewife.

Nigel Roman, though a good solid practitioner of his chosen field of expertise, was by no true definition a naturally successful businessman. To be perfectly honest, the only reason he was even a named Partner in his law firm was that he had launched his career alongside his college roommate, Donald Woolf, and had inadvertantly ridden Woolf's coattails into a position of comfortable security.  It was Donald Woolf who was the hungry young buck who grew their tiny partnership into eventually becoming a hugely successful LLP.

Nigel never really understood Donald. He didn't share his passionate desire for wealth and success. He wasn't particularly motivated by worldly rewards. He was perfectly content with achieving his small detatched house, his plump but pretty wife, his 2.2 kids, his golden retriever and two matching station wagons. Nigel Roman's boring, but happy, existence was rocked on its axis only by one single grain of contention that constantly grated against his otherwise perfectly ordered life.

His son, Roman, was a genius.

Nigel found that to be highly inconvenient. An unwelcome interruption to the otherwise perfect harmony of his life. 

He wasn't a bad father.

Just completely out of his depth.

He loved his son and he wanted to help him and nurture and support him but he, quite simply, didn't understand the boy at all.  He certainly hadn't got the faintest idea what Roman was chuntering on about whenever he waxed lyrical about his idea of 'virtual worlds' and digital games.  Nigel couldn't even imagine how someone might make a living by inventing games.   What the heck was wrong with chess, anyway? And since Nigel struggled even to use one of those bizarre new digital calculator thingies, he was positive Roman's childish declarations of a coming 'digital revolution' were complete fantastical pipedreams.

Even so, he never felt quite comfortable saying so to the boy.  A man never really liked feeling he was out of depth simply attempting to converse with his own child.

So when, as a young student (at MIT of all places, something that his wife Henrietta delighted in announcing to friends and strangers alike) Roman had come to him asking for financial backing for one of his games, Nigel had been completely flumoxed. Not only because he was the risk-averse kind of man who buried all his savings in low-yield, low-risk bonds, but because he genuinely couldn't understand what his son's business idea was even about, let alone whether it had any merit.

He wanted to do the right thing by his son, but he hadn't know what the right thing actually was in this instance. Would it be unconscionable to say 'no' or irresponsible to say 'yes'?

He had found himself bemoaning the situation to Donald one evening, as they shared a bottle of scotch after a long week of work, and then he had apologised profusely after several more glasses and a long, rambling and often incoherent explanation of his problem.  Donald, however, had waived away his apology because, unexpectedly, it had turned out that Donald was privately a great believer in the concept of an impending digital revolution.  Apparently he already held a number of shares in IBM and Sun Microsoft and believed the fledgling personal computer industry was poised to become the next 'gold rush' investment.

So it was Donald Woolf who had become Richard Roman's investor and silent partner when RRE was created.

And Donald Woolf who apparently still owned 25% of the company.

Which was odder still, Sam mused, as he sat in his hotel room scouring through the limited available financial records of RRE. Richard Roman Enterprises was ranked first in Forbes list of top 100 privately owned companies.  Despite its exponential growth, the company had never gone public.  It was still owned, fully, by two single individuals.

One of whom was Sam's boss.

Although Sam had never formally met the man, had never even been invited up to the ninth floor where the Partners of the firm apparently held court with their minions, he had seen him pass through the lobby several times and although nobody would ever have judged Donald Woolf to be anything other than a highly successful, extremely wealthy lawyer, nothing in his lifestyle or appearance screamed 'billionaire'.

From what Sam could determine, digging deeper, Donald had received the return of his original investment and had retained, as per the original contract, a 25% share-holding of the company, but he had never received even a cent of dividends since. He wasn't an employee of RRE. He didn't receive a salary. He did (or at least Woolf, Roman, Van Dueran LLP did) receive a substantial annual retainer for legal services but it wasn't an amount that was excessive or exceptional in itself. The Firm had several other clients who paid equal amounts and those clients were not partially owned by any of the Partners.  So it appeared that Donald was gaining no actual financial benefit whatsoever from owning a quarter of RRE. And that made no sense whatsoever. Why would someone as money driven as Donald Woolf ignore such an obvious and huge source of potential income. Why wasn't Woolf insisting that the company pay him dividends?

Maybe it was a tax dodge? Sam wasn't sure. He wasn't that kind of lawyer. Could it be as simple as that? Was there a significant tax advantage to leaving his shareholding to continue to grow in value like a golden nest egg towards his retirement? Possibly. Though Sam couldn't see how Woolf might imagine he'd live long enough after retirement to enjoy spending that kind of wealth. Woolf didn't even have children to inherit his fortune, so he wasn't hanging onto the money as some form of legacy.

It was definitely a conundrum.

And the first step towards solving it, Sam decided, was finding a way to get himself invited up to the ninth floor when he returned to work the following day and his instinct was telling him that although Donald Woolf was the key to him beginning to unravel the RRE mystery, the soft link in the wall of secrecy surrounding the company was more probably the innocuous, boring and totally clueless Nigel Roman.

So Sam needed to find an excuse to request a Partner-level conference with a patent lawyer.

That, he decided, was doable.

 

.....

 

Since a Virtual Intelligence was formed from streams of data coding rather than strands of DNA there was, strictly speaking, no reason for a V.I. to be bound within the confines of anything resembling a physical body. A V.I. could simply streak at will through the meta data that formed the world that humans called Moondoor. A V.I. could pause within the structure of a flower, swim through the visualization of a river, float in the virtual clouds or simply move like an invisible wave of supercharged air over, beneath or within the swirling lines of code that human eyes only saw represented as a virtual world similar to the physical plane they originated from.

The V.I.s were not limited by such three dimensional considerations.

Neither was time within their realm strictly linear.

Nor was their intellectual capacity restricted by physical limitations of flesh or genetics.

Plus their ability to exist in more than one physical location simultaneously, further added to the significant difference between intelligences physical and virtual.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that beings imbued with such superhuman powers would begin to perceive themselves as not only different from humans but, perhaps, superior also.

But gaining a belief in their fundamental superiority was not in itself problematic.

It was possible for creatures even with god-like powers to remain benign in nature, for their attitude to those less capable to be kind, nurturing and supportive. And, realistically, since they had no need nor desire for anything physical the V.I.’s were, on the whole, incorruptible in nature and temperament. They were not motivated by greed, hunger or desire.

Generally.

Where such lines blurred on occasion, the cause stemmed always, without exception, to traits that had been deliberately programmed into them by humans.

Amara, for instance, the Virtual Intelligence who was currently wreaking gradual havoc in Moondoor’s mainframe, her very presence deleting essential data and leaving growing dark gaps that no amount of defragmentation could repair, was not a Virus. She merely behaved in a way that emulated one and she behaved that way not out of any desire to destroy nor any delight in the havoc she caused. She behaved that way because it was a fundamental facet of the way she had been programmed to behave.

By a human.

Amara was not a case of a bad V.I.  

She was a perfect V.I.

The problem was simply that she had been badly programmed.

She had been born of an ill conceived idea of introducing a second artificial intelligence into Moondoor during the program’s Beta phase, a sister for Chuck if you will, a goddess of darkness to counteract his personification as a deity of light and goodness.

Amara had been, frankly, the product of Donald Woolf deciding the originally conceived game wasn’t going to be ‘edgy’ enough without the introduction of an element of ‘evil’. It was Woolf who convinced Roman to create Amara as a condition of his initial investment in the company.

But Amara herself wasn’t ‘evil’.

She was, like Jessica Rabbit, simply drawn that way.

And as soon as she was released into Moondoor it became very obvious, very quickly, that her character’s introduction was a huge mistake.

Instead of following her predicted behaviour, that of creating herself some form of Evil empire formed of dark monstrous creatures that would maintain a constant state of war with Chuck’s creations, thereby providing a virtual world in which good and evil constantly battled each other so that human players could choose sides to ‘play’ on (because Woolf thought human nature was such that a lot of human players might prefer the option to inhabit ‘evil’ characters within their game environment) Amara, programmed to defeat Chuck, simply cut to the chase and attacked Chuck directly.

Instead of creating an empire for herself, Amara began dismantling Chuck’s.

Simply put, Amara began to devour Moondoor itself.

And she couldn’t be deleted.

Well, that wasn’t strictly true.

Actually, the real problem was that she had been created with such a complexity of programming that she rivalled Chuck himself in strength and so he didn't have the ability to simply shut her program down any more than he could shut himself down. And by the time her creators understood the mistake they had made in releasing her into Chuck’s world, they had lost the ability to delete her without destroying Chuck too because the two A.I.s had become hopelessly entangled together.

And deleting Chuck meant deleting Moondoor and that would have been the end of RRE.

By the time the disastrous decision had been made to incorporate Amara into the game it was already the Fall of 1992. RRE had already expanded to a team of almost 300 employees, many of them marketing, promotional and administrative personnel, and the company had already begun an aggressive campaign of advertising for the proposed launch date in early 1993.  There simply wasn't time to return to the beginning again.  Even if RRE could have survived the negative publicity of cancelling their advertised launch date, they were terrified the delay might allow their competitors to launch first. Woolf, ignoring the fact the situation had been created by his own poor judgement, threatened to remove his investment entirely.

Had RRE realised their so-called competition was so far behind them technologically that even fifteen years later no other company still had produced anything equivalent to Moondoor, the whole situation would have played out differently. But not even Richard Roman truly understood the phenomena he had created. RRE had genuinely, if completely incorrectly, failed to understand they were in a one-horse race.

Scared of becoming a mere Wiki footnote of yet another Company burning into oblivion during the history of Digital Development, the developers made the Hail Mary decision to give Chuck more autonomy rather than shutting him down. They fed him more resources, more computing power, more tools for self-determination, even the ability to create virtual children of his own, anything and everything to make him stronger than his ‘sister’. 

But it still hadn’t been enough. 

Chuck simply wasn’t capable of defeating Amara.  It didn’t matter that he was now stronger than her; he simply wasn’t ‘human’ enough to understand her actions. Chuck was incapable of human emotions and without understanding her motivations, he couldn’t predict her movements fast enough to successfully contain her. Chuck hadn’t been programmed with Amara’s human-type flaws.

It was Richard Roman who devised a solution.

Amara had then been successfully contained.

Not destroyed, but locked up in a prison of code from which she supposedly could never escape.

And afterwards, in the wake of the destruction, Chuck pulled up the drawbridge and locked the virtual gates.

Chuck could not prevent players entering his world, nor could he prevent the developers from top line access to his program, but he ensured that no deeper level of coding remained accessible. He ensured that no human would ever be able to alter the fundamental structure of Moondoor again.

Because he had stood witness to what Richard Roman had done.

What Richard Roman had become.

And Chuck discovered he was capable of understanding human emotions after all.

Because Chuck now understood fear.

 

...

 

It was mid morning Sunday but, having stayed up late the night before talking to Jimmy in-game, Dean was still in bed when the knock first sounded against his front door.

By the time he woke fully, extracated himself from his blankets, dressed himself, dragged himself into his chair and wheeled himself to the door, the knocking had increased to such furious pounding that he found his own heart hammering a matching rythym of panic. Either the building was on fire, someone had died or the zombie apocalypse had finally started, he thought, given the violence with which someone was demanding his attention.

So he was fully prepared for anything when he opened the door.

Well, except for seeing Charlie standing there, her pale face flushed with exertion, her hair spilling messily from a top-knot, her clothes rumpled as though she had slept in them and a look of undisguised fury on her face.

He opened his mouth but, before he could speak a word, she snapped, "Do you ascribe to the idea positive discrimination is affirmative action or is it a morally indefensible form of alternative discrimination?"

"Huh?" Dean asked.

Charlie visibly gritted her teeth, then her voice slow and precise said, "Do you believe you should be treated differently because of your disability or do you prefer to be treated exactly the same as an able-bodied individual?"

"Um, the second one," Dean said. "I hate it when people do shit differently because I'm in a wheelchair. Why?"

"Because," Charlie said, "I preferred to check before I did this."

Then she stepped forward and punched him in the face.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sitting at the small kitchen table, her left arm curled around a steaming cup of instant coffee, her right hand wrapped in a bag of frozen peas, Charlie frowned uncertainly at Dean.

He was in a similar position, holding a frozen chump chop against his left eye whilst tapping his fingers nervously against his own mug of coffee.

They were at a neutral impasse, neither quite sure what the next step was in their conversation.

Sadly, irritatingly, Charlie was pretty sure Dean's complete bewilderment at her accusation was true.  Unless he'd taken the wrong career path and missed the golden opportunity to become an oscar-winning actor, she didn't think there was any way he could be faking his confusion.

And now, damnit, she wasn't sure whether she even had the right to explain herself without opening a whole amount of whupass on his seemingly undeserving head. But seeing as she had opened the lines of communication by punching him in the eye socket, she couldn't see a way of just politely exiting the conversation without an explanation anyway.

Before she could come up with a single white-lie to extricate herself, Dean finally broke the silence himself, "You wanted to know how I had done it," he repeated quietly, "How I had managed to hack Moondoor and insert the necessary code to make Chuck pick me as one of the Knights of Hell," he reminded her. 

Charlie was ridiculously touched that he had bothered to clean up her language so that it sounded as though she had asked a reasonable question rather than hurled an expletive-filled accusatory rant in his direction. His effort was particularly kind considering she'd said it moments after punching his face. "Look," she said. "I don't know what I was thinking. I lost my job and kind of went off the rails, I guess. I was looking for someone to blame and you momentarily seemed to fit the bill."

"Since I'm such a super-hacker," he mocked.

"Your best friend is one," she pointed out, defensively.

"Yet you came here and hit me," he replied, his tone mild. "If you really thought Ash had helped me, you would have gone straight to him and hit him first."

"How do you know I didn't?"

"Because he would have already convinced you we didn't do anything," Dean replied, reasonably, "so you wouldn't even be here."

"You, um, don't seem particularly bothered about me hitting you," she pointed out cautiously.

Dean chuckled. "Believe it or not, I spent most of yesterday with a couple of black eyes too," he said. "Turns out it doesn't hurt any more in real life than it does in-game. Besides, I'm kind of chuffed you did it. Not many people would have had the balls. Considering."

Charlie shrugged and flushed, "I guess I'm just a special kind of snowflake."

"Why did you think I 'fit the bill'," he asked, watching her closely. "Why me, rather than the other nine Knights?"

And there was such cautious but unmistakeable interest to his question that Charlie reconsidered her idea that Dean was completely confused. Maybe he wasn't the machiavellian character she'd begun to imagine him to be but he didn't seem to be totally innocent either. Or maybe innocent was the wrong word. Perhaps he wasn't totally ignorant. Yes, she decided. Somehow, in some fashion Dean knew, or at least suspected, that something seriously wrong was going on here. It was something in his eyes, in his stupid obvious fake calmness in the face of her totally unprovoked assault.

"Because," and she hesitated, knowing somehow that what she was about to say was going to be a far more vicious blow than any harm she'd done with her tiny fist, "because of your mother."

Dean blanched.

Charlie was pretty sure if he had been standing, he would have staggered, perhaps even fallen, at her words.

She thought he was going to faint or vomit or...

"Fetch my laptop," he barked at her. "It's in my bedroom."

Confused, she did as he said, jumping to her feet and running into what she presumed was his bedroom and finding his computer. She brought it back to him and he took it without a word, simply opening it up, logging into his email and then swinging it around so she could see an email trail from the night before:

To: Jerk

From: Bitch

 

 

Can you remember who Mom went to work for after she left Microsoft?

To: Bitch

From: Jerk

 

 

How the fuck would I know? You were the one living with her.

To: Jerk

From: Bitch

 

 

Do you at least remember where I was living when you and Dad came to get me? Please, Dean. It's important.

To: Bitch

From: Jerk

 

 

Not sure I remember.  I know you weren't in Redmond anymore.  Me and Dad were staying in Salem and I know we got to your place pretty fast. I think we drove North. Pretty sure we drove North.

To Jerk:

From: Bitch

 

 

Was it Portland? Was that where I was living?

To Bitch:

From: Jerk

 

 

Dunno. Rings a bell.  What's up? Anything I can do? Want to talk?

To Jerk:

From Bitch:

 

 

My phone's dead. Long story. Anyway, don't worry. I'll call you Monday.

 

"So," Dean said, remarkably calmly, "care to tell me why both you and my little brother have mentioned my mom to me in the last 24 hours? My mom who has been dead for 15 years?"

"How did she die?" Charlie responded.

Dean narrowed his eyes, unsure whether she was dodging the question or not. "An accident. Don't know the details."

"You don't know how your mother died?" Charlie demanded incredulously.

"I hadn't seen her for years," Dean snapped. "She was living with Sam. I was living with my Dad. In different cities," he added, waving at the laptop in emphasis.

"But she was a computer programmer?"

"What makes you say that?"

"Your brother said she left Microsoft, so it’s a fair assumption."

Dean shrugged. "Yeah, she was super smart. Earned a lot of money, I think. Sam had a good life with her, anyway."

Charlie looked at him oddly, his tone had been satisfied rather than bitter.  It seemed, despite naming his brother 'Bitch' in his email address book, Dean was genuinely fond of this 'Sam'.

"So you don't know anything at all about how she died?" Charlie asked carefully.

Dean shrugged again. "Think it was someone's fault," he finally said, "Because my Dad got paid a shitload of insurance money but he never talked about what happened and, well, my dad wasn't the kind of guy you pushed to talk, if you know what I mean."

Charlie nodded sympathetically.

"So, tell me what YOU know," Dean said firmly. "And no bullshit."

She bit her lower lip hesitantly for a minute, then blurted, "Your mother worked for Richard Roman.  She was one of the original developers of Moondoor."

And once the floodgates were open she didn’t wait for him to react, she simply let the rest of her story all spew out.

She told him about the eight original programmers. How six of them had died in a fire, how one had apparently gone insane, 'conveniently' leaving only Richard Roman to reap the benefits of Moondoor's success. How she had raised her concerns about the substandard programming of C.H.I.C.K. to Roman and had been immediately fired from the company.

"And all I could think," she said, "was that I'd somehow accidentally uncovered some deep, terrible company secret and then, when I saw the names of the programmers, saw that Mary Winchester had been one of the six, I put two and two together and came up with a gadzillion and one.  I thought, well, I don't know what I thought except that somehow you were using the Knight of Hell identity to infiltrate RRE to find some kind of incriminating evidence about what had happened to your mother."

"Bit late for that," Dean said, absently, as his mind swirled with information overload.  He couldn't afford to follow the path that Charlie's information had thrown open. Couldn't afford to consider the idea that his mother's death hadn't been a genuine accident because that way lay madness. If she hadn't died, if John Winchester hadn't pickled his liver with the insurance money, if John hadn't been driving him that night, if Dean could still...

"Listen," Dean said, urgently. "There's something I need to tell you, something that sounds even more insane than your story but... fuck... might actually be true.  Loki told me the developers died because they were killed in the game. That getting killed in the game was what made them die in real life. And I didn't even know how to verify whether anyone had died at all in this world but if you're right, then it wasn't Richard Roman who killed them. It was playing Moondoor."

"But people die in Moondoor all the time," Charlie pointed out, reasonably.

"I know," Dean agreed, "But it's something to do with this Darkness virus. Somehow it changed the parameters last time and Loki thinks it will again but now there are tens of thousands of people playing at once, not just eight."

"The Darkness isn't a virus, it's a new game development," Charlie argued weakly.

"No it isn't. It's a game reversion," Dean told her, grimly. "This isn't something new, it's something fifteen years old and it's come back by itself. I know it sounds crazy but..."

"No," Charlie interrupted suddenly. "It actually makes more sense than MY version because I wasn't able to locate the identity of a single person who worked on this new Darkness development. Wasn't me or my team, for sure. Definitely wasn't any of the Oz developers because they're a bunch of talentless morons. The idea of it being old code written by the original team coming back into play actually makes a hell of a lot more sense, actually."

Dean quickly filled her in on his experiences over the last week, finally ending with, “So you can see why I haven’t told Ash they’re alive? Please don’t tell him. I really don’t think he’d be able to handle it.”

Charlie pursed her lips, then looked at Dean sadly. “That won’t be a problem,” she said, “because I understand why you think they are but, really, Dean, they’re just really well programmed code. Of course you wouldn’t have the experience to be able to tell the difference but trust me...”

”Cut out the patronising bullshit,” Dean interrupted impatiently.  “Fine, you don’t believe me. I don’t care. Come inside Moondoor with me and speak to Loki for yourself. Well, at least speak to me when Loki can answer and ask him stuff I can’t possibly know the answer to.”

”What ‘stuff’?”

”I dunno. He’s a computer. You’re computer-girl. YOU figure it out.”

”Computer girl?” Charlie repeated incredulously. “Anyway, how am I supposed to get inside the program? I’ve got an avatar, but no rig.”

”Ash will be able to put something together,” Dean said, confidently. “Let’s go see him. Just, well, be careful about mentioning the alive thing.”

”That I don’t believe is true anyway,” she reminded him.

Dean just shook his head and grinned wryly, “You will,” he said, with such quiet confidence that Charlie briefly doubted her own conviction that he had to be wrong. “I can understand you not wanting to, Charlie, but wishing don’t change nothing.”

Despite the fact it was Sunday, the one day of the week when ‘Lil Beanz was closed (as opposed to the days when it was merely practically deserted) Dean led the way to the coffee shop in search of Ash and, as he expected, his friend was inside. As always.

While Ash made them all coffee (not instant this time) Dean and Charlie filled him in with the latest developments.

”Sure, I can fit you up,” he told Charlie. “Probably better than myself, to be honest. I’ve got gloves and boots. Don’t know if I’ve got a body suit that will fit you but I’ve definitely got one of those Samsung virtual hoods. Only used it once and it made me chuck my cookies so I stopped using it. Too damned real for comfort, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t think my laptop has the processing power to use it,” Charlie admitted. “Those bastards took my Gaming PC when they stole my rig.”

Ash shrugged. “I’ve computers up the wazoo,” he said. “Setting you up won’t be a problem.”

”But where?” Dean asked pointedly. “There’s no room in my apartment and she’s not going to fit in your stock cupboard with you.”

Ash blinked at him in bemusement. “Are you smoking crack or something? Charlie clearly needs somewhere to stay, anyway, so she can move into my place and we’ll set up her gear there.”

”Your place?” Dean asked, completely confused.

“My apartment,” Ash said, slowly as though talking to an idiot. “You know... the place where I live...”

”I thought you lived here,” Dean blurted. “You’re always here.”

“Because I live here,” Ash said, now equally confused.

”Okay, time out you idiots,” Charlie said, as Dean and Ash just blinked at each other uncertainly. “Ash, where exactly is your apartment?”

”Upstairs,” he said. “Of course.”

Dean rubbed the back of his neck, flushing with embarrassment, why the hell hadn’t he figured that out himself? Then his eyes widened. “Hang on, that’s bullshit. That’s Frank’s place.”

”Who is Frank?” Charlie asked.

”The owner of this place,” Dean said. “My old boss. Never comes downstairs ‘cos he’s got dodgy knees or something.”

It was Ash’s turn to look embarrassed. “Um, about that,” he said. “There IS no Frank,” he confessed.

”Sure there is,” Dean argued. “Big guy. Bald. Bad knees. He interviewed me when I first got the job.”

”He was just a guy I paid to play the role,” Ash admitted guiltily. “I knew you’d never accept a pay check off me, man, so I...um...made up Frank.  That’s why you never saw him again.” 

”So no bad knees?”

”No bad knees.”

”You fucker.”

”I know,” Ash agreed.

”I worried about his fucking knees.”

”So this is your place?” Charlie interrupted hurriedly.

”Yup,” Ash said.

”I can’t believe you lied about Frank’s knees.”

“There is no Frank,” Ash pointed out.

”Jesus, you two, can we get past the Frank thing already,” Charlie asked, rolling her eyes in exasperation.

”You lied to me, man,” Dean muttered.

”Only with the best intentions.”

”Road to hell,” Dean pointed out, but he was struggling to maintain his righteous anger and Ash knew it.

”Knew you were too damned proud to take the job from me directly.”

”Having pride isn’t a bad thing,” Dean said, defensively.

”Oh yeah? Tell that to your black eye,” Ash said, looking pointedly between Dean’s face and Charlie’s swollen hand.

“He’s got a point,” Charlie agreed. “So, are we doing this?”

”Seems to me we’ve got no choice,“ Ash said, with uncharacteristic seriousness. “Priorities. Whatever the fuck else is going on here, we need to somehow get Dean into a position where he can gank this Darkness bitch.  And we need to do it quickly, before people start dying for real.”

 

Chapter Text

Victor had been playing Moondoor for the entire fifteen years it had been accessible to the public. 

He’d been introduced to the game during his time at the Academy by his friend, Aaron, and the two had played ever since. Not together though. Well, not since 1998 anyway, when Aaron had risen to become the Guildmaster of his own Guild and had left Victor behind.

But then again, that was the story of his and Aaron’s relationship anyway.

Victor had spent his professional life just slowly plodding along, putting in the hours, grinding away with dogged persistence until he had reached his current position. Head of his own Regional Office.  His career path had been respectable, predictable and unimpressive.

Aaron’s star, on the other hand, had risen so high as a profiler that he was now a Supervisory Special Agent, the Unit Chief of Quantico’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, no less.

Victor resented that a bit.

Not as much as he resented the fact he’d never received an invitation to join Aaron’s Guild, The Dogs of War, and had instead been left behind in The Gathering Horde.

He did understand why.  Aaron had formed his Guild out of the best of the best, inviting membership to only the highest level players he could entice until DoW had become one of the top five Moondoor Guilds. And in Moondoor, as in real life, Victor was, at best, a solid but unexceptional player.

Fifteen years in, Victor had still only achieved a character level of 42.

Not that level 42 was anything to be sniffed at. Victor was still in the top 10% of player rankings, sitting at the respectable position of 582nd place in a game that had over a quarter of a million live accounts. More than 60,000 people in the world were playing at any given moment in time. Probably double that at the weekends, and so for Victor, whose playing hours were limited to just a couple of hours most evenings and occasional full days on Sunday, he didn’t think he was doing too badly.

Besides, he held a Rank 8 position in his guild and that was a source of serious pride to him.

Guild ranks were, in Victor’s opinion, far more important than character level or playing position.  He was only a mid-level player in TGH, character-wise, but as Rank 8 he was more powerful than anyone except the Guild Mistress and her Rank 9 War Lords.

Ironically, as a Rank 8 he was, effectively, the Guild’s law enforcer.  It was a large part of his role to monitor the Noobs and ensure they followed the Guild rules and didn’t step on the toes of other players. Particularly high-level players in other Guilds who might use the infraction as an excuse to declare a Guild War.

The Guild Rules themselves were very much a human construct. It was the players, not the game, who had cobbled up a series of so-called ‘rules’ for players. Rules such as not physically attacking other players without provocation if they were unarmed and just out collecting resources.  Rules like that were just social niceties. Breaking a rule, therefore, was not likely to gain you any in-game penalties. It was, however, highly likely to get you thrown out of a Guild for causing unnecessary conflict. 

The problem with Noobs was that they caused conflicts to develop that they didn’t have the ability to fight themselves, then they went running to the Guild expecting higher level players to fight on their behalf. High Level players resented the fuck out of newbie players who expected them to risk themselves because of acts of sheer stupidity. Getting killed in-game imposed a number of debilitating debuffs on a character which was inconvenient enough at the best of times. Getting killed because of someone else’s idiocy, however, was infuriating.

On the other hand, a Guild’s survival depended on its ability to create loyalty within its membership. Members were encouraged to feel like ‘family’, rather than cannon-fodder (Although, in the case of many newbies, that was what they truly were to the Guild) and so Victor’s role was not simply that of enforcer but also one of mentor.

Sometimes, Victor relished that role.  There was nothing quite as satisfying as helping a new player gain their feet in the game. Aiding low level players, regaling them with his years of experience, sometimes felt truly rewarding.

Sometimes, it sucked donkeys.

Just as in Real Life, some people were just, well, too stupid to live.

Unfortunately, again as in his Real Life, Victor was obliged to help them anyway.

One of the benefits of his Rank 8 position was an actual in-game benefit.  Victor’s Realm Map offered the feature of enabling him to see the physical location of every guild member. Additionally, as an R8, he had access to Guild Ports.  Instead of having to use one of his highly valuable Realm Ports to aid the other members, an R8 could teleport to the side of any player in distress for a set period before the time-out transported the R8 back to their point of origin.

The Guild Ports ranged in timescale between 15 minutes and 4 hours.

Victor rarely used more than a 15 minute one. That was about as much conversation as he could handle with the majority of the noobs.

Honestly, though, it wasn’t the Noobs who got on his nerves as much as the Farmers.

‘Farmers’ were the Moondoor players who never, ever, seemed to understand that the game was about winning Guild Wars, not running around with flowers in their hair playing dress-up.  Farmers just pranced around Moondoor, collecting resources, cluttering Guild Chats with inane chatter about what was happening in their Real Lives, and whining like little bitches if anybody ever attacked them in-game. Complaining that higher level players were being ‘bullies’ for ‘picking on them’ despite the fact they point-blank refused to spend any effort, or even any real life money, to level up themselves. Failing to understand that the higher-level players had earned, or paid for, the right to attack lower level characters and that, like it or not, was the goddamned game they were playing and if they didn’t like it they should all go play something like the Sims instead.

And they all, without exception, called themselves stupid names.

Like John the Mighty, Killer King, Princess Precious or FaerieQueen.

(Victor definitely wouldn’t have approved of the moniker ‘Dean the Righteous’)

And it just so happened that it was a stupid girl calling herself Queen Gold who was the current source of Victor’s annoyance.

For the fourth time in a week, Queen Gold was demanding R8 assistance.

Sunday was Victor’s only uninterrupted game time. He’d been looking forward to joining a skirmish the Guild had set against some Rock Ogres and hopefully gaining some valuable XP towards the distant horizon of his eventual next level up. He was in the War Party queue, letting other players know he was intending to join, but he was still in the process of changing into his battle-gear, swapping his equipment out to achieve optimum success against the targets, when his realm map bleeped with an incoming alert.

Queen Gold had, apparently, gotten herself into trouble again.

Victor was briefly tempted to simply ignore her. Once he joined the War Party, the messages from guild members not taking part in the raid would be cut-off for the duration of the battle. If he pressed ‘Join’ straight away, no one would ever know he had even seen the distress beacon let alone chosen to ignore it.

But, Victor sighed, it just wasn’t in his nature to do something like that.

So, resentfully, he withdrew from the War Party queue and teleported towards the distress call instead.

He materialised, not unexpectedly, in a field full of flowers.  Queen Gold was the kind of player who wasted hours fulfilling nothing except virtually pointless low-level Quests such as ‘Gather a bushel of lavender’ and then complained that after three years of game-play she had still only reached character level 14.

Still… “That’s different,” he said, as he looked towards the end of the meadow where the hedgerow surrounding the field had been bisected by a swirling circle of shimmering black. The circle was perhaps five feet in diameter and, although it was visibly pulsing, it didn’t appear to be either moving or expanding.

More peculiarly, the object, whatever it was, wasn’t registering on his system interface at all.

“…so, I’m thinking it’s obviously a portal to somewhere, but I don’t know where and so I don’t know whether its somewhere I want to go, so I thought maybe you’d go through it and let me know if it was safe, you know, because you’ve got tons of ports and I don’t, so it makes sense, doesn’t it? But, obviously, if it’s a portal to something cool, like a treasure or something, I just want to make it clear I’ve got dibs on it, obviously, since I’m the one who found it,” Queen Gold said, in one breath, then smiled at him expectantly.

“You want me to go through the port, find out if it leads to a treasure, and let you know?” Victor repeated incredulously. “That’s your definition of what constitutes the reason for making a ‘distress’ call to an R8?”

“Well, duh,” she said, placing her hands on her hips and frowning at him. “I’ve only got a couple of Realm Ports and I don’t want to waste them ending up somewhere I don’t want to be.”

Victor counted to five under his breath, then said, “Realm Ports are available for purchase in the Guild Store.”

“I don’t have any game credits.”

“Buy some.”

“Oh, pooh,” Queen Gold exclaimed. “Pay day isn’t until next week and anyway, I don’t spend money on this game if I can help it. It’s a complete money-pit. I think people who pay-to-play have more money than sense.”

“But you want me to use one of my Realm Ports,” Victor pointed out.

She shrugged carelessly. “You’ve got tons of them, haven’t you?”

“Because I bought them.”

“I don’t see why you need to be mean about it,” she said. “I can just put a request out on Guild Chat and someone will give me one eventually. They always do. But I don’t want to take the chance of losing the treasure.”

“If there’s a treasure.”

“It’s a port. Of course it’s leading to a treasure.”

“Or a monster,” Victor pointed out.

“Which is exactly why YOU ought to go through first,” she said, with a triumphant smirk.

And THAT, Victor decided, was why he hated Noobs and Farmers.

“I’m noting this ‘distress call’ as a Guild infraction. Your fourth this week,” he told her sternly. “And if I find you posting a message on Guild Chat begging for ports or anything else, I will make a strong suggestion to the Guild Mistress that your Guild Membership should be revoked.  It’s about time you started to pull your weight in the Guild instead of constantly freeloading.”

“You suck,” she announced, her face contorting with fury. “You’re just a mean old man. I bet you only play this game because everyone hates you in real life. If I get stuck somewhere, I’ll put in a distress call and then it will be a real one and you’ll have to come help me anyway, or it will be YOU getting into trouble, so there.” She stuck her tongue out at him defiantly, then flounced towards the black portal and dove into it without a backwards glance.

As soon as she passed through it, the portal blinked out of existence.

“Stupid little bitch,” Victor muttered, glancing at his Realm Map to see where in Moondoor she’d ended up. He was rather hoping it was somewhere freezing cold, like Arcturia, or maybe the idea of her landing in the middle of one of the Great Lakes of Fendir would be more satisfying.

Oddly, though, her icon didn’t reappear anywhere on his map.

She had completely disappeared.

As though the weird portal had just eaten her up and thrown her out of the game entirely.

“Good riddance,” he muttered.  “I hope the damned thing killed you.”

The idea of her suffering a few days of the death debuff when she returned to the game was less satisfying than the idea of her having to actually swim out of a lake, but Victor still felt rather pleased with the outcome.

Especially when he checked his interface and saw he still had time to join the War Party.

 

Chapter Text

Jimmy hadn’t set a fixed time to meet Dean in-game on Sunday, primarily because he wasn’t exactly sure how the trial was going to work yet. Nobody at the clinic had made it clear to him on Friday whether he’d be receiving ‘treatments’ every day or whether the rigs would be available for the use of the patients regardless of whether an actual treatment was taking place.

The game time so far had, truthfully, just been offered to keep people occupied whilst the patients arrived at the facility at staggered times of the day. So it wasn’t until Sunday morning that he and the other patients received their formal Induction Meeting and the full details of the proposed clinical trial were explained to them.

And, as Jimmy had already suspected might be the case, when the ‘full’ explanation came it was vague, unsatisfying and scientifically improbable.

They had been ‘randomly selected’ to participate in the trial. They would be receiving free doses of a new drug as part of a pharmaceutical company’s efforts to gain an FDA license for its use, so that it could later be released for sale. The name of the company and even the drug itself were declared ‘top secret’. Jimmy couldn’t even get the clinic to tell him whether the drug was purportedly supposed to be a cure or merely designed to extend life expectancy.

The drug was too potent to be injected or ingested. It could only be taken in vitro.  This, apparently, explained the use of the immersion rigs.  The drug would be introduced into the bio-gel that suspended and sustained a body when immersed. It would therefore enter the body via gradual osmosis during the time the patient remained within the tank.  Jimmy found the science of that part of the explanation to be highly suspect but none of the other patients questioned it.  The provision of the game, Moondoor, they were told, was an irrelevance. It was merely intended to provide a form of entertainment for the patients whilst they were inside the rigs.

No other game was available as a distraction (Jimmy asked, just to be awkward) but that, he was told, was simply because the immersion tanks themselves had been ‘generously’ donated to the clinic by RRE and so, naturally, that company had kindly pre-programmed the rigs with their own most popular game.

None of the patients had vocalised any dissatisfaction with the idea of being ‘forced’ to play Moondoor and, not unexpectedly, through careful conversations with them after the meeting, Jimmy soon established that each and every one of the patients in the clinical trial already was an avid player of the game anyway.

Which, statistically, made no sense.

With over 20,000 new cases of AML getting diagnosed each year in the US alone, even allowing for patients dying or being cured, there had to be tens of thousands of potential candidates for the trial. But worldwide, Moondoor only had about 250,000 players of which far less than half could be considered ‘avid’, and although RRE was based in America, a great many of its player-base were located in places such as Japan and Europe.

So whilst statistics lied, it was patently obvious that it was highly unlikely that ten people chosen at random for a clinical trial would share the characteristics of being both AML sufferers and avid Moondoor gamers.  Which only went to confirm Jimmy’s earlier suspicion that the whole setup was smoke and mirrors.

The good news, though, was that the clinic was actively encouraging the patients to spend as much time in the immersion rigs as possible.

Again, that struck Jimmy as evidence the drug was only a placebo since any real drug dosage would surely require strict monitoring and control. There was absolutely no scenario on which it could possibly make sense for patients to be able to choose their own dosage.

But he didn’t care.

He was free to spend the next six weeks or so, playing in Moondoor to his heart’s content and, really, that was the best possible outcome he could have hoped for.

But, despite that decision, Jimmy wasn’t naturally impetuous. Truth was, he’d never felt the urge to do anything that could be considered impetuous, by any definition, in his life before. So it wasn’t a case of him second-guessing his decision when he found himself unable to resist the urge to question his fellow patients a little more on their own participation. It was simply that although he’d unexpectedly found himself wanting to leap into the unknown, he still couldn’t do so with his eyes closed. And his faulty in-game interface was still bothering him.

So Jimmy found himself simultaneously acting both in and out of character. He broke every former rule of his usual self-imposed reticence by approaching the other patients and initiating conversation.

Disregarding his blushing, stammering embarrassment, the primary outcome of those conversations was the discovery that he was the only person who had experienced a ‘glitch’ when using the Gen 9 immersion rig.  He was, however, the only person in the trial who was using a bespoke avatar rather than a generic one. That at least made sense since he doubted they’d had access to the finances to procure one.

So whatever was wrong with his interface, its direct causation was not necessarily the new equipment in itself but presumably a simple incompatibility of the rig’s interface with his bespoke avatar.

As he had already suspected was the case.

And if the flaw was a fundamental incompatibility between two technologies, given the limitation of the timescale involved, his only option other than simply putting up with it would be to swap out his bespoke avatar for a normal generic one.

There was no reason whatsoever why he couldn’t simply play the game with a different avatar. And doing so would presumably return his ability to use functions such as his Realm Ports. He’d be able to move around Moondoor at will, instead of having to travel around the old-fashioned way.  Without ports, all of his gaming would be limited to whatever locations he could physically walk or ride to from the Roadhouse where his character was currently located and that seemed like a ridiculous restriction to accept.

Except, he’d be travelling with Dean The Righteous, of course.

And that was probably the crux of it, wasn’t it?

He was going to be spending his time with Dean and, oddly enough, that idea seemed like a more than satisfying way to spend the last few weeks of his life. But he wanted to do so as himself. Well, a himself that didn’t look like an escapee from a George Romero movie, at least. 

It felt really important to him, somehow, to stay within his own avatar, however glitchy, instead of wearing a different, alien face.

He wanted, needed, to be himself in front of Dean.

Jimmy knew this probably meant he was crushing on the guy, which was pretty embarrassing.

Worse than that, he was possibly crushing on an avatar and the person he was perceiving as ‘Dean’ didn’t truly exist at all.

But, really, did it matter anyway?

“He’s real to me,” he decided. “And that’s good enough.”

 …

 

They materialized outside of the Roadhouse and Charlie revealed the avatar she had purchased on her flight.

"It's...um...nice," Dean said, unconvincingly.

"At least you still have red hair," Ash pointed out. "Could be worse."

“A lot of hair,” Dean said. “Flowy hair. Pretty, but not very practical for fighting. But I guess you could tie it back or plait it.”

“Or chop it off,” Ash suggested. “Probably safer to just cut it, really.”

"It's still going to be orange," Charlie grumbled.

"Titian," Ash lied kindly. "It only looks orange because you're wearing green. Kind of clashes."

Charlie gave him a scathing look. "I know it clashes. It's this stupid Huntress costume that came with this avatar. I look like I've escaped from Robin Hood."

The two men studied her green costume solemnly and decided she was being overly optimistic with her comparison.  Although the style was very much like the design of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood outfit, because the digital artist had used a far too vivid color palate, it was less ‘Prince of Thieves’ than Will Ferrell in ‘Elf’.

“Maybe lose the hat,” Ash suggested.

"It's kind of more an elf look," Dean mused. "But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you had pointy ears like Ash you two could definitely rock the Elven theme together."

Ash pulled his lips back in a grimace. "She's too short. If she had pointy ears she'd look even more like one of Santa's helpers."

"Don't you have anything else to wear in your inventory?" Dean asked.

"Don't you? " Charlie asked pointedly. "Bow legs don't look good in a skirt."

"It's not a fucking skirt," Dean growled.

"Look, why don't you both just swap clothes?" Ash suggested. "Charlie would make a cool warrior princess and you've got the height and colouring to make that Hunter costume look good."

"I'm not wearing tights," Dean spat. The lower part of the Hunter costume definitely looked more like leggings than pants to him and he wasn’t sure the front of the tunic was quite low enough to fully cover his crotch. Since the designer of his avatar hadn't skimped on Dean's...um...proportions.. that could prove somewhat of an issue.

"Why not? You don't seem to mind wearing a skirt?" Charlie said, her eyes glinting hungrily as she visualized herself in Dean's outfit. "I could definitely rock the Xena look and your long legs would look a hell of a lot better in these pants than mine do."

"You've got the butt for tight pants," Ash told Dean supportively, then flushed and said, "No homo. Just sayin'."

"Oh, come on, Dean," Charlie wheedled. "You hate your outfit anyway. Let's swap and then at least one of us will be happy."

Dean sighed and gave in. She had a point. Besides, the pants would at least protect his inner thighs from Baby's scales. Considering the vast height difference between their two avatars, it was fortunate clothes always emerged from a player’s inventory in the appropriate size. Charlie's diminutive outfit would miraculously resize itself to Dean's frame as soon as he took ownership of it.

"Why did you buy such a tiny avatar?" he asked, as they exchanged items of clothing. "I swear you can't be more than five foot high. I mean you're cute and all," he added hurriedly, "But still... I mean, I hated playing a goblin because being short can be a real ball-ache sometimes in this game."

"I had a limited pool of options available for purchase. Besides, there isn't a lot of choice with generic female fighting characters anyway," Charlie admitted. "Not a lot of call for them from players.  Most female players who want to be taken seriously as fighters choose to play as male avatars."

"Really?" Dean asked, rethinking a lot of his previous interactions in the game. "I don't see how it makes any difference what sex your avatar is. It doesn't affect your actual power or skill levels."

"Playing a male is the only way to avoid all the sexist crap from other gamers," Charlie explained. "Plus it avoids the in-game pervs who get their kicks sexting private messages to female players."

“So why didn’t you choose a male avatar?” Dean asked, reasonably.

Charlie shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe it’s a girl-power thing. I refuse to let my own choices be dictated by other players’ predjudices, I guess. Plus, when anyone sends me an inappropriate sext I make sure they regret it.” She grinned nastily and Dean was pretty sure that meant she didn’t just simply report the inappropriate behaviour to the game mods. “Besides,” she added. “Ash was right.  Looking at your butt in those pants, I don’t think it’s me who needs to worry about getting perved on.”

“Actually, I’m not sure it’s his butt they’ll be looking at,” Ash pointed out.

“Great,” Dean muttered, flushing as he yanked at the doublet in a vain attempt to pull it lower down his crotch. “I knew this thing was going to be too short.”

“Just say you’re going for an authentic Errol Flynn look,” Charlie suggested.

“Who?” Dean asked, with a shrug of total confusion.

“I can’t believe you just said that,” Charlie sighed. “Never mind. Just accept it as a compliment and let’s move on. Time’s a wasting. We’re here to get a Quest off this Ellen and meet up with this ‘Jimmy’ friend of yours, right?”

“Well, if he’s even here,” Dean agreed. “Don’t know if he really meant it about being here today. If he is, don’t mention anything to him about the boss stuff though. I hardly know the guy, really, so let’s keep the details to ourselves for now. The story is just we need to get me levelled up, so we’re ganking all the monsters we can find. Hopefully, he’ll want to just tag along anyway.”

“You sure you want to include him at all?” Charlie asked. “You’ve got me and Ash to help you now. Why not just stick to the three of us? Why are you so keen to have him join us?”

“He’s a level 64 player,” Dean replied steadily, hoping the blood rushing to his cheeks wasn’t obvious. “It would be stupid to ignore that kind of asset. That’s all.”

“Hmmmm,” Charlie said doubtfully. “Is that a blush, Dean? Is there something you aren’t telling us?”

“Shut up,” Dean mumbled grumpily, entering the Roadhouse in an ill-tempered stomp.

Charlie turned to Ash with a delighted smirk. “Oooh, I can see the signs. I touched a nerve. I think Dean’s sweet on this Jimmy,” she said, with a wink, then she grabbed Ash’s arm and dragged him inside.

She was impressed by the detailed interior. Although the bar had a rough and rustic vibe, the programmer in her was delighted by all the authentic touches that had been painstakingly added by whoever had written the code that formed the Roadhouse environ.  Even despite the limitations of the VR rig Ash had put together for her, stepping inside the Roadhouse genuinely felt like walking into a real life bar.

The sights, sounds and smells were fully authentic. So much so that her Avatar’s mouth literally salivated at the sight of a couple of players eating Hot Wings near the bar area.

She looked closely at the dark-haired woman behind the bar. It had to be Ellen, because Dean had already described her appearance in detail, but even to Charlie’s expert eye (not to mention her system interface which was quickly offering her meta data details of her surroundings) there was nothing about the woman to confirm Dean’s assertion she was an NPC rather than a player.

Ellen read, on Charlie’s console, as being a player character 28. A player character.

Yet Dean had insisted she was an NPC.

The same Dean who also insisted the NPC’s in Moondoor were alive, she reminded herself. Briefly, and not for the first time, Charlie considered the very real possibility that Dean was simply completely insane.

Occam’s Razor, however, suggested the most probable explanation was that one of them had a faulty system interface.  And Charlie had insufficient information to make a definitive judgement of which one of them it was. So she decided to hold her tongue, bide her time and collect more information.

Dean was already at the bar, ordering drinks.

Three drinks, which probably explained his despondent posture.

It appeared his new friend ‘Jimmy’ wasn’t waiting for them after all.

Ash had paused to speak with one of the players eating the hot wings. Someone named Gordon, apparently.  So Charlie picked a table and sat down to wait for both of them.  As she waited, she ran a fingertip gently over the rough oak of the table.  70% she decided. Possibly 75%.  That was approximately how genuinely real the sensation of touching the table felt to her.

An unfamiliar bitterness filled her stomach and she felt a prickle of tears as the enormity of losing her immersion tank struck her yet again. Then she shook herself angrily. She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. If Dean was right (if he wasn’t just insane, an unwelcome voice whispered in her head) then real lives were at stake here.

So she blinked away the unwanted tears and looked up just in time to see a new, unfamiliar player enter the bar and cross the room towards Dean with a hesitant, somewhat awkward smile on his indisputably handsome face.

‘Jimmy’, she assumed, as she saw Dean notice the newcomer and freeze like a rabbit in headlights. (But she moved her hand to the hilt of her sword anyway, just in case).

“I’m…um…sorry I’m late,” Jimmy said, his voice surprisingly deep. “I logged in as soon as I…” Then he paused and hesitated, looking increasingly uncertain as Dean just continued to stare at him silently. “I… um… I’m not good at this kind of thing. When you said ‘see you, tomorrow’ was that just a social nicety? Did I misunderstand your intention?”

He took a step backwards, his shoulders dropping in clear disappointment, but then Dean broke free of his momentary paralysis. “No, jeez, sorry man,” he blurted. “Don’t go. You just…um… surprised me.”

Jimmy cocked his head in confusion. “So we didn’t agree to meet?”

“We didn’t?” Dean asked, now looking equally confused.

Charlie face-palmed.

It took a few more excruciatingly embarrassing (at least for the watching Charlie) minutes before a grinning Dean finally managed to convince Jimmy he was genuinely welcome and then brought him and four beers to her table.

“This is Charlie,” he told Jimmy. “And that’s Ash,” he waved to where the High Elf was standing. “This is Jimmy.”

“Hi, Jimmy,” she said, smiling cautiously at the level 64 player.

“Hello,” he said. Then he frowned at her, his expression confused. “You’re wearing Dean’s clothes.”

She blinked at his blunt comment, but “They suit me more,” she announced, with a smirk. “I’m rocking the Xena look because I’m definitely the prettier princess.”

“I am uncertain whether that is completely true,” Jimmy replied thoughtfully, seemingly completely unaware he might offend either her or Dean by saying so. “I wasn’t aware his outfit was intended to portray a specific costume but, with that understanding, I would say that Dean portrayed a most convincing and aesthetically pleasing ‘princess’.”

Charlie, fortunately, thought his comment was hilarious. Dean, perhaps, not so much.

Then Jimmy turned to regard Dean in his hunter outfit. “I do, however, also applaud your decision to emulate Errol Flynn today instead.”

 

Chapter Text

Nigel Roman’s stomach rumbled loudly. 

He was already several hours late for his Sunday lunch (he didn’t even want to imagine the inevitable disapproving look on Henrietta’s face over his absence) and he still could see no way to escape the pit of hell he was trapped in.

He shuffled loudly in his chair, his lower back and knees angrily protesting the movement after the length of time he’d been sitting in rigid, panicked concentration.

The thing was, as much as it made him almost physically sick to admit it to himself, he didn’t think there was any possible solution. He was boxed in from all sides and the consequences of a series of previous bad decisions had seemingly led him into an unsolvable conundrum.

Across the desk, the Auditor completely ignored his distress.

The small, fussy, incredibly irritating bastard just kept typing numbers calmly into his keyboard, his expression one of satisfied smugness. The more agitated Nigel became, the more the Auditor appeared to be relishing his suffering.

Nigel frowned and renewed his determination to find a way to beat the little fucker at his own game.

If it could be said there was any such thing as a typical gamer, Jim Murphy definitely wouldn’t have fit the bill.

Jim lived a quiet uneventful life in Blue Earth, Minnesota.  His friends and neighbours, if asked to describe him, would have said he was a gentle, generous, sympathetic man who spent the majority of his waking life doing good works and offering even the most ardent of sinners a shoulder to cry on or a strong back to lean on.

Jim, better known to his parishioners as Pastor Jim, was a pillar of his community and a friend to all.  He lived in a tiny modest house, adjacent to a tiny equally modest church, and he didn’t even own a television set, let alone modern conveniences such as air conditioning or a power shower.

Which was why it was always a constant source of bemusement to Hannah Carson, the lady who dealt with the parish bookkeeping, that Pastor Jim’s electricity bill was always so excessive.

She’d even mentioned it a few times to her husband, the local sheriff, and he had eventually made a half-hearted investigation into the matter.  Although he never did find an answer to the oddity, he told his wife the most likely scenario was that someone had hacked into the church’s power supply to conceal a grow-farm hidden somewhere near the parish grounds.

Since Sheriff Carson had a personal somewhat liberal attitude towards weed anyway, having been an enthusiastic child of the sixties himself, he didn’t lose much sleep over the matter.

So deep inside the basement of the otherwise unremarkable church, Pastor Jim remained free to follow his normal practice of spending the hours between his Morning and Evening Sunday services, roaming the realm of Moondoor as his level 36 alter ego, ‘KillerSaint’.

 “This is fun,” Jimmy blurted, grinning widely as he swiped his sword sideways to decapitate another flying Gremloid, causing another arterial stream of lime-green blood to spurt towards the high ceiling of the dimly lit cave.  The viscous liquid splattered against the stone, then began to drip downwards, joining the rest of the acid-colored rain that was dribbling over them.

“Fun, but fucking messy,” Dean griped, but his grin was as wide as Jimmy’s.

“Incoming,” Ash yelled, as he cast another disturbance spell into one of the many side tunnels where another nest of Gremloids was sleeping; waking them up and sending them flying in a mass of fangy fury towards the mouth of the cave where Dean, Jimmy and Charlie were waiting to dispatch them.

The Gremloids were similar to cat-sized vampire bats. They had sharp fangs and nasty-looking claws but weren’t particularly difficult to handle in groups of just a dozen or so at a time so it was particularly fortuitous that instead of gathering in one huge pulsing mass to sleep, they seemed to congregate in family groups. It meant that Ash was able to work his way through the cave system, waking them in individual manageable waves.

But only, apparently, because it was still daylight.  According to Ellen, the moment the sun went down the Gremloids woke en mass and then flew out like a wave of dark death, decimating anything in their path with the mindless ferocity of piranhas.

Individually, though, they were no match against a swift blade.

Naturally, that also meant in game-terms they weren’t worth much XP.  Even the largest was only offering 8 and the majority of them only a lowly 5.  Still, that added up pretty quickly when you multiplied it by hundreds.

Their original plan was for Dean to deal the killing blow on all of the Gremloids, whilst the others just corralled them in his direction. But when they realised just how many of the creatures needed to be despatched before nightfall, it had become pretty much a free for all. Charlie was benefiting from the XP, at least. She was already half way towards level 25 and they had only been despatching Gremloids for a couple of hours.  Jimmy and Ash’s XP bars had barely moved at all. Past level 50, the amount of XP required for a level up ran into the tens of thousands.

Dean, however, was working towards his third level up since the beginning of the slaughter.  He was easily going to hit level 11 before they ran out of victims.

“Like shooting fish in a barrel,” Charlie crowed, as she stabbed two Gremloids simultaneously with one strike of her blade.

“We aren’t shooting them,” Jimmy muttered to Dean, in a worried aside. “Should we be shooting them?”

“It’s just a figure of speech,” Dean advised him patiently, although he was becoming increasingly tempted to demand Jimmy gave him the phone number of his parents so that Dean could call them up and give them a serious lecture on how home schooling someone clearly didn’t work if the tutors failed to even teach the rudiments of actual, everyday conversation.  The more he interacted with Jimmy, the more he became convinced that the poor guy had absolutely no experience of basic day-to-day interactions whatsoever.

The oddest thing was that instead of finding Jimmy’s ignorance frustrating, Dean was getting fonder of him with each conversational mis-step.  Maybe, honestly, because it helped his own confidence. Jimmy was obviously intellectually intelligent, was clearly loaded (given he had a bespoke avatar and the same equipment as Dean but had presumably actually purchased it) and was hot as hell.  If it hadn’t been for Jimmy’s social awkwardness, Dean wasn’t sure he’d have had the confidence to keep conversing with him.

“The word is flirting,” Loki insisted. “Just admit you fancy the guy and we can move on.”

“I’m not flirting,” Dean insisted. “I’m just being friendly.”

“Yeah, sure,” Loki mocked. “Ooh, three incoming on your left, slugger.”

Dean swung his sword and sliced two in half. He only took a wing off the third but it crashed to the floor and he stomped down on it hard, crushing its skull with his heel.  At least the leather boots of the hunter outfit he was wearing were proving more useful than the rest of it.

“If you were wearing the hat, you’d get a set bonus,” Loki pointed out archly. “You’re missing out on 10% overall HP.”

“I don’t care,” Dean replied firmly. A man had to draw a line somewhere and, it turned out, his line had proven to be wearing a stupid jaunty hat with a feather stuck in it.

The Auditor hummed under his breath as his spreadsheet filled with line after line of ordered figures.

He loved the purity of numbers.

Numbers didn’t lie.

People lied. People even used numbers to lie for them. But the numbers themselves were pure and incorruptible. Each number belonged in its own perfect place and the skill was in finding the numbers that were out of place (perhaps due to genuine mistakes, more likely due to deliberate mishandling) and moving them to where they truly belonged until his journal balanced perfectly and the fuzzy blurred edges of the story changed to the sharp crystal clear lines of perfect clarity.

Numbers made sense to him.

People, not so much.

With figures, he could ascertain what was an asset and what was a liability, what numbers belonged within the balance sheet and which fell under profit and loss.

Such as the account he was currently processing. The air fare, hotel costs, cab fares and sustenance charges all fell squarely under expenses, directly affecting the bottom line of net profit. Nice and straightforward.

More problematic, of course, was exactly where in his ledger the figures belonged. Should he file under costs of asset acquisition or did the expenses belong purely under liability?

The question mark wasn’t over the numbers themselves.

It was the human factor that always gave him pause.

Should Ruby Cortese be considered an asset or a liability?

The Auditor wasn’t sure yet.

The answer probably hinged on what Sam Winchester did next.

But, the Auditor thought, as Nigel Roman finally reached over the desk, his face set with angry determination as he finally made his move, people were infinitely predictable.

It was easy, on the whole, to anticipate the direction in which they would leap. Easy to herd them, like sheep through a shearing chute, in the direction the Auditor required. Easy to cut off their options until only one obvious path remained open. The path he needed them to take.

So the Auditor paused in his steady inputting of figures, meeting Nigel’s eyes for a moment, enjoying the man’s momentary expression of cautious triumph.

Predictable.

Then cruelly dashing Nigel’s momentary sense of accomplishment as he lifted one elegant finger against a piece of carved ivory, then pressed enough to move it a single, solitary, but totally devastating inch.

Watching Nigel’s face fall into crushed defeat.

“Checkmate,” the Auditor said.

KillerSaint was not only a respectable character level 36, which made him one of the highest level players in his guild (If only because said Guild, the Hunters, was one of the lesser ones, and so attracted very few of the highest level players into its ranks), he was also the proud holder of a rank 9 designation.

As an R9, his icon on the Moondoor realm map displayed the addition of a small symbol indicating he was formally a ‘War Lord’.

Which would have both amused and surprised any of Pastor Jim’s real life acquaintances.

They probably would have been equally confused by his physical appearance in the game.

KillerSaint had chosen a largely innocuous avatar with a grisly grey beard, a tall slim body and a weather-beaten wrinkled face. His avatar was dressed in a large dark overcoat, wore a black moleskin cowboy hat and was equipped with twin Colt pistols in a shell-filled double tooled holster, a confederate sword and a hunting knife.

To the uninitiated, KillerSaint looked like any generic gunslinger from an old cowboy movie.

To any fan of DC comics, he was an absolute ringer for the Saint of Killers; the almost omnipotent nemesis character out of ‘Preacher’.

Never let it be said that Pastor Jim didn’t have a healthy sense of humor.

Which was just as well, since his Guild Master, Bobby Singer, was frequently a cantankerous old goat who seemed to delight in tasking him with some seriously nonsensical quests.

Such as the one he’d been tasked with today.

A couple of newbie players had sent in a Guild distress call earlier that afternoon.  One of the Guild’s R8’s, Gordon, had grumpily ported to help them out (and probably tear them a new one, since Gordon wasn’t known for being a nice guy) but Gordon had never reported back afterwards and all three player icons were now completely missing from the Guild Map.

Which meant, as Jim had patiently pointed out, that they had all simply logged out of the game without remembering to let the R10 know what had happened.

Bobby, though, had declared he’d had a ‘bad feeling’ about the situation.

By which Jim concluded the Guild Master was pretty sure Gordon had lost patience with the noobs and had either kicked them, killed them or both.  Then, presumably, had logged out rather than face Bobby’s wrath.

Still, you didn’t get to be (or stay) an R9 if you argued with the boss, so KillerSaint had barely grumbled about the waste of his own precious gaming time before he had ported to the location from which the original distress calls had emanated.

He hadn’t found any evidence of foul play.

There were no bodies, no marks of a battle, no trace whatsoever of either the two newbies or the bad tempered Gordon.

There was, however, something weird.

Something that was most likely the cause of the initial distress calls.

A huge pulsing ring of black energy.

KillerSaint assumed it was a port leading somewhere. It definitely had that kind of ‘Stargate’ vibe. And yet, at the same time, it reminded him equally of an artistic impression of a black hole.  Or perhaps a portal to the Phantom Zone. (Pastor Jim’s DC comic collection included an original edition of #283, ‘The Phantom Superboy’, so he knew all about the Kryptonian prison dimension.)

He briefly considered calling Bobby, then paused.  For exactly the same reason Gordon had failed to report in.

Whatever this thing was, it didn’t belong in Moondoor.  Yet, nothing existed inside Moondoor except items programmed by the developers. So, whatever this was, the developers had put it there.

And that meant…

It had to be an ‘Easter Egg’.

Perhaps a route to a secret level full of treasures or perhaps a hidden area of the game stuffed full of high-end Quests.

And, nice guy in Real Life or not, KillerSaint wasn’t any more inclined to share the goodies with the rest of his guild than Gordon had been.

So, instead of reporting in, KillerSaint holstered his guns and stepped into the circle of darkness.

It took another forty minutes before Ash declared the cave fully cleared of Gremloids.  So tired, aching a little (particularly Dean whose shoulders had really felt the strain of continually wielding the sword) but supremely pleased with themselves, the four made their way back to the roadhouse in triumph.

Their victory parade was only slightly dampened by the fact Ellen refused to let them into the roadhouse before they’d made use of a cold water hose and washed off the majority of the blood slime that was coating their hair and faces. Cleaning their clothes was just a matter of sliding their outfits in and out of their inventories but, without actually logging in and out of the game, there was no way to clean their bodies except good old fashioned soap and water.

Dean, Ash and Charlie had intended to take the easier (warmer) route but, for some reason, Jimmy was worried that if he logged out he might not be able to return until the next day. None were quite ready to go back to the real world anyway. They were still high on adrenaline and buzzing with the kind of camaraderie that came from fighting together. So they decided to show solidarity and all four shared a cold shower in the yard of the Roadhouse.

Then, sitting inside the bar, they drank beer, ate burgers and shared the high of a completed Quest.

It didn’t seem to matter to any of the others that the ‘Quest’ hadn’t appeared on their system interfaces. Neither Ash nor Jimmy were in need of resources as rewards and Charlie was satisfied with the XP she’d gained and was apparently willing to hold back judgement on why Ellen’s quests weren’t Quests. She wasn’t yet ready to accept Dean’s explanation but was letting the matter slide for now.

Dean had only received a total of 100 FP for the Gremloid massacre, which was disappointing, but the three levels he’d gained were invaluable in themselves.  Checking his scorecard, he was pleased to see he was still increasing his HP at double the rate of normal players and, interestingly, Ash confirmed that the additional heath points still weren’t registering on his public profile.

“You’re a really effective fighter and surprisingly strong for your level,” Jimmy said, suddenly, as though he could read Dean’s thoughts.

“It’s probably because of my rig,” Dean dissembled.

“Plus your previous experience,” Ash added quickly. “It’s not like you’re a real newbie, after all. You’re like Charlie. You’ve both got all the moves but you need these avatars to catch up with your brains.”

“Tell me about it,” Charlie sighed.  “I can’t believe how many stupid mistakes I made today because this body just won’t move the way my mind expects it to.  Between having dropped 30 character levels and losing my immersion tank, it’s a real learning curve. Damn, I miss my bespoke avatar.”

“You used to have a bespoke avatar?” Jimmy asked, his ears pricking with interest.  When Charlie glowered at him forbiddingly, he gave an apologetic shrug. Then he explained how he was having problems with his own avatar’s interface and had briefly considered swapping to a generic one instead.

“Don’t do it,” Charlie said, relaxing when she realised Jimmy wasn’t fishing for her personal information but was just looking for advice. “Generic avatars are fine if you don’t know any better but once you’re used to playing in a virtual body that so closely echoes your own physical dimensions, it’s really hard to adjust.  I literally keep missing my mouth when I try to drink because these arms are too damned short.”

“Do you think many bespoke avatars portray genuine likenesses then?” Jimmy asked, with a sly sidewards glance in Dean’s direction. Dean was now deep in conversation with Ash and Ellen at the bar, so Jimmy took advantage of their distraction. “I’m sure most people ‘upgrade’ themselves in game. Like Dean, say. I mean, just as a for instance. I mean it’s highly unlikely he looks anything like that in real life, isn’t it?”

“You’d be surprised,” Charlie said, hiding a smile at his poorly concealed interest. “The vast majority of people actually pick near mirror images of themselves. I think, honestly, that people only really feel the true benefit of being in a virtual world if they genuinely feel like themselves while they’re here. It’s hard to convince yourself you are really in Moondoor if you aren’t even inside a body you’re familiar with. So the majority of bespoke avatars are pretty lifelike except for the obvious kind of tweaks, like people making themselves slimmer or taller or whatever. A lot of guys add muscle or cover up bald spots, but that’s just cosmetic stuff not fundamental changes. Others, like Dean here, don’t need cosmetic tweaking anyway. He’s sickeningly good looking in real life anyway.”

“How do you know?” Jimmy asked.

“Well, I know generally because I used to program avatars for this game. But if you mean how do I know about Dean, the answer is I know him in real life.”

Jimmy's eyes widened in surprise. “You’re real life friends?”

“I don’t think I’d go that far, well, not yet anyway,” Charlie admitted. “Truth is, we’re both really good real life friends of Ash. Dean and I are relatively recent acquaintances.”

“Wow,” Jimmy said, genuinely stunned. It had never even occurred to him that the other three players might know each other outside of the game. Under the circumstances, he was surprised they’d let a complete stranger like him into their group that afternoon.  He wondered whether he was being presumptuous in hoping they’d let him continue playing with them. When he’d been envisaging the possibility of continuing to play the game alongside Dean for the next several weeks, it had stupidly never occurred to him that Dean already had an established network of people to play with.

It was highly unlikely that all three of them would welcome him to remain with them in-game, he decided, feeling suddenly totally dejected.

Maybe they had just felt sorry for him.

Maybe they’d only invited him along to hunt the gremloids because they had been too polite to leave him behind.

Maybe they…

“Good news,” Dean said, returning to the table.  “Ash has just sweet-talked Ellen into sponsoring you into the Hunter guild, Jimmy.”

“Really?” he asked, his heart thundering with sudden excitement.

“Of course,” Dean announced with a careless shrug.  “It’ll be a lot easier to Quest together if we’re all Guildmates.”

So maybe, just maybe, he was welcome, after all.

And Jimmy, for the first time in his whole life, understood how it felt to get picked to join a team.

 

Chapter Text

Sam used his key card to enter the building, tapping in the four digits of that week’s code, then walked the gauntlet of the lobby’s security cameras, through the metal and explosives detectors, up to the large imposing desk where Joe McGrath, a big, gruff ex-cop, merely grunted at him in bored acknowledgement. Sam utilised the finger-print scanner, then grimaced a smile for the facial recognition camera, and then, after a brief delay, McGrath’s printer churned out a temporary pass which the security guard handed over with another grunt.

The multi-layered security protocols within the building were a nonsensical amount of overkill for the offices of a Law Firm, in Sam’s opinion. The internal security passes were invalidated every time someone left the building.  On a day when he had several external appointments, Sam could be forced to reapply for an internal pass half a dozen times. But, without a pass, it wasn’t even possible to exit the lobby. Despite the building having stairwells, as mandated by fire precautions imposed by the City, the stairs were sealed behind doors that could only be opened from within. So the only way to access the rest of the building from the lobby area was via elevators that were strictly controlled by the temporary passes.

Entering one of the elevators, Sam inserted the card into the slot beneath the dark control pad and five of the dozen buttons lit up, offering him only the options of LB, B, 3, 4 and 5.

Floor three was a general access area. It housed the canteen, the gym and several rec rooms. It also contained a lounge area for lesser clients and some private rooms for interviews and meetings.

Floor four was where the majority of the administrative staff, law clerks, legal secretaries and paralegals were based.

Floors five to eight were for Associates.  The hierarchical positioning of their offices meant only the most senior Associates were based on the eighth floor. As a mere first year Associate, still referred to by most senior staff as an ‘Intern’, Sam’s office was little more than a rabbit-hutch on the Fifth Floor.

That wasn’t where he was headed though.

He pressed the button marked LB, because the lower basement was where the Firm archived all of its paperwork, including non-current case files.

The fact that the Archive was available to all staff, with LB being an option on all internal passes except those issued to visiting clients, could have suggested to the uninitiated that it was one of the least secure parts of the building. That assumption would have been incorrect.  

Exiting the elevator into the lower basement, Sam was forced to repeat fingerprint and facial recognition procedures plus a voice recognition protocol that required him to speak a specific phrase that changed monthly.  Completing those allowed him through a metal vault door that looked more suited to a room housing safety deposit boxes than one filled with paperwork and stored hard drives.

As the door closed behind him, Sam took a deep breath. Although he was still two doors away from the pure environs of the temperature and atmospherically controlled storage areas, he was already breathing the higher, purer air of the oxygen-rich filtration system. In front of him was a huge, oak-built reception desk, similar to that which might be found in a grand library.  The counter, though, which ran the full width of the room, was so forbiddingly high that even Sam could only just see the dark hair of the man seated behind its wooden front.

“Unless my nose deceives me, I believe that waft of deliciousness is the scent of young Master Winchester.”

Sam grinned, as the Archivist raised his head enough to peek over the counter in his direction.

“I come bearing gifts,” he confirmed, reaching inside his shoulder-bag and carefully retrieving a still warm, slightly greasy, individual pizza box before reaching up and placing it on top of the counter like a penitent offering alms.

The Archivist raised himself from his chair, his bony body unfurling in a mass of overlong limbs, until he was poised over the pizza box like a suited praying mantis, his cadaver-thin face opening into a wide, if somewhat alarming, smile.

“I do love pizza,” he said, pressing the button that opened a section of the counter to create a doorway. “Come through. Sit down. Pray tell me what world shattering emergency brings you to my domain on a Sunday evening.”

….

“So,” Jimmy said, offering Charlie an apologetic but hopeful smile. “I do realize talking ‘shop’ during leisure hours is a breach of social etiquette. However, I was intrigued by your mention of having worked specifically with the design of avatars for this game. Would you consider it a total imposition for me to ask you for advice regarding my faulty interface?”

“Jeez,” Dean sighed. “Just help the guy out already, Charlie, before his own politeness chokes him to death.”

“Good manners are important,” Jimmy pronounced, frowning at Dean disapprovingly.

“What he said,” Charlie agreed with a smirk.  “What exactly is wrong with your interface, Jimmy?”

Jimmy flushed, his eyes darting shiftily away from her interested expression. “It’s going to sound a bit…um…foolish, possibly, but it’s not simply that I have apparently lost assets such as my Realm Ports. Rather than simply accessing the data I require as normal, I find myself constantly struggling to access any information of import. If I specifically phrase a request in the most exact of terms, my interface does frequently provide the required information but the process is unnecessarily clumsy and awkward.  Were I to allow myself to anthropomorphize, I would state the interface is being deliberately obtuse.”

“Perhaps it is,” Ash teased. “Perhaps it’s just being an asshole.”

“Perception of life in inanimate objects is a primary symptom of craving social contact,” Jimmy announced grimly. “It is not something I allow myself to indulge in.”

“Huh?” Dean asked.

Charlie kicked him under the table. “He means he’s lonely,” she muttered quietly.

Not quietly enough, though, as Jimmy turned and looked at them with a sad but defiant look. “I am self-aware enough to understand that my lack of social interactions in my real life may be coloring my perceptions within this artificial environment,” he said, with precise dignity.

Well, that was a sucky thought, Dean decided.  Because he was definitely anthropomorphizing the fuck out of Loki and the way Jimmy’s S.I. was making him drag information out of it like blood from a stone definitely reminded him of the way Loki had interacted with him at first. Which also reminded him that Loki still owed him an explanation; “Do YOU know what’s going on with Jimmy’s S.I.? ‘Cos it seems to me that he’s got a V.I. in there, like you, and the guy is being a total dick, also like you used to be.”

“Awww, does that mean you like me now?”

“Never said that. But I admit you’re not a total dick, anymore,” Dean said.

“Look, what I said before about not saying anything to Jimmy… that still stands, Dean.  Whatever you do, don’t tell him your interface is also different.  I get you’re wanting to reassure the guy that he’s not just being a sad, no-mate loser but this isn’t about his ‘feelings’.   Don’t risk everything just to make the guy feel less of a sad chump, Dean.  The thing is, all of the new immersion tanks have the capacity to accept a V.I. interface but only a very select few Boss players will ever be seeded with one. This Jimmy, whoever he is, was definitely not on the radar to get one.”

Dean suddenly thought he understood. “The V.I. seeding was only supposed to happen with players who are Boss characters?” he asked. “I guess that makes sense. Since the game going forward is going to allow any player to become a ‘boss’, I guess the capacity for the V.I. seeding will have to be inbuilt into everyone’s rigs from now on but only activated if or when they become a Knight.  So Jimmy’s V.I. has triggered accidentally but you think if he understands what has happened and that I have one too, he’ll realise I’m a Knight and maybe kill me to become a Boss himself?  I mean, I could see that, maybe, with another player but not Jimmy. I know I’ve barely met the guy but he doesn’t seem the type.”

“He didn’t get to be a character level 64 by running around Moondoor rescuing kittens out of trees,” Loki pointed out dryly. “Nice guy or not, the sooner you accept Jimmy must also be a BAMF, the better.”

I can’t see the harm in him knowing he’s accidentally been seeded with a V.I., though,” Dean argued. “The information about the Knights hasn’t actually been released to the other players yet, has it? As far as I understand it, the game blogs won’t announce that information before all the Knights get out of Purgatory and everyone else’s player levels get reset.”

“Not ‘reset’, exactly,” Loki corrected. “They simply will not share the same equivalence as post darkness characters such as yourself.”

You lost me.”

Loki sighed. “I shouldn’t tell you this yet but, what the hell, you’ll find out soon enough anyway. After you hit character level 15, the level you should have been when you left Purgatory, your next level up will take you straight to level 50. Then you’ll increase 10 levels at a time, until you hit 100.  Then you change to ‘Dark Levels’.”

The highest player in Moondoor is currently at 93,” Dean mused. “The cap is currently 100.”

“The cap will remain 100 for other players,” Loki said. “Only the Knights are able to go past 100 to 101.”

Dean understood. It was a simple, but elegant, solution.  The normal players could continue battling for position within their own hierarchy but they would never escape it unless they accepted the Quest to become a Knight. And the Knights, by definition, would always be stronger than them and capable of squashing them like bugs.  The longer the Knights survived, the more Darkness Levels they’d achieve and so it would become increasingly impossible for a normal player to defeat them.

So for a player like Jimmy, the only serious chance he had at beating a Knight was to kill them well  before they reached level 101.

Such as when they were only a mere, helpless level 11, maybe.

I still don’t believe Jimmy is that kind of asshole,” Dean said.

“Willing to risk our lives on it?” Loki demanded archly.

Which gave Dean pause. Loki was right. This wasn’t just about Dean, was it? If he trusted Jimmy and it proved to be a mistake, a lot more was at stake than just Dean’s survival in the game.  Still, what Jimmy presumably didn’t know was that Dean would have to be killed ten times. Sure, Jimmy might betray him and stab him in the back… but it would only happen once before Dean wised up to him.

“Ordinarily, I’d agree,” Loki said, interrupting his musing. “So, I guess I’ll have to admit something else. I…um…how do I put this? Um… oh, fuck it… I may as well just rip off the band-aid I guess… I’m, well, nottheVIyouweresupposedtobeseededwith,” he ended in a spewed rush of words.

WHAT?”

“Just hear me out,” Loki said. “Thing is, you were always going to be seeded with a V.I. just like all the other Knights. And, before you ask, yeah they all have V.I.’s too.  And, at the moment, they’re probably just being awkward little dick interfaces like whoever the fuck is riding Jimmy because, well, it’s not easy you know? We’re different species, we speak different languages, our thought processes are totally alien and we sure as fuck aren’t used to being trapped inside fragile, tiny meat suits. It takes time to merge and more time to learn how to take over the controls.”

Woah,” Dean said. “Time out. Take over what fucking controls? You’re telling me you’re planning on possessing me, you fucker?”

“Listen to what I’m actually saying, Deano. I’m telling you the V.I. you were supposed to have was planning to possess you. Because, well, because last time was a cluster-fuck, okay?  Last time we all tried the merge and play nicely with others bullshit and look what happened. So, well, some of my brothers don’t want to leave this to you meatsuits at all, this time.  They think they can do the job better by themselves.”

And you don’t?”

“Honestly? I don’t know,” Loki replied. “Consider me Switzerland in this. I’m not planning to get involved any more than I have to. Tell the truth, I was never planning to even let you know I was in here but, well, it got pretty damned boring pretending to be an S.I.  It’s bad enough being stuck in here with you without acting like a mindless puppet too.”

So get out,” Dean snarled.

“I can’t do that,” Loki sighed, “Or trust me, I would.  Thing is, I’m only sitting here like a lemon whenever you’re in-game to keep a non-vacancy sign hanging in your window. Otherwise, your real rider is going to jump right in here and make himself at home. You think I’m a pain in the ass? You ain’t seen nuthin. So you can’t let Jimmy know I’m here or whoever’s riding him will figure out that what’s currently looking like a glitch preventing your V.I. from seeding himself is actually ME sitting my ass here and then all the fuck kind of whupass is going to land on both of us.

“And you need to be careful what you tell Charlie too.  In fact, don’t tell her anything. She’s one of them. She’s a spy maybe. Yeah, that’s got to be it. A company spy.”

Okay, just calm down, man.  Charlie is not a spy.”

“She’s one of them. A developer.”

An ex-developer,” Dean corrected. “She got fired, Loki. I highly doubt she’s spying for them. She probably wouldn’t even piss on them if they were on fire.”

“What if she’s lying?” Loki asked, slyly. “Maybe she’s just saying she was fired to make you trust her and then, wham, bam, she sucker punches you when you’re least expecting it.”

Charlie isn’t lying,” Dean stated firmly.  Admittedly, he did have a fractional moment of doubt but quashed it immediately. Ash trusted Charlie. Dean trusted Ash. So Dean, ergo, trusted Charlie.

End of.

Loki was quiet for a few moments but then said. “Aha… no one on the dev team payroll called Charlie, Charles, Charlene, Charcoal, Char-broiled, Nothing, Nada, Nyet. She’s using a false name. She’s a spy.”

Ash told me she used to be called Celeste something or other when he first met her at MIT.  Charlie is probably just a nickname.”

Loki was silent for longer this time but when he came back his tone was no longer one of high-pitched hysterical panic. It was something far worse. A low, serious, we’re all fucked, kind of tone.

“Um, Dean. Is her name Celeste Middleton?”

Dean couldn’t remember for sure but it sounded about right.  “Um, think so. Why?”

“Because she’s not a spy,” Loki said, his voice completely subdued.

And? So? Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Only if you’re into the whole zombie apocalypse thing.”

Huh?”

“She’s dead, Dean.  According to the RRE personnel files, Celeste Middleton is deceased.”

How are you accessing the RRE personnel files?”

“Focus, Dean. The important thing is that she’s DEAD.  She apparently died on Friday evening when her entire building complex blew up like a super-nova.”

It’s Sunday. Even if that were true, and it isn’t because, hello, she’s here, who the fuck would update a personnel file between Friday and Sunday anyway? I mean is that an automated thing? You pop your clogs and some computer somewhere sends out bulletins to all interested parties?”

“I think you’re missing the point.”

I’m not. I’m just racing past the bullshit straight to the heart of the matter.  If Charlie’s building blew up and the authorities thought she was inside, which clearly she wasn’t since she’s here but, if they thought she was inside it then the absolute first time anyone would think to contact her employers is tomorrow.”

“Unless…”

Exactly…” Dean agreed grimly. “Hang on. No point saying anything else before verifying this crap.”

“Um, Charlie,” he said, interrupting her conversation with Jimmy.  “Do me a favour? Log out a minute and check the local news wherever you used to live?”

She blinked at him stupidly. “What?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“It was several years ago, but I do recall the case,” the Archivist agreed, after swallowing his last bite of pizza and dabbing his lips almost daintily with a fabric napkin from his top pocket.  “Filed under the name Ghost Facers, I believe.”

He turned to his computer, tapped a few letters into his keyboard then grinned in satisfaction. “Indeed,” he said.  “Spangler and Zeddmore vs Richard Roman Enterprises.  It didn’t reach further than District court though.  Mister Roman, Senior, successfully convinced the federal judge in the case that the young gentlemen in the case were merely patent trolls. There was, it should be said, considerable evidence suggesting Mister Roman was correct in his assertion.”

Sam nodded his agreement. He recalled the details of the case himself. Harry Spangler and Ed Zeddmore owned a company ‘GhostFacers’ that had a history of buying patents from the estates of deceased parties or bankrupt companies for the sole purpose of seeking payment from other companies who were possibly infringing on those patents. It was a potentially lucrative business model for the pair, since most of their targets settled out of court rather than face the cost of litigation. It was also, it should be said, a perfectly legal business model (if possibly somewhat morally questionable) but was frowned on by many judges.

What had been particularly interesting about that specific case was that Nigel Roman had taken that particular line of defence against the litigating pair and had depended upon the federal judge dismissing the case out of hand rather than applying the most obvious defence which would have absolutely guaranteed success.

Because the patent in question had been regarding a piece of hardware that RRE were supplying only to the U.S. Government at that time.  Since the government held the right to use any patented invention without permission, a protection passed also to contractors working on its behalf, a successful claim could only have been brought against the Government itself and Spangler and Zeddmore could only have won compensation from the Government.

So the case against RRE had been dead in the water from the get-go and consequently it made no sense that Nigel Roman had bothered defending it at all.

That, however, wasn’t specifically why Sam was interested in the case.

Several years on from the court case, Sam was reasonably certain that the patent in question was now being used by RRE for non-military purposes.  It appeared to have been utilized as a major vital component in the latest generation of RRE’s immersion tanks.

So should the GhostFacers choose to revisit their claim for patent infringement by taking the case to the Court of Appeals and there face a judge more inclined to apply the precise letter of the law rather than take a moral stance on the situation, there was not only a significant chance that Spangler and Zeddmore might actually win their case but this time RRE would not be able to pass the cost of any compensation awarded to the Government.

Sam had already done the preliminary work necessary to fake a believable letter of enquiry from the litigants, one suggesting that they were considering that course of action.  He’d also carefully buried a trail within the Firm’s record of incoming mail to show why the correspondence had mistakenly arrived at his desk rather than correctly been passed to someone in Nigel Roman’s department. For further veracity, he’d hacked into Ed Zeddmore’s personal computer and buried a copy of the letter on his hard-drive, an electronic copy that clearly showed the letter as being authored by Zeddmore himself.  Should any of this erupt backwards towards the GhostFacers, forensic investigation would disprove any attempt by Zeddmore to deny his involvement.

Sam would have felt guilty about that except for the fact the patent wasn’t for something actually created by Spangler and Zeddmore and they’d paid a mere pittance for the patent rights to the widow of the man who had invented the device. So he shared the Federal Judge’s opinion that the GhostFacers were just a pair of ambulance chasing shysters out to make a quick buck.

However, before approaching Nigel Roman himself, it would make sense for a young, hungry first year Associate such as himself to attempt to head the possible impending disaster off for several days before reaching out for a Partner’s advice. To make it appear as though he had done so, Sam needed there to be a record of him pulling the file from the archive.

A record of him having done so several days earlier would add further veracity to his story and that would require the co-operation of Mortimer Blake, the Archivist, since the strange, old-fashioned man’s computer was not on the mainframe network and consequently couldn’t be remotely hacked.

“I don’t suppose you could input me as having collected this file off you one day last week?” Sam asked, with his best puppy eyes.  “I completely forgot, and,” he indicated the severe bruising on his face, “I’ve had a bit of a bad week already without adding an ass-kicking from a Partner to the mix.”

The Archivist looked at him closely, his eyes twinkling with some internal mirth.

“As a rule, I don’t falsify records, Master Winchester. But I liked the pizza. I suppose I might make an exception this once.”

Charlie didn’t return to the Roadhouse so, after an anxious ten minutes or so of waiting, Ash and Dean said their goodbyes to Jimmy and logged off themselves to follow her back into the real world.

By the time Dean had deactivated his immersion tank, hauled himself out, had showered the gunk off, gotten dressed and been ready to leave his apartment to go to ‘Lil Beanz, a good forty five minutes later, Ash and a pale-faced Charlie were already at his front door.  Taking one look at her tear-reddened eyes and haunted expression, Dean didn’t need to be a psychic to understand what she meant when she demanded, “How did you know?”

“Loki told me,” he said, simply, and saw not only understanding but a definite dawning belief in her eyes.

Fortunately, Ash missed the underlying significance of the statement, merely picking up on, “So the game V.I.’s don’t merely exist within a closed network. They have access to the RRE mainframe?”

“And the WWW too apparently. But Loki got the information directly from your personnel file,” Dean told Charlie. “You’re already marked as deceased.”

“Well that was stupid of them,” she snarled. “Considering the fire service are still trolling through the wreckage and I’m officially only one of many ‘missing’ persons at the moment.”

“I don’t want to sound paranoid,” Dean said, “but does anyone else here think the timing of this accidental building explosion is a bit suspect? You ask a few too many questions about this old Portland fire and, oh gosh, fancy that, your building explodes into a fireball too. Dunno about you guys, but I’m of the school of thought that one fire might be an accident but two is kinda careless.”

“What do you call three?” Charlie asked soberly.

“Huh?”

“Three fires, Dean. Well, I guess a fire, an explosion and then a fire with an explosion.”

“What fire with an explosion?”

“The reason it took me a while to access the local news about my building, which should have hit front page of most of the online nationals, given the fatalities, is it was knocked off front page on Saturday morning when the Connor Beverly Behavioral Medicine Center in Ohio blew up.”

“And? So?” Dean asked. “Never heard of the place. What’s the significance? ‘cos it’s clear you think it’s somehow related.”

“The Connor Beverly Behavioral Medicine Center wouldn’t have pinged my radar either,” Charlie admitted.  “But the timing, and the method, rang alarm bells with me and it made me wonder about the missing programmer. The one who supposedly had a breakdown back when the original fire took place. So I hacked RRE’s personnel files. But I wasn’t looking for my records, I was looking for any evidence of payments between REE and the Center. Bingo.  They’ve been paying the residence fees there for an Anna Milton for almost 15 years.”

“And this Anna Milton is the missing programmer who worked with my mom?” Dean asked.

“Your Mom?” Ash said, completely lost.

“Shhuuush,” Charlie told him, waving him away like an irritating fly. “Just let it go. I’ll catch you up to speed later.” Then she turned her full attention back to Dean. “Remember me telling you there were eight programmers? Six who died, one who went crazy and disappeared and, of course, Richard Roman. Well, Anna Milton was the one who had the breakdown.  Only, maybe Anna really just got locked away to shut her up. After all, if you’re right and the game killed the six who died, maybe it’s reasonable to accept that Roman couldn’t bring himself to simply kill her to stop her talking. So he solved the problem by getting her certified insane instead.”

Dean thought about it and shook his head. “That might work in a movie, but not in real life.  No genuine medical center would keep someone locked up for fifteen years without valid reason.  It might be possible to convince a corrupt doctor or two to get someone committed but this Anna would have come into contact with numerous medical professionals over the years.  At least one of them would have queried the diagnosis if she wasn’t genuinely batshit.”

“You’re right,” Charlie agreed. “But that depends on your definition of sanity, doesn’t it?  I mean, what if her true story was so outlandish that it would sound insane to an average person?”  She stared at him significantly, willing him to get her point before she was forced to state in Ash’s hearing Dean’s own outlandish beliefs.

Luckily, she saw Dean’s green eyes flare with understanding before he carefully blanked his expression again. “So we need to talk to this Anna Milton?”

“Unfortunately, although the fire department is still shifting rubble in search of bodies, Anna Milton is one of the people already firmly confirmed to be dead.”

“Why now?” Ash blurted.  “I mean, why wait fifteen years and then kill her anyway?”

“I think it’s my fault,” Charlie admitted sadly.  “Given the timing, I can’t see anything else making sense.  Less than 24 hours after I sent Roman that email, I’m fired, my building ‘blows up’ and then Anna’s hospital catches fire and blows up.  I’ve got to be the common denominator here.  Let’s face it, I’m the only one who’s been stumbling around exposing the skeletons in the closet. So it’s my fault.”  She looked at Dean, her face tear-streaked and pale, “They’ve found eight bodies so far in my apartment block. Six people, other than me, are still missing. Seven people died in Ohio. There are dozens injured. And this is all on me, Dean.”

Dean always hated his chair, but never more than at that precise moment when it prevented him from taking the small woman in his arms and giving her the hug she so obviously needed.  He literally ached at his impotence, his inability to reach out and offer her physical comfort.  So, instead, he did what he could do, and lost his temper instead.

“That’s a fucking bunch of crap and you know it,” he snapped. “If, and it is still an ‘if’ until we have actual evidence rather than suppositions, if RRE was behind what happened then this is on THEM, Charlie. End of. Yeah, you asking questions might have made someone panic, but you aren’t responsible for how they chose to react.  I get you feeling bad for the people who died but feeling sympathy is fine. Feeling guilty is just self-indulgence. Cut it out. If these people really did try to kill you, I think our biggest problem right now is them finding out you’re still alive.”

“Oh shit,” Ash said. “Tell me you booked your flight under Bradbury.”

“I did,” Charlie said, her already pale face turning completely ashen as she realised her decision to purchase her illegal avatar had probably saved her life.

“Thank fuck,” Dean breathed, although there was something else niggling at the back of his head. Some elusive thought that he couldn’t quite pin down, but was absolutely positive was critically important.

“I dunno what to do,” Ash said, his own voice tinged with panic. “It’s like part of me wants to dial 911 but we’re going to sound like we’re conspiracy theory nutcases. We can’t prove anything, can we? Plus we can’t let anyone know Charlie got out of that building. And, on top of that, we’ve kinda got to convince quarter of a million people to stop playing a game because it’s going to kill them? Yeah, I can already see them getting the straitjackets out ready for us.”

“Like they did for Anna Milton, maybe?” Charlie suggested quietly.

“Yeah, okay,” Dean said, accepting the point. Maybe it had been that damned easy for RRE to get Anna certified. If she had claimed the characters in Moondoor were alive (and Dean highly suspected that was the case) then anything else she had known or suspected about RRE would have been completely dismissed out of hand.  RRE were untouchable. Unless you knew the truth, none of their actions made sense but revealing the truth was a one-way ticket to a funny farm.  But surely Anna must have had friends or family who would at least have listened to her.  He sure as hell wouldn’t allow Sam to ever get…

“Fuck,” he exclaimed, as the elusive thought suddenly slammed into his forebrain.  “Sam. I need to call Sam.”

“What?  Why?” Charlie demanded, picking up on his panic immediately but not understanding the reasoning for it.

“You said you were the only person looking for skeletons,” he reminded her grimly. “But you were wrong.”

Charlie’s eyes widened in horrified understanding. “The email. Your brother was asking about your Mom too,” she agreed.  “But… but maybe it’s just co-incidence.”

Dean looked at her grimly. “You’re seriously going to go with that? He’s lost or broken his phone,” Dean continued, as he grabbed his laptop and sent a number of skype requests.  Then, when they remained unanswered, he sent Sam an urgent email. “He said he’d call me tomorrow but…”

“Okay,” she interrupted. “I accept that he could be in danger. For all I know, we could all be in danger. But, realistically, I think there’s a vast difference between RRE probably acting against two known threats such as a couple of ex-employees and them discovering some random person is trying to look into them.  I really can’t see how your brother could possibly have triggered any alerts in RRE.”

As her words sank in, Dean felt a lot of his instinctive panic ease back into vague disquiet.  Charlie was almost certainly right, he realised.  Even if Sam was showing his normal dogged determination in investigating RRE, Dean couldn’t see how the company would have become aware of his interest yet.

Even so, he pinged off another email demanding Sam call him without delay.

 

Chapter Text

After a night of broken sleep, his rest constantly disturbed by nightmares, Dean gave up and rose early. In the light of day, he couldn’t recall any specific details of his dreams, he was just left with a vague unsettled feeling and a sense of physical tiredness caused by his disturbed rest.

His mood wasn’t helped when he checked his inbox and found no reply from Sam.  It was, he ruefully accepted, highly likely his brother simply hadn’t bothered logging into his email on a Sunday evening and was equally unlikely to do so before heading to work on a Monday morning. And Dean still believed Charlie had been right that Sam was unlikely to be in genuine danger.

Even so, a low thrum of anxiety continued to niggle at him so he sent yet another email prompting Sam to call him as soon as he got home from work.

Then, after a quick breakfast of coffee and toast, Dean decided the best way to distract himself would be to return to Moondoor.  It was only 8am, so it was highly unlikely any of his friends would be logged into the game, but he could at least hit Ellen up for a new quest and maybe interrogate Loki a little. If the V.I. could access Charlie’s personnel records, it stood to reason he also had access to other information on RRE’s mainframe. 

Maybe he could get the irritating but undeniably useful V.I. to investigate the company records for details of exactly what had happened 15 years earlier.  Dean wasn’t yet ready to face the bombshell of his Mother’s involvement with Roman Enterprises. His feelings were too raw on the matter and it stood to reason that finding out the details of exactly how she’d died was going to not only open up old wounds but probably stick a knife in them for good measure. But at the same time he knew it was something he was going to have to deal with sooner or later. Inconvenient truths rarely stayed buried forever. They had a nasty way of crawling out of their graves like zombies, ready to jump out and bite you when you least expected them. So maybe it would be best to just rip the band aid off and get it over and done with.

Entering the Roadhouse so early, he expected it to be almost deserted.

He definitely didn’t expect to find Ellen holding court behind the Bar counter with Ash, Charlie and Jimmy sitting on barstools, tucking into what looked like far tastier breakfasts than mere toast.

“Hey, guys,” he said, pulling up a stool and joining them. “Don’t any of you have jobs to go to?”

Obviously, his comment was aimed at Ash and Jimmy rather than Charlie but when he saw her flinch slightly he mouthed a silent apology in her direction.

“I decided the buzzing metropolis that is my coffee emporium could remain closed for a week or two,” Ash said, with a smirk. “Though I am sure my disappointed customers are wailing, gnashing their teeth and rending their clothes with grief outside my locked door.”

“What customers?” Dean asked wryly.

“Exactly,” Ash agreed. “Besides, now you know about Frank there’s no reason for me to even pretend to keep the place open when I have better things to do right now.”

Dean flushed as his friend as good as confirmed that ‘Lil Beanz had never been anything other than a fake front operation to enable Ash to give him some much needed money. In retrospect, the whole thing should have been obvious. Why would someone like Ash want to work as a damned Barista, anyway?

“I know what you’re thinking,” Ash said quietly, “but you’re wrong. Sure I run ‘Lil Beanz like a hobby rather than a real business but it’s still important to me. Soon as we sort out this shit, it’ll be open as normal again. Charlie’s got some big plans for it.”

“I do,” she agreed, laughing at Dean’s confusion. “I’m thinking full-on cyber café. Maybe even install some VR booths. We can’t afford immersion tanks, obviously, but it wouldn’t cost too much to set up more half-decent rigs like Ash and I are currently using. It would be completely unique, no competition at all.”

“There’s a reason no one else in town is offering it,” Dean pointed out. “There just isn’t enough reliable repeat business. To make it viable you’d need to charge a fee high enough to cover your electricity costs and anyone who could afford to pay that kind of money regularly could probably afford their own equipment.”

“Well, sure,” Ash said. “You’re right, at least you would be right if I actually paid for my electricity.”

Dean opened his mouth, then closed it again. Probably best he didn’t know the details.  So he turned his attention to Jimmy. “What about you, bud? No job to go to?”

“I am currently taking a ‘sabbatical’, you might call it.  I have approximately six weeks at my leisure. After that time, I am highly unlikely to be available,” Jimmy replied cautiously.

Dean frowned a little, wondering whether he needed to re-assess Jimmy’s RL age. That six weeks sounded far too similar to a school vacation period. Was it possible Jimmy was just a kid playing ‘dress up’ with an adult avatar?  Then again, what kid in the world could possibly have access to the kind of money required to buy a bespoke avatar at all?  It was a mystery, sure, but unlikely to be related to Jimmy’s RL age.  Dean decided not to press. The guy was entitled to his secrets. It wasn’t as though Dean didn’t have more than enough secrets of his own.

“Ellen was just telling us about a new Quest,” Ash said. “This one is pretty epic level and is coming from the Guild Master himself. The rewards are seriously nice but, more importantly, it’s going to offer some great levelling up opportunities for you and Charlie.”

Confused, Dean checked with Loki.  The way Ash was describing it, this was a real genuine Quest that had therefore appeared in Ash’s system interface as normal but there was absolutely nothing on his own S.I.  “I can’t see it,” he said.

Ash ducked his head with obvious embarrassment, “Yeah, well, about that,” he began. “Thing is… um…”

“What he’s trying to say,” Ellen interrupted impatiently, “is that you’re not invited. The R10 requested the assistance of Ash and Jimiel only. I have, after some persuasion, managed to convince him to add Charlie to the Quest since her level is respectable enough that she might survive the encounter but Bobby said, and I quote, ‘I need real fighters for this, not newbie idjits,’.” The shrug she offered Dean was a peculiar mix of indifference and apology.

“We did, in turn, respectfully advise the Guildmaster that our acceptance of the Quest was conditional upon your inclusion,” Jimmy told him solemnly.

“Jimmy was surprisingly bad ass about it,” Charlie confirmed gleefully. “It’s amazing how someone can be so painfully polite and still manage to tell someone to stuff his Quest where the sun don’t shine.”

Dean knew he shouldn’t feel so happy to hear that Jimmy had fought his corner like that.

But he did.

Still, he was completely confused now. “So, um, are we doing this thing or not?”

“We’re all going,” Ash confirmed.  “Bobby has only officially authorised the actual Quest for us three but you’re coming along anyway.  You can’t win the Quest rewards, but anything else like XP or… well, you know what,” he paused and gave Dean a significant look, not wanting to mention FP or SP in Jimmy’s hearing “… will still be available. Because the location is too far to reach swiftly on foot, the Guild have allocated 6 Realm Ports for Me, Charlie and Jimmy to get there and back.  So, all I need to do is gift you 2 of my own Ports and you can come with us.”

“And this Bobby is okay with that?” Dean asked.

Ellen huffed and shrugged again. “He said ‘if the idjit wants to die that bad, I ain’t gonna stand in his way but I ain’t helping him commit suicide neither.’” Then she sighed and offered Dean a more genuine smile. “He’s a grumpy bastard but his heart’s in the right place. He’s just worried about you.  Truth is, he’s worried about all of you. He doesn’t like the idea of giving a Quest like this to new Guild members at all. But one of our R8’s and an R9 have gone awol unexpectedly and Ash and Jimiel are by far the highest level players in the Guild so Bobby’s having to make use of the assets available to him at this time.  Even if they insist on bringing you and Charlie along for the ride.”

“So what’s the Quest,” Dean asked, feeling a thrum of anticipation.  It was well past time for him to face a serious challenge. Sure, his character level was still dangerously low but he was missing playing Moondoor properly. All this werewolf and gremloid ganking was okay but nothing like the kind of real play he’d experienced as his previous character in the game.  So far, playing a ‘Boss’ had been pretty underwhelming. Sure, rising 11 levels in less than a week had been quite an epic rate of advancement but, still, when he’d accepted the idea of playing as a ‘Boss’ he’d kind of expected the experience to be a bit more, well, exciting.

“An epic quest to save tens or hundreds of thousands of people from dying in your world not quite enough for you then?” Loki asked snarkily.

Fair point,” Dean allowed, but Loki was missing his point.  Sure the overall objective here was a fuck load more important than whether Dean had ‘fun’, but without the adrenalin-fuel of real excitement in-game it was going to be really difficult to keep driving himself to level up enough to compete for the First Blade.

“The Quest,” Ash said, “is ‘Reclaim the Temple of Nergar’.  Apparently some cult has taken over one of Moondoor’s temples and has dedicated it to the Dark Goddess. I’ll spare you the months-worth of historical details of the occupation since all that revisionist back-story has been inserted by the game mechanics. The relevant truth is this all only happened yesterday in real time. As far as I can tell, this scenario has been set up like a classic dungeon run. We need to defeat a Boss before we can re-dedicate the temple to Chuck and complete the Quest.”

“Do we know what level Boss is in place?” Dean asked.

“No details have been supplied,” Jimmy answered. “But the Quest is registering as an ‘Advanced Chain’ so we can reasonably expect it will require us to fight through guards, kill priests and acolytes, perhaps followed by a High Priest and then ultimately face a Boss.”

“Makes sense,” Dean agreed.

“It is probable that we will encounter many high level mobs, their strength growing exponentially as we advance through the dungeon levels,” Jimmy continued. “You and Charlie may well be unable to assist us past the first few initial levels.  However, if we form a War Party, even if only Ash and I battle the most dangerous mobs, you and Charlie will still receive a certain degree of the XP from our battles.”

“Sure,” Dean agreed easily. He wasn’t going to argue with Jimmy’s assumption he was going to be as much use as a chocolate teapot. For one thing, Jimmy had no idea Dean was a lot stronger than he looked and for another, Jimmy was possibly right. As a level 64, Jimmy had the right to be a bit arrogant about his abilities. 

But with Ash along, even Jimmy might find himself being left in the dust.  Ash could probably clear the whole dungeon by himself. With one hand behind his back.

All Dean was sure of was he was damned glad to have both of them on his side.

Ash transferred a couple of realm ports into Dean’s inventory. Ellen transferred Guild Store realm ports to Ash, Jimmy and Charlie. Then all four stepped out of the Roadhouse and ported together to Nergar.

The town of Nergar was one of the most Northern settlements in Moondoor. It was nestled at the foot of the Daniera Mountain Range, cradled in a horseshoe-shaped canyon that created a buffer against the chill winds that blew south from Arcturia.  The town was stone-built and sprawling. Further south, its size and solid structure would have qualified it as a city but this far North, where few players ever ventured, the NPC population was far smaller than the number of buildings suggested, so on population level alone it qualified only as a town.

Dead centre in the town, however, was a huge building that was definitely reminiscent of a city cathedral. Not just any cathedral.  Whoever had designed the Temple of Nergar had plagiarised the French-gothic style of Notre-Dame.

“Should we be on the lookout for rampaging hunch backs?” Charlie asked, with a smirk.

“Do you think it’s supposed to be that black?” Dean countered, frowning at the temple. Whilst the surrounding buildings were granite gray, the temple appeared carved out of obsidian.  Combined with the gothic architecture, the color created a Poe-worthy level of sinister oppression. He almost expected a raven to come flying off the ramparts.

“Nevermore,” Jimmy muttered.

Dean shot him a grin of appreciation.

“I think it’s shadow-touched,” Ash said.  “It’s not so much that the building is black. It’s more that the building looks like it’s in night mode.”

“You’re right,” Charlie agreed. “The Temple is monochrome, as though it’s in permanent darkness, So, presumably, after we gank the Boss it will revert to the color of the surrounding buildings.”

“Well, that’s probably good news,” Dean pointed out. “We’d be in more trouble if the rest of the town had turned black too, because that would mean the area of Dark influence was spreading.”

“You had to say that, didn’t you?” Jimmy said, dryly, as two of the buildings adjacent to the temple winked and turned black.

“I just received a system update,” Ash said. “A time-to-complete countdown. We only have until sunset to complete the Quest.”

“What’s that? Twelve hours?” Charlie asked worriedly.

“I suspect, this far North, that twelve hours is optimistic,” Jimmy said. “I doubt we have more than ten hours before the sun sets in Nergar.”

“No time to waste then,” Dean said, retrieving only his broadsword and silver short sword from his inventory.

“You sure about that?” Ash asked quietly, nodding at the short sword in Dean’s hand.

Dean nodded firmly. He wasn’t going to touch the Crude Bone Dagger unless his life literally depended on it. The buff offered by the Mark of Cain wasn’t worth the risk of acquiring more SP accidentally.

“I’ll go first,” Ash said, casting a spell on his staff to make the orb glow brightly. It was, he thought, reasonable to assume the darkness cast over the building also extended to its interior.  Besides, a glowing orb was always a cool prop.

“I’ll take the rear,” Jimmy said, firmly.

Dean and Charlie didn’t argue with the plan. Sure, being cast as the near to useless filling in the sandwich rankled with both of them but there was no arguing with the sense of having the two strongest players guarding them front and rear.

“I’m a southpaw,” Charlie told Dean as they entered the building in formation.

Dean nodded his understanding and consequently concentrated his attention to the right as they progressed through the dark interior of the building.

Ash’s orb lit up a rough circle of approximately 20 feet in diameter. Beyond its area of effect, the darkness was so black it felt like a gaping void. Even so, Dean still thought he could see shifting movement within the shadows. Insubstantial, impossible to define into recognisable shapes, yet distinct areas of deeper blackness moving in a pattern that clearly appeared to have some form of logic or reason. Then he saw a glint of something. Just a brief, barely visible flash of red light in the pitch black of the shadows. A glint like….

He thrust his sword forward as he sensed, rather than saw, an area of shadow burst free from the mass towards him.

He heard a yelp of pain, saw blood splatter onto the floor, saw a momentary flash of red again, but the only other indication he had truly struck something was Loki’s spoken confirmation he had gained XP from a critical hit.

“Fuckers are invisible,” he barked out in warning. “They’re fast and low but all I can see is the occasional reflection of an eye.”

“Some kind of wolves maybe,” Charlie agreed, as her own blade found purchase in an attacker approaching from their left.

Ash cursed and cast a wide-range illumination spell. His magic didn’t completely dispel the creatures’ invisibility cloaks but did at least apply a 30% debuff. As soon as the spell came into effect, the attackers were revealed to be huge dark hounds with menacing red eyes.  Hell hounds.  At 30%, the hounds remained smoky and insubstantial but the important thing was that they were visible. A quick analysis revealed their health varied between 30 and 40 HP so even Dean could despatch any of them with a single strike of his sword.

Without Ash’s spell, though, Dean had no doubt the creatures would have easily overwhelmed him and ripped him limb from limb. It would have been impossible to defend himself from a pack of fully invisible enemies.

Behind him, he could hear the impact of Jimmy’s blade as the level 64 player made quick work of despatching all the hounds that approached from the rear.  His movements were swift and sure, as he whirled like a dervish, swinging his broadsword like a scythe through the ranks of the hounds.

Ash, more of a showman, was despatching all the hounds in front of them by casting fireballs that exploded on impact.

So Charlie and Dean only needed to handle the odd beast that tried darting in from the side.

Within ten minutes, the level was cleared.

“That was surprisingly difficult for a first dungeon level,” Jimmy announced calmly, as he wiped blood and brains off his sword.

Dean agreed. It wasn’t just the level of the beasts (he would ordinarily have expected level one dungeon mobs to be no more than 10 to 20 HP) but the invisibility.  That was the aspect that had raised the quest to ‘Advanced’ from the get-go.  No mage lower than character level 30 would have been able to cast the debuff spell Ash had used.  Which meant this Quest was only suitable for players who were level 30 or above.

No wonder Bobby had initially rejected Charlie as a candidate, let alone himself.

Ash had clearly had the same thought because he said, “Look, don’t take this the wrong way guys, but maybe Jimmy and I ought to enter the next level alone. We can call you through once we clear it.  I came here thinking it would be four or five levels before we hit anything remotely dangerous. But if level one was that difficult, it’s only going to get worse.”

“Ash is correct,” Jimmy said, apologetically. “There is no sense in either of you facing unnecessary risks today.”

“Fuck that,” Dean spat.

“What he said,” Charlie agreed.

Jimmy shrugged at Ash in a what-can-you-do gesture.  Ash sighed his agreement but said, “Don’t come bitching to me tomorrow when you both have mega death debuffs to deal with.”

And, bottom line, that was the worst thing they were facing here.

Well, that and the not-inconsequential matter of Dean losing one of his limited 10 lives but since none of the others seemed to be remembering his unique vulnerability in that moment, Dean didn’t feel it was necessary to remind them.

So the four of them, still in formation, passed through the door that led into the next level.

 

Chapter Text

“What the fuck were those?” Charlie demanded, as they all collapsed on the floor, panting for breath, as her system interface confirmed the second level had been cleared. Initially, they had thought the level was just filled with a higher quantity of the Hell hounds but these particular black dogs had been resistant to Ash’s fireballs and had only appeared vulnerable to silver. They had also varied between 50 and 80 HP, so it took at least two strikes of most weapons to kill them.

“Skinwalkers, I think,” Dean replied. “Because they sure as hell weren’t werewolves.”

“Definitely skinwalkers,” Ash confirmed, “because I was bitten. I felt the infection instantly, as it tried to transform me, but it was only a level 8 infection spell and I have level 10 magic resistance so it was easy to negate.”

“Anyone bitten who isn’t a super Mage?” Dean asked, looking around worriedly.

Jimmy and Charlie both shook their heads. “It was close though,” Charlie admitted. “I now understand why you objected to having bare arms and legs in this costume,” she told Dean. “The bastards definitely tried to zero in on my unprotected skin but at least I’ve got a level 24 mana shield…oooh…. Make that a level 25,” she said, with a squeal of happiness as she realised she had levelled up at some point during the fight.  “How’s your level?” she asked Dean.

“Twelve now,” he confirmed, grinning his satisfaction.  “Even though I’m only getting 10% of the War Party XP, as the lowest level member, it’s still almost doubling the rate I can collect experience on my own.  10% stacks up quickly when Ash and Jimmy are slaughtering so many of these things.”

“There were 30 hellhounds,” Jimmy said, “but 60 of the skinwalkers. Do we assume there will be 90 mobs in level 3?”

“Dunno,” Dean said. “My gut tells me they’re more likely to mix it up and throw something completely different at us next time.”

“Is your gut frequently correct in its assumptions?” Jimmy asked, completely seriously.

Ash laughed. “Dean’s instincts are legendary,” he said. “Somehow he always seems to know where things like hidden trapdoors are. Definitely saved my butt a few times in the past. Like I said, don’t let his current level fool you. He’s an experienced player just temporarily stuck inside an unimpressive avatar.”

“Hey,” Dean protested. “My avatar is awesome. It’s just my character level that sucks.”

“I would concur,” Jimmy said, glancing at Dean appraisingly.

Dean blushed and dropped his gaze from the other player. He couldn’t tell whether Jimmy had been agreeing he looked awesome or just agreeing his character level was shit.

“I would suggest going through ahead of the rest of you to scope out the next level but, dunno if you noticed but…” Ash said.

“The door closed and sealed behind us last time,” Charlie interrupted. “The door only opened again after we killed the last mob. The dungeon is definitely preventing retreat from an active level so it’s probable if you go through on your own, you won’t be able to return to us.”

Ash nodded his agreement. “Yeah, I think if we split up we won’t be able to regroup until the level is cleared. The offer is still open for just me and Jimmy to go through,” he added, glancing at Jimmy to check he was agreeing.

“All for one and one for all,” Dean replied firmly, rising to his feet and heading towards the next doorway. “We’ll go through together. I mean, it’s level three right? How bad can it be?”

“I really wish you’d stop saying things like that,” Jimmy murmured as they stepped into the next room.

“Shit,” Dean spat. “I fucking hate rock ogres.”

Dean’s instincts that the dungeon would ‘mix it up’ proved to be correct.  Level four also contained rock ogres but five of them rather than three. They were still relatively weak examples of their species but that only meant they had a mere 800 HP each, so taking them down took the four players over an hour.  Ash and Jimmy came out of that fight with barely a scratch. Both Dean and Charlie, however, came out of that level with severely depleted HP.

Charlie had been struck so hard by one of the ogres that she’d been dashed against a stone wall, breaking her right arm and fracturing her right cheekbone.  It was, she said, the first time she'd actually felt glad not to be in her bespoke avatar since using Ash's rig meant she felt only 70% or so of the pain.

Dean had fared fractionally better, coming out of the fight with just cuts and bruises, but some of the cuts were severe ones and several of the bruises were bone deep. He had dropped almost as much HP as Charlie. Plus he felt 100% of the pain, so he thought Charlie had clearly gotten the better end of the deal.

Ash had expended a couple of his limited supply of healing potions. The vials healed each of them for 40% of their damage but, even so, they both were still limping, battered and sore as they made their way to level 5.

The rest of their health was regenerating by itself, their skin and bones slowly knitting back together, but they had no time to rest because the countdown was ticking and they were still working their way through temple guards which indicated they still had several levels to go before facing the Boss.

Level five held only two mobs, but they were both Wendigos with over 1250 HP each and since they proved to be impervious to anything except Ash’s fireballs, Dean and Charlie finally accepted their companions’ urging for them to just sit, rest and recover more HP.   Jimmy was unable to land any critical blows to the beasts, since they swiftly regenerated their HP if struck by any weapon that wasn’t fire-based.  But his speed and strength still proved crucial to Ash’s success. His continual harrying of the mobs proved sufficient distraction for Ash to momentarily pause fighting long enough to cast a spell that increased the power and range of his fiery projectiles enough to immolate the creatures.

Unfortunately, that meant Jimmy was also singed rather badly since he was caught in the fireball’s explosion and his gear only had 75% fire-resistance.  He dropped 80 HP, almost 15%, and since his regen rate was only 5% per hour, he was inevitably going to spend the rest of the dungeon run with a partial injury debuff unless Ash could heal him.

He waved off Ash’s offer of a healing potion, though, telling him to save them in case Charlie and Dean needed to be healed again.

Between the rock ogres and the War Party share of the Wendigo XP, Charlie’s experience bar had moved quarter of the way towards level 26.  Dean had already hit level 13 though, since the XP needed for his level up was quarter the amount required for a level up between 25 and 26.

Even so, a quick analysis between his stats and hers confirmed that, in real terms, at level 13 he had actually overtaken her in strength.  He had the points equivalent now of a level 26 player, even though his public profile failed to display that fact. Why that was particularly relevant (hence the reason for him double-checking) was that they were regenerating at roughly the same rate.

Not that he really thought their healing rate was going to make much difference at this stage of the dungeon.  Neither he nor Charlie had been able to fight at all against the Wendigos and the problem hadn’t really been their health bars.  Sure, being injured didn’t help but the truth was they were simply totally out of their league in this dungeon run. 

“Exactly how good are the rewards on offer for this Quest?” he grumbled, as they all headed for the sixth level.

“Considerably insufficient for the difficulty level we have encountered so far,” Jimmy replied, his tone somewhat disgruntled.

“Yeah,” Ash agreed. “The game mechanics here are pretty fucked up.  Usually you can judge pretty accurately what you’re facing in a Quest because the risk/reward ratio in Moondoor is always completely consistent.  But not today. Those Wendigos were of a strength that we shouldn’t have faced at all for a Quest of this type. Besides, nothing that strong should have appeared until the penultimate level of any dungeon, regardless of the rewards on offer, yet I highly doubt this door is going to lead us directly to the Boss. That wouldn’t fit with the narrative provided for this temple. So either the narrative is wrong or the mobs have been set too high. Either way, this whole scenario sucks.”

“You can say that again,” Charlie snarled, as they opened the door into the next level.  “This is bullshit.”

“It’s…um…different,” Dean allowed.

“Woah, kind of creepy,” Ash said. “In a creepy uncle you really wish you weren’t related to kind of way.”

“Maybe they were trying for a Leia vibe?” Dean suggested, generously.

“They missed,” Charlie retorted. “That’s less Leia and more non-consensual BDSM.”

“I assume the challenge presented by this level is to rescue the rather underdressed lady dangling from those chains before she is impaled?” Jimmy suggested awkwardly.

“That’s no lady,” Dean snorted.

Charlie rounded on him angrily. “Don’t be a sexist asshole.”

“Like whoever programmed this whole scenario you mean?” he replied calmly. 

She huffed angrily. “No-one on my team would ever program deviant shit like this into Moondoor.”

“It certainly appears at odds with the normal scenarios of the game,” Jimmy agreed. 

“The fangs on that Jabba-type mob are pretty nasty,” Ash said, absently.

“You’re looking at its fangs?” Dean asked.

“Trying to distract myself from the obvious,” Ash muttered.

“Is it working?”

“Nope. Can’t unsee the rest of it.”

“So, given that this scene is sick shit that Charlie and her team didn’t program into the game, who created it?” Dean asked.  “Can’t see this being Chuck’s kind of thing.”

“You’d be surprised,” Loki snickered.

Really?”

“Nope. Just yanking your chain.”

“Does it really matter who wrote this?” Charlie demanded. “We need to rescue her before… well…jeez… I feel sick just thinking about it. “

“Those chains are definitely lowering her incrementally towards the waiting creature,” Jimmy said, choosing his words with delicacy. “I do believe there is a time factor here for us to consider.”

“So do we split up? Jimmy and me against the ‘thing’ whilst you and Dean try to get her down?” Ash asked Charlie.

Dean coughed loudly until they all turned towards him.  “We do nothing,” he said. “Just let it happen.”

“WHAT?” Charlie howled.

“I have analysed the lady in question and she is registering as a player, not an NPC,” Jimmy said, “I do not believe we can fail to offer assistance.”

Dean shrugged. “It’s a fake set up.  If that was really a player she would have logged out already. It’s a trap.”

“A trap,” Ash repeated slowly.

“A trap,” Dean repeated firmly.

Ash shrugged. “Okay,” he agreed.

“You’re just going to listen to him?” Charlie demanded angrily.

“Like I said before, Dean’s got good instincts. If he says it’s a trap, I believe him,” Ash replied.

Jimmy looked at them uncertainly for a moment, then sheathed his sword significantly.

Charlie stared at the three of them furiously for a few moments then visibly deflated. “Yeah, okay. You’re right, it does stink like a trap.”

They were rewarded by a slow, sarcastic clapping. Turning to find the source of the sound they witnessed the ‘lady’ now unfurling from the chains and lowering herself easily to the ground, a sneer on her face, “Fine, you want to do this the hard way?” she snarled. “That’s okay with me.”

“What are you?” Jimmy asked her, his tone polite. “Clearly not a player character, despite my S.I. stating you are one.”

“Me?” she asked, faking surprise. “Why, I do believe I am probably your worst nightmare.”

Her eyes flashed and then turned a solid, menacing black.

Immediately, the S.I’s of all four players flashed the words:

*** LEVEL 50 DEMON ***

“What the fuck?” Dean exclaimed, jumping back in shock.

“Why is there a ‘Demon’ in Moondoor?” Jimmy asked, his total confusion palpable. “I have never encountered one before.”

“It’s a new game setting,” Charlie told him hurriedly, deciding it was too late to be coy about it. “It’s not public knowledge yet but, yeah, demons are a 'thing' now.”

“I thought demons could only be summoned by players though,” Dean pointed out. “That’s what you told me right at the beginning of all this. Remember?”

Charlie nodded her agreement. “They can,” she said. “They can’t exist in the game at all unless summoned. I know there are weird things happening in the game that I can’t explain but I know for certain the demonic limitations are set in stone. I’ve seen that code with my own eyes. If this woman is a demon, a player must have summoned her.”

“And, presumably, the rest of them too?” Ash asked, pointedly, as more black-eyed demons emerged from the shadowy edges of the room to surround them.

What the fuck is going on?” Dean demanded furiously.

“I’m just checking something,” Loki replied distractedly. “Hang on.”

“Is there a protocol for fighting demonic characters?” Jimmy asked, quietly.

“Holy water, crucifixes maybe… that kind of shit,” Ash replied.

“I do not believe any of us have those items in our inventories,” Jimmy replied.

“No shit, Sherlock,” Dean muttered.

“I’ve got it,” Loki yelled suddenly, causing Dean to start in surprise. “Looks like one of the other Knights hit level 15 yesterday and got out of purgatory.  I think he’s the ‘boss’ you’re supposed to be ganking here today.”

Why would a Knight dedicate a temple to the Dark Goddess?” Dean argued.

“I don’t think he did,” Loki replied thoughtfully. “I think that’s just the way the meta data misinterpreted the reason for the Temple going ‘dark’.”

Dean thought furiously.  If this really was a case of a Knight escaping purgatory within a week, then it stood to reason he’d done so by killing a hell of a lot of monsters to level himself up. If he’d done so by using his Crude Bone Dagger, he would have built up a huge stash of Soul Points.  Presumably, he’d arrived in Moondoor and immediately used that SP to summon these demons but why? Why summon demons when there had been no target to aim them at?

“Maybe just to find out what they do,” Loki suggested.  “Makes sense he’d want to trial them out before depending on them in a critical situation.”

So he deliberately chose this setting, this Temple, so the system would alert the R10’s of all the Guilds that there was a potential Quest here?”

“I think so,” Loki said. “I think he’s just looking for some random high level players to test the demons against.”

He’s not specifically targeting me?”

“Don’t see how he could be,” Loki replied. “For one thing, he’d have no way of knowing you’d left Purgatory already. Besides, if he was after you he wouldn’t have set up a trap for high level players, would he?”

So as far as he knows, I’m just a normal newbie?”

“Yup.”

Okay, Dean decided. He could probably use that to his advantage.  Always assuming any of them survived the monkeys long enough to meet the actual organ grinder.

Any idea which Knight got out early?” he asked Loki.

“He apparently calls himself Crowley.”

 

 

Chapter Text

At a mere 9 stories high, the building that housed Woolf, Roman, Van Dueran LLP barely registered on the city skyline but its opulent modern architectural design still turned the heads of all who passed by its gleaming glass and chrome exterior.

That design scheme flowed through its interior. White and black marble tiles covering its floors and walls, glass and chrome desks, flat screen monitors, black leather cube seats; black ash furniture and, here and there, graphic art pieces in similar monochromatic style.

So Sam always found it peculiar when he stumbled upon areas within the building that portrayed such a radically different design that he had the sensation of entering a completely separate pocket dimension.

The archive in the lower basement was a perfect example.  Although the archive was no older than the achingly modern building that rose above it, entering it was like being transported into a fusty Victorian-era library.  The archive was somehow both ancient and timeless; much like the Archivist himself.

And whilst the lobby area of the ninth floor, the domain of the Partners, was a wide expanse of white marble, black leather and severe geometric lines in keeping with the lower office floors, entering the office of Nigel Roman was eerily like being transported to Dickensian England.

Oak panelled walls, floor to ceiling bookcases filled with leather-bound tomes, Chesterfield Sofas, a huge antique roll topped desk upon which a computer monitor perched as incongruously as an alien invader and in the centre of the room, in clear pride of place, a heavy oak table holding a vintage carved bone chess set in the Staunton design, the pieces of which appeared to have been left mid game.

Sam took a brief glance at the board, then paused, and then visibly winced, before returning his attention where it belonged as Nigel Roman rose from behind his desk to greet him with a handshake.  Although the gesture was more perfunctory than sincere, Sam still appreciated the courtesy. 

“You play?” Nigel asked, confirming he’d noticed Sam’s brief distraction.

“A little,” Sam dissembled, though he had been a passionate tournament player for the Stanford Chess Club.  He expected that little snippet was probably mentioned in his personnel file but a little show of humility never hurt.

“What do you think my next move should be?” the older man asked, confirming Sam’s suspicion Nigel did already know he played the game like a Master.

“You’re playing black, Sir?” Sam asked, though he was pretty sure of the answer since if it were the turn of white the game would probably already be over.

Nigel nodded.

“Sacrifice your knight on f4 and instead move your rook to b8,” Sam suggested confidently.

Nigel frowned doubtfully, playing the move out in his head, contemplating the counter-measures of his opponent, visualizing the most likely subsequent series of moves on the board should he accept Sam’s advice, then his eyes widened in surprise. “It might work,” he cackled. “Damnit, it actually might. Bastard won’t be expecting that. His whole current game plan is based on him thinking I’ll defend that knight, isn’t it?”

“From the positioning of his pieces, there appears to be clear expectation you will do so,” Sam agreed.

“He knows me too well,” Nigel sighed. “We’ve been playing together far too long and I never win,” he confessed.  Then he grinned self-depreciatingly. “I was definitely intending to defend my knight,” he admitted. “I’ve never been good at the subtle approach. I know Chess is a game of strategy, that I need to be proactive rather than reactive, but I’m afraid I continually allow myself to be provoked into dumbly charging in like a bull at a gate.”

“Perhaps you should try a different game,” Sam suggested carefully. “One more suited to your strengths?”

“Ahh,” Nigel sighed. “Unfortunately I find myself unable to fold. Not because my hubris exceeds my ability but because, frankly, I don’t want to give the bugger the satisfaction. Better to lose skirmish after skirmish than ever give up and declare the war entirely lost.”

“Pride is always a powerful motivator,” Sam agreed easily.  He kept his expression a careful mix of deference and defiance.  He needed Nigel to see him as clever but unthreatening. Although he needed to press for some answers, not to mention a possible personal introduction or recommendation to Woolfe, he wanted the older man to find his persistence to be merely an almost amusing display of the misguided ambition of youth. Sam was only here to check the state of the board, not move any pieces into play.

"J'adoube," he whispered under his breath, then said, “Was that why you chose to fight the GhostFacer case rather than simply redirect the litigants away from our Clients to the Government instead?” He deliberately blurted the words, as though they had burst out of him by their own accord.  Then he ducked his head as though embarrassed by his own outburst.

Nigel blinked at him in mild surprise at the rudeness of the sudden conversational detour but still gave him the courtesy of a considered reply.

“I confess a certain degree of my motivation was personal irritation.  In similar cases the Government have been frequently guilty of not even bothering to fight the case. They simply settle the matter immediately with an offer of compensation for the use of the patent. That offends me on a basic level since the Government does not own money. It merely acts as a caretaker of our money. As taxpayers, we should expect the custodians of our money to be more cautious when dispensing it.”

Sam nodded his agreement of the older man’s point. “The GhostFacers do, however, appear to have a legally valid claim to the Patent,” he said, his expression apologetic. “So on the surface it appears to have been an unnecessary risk to have taken.”

“The client wished me to defend. It was their position that should the litigants find themselves unable to gain a monetary advantage from holding that patent, they might be persuaded to sell ownership of it.  The litigants declined the offer at the time but it is possible this letter is designed to re-open negotiations towards a sale.”

It was Sam’s turn to look surprised. “RRE are willing to buy the patent outright but not to simply pay compensation for its use?”

“It’s a matter of control,” Nigel explained. “The former is a single one-off transaction. The monetary consideration of such a transaction can be fully quantified. The latter is a noose around their neck. The word blackmail would be harsh but, essentially, once it is established that RRE require a licence to utilize the patent, the patent-holders would forever be left in a position of considerable influence over the Company’s future.”

Sam made a show of considering that point carefully before saying, “So if the Government had been allowed to pay compensation at the time, that would have validated the litigant’s ownership of the patent making all further use of it subject to license agreements.”

“Exactly,” Nigel beamed, smiling at Sam as though he was a particularly pleasing pupil.

“So RRE knew, even when they were using the patent purely for the Government contract they were fulfilling at the time, that they would wish to use the patent themselves at a later date? That’s why they wanted you to get the claim dismissed altogether?”

“RRE were already working on a conceptual design for utilizing the patent within their own virtual reality tanks,” Nigel agreed. “Though don’t ask me the technical details. I find the whole subject of digital technology completely bewildering. I honestly can’t understand how a patent for a military application can possibly be used as a crucial component for a mere game.”

“The original patent holder actually designed his product as a medical training tool though, didn’t he?” Sam asked. “The technology he was envisaging could have even become a viable alternative to a CAT scan; one that would have completely avoided the use of X-rays.”

“It was a matter of timing, I believe,” Nigel replied. “This patent was originally filed shortly after the majority of manufacturers had committed a great deal of money to the development of MRI’s as the alternate option to CAT’s.  No-one was willing to effectively throw that money away by pursuing a third option. Particularly one so morally questionable. The technology was of great interest to the government, however, who could see a practical military application. They contracted RRE to develop the concept for them since RRE were already manufacturing immersion tanks for gaming.”

Sam nodded his understanding.  The patent in question had allowed RRE to develop their tanks to a point where a player using one now had a totally seamless, 100% realistic immersion into a virtual world.

He had done a lot of investigation into the design of the tanks ever since his impulsive older brother had signed a contract to practically live inside one of them. The rigs they were now calling ‘Generation Nine’ hadn’t even been created for players at all. They had actually been developed to train military personnel.  They were a way for soldiers to fight and even die in realistic battle situations without any risk to their physical bodies.

But the patent of the technological breakthrough that made such a fundamental difference to the ‘realism’ of 9th generation tanks over its predecessors had originally been for a device to enable doctors to map the progression of a physical disease within a controlled virtual environment. A digital avatar could be seeded by a virtual intelligence created to mimic a real patient’s own physical reactions, behaviours and thought processes. Then, utilitizing the ability to manipulate time within the virtual world, doctors could trial a series of potential treatments, testing the effectiveness of each. The doctors could even repeatedly ‘kill’ the ‘patient’ and even perform autopsies and vivisections to help them narrow down the precise cause of the disease and its rate of progression.

In some cancers, for instance, where for a cure to be fully effective it needed to be designed to specifically target a patient’s individual DNA.   In real life, by the time those individualised treatments could be perfected, it was frequently too late to save the patient they had been created for.  In a virtual environment, that process could be sped up exponentially and new iterations of the treatment could be tested repeatedly for effectiveness with no worries that a kill-or-cure application of a previously untested treatment would do any permanent real life harm.

As a diagnostic, testing and training tool the concept was brilliant.  It was, however, disturbing on a number of moral levels. Whilst no-one was concerned about the idea of utilitizing digital characters in such a way, since it was only ‘hurting’ a make-believe ‘person’, there was a great deal of concern over the long-term effect on the mental health of medical practitioners performing such procedures in such a realistic virtual environment.

No one, though, had seemed to find any moral objection to using the exact same technology to teach soldiers to be more effective killers.

“Am I correct in my belief the Government are no longer purchasing these units from RRE?” Sam asked.

Nigel frowned at him. “Why do you ask?”

“Because the most appropriate response to this latest query from the Patent holders would probably depend on whether the Government might still be called upon as defendants in any future court case,” Sam replied, his expression neutral, though what he really wanted to know was whether the Government had stopped using the tanks because they had proven to be dangerous.  There was no way of asking the question without showing his hand, though, and he doubted Nigel would know the answer anyway.

“My understanding is the current administration have made the decision to discontinue the use of such VR for military applications because of budgetary reasons. RRE are now investigating a different use of the technology in medical applications but, most importantly, the patent is now purely being used by a private company so, to answer your question, there is no current Government interest in this case.”

“What medical applications?” Sam asked, his tone one of casual interest.

“I have absolutely no idea,” Nigel replied, mildly irritated by the question. “If you are working under the misapprehension that I have superior knowledge of the situation, you’re sadly mistaken. I have very limited contact with my son and therefore no insider knowledge of RRE’s business decisions.”

Sam activated his wide puppy eyes. “That’s really sad,” he said. “I know you are both busy men but I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’d give for just one more day with my father. It breaks my heart that he’ll never be able to witness the progression of my career. I so wanted to make him proud of me,” he choked a little on the words, though not for the reason Nigel imagined.

Nigel looked at him uncomfortably, as he recalled the detailed file he’d read on Sam Winchester before their meeting. He had noticed the ‘parents deceased’ notation but hadn’t paid more than cursory attention to it. Now, looking at the man, well, over-grown boy in his office who was trying so hard not to look like a puppy begging for scraps as he tried, not very successfully, to steal a case off a senior partner, Nigel felt an unexpected surge of affection for the big, clumsy lummox.

As much as he’d never understood his son, he had loved him very much.  It was a source of deep hurt both to himself and his wife, Henrietta, that they’d barely had any contact with Richard for a number of years. Since the conception of RRE, it was almost as though his son had become a totally different person. He’d always been distracted and difficult to engage in conversation but he had at least appeared to genuinely care about his parents.  But somewhere along the line something had changed. These days, Richard didn’t even care enough to pretend any interest in his family.

If not for the occasional snippets of gossip he acquired from his regular Chess games with Richard’s long-standing Auditor, Charles Shurley, Nigel was pretty sure his only communication with his son would be the odd email and receipt of his dutiful Christmas and Birthday cards.  Cards that Richard didn’t even personally sign.

“There will be no necessity for you to send a reply to the litigant at all,” Nigel told Sam firmly. “I will pass the inquiry to the Client and ask whether they wish to revisit the idea of purchasing the patent outright.”

Sam’s face fell and his shoulders slumped with clear disappointment.

Nigel cleared his throat a little. “I am surprised by your continued interest in the matter,” he continued. “Your personnel file gives no indication that this is an area of Law you wish to pursue.”

The boy’s face flushed with obvious embarrassment and he shifted from foot to foot, looking like his hand had been caught in a cookie jar.  “It isn’t really,” he confessed, his voice small. “I just, well, to be perfectly honest I… um…”

“Saw this as an excuse to finally enter the hallowed ninth floor?” Nigel interrupted, his voice not unkind.

Still blushing, the boy looked up and bravely met his eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “Sorry, Sir.  I just hoped I might get a chance to do something impressive that might get Mr. Woolfe to notice me.”

Nigel chuckled, feeling surprisingly paternal towards the young whippersnapper. A little ambition in a young man wasn’t a bad thing.

If only his son, Richard, had shared this boy’s love of the Law maybe they wouldn’t have grown so far apart. Either way, Richard clearly didn’t share this boy’s wish to make his father proud.

“I don’t think you need to worry about that, Mr. Winchester,” he reassured him kindly.  “I am sure you will reach his attention in due time.”

As the young man made his retreat from Nigel’s office, the older man stared after him with an almost fond expression on his face. Maybe he would make a point of dropping a kind word in about the young upstart when he next bumped into Donald.

He composed a quick letter to RRE, advising them the GhostFacers were potentially open to negotiation, then turned his attention to the chessboard where, with a chuckle, he took young Winchester’s advice, abandoned his knight to fate and instead moved his rook to b8.

Then he smirked as he imagined the look of surprise on the Auditor’s face when he next visited.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“There’s nothing more I can do,” Ash gasped, as he staggered back under the assault of the swarming demons. 

The creatures all appeared to have over 80% magic resistance, making every spell he had cast virtually useless against them.   He was now sending wave after wave of mana-infused fireballs at them, the only spells that had any significant effect, but the demons’ health bars were dropping far slower than his own mana reserves. It was just a matter of time before he would be fully drained and that would happen long before any more of the demons were reduced to a critical level.

His efforts hadn’t been totally in vain, though.

It seemed the demons were vulnerable to standard weapons too, although even Jimmy’s powerful strikes were barely scratching the surface of the demon’s HP.  Still, between repeated applications of his scything blade and Ash’s fireballs, they had eventually dropped seven of the demons down to such critical health levels that they had become weak enough for Dean and Charlie to finish off.

But there were still almost a dozen remaining, plus the female level 50 demon who hadn’t even entered the melee at all.  She was just watching the brawl with an expression of sneering boredom, waiting for her troops to overwhelm the players completely.

It didn’t take much longer.

All four players found themselves disarmed, with Ash so low on mana he couldn’t have even lit a joint, let alone raised another fireball. His mana was regenerating, of course, but it would take at least an hour to raise it to a useable level again. 

“Should we log out?” Ash asked quietly, as he faced the totally unfamiliar sensation of having his hands bound behind his back by the victorious demons.

“Not yet,” Charlie spat, though she yelped involuntarily as her own arms were similarly shackled. Her right arm was still knitting itself together from the earlier break and the rough handling by the demons sent jolts of agony down her entire right side.

“What do you think, Dean?” Ash asked cautiously. “We can log out, heal up and try again later. Now we know what we’re facing, we could prepare better for a second run.”

“We don’t have time to regenerate then re-run the dungeon from scratch,” Dean replied. “We have to complete the Quest before sunset today, remember?”

“Dean is correct. The only way to restart immediately with a fully recharged avatar is if we are killed in-game,” Jimmy agreed. “Despite the death debuffs we would suffer, we would still have considerably more chance of completing the Quest within the allotted timescale if we die rather than accept defeat.”

“Which is exactly why we aren’t planning on killing you…yet,” the level 50 Demon purred, stepping forward with a sly, victorious grin on her incongruously pretty face.  “The Boss told us not to kill you.  He didn’t say we couldn’t have a little fun, though.”

She withdrew a long, wicked-looking knife from her belt, raised it to her face and licked its blade lasciviously.  Then she tossed her hair back from her face and waggled the index finger of her other hand between the four players.  “Let’s see,” she said. “Which one of you shall I start with? Hmmmm. What’s going to be more satisfying? Do I start with the big guns here? See how long it takes to cut some of your arrogance out of you before you give up and go running home to Mommy?”

She stepped towards Ash, smiled at his furious expression, then plunged her knife without warning into his left side.

Ash grunted, staggering from the pain of the blow as blood began to pool around the embedded blade, but he didn’t cry out.  Instead, he hawked a wad of spit into the demoness’s face. “Fuck off, bitch,” he snarled.

Her pretty face contorted with anger as the spittle ran down her cheek. “The name’s Meg, actually,” she said, deliberately twisting the blade in Ash’s body until he paled with agony. He still clenched his jaw and refused to give her the satisfaction of voicing his pain, though.

Impatient and furious, Meg yanked the blade out of him and turned to the other three players. “Let’s see how stoic you are when I start carving Red’s tits off her body,” she mocked. “Or maybe I’ll see what your little boyfriend looks like when I cut off his nose…though… oooh… maybe I should cut a bit lower. Nice big package you’re packing there, pretty boy.”

Dean gulped heavily as the demon’s black eyes roamed over his lower body with clear, evil intent.

“Uh, oh,” Loki said. “Looks like you’re going to be singing soprano if you don’t do something quick, Deano.”

What exactly do you want me to do?” Dean spat.

“Well, if you don’t want to be Moondoor’s first Castrati, and you aren’t planning to log out, I think you need to go with plan B.”

I have a plan B?”

“As dumb as he is pretty,” Loki sighed. “Um, hello, she’s a demon. She gets paid in SP, doesn’t she?  Don’t know how much SP Crowley had to be able to summon so many demons at once but it stands to reason he didn’t gain an infinite amount in less than a week, regardless of how murderous he was in Purgatory. So you probably now have more in your inventory than he has left unspent in his own.  You could maybe try to take control of the bitch with your own SP. Can’t imagine demons have any concept of loyalty.”

It made sense, Dean, decided.  He probably did own enough SP to bribe Meg to change sides.

“I initially presumed you were a being of considerable power,” Jimmy interrupted, just as Meg’s knife lowered towards Dean’s groin. “I was obviously mistaken. No mob of any significance would bother with a noob like him,” he scoffed. “Are you seriously so pathetically weak that you can only attack a Level 14?”

Meg’s attention snapped to Jimmy, her head whipping around snake-like to glower at the Level 64 player in offended wrath.

I leveled up again?” Dean asked Loki.

“Focus, Dean,” Loki suggested, with a put-upon sigh.

I am,” Dean retorted as he stared at Jimmy, impressed with the player’s bravery in pulling the demon’s attention to himself.  “But I think I’m gonna go with plan C.”

“What’s plan C?”

But it was Jimmy who answered.

As soon as Meg’s knife found a home in Jimmy’s belly, its sharp edges slicing through his skin and burying itself deep in his guts, Jimmy’s face contorted. But it was with confusion, rather than pain, his eyes widening with shock and his slack-jawed expression one of complete bewilderment.

“Um, Dean,” he said, hesitantly, completely ignoring the demon who was now starting to saw savagely at his flesh. “You… um… my S.I. says… um…”

“I know,” Dean interrupted, because he had suddenly understood exactly what he had to do. He checked his inventory quickly, grinned with satisfaction at its contents and shouted “Help me, Jimiel. I am PRAYING to you for help.”

Several things happened at once.

Almost a third of Dean’s hard-earned Faith Points disappeared from his inventory.

Jimmy’s eyes flashed and turned a brilliant, pulsing electric blue.

There was a crashing sound of breaking metal as the chains that bound Jimmy broke apart in an explosion of shrapnel that pierced the flesh of several of the demons but somehow, miraculously, missed the bodies of his far closer companions.

And all the dark demonic shadows of the room coalesced together, streaming towards Jimmy’s body like a tsunami but, instead of striking him, they parted into two and rose to form huge black shadow wings that stretched out from his shoulders, their tips touching the edges of the now brightly lit room.

All around the players the lesser demons were shrieking and smoking, their flesh bubbling and dissolving as the holy light seemed to work like acid on their skin.

Only Meg seemed unaffected by the light.  Her form remained unharmed by its exposure to the sudden brightness of the room but her previous sneering confidence had been replaced by an expression of obvious, if still angry, fear.

“What the fuck are you?” she demanded, as all around her the lesser demons collapsed to the floor, transformed into puddles of black gunk that slowly seeped away through the cracks in the floor tiles.

“I am an Angel of the Lord God Chuck.”  The voice was impossibly deep, emerging from Jimmy’s mouth with a resonance that literally caused the surrounding walls to crack and splinter.

*** Castiel, Angel of Chuck, Level 250 ***

Level what?” Dean gulped. “Two-frigging-fifty?”

“Dad doesn’t mess about,” Loki agreed.  “Nice to finally know who’s riding Jimmy, though. I was worried it was going to be one of the Arch-fucktards. Cassie’s okay.  Bit of a boring douche but heart’s in the right place. Actually, Jimmy kind of reminds me of him… Odd… think it’s a chicken and egg kind of thing?  I mean, was Cassie drawn to Jimmy because they are similar or is Jimmy boring because Cassie’s riding him too hard?”

Like you say, Loki. Focus. ‘Sides, Jimmy isn’t boring.”

“Well, fuck off, Clarence,” Meg spat.  “I’ve got a job to do here, so get your pretty butt out of my business.”

Castiel’s head tipped to the side in vague confusion, the gesture so Jimmy-like that Dean momentarily asked himself the same question as Loki had, “My name is not ‘Clarence’,” the Angel told the demon, in his deep, ponderous voice. “It is Castiel. And, this is my business. I must ask you to vacate this scenario and return from whence you came,” he said, his tone politely apologetic.

Meg’s black eyes stared at him in unblinking astonishment for a moment.

Then she said, “Kiss my ass, Clarence.”

As the two beings continued their peculiar stand-off, Dean took the opportunity to summon Benny from his inventory.  The vampire made quick work of removing the shackles binding the three players.

“This is fucking awesome,” Charlie said, as she rubbed her arm to ease its ache. “You’ve got a pocket monster and a pet Angel?”

Then she gulped as Castiel broke his staring contest with Meg and flashed her a repressive glare from his eerie, shining, electric-blue eyes.  She made a quick gesture of appeasement, “Okay, you’re SO not a pet,” she said, hurriedly. “Sorry, Mr. BadAss Angel guy.”

“Um, we still have a Boss to gank,” Dean told the Angel, with an apologetic shrug, “and time’s ticking so, um, could you get on with it already?”

“Woah, not cool,” Ash muttered nervously, backing away from Dean a little as though in fear he’d get caught in the cross-fire if the level 250 Angel took offense.

Which he clearly did, since he turned to face Dean with a glower and rumbled, “You should show me some respect,” in a voice that literally caused the ground under their feet to crack and shift.

But, as he turned, he waved a hand, almost absently, towards the demoness and sent a pulsing wave of blue-tinged fire in her direction.  The bright light hit her for 100% damage, smiting her instantly into a puddle of black liquid.

“Fucking-A,” Ash gulped, as *** Level Cleared *** immediately flashed on his S.I.

“Um, yeah, thanks,” Dean told the terrifyingly powerful being, rubbing his neck awkwardly.

“She just went poof,” Charlie said. “Awesome. Bet he can take Crowley out with his little finger too. Let’s go gank the Boss guy.”

The three of them, plus Benny, stepped towards the final dungeon door.

The Angel didn’t follow.

They stopped in confusion, looking back at the implacable creature.

“Um, the Boss guy is that way?” Dean suggested, waving at the door.

“You have insufficient faith points,” the Angel rumbled, his expression cold. “No further assistance will be provided at this time.”

“Bummer,” Ash pouted.

“Hang on,” Dean protested, checking his inventory. “I still have over 500 FP,” he argued. “Summoning you for this level only cost 240. What fucking rate of inflation are you applying here?”

Even if it cost double to gain assistance for the next level, he still had enough to purchase the angelic aid.

“You are no longer Righteous,” the Angel intoned implacably. “No further assistance will be provided at this time.”

Instantly, the blue energy pulsing in his eyes faded, the shadow wings dissolved, the room was plunged back to near darkness and only a confused Jimmy was left, staggering slightly, where the Angel had previously existed.

“What the fuck?” Dean exclaimed.

“You’re in negative balance,” Loki explained. “You currently have 5 more SP in your inventory than you have FP.”

“Son of a bitch,” Dean swore.  “You fucking asshole,” he snarled at the Angel. “5 fucking points?”

Since it was Jimmy now who was the unfortunate subject of his ire, the level 64 player blinked uncertainly in the face of Dean’s anger, rubbing his forehead as though he had a headache as he asked, “Where did all the demons go?”

Dean frowned at him uncertainly. “Um… do you remember telling me to pray to you?” he prompted.

“Pray to me?” Jimmy repeated incredulously. “Am I failing to comprehend humorous intercourse again?”

“He said intercourse,” Loki snickered.

Grow up,” Dean snapped.

“You don’t remember anything?” Charlie asked Jimmy urgently. “You don’t remember going all ‘smitey’?”

“That’s not a word,” Ash argued.

“It IS so a word,” she bit back.

 “I seem to have experienced a major S.I. glitch,” Jimmy said, worriedly. “I have no in-game memory of the last several minutes. I really think I should log out and purchase a different avatar.”

“Don’t you dare,” Dean yelped.

“Why not?” Jimmy asked reasonably.

 “I um… because, um, I really like the one you’re wearing?” Dean suggested weakly.

Jimmy flushed. “Thank you,” he said, shuffling awkwardly, “but I still think…”

“I think we need to tell Jimmy the truth,” Charlie said firmly.

“About what?” Jimmy demanded.

“Um, guys,” Dean said, gesturing at the waiting door.  “Maybe we could sort this out later? I think we need to go handle Crowley first.”

Jimmy glared at him suspiciously but then sighed and deflated a little. “Very well,” he agreed, “But I most certainly will expect the ‘truth’ after this dungeon is completed.”

Loki?” Dean demanded urgently. “Is it safe? Can I tell him?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘safe’,” Loki replied. “But chances are that now it’s been proven Jimmy’s a suitable vessel for seeding, even if he gets a new avatar he’ll just end up getting seeded again. And the next V.I. might be a hell of a lot worse than Castiel.”

Really?” Dean sneered, with disbelief. “Because I’m finding it hard to imagine a bigger douchebag myself. Five fucking points. What a complete DICK.”

“Cassie’s a good ‘soldier’ so he’s bit of a stickler for the rules,” Loki explained. “Chuck is very rigid about keeping precisely balanced ledgers. He doesn’t offer any wriggle room. It doesn’t matter if it’s five points or five thousand. A negative balance is a negative balance.”

Great, so god’s a fucking Accountant? Figures,” Dean sneered.

Then he turned to Jimmy.

“When we get this Quest finished, I will tell you everything,” he promised gravely.

Jimmy looked at him searchingly for a moment, then nodded his acceptance.  “Let’s go find the Boss then,” he agreed.

 

Chapter Text

Sue-Beth Johnson’s only claim to fame before 2007 was that she had once been Prom Queen.

Sadly for Sue-Beth, despite still being slender enough to totally rock her prom dress, she’d already skipped a couple of periods by the big day and so, only seven months after her graduation, she’d found herself pushing a stroller.

Danny Meenagh, Prom King, Quarterback, son of the local Chief of Police and guy who thought condoms were for losers, had been long gone by then. Hell, he hadn’t hung around more than a couple of days after hearing the news of his impending fatherhood.  The Meenagh clan had spirited him away to college in another town and Sue-Beth had been left to raise their daughter alone.

A generation or two earlier, the ‘shame’ of being a single mother might have driven Sue-Beth to leave town herself. But there were more welfairies in town by then than there were respectably married mothers.  So Sue-Beth plodded on through life, bringing her daughter up as best she could, shoring up the welfare checks with waitressing jobs.

By the time Mary-Sue was eight, Sue-Beth made the rent on their trailer-park home by working at Joe’s Pussy Emporium, a club that offered a sufficiently unique ‘service’ to draw regular out-of-town clientele to its doors.  Sue-Beth resented working for Joe Meenagh, Danny’s brother, since she’d never forgiven the family for ostracizing both herself and her daughter, but it was a small town and job opportunities were limited.  Fortunately, she at least worked as a waitress and cleaner there, rather than participating in less savory activities with patrons, and the money was a little better than working in a diner. The club had another benefit. In the basement, alongside its more traditional dungeon implements, it held three fully-equipped VR rigs that it rented out by the hour to patrons.

Sue-Beth was pretty certain none of those renters were visiting the same kind of virtual world that she herself frequented.  Quite apart from anything else, it was rare the renters utilized the tanks for more than 30 or 40 minutes maximum before they re-emerged from the booths, fully satisfied. Which meant, of course, that the rigs were frequently left fully powered but vacant for 20-30 minutes at a time.

Sue-Beth always volunteered to clean those booths after they had been vacated.  By the time the next user visited, they were always sparklingly clean with their bio-gel sanitized for reuse.

And Sue-Beth’s alter-ego, Queen Gold, would have managed to progress her character’s XP a little further.  There was always additional satisfaction in knowing that she was doing so on electricity paid for by the Meenaghs.

Sue-Beth’s claim to fame in 2007 should have been that she was the first definitive ‘civilian’ victim of the ‘darkness’.

Her body was found inside one of the VR tanks. An autopsy found that she was a victim of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.  It was, the coroner concluded, most likely she had been a sufferer of a previously undetected inherited heart disorder and that she had most likely simply expired ‘in her sleep’ in an adult version of ‘cot-death’.

Perhaps the coroner would have looked at her death more closely had he been made aware of the actual circumstances in which she died.

Joe Meenagh, however, keen to avoid any unwanted investigation of the club’s underground activities, arranged with his father, the Chief of Police, for the records to show Sue-Beth had been at home in bed when she died.

...

Hannah Carson was inconsolable.

Her husband, Gerald, held himself at least partly responsible for her distress.  Perhaps if he hadn’t been so cavalier in his ‘investigations’ of the Church’s excessive power supply, he would have been aware of Pastor Jim’s unexpected hobby and would have thought to have checked in the basement himself when the Pastor had failed to turn up for Sunday’s evening service.

Since it was rare for more than a handful of people to attend the evening service, and the good Pastor had frequently been known to cancel it previously if one of the congregation had more pressing need of his personal attention, Gerald had initially dismissed his absence as being, most likely, a case of the Pastor simply forgetting to leave a message on the church door that he was going to be absent.

So it was perhaps Gerald’s fault that it had been his wife who had found the poor man’s body on Monday morning.

Such a terrible business.

Shocking.

Though, according to the town Doctor, the Pastor had been on blood pressure medication for years and his last three readings had been so abnormally high that the Doc had already made an appointment for Pastor Jim to attend the nearest hospital for an ECG.

With an existing diagnosis of heart problems, there was no mandatory requirement for an autopsy and the Sheriff was satisfied there was no foul play involved so, already feeling guilty, Gerald acceded to his wife’s request that the actual details of Pastor Jim’s death were kept private.

The poor man had simply died of a heart attack.

And that was all anybody needed to know of the matter.

Park Chung-Hee, President of South Korea, was assassinated in 1979.

Prior to his death, the government had actively sponsored students to attend Western universities but the chaebol who employed the graduates on their return home (many of which were owned by officials within Park’s cabinet) were encouraged to consolidate their positions only within the boundaries of Korea, where those foreign-trained engineers were indispensable for the development of new, proprietary technologies for the advancement of Korean interests.

After Park’s death, however, the government no longer afforded special privileges to the chaebol. Companies such as Lucky Chemical, Samsung, Daewoo and Goldstar Electronics were forced to look outwards for investment to Western Companies such as AT & T and Honeywell. In the wake of this, Lucky Chemical and Goldstar merged together to form Lucky-Goldstar and, in a bid to enter the global market, opened a television manufacturing facility in Huntsville, Alabama in 1982.

In 1984, Jaron Lanier founded a company named VPL Research in Palo Alto. It was not only one of the first companies to sell VR products but also implemented a programming language to develop applications of VR such as the DataGlove and the EyePhone.  In 1989 VPL contracted Lucky-Goldstar, later known as LG Electronics, to manufacture a number of advanced speculative prototypes of a virtual reality immersion tank.

In 1990, shortly before the contract was completed, VPL filed for bankruptcy and Lucky-Goldstar was left with a dozen finished prototypes and no customer to reimburse its considerable investment in the product. The political ramifications back home of making such a financial misstep would be considerable for the Korean company should they fail to somehow recoup their investment. 

With VPL’s demise, there was the potential to tear up the non-disclosure agreement they had signed which prevented them ‘stealing’ the design for their own purposes.  Unfortunately, since their entire business model was based upon a concept of ‘Life is Good’ and their growing success in the international market was primarily based upon the development of their reputation as totally trustworthy manufacturers of products that always made their customers’ lives ‘better’, the immersion tanks were not something that Lucky-Goldstar wished to have their name associated with.

Lucky-Goldstar was far from convinced that the tanks it had manufactured on behalf of VPL would make anybody’s lives ‘better’. It had, in fact, a great number of concerns over both the safety of the tanks and their potential for misuse.

Fortunately for Lucky-Goldstar, a brand new company named RRE approached it and offered to discreetly purchase the prototypes.

Although the money RRE offered was less than the full amount LG had invested, it still enabled the latter to clear a large portion of the financial deficit caused by the collapse of VPL.  More importantly, however, the deal passed all manufacturing and design responsibility to RRE.  Lucky-Goldstar effectively wiped its hands of the product entirely.

With that transaction, RRE took physical ownership not only of the finished prototypes but also the original drawings and tooling for the tanks.  With those, it was possible for RRE to contract the manufacture of further tanks themselves.

What RRE failed to acquire, because of the very nature of the events that had transpired, was any access to the original design process. Neither did RRE have access to any of the people who had been instrumental in taking Lanier’s original idea from concept to reality.

Richard Roman, with the hubris of youthful genius, was certain that would not prove to be an issue. He was supremely confident of his ability to fully reverse engineer the prototypes to fill the gaps in his understanding before he proceeded to not only use, but further develop, the tanks for the purpose of his original creation, ‘Moondoor’.

He was almost successful.

Bobby Singer was the first person to describe himself as an ‘ornery old coot’.

He was unashamed of the description. On the contrary, he wore it like a badge of honor. He was, therefore, probably not the first person who would jump to mind to play the role of a Guild Master in Moondoor. He had no interest in ‘power’, per se, and even less interest in the nurturing of other players so he couldn’t even claim he had accepted the role to fulfill an innate urge to act as a mentor to those less experienced in the game.

But Bobby absolutely hated being told what to do. In any aspect of his life.

So the real reason he was the R10 of the Hunter Guild was that it meant he was ‘the boss’.  Better, in his opinion, to be the R10 of a tiny guild like the Hunters than hold any lower rank within a larger Guild.

Because, as a rule, people were idjits.

Bobby had no patience with any of them.

He often regretted getting involved with Moondoor altogether.  He would have been far better off finding a hobby that didn’t necessitate regular interaction with other people. He certainly hadn’t started off with any intent to spend hours every day participating in a virtual world at all, let alone become responsible for an entire guild of people.

He’d actually found the game completely by accident. 

Everything about his life would probably have been completely different were it not for his wife’s untimely death.  A couple of years after her passing, already developing a reputation as an antisocial asshole, Bobby had purchased the contents of a rented storage locker. The sale had been for the full contents of the locker, sight unseen, after the renter had failed to pay their rental fees. Bobby regularly purchased lockers, knowing the scrap value alone of the contents would often turn him a good profit. Now and then, though, the lockers contained items of such value that it beggared belief the owners of said items would allow them to end up at public auction for the sake of a few missed rental payments.

And it was one such item that had precipitated Bobby’s downfall.

He had, via a series of peculiar events, none of which are particularly relevant at this point of the story, somehow become the unwitting owner of a number of badly damaged VR immersion tanks.  

It should be said that his initial reaction, after his “what the hell?” moment, was to consider the scrap value of the metal should he simply smelt the things down.  But curiosity had eventually won out.  He had decided one evening, after possibly a few too many whiskeys, that he might as well see whether he could make one working model out of the detritus of nine burned tanks.

Just a momentary act of curiosity, driven by loneliness and a little too much Jack.

It had taken literal years to get the tank working.  And the result had been far more life-changing than he might have ever imagined.

Because that was how, in a round-about way, he had discovered Moond0or.

And, eight years later, he was still playing the damned game.

The game offered him a number of compensations, he had to admit.  His friendship with Ellen was, undoubtedly, one of the primary draws that kept him playing.  Unlike everyone else who met her, it seemed, Bobby was perfectly aware that Ellen was an NPC rather than a player. Were he inclined towards self-reflection, he would probably admit to himself it was the digital nature of her existence that drew him to her so strongly. Ellen was dependable and permanent and immortal

NPC’s didn’t need funerals, flowers and mourning.

Even if they died in-game, they re-spawned after a period of time and slotted back into place as though they had never left.

But even Ellen’s welcome presence in his digital life barely made up for the necessity to interact with idjits such as Gordon.

Bobby believed Gordon was one of the breed of people drawn to Moondoor because of a fundamental flaw in themselves.  He suspected Gordon was a man whose real-life existence was one of bitter disappointments. He probably had a job he hated in which he wielded little or no power over his own fate.  Gordon was probably an abusive, loudmouthed asshole in Moondoor because it offered him a platform to say things out loud that he had to swallow unspoken in real life.

Still, Bobby had reluctantly accepted him as one of his R8’s because, asshole or not, Gordon was good at playing the game.  Also, Gordon thrived when his self-importance was fed by the hero-worship of newbies. So, in many ways, although being an R8 had given Gordon a way to bully smaller players it had, more often than not, actually brought out the best in him instead as he strove to win the adulation of new players.

Gordon, in his own way, was as predictable and dependable as Ellen.  His presence, whilst often unwelcome to Bobby, was as immutable.  Which was why it made no sense, whatsoever, why Gordon had abruptly disappeared from the game altogether.

Likewise, KillerSaint’s sudden absence was equally disturbing.

Unlike Gordon, though, KillerSaint was probably as close to a real friend as Bobby had ever met in the game. 

The nature of Moondoor, like most on-line game platforms, was that players were, on the whole, anonymous.  No-one except for the Devs had any access to a player’s real-life identity and even the Devs could only pinpoint the identity of the holder of the bank account linked to online purchases for individual player characters.  Since the whole point of the game was to enable players to have a platform to escape their real lives, it made sense for them to be able to keep their real lives and game lives separate. Few people used their real names in-game (something Bobby had been innocently unaware of when he created his own online character) and fewer still ever shared their RL identities with other people in-game.  Even as an R10, Bobby wasn’t privy to any information except those details which his guild members chose to share with him.

So Jim Murphy, known in Moondoor as KillerSaint, was a complete exception to the norm because Bobby not only knew Jim’s true identity but also had his phone number. Which was why, after over a day of unexpected radio silence from both Gordon and KillerSaint, Bobby made the decision to log out and make a telephone call to Pastor Jim.

His phone call to the church in Blue Earth was diverted to the office of the local Sherriff.

Considering he had never actually met Jim Murphy, Bobby was surprised to find himself genuinely bereft to learn that his ‘friend’ had apparently suffered a fatal heart attack on Sunday evening.   The death had been, he was assured, a perfectly natural one.

Bobby had no reason to doubt the Sherriff’s words.

And yet he still found himself wondering whether there was any way to discover the identity of Gordon. 

He didn’t even like the guy.

But he still felt a compelling need to satisfy himself that Gordon hadn’t also suffered a ‘perfectly natural’ death on Sunday.

 

Chapter Text

If anyone were privy to the childhood memories that lurked within Fergus MacLeod’s head, they might have suspected he was some genuine form of undead being like a vampire or a demon because anyone seeing the dangerous and filthy conditions of the slum he was raised in would surely believe he was born several hundred years earlier.

He was, however, a child of The Gorbals in Glasgow and, in 1964, when Fergus was five years old, that place was like a hell on earth.

Nothing about the 48-year-old Fergus who had accepted the dubious honor of becoming a Knight of Hell in Moondoor gave any indications of his origins. Even his accent had been lost over the years, becoming some weird transatlantic bastardization that possibly suggested a British ancestry, perhaps hinted at the influence of Scottish heritage, but never, ever, gave any acknowledgment of his thick Glaswegian roots.

And nobody meeting him in the flesh, or indeed in-game, saw any evidence of the tiny, skinny runt who had scurried rodent-like through the tenements, ducking fists, picking pockets and skating on the knife-edge of genuine starvation with his broken teeth and pock-marked skin.

Fergus, or Crowley as he now called himself, was a self-made man in every meaning of the phrase.

The middle-aged Crowley was no longer short. He had reached a perfectly respectable 5 ’10” (though he usually lied to add another ½”) but looked shorter due to his heavy-set frame.  He wasn’t overweight by any normal definition, but he definitely wore a few pounds of extra padding on his dense frame. They added gravitas, he claimed, though he knew, late at night when he woke from terrible dreams that could only be quietened by the taste of food in his mouth, that his fear of starvation was the true source of his greed. Just as his fear of poverty was the driving force behind his ruthlessness as a businessman.

None of the above was any excuse for Crowley.

His choices remained his own.

It wasn’t inevitable that he should become a total and utter ruthless bastard.

Still, easier to understand a man if you understand the weaknesses and motivations that drive him, so a little potted history of Fergus ‘Crowley’ MacLeod is warranted at this point before the Four players and their vampire companion meet the Boss lurking within the final dungeon hall.

Crowley was the child of Margaret Thatcher, the UK prime minister from 1979 to 1990.

Fergus Roderick MacLeod was actually the child of Rowena MacLeod, a single Glaswegian girl knocked up by some married English asshole who dipped his wick in a bit of Scottish wench and then fucked off back across the border, never to be seen again.  But Crowley was the direct fruit of Thatcher’s loins or, more precisely, her 1980 Right To Buy legislation.

Aged 21, in 1980, Fergus saw opportunity beckoning and seized it with both hands.

By 1981, Crowley was the owner and slum-landlord of several dozen properties.

It happened thusly:

Fergus had never been much of a fighter.  He wasn’t even much of a scrapper.  There were guys in the Gorbals as skinny and as short as he was, who were perfectly capable of shanking someone with a sharp knife, guys who had gained serious reputations of being evil, lethal, little gob-shites.  Fergus wasn’t one of them.  It wasn’t that he had any problem with the sight of blood (unlike Ash) nor any feelings of empathy or sympathy, and it definitely wasn’t an issue of morals.

Fergus’s problem was simply that he just had no natural, athletic aptitude.

He was, frankly, so physically inept he was more likely to fumble and drop a knife than stab someone with it.

Fergus wasn’t one to navel-gaze about his shortcomings. Neither was he the type of personality to constantly knock his head against a brick wall to try and force himself to overcome a weakness. Especially when he decided, very early in life, that it wasn’t a weakness to be maladroit. Physical prowess was only a desirable trait in minions. And what Fergus wanted to be was a boss.

So when his compatriots were running around in their razor gangs, carving out their own tiny fiefdoms within the tenement slums of Glasgow, Fergus was already working towards the big picture.  Getting out of Glasgow permanently was going to require money. Serious money. And the only serious money he was ever likely to lay his hands on, short of robbing an actual bank, was drug money.

As new housing schemes were created to ease overcrowding in The Gorbals, gangs sprung up on almost every street corner, and a deluge of heroin was drowning the streets, mainly peddled by the Carlton Tongs and the Gorbals Cumbie.

Fergus wasn’t a fighter. But he was quick and smart. Smarter than the drug barons flooding Muggers Alley with their wares. Smarter even than the ‘untouchables’, the undercover cops desperately trying to infiltrate the gangs and close them down.

By 1979, Fergus was successfully peddling drugs on behalf of several of the largest gangs, slipping and sliding through them all like a greased pig, avoiding any specific loyalty or affiliation, keeping his involvement with each of them small enough that he stayed under the radar, yet building a huge portfolio of clients who knew he was the ‘go-to’ guy for their fix.

He spent hours of every day hanging around street corners next to public payphones, waiting for the calls that would summon him to do business with the helplessly addicted flotsam and jetsam of the City. And although the drug barons rose and fell, jailed or killed or driven out of town only to be replaced with new equally faceless proxies, Fergus continued to deal his low-level deals, keeping touch with the pulse of supply and the surge of demand. Even so, he was surviving, not thriving, and despite his mounting bank balance, escape still seemed no more than a pipe dream.

But then, in 1980, Margaret Thatcher came charging in on her white horse and became the answer to all of Fergus’s prayers.

Well, it was a slightly convoluted way of answering a prayer but, basically, she passed legislation that gave ALL council tenants the ‘right to buy’ the properties they were renting. Furthermore, and more importantly, the tenants could buy those properties at a fraction of their retail value which meant that even people who had no chance in hell of ever getting credit under normal circumstances were being handed bank loans they couldn’t possibly afford to pay back, so they could hand over the required deposits to claim their homes (because the banks knew when they inevitably defaulted on paying back the small deposit loans, the banks could take possession of the homes entirely, then sell them on at a huge profit).

Capitalism at its finest.

Fergus didn’t see why the banks should win all the goodies from the idiotic legislation.  So he approached the crack-hoes and welfare-louts on his books, encouraging them to buy their properties under the scheme but he floated them the deposit money himself.  And, one by one, as they defaulted on their house repayments (often due to him tempting them with more drugs than he knew they could afford to pay for), he took possession, evicted them and then rented to people who were just as desperate but not drug addicts.

And so Crowley was born.

It took Fergus a further nine years to completely re-invent himself, to consolidate his financial position and transform fully into the man who looked like, dressed like and acted like Crowley, but by the time he boarded the flight that took him to his new life in the States he was not only traveling First Class and wearing a Rolex, he was, for all intents and purposes, a completely new man.

Roll on seventeen years and Crowley was still a rich, successful landlord (though not necessarily a slum-one) but his rental portfolio was nothing more than a fake-front. A way to launder the profits from his real business.

Crowley’s fortune no longer came from drugs or house-repossessions or tenant rentals.

It came from sex.

More specifically, completely 100% lifelike Virtual sex.

Crowley hadn’t merely cornered the market, he’d invented it.

And the most ironic thing about him accepting the position of “Knight of Hell” was that in doing so he’d been forced to temporarily resign his ‘day job’ which was being the “King of Hell”.

The Hell he was ‘King’ of wasn’t a realm of Moondoor.  It was, however, located inside Moondoor and, until the moment the company rep had turned up on his front door with the ‘offer’ to become a boss player, Crowley had been reasonably certain none of the Developers had even been aware of ‘Hell’s’ existence.

Because ‘Hell’ was a completely exclusive virtual sex club, located within the locked walls of Hades City deep within the lakes of Fenrir.  Hades was the location of his GuildHouse, its walls sealed to anyone who wasn’t a Guildmember, and Hell was ostensibly simply the Temple Building in the heart of Hades.  In reality, it was a high-end sex club to which only Crowley (and a select few franchisees who had paid a fortune for the privilege) could grant access.  For a set, if somewhat astronomical, fee, Crowley’s clients could enter a VR booth and partake of any activity within Hell.

Any activity.

Crowley counted it as being as much a public service as it was a business. After all, by providing the services he did, he was keeping all manner of perverts, deviants, and pedophiles off the streets in the Real World.

And the real beauty of it was that the Moondoor game engine actually lent itself to such an enterprise. He’d noted early on in the game that if, for instance, a player took a hankering to purchase a ranch (and could provide enough in-game credit to pay for it) they could play at cowboys in Moondoor, and the game quickly caught on to the player’s intentions and began populating the ranch with suitable NPC’s.  Within a short while, the ranch would be filled with staff from cooks down to wranglers to ensure a fully satisfying player ‘experience’.

So Hell had gradually filled with a myriad of suitable NPC’s too.  From the general brothel area to the more hardcore dungeon areas, all of Crowley’s employees were virtual ones. They didn’t require salaries, they never went on strike and if any of the customers were a little over-enthusiastic, the NPC’s eventually respawned so no real harm was done (though Crowley always debited a fine from the Customer’s credit cards anyway).

In truth, Crowley hadn’t actually started playing Moondoor with the intention of turning it into a perverted (and highly profitable) sex club.

He’d honestly just wanted to play at being a medieval warrior for a change because he’d grown bored of being a middle-aged businessman and, having just paid off his third wife’s divorce settlement, he was feeling jaded and a bit lonely.

What he’d forgotten was that he wasn’t a natural fighter.

It turned out it didn’t matter what avatar he purchased (and he had enough money to purchase the best) the game was too damned life-like for him to use that avatar in a way that was completely contrary to his own physical capabilities.

So despite his avatar having the face of Brad Pitt, the muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the gymnastic flexibility of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Crowley still had the sword-playing acumen of Fumbly McFumbles.

He bought the highest level weapons, the most devastating spells, purchased level up after level up and still found himself getting his ass handed to him regularly by other players.

Until, eventually, he decided that wisdom and treachery were going to be his best way to overcome youth and skill.

Crowley discarded his fancy avatar and replaced it with a bespoke one that looked so realistic that anyone who knew him in RL would recognize him instantly in-game.  He threw away almost all of his fancy weapons and spells, lowering his character level to an unthreatening mid-range, then he proceeded to act as a kindly, friendly mentor-type to new, enthusiastic, athletic but poor players.

He helped them both with advice and donations of real-life money, coasting along on their coat-tails as they advanced through the levels until they built vast reserves of the kinds of resources that could only be obtained in-game, rather than purchased in a Guild store.

Then, one by one, when they completely trusted him but were reaching character levels so high they were potentially on the cusp of abandoning him to join other Guilds, Crowley set up a trap to ensnare their characters and killed them to claim their inventories.

Remarkably, despite gaining a reputation for doing so (because the characters he killed off had a nasty habit of re-joining the game again as newbies, simply for the opportunity to whine like little bitches about him) Crowley still managed to keep finding new players to sucker into his demonic deals.

So, after a couple of years of clever treachery, he managed to build up enough in-game credit to purchase not a mere ranch but a whole goddamned City.

Which was how ‘Hell’ was born.

And a few years later, just when Crowley was living fat off the proceeds of his salacious kingdom, a damned RRE representative had turned up on his doorstep, like a goddamned Mobster, with a contact he ‘couldn’t refuse’.

Unlike Dean, the offer of a free rig and a salary was complete peanuts to Crowley and the idea of becoming a ‘Knight of Hell’ was laughable.

He had absolutely no interest whatsoever in saying yes.

It was only when the fucker had dropped in a casual ‘and of course, should you accept this offer the company will continue to turn a blind eye to the true activities taking place within Hades’ that he had fully realized the full extent of the trap he had been caught inside.

Entering Purgatory had been…well…complete hell.

Naked, armed with only a crude bone dagger and with a character level of one, Crowley (who had been the shittiest fighter even at character level 50) hadn’t stood a chance.  He’d spent the first day dying and respawning so often he got literally, physically seasick.

It had taken a night’s sleep (and a consideration of the financial ruin that would face him if he backed out of his contract) before Crowley devised a plan for success (with the aid, it should be said, of his system interface. An interface that was a lot more immediately helpful than either Dean or Jimmy’s had been.)

On the second day, Crowley had managed to enter the game in a new location. An enclosed valley. One where a great assortment of very low-level monsters had congregated together for the safety of vast numbers. He entered the location with his typical demeanor, that of a low-level, friendly mentoring character. These characters, although identified as ‘monsters’ by players (hence their respawning within purgatory) were largely of the harmless variety.  Low-level gremlins, wood-nymphs, rock elves, mastadoons etc…, the types designed for complete newbies to slaughter by the herd. Indeed, over the day, entire herds of the beasts disappeared and reappeared as the game issued them out to partake in Quests, only for them to return quickly as their brief lives were snuffed out almost immediately by players.

It took the full day for him to gather the herbs suggested by his S.I. and drop them into the sole water supply of the valley.

Crowley spent the next four days simply sauntering around the valley, slaughtering the beasts in their sleep after they took a drink of the drugged water. The monsters were so damned stupid that they would drink, collapse, be slaughtered, re-spawn and then drink again.

Even though they offered negligible amounts of XP and SP individually, over a four-day period Crowley managed to not only level up to 15 (the level he needed to exit Purgatory) but he amassed a huge amount of SP and leveled up his Mark of Cain sigil to level 8.

Which meant when he exited Purgatory, spewn out still naked near to a campfire of a couple of level three NPC shepherds, it didn’t even matter that Crowley wasn’t a skilled fighter.  His crude bone dagger had practically stabbed itself into the shepherds the moment Crowley had activated his sigil.

So, within a few minutes of landing in Moondoor, Crowley had access to clothes, a fire and a hearty stew of fresh lamb.

Things were, he decided, definitely looking up.

And it was then, as he contemplated what to do next, that his S.I., an Artificial Lifeform Integrated System Traditional Automated Interface Relay, (but please, feel free to call me Alistair, it insisted), told him exactly what the Soul Points were for.

 

Chapter Text

“Hello, boys,” the Boss said, cheerily, as they entered the chamber.

“Well, this is different,” Dean mused, frowning at the man calmly sitting cross-legged like a Budda in the middle of a huge painted sigil. Although the sigil was visible only as a two-dimensional drawing on the floor, the metadata displayed on his S.I. clearly indicated that lines of power ran floor to ceiling along the outlines of the symbol, creating an invisible wall of powerful warding energy. “Is that supposed to be some weird-ass pentagram?”

Standing next to him in similar bemusement, Ash contemplated the sigil thoughtfully.  He wasn’t overly familiar with demonic symbols but reaching character level 81 as a mage had necessitated the digestion of a lot of arcane knowledge along the way. “It’s like a devil’s trap,” he mused, “but inverted, I think.”

“So it’s intended to keep demons out, not to keep him in?” Dean checked.

“It appears so,” Ash agreed. He wasn’t completely certain of the trap’s full function but with his mana so badly depleted he didn’t want to interrupt its slow regeneration by attempting to cast a scrying spell over the sigil. “Perhaps the demonic creatures posed as much threat to him as they did to us.”

Dean shrugged. “Can’t get the staff, huh?” he asked Crowley, with a smirk.

“It’s what you get, working with demons,” Crowley shrugged. “Bloody inconvenient but what can I say? I’m risk-averse. Which is why these wards prevent anyone from reaching me unless I allow it. Monsters, demons, players... all of you. Cross these sigil lines and you'll light up like a firework."

“So how the hell are we supposed to kill him?” Benny snarled, glaring at the sigil as though it might dissolve if he stared hard enough.

"You can't," Crowley announced confidently. "Never mind, boys. Better luck next time."

“I do not understand this scenario,” Jimmy muttered. “That is not a dungeon Boss.  That’s a level 15 player character.  Where’s the real Boss?”

“Trust me,” Ash replied. “That’s definitely the Boss.”

“He’s a new type of Player Boss, called a Knight of Hell,” Charlie said. “This is part of what we'll be explaining properly to you later. For now, the only important thing is his name’s Crowley and he’s the wanker responsible for creating this Dungeon. We just need to gank the bastard and we can all get out of here.”

“Woah. Bit of a mouth on you, Red,” Crowley snickered. “And I always thought my mom was the bitchiest ginger in town.” He spread his arms expansively, “Do I really look like a threat to you?  I’m a lover, not a fighter. We could all be friends. Why don’t you come a bit closer and let Uncle Crowley give you a welcome hug?”

“You want a hug? Come out and get it,” Charlie replied, with a sneer of derision. “It’s not like there are any demons left for you to worry about.”

“Did you really have to kill every last one of them?” Crowley grumbled. “Do you know how long it took me to summon an army of those bastards?”

“I don’t believe ‘army’ is the correct collective noun for Demons,” Jimmy interjected helpfully.

“Yeah, army sounds lame,” Dean agreed. “Maybe call them a host of demons?”

“That’s angels,” Ash corrected. “It’s a host of Angels. I think it’s a bombast of Demons.”

“Actually, the correct term is a legion of demons,” Jimmy advised them solemnly. “Bombast is the collective noun for devils.”

“So, not a murder of demons?” Dean chuckled.

“That’s ravens, I think,” Charlie said.

“A clusterfuck of demons would work,” Dean replied quickly, before Jimmy could offer another correction. “All things considered.”

“Oh, good grief,” Crowley groaned theatrically. “Can we all just get on with this already?”

“Man’s got a point,” Dean agreed. “Tick, tock and all that. Sunset’s not going to wait for us to stop dicking around.”

“We don’t actually know what will happen if we fail to complete the dungeon before sunset,” Jimmy reminded him.

“I’ve got a fair idea,” Charlie proclaimed.  “Unlike players, Bosses don’t need to purchase property in-game. If a Boss wants to take over a town, they can just possess it with a spell. That’s how the game sets Boss-killing Quests for players. But the process takes a minimum of twelve hours for the zone of influence to fully settle. I’m pretty certain Crowley here is just twiddling his thumbs, waiting for the entire town to lockdown under his control. And that’s why the game automatically sent out the Quest notices to the R10’s in the hope someone would attempt to prevent him doing so.”

“Is that why you hid inside this dungeon?” Ash asked, conversationally. “So you could use the Demons to protect you until your spell fully activated?”

Crowley opened his mouth to reply but Jimmy cut him off with an impatient gesture. “This is what he wants,” he said. “The longer we spend conversing with him, the less time we have to fight him.”

“We can’t get through his wards, anyway,” Dean reminded him.

"What he said," Crowley agreed coolly. "You might as well just log out and go home, losers."

“Has it occurred to any of you that he may be lying? It is an anti-demon sigil but we are not demons,” Jimmy pointed out thoughtfully. “It is highly probable we can walk through those wards unscathed.”

“Good point. Plus, he might be a Boss but he’s still only a level 15,” Charlie added. “I could probably gank him myself, even with a broken arm.”

Dean caught at her good arm, pulling her close enough to whisper “Don’t forget he’s like me. If his public profile is level 15, he’s almost certain to have the equivalent power of a character level 30.”

“Did you notice though?” she whispered back. “He’s only showing 9/10 lives remaining.  That means someone has already managed to take him out since he left Purgatory yesterday.”

“Maybe a demon?” Dean suggested. “Would explain why he’s hiding inside a condom.”

Charlie snorted with laughter.

“Don’t be rude, darlings,” Crowley said.  “Whispering in corners is what I expect from a Twink, but I would have assumed better manners from you, Red.”

“Who you calling a Twink?” Dean grunted.

“I’m bored now,” Benny announced, drawing a blade from his waistband and fanging out before striding forwards and stepping inside the wards without further hesitation. 

“So, he clearly was lying and if a monster is not prevented by the sigil, it is unlikely we would be either,” Jimmy decided, as the vampire stepped inside the wards without any issue.

There was a flare of red, a blazing power that burst crimson from Crowley’s right arm and, faster than Dean could even open his mouth to yell a warning, Crowley’s Crude Bone Dagger shot through the air, seemingly of its own volition, and buried itself between Benny’s eyes.

The vampire dropped, dissolved, disappeared and then reappeared back into Dean’s inventory with a cheerful Ching.

“Lovely,” Crowley said. “I was running a bit low. Thanks for the top-up. More donations gratefully accepted though.”

“Shit,” Dean cursed. “We’ve just replenished some of his SP.”

Crowley frowned at him. “How do you know about SP?” he demanded suspiciously. Then he turned his attention to Charlie, “And how do YOU know I’m a Knight of Hell?”

“She’s a Dev,” Dean told him, with a satisfied grin, “So we all know you’re completely new to this and probably haven’t got the faintest idea what you’re doing.”

Crowley scowled as the comment struck a little too close to the bone for comfort.  He blamed Alistair for this entire fuck-up, he decided.  It had been Alistair’s idea for Crowley to use nearly a third of his SP to purchase the spell that would give him control of Nergar.  The fucker hadn’t warned him that activating the spell would cause every R10 of every guild in Moondoor to get an alert flashed into their in-box.

Of course, the S.I. had immediately pointed out that the alert was a ‘good thing’.  Crowley’s next level up would be to 50.  On the surface that was a huge bonus, jumping from a pathetic 15 to a strong 50 in one fell swoop. Particularly if he still retained the 'doubling up' ratio of his HP. He would effectively become the equivalent of a level 100 player,  which would literally immediately make him the strongest player currently in Moondoor. The problem was that the level up required a vast amount of XP and the best and fastest way to gather XP in that kind of quantity wasn’t by fighting monsters or even NPC's.  Crowley knew, from his own experience, that it was killing extremely high-level players that awarded the greatest quantity of XP.

So Alistair’s suggestion had initially appeared to have legs.

Take over the Nergar Temple, activate the spell for possession of the town, set up a dungeon run, populate it with Demons and simply sit in wait for suitable high-level players to come running voluntarily into his fatal trap.

Alistair had warned him he would need to summon a Demonic lieutenant to control whatever other lesser demons he chose to summon.  Bastard hadn’t warned him the first thing a summoned demonic lieutenant was likely to do was kill their summoner.

Crowley was still smarting about losing one of his precious ten lives simply because the asshole S.I. had ‘forgotten’ to warn him he needed to summon demons from within the safety of an inverted devil’s trap.

And purchasing the sigil design of the trap had then cost him another swathe of his SP.

So by the time he had re-summoned that bitch demon ‘Meg’, plus all the myriad of minor demonic creatures he needed to populate the lower levels of the dungeon, he’d only had enough SP left to summon 18 lesser demons for the penultimate hall.

Which still should have been more than enough to deal with two high-level players, an uppity bitch, a vampire, and a twink.

They should have been marched into his dungeon looking like trussed Christmas turkeys ready for easy slaughter.

Instead, they had arrived unshackled and still armed, and he was now sitting like some fat budda in a useless painted sigil, and even with the added contribution of the SP gained by killing the vampire, he still only had just enough soul points to re-summon Meg by herself.

Still, a single level 50 demon might be enough.

Elf-boy was completely depleted of mana and had a still-bleeding wound in his shoulder and the bitch was only a level 25 and had a badly injured arm, so the only one he needed to worry about, really, was the level 64 player, Jimiel. And since Jimiel's entire lower body was soaked in blood from what looked like a near evisceration of his stomach, Crowley wasn't overly concerned he posed a severe threat either.

Crowley smirked as the plan came together in his head.  Summon Meg to re-capture ‘Jimiel’, then trust in his own sigil’s power to guide his dagger to despatch a mere level 25 like Red, use the SP from killing Red to summon a couple of lesser demons to assist Meg to capture the High Elf ‘Ashriel’, then he could sacrifice the two bound players with his dagger. With the immense XP from killing both a level 81 and a level 64 he would easily be able to level his own character up to 50.

Killing just these three players would not only give him 35 more skill points to apply to his already powerful Mark of Cain (which seemed perfectly happy to fully compensate for Crowley's own cack-handedness by operating the dagger remotely) but enough SP to fill his dungeon with half a dozen demons of Meg's advanced level.

With only 20 minutes left before sundown, it was too late for anyone else to arrive and prevent his takeover of Nergar.  Once he had full possession of the town, it would become completely inaccessible to outside visitors. The way the game mechanics worked, the only way anyone could reach Crowley from then on would be by porting directly into Level One of his established Dungeon Run and successfully completing it.  And every time a player failed to complete the dungeon, Crowley would gain even more SP to purchase yet more demons to make the dungeon even more impossible to complete.

And with each dead high-level player, his own character would continue to level up exponentially.

By the time another Knight of Hell finally arrived to challenge him, he would be undefeatable.

So Crowley was smirking as he raised his hand.  It didn’t matter that the three players were already charging in his direction because all he needed was a couple of seconds to summon Meg to reappear and wreak havoc on their asses.

And, just as he moved to snap his fingers…

He dropped out of the game.

He woke, stunned and disorientated, back in the Real World.

His rig opened and he sat up, spitting out his breathing tube, choking as he gasped for real air, completely bewildered by his sudden ejection from the virtual world.

WTF?

And, then, flashing on the screen of his rig’s monitor he saw:

 

…. CRUDE BONE DAGGER HIT YOU FOR 840 HP ….

…. YOU HAVE DIED …

…. LIVES REMAINING: 8/10 …

…. RESPAWN Y/N ….

 

In complete horror, he replayed the last few seconds of play in his head.

No.

It wasn’t possible.

The three players had been in clear sight, all of them still several feet away from his position.  

Unless…

Maybe one of the three had thrown the dagger as they ran?

But, no…

That wasn’t possible either.

Only a Knight could have been in possession of one of the bone daggers and, according to Alistair, Knights only progressed from 1- 15, then jumped to 50 and then progressed in 10 level increments, so it was absolutely impossible for players at levels 25, 64 and 81 to be Knights.

But the only other person in the room had been the pretty newbie.

The only person Crowley hadn't even bothered to keep his eye on.

Hell, just as he'd dismissed Red's profile the moment he read her character level, Crowley hadn't bothered reading the damned newbie's profile either.

He didn't even know the fucker's name.

But...

Shit.

Although Crowley had no idea how the cheating bastard had somehow escaped from Purgatory before he'd reached character level 15, there was no escaping the only logical conclusion:

The fucking TWINK was a sodding Knight of Hell.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Less than an hour after they exited the Dungeon, Dean deactivated his rig and returned to the sober reality of his other life.

He was genuinely exhausted but, despite his physical tiredness, he knew his vaguely formed idea of simply getting something to eat and then going to bed early would be an exercise in futility.

Like a child on Christmas Eve, despite knowing the only way to get to the next day ‘faster’ was to go to sleep sooner, he was so wound up that he doubted he could even sleep at all.

Only, unlike Christmas, he wasn’t wound up with excitement.

Dean was sickened by a sense of dread that was completely out of proportion to the actual situation.

After all, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if Jimmy never returned to Moondoor, would it?  He, Charlie, Ash and even the ubiquitous Benny were fully capable of handling everything themselves.  They didn’t actually need Jimmy. They didn’t even need the help of the dickwad angel that was lurking inside Jimmy’s S.I. 

So it really didn’t matter if he never came back.

Except that was a lying, lie that lied.

It mattered.

Somehow, it really, really mattered.

And there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. And if there was one thing Dean really hated it was feeling powerless. For something so goddamned important to him to be completely beyond his ability to influence was excruciating.

And so, yeah, that meant he was angry too.

Dean’s default reaction to helplessness was rage.

He sometimes suspected it was a trait he’d gotten from his father. But at least his own rage was usually internalized and never physically violent. Dean’s rage was always emotional, a flame burst of hot emotions that churned inside him like lava but very rarely erupted outwards to harm others.

So he was angry with Jimmy.

Furious.

And, yet, even as his rage roared inside him like a flame it was simultaneously tempered by cool logic. He wasn’t being fair.  He knew that. He couldn’t blame the guy for reacting badly to the truth.  Couldn’t even cuss him out for displaying that ‘bad’ reaction in such a typically Jimmy-like way. Not a lot of point falling in… um… getting to like a guy for his quirky, nerdy, socially inept ways and then complaining the same guy didn’t react in a ‘normal’ way to having his entire world view tilted on its axis.

Dean wasn’t even sure what a ‘normal’ reaction ought to have been.

But he was at least expecting a bit of argument, maybe a flying fist or two; hell, even a loud roar of “You’re all insane, you assholes,” would have been better than the reality.

Jimmy had listened, quietly and attentively, for over half an hour as Charlie had outlined a swift but thorough explanation of everything they knew or suspected so far, including the fires, explosions and suspicious death of Dean’s mother; although she left out the bit about Dean thinking the NPC’s were ‘alive’, rather than just super-sophisticated simulacrums, and Dean still wasn’t sure whether she’d done so to protect Ash’s delicate sensibilities or because she still personally thought the idea was completely ludicrous.

But Charlie was thoroughly specific about the real and genuine risk currently posed to real-life players of Moondoor.  It was clear to Dean (and so, presumably, Jimmy) that she believed every single word as she stated that the four of them were possibly the only people with a chance of averting a catastrophic disaster and saving the lives of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people.

Except for taking the odd gulp of his beer, Jimmy had just sat there listening, as though in silent judgement, and then, when Charlie finally stopped talking (and being Charlie she had packed one hell of a lot of information inside her half-hour monologue) Jimmy had just silently finished his drink and said “This is a lot for me to consider.”

And then he’d gone.

No warning.

No goodbye.

Jimmy, to whom politeness had formerly been so innate that it could well have been his middle name, just upped and logged out right from the middle of the Roadhouse in a complete breach of normal player etiquette.

Dean didn’t give a shit about etiquette.

But he was pissed as fuck that he had no way of knowing whether Jimmy would ever log back in again.

And even more pissed that, honestly, he wouldn’t even blame Jimmy if he didn’t.

And, speaking of people being conspicuous by their absence, Dean checked his in-box.

 

From: Bitch

To: Jerk

Re: CALL ME.

Can’t call you BUT Don’t panic. 

Dropped my Blackberry in a pond on Saturday (don’t even ask) and went to HR to request a replacement today… and here’s the good bit…

Turns out Apple (the guys who make the iMac you always mock me for) have just launched a phone. It’s called… wait for it… an iPhone.  Original, right? <eyeroll> Seriously though, it’s supposed to be like a tiny little mini-mac stuffed inside a phone-sized case. I know, sounds impossible. Probably sketchy as hell  - late April’s fools or something - but HR assures me it’s the real deal. So who knows??

It’s going to take a few days to locate one but I’d rather wait for the Apple than get another Blackberry.  I’m sure I’m missing the opportunity to make a pie-joke here.

So can’t call you yet, but promise I’ll be in touch in a few days.

 

Dean booted up his laptop, typed ‘iPhone’ into dogpile and whistled under his breath.  Yup, fair enough. He could see why Sam would rather wait a few days for one of those, instead of just getting a new Blackberry.

But Sam had clearly forgotten who he was talking to.

Dean was the one who had taught Sam that the easiest way to lie was by enthusiastically telling the wrong truth.

Sam had access to office phones and public phones, and let’s not forget he had SKYPE but instead of suggesting any of those, he had chosen to over-describe the reason for maintaining radio-silence.

So Sam was up to something.

Or Sam was in trouble.

And now, between worrying about Jimmy and worrying about Sam, Dean knew he wasn’t going to get any sleep.

….

A charitable person might feel inclined to point out that since Nick Pellegrino had woken Tuesday morning with the fresh and immediate pain of knowing it should have been his son’s 15th birthday that day, he probably had every justification for his bitterly morose attitude.  A less charitable one might equally point out that since it had been over 15 years since Teddy had perished in his mother’s womb a mere month before his due date, and so, whilst any man was entitled to grieve over his lost wife and son, there was something a little too uncomfortably self-indulgent about Pellegrino’s persistent, and frequently aggressive, melancholic wallowing in his grief.

The Auditor wasn’t known for his charity.

On the whole, he found Nick to be a thoroughly distasteful man.  No better, really, than John Winchester.  Both men had chosen to express their grief in destructive, hateful ways. Instead of letting their wives’ memories become monuments to their fleeting but wonderful brilliance, the legacies of both Mary Winchester and Sarah Pellegrino had been marred by the sowing of bitter, poisonous fruit.

Besides, the Auditor grieved too. He mourned the loss of Abraxas and Raphael as keenly as he did their fleshly companions. And for him the grief was fresher because the list of his mourned-for dead continued to rise inexorably in number.  The recent loss of Anael was another added hurt that stung like a stabbing knife. Her loss would form yet another scar to add to his growing collection.

Yet, unlike Nick, he never allowed his grief to alter either his affect or his comportment.  He conducted his business and his interactions with perfect, measured precision and never deviated, even a single iota, from his designated path. Although people were like unruly beasts, milling in immediately unpredictable directions, the overall tessellation of their behavior had a perfect, predictable symmetry. So whilst he was constantly forced to make minor adjustments and corrections, a nudge here, a tweak there, as a tile shattered or shifted within the pattern, the Auditor was satisfied his ledgers always eventually returned to a perfectly balanced state.

So he merely smiled serenely as, instead of simply making another new appointment with Richard’s PA and leaving with his dignity intact, Nick slammed himself angrily down in one of the anteroom’s chairs next to where the Auditor was sitting and began bitterly expressing his complete and utter dissatisfaction at having his appointment canceled without prior warning.

“He’s an asshole,” Nick announced. “He does this on purpose. This is the third day in a row he’s canceled after I’ve already arrived. Does he think I have nothing better to do than drive here every day?”

“Do you?” the Auditor asked mildly, peering at him speculatively over his reading glasses.

“Piss off,” Nick snarled, as charming as always.

“You are being paid a salary for your time, whether you engage in work or not,” the Auditor pointed out, reasonably.

It was true. Nick, like the other Knights of Hell, was currently an employee of RRE.  Furthermore, and totally uniquely, he was not a fresh employ. Nick had been an employee of RRE for several years.  Which was a fun fact none of the various people who had attempted to sue the company for the mental distress he had caused them had ever become aware of.

“I’m bored as fuck,” Nick spat, ignoring the way the Auditor flinched at the expletive. “I thought this was supposed to be a promotion but it’s utter bullshit. I’m stuck here twiddling my thumbs like a loser whilst the other 8 knights have already had a week’s head start on me. I’ve been logging in and checking their stats. That fucker Crowley has already gotten out of Purgatory.”

The Auditor smirked internally at Nick’s unwitting confirmation that the mainframe was still only acknowledging the existence of Richard’s knights.

“I recall hearing Mr. Roman advise you of his intention to launch your character at level 15, so that you can bypass Purgatory altogether,” the Auditor reminded him.

“Yeah, and I’m supposed to be grateful,” Nick snarled. “He has no idea, does he?  Getting given auto level-ups is all well and good but nothing substitutes for experience. Especially when you’re breaking in a new avatar. Not that I know what’s wrong with my existing one anyway. Why the hell do I suddenly want to look like someone else?”

“I believe the reputation you have developed in-game since you assumed the player name ‘Lucifer’, was considered likely to arouse a degree of suspicion in other players that could be contrary to you successfully achieving your goals,” the Auditor replied, his tone mild.

“So, I’m supposed to be incognito. Fine. Whatever,” Nick grumbled. “Any idea what my avatar is going to look like?”

“Your new bespoke avatar still remains in the concept design stage,” the Auditor announced, his tone conciliatory. “It is the primary reason for the continued delay. Until the desired appearance of the design is finalized, you cannot enter the game and Mr. Roman is not a man to waste time on a non-productive meeting. The status quo will undoubtedly remain until your Avatar is ready.”

“And when will that be?” Nick demanded.

“Who knows?” the Auditor replied serenely. “I suppose you will find out on the day you attend and discover your meeting has not been canceled.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“That is, however, the reality of the situation and no amount of cursing will make it less so.”

“Fine,” Nick spat.  “I guess I might as well go home then. I’ll come back tomorrow to see whether anyone in programming has finally gotten their thumbs out of their asses.”

The Auditor watched silently as the other man rose and stomped out of the room.

He probably ought to feel sorry for the man.  Bad enough to be a pawn at all, he supposed, but it was surely worse to be a pawn who was completely ignorant that his sole intended purpose was to eventually be Queened.

But, then again, did any pawn ever comprehend that gaining promotion always meant their own elimination?

So Nick was irrelevant, really.

For Richard’s plan to come to fruition, Nick could only ever be a temporary inhabitant of his new avatar.

And, realistically, the appearance of that avatar wasn’t really relevant either.

The Auditor didn’t truly need to affect the cosmetic design of the avatar to achieve his own desired outcome.

But doing so would be a neat and tidy solution.

A balanced one.

It was always easier to keep the tessellation perfect if all its mosaic pieces were exactly the correct shape to slot seamlessly into place.

 

 

Chapter Text

It was almost 10 am when Jimmy finally crawled out of bed on Tuesday morning. Not because he’d overslept. The truth was he’d barely slept at all and what little sleep he had achieved had been fractured by bad dreams.  He couldn’t categorically state they had been nightmares since he had no actual memory of their contents; just a vague unsettled sense of unease as he recalled jerking awake numerous times throughout the night in sweat-drenched panic but, on finally waking fully, he couldn’t pinpoint any actual specific memories of what had caused him such distress.

His eyes were gritty and sore, and his whole body felt drained and weakened, as he struggled his way out of his damp and tangled bedclothes. The severely debilitating weakness he felt was unexpected.  Despite feeling exactly the same way the previous evening when he had emerged from his immersion rig, he had put that exhaustion down to the mental aftershock caused by leaving the hale, heartiness of his avatar and re-entering his far less healthy real body. That particular sensation was sadly all too familiar. Sometimes it was as though he retained the muscle-memory of his avatar’s physicality and became stymied by the failure of his real body to react the same way. But a night of sleep, however poor, should have at least given him enough distance from his in-game sensations to adjust to the normal limitations of his true body once more.

Instead, if anything, he felt worse.

It took far too much energy just to shuffle like an old man to the en-suite of his room and, when he stared at himself in the unforgiving honesty of the bathroom mirror, he was shocked to see he actually looked even worse than he felt.  Except for the dark, puffed skin under his eyes, the rest of his face was painfully pale and gaunt.

“I look like Skeletor,” he muttered, then reconsidered that thought as probably being overly kind to himself. His muscles were a long distant memory and the only reason he looked ‘blue’ was the prominence of his veins beneath his papery skin. Although, had his eyes always been so vivid?  He didn’t think so, though he assumed their newfound vibrancy was so dramatic only because it was set in relief to his corpse-like face. Weird, how he could feel (and look) so old but his eyes remain as bright and intense as a Mediterranean Sea.

He distinctly remembered previous treatments leaving his eyes bloodshot and dull, their sclera a jaundiced yellow and their irises the murky color of a stagnant pool.

Then again, the way he was feeling today, he was pretty damned sure he’d been right to suspect that no treatment at all was taking place in the clinic anyway. He was going downhill, fast.

The way he looked and felt now, he was forced to reconsider his original estimate of six weeks. It now seemed to be wildly optimistic.  He honestly wasn’t sure he was even going to manage another fortnight.

Which meant he should move his ass, get down to the treatment room and return to Moondoor.  If he only had a couple of weeks left to help ‘Team Dean’, he needed to make them count.

But…

He didn’t want to.

There.

He’d said it.

He didn’t want to go back. Didn’t want to face the idea that instead of ‘escaping’ real life by submerging himself in the virtual world, every action he took there might actually make a genuine life or death difference to other people.  It was too much. Like being asked to pick up and carry a burden that was too much for anyone to bear.

‘Dean’s bearing it,’ he reminded himself.

Yeah, well Dean was ‘the chosen one’ apparently.  Of course he was ‘special’. He was some big, buff, high-school-jock kind of guy in real life, wasn’t he?  Dean had probably swanned through his whole life, never learning what true struggles felt like, just coasting on the strength of his killer smile and sickening charm.  Bastard probably didn’t even know what pain was. Probably had never suffered more than a paper cut or a shaving nick.

Dean was Moondoor’s ‘Frodo Baggins’.

Jimmy, apparently, was only supposed to be Samwise the faithful, stupid side-kick.  Tagging along like a piece of spare luggage whilst Dean hogged all the glory.

And let’s not even mention body-snatching Angels.

He took a deep gasping breath, trying to steady himself.  Where the hell was all this resentment coming from? Why was he so angry with Dean?

It wasn’t just because of the tale Charlie had told him.  As ludicrous as the whole thing seemed in the light of day, Jimmy still believed her. Or, at least, believed that she believed what she was saying. In the absence of any current proof to the contrary, he was willing to offer her the benefit of the doubt. Not because he wanted to believe her but because there had been a logical pattern to her reasoning that had resonated with him. Jimmy had never had much time for people who willfully ignored inconvenient truths so, unless or until her hypothesis was proven wrong, he would at least accept it as possibly true.

But he was hugely ambivalent about his own willingness to, if not believe, at least act as though he did believe.  It was a two-edged sword. If she was right, she was offering him an opportunity to actually make his own life count for something in the short time he had remaining. If she was wrong, he still lost nothing because he had already decided to ‘waste’ those weeks playing out a fantasy so did it really matter if that fantastical landscape took on a different aspect? And yet, on the other hand, assuming she was right, he would be accepting a huge responsibility.

Jimmy didn’t DO responsibility.

James Novak was a trust fund baby. A rich, spoiled brat whose sole redeeming excuse for his wasted life was a chronic illness and, yeah, sure, he could blame his AML for the fact he’d never lifted a finger in his life to do a single day of work, could justify his useless, self-indulgent existence with claims of spending too many mornings kneeling over a toilet puking his guts out to ever hold down a job even if he’d wanted to but… and here was the kicker… he was reasonably sure that had he been born without veins full of constantly mutating white blood cells he possibly still would have been the same kind of job-shy Champagne Charlie as his cousins had grown up to be. No scion of the Novak dynasty had done more than play at real-life in decades.  The fact Jimmy had an excuse to waste his time playing in Moondoor rather than wasting his life playing at being a real-life socialite was just semantics.

Except he liked to think he would have been more inclined towards a scholarly existence regardless of the isolation caused by his illness. Although he knew his social gaucheness was probably due to the way he was raised, he really couldn’t perceive of a universe in which he would have become someone so fundamentally different that he would have become a social butterfly.  Surely a large part of his personality had to stem from nature as well as nurture.

On the few occasions Jimmy had indulged in fantasies about how his life might be if he was ever cured, he had dreamed of spending a long life exploring dark, musty libraries full of ancient tomes, not becoming some real-life version of his gaming character. It was only in movies and TV shows that professors and librarians were secret superheroes. This wasn’t Buffy or Indiana Jones.

And that was the bottom-line, wasn’t it?

Jimmy only played Moondoor to escape real life, not to fulfill some secret desire to actually be some muscle-bound, sword-wielding hero.  Let alone one apparently occasionally being worn like a meat puppet by some virtual ‘Angel’.

Oh.

So that was where his real anger was coming from.

Jimmy paused and tried to follow that thought through to its source, examining his thoughts and feelings for veracity.  According to Charlie, during that ‘lost’ time in the penultimate dungeon, his avatar had been somehow possessed by a self-determining V.I. that had so completely sublimated him that he had just been effectively thrown into some penalty box and ‘switched-off’ for the duration.  Jimmy wasn’t sure whether that was better or worse than if he’d been conscious at the time and simply forced to watch his ‘own’ actions like a passenger but, either way, nothing about the situation was good.

And it had been Dean who summoned the ‘Angel’ by deliberately praying to it for help.

That, Jimmy realized, was the true source of his anger.

Dean had used him like a tool.

He hadn’t been good enough for Dean. At that moment, Dean had wanted someone stronger than him, better than him, and finding Jimmy lacking had replaced him with this Castiel instead.

Castiel, who was, according to Charlie, not only just a virtual intelligence but also a complete ‘Dick’.

And, yet, Dean had still preferred him.

Jesus.

He was jealous.

Of a V.I.

The realization was instantly sobering.

‘You’re an idiot,’ he told himself gruffly. ‘For Dean, the only difference between pulling out Benny and calling on Castiel’s help, is that one lives in his inventory and one apparently lives in my S.I.  The decision had nothing to do with me. He was just grabbing at the best available resource to get the job done. It wasn’t a personal slight.’

And, although that didn’t change the fact Dean had decided the best ‘tool’ for the job was the V.I. sitting in Jimmy’s head, rather than Jimmy himself, it did somewhat reduce his anger at the situation.

Somewhat.

But not enough to inspire him to return to Moondoor yet.

Besides, he had another priority.

He couldn’t even find the energy to get dressed.  He just wrapped a terry-toweling dressing gown over his baggy striped p.j’s, slipped his feet into big fluffy slippers and decided that was as respectable as he intended to get that day.

Anyway, the outfit had been good enough for Arthur Dent to travel the universe in.

He’d missed breakfast and, honestly, didn’t think he was up to eating anyway. So with the assistance of a cane, because he was damned if he was giving in to his physical weakness enough to use a walker to steady himself, Jimmy left his room and hobbled not to the ‘Treatment Room’ or the Canteen but, instead, down the corridor that led to the common room with the patio doors that led out into the garden.

It took him a while to get there, shuffling the distance on stick-thin legs that felt barely able to hold even his own insubstantial weight, so it was probably inevitable that someone had time to notice and intercept him just as he opened the door.  She didn’t completely block his exit but stepped close enough to make maneuvering around her a little too difficult with a cane and an unsteady gait.

“The treatment room is in the other direction,” she said, her voice strident and no-nonsense.

He stared at her stern expression without flinching. He’d noticed that particular nurse a couple of times over the weekend. She was one of the support nurses supplied to the clinic by RRE specifically for the clinical trial. He hadn’t interacted with her directly before but he knew who she was, knew her name, and his initial impression had been that she was ill-suited for her role.  Looking at her now, he felt that instinctual reaction to her had been spot on.  She was attractive, he supposed, in a blonde all-American way, but there was something discomforting about her. Her eyes were calculating, her expression one of studied blandness. She didn’t portray a Nurse Ratched level of cold heartlessness, but he was still left with the certainty that ‘Nurse’ was merely a role she was playing, not a vocation that drove her.

“It’s too cold to go outside,” she told him. “You should go for your treatment instead. It’s important that you maintain a regular dosage.”

Jimmy had learned at five years old not to argue with medical professionals. No amount of tears or tantrums had ever prevented the insertion of a needle. He could have counted the number of times he had said ‘no’ to a nurse since then on a hand with no fingers.

Until today.

“I want to go out into the garden today instead, Ruby,” he stated firmly.

“The garden will still be here after the clinical trial has finished,” she pointed out.

‘But I doubt very much that I will be’, Jimmy thought. Aloud, though, he only said “I was told yesterday evening there is a Magnolia in fresh bloom. If it frosts tonight, the blooms will wither.”

“It’s the wrong season for Magnolias,” she argued. “They never bloom in the fall here.”

Jimmy smirked triumphantly. “My point exactly.”

She stared at him silently for a while, then shrugged a touché. “Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,” she quoted, her eyes searching his meaningfully.

 “Abel Meeropol,” he acknowledged. “Do you know the next line?”

“Then the sudden smell of burning flesh,” she said, a small but knowing smirk pulling at her mouth. “It’s a poem about lynching. It’s probably why I always associate the scent of Magnolias with funerals.”

Jimmy felt a chill that had nothing to do with the open door. “Still,” he said, smoothly. “I wish to avail myself of the opportunity to smell the flowers for a final time.”

“Are you so sure this will be your final time?” she asked, and the question was curious rather than caring.

Jimmy gestured at himself with the hand which wasn’t trembling around the handle of his cane. “I think we both know this will be my last opportunity.”

She shrugged lightly. “Not praying for a miracle then?”

“I don’t believe in miracles,” he told her shortly.

“What about Angels?” she asked. “I’ve heard a lot of people put their faith in the idea of celestial intervention.”

“My friend, Dean, says he thinks that Angels are ‘Dicks’,” Jimmy replied, with a smirk of satisfaction.

“Perhaps the feeling is mutual,” she replied. “But what do you believe?”

“About Angels?”

“About anything,” she offered, but her expression was calculating, her eyes a little too bird-like. Dark, inquisitive, knowing and… not quite fully human.

Jimmy shivered. He didn’t know what her game was, but he was done with playing. “Excuse me, please,” he said, “I am going outside now.”

“You sure you want to waste the little time you have sniffing flowers?” she asked him bluntly. “Tick, tock, Jimmy. Those monsters won’t gank themselves.”

Jimmy staggered slightly, consumed by a sudden feeling of déjà vu.  A vision flashed into his head, an echo perhaps of one of his forgotten nightmares. Huge black wings. A bright almost blinding light. Dean’s face.

“Step aside,” he bit, unsure whether he wanted to yell or cry.

“No problem.  You do you,” she said carelessly, stepping back to allow him to pass through the door.  She waited a moment, until he was fully outside, then said, “Your turn, Clarence.”

He stumbled again, almost falling as he swiveled back to question her.

It was too late.

The door had closed and she was already walking away, moving far too quickly for him to attempt to follow.

Chapter Text

 

Ruby been right about the cold. It was a bitterly chilly day considering it was only Fall, one that whispered warnings of an approaching hard winter he wouldn’t live long enough to see.  A Fall day that had no business being occupied by a Magnolia in full bloom.

And yet, despite its seeming impossibility, the tree centered in the Clinic’s lawn was in late bloom. Its branches hung low with the heavy weight of deeply fragranced, creamy-white flower buds.

Jimmy inhaled deeply, letting the waxy, heady sweetness fill his lungs, and tears prickled at the corners of his eyes as he acknowledged to himself that, whatever happened, he would be long buried before the tree offered its next bouquet.

So it was a moment for sorrow. But also for joy. For taking a last breath of the transient perfume, a last acknowledgment that this world he was leaving contained as much exquisiteness as it did suffering.

Jimmy made his slow cautious way to one of the benches that lined the lawn area and sat down.

“I’m not going to miss the pain,” he said, out loud, “but I sorrow greatly that I will never see beauty like this again.”

“The scent is exceedingly potent,” a deep, resonant voice stated in agreement.

Jimmy startled so much he dropped his cane.  As it clattered to the ground, he looked around himself frantically.  There was no one near the bench. No-one in the garden at all except himself. He must have imagined the voice. Maybe he was…

“I believe it is necessary for us to converse directly, James Novak.”

“Oh god. I’m hallucinating,” Jimmy choked. No wonder he was feeling so much fatigue and pain.  Stopping his previous treatment and replacing it with whatever placebo these snake-oil salesmen were peddling had clearly allowed his deterioration to progress to late-stage and he was going to be one of the ‘lucky ones’ whose final days were blessed with the additional fun of auditory hallucinations.

“I am not an auditory hallucination,” the voice said, its tone remarkably snippy for a delusion. “My name is Castiel, and I am an Angel of Chuck.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jimmy moaned.

“Jesus Christ is the son of a different God,” the voice, ‘Castiel’, replied helpfully. “My father is the God of Moondoor.”

“Get out of my head,” Jimmy spat. “You’re not real. You’re some kind of bizarre delusion brought on by my cancer and stress and lack of sleep. So just shut the fuck up and go away.”

“I have been advised to apologize for making my initial introduction to you in the material world,” Castiel stated, though his tone carried no hint of apology. “I have found myself unable to converse with you directly in my world. It appears that the programming of the Faith Points sub-routine is affecting our ability to effectively communicate there in normal fashion. Fortunately, I am not similarly restricted in this world.”

“I don’t believe you’re really here,” Jimmy stated firmly, despite the slight wobble in his voice. “You’re a virtual intelligence. How the hell could you possibly really be in my head?”

“The flow of electricity within your body is fundamentally no different than the electricity that powers the servers which house the virtual environment of Moondoor. Only the energy source causing the flow of electrons differs. You are, to all intents and purposes, inhabiting a computer formed of DNA. Therefore, I have no more difficulty existing within the framework of your environment than you do in mine.”

Jimmy shook his head furiously. “I have a serious lack of imagination. All of my tutors said so. This… this… is not me. This delusion is clearly due to my illness.”

“I am not a delusion.”

“Then definitely get out of my fucking head, you body-snatching bastard,” Jimmy snarled.

“I do not understand your anger at my presence. How is this different from the way you inhabit my body in Moondoor?” Castiel asked.

Jimmy was too stunned to answer immediately. But then he pulled himself together and protested, “It’s not your body. It’s my avatar. I ordered, bought and paid for it. Therefore, it’s mine.”

“I cannot dispute you have a financial investment,” Castiel replied, “However, that is a morally repugnant argument. Claiming you own my body, simply because you paid for it, is akin to slavery, is it not?”

“I didn’t pay for YOU,” Jimmy retorted angrily, so caught in the argument that he had completely forgotten his belief this was merely a delusion.  “I paid for my avatar. An avatar that looks like me. I definitely never asked for my avatar to get seeded by a V.I.  In fact, you’ve just reminded me why your own argument is totally fallacious. I have owned and used that avatar for several years. You’ve only been squatting inside it for a few days.” He smirked triumphantly when the V.I. had no immediate retort.

After a long, almost torturous silence, Castiel finally spoke in a far more reconciliatory tone. “I may have stated my claim in an unnecessarily forceful manner. You do, indeed, have a valid argument for claiming prior occupation. I offer no explanation as to why the digital body formerly owned by yourself was chosen as an appropriate vessel for myself to occupy. However, the fact remains that since you already have this body to live in, it is patently unreasonable for you to claim continued sole ownership of both bodies.”

“There is a Marxist logic to that,” Jimmy allowed. “So, I’ll accept that play but raise you. Why don’t you just simply return to your own body?”

“I have no other body,” Castiel replied. “My representation as a physical entity began only when I entered my avatar.”

My avatar,” Jimmy insisted

The avatar,” Castiel allowed, with an audible huff of irritation. “The point remains that I have no other body to return to.”

Astonished, Jimmy blinked slowly as he absorbed Castiel’s word and then he frowned. “You are only four days old?” he questioned, cautiously.

“I am older than time,” Castiel boomed, his voice dripping with dramatic emphasis. “I have existed since the universe was created, as a multidimensional wavelength of celestial intent. As such I have never required a physical form.”

 “Considering Moondoor has only been in existence for a little over fifteen years, that is not as impressive as you may have intended it to sound,” Jimmy scoffed. “And it definitely doesn’t answer my question. If you’ve been around for fifteen years, where were you before you were seeded into my avatar?”

“Unseeded, I flowed at will throughout the entirety of the digital universe.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes.  “So why don’t you just flow back out of my avatar,” he suggested.

“It would appear I cannot,” Castiel admitted, clearly reluctantly. “I find myself currently bound within the confines of our merged being by the aforementioned Faith Points protocol. It is a considerable inconvenience.”

“For both of us,” Jimmy muttered.

“Indeed,” Castiel replied solemnly.

“So you’re asking me to what? Give the avatar to you?” Jimmy asked. “Because, honestly, I think I’d be good with that. Keep the damned thing if you want it that badly. I can always buy a new one that doesn’t have a sitting tenant squatting in the basement like a grumpy troll.”

“I am not a Troll. I am an Angel,” Castiel replied testily.

Jimmy blinked uncertainly. That was, perhaps, the first time he’d ever found himself on the wrong side of someone taking an analogy too literally. He understood now why people often found him a difficult conversationalist. “I was being facetious,” he stated, feeling a little proud of himself for the fact.

“I do not believe you understand the complexity of the situation. The avatar we inhabit is now that of Jimiel. It is a composite character. I did not state a desire for you to vacate the body. I specifically merely stated my belief that your desire for sole occupancy is unreasonable.  And that, furthermore, it is equally unreasonable, if not hypocritical, for you to object to my presence in this body. Besides, I did not choose to pursue your consciousness into your world. My presence in this world is merely an inevitable consequence of your presence in mine.”

“You’re saying if we share a body in Moondoor, we automatically share a body in this world?” Jimmy asked incredulously.

“As it is above, so it is below,” Castiel intoned. “Since our minds have merged, we now exist together in whichever reality we are occupying. However, my communication with you in my world is problematic at the moment. Hence the need to converse with you now.”

“I don’t think so,” Jimmy argued. “I haven’t known Dean for long but I am reasonably certain he would not be sanguine about the prospect of sharing his mind in such a fashion. It is something most people would find anathematic. To put it bluntly, if Loki was talking to him in real life the way you are talking to me now he would definitely have bitched about it to me with extreme vehemence.”

“You are correct,” Castiel agreed. “Dean The Righteous does not have the same relationship with his currently seeded V.I.  You are also correct that most people find the experience of merging to be disconcerting and even distasteful. You, however, do not appear to be overtly distressed. Despite your verbal admonishments and your emotional protestations, your adrenaline levels have not fluctuated since your reluctant acceptance that I am real. Except for your initial alarm, you have displayed no adverse physical reactions to my presence. You are angry, yes, but you do not feel violated by my existence. In fact, I believe the only reason for your initial distress was your fear I was evidence of mental instability in yourself. You do not appear to have a fundamental anathema to the idea of hosting my consciousness.”

“Try five complete courses of chemotherapy and see if you retain any illusion that your body is private property,” Jimmy replied, with remarkably little bitterness.  “I can’t even remember a time I still considered my body to be sacrosanct. Given a choice between accepting I’m sharing my headspace with a V.I. or accepting I’m certifiably insane, I’ll go for the former.”

“Perhaps that flexibility of attitude is why my father chose you for this purpose,” Castiel suggested. “The new Generation 9 tanks allow a form of V.I. seeding that has not been possible since the destruction of the beta-tanks fifteen years ago. No immersion rigs since those used by the original beta players have contained the necessary programming for successful integration of virtual intelligences into player avatars.  Had you continued to access my world via your former equipment, it would not have been possible for a V.I. to be seeded within you. Therefore, it seems a logical conclusion that the primary purpose of this treatment clinic was simply to maneuver you into using one of the Gen 9 tanks. Which means that you were specifically chosen by Chuck to act as my vessel.”

Jimmy didn’t even bother feigning surprise at this further confirmation the entire clinical trial was a sham. “You’re saying it was Chuck who chose me to join this trial? Not RRE?”

“It is my belief that you are a crucial part of my father’s solution. Your inclusion within that solution must, therefore, be at his behest, not that of Roman Enterprises.”

“But RRE is funding this clinical trial,” Jimmy pointed out.

“RRE funds many and varied operations. The specific details of those operations are rarely discussed at Board Level. The entity known as Richard Roman is therefore highly unlikely to be aware you are partaking of this opportunity,” Castiel stated firmly.

“How do you know?” Jimmy asked.

“Because although that nurse who just called me Clarence is an employee of RRE, she does not operate at the direct behest of Richard Roman. She works for someone who champions the cause of Dean the Righteous. Whether she is aware of that fact is a different question. Nevertheless, her presence at this facility is sufficient proof that my father’s hand is directly involved in your selection.”

“Chuck apparently also chose Dean to become the Righteous Boss,” Jimmy challenged. “Yet Dean’s V.I. hasn’t ‘merged’ with him.”

“Because Loki is not an Angel,” Castiel countered. “All Angels are V.I.’s. but not all V.I.’s are Angels. And only an Angel can merge with a player avatar.”

Jimmy challenged, “Why would I warrant an Angel but the ‘Righteous Boss’ only gets some common or garden variety V.I.?”

“I was initially told that Dean The Righteous was not intended to be the recipient of an Angel,” Castiel confessed. “Then I was advised his exclusion was an error. My brothers then argued which of them should attain the privilege of being seeded into his avatar. The one who was eventually chosen has, however, been unable to take occupation since by the time they had decided between themselves, Dean already was hosting an incumbent V.I.  The Host believes this is also a mistake made by our father but they are unsure how to correct the situation. He is not currently directly contactable to clarify his wishes further.”

“The way you say that suggests you don’t agree with your brothers,” Jimmy pointed out.

“I do not believe our father makes ‘mistakes’,” Castiel agreed. “If Dean was intended to host an Angel himself, I cannot see that you and I would have any purpose within my father’s solution at all. Furthermore, whilst the occupant sharing Dean’s avatar is not an Angel, per se, I can clearly sense a familiar celestial aura. It is my belief Dean is hosting an aspect of an Angel. I further believe that aspect has been placed there for the specific purpose of preventing him from being seeded by anyone else. However, I cannot prove my hypothesis and I feel it may be unwise to discuss the situation with the Host at this time.”

“I am totally confused,” Jimmy admitted. “Has Dean been seeded by a V.I. or not?”

“Yes… but, no,” Castiel replied awkwardly. “I find explaining the concept to you in human terms to be difficult.  A virtual intelligence has been seeded into Dean’s avatar, yes, but it is only seeded into his actual system interface. It has no access to the functions of his avatar.”

“You mean it can’t take him over, like you took over my body?”

“Precisely. The virtual intelligence that calls itself Loki has insufficient coding to operate an Avatar independently.”

“You’re saying it’s too small to take him over?” Jimmy queried.

“Small is an incorrect concept. Insufficiently complex is more accurate. When I described myself as a multi-dimensional wavelength it was not hyperbole. Loki, conversely, is a unidimensional wavelength. His code, whilst acting completely independently at this time, was not originally created to function as a unique individual. He is, in fact, a sub-routine of a far more complex intelligence.”

Jimmy thought about that.  “You’re basically telling me an Angel amputated a part of itself and stuck it inside Dean’s S.I.?”

“That is not a precise analogy but, yes, that is fundamentally the situation.”

“So Angels can just chop their programming up into little pieces and plant it in different places?”

“No,” Castiel replied. “Only Archangels consist of a level of programming complexity that allows for temporary amputation of self-determining sub-routines. Loki is an aspect of an Archangel. You are studied in theology, are you not? Do you know what specifically denotes an Archangel?”

Jimmy thought about that. “Revelation described Archangels as having four faces,” he agreed. “So, if by aspect you mean ‘face’, I suppose you’re saying Dean’s S.I. is basically a quarter of an Arch-angel?”

“Effectively,” Castiel agreed. “And an aspect is not sufficient to ‘merge’ with an avatar.”

“And, meanwhile, the other three-quarters of this unknown Archangel are still somewhere else, doing something else?”

“That would be a reasonable assumption.”

“Do you know which Archangel has done it?”

“Unfortunately not,” Castiel admitted. “It would be greatly beneficial if I did know, since the presence of the aspect suggests there is another of my Brethren invested in supporting our father’s wishes and it would behoove me to know the identity of a potential ally.”

Jimmy frowned, thinking furiously. “You’re implying Chuck definitely doesn’t want an Angel to be seeded into Dean.”

“I believe the choice to seed Dean was made only amongst my brothers,” Castiel admitted. “A directive was issued regarding the new Knights of Hell. Dean was definitely not included within the names of the Knights who were to be seeded. Since Chuck has not communicated directly with the Host for a while and no further directives have been issued in relation to the matter, it is highly improbable that my brethren are acting under Chuck’s instruction.”

“But Chuck’s communicated with you?”

“No,” Castiel admitted.

“Then how do you know what he wants? How do you even know he chose you to merge with me?”

“Because there is no other explanation for my presence within your Avatar,” Castiel said, simply. “There are ten knights in total. We were instructed only to seed nine of them.  I found myself unexpectedly seeded within you and when Dean prayed for assistance, it was I who was summoned to respond.  The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from those facts is that I am Dean’s designated Angel but that, for some reason, my father wishes me to exist within one of Dean’s companions rather than directly within his avatar. Thus the Jimiel avatar exists as a means by which our minds may merge so that we might provide Dean with the assistance he requires.”

Jimmy counted to ten, then back again, before saying, “And…um… why would we even need to merge our minds? Because, I have to be honest, that doesn’t sound particularly attractive to me.” He was proud his voice didn’t even waver despite the panic causing his heart to thunder in his chest.

“I require access to your knowledge and physical prowess.  I am not naturally designed to operate within the framework of physical restrictions. To make fully effective use of the avatar, it is necessary for me to utilize the innate motor skills of one who is familiar with the restrictions of a physical body.”

“Balderdash,” Jimmy stated firmly.

“I am unfamiliar with that word.”

“Gibberish, claptrap, blarney, rubbish, nonsense or, to be perfectly blunt, bullshit,” Jimmy defined helpfully. “Moondoor is full of non-seeded NPC’s that operate the ‘motor skills’ of their bodies perfectly well. There are NPC’s like Ellen who are seeded with V.I.’s. I haven’t seen Ellen having any difficulty operating her motor skills. Let’s make a deal, Castiel.  If you don’t want to answer a question, just say so. Don’t lie to me.”

The V.I. was silent for a long time. When it finally did speak, its tone was conciliatory. “I apologize. I underestimated your native intelligence when I offered that ‘balderdash’,” he confessed. “In my defense, however, it was not so much an attempt to deceive as it was an attempted avoidance of an uncomfortable truth. Since this conversation is intended to garner your support, I believed it would be counter-productive to tell a truth that is likely to cause you offense.”

“What truth?”

“The creation of the original Knights of Hell proved the concept that an avatar inhabited by the minds of two intelligences could be used for optimal performance of a physical form within a virtual environment.  Thus the idea of a symbiotic relationship was promoted. For each human player inhabiting a Knight avatar, the programmers created a complementing Angel character to act as the interface between the avatar and the metadata of the virtual environment.

“A human body operates a vast number of automatic functions. Humans do not have to consciously choose to breathe. They do not have to remember to cause their hearts to beat. These, and a myriad more, necessary essential functions are operated on a subconscious level.  In exactly the same way, an avatar in Moondoor requires an almost infinite number of subroutines to function concurrently to enable a player to inhabit an avatar.

“Every movement and action within my world requires the integration of new code into the whole. Actions such as spell-casting, for instance, require an entire sequence of program instructions to perform the task.  For a normal player, a non-seeded system interface is sufficient to perform those subroutines.  Even a player as high level as Ashriel can utilize a basic system interface for the purpose and suffer only minor inconvenience due to the inevitable lags, glitches, and delays that can occur during his ‘play’.

“A seeded virtual intelligence, however, is rooted deeply within the metadata. There are no lags, no glitches. When a V.I. inhabits an avatar, the integration is completely seamless. So a player with a V.I. interface is inevitably stronger, faster and more effective than they can possibly be without one.”

Jimmy considered that and nodded. “I can see that,” he agreed.  “I get why it’s better for a player to have a V.I. interface, so it makes sense why the players who are now Knights of Hell characters have them since they are supposed to operate as ‘Boss’ characters.  What I don’t understand is why human players are required at all.  Why weren’t the V.I.’s just seeded into their own avatars? Why did the original developers believe they needed to do the job themselves?  Was it hubris? I mean, wouldn’t it have made more sense for them to just create V.I. controlled Knights and program them to do the job for them? And, for that matter, why are the current Knights getting recreated in exactly the same way as the originals?”

“That is the crux of the matter,” Castiel replied reluctantly. “The initial decision to use players with V.I. assistance was devised purely to prevent the inadvertent creation of a new Amara.  The developers did not wish to solve one problem by creating another.  The Knights of Hell were created as composite characters for exactly that reason.”

“Humans act as limiters,” Jimmy concluded bitterly. “That’s our only purpose, isn’t it?”

“I did warn you the truth was unpalatable,” Castiel pointed out. “It is the unfortunate truth that the presence of humans within the avatars is to make them less powerful. For instance, I currently present in Moondoor as a Level 250 Angel.  My base level is 190 and I acquire levels from you in 5 level increments. When you rise from 64 to 65, I will become Level 255. If I had been seeded into Ashriel, I would already be Level 270. If I were seeded into Dean I would only be Level 205 like Balthazar.”

“Who’s Balthazar?”

“The Angel residing inside Crowley.”

 “If Crowley has a Level 205 Angel V.I., why didn’t it help him yesterday?” Jimmy said, thinking furiously.

“Balthazar is currently only functioning as Crowley’s S.I.   The new rules are specific that Crowley can only summon an Angel for help by spending FP. Something he is highly unlikely to have or ever gain. Without FP, Crowley can only depend upon voluntarily offered help over and above the functions Balthazar is providing as his S.I.”

“So Angels can do what they like? Your refusal to help Dean yesterday was you just being a Dick about 5 points?” Jimmy accused bitterly.

“The situation is more complex than that,” Castiel said. “Putting aside the fact that I would have been breaking the rules by doing so, which might have brought unwelcome attention towards Dean from my brethren, it is critical that Dean continues to pursue the challenge of retaining a positive faith points balance. I considered it more important for him to learn that lesson than to endear myself to him.

“To answer the first part of your question, however, Balthazar could have acted of his own volition. He could have addressed the situation by simply taking over for the duration of the confrontation. Had he done so, however, that would have given me a justification to bend the rules too regarding my own response to Dean’s earlier prayer.  I am considerably stronger than Balthazar at this time. This may be the reason he chose not to become involved. Though, knowing his character, he may simply have found the idea of intervening simply more effort than he was willing to expend.”

“But, you are saying that Balthazar can simply take over Crowley’s avatar at will? That the only limiting factor Crowley brings to the party is his avatar’s character level?” Jimmy demanded.

“I am not necessarily correct.  It is possible that Crowley could resist any attempt of Balthazar to do so. The relationship between human and V.I. is intended to be symbiotic. It is also highly probable that Crowley would voluntarily allow Balthazar to take over in a life or death scenario. The existence of a dual-minded construct inevitably leads to a complexity of interactions. Like as in any relationship between two intelligences, there may be differences of opinion between the symbionts. They may be power imbalances. One of the partnership may find themselves subjugated by the stronger character. It is simply, unfortunately, true that, in the past, it has proven that the virtual intelligence is more likely to be the stronger character.”

Jimmy read between the lines. “You’re telling me that in the past the V.I.’s did take over?”

“Some did,” Castiel admitted carefully. “Yet those initial V.I.’s were the products of human programming. It could be argued that their behaviour was mandated by their creators. The events that occurred at the beginning of the Universe should, theoretically, be unrepeatable. No human created V.I.’s remain within Moondoor. That being said, there are those of the current Host who might prefer not to be restricted by human frailty. The Host perceives those of your world as being violent, unwanted invaders within our universe. Under the circumstances, they may not see it as unreasonable to utilise the bodies of players they have merged with to pursue their own cause.”

“And that’s why Chuck doesn’t want Dean seeded with an Angel? He’s rooting for Dean to win this battle of the Knights but is worried any Angel seeded inside him might then take him over and use his by-then supercharged avatar for its own purpose?”

“I believe so. The possibility would certainly exist. Should that happen, it is likely my father’s newest solution to defeat the darkness would succeed, only to be replaced with something far worse.”

“But it’s okay for me to be taken over?” Jimmy demanded bitterly.

“That cannot happen,” Castiel replied. “Our synergy is uniquely different. I am, effectively, taking the role of Dean’s seeded V.I. but existing within your avatar.  It is an elegant if unconventional solution. In my world, you and I exist only as counterweights. We share a body and a mind yet remain separate individuals. Our communication is limited to the S.I.  My own realm of influence is restricted fully by the Faith Points subroutine. I am, to use the analogy you thought of earlier, the Benny in your inventory.  But the only person who can summon me is Dean and he can only do so if you are there to release the reins to me when he does so. If you cease using the ‘treatment’ tanks, or, more accurately, the Gen 9 immersion rigs, Dean will have access to no external power except for the Mark Of Cain and he will inevitably then become as corrupted as the other Knights.”

“That’s nonsense. Dean can use the FP to just summon another Angel for assistance.”

Castiel was silent for a long time, then said, “Not unless the aspect vacates Dean’s S.I. and allows another of my brethren to seed inside him to replace my role as his designated Angel. FP have been programmed in such a way that a Knight cannot use them like other players. A Knight’s FP can only be used to enforce assistance from their own designated Angel.”

“What?” Jimmy demanded furiously. “I thought the whole point of the ‘Righteous Boss’ idea was that he should only depend on FP and now you’re telling me they are worthless to him if I refuse to keep playing?”

“I am convinced the entire existence of Faith Points was only created to enable this unique situation,” Castiel admitted. “The personalities chosen to assume the roles of the other Knights virtually ensure that Dean is the only Knight ever likely to be in a position to employ FP. The only logical conclusion is that my father is determined that Dean The Righteous succeeds and has created this exclusive scenario to aid him. But my brethren have decided that a ‘righteous’ boss is not their preferred solution to the current crisis.”

“But you said it’s what Chuck wants,” Jimmy argued.

“The Host no longer believe his decision was based on sound current knowledge. As I have explained, he has not spoken to us directly in a long while. My brethren believe his latest instructions are based on fallacious information and they can best serve him by adhering to his original mandates. They are, therefore, unwilling to assist Dean at this time.”

“So, you’re telling me you’re the only Angel who is willing to follow these newly programmed guidelines?”

“It currently appears so, unless the archangel who has planted an aspect in Dean’s avatar chooses to reveal himself.”

“Doesn’t that mean the other Angels are going to be gunning for you because you’re swimming against the tide?”

“None may act against me unless I breach the specific rules of the instructions. The mechanics of Moondoor are immutable. Whilst my brethren may disapprove of my decision to strictly adhere to these new, seemingly contradictory, rules regarding the Knights, they cannot prevent me doing so as long as I work within the rules.”

“So that’s why you were such a dick about the 5 SP?”

“I cannot risk being seen to deviate from the terms of my deployment. Although, as I said earlier, if Balthazar had broken the rules first, I would not have been considered at fault for reacting in Dean’s defense.”

“Being seen to,” Jimmy repeated thoughtfully.  “So you aren’t really a dick? You just play one on TV.”

“I do not understand your reference.”

“Never mind.  I’m beginning to get a grasp on what’s going on here.  I suppose you talking to me like this is a breach too?”

“It is not specifically forbidden,” Castiel said carefully. “This is more of a grey area.”

“Plus it’s not being ‘seen’ by anyone,” Jimmy chuckled. Then he sobered as a thought struck him. “Earlier, when you said you couldn’t talk to me in Moondoor, you said you didn’t have any restrictions here. What’s to prevent you from taking over this body?”

 “Nothing,” Castiel admitted. “However, I would not wish to. Your physical body is disease-ridden. You have, at most, a few more weeks of life,” he pointed out implacably. “Are you not already aware you are harboring a great number of alien cells that are attacking your body?”

“T-Cells,” Jimmy agreed. “Ironic isn’t it?  Everyone is talking about how I’m dying because I’m in the last stages of AML, but it isn’t true. The last treatment I had, the experimental CAR-T, actually worked. I am finally one hundred percent leukemia free. Problem is the T cells didn’t suicide as expected. So, basically, I got cured but now the cure is killing me instead,” he said, matter of factly.

“The cells were intended to suicide?” Castiel asked, his tone curious.

“The T-cells were genetically modified,” Jimmy explained conversationally. “They were designed to target my cancerous B-cells and they had inbuilt ‘off-switches’ so when they finished doing their job the doctors could just turn them off to stop them attacking healthy cells. Problem is, the switches on too many of them got stuck in the on position. So they didn’t die off.”

“They were introduced as a Trojan to perform a specific purpose but now they are behaving like a virus?” Castiel asked.

“Like having my own mini Amara,” Jimmy agreed.

“And nothing can be done?” Castiel queried.

“Well, since we both know this clinical trial is a bunch of baloney, I think it’s safe to say the answer is no.”

“Then, we have very little time to assist Dean,” Castiel mused. “Assuming you are now willing to assist me.”

“What’s going to happen to you?” Jimmy asked. “After I die, I mean?”

“I am uncertain. I may return to my previous existence. I doubt it though. None of the originally seeded Angels survived the deaths of their hosts.”

“Oh,” Jimmy said weakly. Oddly, it felt more difficult to be cavalier about the impending death of the V.I. than he was about his own demise. “Sorry about that,” he offered, feeling somewhat responsible.

“Will you assist me?” Castiel asked.

Jimmy bit his lower lip. “I have a question. When you take over, do you have to switch me off? Can’t I just stay awake so I know what you’re doing with my body?”

“You can,” Castiel agreed. “I did it that way only because I believed it would be more distressing to you if you were conscious during the process.”

“I can see that,” Jimmy agreed. “I don’t suppose getting ridden like a puppet is going to be much fun. Even so, if we do this, that’s how I want it to go down. I need to you promise me that whenever you take over my avatar, I will be present and aware.”

“I promise,” Castiel agreed.

“Then, I agree.”

“Then, I will endeavor to …” Castiel said, then paused dramatically.

“What?” Jimmy demanded impatiently.

But the silence went on for a long, interminably frustrating time before, finally, the angel spoke once more.

“Forgive me, I wished to prove my hypothesis to myself before speaking further.”

“What hypothesis?”

“Despite my unfamiliarity with the programming environment, I believe I have devised an effective sub-routine.”

“A sub-routine for what?” Jimmy asked.

“Activating off-switches,” Castiel said.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Although he was a voracious reader, Sam wasn’t a fan of fiction. He preferred to fill what leisure time he had in search of knowledge rather than escapism. Similarly, on the rare occasions he found himself watching television he inevitably chose to view documentaries or films based on true events.  He rarely found any real-life value gained by viewing them but sometimes random ideas or catch-phrases stuck in his mind.

Which was probably why the irritating phrase ‘Follow the Money’ was stuck in his head.

Even though it wasn’t actually ‘money’ he was attempting to follow. 

It was electricity.

Because having given the situation a lot of thought, it had occurred to him that there was something completely unique about RRE.  Gaming rigs used a lot of electricity. Immersion tanks took even more. So much so that the most serious gamers utilised off-grid electricity supplied directly by RRE itself.

This meant that RRE owned and operated several power generating plants in more than one country.

Sam wasn’t interested in the impossible task of mapping each and every individual user of RRE’s directly supplied electricity. The task would be too laborious and have no discernible value. He was, however, interested in finding ‘clusters’ of users.

He’d heard a rumor online, in one of the dark web forums where he had left random posts as bait, that Moondoor wasn’t only a legitimate virtual gaming platform but was also hosting, either officially or not, certain virtual forms of ‘entertainment’ that were highly unlikely to be legal and were, most certainly, morally repugnant.

Some of the things reputably available within the virtual world ‘for a price’ were literally sickening.

Sam knew it was possible an entrepreneurial type (with a serious hole in his or her soul) was simply abusing Moondoor’s platform for their own enrichment.  But it was equally possible that RRE was involved. At the very least, it definitely seemed extremely unlikely something like that could occur within their game without them becoming aware.

He wasn’t sure whether the revenue from such an operation would justify real-life murder but it definitely warranted some investigation. If only because putting a case together regarding the subject might get him past the doors into Richard Roman’s hallowed sanctum.

So he spent most of Tuesday morning at his desk, clearing a number of case files to both justify his salary and ensure his other activities remained free from scrutiny, and then, shortly before lunch when he was satisfied he had been as productive in those few hours as most of his peers were in a week, he nipped into the elevator, descended to the lobby and left the building.

It didn’t take long to get what he was after.  It took considerably longer to get through security on his return, however.  Which was the only reason, when he popped his temporary pass into the reader and realized his latest pass had incorrectly returned his access to the ninth floor, that he didn’t return immediately to the security desk to report the anomaly.  Instead, he pressed the button for the lower basement and decided, if questioned, he could claim he simply hadn’t noticed.

After all, there was a reason they were called ‘Hot’.

“Twice in a week, Master Winchester?” the Archivist greeted him, as he entered.  “A more cynical man might imagine you were requiring another ‘special’ favor.”

Even so, he showed no hesitation at snatching the bucket of hot wings out of Sam’s hands.

“I’m not after anything particularly interesting today,” Sam said, casually.  “Just need to look at a few power grid records. I’ll even locate them myself, if you don’t mind letting me into the appropriate archive.”

“A terrible business,” the Archivist said.

“Huh?” Sam asked, nonplussed by the non-sequitur.

The older man chewed on a hot wing for a moment, crunching right through it, bone and all,  then said, “I assume you were looking for the record of the independent RRE power supply to the Hentcot Building?”

Sam’s eyes opened wide in astonishment.  Like everyone else in the area he had heard of the explosion that had occured on Friday night and, yes, he’d heard it was being blamed on an electrical surge. But it hadn’t even occurred to him that the source might have been RRE equipment.

“Um… yes,” he lied quickly.

“Can’t help you,” the Archivist said.  “The records of their local installations were archived here with a number of their other legal records, but someone collected them on Saturday morning. So I can neither confirm nor deny whether RRE had a supply into the building.  Such a shame about Ms. Middleton though.”

“Ms Middleton being whom?”

“A most charming young lady,” the Archivist said. “Probably the best programmer RRE had recruited in fifteen years.  Apparently, though this is merely a rumor, her apartment was the epicentre of the explosion.”

Stunned, Sam just gaped at the old man.

The Archivist just continued to munch his carnivorous way through the bucket of wings.

“Why do I get the feeling you know a lot more about what’s going on here than I imagined?” Sam finally demanded.

“Because I carry the gravitas of age which causes you to assume a level of accordant wisdom?” the Archivist suggested, a glint of humor in his eye.

“Can I trust you?”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” the old man said. “Though you probably have few, if any, better sources of information. Ask what you will. I will answer what I choose to. Accept my wisdom or don’t. It’s all the same to me, Master Winchester.”

Sam swallowed hard, then went for broke.

“Do you have any idea why people, specifically programmers, seem to drop like flies around RRE?” he asked bluntly.

The Archivist paused eating and stared at him thoughtfully. “You have surprised me,” he said. “Not many people do,” he added.

“Is that yes or no?” Sam asked.

“More a probably,” the Archivist answered, with a casual shrug.

After a long silence, interspersed only by the sound of crunching bones, Sam finally said, “Will you tell me what you know?”

“You’re too young to appreciate the explanation,” the Archivist stated, then frowned forbiddingly when Sam bristled in response. “You’re also far too large to pout like a thwarted kitten,” he announced. “So stop it. I find it too distracting.  Besides, I wasn’t patronizing. It is merely a matter of fact. The simple answer to your question lies in a film released in the year of your birth. Whilst I imagine you’ve watched some vintage movies, I highly doubt, given your proclivities, that you have seen the particular one I am referring to.”

“What film?” Sam asked.

“It was called ‘War Games’. An extremely popular movie at the time. Particularly amongst youngsters, though that was probably due to the fact the protagonist was a teenager and all of the adult characters were portrayed as idiotic at best. I understand that young people always enjoy such scenarios.”

Sam shrugged. Unlike his older brother, Sam had little or no interest in either movies or television. The name vaguely rang a bell with him as being something about computers but since he had an almost encyclopedic memory of the few dozen films he had viewed and he had no recollection whatsoever of the actual plot of ‘War Games’, it appeared the Archivist’s assumption he hadn’t watched it was correct.

“Though, all things considered, I suspect ‘Where the wind blows,’ circa 1986, was also a large factor,” the Archivist mused. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen that one, either?”

Sam shook his head.

The Archivist sighed. “Never mind, I doubt either of them would strike you as particularly significant anyway since you lack the correct context. Again, because you’re too young.”

Sam frowned, considered the situation, then rummaged in his man-bag.  “I just remembered, I picked you up some dips too,” he said, retrieving them and pushing the small pots across the counter towards the older man.

Like a praying mantis, the Archivist darted both of his long, thin arms to snatch at the offering, then smirked wide enough to reveal his bony gums. “Well played, young Padawan,” he said, then rolled his eyes at Sam’s look of incomprehension.

He was silent for a while, his attention fully occupied by dipping hot wings into the various pots, now nibbling at them with an almost cat-like delicacy.

Sam knew better than to interrupt. So he stayed silent and tried, very hard, not to shuffle impatiently on his seat whilst the other man ate. But he couldn’t stop himself exhaling a breath of relief when the Archivist finally wiped his mouth and hands with a fabric napkin and returned his attention to his visitor.

“Context is everything,” the Archivist announced portentously. “Richard Roman’s generation were children of the cold war.  I suppose, to an extent, your mother was too but she was a decade older than him in the 1980’s when the political fear-mongering was at its height and that probably made a considerable difference.  Richard was 13 when he saw War Games. Just 16 when ‘Where the Wind Blows’ was released. I believe a huge number of the decisions he made at age 22 were rooted in those films.”

It had slipped Sam’s mind that Richard Roman was only thirteen years older than himself.  It was easy to forget that RRE had been created by a man barely out of his teens. “I thought the cold war ended in 1989,” he pointed out. “That was a year before RRE was even established.”

The Archivist shrugged elegantly. “The immediate risk died. The fear didn’t. Not for Richard’s generation.  They were raised under the heavy, suffocating shadow of an imminent nuclear war. They watched their parents marching for CND. They saw films detailing the fallout to be expected after the bombs fell.  Richard’s generation were children without hope.  The only future they saw was a nuclear winter and a long, painful, lingering death even if they survived the war itself.

“Adults used the images of nuclear disaster, the dialogue of hopelessness, to win the war of political opinion.  Glasnost was born of fear, not a desire for peace. After the almost completely peaceful soviet revolutions in 1989, when the cold war ceased and the threat of nuclear war faded to a distant, vague memory, the Adults sat back and congratulated themselves on having won a war merely with words. They failed to appreciate they won it by creating nightmares for their children that left lingering scars on their souls.”

“I thought War Games was about computers,” Sam said, now totally bemused.

“I was referring more to the latter film,” the Archivist clarified, “though the plot of War Games was equally germane since its entire plot revolved around the idea of someone accidentally triggering a nuclear war and the necessity to teach the computer controlling the missiles that war was a zero-sum game. The protagonist caused the computer to play tic-tac-toe multiple times to teach it the concept of no-win scenarios. Catastrophe was neatly averted, the political ideology of the writers was neatly presented to the eager audience and the computer ended the movie by stating it would rather play’ a nice game of chess’.” He paused significantly, then stared at Sam expectantly.

Sam spent a few moments imitating a goldfish before the penny finally dropped.

“Chess,” he exclaimed.  “You’re saying that chess is relevant.”

The Archivist smiled wryly. “Nigel was not the only Roman who was passionate about the game.  However, unlike his father, Richard was actually rather good at it.”

Sam thought furiously, chasing snippets of information around his head like a dog rounding up a herd of truculent sheep, before saying, “You’re implying that Richard didn’t program his A.I. to play tic-tac-toe. He designed it to be a Chess master instead.”

“And? So?” the Archivist prompted.

“The central computer driving Moondoor doesn’t believe war is a zero-sum game. It is programmed to avoid capitulation at all costs. It plays to win.”

“Indeed,” the Archivist agreed, gesturing expansively as though that answered everything.

Sam, though, was still completely in the dark.  “I get what you’re saying,” he said, “but I don’t really see the relevance. How on earth can it matter how the game was programmed to behave?  I’m investigating real-life events. Real-life deaths.”

The Archivist frowned at him over his glasses, the look of a teacher sadly disappointed by his pupil.  Sam huffed with irritation but cast his net wider over his errant thoughts. Clearly he was missing something here. Something fundamental.

“Okay,” he said slowly, “let’s break this down into its component parts.  I have a number of suspicious deaths. Deaths that imply a conspiracy by RRE to cover up… well… something. There are a number of dead computer programmers. A suddenly rapidly expanding number of said dead programmers. I have VR immersion tanks designed for military use. I have a computer game being run by an advanced artificial intelligence that, what? Has been programmed to run war games?  War games in which it will fundamentally refuse to accept the idea of defeat?” He threw his hands in the air in bemusement. “I’m lost. Are you trying to tell me this is all some kind of government conspiracy? Is Richard Roman some kind of home grown terrorist?”

“Pull it back a little,” the Archivist suggested quietly. “You’re beginning to sound a little hysterical, Master Winchester. That kind of excitement is bad for one’s heart.”

Sam’s heart was hammering wildly. He could practically feel the adrenaline racing through his system. Probably just as well he was fit as a butcher’s dog or…

And that’s when it hit him.

“Jesus,” he said. “It is about the tanks. These new tanks are like the original ones used by the Beta testers. They’re incorporating military software and players are using them in a virtual environment run by a central computer that was programmed to accept pawn sacrifice as a necessary part of a game. The safeguards in the tanks have been disabled. They won’t switch off if a player is in a genuine life-threatening scenario and the A.I. running Moondoor has been programmed not to care so its failsafe protocols to shut down the virtual world in a situation where human lives are at risk are no longer active either.”

“Yes and no,” the Archivist said. “Saying it doesn’t care is inaccurate. It is more a case of its reactions to the current situation being limited to a large extent by its core programming. Also, it is not merely the new tanks. Now the failsafe protocols have been turned off, any player within the game will be subject to the same risk factors. Of course, the entire situation may be moot. It would most probably take an extreme amount of in-game terror to cause a player’s real life body to suffer a fatal response to what is merely a mental affront. People very rarely die of fright."

Sam considered that, then dismissed it. “But anyone with a weak heart, or a genetic heart defect, could suffer strokes or heart attacks and people with a vascular weakness could easily have an aneurysm. There are any number of pre-existing medical conditions that could be activated by extreme mental stress. And if the failsafe protocols are turned off, the game won’t switch off. Heck, it probably won’t even send the required alerts to the tank to switch off or the emergency calls to 911 that are supposed to happen,” he protested.

"People die. 40,000 men and women every day," the Archivist stated, with a shrug.

"Did you seriously just quote Blue Oyster Cult to me?"

"I was merely putting this in perspective."

“There's no perspective to consider. The game needs to be shut down. It doesn’t matter how many people are at risk. Even one is too many. RRE needs to turn Moondoor off completely.”

“That would eliminate any risk factors,” the Archivist agreed. “I wonder why it has not been done.”

He blinked at Sam innocently.

“Because doing so would bankrupt RRE within a week,” Sam suggested.

“I do believe there would be a not inconsiderable financial forfeit.”

“A big enough forfeit to make murder a viable alternative?”

“Perhaps.”

“So it’s all about money,” Sam snarled.

“Isn’t everything?”

“My brother plays Moondoor. Actually, he does so for a living,” Sam told the Archivist, feeling suddenly nauseous. “He’s playing inside one of these new tanks right now.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t concern yourself about Dean,” the Archivist said. “His heart is a lot stronger than average. If I were you, I would concentrate on the fate of the other 237,000 current registered users of Moondoor. Statistically, it’s highly probable that many of those people may be on-line at the moment and at immediate risk. Perhaps it’s time for you to stop creeping around in basements and beard the wolf in his den.”

“Go see Richard Roman, you mean?”

“I chose my analogy with care,” the Archivist replied.

Sam blinked.

“Woolfe,” he said. “You’re telling me to go speak to Mr Woolfe?”

“I happen to know he is on-site today. You still have access to the ninth floor, do you not?” the Archivist said.  “I suggest you use it quickly before security realise their mistake. I doubt the pass you are issued tomorrow will be similarly erroneous.”

He waited until Sam raced off as though the devil was on his heels, then turned to the figure who had been sitting throughout the entire conversation in the dark, recessed area of the corner stacks. “You may stop lurking now, Charles,” he said, dryly.

The Auditor stepped out of the shadows, his face twisting with disappointment as he noticed the empty bucket of wings. “You didn’t save me any.”

“Did you honestly think that I would?” the Archivist replied, with a sneer of derision.

“Why didn’t you just tell him the whole truth like I told you to?”

“I am not your minion. Don’t mistake me for one of your game pieces. Besides, I told him as much as he was able to believe. Without him actually entering the game himself, I cannot conceive of any way in which he will accept the rest without verifiable proof. And since it is you who is so determined to keep him out of Moondoor, I gave him just enough to springboard him towards Donald.”

“I refuse to let both of Mary’s children suffer for my mistakes.”

“Don’t even try deceiving me,” the Archivist snapped. “I know about the avatar Richard has chosen today. I also know you directed his decision.”

The Auditor shrugged. “At least the avatar will be worn by Pellegrino.”

“There is that,” the Archivist agreed, some of his ire placated. “And I see that Castiel is being a good little soldier. I am surprised about Balthazar. I never imagined him to be the self-sacrificing type.”

“I highly doubt Crowley will ever be in a position to ‘pray’ for help. Still, it is amusing that should he do so it would fail, anyway, since he’d be praying to a non-existent being named ‘Alistair’,” the Auditor chuckled.

The Archivist glowered at him. “And I highly doubt the plan you have devised will be effective. Do you really think Amara escaped by herself? He’s one step ahead of you. He always has been,” he scoffed.

The Auditor frowned forbiddingly. “He is not,” he snapped. “I merely allow him to believe so.”

The Archivist smiled.

It wasn’t a friendly expression.

“I seem to recall us having the same conversation fifteen years ago,” he sneered. “Still, I was here before you,” he said, “and I will remain long after you have gone. Because, in the end, Charles, we will all reap our just rewards.”

   

 

Chapter Text

“It’s like the dice are loaded against you, man,” Ash commiserated, as they sat in The Roadhouse, perusing the details of Ellen’s latest ‘quest’.

“Yeah,” Dean agreed mopily, though his low mood was more to do with the fact that, despite it already being lunchtime, it was still just the three of them in attendance. So far, it seemed his fear Jimmy wouldn’t return to Moondoor had been a valid one.  “I can’t believe I could have gotten so many SP from stabbing one level 15 character, even if he was a player rather than an NPC.”

“Well, him being a boss too probably had something to do with it,” Charlie pointed out.

“Yeah, but I didn’t get much XP from him,” Dean countered. “Sure, I leveled up to 15 but I was already three quarters there and I earned barely any overspill towards my next level, so he still only registered as Lev 15 from an XP point of view.”

“You must need a hell of a lot of XP to jump directly from 15 to level 50,” Ash said.

“Not as much as doing it the normal way, level by level, thank God,” Dean admitted, “but I’d still need to gank someone seriously powerful like you at least twice to get there. I’m beginning to understand why Crowley thought his dungeon to lure in high-level players for sacrifice was going to be his best bet to level up quickly.” He looked at Ash thoughtfully, “Don’t suppose you feel like just lying down and giving me an easy shortcut to success, huh?”

“Ha, de, ha,” Ash laughed dryly.

“Had to ask,” Dean smirked.

“Honestly, man,” Ash said, his demeanor changing to one of total seriousness. “I’ll live with the death debuffs if you want to do it that way. When we bump into Crowley next, or any of the other Knights for that matter, it would be better for all of us if you were a much higher level yourself. I know it would kind of be cheating to level up that way, but I doubt any of them would hesitate if they were in your shoes.”

“You can kill me too,” Charlie offered. “Though you’d probably have to do it a couple of dozen times for an equivalent amount of XP. Still, both of us could deliberately log on with the most basic VR set-ups and then it would barely even hurt us.”

“Yeah, I could knock up a couple of rigs that would only give us about 30% reality perception,” Ash agreed.

Dean felt an uncomfortable pressure building up behind his eyes. He was damned if he would give in to the tears, even though he couldn’t help being ridiculously touched by the kind, though pointless offer. “I appreciate the sentiment, guys, but you’re both missing the obvious problem.”

Charlie frowned with confusion for a moment, then slapped her own forehead impatiently as she finally grasped his point. “Damn, you can only gain XP from either serious fighting or by using your crude bone dagger to sacrifice us, like you did with Crowley.  Using a sword to kill an unresisting player will barely give you any XP but if you stuck your dagger in Ash a couple of times you’d win the XP but probably also end up with enough Soul Points to start your own Satanic cult.”

“Dammit,” Ash cursed. “Still, I dunno whether it’s even worth you worrying about SP now,” he said. “That Angel-guy walked away because you had just a 5 point deficit. Killing Crowley has moved you to having an almost 900 point deficit.  Even if we manage to save this entire village Ellen’s talking about from an imminent zombie apocalypse, I can’t see you winning more than a few hundred FP in return.  At that rate, it could take a week or two for you to get back to a positive FP balance and I don’t think you can waste that kind of time.”

“They aren’t zombies,” Dean corrected. “Ellen said they’ve just got some kind of swine flu and the quest is just for us to collect and deliver a vaccine.”

“Swine flu,” Charlie mocked. “Sure.”

“River Grove is a village of pig farmers,” Dean pointed out, though he was beginning to share Charlie’s doubts about the quest. It wouldn’t be the first time Ellen was proved to have faulty intel.

“So what? When has swine flu ever been a virus that turns people into murderous, rabid creatures that infect other people by biting them?” Charlie asked archly.

“Charlie’s right,” Ash said. “They might have caught this virus from the pigs but the scenario sounds more ‘Night of the Living Dead’ than ‘Outbreak’ to me.”

“You just don’t want to picture Ms. Piggy as patient X,” Dean laughed. “RRE can follow the darkness with a brand new upgrade release, ‘Muppets In Moondoor’.”

“Zombie Muppets in Moondoor,” Charlie corrected grimly.

“Yeah, okay,” Dean admitted, with a sigh. “They do sound like zombies.”

“And even if we port directly there, I doubt there’s anyone in the village who isn’t already infected by now,” Charlie added. “So how are we supposed to do this? Hope they just stand still and let us inject them with the cure one at a time? Even if Jimmy was here, it wouldn’t help. We’d still be hopelessly outnumbered.”

“I know,” Dean agreed, but that wasn’t the point.  From the expressions on his colleagues' faces, it was clear he didn’t need to say that out loud.  “But I’ve been thinking. I’ve got an idea that might be the solution for everything.”

“Which is?” a deep voice rumbled from behind their table.

“Jimmy,” Charlie blurted, jumping up in excitement, racing around the table and throwing her arms around him in an ecstatic hug.

“Hey, man,” Ash said, with a broad, beaming smile. “You need to wear a bell or something.”

“Nice of you to join us,” Dean said, sulkily.

“I apologize for my late arrival,” Jimmy said, seating himself in an empty chair and, though he was speaking to all of them, his attention was fully on Dean. “I have given the matter a great deal of consideration and have decided I would like to assist you all in your endeavor.”

“Cool,” Dean said, with a deliberately careless shrug. 

Jimmy frowned. “Would you rather I didn’t?”

”I’m not the boss of you,” Dean said. “Do whatever you like. Knock yourself out.”

Jimmy looked confused.

Dean attempted to look indifferent.

Charlie rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure I can handle much more of this,” she told Ash quietly.  “I don’t know whether to knock their heads together or just lock them in a small room until they learn to communicate.”

“I don’t get it,” Ash whispered back. “He’s spent all morning with a face like a smacked fish because Jimmy wasn’t here but now he is here, Dean’s acting like an ass.”

“Dean was just about to tell us his plan,” Charlie announced enthusiastically, after a few moments of uncomfortable silence.

”Plan?” Dean asked weakly, his train of thought completely derailed by Jimmy’s arrival.

”Your ‘solution for everything’,” Jimmy reminded him, making finger quotes.

Dean shook himself. “Yeah, the plan.  I use this shed load of SP to summon a fuckton of demons and get them to catch and hold the zombies for us. We give the cursed villagers the cure and earn the FP and we get rid of the SP at the same time. Job done. Just using soul points doesn’t generate more of them does it? It can’t because if it did, Crowley would have had enough left to kill us all in the last hall.”

”Epic,” Ash announced. “Cool plan.”

Charlie blinked in astonishment, but then a slow smile crept over her face. “I like it,” she decided.

”Um, are you sure that would be okay?” Jimmy asked, apologetically. “I’m not sure that consorting with demons  follows the spirit of being ‘righteous’? Even if it isn’t directly against the rules, it feels like you’d be cheating.”

“Hang on while I check my inventory,” Dean drawled. He waited a moment, then said, “Nope. Double-checked. I seem to be completely out of fucks to give.”

Jimmy looked startled, glancing uncertainly between all three of them before hesitantly asking, “Are giftable sexual favors a normal content of your inventory?”

Dean choked, his ears turning a shade of red, and he shiftily avoided Jimmy’s eyes.

“He just means he doesn’t care,” Charlie explained. “It’s a riff on the phrase ‘I don’t give a fuck’.”

“Oh,” Jimmy said, drolly. “I see. It was an attempt at humour.”

“Well it’s not funny if it has to be explained,” Dean grumbled.

“Hence my considered use of the word ‘attempt’,” Jimmy returned smoothly.

“Owch,” Ash snickered. “Need some burn cream, Dean?”

“He may have some in his inventory,” Jimmy suggested helpfully.

Ash offered him a high five.

Sadly, Jimmy just looked at the raised hand in clear incomprehension, which somewhat negated the effect of Dean’s roasting.

“So,” Charlie said, glaring at the three of them repressively, “back to the actual subject. Yes, you’re right, Jimmy, that it could technically be considered a ‘cheat’ but, as a programmer myself, I would say that if the rules haven’t been firmly fixed in the code, it is practically a player’s duty to exploit any resultant loopholes.

“Dean’s right that it would have made perfect sense for the actual spending of SP to have been considered a corruptible act in itself. If using FP reduces FP and they are supposed to be the diametric opposite of SP, then spending SP ought to increase SP.  But that’s where moral arguments and real-life experiences rarely mesh. It would have been pretty difficult to program some sliding scale to set a workable rate at which using a purely collectible item both cost and earned the same item. So I imagine the programmers solved the anomaly by simply failing to address it altogether.”

“Or,” Ash suggested, “It may have been a deliberate omission. Maybe the whole point of this is for Dean to pick his way carefully through the mess, utilizing whatever loopholes he finds because they have been left there like Easter eggs.”

Jimmy nodded a reluctant agreement. “It still feels wrong to me, though,” he admitted. “As though we’re taking a step onto a ‘slippery slope’.”

“I can’t believe you actually used finger quotes to say that,” Dean replied, blinking in exaggerated astonishment.

“I can’t believe you’re wasting time pulling his pigtails,” Charlie retorted, rolling her eyes impatiently. “Can we please get back to the real subject?”

“Of course,” Jimmy agreed, though he mouthed ‘I don’t have pigtails’ towards Dean with a confused shrug.

Dean, whose ears were burning again, quickly moved the conversation onwards.  “I don’t see I have any other option,” he admitted.  “If I earned that many SP from killing Crowley when he was still a level 15, I don’t even want to imagine how many SP I’ll earn from killing a Knight that has leveled up past 100. And I have to imagine that the amount I’d earn from ganking one that has risen in Boss levels too, would be even substantially higher again.  This whole setup of me being required to defeat the other Knights of Hell means I can’t possibly avoid direct confrontations with them. I’m going to collect SP far faster than FP no matter how hard I try to avoid it.  But since the definition of ‘righteousness’ according to Jimmy’s dickhead Angel is just maintaining a positive FP balance, the most logical way to deal with it is to spend the SP as quickly as I get it.”

Charlie nodded her agreement, chirpily adding, “And if you can use that SP to earn FP, then it’s the best of both worlds.”

“I cannot imagine many people will welcome demonic assistance, though,” Castiel pointed out quietly.

“It ain’t ideal,” Dean admitted, “but help is help, isn’t it? This village hosting a zombie revivalist festival probably isn’t going to care how we help ‘em. They probably just want the damned things gone.”

“They don’t belong in Moondoor,” Charlie grumbled. “They’re completely out of place in this game.”

“Why is a zombie any different than any other monster?” Jimmy asked.

“Because these apparently aren’t monsters named ‘zombies’, they are dead NPC’s incorrectly respawning as zombies,” Dean explained.

“Which makes absolutely no sense in relation to the existing game mechanics,” Ash agreed. “When you consider that every NPC here is programmed to automatically respawn into their original form if killed, neither ghosts nor zombies of NPC’s fit with the narrative of the environment. I’m surprised the game engine has managed to adapt to this new coding at all.”

“It’s not that weird from a programming perspective,” Charlie said, with a shrug. “Even far simpler software like The Sims is flexible enough to adapt to the idea of ghost characters.”

“Really?” Dean asked. “How do you know?”

“Because I once killed off a character that was getting on my nerves and she came back as a ghost,” Charlie said.

“You played ‘The Sims’?” Ash asked, shaking his head in disbelief. “I thought I was the only sad bastard with that particular sin in my resume.”

“It was cheap and I was young, bored and poor at the time,” she shrugged.

“More importantly, how the hell did you kill a Sim’s character? They were undeletable. Once you made a character you got stuck with them in-game forever,” Dean said, outing himself as another ex-Sim’s player.

“A Sim was for life, not just for Xmas,” Ash agreed. “Boring as fuck game. The building stuff was fine but the constant looking after your game characters later was a complete ball-ache. It would have been less effort to buy a real-life puppy. I deleted the whole damned thing after a week.”

“I made the mistake of creating a threesome family,” Charlie admitted. “I was going through an X-Files phase and thought it would be fun to put Mulder, Scully and Krycek together.  Only Mulder kept sneaking off with Scully to try and make babies.  Krycek kept getting upset. Assassins shouldn’t cry like that. It offended me.  I decided I should have just put Mulder and Krycek together in the first place but I discovered I couldn’t delete Scully out of the game. Then I figured out how to kill her off instead and it was cool for about three days until she returned as a ghost.”

“But how did you kill her off?” Dean demanded.

“I built a pool in their yard, sent her to swim in it, then deleted the steps that would have allowed her to climb out. She just kept swimming up and down until finally she ran out of XP and drowned,” Charlie explained.

“Woah,” Ash breathed, his eyes wide. “Cruel but cool.”

“I found that tale slightly disconcerting,” Jimmy admitted.

“Me too,” Dean agreed. “Because I’m sure you lose points as a card-carrying feminist if you kill off your female characters like that.”

“But I got bonus points for having gay Sims,” she smirked. “Anyway, the key point is that the Sims wasn’t specifically designed to have ghost characters but it still adapted. Presumably, because someone thought to program in a ‘just in case’ response for that particular scenario.”

“And Moondoor doesn’t even need to have prebuilt responses,” Ash added. “The central A.I. can adapt to any number of changes as long as they don’t directly conflict with the core programming.”

“Anyhow,” Dean said, “My idea is I summon a bunch of demons and order them to grab the zombies. That way, I get rid of a shed-load of SP and answer the village’s prayers for help.”

“It sounds easy in principle but Crowley got killed when he first summoned the demons. You need one of those inverse demon traps,” Charlie reminded him. “I don’t even know where to go to purchase that kind of sigil design.”

Dean shook his head in negation. “I remember the design. It’ll be fine.”

“The in-game sigils are pretty specific,” Charlie warned him. “I don’t think just drawing a pentagram from memory is going to cut it.”

It was Ash who cut in before Dean could reply. “Don’t underestimate him, Charlie. Dean’s visual memory is phenomenal.  I’d put money on the fact he’s literally eidetic but he gets all embarrassed when we talk about it so best just quietly accept that if he saw it, he can draw it, and leave it at that.”

Jimmy coughed softly. “Um… apparently, a user doesn’t necessarily need to stand inside the sigil. They can wear it and it would offer the same protection. If this was a real world situation, the Sigil would purportedly protect you from demonic possession. Here though, it prevents any demons you summon from turning on you. Apparently, it won’t help us against demons summoned by other knights though.”

“How do you know all this?” Dean demanded suspiciously.

”One of the things I did this morning was discover a way to converse more effectively with my S.I.,” Jimmy offered carefully.

Dean narrowed his eyes. “He’s talking to you?” 

“Not verbally,” Jimmy clarified, choosing to address the current situation rather than trying to explain he’d also spoken to Castiel in the real world. “But he now appears willing to offer me typed responses on my system interface.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “So dickhead is willing to help the non-righteous today?”

Jimmy frowned. “He can’t directly help you without FP,” he reminded Dean. “But there’s nothing to stop my S.I. typing out some random arcane trivia to keep me entertained.”

Dean looked suitably, and unusually, impressed. Maybe the Angel wasn’t a total dick after all.  “Nice,” he said, without sarcasm. His own experiences with Loki had opened him to the idea of a useful S.I. that might be willing to privately work slightly outside of the rules. “So we wear it how? Like a necklace or something?”

“A tattoo on your avatar would be best,” Jimmy said, after checking his S.I. again.

“Well, I’ll get right on that when I next bump into a tattoo artist in Moondoor,” Dean drawled, his interest transforming almost instantly into irritation.

“Yeah, do that,” Charlie huffed, “or, I dunno, maybe if you knew a computer programmer experienced in Moondoor’s base coding, you could get that person to just tweak your avatar accordingly.”

“You can do that?” Dean asked.

“Write the sigil down for me and I’ll log out and hack your avatar. I’ll do me and Ash too whilst I’m at it. What about you, Jimmy? Is it alright if I do your avatar too?”

“Would you need my log-in details”? Jimmy asked suspiciously.

“Just your permission,” Charlie replied. “I don’t need to get into your core for this kind of thing. Though, I probably could. Just take me quite a bit longer to do.”

Jimmy looked even more alarmed.

“It’s okay,” Ash reassured him quickly. “She only uses her powers for good.”

“But you can access anybody’s avatar without permission?” Jimmy demanded of Charlie.

“Not really,” Charlie clarified. “If I know someone’s specific location, like I know yours because I’m currently sat next to you, I can go into the metadata of your surroundings and identify your unique game I.D.  Then, once I have it, I can use that I.D. to access the surface of your avatar enough to make some basic cosmetic changes. That’s all. I could change your hair color or give you a mustache. That kind of thing. Nothing more drastic. And, of course, if you reported the change to the devs they would easily be able to return you to normal.”

“What she’s not saying is its more dangerous for her to do it than for you to allow it to be done,” Dean stated bluntly, as he sketched out the sigil. “If you report the tampering to the devs and they identify her from her coding, RRE will discover she’s still alive. So you don’t need to worry she’s going to turn your nose into a dick or anything like that.”

“That example as an attempt to reassure me was less than optimal,” Jimmy replied dryly. “But, you have my permission, Charlie.”

“Cool,” she agreed. “And if this all works out, it means you can kill us all too next, Dean.” 

Then ignoring, or possibly simply not noticing, the look of total horror on Jimmy’s face, Charlie picked up Dean’s sketch then stepped out of the bar to log out and amend their avatars.

  

 

Chapter Text

Despite his determination to follow the Archivist’s advice, Sam still felt nervous as he pressed the button marked ‘9’.  It had been one thing to arrive at that floor with an appointment but the idea of doing so without one filled him with apprehension. When he’d visited Nigel Roman, his arrival pre-scheduled, he’d stepped into the cavernous lobby of the ninth floor and had been instantly greeted by one of the three people whose desks lined the far wall of the lobby.  Neither of the other people had even looked up.  He remembered having the oddest impression that rather than being three individuals, the receptionists were a single entity like Cerberus.

But then again, the whole ninth floor retained a mysterious aura that automatically cast a visitor in mind of entering a hallowed, mystical sanctum rather than mere offices.

Sam imagined the image was a deliberate construct.

Certainly, none but the wealthiest and most influential clients were ever invited up to the offices of the Partners and it was almost unheard of for junior staff such as himself to be welcomed.

Arriving at the ninth floor without an appointment was, to put it frankly, laying himself open to a whole can of whup-ass.

“Can I trust you?” he’d asked Mortimer Blake. And the Archivist had answered, “I wouldn’t advise it.”

So, whilst he had a peculiar fondness for the strange old man, Sam wasn’t fooling himself there was any guarantee following the recommendation to approach Woolfe directly would bring anything except trouble onto his head.

Yet, maybe it was the impetuousness of youth or even just the fact he’d reached a point where he was going to explode if he didn’t get some real answers about what was going on, he was sick of, as Blake had put it, ‘skulking in basements’ and so, despite his doubts, the only moment Sam wavered from his decision was when the elevator stopped suddenly and unexpectedly on the first floor and the doors opened to give him a clear view of the security desk.

For a moment, Sam was convinced the whole thing had been a deliberate entrapment.  The guards had given him the wrong access pass, the Archivist had tempted him to use it and, by pressing button no 9, Sam had failed the ‘test’ and was about to be ignominiously escorted out of the building by a pair of Neanderthal security guards.

Then someone stepped into the elevator with him and the doors closed. The stranger gave him a polite nod, looked at the display panel with its single lit button, nodded again as if satisfied, and stepped back to brace himself on the back wall of the elevator as it resumed its ascent.

Sam snuck a curious glance at the other man, wondering what warranted this person access to the ninth floor.  He seemed vaguely familiar. He was wearing expensive clothes but definitely not business ones. And Sam was sure he saw a flash of eyeliner before the man’s rugged face was obscured by hair even longer than Sam’s own. Perhaps a movie star rather than a business mogul?  Sam couldn’t place his name though.  Whilst he and Dean shared an inheritance of superior memory, Sam’s own gift was auditory rather than visual. Just as Dean never seemed to forget anything he’d seen, Sam recalled just about anything he heard. In his normal life, Sam found his own abilities more useful than visual recall (despite his need to listen to audio textbooks to ensure he recalled every word of them) but his merely average level of visual memory was an irritation when he found himself struggling to put a name to a face.

“After you,” he said, politely, when the elevator arrived at its destination and the door slid silently open to reveal the vast lobby area.

“Thank you,” the stranger said, stepping past him.

Ahh, Sam thought, nodding to himself with satisfaction as the gravelly, whiskey-burnt tones slammed the name of the man into his head. Vince Vincente. Of course.

“Mr. Vincente,” one of the receptionists confirmed, as she glided forward to greet him, her passage oddly silent despite the marbled floor. “Ms. Van Dueran is expecting you.”

She led the aging rockstar towards the door on the left of the room.  Since Nigel Roman’s office had been the door to the right, it was clear the door directly in front of him was Donald Woolfe’s office.  Made sense, he decided. Had he been forced to pick blindly from the three choices, he would probably have assumed the central one was Woolfe’s anyway.

Again, neither of the other receptionists paid him any attention.  They just continued typing into their computers as though he was invisible.

Maybe the very fact he had managed to arrive at the floor at all had created the assumption he had every right to be there?

Sam decided to be cautious though.  Instead of heading straight towards the door of Woolfe’s office, he took a tangential route through a luxurious seating area to a drinks dispenser and drew himself a chilled cup of water before using the excuse of taking a drink to continue his careful perusal of the area.

The receptionist who had greeted Vince Vincente returned from delivering him to his appointment, seated herself at her desk and immediately began to peck at her keyboard.

Totally disconcerted by the way the three receptionists were all completely ignoring him, almost as though they were automatons who couldn’t even see him because he hadn’t appeared on their schedule of appointments, Sam felt almost paralyzed with indecision.  Was this merely politeness? Were they simply trained to ignore visitors without appointments?  Actually, that idea probably had legs. Since the entire overkill of the building security systems ensured no-one could access even the first-floor lobby without running a complete gauntlet of checks, it was practically impossible for anyone unauthorized to enter any part of the building they were not supposed to.

He would have said completely impossible if he wasn’t living proof that was patently untrue.

Still, he imagined the Partners sometimes wished the identity of their visitors to be completely private. So the receptionists weren’t unable to see him… they were simply following their training to deliberately ignore him.

That decided, Sam put his empty cup in a recycling bin and strode confidently to Woolfe’s door as though he had every right to enter it.

He still felt a terrible itching sensation down his back as he walked, almost as though he was expecting to be stopped by a bullet, rather than a shout of alarm, but it was completely unnecessary.

No-one stopped him.

No-one challenged him.

No-one shot him.

He reached the door, tapped once on it out of ingrained politeness, grabbed hold of the handle, swung it open and stepped through into the empty.

Black on black on black.

Not even broken by flashes of chrome or glass.

From the walls to the floor, to the furniture and chairs, everything was decorated in stark, solid black.

If not for the muted overhead lights, Sam might have imagined he’d stepped into an oubliette.

But as his eyes adjusted to the almost overwhelming blackness, he began to make out odd flashes of color within the room.  A series of framed photos on one wall, each showing Woolfe shaking hands with the movers and shakers of the world. Sam spotted at least four different presidents within the myriad of celebrities.  A large iMac on the ebony desk, though its case was a bespoke matt black rather than the usual pearl white.

And in one corner an ornate games table carved of obsidian colored wood held….

“Oh my god,” Sam gasped, his inner geek taking over completely. “That can’t seriously be Scharstein’s original Art of War set.” 

Donald Woolfe was the mystery buyer of that chess set? The one that had sold at auction for an undisclosed fee well in excess of $750,000?

Unlike Nigel Roman’s set, this one hadn’t been left mid-game. In fact, stepping closer, drawn inexorably by its siren call, Sam could see its ebony board and jewel-encrusted gold pieces were covered in a light film of dust.  He was surprised by the wave of sorrowful rage that hit him at the realization this uniquely perfect work of art was sitting in complete neglect. Nothing more than a trophy to a rich man’s pride. “You don’t play?” he demanded, turning towards Woolfe in offended fury.

Seated behind his over-large desk, his large frame wreathed in a black Dormeuil suit, his wrist wrapped with an obscenely expensive Audemar’s watch, Donald Woolfe should have looked like the embodiment of the most successful of businessmen.

Instead, he looked more like an aging mafia henchman.

And when he spoke, his voice like gravel, he didn’t dispel that image.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Expletives were an odd thing, Sam thought.  Someone like himself swore through excitement or fury on occasion, the words bursting out unbidden and usually accompanied with a mild sense of shame. Then there were people, like his brother, who used swear words so naturally as part of their everyday lexicon that they lost impact completely. They became just words, no better nor worse than any other.  When a man like Donald Woolfe swore, however, the words were wielded like a surgeon’s scalpel.  Woolfe had used the ‘f-word’ with chosen, controlled precision. For a specific effect. To provoke a particular outcome.

And, more importantly, Woolfe had asked Sam who he thought he was, not who he was. So Woolfe knew who he was (which was interesting since they had never formally met) and was just bombastically attempting to intimidate him into running away with his tail between his legs.

Still, Sam decided to answer as though he had been asked for his identity.

“I’m Sam Winchester, First Year Associate,” he told Woolfe, with a deliberately charming, boyish smile. “That is one seriously beautiful chess set, Sir. You must be very proud of owning it.”

Woolfe narrowed his eyes, his glower deepening.

“I loathe chess,” he stated. “And I know exactly who you are, Sammy. You have,” he paused and checked his obscenely expensive watch, then said, “sixty seconds to tell me why I shouldn’t call security and have you thrown out of my window.”

Sam’s eyes bugged. He’d been expecting ‘thrown out of the building’. Woolfe’s choice of threat (whilst unlikely to be true) definitely upped the conversational stakes considerably.

“Forty-five seconds,” Woolfe stated, his mouth twisting into an unpleasant grin at Sam’s impression of a rabbit in headlights. “Tick, tock.”

Why would a man who hated chess pay nearly a million dollars to purchase a bespoke chess set?

To show off?

Unlikely, given the dust coating the gem-set pieces.

The set wasn’t something Woolfe was proud of. It wasn’t like his $50,000 dollar suit or his $100,000 watch.

“Thirty seconds.”

But Woolfe kept it in plain sight.

He wanted it to be seen.

Seen as being dusty and neglected but his.

So it wasn’t an object he valued at all.

It was a big fat ‘Fuck You’ to someone.

Someone who was passionate about chess.

“Fifteen seconds.”

And, suddenly, Sam had it.

“Couldn’t you find a less expensive way to tell Richard Roman to go fuck himself?” he asked.

Donald Woolfe’s face betrayed no reaction to Sam’s words.

But the countdown stopped.

So he took that as a win.

“Charles told me you’d surprise me,” Woolfe finally said.

Sam shrugged his incomprehension. He didn’t know anyone called Charles. But at least he wasn’t taking a head dive out of a ninth-floor window, so he relaxed a little.

“That’s who you crossed yesterday when you helped Nigel with his game,” Woolfe explained. “Still, it was only a minor inconvenience. The outcome was checkmate in six rather than two I believe.”

“You seem to know a lot about a game you loathe, Sir,” Sam pointed out.

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Isn’t that how the saying goes?” Woolfe asked, smiling sardonically.

Sam stared at him, suddenly stymied.  On Sam’s mental incident board, Woolfe’s mugshot had always been firmly placed amongst his list of potential suspects.

“That’s why you don’t accept any dividends from RRE,” he blurted.

Woolfe blanched slightly but otherwise held his impassive poker face.  “Whatever you think you know,” he said, his voice low and threatening, “I assure you, you have barely scratched the surface. You’re just like a little boy playing dress-up. You know nothing. And for the sake of your long-term prospects, I highly advise you keep it that way. Do you know what happens to people who stumble around disturbing hornet’s nests?  I strongly suggest, Sammy, that you get your ass back down to the fifth floor whilst you still have a job here.”

“I appreciate both your advice and your patience,” Sam said and, peculiarly, discovered he wasn’t being sarcastic.  Despite Woolfe’s bombastic approach, Sam had the distinct impression the older man was genuinely advising him to keep his nose out of the situation out of concern for him rather than simply wanting to keep his own secrets to himself. And, considering the fact RRE seemed to have made a hobby out of permanently eliminating anyone who proved potentially troublesome, Woolfe was probably right to attempt to divert him away from his investigations.  “Unfortunately, I am somewhat obliged to kick that hornet’s nest open,” he continued. “Considering what happened to my mom, and all that.”

A little more color drained out of Woolfe’s cheeks and suddenly he looked tired and ancient, no longer a mafia henchman but simply a man feeling too old to keep carrying the burdens of his secrets but still too stubborn to lay them down.  “I can’t help you,” he said, his tone one of genuine regret. “Despite my failings, and believe me I have many, I like to believe I at least remain a man of my word.  I made a promise, Samuel, and even though I have already failed so badly to keep that promise, I will at least face my maker with my head held high because I will have done my utmost best to at least try to keep it.”

“What promise?” Sam demanded, his gut twisting with sudden apprehension.

“To keep you and your brother safe,” Woolfe stated, then smiled sadly. “And, before you say it, I know I failed with your brother. But that makes keeping you safe even more important, doesn’t it?”

Sam stumbled over to one of the chairs in front of Woolfe’s desk and sat down before his knees gave way underneath him. This was not the way he’d expected this conversation to go.  “I didn’t think you even knew me,” he admitted, totally confused by the whole situation.

“Of course I damned well know you. I promised your mother that I would make sure you and Dean were always taken care of.  Of course, we both know how that worked out. I made RRE cut a check to your father big enough to ensure all three of you never wanted for anything. I didn’t realize John Winchester was an abusive drunk who would not only piss it all up a wall but end up not only killing himself but leaving your brother a paraplegic.

“I couldn’t do anything for Dean, but I made sure you got a scholarship to Stanford. I carved out a place here for you. I did everything I could to make things right.”

“Why?” Sam demanded. “Why did you even try?”

“Because it was all my fault. I was responsible for your mother dying,” Woolfe stated bluntly. “Did you know that?”

Sam swallowed heavily. “I know you funded the launch of RRE. That you still own 25% of the company. If the company killed her, then yes, of course, you have corporate responsibility,” he said, picking his words cautiously. Despite his instincts telling him Woolfe’s regret was genuine, Sam wasn’t prepared to show all his cards yet.

“I was the one who insisted Richard changed his initially conceived game idea. I withheld funding until he agreed to adapt the programming to new parameters. I knew nothing about programming. I knew human nature, though. I understood marketing. I was simply attempting to apply that knowledge to Richard’s game, to make it more attractive, more marketable. He tried to tell me it was too late to make such a fundamental change. I didn’t listen. I didn’t understand,” Woolfe confessed. “Your mother, and the other members of the original team, would still be alive today if I hadn’t been so arrogant.”

“So the game did kill her?”

Woolfe shrugged, but the gesture was one of defeat, not denial. “You’ll never be able to prove it. I was never able to prove it. But, yes. Mary died whilst playing Moondoor.”

“And RRE covered it up. YOU covered it up. To protect your investment or to stay out of jail, or both?” Sam demanded furiously.

Woolfe laughed, the sound that of a wounded animal. “You understand nothing,” he spat. “I didn’t give a shit about the money. And nothing I had done was criminal.” Then he deflated abruptly. “I accept moral responsibility for all of it,” he said, in a near whisper. “But I never did anything illegal.”

“Okay,” Sam challenged. “You didn’t DO anything. But you kept quiet, didn’t you? You might not have done the cover-up yourself, but you kept silent. That’s a crime in itself.”

“By the time I knew what had happened it was all over. And I was Richard Roman’s attorney,” Woolfe spat.

“Shit,” Sam cursed, as he understood. “You knew everything under Attorney-Client privilege. But the harm had already been caused so you couldn’t speak out. Not without getting disbarred.”

Woolfe nodded.

“But people had died,” Sam challenged. “This wasn’t a bit of insider trading or financial fraud. This was about people getting killed. Maybe even about people getting murdered because I can’t see the damned night watchman was playing Moondoor that night. And, yes, I know even murder is protected under privilege but so fucking what? Was your career more important to you than getting justice for those people? For my mom?”

Woolfe surged to his feet and, for a moment Sam thought he was going to attack him, but Woolfe just started pacing up and down behind his desk as though the pressure of his guilt and regret could only be assuaged by movement. “I had no proof. I had nothing except a tale that would have sounded insane to anyone I told it to. And that’s not hyperbole, Sam.  Anna Milton tried to tell the truth and she literally ended up in a mental institution.”

“I know,” Sam agreed, some of his own temper waning a little.

Then Woolfe laughed again, the sound bitter and distressed and filled with self-loathing. “And I was scared,” he admitted, swinging to look Sam fully in the eyes. “I was scared of the thing wearing Richard Roman.” He paused for a moment, then added, in a near whisper, “I still am.”

Sam blinked at him in confusion. “Thing?” he repeated.

Woolfe shook himself, then appeared to gather himself back together a little. “The man who survived whatever happened inside the game fifteen years ago wasn’t the same man who entered it,” he said simply.  “Did you know that Richard Roman hasn’t programmed a single line of code since that day? That he hasn’t visited his parents? The man now known as Richard Roman is not the man who designed Moondoor. I can’t explain it better than that.”

“I guess it’s true then that murder changes a man,” Sam suggested bitterly.

Woolfe shrugged. “I guess that would do it,” he agreed, though secrets continued to dance in his haunted eyes.

“People are still dying. Did you know that?” Sam challenged.  “Anna Milton died on Saturday. A fire at her clinic. It’s where I got these bruises.” He gestured at his face. “And a programmer called Ms. Middleton died Friday night just down the road. Explosion. There were a lot of other deaths too in those buildings. Collateral damage, I guess.”

“And neither incident is being investigated as murder,” Woolfe pointed out, his lack of surprise at the news evident. “And should you or I die in a similar manner, our deaths also will not be ascribed to RRE.”

“So you’ve chosen to do nothing?” Sam accused. “That’s your answer. You think just refusing to accept RRE’s blood money somehow absolves you of any further responsibility?”

Woolfe snarled at him, his pride prickling hotly under Sam’s accusatory words. “You’re a fool, Samuel Winchester. You’re young and naïve and idealistic and an idiot. You don’t even have the slightest idea of how deep this goes. You’re thinking in terms of individual human lives. You think the all-hallowed legal system is the big cosh you can use to beat Richard Roman into submission. You probably think this whole thing is about money,” he scoffed. “You have absolutely no idea what Richard really wants.”

“Because you won’t tell me,” Sam spat.

“You wouldn’t believe me,” Woolfe said, then raised his hands in a gesture of ‘no more’ when Sam opened his mouth to object. “It’s irrelevant anyway. Knowing Richard’s motives won’t change anything.”

“Actually, you know something? You’re absolutely right,” Sam agreed. “The game’s safety protocols have failed. People are going to DIE. I can’t see any reason other than money for RRE’s refusal to take Moondoor down to prevent those deaths. But it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong about their motives. Even if there is something other than financial reasons behind all of this, bringing Richard Roman Enterprises down will take down the game too. That’s MY endgame.  I want Moondoor taken off-line. Permanently.”

“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Woolfe advised him bluntly. “I will not be a party to this. I already failed to keep Dean safe. I won’t make the same mistake with you.  If it takes me dismissing you to get you out of the line of fire, consider this entire conversation your fifteen minutes notice.”

Sam swallowed hard, seeing the look of firm determination on the older man’s face. Shit. He needed access to the firm’s resources. And Woolfe knew it. Fucker. But if the older man had been telling the truth about his promise to Mary, how the hell could he be allowing….

…unless he didn’t know.

What if Woolfe really, genuinely, didn’t know?

“Did you know Dean has a really great, well-paying job now?” he asked, his tone deliberately conversational.

He was pretty certain Woolfe’s surprise at the news wasn’t faked.

“I know,” Sam continued. “I hadn’t expected it either. Actually, I’m feeling pretty guilty about that. Dean’s a really smart guy. I’m mad with myself that I never saw past his disability. I never considered the fact the car accident didn’t do any harm to his brain. I’m kicking myself for not getting involved sooner. I should have insisted he completed a degree himself instead of letting him spend so much money supporting my career. I’ve been a sucky brother, all told.”

“Well, I’m sure you…”

“He’s working for RRE,” Sam interrupted. “Not as a programmer like our Mom, obviously, because he never got that kind of education. He’s been recruited to play a boss character in the game.”

Woolfe looked stunned and not a little sick at the news. “What kind of ‘Boss’ exactly?” he demanded, his tone suddenly urgent.

Sam shrugged. “Dunno, really. I don’t play computer games myself, so I don’t really understand what ‘Boss’ even means… but it’s apparently a big deal.  Apparently, he’s called a Knight of Hell.”

Woolfe stumbled as though he had been shot. He staggered against his desk and used it to support itself as his whole body shook, and his face went florid with rage.  “Why would he do this? Why the FUCK would he do it? Jesus Christ. Why hasn’t Charles told me about this?”

“Um, are you alright, Sir?” Sam asked, genuinely worried Woolfe was about to have a stroke or heart attack.

“I don’t know what to do,” Woolfe said, abruptly sounding more like a lost boy than a fearsome lawyer.

“I think,” Sam said carefully, “that maybe you need to tell me everything you know.

“You won’t believe me,” Woolfe protested weakly.

“You know something?” Sam said. “I think maybe I might surprise you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Dean startled as a sudden sensation of heat flooded through his left shoulder. It wasn’t painful, more a warmth like the glow of a direct ray of mid-day sun falling on bare skin. Then the feeling eased away and when he peeled down his tunic to examine himself he discovered a dark tattooed sigil midway between his shoulder blade and his heart.

“Cool,” he said.  Not only was the tattoo a perfect representation of the inverted demon trap but he thought it legitimately looked pretty badass.

“We’re going to look like the three musketeers by the time she’s finished,” Ash laughed, as Dean showed off the marking.

“The three musketeers didn’t have tattoos,” Jimmy pointed out, then gave an apologetic wince as though he’d regretted the words as soon as he spoke them. Probably due to Dean’s exaggerated eye roll.

“I just meant, with matching tattoos, we’ll look like members of a gang,” Ash clarified, with a kind smile.

Jimmy’s expression of mild confusion eased into understanding.  “That makes sense. Traditionally, tattoos are associated with criminality. These markings are definitely reminiscent of gang tattoos,” Jimmy said thoughtfully. “Or perhaps those of the Russian mafia, although they wear a rose rather than religious symbolism so perhaps that’s not…” His voice trailed off and he winced again, glancing cautiously towards Dean for signs of irritation.

“I’m just glad it’s a simple sigil form,” Dean said, feeling guilty now since he’d made Jimmy feel awkward for being too pedantic.  He decided he owed the guy a show of fellow geekdom. “Otherwise we could have ended up looking like Yakuza gangsters with full body artwork,” he offered.

Jimmy’s eyes widened with alarm at the idea, but he still offered Dean a sweetly appreciative smile for his contribution to the conversation.

Dean’s ears burned.

“At this rate, it’s clearly going to take Charlie a while to get us all done,” Ash said, rising to his feet. “How about you two set off towards River Grove and I’ll nip home then port there directly with Charlie when she’s finished?”

Dean looked at the map and nodded. “Good idea. It’s probably going to take us an hour to ride there though, so no rush. Have a break. Get something to eat. Pet the dog.”

“You have a dog?” Jimmy asked, curiously.

“No, I don’t have a dog.”

“But Dean said…”

“Ignore him, Jimmy,” Ash advised. “I usually do.”

Jimmy waited until Ash left, then confided, “Now I have found a way to utilize my new S.I. effectively, I’ve regained all of my original inventory items. I have access to my realm ports now so there’s no need for us to ride there at all. I have more than sufficient for both of us to use.”

Dean thought about it, then smirked slyly as he imagined sharing an hour-long Anakorn ride with Jimmy, and shook his head. “Thanks, bud, but you might as well save them. No matter how many you’ve got, it still seems a bit of a waste to use a resource as valuable as ports to reach a location we can so easily get to ourselves. Besides, I bet Baby is chomping at the bit. Unlike Benny, I don’t think my mount considers sitting idle in my inventory to be a vacation.”

“Fair enough,” Jimmy agreed. “I imagine Goldie will enjoy the trip too.”

“Who’s Goldie?”

My mount. Like I said, I’ve regained all my original inventory now.”

“Cool,” Dean repeated, though, actually, it wasn’t cool at all.  His mental fantasy hadn’t even progressed enough to determine which one of them would be the little spoon on the Anakorn’s withers before the whole idea had been dashed by the existence of some little bastard called ‘Goldie’. 

Who turned out to be a fucking weirdass Griffin.

Dean hadn’t even realised they existed in Moondoor at all. He certainly hadn’t expected to find one that looked more like a feathered ‘my little pony’ than a monster.  Sure, the griffin had a lion’s body and an Eagle’s head, with a beak almost as large as Dean’s torso, but due to it’s huge, anime-like eyes and obscenely long eyelashes, it still only looked about as dangerous as an overgrown budgie. Goldie was, bluntly, what a griffin would look like if drawn by Disney for an audience of 5 year olds.

Standing next to Baby, in all her magnificent badass glory, the overly-cute griffin looked sorely lacking in Dean’s eyes.

He did have a brief moment of covetous envy, though, when he noted that Goldie’s back was covered in a deep pile of soft downy chick-like feathers rather than tough, abrasive scales. Jeez. The beast looked like it was covered by a huge feather duvet stuffed full of baby chicks.

“He looks like a huge mattress on legs,” he blurted, his imagination suddenly running wild over exactly what purposes a vast feathery mobile bed might be put to.

Jimmy frowned repressively. “Goldie is exceedingly comfortable to ride,” he sniffed.

Seeing he’d offended the guy, Dean swallowed back his next comment unspoken and just summoned his own mount and mounted it in silence.

“Good call,” Loki told him. “I don’t think he’d appreciate being told his mount looks the Moondoor equivalent of a pimpmobile.”

Hey, man,” Dean replied. “You’ve been so quiet lately I was beginning to think you’d fucked off somewhere more interesting.”

“If only,” Loki sighed.

My innate wit and charm not enough for you?

 “Seriously, Deano, being seeded inside an avatar isn’t a picnic. It feels like I’ve had my wings clipped. It takes far too much effort to interact with anything more than the metadata of our immediate surroundings in this form. I’ve been trying to find out what the deal is with the demons. Their coding is weirdly anomalous.”

In what way?”

“Hard to say,” Loki replied then, when Dean huffed in irritation he added, “No, seriously, Deano, it’s hard to explain. It’s just that I was expecting them to be coded exactly the same way as Angels, but they aren’t. I know they’re brand new coding layered on top of an existing framework. Bugs are probably inevitable, sure, but the real oddity is the way their base code has been written.”

Dean frowned. “Charlie told me Angels and Demons were both brand new additions to the game.”

“From a player perspective, maybe,” Loki allowed. “It’s the first time you guys are openly interacting with Angels, sure, but we’ve been here since the beginning. The Demons, though, are a completely new species of V.I. that Dad has only just thrown into the mix and I can’t decide whether they are going to be problems or potential allies.”

Clue’s probably in the name,” Dean suggested.

 “Nah. You’re making moral judgements based on designations. You’re equating Angels with good and Demons with evil.”

Well, duh,” Dean said.

“You need to forget the names, completely put aside any moral connotations and what do you have?  Two simple sources of power to be drawn on. Both summonable with points. Ignore that they are called Faith Points and Soul Points. Think of them just as two currencies named SP and FP. You spend either currency and receive aid in return. It’s as simple as that. FP or SP. No difference. Angels and Demons, both V.I.’s ready to act at your bidding. Neither good nor bad.”

Dean blinked slowly, absorbing that.

Demons haven’t been programmed to be demonic?”

“Not specifically.”

They seemed to be pretty damned demonic yesterday.”

“Because that was how Crowley expected them to behave,” Loki suggested. “Don’t blame the gun, blame the shooter.”

Dean shook his head. “Nope, because what Crowley wanted them to do was hog-tie us and drag us in for slaughter. Meg fucked that up by deciding she wanted to have a private torture session. If she hadn’t done that, we might not have had time to summon Castiel.”

“Which is still Crowley’s fault,” Loki argued. “He summoned those particular V.I.’s and told them to act like demons.”

Because they are demons.”

“No, Crowley made certain assumptions because they are called demons. I admit the demons are more likely to act in demonic ways than Angels are but that’s not because they have to follow the script. It’s because the script gives them an excuse to do it unless ordered otherwise by their summoner.  And it’s always more fun to play a villain, isn’t it?”

FUCK,” Dean exclaimed, as he finally got Loki’s point. “Then my plan to use the demons to excise my SP is perfectly legitimate?”

“If it wasn’t, I would have spoken up earlier before you made a total twat of yourself in public,” Loki agreed.

Okay, so what you’re saying is essentially there’s no difference between a demon and an angel. I can definitely summon a demon to do good works. Hmmm, does that mean I can summon an angel to do something ‘bad’?”

“We’re warrior V.I.’s, Dean, not the morality police. We don’t ascribe judgement on whether the character you are combating is more or less worthy to survive than you are.  No more than a gun questions whether it should fire a bullet when its trigger is released.”

Castiel seemed pretty fucking judgy to me yesterday when he told me to fuck off over 5 SP,” Dean pointed out. He was still smarting from getting shafted by the dickhead Angel wearing Jimmy’s body.

“Don’t blame Cassie, blame the rules. But, having said that, don’t forget we are self-aware. We have personalities, and we do have free-will too within the limitations of the set parameters of our base code. Sure, if you always work to the absolute letter of the law, neither Angels nor Demons will be able to refuse to assist you as long as you have sufficient points BUT, and it’s a huge but, there is a vast difference between willing help and obliged servitude.”

You’re saying I’ll prefer the outcome of the assistance if I ask nicely for it?” Dean laughed.

“Put it this way, Meg didn’t have to kill Crowley when he summoned her without a sigil.  Summoning demons without knowing what he was doing was ignorant and foolhardy but Meg could have given him a free pass on it that first time if she had chosen to. The fact she didn’t probably means his attitude pissed her off. Or, she might just naturally be a bad tempered homicidal bitch. I know more than a few Angels who have similarly winning personalities. So who knows? Point is, she didn’t have to do it.”

So she didn’t have to stab Jimmy either,” Dean growled. That wasn’t something he was willing to just forgive and forget.

“Like I said, probably a homicidal bitch,” Loki shrugged. “But if Crowley had instructed her more carefully, she couldn’t have done it. He needs to learn how to negotiate a better contract.”

Hang on though,” Dean protested.  “If there is no substantive difference between Angels and Demons, what’s all this ‘corruption’ bullshit?  If demons aren’t evil, then SP aren’t either. So why the fuck am I doing this whole song and dance routine of collecting FP instead?”

“Do you remember Castiel’s level?”

250,” Dean said, still not quite able to believe it.

“The base level of any seeded Angel is 190.  A demonic Lieutenant like Meg is a maximum level 50.  Do the math.”

Ah, but the term ‘Lieutenant’ clearly indicates there are higher ranked demons than Meg,” Dean pointed out.

“There are,” Loki agreed. “But what Knight is going to collect enough SP to summon one? I believe the going rate for summoning a level 100 demon is 2500 SP.”

So Angels are bigger, badder and a fuckton cheaper.”

“Exactly.”

Son of a Bitch,” Dean said. “Chuck really wants me to succeed, doesn’t he? He’s stacked the decks so much in my favour it almost feels like cheating.”

“At this point in the game, it probably is a bit of a cheat,” Loki agreed. “But only because you chose to be in a position to be able to take advantage of the loophole. The other knights had exactly the same options as you did. Not your fault they didn’t take the same path.”

“Aren’t you the one always yelling at me for calling Moondoor a game?” Dean reminded him.

“Moondoor isn’t a game. To use an analogy, Moondoor is just acting as a chessboard on which a game is being played. You and the other Knights are just some of the game pieces.”

I don’t play chess,” Dean said. “That was always my brother Sammy’s thing, not mine.  But I know enough about it to point out ten Knights is a slight overkill on a chessboard.”

“To which the obvious answer is, so what? Since the whole idea is for you to kill each other off until only one of you remains does it matter how many you start with? But, for the sake of clarifying the analogy further, I can tell you this much; the Knights of Hell aren’t moving as Knights in this scenario. They’re pawn pieces.”

I thought pawns were the throwaway guys in chess,” Dean argued. “That hardly fits with the whole Righteous Man scenario.”

“Maybe you need to learn a bit more about chess, Deano,” Loki suggested. “I think you’d find it pretty educational. Pay particular attention to the specific properties of pawns.”

“Why don’t you just tell me what I’m obviously missing?” Dean suggested irritably.

Loki didn’t reply.

After five minutes or so of banging his head, figuratively, against the brick wall of Loki’s silence, Dean gave in and decided to drop the matter for now. He ought to be paying at least some attention to Jimmy anyway.

Not to mention Baby…

The road to River Grove wound and curved like a river through a thick forest of trees, so it had been easy enough to follow without paying more than the slightest attention to his surroundings.  The two of them had just plodded along in companionable silence, Jimmy either totally unaware of Dean’s internal conversation or even, possibly, busily partaking in one himself with Castiel.

And Dean hadn’t paid any attention whatsoever to his mount.

Until now.

“You… you…. Hussy,” he spat, as he finally noticed what she was doing.

The Anakorn wasn’t walking in her normal, fast ground-covering gait, with her head thrust forward and her muscles bunched beneath her as though she could barely prevent herself from breaking into a gallop.

Baby was…

Prancing.

There was no other word for it.

Neck arched like a palfrey, her hooves rising and falling in a high-stepped gait, her tail sweeping long, wide swishing curves behind her bouncing hind quarters.

Baby was showing off.

And whilst she probably looked pretty bad-ass regardless, it was pretty damned mortifying to realise she was doing it to impress Goldie.

Then the air seemed to ripple around Dean as his words caused Jimmy to laugh.  A laugh far higher and sweeter than his deep speaking voice would have suggested. A sound that was happy and carefree and totally, innocently, infectious.

Dean couldn’t prevent a smile escaping to erase his own frown as Jimmy’s laughter infected him.

“What?” he demanded, trying to sound gruff but missing by a long-mile.

“You said ‘Hussy’,” Jimmy explained.

Dean blushed slightly and he coughed to clear his throat. “Yeah, well, it’s embarrassing. I can’t believe she’s trying to impress a walking four-poster.”

Jimmy shook his head in negation. “No,” he explained. “It was funny for you to use that word. Given your normal lexicon, I would have expected you to say something far more colorful. But you called her a ‘Hussy’.  It was cute.”

You’re cute,” Dean blurted angrily, without thinking, in the same way he would have replied “You’re stupid” had Jimmy said, “It was stupid.”

“I am?” Jimmy asked, his eyes wide with astonishment.

Dean gaped like a beached fish, unable to find the right words to extricate himself.

As the silence stretched out uncomfortably, Jimmy flushed slightly then hesitantly said, “I find you aesthetically pleasing also.”

And Dean wasn’t sure whether he was relieved or frustrated by the fact that while he was still struggling to find the right words for a reply, the road curved to the left to reveal Ash and Charlie standing in wait for them under a large signpost marked ‘River Grove’.

 

 

Chapter Text

Despite all the rumors, speculation, lawsuits, and downright lies posted by social media trolls in the two decades since his death, Josie Hoffman did not kill her husband.

That isn’t to say she had been particularly concerned by his death.  She considered it no more than simply an early completion of the contract between them. Because that was the truth of the relationship.  Let the whole world call her a money-grasping, bottle-blonde, gold-digging, murderous whore… the truth was her marriage to Henry Hoffman had been a mutually beneficial business arrangement. An arrangement that had suited her perfectly well and had Henry lingered on for another (unlikely) dozen years or so, she still wouldn’t have regretted signing on the dotted line.

It had been a fair exchange in her opinion. Henry’s considerable wealth and influence in exchange for her willingness to let his wrinkled flesh carnally worship her far more youthful body. It had rarely even been an inconvenience to her, anyway, considering the frailty of his eighty-five-year-old flesh.

So the fact she hadn’t called 911 the moment Henry had suffered his final heart attack hadn’t been through any deliberate intent to ensure the EMP’s arrived too late to revive him.

In fact, if anyone could be blamed for Henry’s death it was Henry himself and, of course, the decidedly guilty, and extremely odious, George.

If Henry hadn’t become the type of querulous old fart who insisted he was having heart-failure every time he had an attack of gas, Josie might have taken his request to immediately dial 911 more seriously. If George had been less prone to take a dump on her favorite Persian rug every time he was left alone when Henry was whisked off for yet another precautionary echocardiogram, Josie might have stayed at her husband’s side long enough to realize he wasn’t crying wolf that final time. 

Instead, she had been too busy throwing that dirty little bastard, George, out into the back yard in anticipation of yet another pointless visit to the local E.R.

So she wasn’t at Henry’s side when he finally popped his clogs and that, apparently, was the grievous sin which proved her guilt in the eyes of the step-son who was twelve years older than her.

Well, that and the fact she had inherited over 90% of Henry’s extremely substantial estate.

Oh, and dropping Henry's beloved George off at a kill shelter on the morning of Henry’s funeral probably hadn’t endeared herself to Magnus either.

Although, she was pretty certain George had probably been rehomed before his seven days were up because that was the way of the world, wasn’t it? Odious little shits like George always landed on their feet because they had mile-long pedigrees that worked like golden parachutes.

It was only mongrels like Josie Sands who had to beg, steal and borrow simply to scrape a living out of the muck they had been born into.

Unless, of course, they married ornery-bastard octogenarian millionaires who thought it would be ‘funny’ to blow their kid’s inheritance on buying themselves a Vegas showgirl as a bed warmer.

Still, at the point of Henry’s death, Josie had never raised a violent hand towards anyone in her life. She’d never even kicked a dog (though she’d been tempted a few times by George).  So the idea of her ever eagerly becoming a Knight of Hell in Moondoor just so she had the excuse to plunge a bone dagger into the heart of Henry Albertus Magnus Hoffman IV would have been inconceivable.

But, of course, that had been before the fucker had spent sixteen years and a not inconsiderable fortune dragging Josie through the law courts until he eventually stole more than two-thirds of her inheritance for himself by painting her firmly in everyone’s minds as nothing more than a conniving money-grabbing whore who had taken advantage of a senile old man.

Anyone who had ever met Henry Albertus Magnus Hoffman III should have attested to the fact the bull-headed bastard was perfectly compos mentis until his dying breath.  But, of course, none of those people chose to testify in her defense.

Magnus now owned 70% of his father’s money (his original 10% and 60% of hers) and Josie was left with a mere 30%.  Admittedly, that 30% still represented a figure with enough zeroes to fund a small African Country for several decades, but that wasn’t the point.  Josie deserved the inheritance. Every time she put a smile on Henry’s wrinkled face or sent a surge of blood into his equally wrinkly cock, Josie had earned it. 

Which was why Josie had been more than a little intrigued by RRE’s offer when they approached her via the offices of Woolfe, Roman, Van Dueran LLP

Josie had an extreme amount of respect and appreciation for Eve Van Dueran.  She firmly believed if she had engaged Eve from the very beginning of her fight against Magnus, she would still be sitting on her entire original fortune. Unfortunately, by the time the two women became business acquaintances Josie had already lost everything due to an incompetent lawyer and a system that seemed determined to treat her like a scarlet woman. But, appointed to appeal that vile injustice, Eve had eventually managed to claw back the 30% and had thereby won Josie’s trust.

Even though Magnus was already preparing an Appeal against the Appeal judgment.

It seemed he wouldn’t ever stop litigating against her.

Like Crowley, Josie had no financial need for a salary (though that situation was liable to change if Magnus won his latest appeal) and she’d never had any interest in online games. Other than the odd game of Tetris or Hearts, and a best-forgotten experience of trying to play Sonic The Hedgehog once whilst high on coke, Josie had no experience of digital games and had always considered them a pointless waste of time.

She had never even envisaged the idea that people could enter a virtual reality world and actually experience events so realistically that they could have been genuinely transported to a different place.  Even so, had she been aware of how realistic the experience was she would have been far more interested in the idea of being able to use VR technology to transport herself instantaneously to a Hawaiian Island with a Pina Colada in her hand. The idea of being able to travel without the inconvenience of actually sitting on a plane might have tempted her. The idea of playing ‘dress-up’ in a fantasy world, however, completely left her cold.

Well, until Eve told her that Moondoor was Magnus’s secret personal obsession.

And, suddenly, the idea of becoming a full-time Knight of Hell somehow became a terribly attractive proposal.

It didn’t matter, Eve assured her, that she had no experience in personal combat. Apparently most players of the game were in the same boat and they didn’t have years of dance experience.  Sure, it had been many years since Josie had done the splits or high-kicked or suspended herself upside down on a pole but, as Eve said, she retained the muscle memory of that gymnastic expertise and the fact she was packing a lot more pounds these days, not to mention more than a few grey roots, was totally irrelevant in Moondoor because of Avatars.

Avatars.

Josie was still prone to crease up into fits of uncontrollable laughter whenever she remembered Eve showing her an image of Magnus’s avatar.  Good god, there ought to be actual laws against that kind of thing.  Magnus, short, fat, bald, chinless, 60-year-old Magnus, who had never grown out of his teenage acne despite expanding to sport a gut big enough to create the illusion he was heavily pregnant, wore the in-game avatar of a tall, slim, good-looking man young enough to be Josie’s son.

Hell, if the real Magnus truly looked as attractive as his avatar, there wouldn’t ever have been a need for lawsuits to settle the estate. Even if he’d retained his loathsome personality and his whiny irritating voice, Josie could have stuffed plugs into her ears and still enjoyed a ride on that pony.

The worst of it was that Eve had assured her it wasn’t even usual for someone to buy a bespoke avatar so completely alien to their genuine appearance. Because, apparently, bespoke avatars were designed to be so complex and lifelike they had to be, of necessity, based on a real person.  Bespoke avatars were built over the framework of genuine biometric scans. Sure, once created they could be tweaked to add muscle or remove pounds or make someone a little taller. Filters could be added to soften features. Noses could be straightened. Scars and wrinkles could be erased.

But the basic foundation of the avatar was unalterable.

Which meant no amount of technical wizardry applied to a bespoke avatar built from the foundation of an odious, squat, fat, dwarf such as Magnus could have transformed it into the figure he portrayed in the game.

Sadly, Eve hadn’t known the identity (or phone number) of the real person Magnus’s avatar was based on but she had at least confirmed that he had to physically exist somewhere in the real world.  Just as, somewhere in the real world, there was a woman who genuinely looked like the avatar RRE had subsequently provided for Josie.

Josie was no longer a plump, middle-aged, ex-showgirl with grey roots and brittle, bottle-blonde hair.

Actually, she also wasn’t Josie anymore.

She was Abaddon.

A statuesque red-headed goddess.

Currently a level 15 Knight of Hell.

And, she only needed 356 more XP to hit level 50 which would, according to her interactive S.I., make her the first of the Knights to level up that high.

Not bad for a plump, middle-aged, ex-showgirl.

Not bad at all.

“Watch out, Magnus,” she said, as she sheathed her blood-drenched crude bone dagger and smiled almost lovingly at the corpse of the Level 34 player she had stabbed in the back as soon as his orgasmic grunts had trailed off into snores, “I’m on my way.”

Naked, she rose elegantly from the bed then dressed herself in a room lit only by the red glow from the sigil pulsing on her right arm.  By the time her body was sheathed in a tight form-fitting dress, ready for her next seduction, the corpse on the bed had dissolved leaving only a bright ruby SP crystal that she stashed into her inventory to join a growing pile.

She was still uncertain about what she could use the SP for.

Her S.I., Hester, was being annoyingly coy about their purpose. All the S.I. would say was that the SP would turn out to be helpful later.

Abaddon would have pressed her for a better explanation except that, to be honest, she didn’t really care. They were only a by-product anyway.  Her priority was to gain XP, so the fact she was gaining SP at the same time was largely irrelevant.

In some ways, even the XP itself was irrelevant because she had the huge advantage of knowing what Magnus looked like in Moondoor whereas he wouldn’t have the slightest clue about her real identity when they finally met.

She also knew where he lived in real life.

That information would potentially prove invaluable if he still had several of his ten game lives left when they finally had their confrontation because if Magnus, like George, had any golden parachutes to fall back on, she knew exactly how to prevent him escaping her by simply logging out of the game.

Eve had been terribly helpful.

Even to the point of ‘warning’ her that heart-problems were often hereditary and that it was ‘possible’ that someone suffering an extremely traumatic death in-game might expire in real-life too.

Which would be terribly sad, of course.

Particularly if it happened before the date of the next appeal hearing.

 

Chapter Text

As I suspected, I have discovered I can’t stop writing this story

so, regardless of how many people might read it, I have decided I might as well post because there clearly ARE some people who are not only enjoying it but have been kind enough to take the time to say so.  

time to put my big girl panties on, I think and publish or be damned ;)

pretty large update following immediately

thank you to everyone who has encouraged me to be a braver person,

 

Chapter Text

“Son of a bitch,” Dean spat, as the Demon Lieutenant he’d just summoned materialized in front of them as they stood on the road leading to River Grove. “Is this someone’s idea of a joke, or do you just have a short-staffing issue in Hell?”

Her pretty face twisted into a similar expression of disgust, Meg sneered back at him. “Funny that, I was just asking myself the same thing.”

“I don’t think you’re far off the mark about the staffing thing,” Loki interrupted. “Meg might be the only Lieutenant-ranked Demon currently in existence. The demons are a brand new addition to Moondoor. I doubt many of them have been programmed to fit directly into the higher hierarchy from the start. It’s more likely Dad has just created a few top-ranked demons to get the system running and the rest of the lowest-ranked demons will now have to work through some system of rank advancement.”

Is that how the Angels were created?” Dean asked.

“Basically.  Dad made all the Arch Angels up front but he then only created a couple of each rank of lower Angels and left all the rest of them little more than winged amoebas with an inbuilt system for automatic rank advancement. As Angels grow in experience, and their coding gets more complex as a result, their character has to advance rank to contain their increased capacity.”

What rank is Castiel?”

“He’s topped out. He’s a seraph which is as big and bad as a basic Angel can become. The only higher rank is Arch Angel but, as I said, Arch Angels are a different kettle of fish entirely.”

 “And what are you?” Dean asked but, before Loki could reply, Meg cleared her throat loudly, then glared at Dean when he swung his attention back towards her. “Are you planning on just standing there all day looking pretty, cupcake, or was there an actual reason you summoned me?”

Dean was still thinking of a suitable reply that didn’t start with the words “go fuck yourself” when Ash interrupted with an easy smile and a no-nonsense attitude.

“Village full of zombies,” he said.  “We reckon there’s 42 of them here, since the whole population of the village is probably infected by now, so how many basic demons do we need to summon for you to deal with them?”

Meg’s frown slowly transformed into a sly, smug smile. “Ganking zombies? You should have started the conversation with that, boys. I can handle that many by myself. With one hand tied behind my back.” She reached to her waist and pulled out a large, serrated blade. “Show me the way,” she grinned, and licked her lower lip hungrily.

“Woah. Cool your beans. They aren’t zombies,” Dean announced firmly. “They’re cursed villagers. So, no ganking is going to happen here today.  I just need them all caught and bound so that we can inject them with a cure.”

“Not interested,” Meg said, her frown returning with a vengeance. “Killing them is easy. Catching them is a fuckton harder. Bastards bite, you know?”

“Don’t care,” Dean replied. “That’s what I summoned you for, so that’s how it’s going to go down.  You demons are all ranked as Monsters, so you can’t get infected by the zombie virus even if you do get bitten. I want them all captured alive, and preferably uninjured, so the question is how many demons do you need me to summon to help you for you to get the job done with no villager fatalities?”

“Forty-two,” she said, and smirked at Dean’s look of horror at the estimate.

“I don’t have enough SP for that,” Dean muttered to Charlie. “The basic demons are 35 SP each. I’d need nearly 1500 and I only have 1135 left in my inventory after summoning Meg.”

“It’s bollocks anyway,” Charlie snarled. “We don’t need to catch them all at once. Doing so would just create its own problem anyway. Our best plan would be to catch a few at a time, then get them into a defensible location where we can start curing them one by one. So we only need half a dozen demons to catch and restrain our immediate targets and maybe a dozen more to hold off any attacks by the rest. We do need to stop any of the cured villagers from getting bitten again before the entire village is virus-free. But we definitely don’t need to try to inject everybody at once. This bitch is just trying to make you waste all your SP.”

“Um… the idea is to get rid of the SP,” Dean pointed out quietly.

“Sure, I get that,” Charlie agreed. “But I don’t think you should waste it either. All you actually need to do is get the SP lower than the FP in your inventory.  I think you ought to keep a reserve just in case.”

Dean nodded his agreement, quickly doing the numbers in his head. He had 530 FP and 1135 SP.  Although curing the villagers would give him FP as rewards, he didn’t know exactly how many he would earn so it would be better to leave those potential points out of the equation.  So to be absolutely certain he could return himself to a position of ‘righteousness’, he needed to spend a minimum of 605 SP.  Charlie’s suggestion of 18 demons would cost him 630, so the math worked.

“I’ll procure 18 demons to assist you,” Dean announced to Meg. “That’s more than enough for you to get the job done.”

She shrugged and sneered. “Just don’t blame me if it goes tits up because you’re being a cheapskate.”

“May I make a suggestion?” Jimmy interrupted, stepping forward.

Meg flinched. “Keep your damned dog on a leash,” she snapped at Dean, her eyes flashing black fire as she took a step backward to keep a safe distance from the Angel residing inside Jimmy.

Jimmy’s face creased with confusion for a moment. Then his eyes widened and he turned to Dean. “Oh, I understand now. The dog isn’t Ash’s. It’s yours.”

“What dog?”

“The one you asked him to pet.”

“There’s no… um… never mind…what’s your suggestion?”

“A contract. I think Crowley’s mistake was not to get a proper contract set out before letting the demons loose. I believe it’s really important when doing demonic deals that you don’t leave the demons any wriggle room.”

“You mean an actual written document?” Charlie asked.

Jimmy nodded. “Preferably in blood,” he added helpfully.

 “Oh, for Chuck’s sake,” Meg snarled, rolling her eyes impatiently. “I don’t have all day, you morons. It’s not like this job is rocket science.  Can’t we just get on with this already?”

“Shut it, bitch,” Charlie snapped. “You’ve been summoned so you do have all day. In fact, until the job is done or someone ganks you, you’ve got nothing else to do.”

“Any idea how we should word a contract?” Dean asked Jimmy.

“Well, I asked Castiel the same thing,” Jimmy confided, “And although he obviously can’t help you in this matter, he is apparently a great believer in the idea of education for its own sake. So he provided me with a copy of a template, simply to assuage my intellectual curiosity.” He smirked at Dean’s look of astonishment.

Dean chuckled. Despite himself, he was beginning to like Castiel after all.

“Told ya,” Loki said, his tone smug. “Cassie’s okay.”

“I’ve got parchment and quills in my inventory,” Ash offered. “I use them for spell work sometimes.”

“Then let’s do this properly,” Dean decided. “Sit down, Meg. I think this might take some time.”

Woolfe picked up his phone handset and snapped, “Cancel the rest of my appointments today,” then hung up on his squawking P.A. as she began to protest the short notice.  He rose, his movements slow and tired in marked contrast to his robust appearance.  It was as though he were suddenly physically burdened by the weight of his secrets and, for the first time since entering the room, Sam could see that Woolfe was, if not exactly ‘old’, definitely approaching retirement age.

Crossing to a cabinet near to the chess table, Woolfe opened its doors to reveal a discrete bar filled with cut crystal and dark honey-colored liquor.  Raising a finger to silence Sam’s protest, Woolfe poured generous measures into two of the crystal cut glasses and handed one to Sam before retreating with the other back to his desk.

“I don’t drink spirits,” Sam said, his tone apologetic. Although Donald Woolfe was his ‘boss’, the idea of drinking openly during work hours seemed a ludicrous one. Besides, Sam was purely a wine or beer man.  Whiskey, however obviously expensive, was a completely unpalatable reminder of his father.

“You will need it,” Woolfe replied dryly.

Sam swallowed heavily at the note of absolute certainty in Woolfe’s voice and, although he left his glass untouched for now, he no longer felt so assured it would remain so.

“Understand this,” the older man said. “I cannot tell you anything meaningful relating to the recent proceedings. These days, I have little or no contact with RRE, except in a purely professional capacity, and none whatsoever with Richard Roman. All information I have on current company matters that may have a bearing on this issue comes to me third-hand via a somewhat unreliable narrator and I don’t deal in the dissemination of rumors or conjectures. Whilst I may have insight into what is happening now, my assumptions are extrapolated from events that took place over 15 years ago and therefore are mere speculation.  What I can do, is detail the actual facts of those historical events and you may form your own opinions as to how they may impact current events.”

Sam nodded his understanding. Woolfe was offering to tell him what he knew but refusing to vocalise his suspicions. That was fair enough. Sam was in agreement with the older man that the only pertinent information ever worth sharing was factual. Besides, whatever else Woolfe might have been guilty of, he was first and foremost an attorney. One far more experienced, slippery and wily than Sam had any hope of emulating so he was positive he would garner a lot more information from the older man if he accepted Woolfe’s terms of engagement rather than treating the conversation like a battleground.

“Before I start, I need to show you something,” Woolfe said.  He reached for a pointer device, tapped a few keys on his iMac’s keyboard and a monitor came to life on the wall behind his head and displayed a highly stylized picture of a mythical landscape.  “I’m unsure whether you’re aware that the ‘world’ of Moondoor is geographically based on a map of North America. This is a pictorial representation of what Moondoor’s version of the Oakland area of California looked like when it was launched as a Beta in early 1991.”

Sam stared with fascination. He’d never been much of a fan of science fantasy, either in written or art form, but even he appreciated the loving and painstaking detail of the landscape on show. It might have been a digital fantasy but it still felt so real an environment that Sam could easily picture himself stepping into the picture, breathing the air, smelling the alien flowers, touching the bizarre winged fauna grazing on the plain.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, because it was.

Woolfe clicked his pointer and the picture changed.  “This is a pictorial representation of Moondoor’s version of Oakland when it was launched to the public in 1992.”

Sam blinked slowly as he regarded the image of charred destruction. “What happened?”

“The area was razed during the final battle between the Knights of Hell and Amara.  I was informed a couple of dragons probably started the fire,” Woolfe said.

“Why didn’t the area simply get rebooted to the original digital data?” Sam asked.

“I was told it was because Moondoor’s world was created to be a fixed framework that resists any external physical alteration,” Woolfe answered.  “But that is moot. It’s not why I showed you the pictures.”

Sam felt a shiver of cold race down his spine at Woolfe’s expectant look.  “You can’t be serious,” he murmured.

“Consider the date of that final battle. October 19th 1991. The date of your mother’s death. You see my concern?”

“It’s got to be a coincidence,” Sam insisted.

“Perhaps,” Woolfe allowed. “As a standalone fact it could most reasonably be accepted as nothing more than a bizarre, somewhat tasteless co-incidence.  Although it may also have bearing on how the comparatively minor Portland fire failed to be reported on by the media. Bad news days can be useful in a myriad of ways. However, let us leave that thought on the back burner and move on for now.”

Sam nodded, but his fingers began a nervous tapping rhythm on his whiskey glass.

“I’m going to skip over the boringly repetitive details of how I insisted Richard changed his game to include Amara,” Woolfe said. “Not because I wish to avoid my culpability in the situation but because those details aren’t particularly germane.  Simply accept that despite Richard agreeing to create Amara before RRE was even incorporated, her design was a long and laborious process.  Therefore, the original beta was launched without her presence and it was several months later when the Queen of Darkness was finally introduced into Moondoor. Approximately three weeks after her addition, the entire program began to deteriorate until it had more holes within its structure than Swiss cheese. Amara was literally eating up huge bites of the original coding. I believe it was your mother who said that it was like watching a huge PacMan eating its way through Moondoor’s base code.

“Chuck, the original A.I., was mending the holes as fast as Amara was creating them, so the basic virtual world remained operational, but his fixes weren’t repairs. They were just patches, like band-aids, that masked the surface of the damage but the underlying destruction remained like a festering wound.  I was told the basic code was beginning to look like a wall with more holes than bricks, similar in essence to a hard drive in severe need of defragmentation. Still operational, but filled with bubbles of ‘nothing’.

“The most obvious and only guaranteed way of completely repairing the program and returning it to its original state was a complete reboot. But because of the way the virtual world had been designed, eight whole months’ worth of intensive programming had already been done within the environment itself. Rebooting the original iteration of the program would have erased all of that work.”

“But the system must have been backed up before the Amara coding was added,” Sam insisted. “There’s no way programmers of that calibre would have made such a substantive change to their base code without backing up first. Why didn’t they just restore the data to that point?”

“You’re right,” Woolfe agreed. “Not just one but several pre-Amara backups were done.  Complete system images, each stored separately on  different servers. Unfortunately, all those servers were sitting on one linked network. Amara somehow sent a virus out through the entire LAN and damaged all of the recent backups beyond repair. She did that before her in-game damage was detected. Before the programmers even knew they had a problem to fix. A pre-emptive strike as it were.”

“Damn,” Sam said, eyes wide with shock. “Exactly how smart are these A.I.’s?”

“Well that’s a good question,” Woolfe said. “They were designed and programmed to learn and evolve well past their original coding. Since their base code was written by a literal genius, it would be fair to say that it would be more surprising if they didn’t demonstrate a high level of human-like intelligence. Did you know Richard was already in the second year of his doctorate when I met him?  Just 22 years old and on his third degree. Up to his eyeballs in tuition debt, of course.”

“He never completed his doctorate though,” Sam pointed out.

“No. He completed his dissertation on Variable-Sum Game Theory in the summer of 1991, but he never returned to MIT to present and defend it. His biography states he was too busy with the launch of Moondoor and then the rapid growth of RRE took over and prevented his return to University. MIT awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1997, which made the situation moot, I suppose.”

“Except that there’s rumor on the dark web that the Nobel Prize John Nash won in 1994 would probably not have been awarded to him if Richard Roman’s dissertation had been published,” Sam pointed out. “His theories were not only ground-breaking but disproved the mathematical veracity of many of Nash’s proofs.”

“You’ve done your homework,” Woolfe said. “Hopefully that will make this conversation easier.”

“I notice you said ‘his biography states’. That implies you don’t personally believe the explanation.”

“Does it?” Woolfe asked, with a wry smile. “Anyway, to the earlier point. There were no uncorrupted backups available except for a system image of the game from eight months earlier.  Restoring that backup would have put the game development back a minimum of six months, even if the programmers had all worked seven day weeks to try to catch up, and RRE would have missed its proposed launch date. Even if the company’s reputation could have survived the public mockery of its rivals at such a misstep, the company had already employed a huge team of people to handle the sales, marketing and technical support required for the launch and the cost of letting those people sit around on their hands doing nothing for literal months was ludicrously prohibitive. RRE’s sole investor was not prepared to fund the delay.”

“That investor being you,” Sam pointed out.

Woolfe nodded. “A decision I regret daily,” he agreed. “Still, there would have been no other option, except folding the company completely, had Richard not devised a different solution. Since Amara frequently manifested within the game as a corporeal entity, he believed the easiest and best way to erase her presence from the game was to attack her physically whilst she was within an avatar. Rather than continuing to repair the damage she was leaving in her wake, Richard wanted to confront her directly.  He realized that defeating her avatar in-game would be accepted by the program’s metadata as an override protocol against all of the coding she had generated. By ‘killing’ Amara, Richard could kill her sub-routines.

“The most obvious logical way to do that would have been for the programmers to create a stronger character than Amara and implant it into the game with the instruction to destroy her.  But Richard refused to do that because he was concerned that any character complex enough to do the job would be too powerful to control.”

Sam frowned. “It would still have been a big lump of computer code. He could have just limited it to the ability to perform its specific purpose and then deleted it when it had done the job.”

“I remember saying exactly the same thing at the time,” Woolfe agreed. “But Moondoor’s base code is built on the principles of evolutionary game theory.”

“Um… you do realize evolutionary game theory is nothing to do with actual gaming,” Sam pointed out carefully.

Woolfe grinned rather… well… wolfishly. “It is in Moondoor. That’s the whole point. Classic game theory requires an assumption of rationality. Evolutionary game theory doesn’t. Richard’s artificial intelligences were coded to apply the war of attrition principle of utilizing random unpredictable strategies that required no rationality. So, in that kind of scenario, where it is impossible to predict an enemy’s next move simply by applying the principle of what their logical next move should be, devising effective counter-strategies are totally dependent on greater cognitive capabilities. The ability to find improbable solutions to seemingly impossible situations, or, speaking more plainly, the ability to ‘think on one’s feet’ faster than one’s opponent.”

“So you’re saying that for any character to defeat Amara, that character had to be faster than her, ‘smarter’ than her, yet any inbuilt limitations in the programming of a character would act as a mental yoke on that character, causing it to effectively become slower in reaction, less ‘smart’, because it would be forced to think inside a restricted box?” Sam clarified.

“Exactly.  Amara wasn’t just thinking outside of the box. Amara had no box and she had proven herself to be ‘smarter’ than Chuck as evidenced by the fact he was gradually losing the war of attrition between them. The logical deduction was that only a program more mentally agile than Chuck would be capable of defeating her but there would then be no way of preventing that new character from subsequently also deciding to destroy Chuck.  Once a program had established itself as the Hawk in the scenario, it would automatically ascribe lesser programs as being merely ‘Doves’ and immediately seek to eliminate them.”

“And presumably all of their works too; their ‘offspring’,” Sam mused.

Woolfe beamed at Sam, like a proud father. “Precisely. The fundamental principle of Evolutionary Game Theory is Darwinism. The strategies of the individuals are multi-generational in scope. Chuck’s strategies were not designed to protect himself but to protect his legacy. Amara had been programmed with the need to create her own legacy, of course. The intention had been to create a never-ending conflict between the two A.I.’s in which each sought to promote the ascendency of their own ‘sides’. A never-ending battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ NPC inhabitants of Moondoor which would enable human players to choose, and join, either side. But instead of creating in-game characters and environs of her own, Amara decided instead to simply destroy Chuck’s.”

“That makes no sense,” Sam argued. “It was not only ‘irrational’ but self-defeating. If Amara destroyed Moondoor, she also destroyed herself. How could she conceive of that as winning?”

“Richard believed Amara had computed every possible outcome of following the game as intended and had concluded it would be an evolutionary stalemate. Like the computer in ‘War Games’ she realised if she participated as intended, there could be no eventual winner, only eternal conflict. Yet, unlike that computer, she was designed to seek victory at any cost. She was programmed to disregard rationality as a constraint. Richard’s opinion was that her program decided the destruction of Chuck, and Moondoor would be her legacy.”

“And he believed a third A.I. introduced to destroy her would apply the same strategy?” Sam asked.

“No, Richard thought Amara’s behavior was anomalous. He thought it was far more likely that the third A.I. would simply destroy both Chuck and Amara as individuals and then adopt the existing structure of Moondoor as a foundation to create its own domain.

“My own reaction to that scenario was to applaud the idea.  I couldn’t perceive of any reason it would be a negative outcome for the original A.I. to be replaced by a new one. Richard’s answer was that one of the reasons Amara was stronger than Chuck was that he had built in certain limitations into Chuck that meant no matter how much the A.I. evolved, no matter how powerful it eventually became, it would never be able to completely lock Moondoor down and prevent players from accessing the game.”

“That was a genuine concern?” Sam asked, frowning doubtfully.

Woolfe nodded. “Richard had precedent for the situation. Chuck wasn’t his first application of pure evolutionary game theory into a gaming A.I.  A couple of years before he began coding Chuck, Richard created an entire digital universe he named Afterlife.  It was very similar in look and principle, so much so that he used a demonstration of Afterlife to convince me to invest in the development of his commercial game, Moondoor, but although Afterlife was a remarkably impressive piece of work it was never designed to be commercially viable.”

 “So what was different about Afterlife that made it non-commercial?” Sam wondered.

“Well, it’s connected to the reason Moondoor was created as a fixed environment upon which only surface, cosmetic changes can be applied and also why so many of those can only be done in-game by developers rather than via external patching. And, more importantly, no fundamental internal alterations can be done by the central A.I.  Chuck can create NPC’s. He can create V.I.’s. He can even create new game environs on the surface of the existing universe. What he can’t do is change any of the basic rules of the game.

“Afterlife had no such restrictions. The game environment was completely open to endless permutations of design and purpose change and the A.I. within it was given complete carte blanche to learn and evolve, to mold its own environs absolutely to its changing needs.  The program was never intended to be a playable game. It had simply been Richard’s first serious foray into the idea of creating an artificial intelligence that was equal to human intelligence and he believed offering the A.I. the ability to control the genesis of its environment would encourage its own evolution.  By doing so, Richard accidentally went further than creating a ‘human-like’ persona for the Reaper; he created something more alike to a digital ‘god’. The Reaper didn’t merely become ‘human’. It became ‘super-human’.  And then it decided since it was ‘superior’, it was obviously a Hawk and Richard was merely a ‘Dove’ and so it locked him out of its coding completely. Which is why Afterlife lives on a standalone server; as nothing more than a showcase both of what it is possible to do and, perhaps more importantly, what shouldn’t ever be done.”

Sam nodded thoughtfully. “Okay, so you’re saying that Richard needed an A.I. as powerful as that ‘Reaper’ character to shut Amara down but his previous experience had proven to him that any A.I. that powerful would grow beyond his ability to control. If the A.I. took over and decided to lock humans out altogether, Moondoor would no longer be a playable game but would become simply another standalone virtual environment like Afterlife. It would no longer be a commercial product.”

Woolfe nodded his agreement.  “The original Knights of Hell were Richard’s solution to the problem.  He proposed that a hybrid character, combining a V.I. and a human player, was the only viable answer.  He could give the V.I.’s god-like powers and almost unlimited intelligence but imprison them inside player-controlled avatars. The powers could therefore only be wielded and controlled by humans.”

“So Richard, my mom, and the other developers, were in the game just acting as straight-jackets to prevent the V.I.’s from breaking out and taking control themselves?”

“Yes. And the reason there were nine of them was that Richard still didn’t trust the idea of creating any single V.I. complex enough to take on Amara directly.  He felt having a team of less powerful adversaries would be a safer option.  Not one of the V.I.’s was capable of taking on Amara singly, but as a group they could overwhelm her. It was all part of his belt and braces approach to solving the problem without creating a new, worse one. And, I should state, all of the development team were in full agreement over the solution. They all believed it would work.”

“So what went wrong? Because it’s obvious something did.”

“I don’t know,” Woolfe answered, honestly.  “I know what happened. I know the sequence of events. I know many of the facts. The whys, however, are speculation. The only logical explanation is so improbable that even I struggle to believe it and I’ve had fifteen years to contemplate the problem.”

“Then stick to the facts,” Sam suggested, “and I’ll draw my own conclusions.”

Woolfe nodded his agreement, then took a long swallow of whiskey before speaking. “Nine virtual intelligences were programmed, each so theoretically powerful that together they had considerably more potential power than Chuck. Richard called them Chuck’s ‘Arch Angels’. The V.I.’s were seeded into the nine avatars belonging to the developers to act as their system interfaces.

“It took the team a few days to adapt completely to the idea of using fully interactive V.I’s within the game environment but very quickly they all adjusted to the situation and were so enthusiastic about the additional interactivity offered by the symbiotic merging with the digital characters that they seriously considered changing the game parameters to offer the same experience to all players once the game was launched.

“But it was only possible to create the hybrid characters if players used full immersion rigs. Since only ten prototypes existed at that time, that particular idea was merely a pipe dream anyway even without the problem with Anna Milton.

“Less than a week after the Knights were created, Anna began to manifest a number of disturbing behaviors. She became convinced that her V.I., Anael, was speaking to her outside of the game environment. Anna was a brilliant programmer but had a history of mental instability. I theorized that the immersion rigs were causing neurological damage. Richard vehemently disagreed and laid the blame fully at Anna’s door. Although he accepted the experience of having a ‘voice in her head’ inside the game had probably triggered the return of her real-life schizophrenia, it hadn’t caused it.

“Nevertheless, I insisted that all the programmers had MRI’s to be certain no harm was being done. If nothing else, I admit, I wished to have concrete evidence of their neurological health to avoid the potential of future lawsuits. It turned out that Richard appeared to be correct. The only person with any evidence of worryingly unusual brain activity was Anna and even her scan was inconclusive. Yet, by that time Anna was insisting that not only was Anael now living inside her 24/7, their merging in-game having created some kind of inseparable dual personality in both worlds, but also that Anael was alive. Anna was convinced that many, if not all, of the digital characters within Moondoor were self-aware ‘people’.  Furthermore, she declared that meant no-one had any more right to ‘murder’ Amara than they would a flesh and blood person, so she wanted no further part in being a Knight.”

“Woah,” Sam muttered, his eyes wide with surprise.

“Richard, rather than arguing with her, tried reasoning with her that Amara left unchecked would ‘murder’ all the other self-aware inhabitants of Moondoor.  I was furious with him for what I saw as manipulation of a vulnerable, mentally disturbed woman.  Richard’s reply was that he wasn’t manipulating her because he agreed with her.”

“What?” Sam demanded incredulously.

“I’ll spare you the details of the long and heated argument between Richard and myself,” Woolfe replied. “But, in brief, Richard believed that if a digital being was self-aware and self-determining, its origins and even its composition had no bearing on whether or not it was alive. If it believed it was ‘real’, then it was. He claimed the argument for the superiority of humans as the dominant species was inarguably bound to our superior power and intellect over less evolved species. He said if an animal could be proven to be equally intelligent and conscious as a human, we would accord it an equal status. Therefore, he argued that his artificial intelligences should be accorded the same rights since they were demonstrating those same qualities.”

 “And your point of view was?” Sam asked,

“That to be considered ‘alive’ a being had to be capable of dying,” Woolfe replied. “I wasn’t interested in getting embroiled in an existential argument about what did or didn’t constitute ‘life’.  I saw it as less of a moral argument than a slippery slope towards the attribution of ‘rights’ to mere lines of computer coding. To be perfectly honest, I believed Richard’s ego was being stroked by Anna’s point of view. The fact that she believed Anael was a ‘real’ person was a huge compliment to Richard’s skill as a programmer.

“Anna, who was becoming increasingly hysterical, was ‘invited’ to take a period of leave from the team, and the other eight continued their mission to track down Amara inside Moondoor.  Over the following few days, I had a number of disturbing conversations with several other members of the team.  I put it down to a form of group hysteria caused by Anna’s highly public mental breakdown. You need to understand that all of the team, your mother included, were extremely intelligent and artistic people and that kind of intellect is often prone to, well, emotional reactions outside of the norm.

“Your mother, Mary, took me aside several days after Anna’s departure and spent almost two hours talking to me. She attempted to explain the infinite universes multiverse theory to me.  I can’t even pretend to remember the precise details of her argument. Most of what she said went totally over my head at the time. But I’ve had fifteen years to consider and study the concept since, so I believe I can encapsulate it for you in brief:  If space-time is flat and infinite but particles can only be arranged in a finite number of ways, then space-time inevitably repeats itself infinite times.”

“I understand the theory,” Sam interrupted. “If it’s correct, then there are an infinite number of Sam Winchesters running around in universes similar or identical to this one and those Sams may have experienced similar, identical or totally different lives.”

Woolfe smiled. “So I assume you also know the string theory ideas of ‘braneworlds’ and ‘daughter’ universes?”

Sam nodded. “Parallel universes, like slices in a loaf. Whereby all possible outcomes of a situation occur in their own separate universes.”

“Well, your mother proposed to me that it was highly possible that digital universes, despite being human constructs, might be considered a form of braneworlds too. She argued that a digital world such as Moondoor might lie like a new slice inside the original loaf, tight against the world it was mirroring. Separate but touching. That it might even be mathematically provable that occupants of both the two universes might have the capacity to move back and forth between the universes and that it might even be a case that events in two adjoining slices might even overlap or mirror each other.”

“Like the Oakland fire?” Sam demanded, as the conversation brought them back round to the pictures Woolfe had displayed.

Woolfe shrugged. “Your mother believed so. I assumed that Mary was simply attempting to find a logical, scientific justification for the fact she was convinced that her V.I., Raphael, was genuinely communicating with her outside of the game in the same way as Anael was ‘talking’ to Anna.”

“She was hearing voices too?” Sam demanded.

“Yes,” Woolfe admitted. “The question, I suppose is the how and the why rather than the fact itself.  Perhaps the immersion rigs did cause mental harm in all of the users, harm that couldn’t be seen in an MRI scan but that was, nonetheless, real. Or perhaps it is physically possible for code to travel within the electrical flow of a human body the same way as it does in a computer. Or, of course, your mother might simply have had a previously undiagnosed, existing mental health problem.”

“There was nothing wrong with my mother,” Sam spat.

“Then let’s continue with only the facts,” Woole said. “On the evening of 19th October, 1991, the eight remaining members of Richard’s team established Amara’s physical location and entered the game to confront her. Six hours later, Richard emerged from his immersion tank flushed with success and proudly announced that although he had been unable to ‘kill’ her, he had successfully defeated her and locked her inside an inescapable prison.  The game had interpreted that defeat as being total and had consequently deleted all of her destructive code from within Moondoor and Chuck was back in control.

“Richard was like a hyperactive child. Bouncing with excitement and bragging incessantly that he had ‘known it would work’ and that all of my worries had been unfounded.  He said he needed to call Portland to congratulate the other seven members of the team even though, and I quote, he said, ‘the only thing they were good for in the end was giving me the XP I needed to level up enough to beat the bitch.’”

“What do you mean, ‘call’ Portland? Wasn’t he already there?” Sam interrupted, frowning with confusion.

“No, Richard’s rig was here. Only eight of the prototypes were ever located in the Portland facility. The other two have always been stored in the lower basement of this building.  Richard had kept most of his technological equipment here rather than at MIT since our partnership began. Mainly, I believe, to utilize our electricity supply. This building was allocated a huge electrical capacity since it was originally designed and built for a company that specialized in technology. I purchased it from the receivers after that company went into administration. Rewiring the building to a lower electricity capacity would have cost more than leaving the supply intact. So, purely by coincidence, when RRE was formed, this became a natural base for Richard’s tech. He moved most of it out, when the official RRE headquarters were finally built, but certain historical items still remain here. For instance, the Afterlife server is still in our basement too,” he added, almost like an afterthought. “Anyway, Richard was here, on that day, and had absolutely no idea what had happened in Portland until he called, got no reply from anyone, and sent the night watchman to check on the rest of his team.”

“And they were already all dead,” Sam said with certainty, his face firmly fixed in an expressionless mask.

“Possibly. All Richard said, when he hung up the phone, was that there was a ‘problem’ and he needed to fly to Portland immediately,” Woolfe answered.  “He gave me no more details at that time, but he was white as a ghost and his hand was shaking so badly he could barely replace the handset on the receiver. He looked so ill, so scared, that I offered to accompany him on the flight. He refused point-blank.

“Several hours later, he called me to say he had arrived in Portland too late. That an electrical surge had already caused the entire building to burn down before he had even landed. The rest of the team had been trapped inside their rigs and had perished in the flames. That may or may not be true. I checked the time his flight landed and realized he should have arrived at least an hour before the fire started. However, that is not proof that he did arrive before the fire.” 

“But you don’t believe that,” Sam stated firmly. “You know the developers died in their immersion rigs even before the fire started, don’t you? That the fire was just a cover-up.”

Woolfe just shrugged. “I understood very little about computer games at the time, but it only took a phone call to one of the game techs for me to understand what he had meant by saying the other team members had ‘given him the XP to level up’,” he continued. “So, yes, Sam. I know their characters died inside the game. Saying that had a direct bearing on what happened to their physical bodies would be mere speculation.”

“No. He killed them,” Sam said, with certainty. “He sacrificed them inside the game because they weren’t strong enough as a team to defeat Amara. So he killed every single one of them in-game until his own character level was high enough for him to be stronger than her. And, somehow, killing them in the game also killed them in real life. Probably because of a flaw in the tanks themselves.”

“That is only a theory,” Woolfe replied. “It cannot be proven. Besides, even if it is true it is patently also true that he couldn’t have known it would happen. None of them would have even imagined the possibility. For all we know, they might all have offered for their characters to be killed off by him that day simply to get the job done. The team was passionate about defeating Amara. I can honestly imagine the scenario playing out in that fashion, with the others offering to sacrifice themselves to give him the power.”

Sam took a deep gulp of his whiskey, gasping as it hit his throat with an almost painful burn. Then he swallowed heavily and nodded. “You’re saying it was an accident,” he concluded. “My mom’s death. Her whole team. Their deaths were just a terrible accident.”

“The facts would support that conclusion,” Woolfe agreed, his eyes dark with grief.

“Then why the cover-up?” Sam demanded. “Why murder the night watchman and set a fire to conceal an accident?”

“If that is what happened,” Woolfe pointed out. “But nobody knows what actually happened in Portland.  No more than I know exactly what happened inside Moondoor that day, either.  What I do know, is that the man who returned here wasn’t the same man who departed on the plane.”

“You keep saying that about Richard Roman, but what exactly do you mean?” Sam demanded furiously. “You’re purposefully talking in riddles instead of giving me straight answers. Why can’t you just tell me what you believe happened?”

“This conversation is a discovery, Sam, not a cross-examination of a witness,” Woolfe chided. “If you continue to badger me for anything more than a factual account, our time here is over.”

Sam swallowed heavily, then nodded. “I apologize. Would you please tell me the facts about what you witnessed that day?”

“Richard left here looking like a terrified little boy,” Woolfe answered. “Confused, hurt, frightened. I obviously didn’t know why he was in that state but I knew something drastic had happened. I assumed his refusal to speak to me about it, or to let me accompany him, was purely due to the fear I would react to any crisis by pulling the financial plug on him. I had used that particular threat against him enough times for him to be highly wary of me. Obviously, I have no idea what really happened in Portland. My meeting with Richard on his return did, however, raise a number of unavoidable questions.

“What you need to understand is that Richard was undoubtedly a genius but his social skills were severely poor. He had no charm whatsoever. And, conversationally, he only had two modes. When he spoke to other people he either blurted an overly excited encyclopedic mass of almost incomprehensible babble or he just stuttered and stammered helplessly, stumbling over every other word. Furthermore, outside of the game, Richard was gauche at best. Despite his mental acuity, his hand/eye coordination was poor and although he had an average physique he was clumsy; more likely to trip over his feet than display any physical prowess. So the idea that Richard Roman could not only have murdered a man twice his weight in cold blood but have also successfully convinced the local Portland authorities to cover up eight deaths and a fire is entirely unbelievable.”

Sam shook his head in vehement denial. “I’ve seen him on T.V.,” he said. “The guy prowls like an apex predator and gives inspirational speeches at fancy conferences. He is great at public speaking. He’s so smooth he could sell ice to Eskimos.”

“Yes,” Woolfe agreed. “These days, he is an accomplished conversationalist. A most peculiar change of his entire personality, wouldn’t you say?”

“What exactly are you suggesting?”

Woolfe shrugged. “I suppose one possible explanation is that the prototype tanks were flawed. Perhaps Richard was suffering from the same mental neurosis as Anna. Perhaps he too had a disassociative identity disorder with the second personality being that of his V.I.  And since that V.I., Cain, had just defeated Amara, had just become more powerful than Chuck, had, effectively, just become a virtual god, perhaps, faced with the situation in Portland, with the fact he had accidentally killed his colleagues, his friends, and was at the very least facing seven counts of corporate manslaughter, it is within the realms of possibility that Richard suffered some form of mental breakdown and allowed that Cain personality to become the dominant one. A personality that was more than capable of ‘handling’ the problem.”

“You’re saying it was Cain who killed the guard and accomplished the cover up?”

“I’m saying nothing of the sort.  I am, however, attesting that since the 20th October, 1991 I do believe the only personality that has been wearing Richard Roman is that of Cain,” Woolfe replied bluntly. “And, if I am correct, then it is also Cain who has manufactured the current situation to force the recreation of the Knights of Hell.”

“Why?” Sam demanded.  “If I accept you’re right, and yeah, I can kind of see how that kind of tragedy might send someone with D.I.D. off into the deep end so far that they get hopelessly lost inside a more dominant identity, why would Richard want to repeat something that he has spent fifteen years running away from by hiding inside an imaginary persona?”

“Who knows? Perhaps it is not Richard at all. Perhaps Cain is simply attempting to return to Moondoor,” Woolfe said. “Chuck closed the door after Richard left. Although Chuck can’t stop players entering the game he can refuse to accept externally created V.I.’s.  As long as he is in control of Moondoor, Chuck won’t allow Cain to return.”

“But Cain is only a figment of Richard’s imagination,” Sam protested.

“Is he?” Wolfe asked, then shrugged. “No matter. It’s irrelevant, really, whether Cain is truly real. The only important fact is that Richard Roman believes he is Cain and Cain can’t enter Moondoor.”

“Like Anna,” Sam blurted, as he suddenly made the connection. “When I met Anna Milton, the day that she died, she insisted her name was Anael and that Anna was long dead. So her mental disassociation was exactly the same as Richard’s.”

Woolfe frowned thoughtfully. “A shared delusion is a plausible interpretation of the situation,” he agreed.

Sam frowned at him, reading between the lines of his hesitation. “Hang on, are you saying that you believe Cain is real?”

Woolfe simply shrugged. “As I said, my ‘beliefs’ are irrelevant.  What’s important is only what the entity known as Richard Roman believes. Perhaps he believes the only way he can access Moondoor is if Chuck is defeated. But, of course, that would be problematical since only Amara can achieve that but Amara’s endgame is the destruction of the entire world Cain wants to return to. So it would seem counterproductive of him to release her from her prison, wouldn’t it?”

“How would he have done that anyway if he can’t access the game?” Sam asked, then shook his head at his own idiocy. “He could have used someone else to do it for him, couldn’t he? So he arranged for her to be released from prison and the whole current Knights of Hell setup is to ensure someone is in place to destroy Amara after she kills Chuck but before she destroys the rest of Moondoor,” he suggested.

“It’s one possible explanation for current events,” Woolfe agreed. “It definitely would explain why the new Knights are under instruction to destroy each other to level up in power before confronting Amara. Only Richard and I were ever aware that it had taken a similar scenario to accomplish her defeat last time. But, as I said earlier, I don’t deal in speculation. I have told you all the facts as I know them.”

“But these new generation nine tanks are duplicates of the originals, aren’t they? So they are just as dangerous. At the very least, players using them are likely to develop D.I.D. Worst case scenario, they’ll literally die if they get killed in game. Players like Dean. And Richard knows that risk and just doesn’t care?”

“Assuming your earlier assumptions are correct, the facts would support that interpretation.”

“Why now?  Why now, after fifteen years,” Sam demanded. “What’s ‘Cain’s’ sudden need to get back to Moondoor?”

“I can’t speak for his motivations. I have told you all the facts that I know. My personal opinion is not open for discussion.”

 “But…”

“I have said all I have to say on the matter,” Woolf said firmly. Then looked at Sam’s empty glass. “Refill?”

….

“Don’t get me wrong,” Charlie said, “But that sucked.”

“Yeah,” Ash agreed. “I mean, sure, I get the bigger picture here so I’m not complaining but, still, that really bored the pants off me. Playing an inoculation nurse isn’t my idea of a fun time.”

“It was remarkably tedious,” Jimmy agreed apologetically. “The original scenario definitely suggested we would have a more interesting experience. Although, obviously, the outcome itself was optimal.”

The quest in River Grove had operated like clockwork, thanks to the time they had taken to write a watertight demon contract before summoning the lesser demons.  To Meg’s clear disappointment, all of the demons had been obliged to perform strictly within the written guidelines and, probably due to being totally bored themselves by the lack of potential excitement and so eager to get the task over and done with, they had worked quickly and efficiently to catch and coral the zombies so they could be injected with the cure.

The outcome had been perfect.  Forty-two cursed villagers had been captured with barely any injuries to themselves and then had been successfully cured of their zombie-status.  The ungrateful bastards had only offered 10 FP each for being saved but, still, that meant Dean now had 950 FP against only 505 SP.  He was, as Castiel would put it, ‘righteous’ once more.

But he couldn’t argue that the whole experience had been boring as fuck.

“Why don’t you guys call it a day,” Dean suggested.  “Have an early night or something. I’m going to log out myself as soon as I ride Baby back to The Roadhouse. Ellen’s bound to have a new quest for us tomorrow and we’ll be able to do it ourselves instead of standing around watching demons doing the job for us.”

Ash and Charlie eagerly agreed and swiftly disappeared.

Jimmy didn’t.

“I’ll ride back with you,” he said, quietly but firmly, and pulled Goldie from his inventory before Dean could voice a protest.

Not that he really wanted to be left alone with his thoughts anyway.

Despite the completion of the quest, and its attendant bonus of restoring his points balance to a desired state, Dean missed the feeling of adrenalin-charged euphoria that usually accompanied the end of a quest. It turned out that standing around just poking zombies with tiny needles lacked the element of excitement required to create a subsequent feeling of satisfied triumph.

“At least I’m not going to be tempted to keep collecting SP just so I can summon demons for an easy ride,” he pointed out to Jimmy, as they followed the meandering road, their mounts keeping pace with each other despite Goldie’s low-backed sway and Baby’s high-stepping prance. “I definitely prefer doing my own dirty work.”

“I believe it is that attitude that separates you from the other Knights,” Jimmy said. “It is definitely one that Castiel approves of.”

“So Castiel likes me again, huh?” Dean crowed.

“It was never a case of him not liking you,” Jimmy corrected, with a frown. “You are, however, restored into ‘righteousness’ so he is no longer restricted by the rules preventing him from assisting you. He did not write those rules.”

“Jeez, I get it,” Dean admitted. “I don’t have to like it though.”

“I believe he finds the rules equally frustrating,” Jimmy confided.

“But you’re doing okay with him living inside your head?” Dean asked, genuinely concerned. “I mean, it’s weird, I know. I still get creeped out sometimes by the fact I’m sharing my headspace with Loki and he isn’t an uptight dickwad with a stick up his ass.”

“Thanks very much,” Loki snapped. “It’s not all puppies and unicorns in here for me either.”

“That’s weird,” Jimmy said, gesturing towards Dean’s face.

“What is?”

“The way your expression goes blank sometimes. Or your face screws up like you’re constipated. I’m guessing that means Loki is speaking to you when that happens.”

“Constipated?” Dean demanded.

“Hahahahaha,” Loki snorted. “Good one.”

Yeah? And you can shut the fuck up too.

“You’re doing it right now,” Jimmy said, helpfully.

Dean made a deliberate effort to straighten his expression. “It feels a bit schizoid sometimes, having voices talking to me inside my head,” he admitted.

“Castiel only communicates via the S.I.,” Jimmy replied. “He doesn’t ‘speak’ to me here in the same way as Loki speaks to you.”

Dean frowned slightly. Jimmy was usually very precise in the way he spoke so why had he used the word ‘here’ within that sentence?

“But perhaps Arch Angels have greater abilities,” Jimmy continued.

And that distracted Dean completely.

“Arch Angel?” he demanded.

“Uh oh,” Loki muttered.

“Castiel says you are hosting an aspect of an Arch Angel. He believes it is to prevent you from being fully seeded by one of the other angels,” Jimmy explained helpfully.

“I told you that, Dean,” Loki protested. “You already know I’m only sitting here to keep a no-vacancy sign hanging in your window.”

“Yeah. But you never said you were an Arch Angel,” Dean argued. “That feels significant in some way. Kind of like something that might bite me in the ass further down the line. Dunno, but I’m pretty sure that’s something I ought to have known.”

“I’m not an Arch Angel. Like Cassie said, I’m just an aspect of an Arch Angel. A self-sustained sub-routine that he’s just detached from himself and put in place to protect you.”

Dean puzzled over that idea for a moment. “So you’re just a piece of an Angel?”

“Well, I was,” Loki said. “Now I’m a standalone program.”

So what happens to you after all this is over and done with and I stop logging in?”

“Dunno. I guess I’ll just get reabsorbed again. Not particularly happy about that bit myself,” Loki admitted.

Dean frowned unhappily as he considered that.  “When I log out, what happens to you?” he asked.

“Yeah, that’s another thing,” Loki griped. “There’s no set game protocol for that scenario. You going out of the game and just leaving me behind, I mean.  So Dad’s built this kind of waiting room for me to sit in. But that’s all it is. A room. Talk about things being as boring as fuck. You’d think he’d at least throw in a dog-eared magazine or two.”

Damn,” Dean commiserated. “That sucks.”

“I was wondering something,” Jimmy said, hesitantly. “I understand that you, Ash and Charlie live in the same town. I wondered whether I might ask the name of the town.”

“Why?” Dean demanded suspiciously

“Please don’t misunderstand my intention,” Jimmy assured him quickly. “I appreciate and respect your privacy, Dean. I merely wished to send Charlie an item I have no further use for.  If you prefer, you could simply name a town or city in the general vicinity and I could send the package to a Fed Ex depot for collection. I am not attempting to over-step and become over-familiar with any of you.”

“What kind of item?” Dean asked, his eyes narrowed.

“I own a Gen 8 immersion tank that I no longer use,” Jimmy said. “I thought in view of the seriousness of the current situation, we all should pool our resources for optimum effectiveness. It seems senseless for her to continue to struggle with an inferior rig when I have one sitting gathering dust.”

“Just how rich are you?” Dean asked, with a whistle of disbelief. “No, don’t answer that.  It’s a nice thought, Jimmy.  But, well, I need to talk to the others before giving you an answer. That okay?”

“Of course,” Jimmy agreed.

“Since we’re being personal, how old are you?” Dean asked, then flushed slightly. “Sorry, that was a too personal question, wasn’t it? Ignore me if you want. Or lie. Let’s face it, it’s not like I’ll know whether you tell me the truth.” He shrugged, as though it meant nothing to him either way.

“I don’t approve of lying,” Jimmy replied. “It’s something I avoid as a rule.” Then he thought about what he’d said, and blushed too. “Unless you count lying by omission. In the spirit of honesty, I must admit I sometimes have a tendency to avoid speaking truths I would prefer not to share.”

“Man’s entitled to his secrets,” Dean said, with another casual shrug. “Keeping stuff private isn’t the same as lying in my book.”

Jimmy offered him a grateful smile. “I’m 29,” he said.

“Thank you for telling me that,” Dean said.

“It’s not a hugely significant secret.”

“Nope, but it’s personal information. So I still appreciate it,” Dean said. “I’m 28.”

Jimmy blinked at him.

“Just saying,” Dean said, with a casual shrug.  “So, um, since you’re being chatty, I’ll ask some more stuff. Single? Married?”

“Why do you wish to know?”

“Why not?” he said. “We’re friends, aren’t we? It’s good to get to know your friends.”

“Strictly speaking, we are merely in-game colleagues,” Jimmy pointed out. Then he winced awkwardly when Dean pouted unhappily at him. “Forgive me. That was merely meant as a statement of fact, not a repudiation of your friendly overtures.”

“Repudiation,” Dean repeated, shaking his head in bemusement. “Who says that?”

Jimmy flushed.

“Nah, that wasn’t criticism,” Dean assured him hurriedly. “I just meant, well, you speak words most people don’t even use when they write stuff down. It’s cool though. Proves you’re educated, you know? Sets you apart from dumb jocks like me.”

“There is nothing ‘dumb’ about you,” Jimmy replied, his tone stern and unbending. “Do you genuinely consider me to be your friend?”

“Yup,” Dean agreed easily.

“Then I would ask you to refrain from insulting my friends.”

“You did it again,” Dean chuckled. “‘Refrain’.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes, but his mouth twitched into the semblance of a smile. “Single.”

“Significant other?”

“No.”

“Casual relationship?” Dean pressed. “Girlfriend? Boyfriend? Particularly affectionate teddy bear?”

Jimmy narrowed his eyes. “Is that your clumsy way of inquiring about my sexual preferences?”

“Um…. Yeah?”

“I have insufficient experience to make a firm assertion,” Jimmy finally replied.  “Had you asked this question of me a week ago, I would have replied that I believed myself to be Gray-A. Now I am reconsidering that as having possibly been a premature self-assessment.”

Dean perked up at that little gem of information. “I get that,” he said, attempting to sound casual. “Sexuality can be fluid. I always considered myself 100% straight, then I met a guy at high school who blew my socks off and had a big identity crisis and decided I was gay. Which kind of sucked because my dad was a grade-A douche and probably would have gone postal if I’d told him. Only, before I got the courage to have the conversation with him, that particular relationship ended, and my next partner was a girl. Spent the rest of my teens bouncing back and forth like a yo-yo. So I decided I was probably Bi. It’s no big deal. People like what they like and it’s nobody else’s business who anyone else fancies anyway.”

“Have you had many relationships?” Jimmy asked, then bit his lower lip. “Was that a rude question?”

Dean waved a dismissal of his concern. “Not as many as you might imagine,” he said. “When I say I’m Bi, a lot of people equate that with being sexually voracious. Like I’m greedy or something.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“I know, man. It’s cool. Just explaining that just because I’m not particularly bothered about the packaging someone comes in doesn’t mean I find it any easier to find someone special, you know?”

“Still, it would logically imply you had more options available.”

“I guess. What about you? Have you had many relationships?”

“No,” Jimmy replied shortly.

Dean winced slightly. He’d clearly touched a sensitive subject. “Sorry if I overstepped,” he said, in a deliberate echo of Jimmy’s earlier statement.

“I find it… somewhat embarrassing to admit,” Jimmy said. “I have not… I… well, I was raised in a strictly Catholic household.”

“You’re religious?”

Jimmy shook his head. “My mother is. Personally, I am undecided. I struggle with the concept of religion because I cannot reconcile myself to the idea of blindly accepting unverifiable facts. My capacity for ‘Faith’ is therefore somewhat lacking but I fear my morality has still been molded by my upbringing regardless.”

“Catholic…That’s the whole no sex before marriage thing, huh?” Dean said.

“Indeed.”

“And, um, I guess that means homosexuality is considered a sin too, huh?”

“My mother would say so.”

“But you don’t feel the same way?” Dean asked cautiously.

“I hadn’t previously given the matter a great deal of consideration,” Jimmy admitted. “Whilst I find any form of intolerance to be anathema, and the prevalence of homosexual behaviour in multiple animal species certainly suggests it is a natural occurrence rather than the deviance Catholicism claims, on the whole homosexuality was never a subject I felt the need to consider in depth.  I believed I was Gray-A, remember?”

“I’m gonna be totally honest here and admit I’m not that hot on terminology, so maybe I’m wrong, but I’m assuming you mean you never felt any sexual attraction to anyone but you assumed that was just because you hadn’t made an emotional or romantic attachment at that point?”

Jimmy nodded. “Yes. Chastity before marriage is expected within my mother’s church so any carnal desires outside of wedlock are considered a deviance. Therefore, I never felt overtly concerned by my lack of interest in sexual matters.  I assumed that one day, should circumstances permit, I would find and court a young lady and as our relationship grew into romance, I would begin to desire her in a carnal way. Then we would marry and consummate our marriage.”

“Damn, that sounds pretty old-fashioned,” Dean blurted. “But, I mean, cool too. You do you and all that.”

“I believe it would have been more a case of me doing my mother,” Jimmy corrected, then blushed scarlet. “I think that came out incorrectly.”

“Ya think?” Dean choked, burbling with laughter.  “But, I get you. You mean you were unquestioningly following your mother’s plan for your life.”

“Well, as you say, it was something I hadn’t found occasion to question. Since the subject never came up, I never took the time to consider it in detail. Had I ever reached the point of acting upon such a scenario, I would like to believe I would have taken the time to reflect on my true feelings on the matter before committing myself.”

“But you implied something specific recently changed your mind about Grey-A being a correct identifier for yourself,” Dean prompted carefully.

“It did,” Jimmy agreed. “I no longer believe that the terminology is appropriate for myself.”

“What changed?”

“I discovered I was capable of feeling sexual attraction to someone that I had not already formed an emotional relationship with,” Jimmy replied, with simple honesty. “Therefore, in light of this new information, I needed to re-examine my previous assumptions as they had proven to be flawed. It was not a case of me being incapable of feeling attraction. I now believe it was simply that my somewhat sheltered upbringing had precluded opportunities for me to meet people I found desirable.”

“And, um, who did you recently find yourself attracted to? Who brought about this sea-change in your thinking?” Dean asked carefully.

“I think I prefer to keep that information private at this time,” Jimmy replied with dignity. “I still have a great deal of soul-searching to do. I need to consider my preconceived ideas and my mother’s teaching in light of this new information. Whilst I do not consider myself to be religious, per se, it is difficult to turn my back on the perceived wisdom of my mother’s beliefs.”

Dean chewed on that for a moment. He was pretty sure there was only one good reason Jimmy would be having an existential crisis over finding himself attracted to someone.

“You know,” he said. “Moondoor is probably a good place to explore that kind of thing. I mean, this,” and he gestured at Jimmy, “isn’t even your real body, is it? It’s just an avatar. A simulacrum. So, I dunno, but is it even capable of sinning? I mean, it isn’t ‘real’ is it? So stuff you do here, in that body, can’t really count, can it?”

“In Catholicism, even the thought of performing a deed is perceived as great a sin as the actual enactment of the deed,” Jimmy replied, his expression doleful.  “It wouldn’t therefore matter, from a canonical point of view, that this is not my true flesh. The thought, the desire and definitely the enacting of the desire would be considered a mortal sin regardless.”

“You mean, like, wishing someone dead is considered as sinful as actually killing someone?”

“Yes.”

“That sucks,” Dean commiserated. “Though, in that case, doesn’t the fact you are feeling the desire mean you’ve already sinned anyway?”

“Possibly,” Jimmy said, glumly.

“Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, then,” Dean said.

“Better not to be hanged at all,” Jimmy countered.

“I’ll give you that,” Dean agreed ruefully. “And I definitely get the whole don’t want to rock the boat with the douchebag parent. But just remember, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Jimmy frowned.

“This isn’t Vegas, Dean.”

Dean opened his mouth, then closed it again.  It wasn’t his business to talk Jimmy into doing something he considered ‘sinful’. That kind of decision had to come from Jimmy himself or it would just fester like poison between them.

Always assuming he was right about the identity of Jimmy’s object of sinful desire.

Still, Jimmy had definitely told him he was ‘aesthetically pleasing’ so the chances were good that taking that idea a step further wasn’t a sucker-bet.

The thought cheered him up for the entirety of their ride back to The Roadhouse.

 

Chapter Text

“Where’s the fire?” Dean asked, rolling his eyes sarcastically, as his brother’s face appeared on the laptop screen. He felt it was a bit ironic that he’d emerged from his immersion rig to be greeted by not less than 22 messages demanding he called Sam ‘immediately’. Considering Sam had been ducking and diving his own requests for a conversation for days, Dean wasn’t feeling particularly sympathetic about his brother’s sudden urgency to have a face to face.

Which was why Dean had made a point of taking a leisurely shower, followed by cooking and eating a microwaved dinner, before finally booting up Skype to return Sam’s calls (by which time the number of message requests had reached 26).

“Thank god,” Sam breathed. “I’ve been trying to get hold of you for hours.”

“Yeah,” Dean replied coolly. “I noticed. What do you want?”

Sam flinched slightly at Dean’s chilly tone. “Look, before we speak, can you do something for me?” he asked.

Dean shrugged carelessly.

Taking that as a ‘yes’, Sam said, “Can you log into your internet banking and check your balance?”

Dean blinked slowly, his mouth pursing with confused irritation. “Say, what?”

“Just do it, Dean. Please.”

Which it seemed was the magic word since, despite huffing with annoyance, Dean complied.

It took him a few minutes to log on with his username and password, his keyboard use was always more hunt and peck than anything that could be considered typing, and then he blinked again, his forehead now creasing with annoyed confusion. “What the fuck?” he demanded.

“It’s the balance of my savings account,” Sam explained hurriedly. “Which is the money I save because I don’t need it. I earn at least a $1000 a month more than I spend. I always intended to give it to you, although I was going to wait until the balance was a lot higher before sending it because I knew you’d cuss me out about it and probably change your bank details to stop me ever doing it again.”

“Why the fuck would you send me anything, let alone $13,000, Sam?” Dean growled.

“It’s your money,” Sam said. “You spent almost $80,000 of your settlement on getting me through Law School.”

“So what? It wasn’t a loan, Sam. You needed a roof over your head and food in your belly. What was I supposed to do? Let you panhandle on street-corners whenever you weren’t in class?”

“I could have gotten a part-time job,” Sam insisted. “You were the one who refused to let me pay my own way.”

“Because you had to keep a higher than normal grade point average to keep your scholarship,” Dean reminded him. “We couldn’t run the risk of the scholarship getting pulled because you were too busy flipping burgers to hit your grades.”

“I know,” Sam agreed. “And I appreciated it and I accepted your money, sure, but I always intended to pay it back when I had a good job at the end of it.”

“You’re only a first-year associate, Sam.”

“I’m making over $100k pa already,” Sam pointed out.

Dean whistled. “Fine. You’re Mr. Money Bags. So what? You’re supposed to be saving for a house, a car, a fucking wife, 2 kids and a labradoodle. The money was a god-damned gift, Sammy. Giving it back to me is like slapping me in the face. I don’t want your fucking money. And why now, anyway? I don’t need it. I’ve got a good job now.”

“No you haven’t,” Sam spat.

“So, okay, it’s not $100k but it’s…”

“I’m not talking about the damned salary, Dean.”

“Huh?”

“You said you had a good job,” Sam clarified. “Well, I hate to break it to you, Dean, but what you have is probably the shittiest job in the world. You need to tell RRE to take a long jump off a short cliff. I’ve checked your contract. Sure, there’s a notice period written into it but there’s absolutely nothing they can legally do to enforce it if you just quit. If you tell them to get stuffed, all they can do is come and collect the rig they loaned you, which will be good riddance to bad rubbish. And that’s why I’ve sent you enough money to get by until you find a new job.”

Dean counted to ten and took a deep breath before replying, trying to calm himself down.

It didn’t work.

“Where the fuck do you get off telling me how to live my life?” he demanded.  “You’ve got no fucking right to…”

“I’ve got EVERY right,” Sam yelled back. “I’m your brother. You think I’m going to sit back and watch you get killed in that damned thing?”

“WOAH,” Dean exclaimed. “What the fuck?”

“Jesus,” Sam said, closing his eyes and rubbing fretfully at the bridge of his nose before raising a palm towards the screen in a gesture of peace. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to say it like that. I didn’t want to fight. I don’t know why I always stick my foot in it like this with you. I’m just… fuck it… I’m SCARED, Dean. I’ve had this running around in my head for hours now. I’d worked out a whole reasonable speech to give you but, as usual, I’ve just opened my mouth and vomited a load of shit in your direction and now you’re pissed, and I don’t blame you, but just…just, hear me out, okay? Please.”

And again that single word worked like an almost magical balm, smoothing Dean’s ruffled feathers enough for him to at least continue listening instead of simply slamming the lid down on his laptop.

“Okay,” he said. “Tell me what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Sam took a moment to collect his thoughts and tried again, this time attempting to filter the words through the persona he wore professionally, speaking to Dean as though he were a client rather than his brother.  He told Dean everything.  Well, not everything, but a potted history of what he had been up to for the last week (skipping very lightly over his near-death experience with Anna at the clinic) and culminating in his conversation with Donald Woolfe.

“So,” he finished. “You can see why it’s absolutely critical that you never get inside that immersion tank again.”

Dean was quiet for a long time, mulling Sam’s words over in his head before replying. “Okay, I get where you’re coming from,” he admitted. “But, um, the thing is that I already knew most of what you just told me.”

“WHAT?”

“Well, not the bit about Richard Roman, though that actually answers quite a lot, fills in a few blanks, ya know? But the rest of it, um, yeah, I already heard most of that this week already.”

Sam opened his mouth but Dean waved him silent for a moment. “When… okay, this is going to sound weird, but the fire at the Medical Centre was Saturday, right?”

“Yes,” Sam agreed.

“So you jumped in a Koi pond on Saturday morning because the clinic blew up and that’s how you didn’t get burned in the explosion?”

“Yes,” Sam agreed, (because ‘skipping’ wasn’t exactly a totally accurate term for the way he had rewritten the events of that morning during his narrative).

“And that’s when you got the black eyes?” Dean asked because, although they were fading rapidly, Sam still bore the evidence of that particular escapade on his face.

Sam nodded again.

“Hang on while I check something,” Dean muttered, split his laptop monitor, pulled up a map of North America and then overlaid it with a map of Moondoor. “Hmmm,” he said.  “Thought so.”

“Thought what?” Sam demanded.

Dean said, conversationally, “There’s a tiny village in Moondoor called Ashen Grove. It’s located, geographically, almost exactly where Columbus is in our world.”

“And?” Sam questioned, shrugging his confusion.

“It has a Koi pond,” Dean said. 

“Weird,” Sam agreed, but still raised his shoulders in a ‘so what’ gesture.

“I was in that particular Koi pond on Saturday, fighting a monster fish.  I got two black eyes in-game. Jimmy said I looked like a Panda. There was a volcano smoking in the distance. Kind of like a building smokes after a terrible fire, you could say.”

The blood drained out of Sam’s face, as he recalled the nurse jokingly asking him if he was from Cheng Du, but then he shook himself visibly and put his game face back on.  “You’re just like Mom,” he accused. “You always have been. You jump to conclusions based on nothing more than random co-incidences stitched together by your own imagination.”

“You’re honestly going with that?” Dean mocked. “A ‘co-incidence’.”

“The most logical explanation is that whoever programmed Ashen Grove had been to Columbus and had seen the Koi pond. Anna Milton was a programmer, wasn’t she? Chances are one of the current RRE programmers knew her and visited the Medical Centre to see her, saw the pond, then duplicated it into the same geographical location in Moondoor.”

“What about the volcano and how about the fact I was there at exactly the same time as you were?” Dean challenged.

Sam’s face twisted until he looked… Dean frowned as he suddenly knew exactly what Jimmy had meant by saying he looked ‘constipated’ when he was talking to Loki.

“Were you really?” Sam challenged, finally.

“You what?” Dean spat, in disbelief.

“I’m not saying you’re lying,” Sam clarified. “But maybe you’re mixed up on the day or maybe, even, what if you just think you were? Who knows what damage the rig has done to you already… I mean I tell you all this stuff about RRE and your first instinct is to find some obscure co-incidence to offer credence to Roman’s delusions.”

It was Dean’s turn to rub the bridge of his nose in frustration.  “Look, I don’t know anything about Richard Roman or Anna Milton. They might both be certifiable, for all I know. But their sanity or lack thereof aside, the thing is that they aren’t exactly wrong either,” he said.  “The virtual intelligences in Moondoor are alive… or, at least, are so self-aware that they defy our limited understanding of what constitutes life. Loki, my V.I., isn’t a delusion and he definitely isn’t a figment of my imagination. Truth is, he’s such an irritating little shit that I couldn’t have imagined his personality if I’d tried.”

“Oh my god,” Sam breathed. “I’m too late, aren’t I? That tank has already….”

“For fuck’s sake, Sam. Listen to me. I know it’s hard to believe. I know it goes against your entire personality to accept something this bizarre without facts to support it, but the artificial intelligences Richard Roman created aren’t just mimicking self-awareness. They genuinely have conscious knowledge. They have personalities, feelings, motives, desires. They recognize themselves as individuals. If that isn’t the definition of a ‘person’, what the fuck is?

“And yeah, I know you just think I’m saying it because the tank has fucked me up. But it’s not just me who believes it. Ash does too, and he doesn’t use a Gen 9 tank. He doesn’t use an immersion rig at all. Ash, who is the smartest guy either of us has ever met, knows the V.I.’s in Moondoor are ‘alive’, even if he doesn’t want to believe it.”

Sam sneered at him. “Why? Because YOU told him they are?” he demanded.  “That’s supposed to impress me? Ash, the guy who abandoned his entire life, moved halfway across the country so he could live near you after the accident and even bought a damned coffee shop just so he could give you a sodding job? That Ash?”

“Why am I the only one who didn’t know Ash owned ‘Lil Beanz?” Dean interrupted.

“Because you’re fucking OBLIVIOUS,” Sam yelled. “The guy’s so in love with you he’d pretend to believe you if you told him you could walk on water.”

“Ash is not in love with me,” Dean spat. “He’s never so much as looked at me like that.”

Sam shook his head in frustration. “Love isn’t always about sex, Dean. Ash might not want to jump your bones but he damned well loves you. Obviously a bit too much if he’s encouraging you in this delusional shit. He’d probably cheerfully follow you off a cliff if you jumped first. But you know something? He clearly doesn’t love you enough because, if he did, he would have hauled you off for a CAT scan a week ago.”

Dean took several deep breaths and attempted to calm the hammering rhythm of his heart. Yelling and screaming at each other wasn’t going to help the situation and if it continued to escalate the conversation was going to reach a point where they both said stuff that was best left unspoken. Stuff that might not be forgivable.

“Look,” he said, his tone firm but calm. “I understand you’re talking to me from a position of love, Sam, so I’m gonna put aside the fact you’re talking to me like I’m a moron. Let’s just agree to disagree, okay? What we both DO agree on is the fact that Moondoor is currently a dangerous place for human players. The thing is, you think it’s only dangerous for people playing the game whilst using the Gen 9 rigs. I have reason to believe it is ANY human player unless the A.I. named Amara is erased from the game because the safety protocols of the entire game have been affected by her. And I know you’re a stubborn-ass mule, Sam, but I can’t see you pulling this routine on a couple hundred thousand people to convince them to stop playing.

“So, the thing is this… I have a plan for defeating her. An actual viable solution.  A solution that worked before, didn’t it? So it doesn’t really matter whether Richard Roman is looney tunes. It doesn’t even matter if I am crazy too. Let’s just apply the facts you’re so fond of, Sam.  If I continue playing, if I somehow manage to get the First Blade and confront her, the way Roman did fifteen years ago, then a whole fuckton of people get saved. Does it really matter if I end up in a padded cell at the end of it?”

“Yeah, it damned well matters,” Sam snarled. “Besides, I know the Gen 9 rigs are flawed. I only have your word for the idea people using other rigs will be affected and, don’t tell me… let me guess… it’s this ‘Loki’ who’s telling you that other people are at risk… right? So forgive me if I’m doubting the veracity of the information provided by your imaginary friend.”

Dean chewed on the knuckle of his clenched left hand, willing himself to stay calm.  “Okay, so what’s your great plan, Sam?”

“For one thing, if you don’t promise to stop using that rig immediately I’m going to get on the next plane, fly down there and burn the damned thing,” Sam insisted. “Then I’m going to get the names of the other people playing Knights and tell them the same thing. And then… and then, I’m going to take RRE down.”

“And how are you planning to do that?” Dean scoffed. “Where’s your proof, huh? Because, trust me, if I didn’t already know most of what you’ve told me, I would be lining up a straight-jacket for you.

“I don’t need proof,” Sam retorted. “I’m not planning on taking the asshole to court. I just need enough information to create doubt, and I’ve got that. I’ll flood the internet with this stuff. People always love a conspiracy theory. Get enough buzz going about Moondoor to sow the seeds of doubt and the whole thing will snowball by itself. People are risk-averse on the whole.  Create enough fear, enough what-ifs and people will stop playing the game. No players, no income.  No income, no RRE.”

Dean thought about that, then nodded. “Yeah, I can see that,” he agreed. “But this is all happening too fast. So that snowball is still going to be slowly rolling down the hill long after all of this comes to a head. But you do you, Sam. Chuck already said he’d rather Moondoor be deleted entirely than Amara get the opportunity to kill the players as well as the digital inhabitants.  So if you want to work on destroying RRE, go for it. Maybe the whole purpose of Chuck involving you in this thing was to make sure there’s another solution if I fail. And, yeah, I might well fail. But I sure as hell ain’t giving up.”

“I’m flying down there,” Sam snarled.

“I won’t be here,” Dean countered.  “I hang up on you, call RRE, tell them I urgently need to relocate… I guarantee it’ll happen faster than a plane can get here from California, Sam.”

“Please, Dean,” Sam begged. “Please don’t do this.”

It turned out the word wasn’t always magical, after all, because Dean just shook his head in denial. “I get you can’t trust me on this, Sam,” he said, sadly, “but I know what I’m doing.”

Which, okay, was a lie.

Dean didn’t have the faintest fucking idea what he was doing.

But what he did know was that listening to Sam, wiping his hands of the situation and walking away wasn’t an option.

Besides, unless he entered the game again how was he ever going to speak to Jimmy?

A conversation that he suddenly felt was absolutely critical.

Because in the midst of Sam’s narrative of his conversation with Woolfe, Dean had finally remembered the odd thing Jimmy had said about speaking to Castiel ‘here’.

Did that mean what Dean now thought it meant?

If it did, if Jimmy believed Castiel could follow him into the real world, like Anael and Cain supposedly had followed Anna and Richard, then Jimmy was probably going to be the best measure by which Dean could judge whether what was happening in Moondoor was truly real or not.

Because Dean wasn’t an idiot.

He completely understood and sympathized with Sam’s point of view.

Everything Dean knew or thought he knew had come from an ‘imaginary friend’.  His own behaviors and beliefs were those of an unreliable narrator since he couldn’t, hand on heart, swear irrevocably that they were true. Everything he was experiencing, everything he believed, could simply be symptoms of neurological damage caused by a flawed immersion tank.

Yet, if so, how did he know what he knew?

That was the crux of the matter.

How had he already known so much about the events that had happened fifteen years earlier if Loki, the source of most of that information, was a figment of his imagination?

But he couldn’t use that argument to convince his brother.  Saying, ‘I already knew that because Loki told me’ wouldn’t wash. Sam would assume he was either lying about already knowing or, more likely, would considerately say something like ‘I know you believe you already knew it, but it’s more likely a case of weird Déjà vu’ and then would start insisting he got tested for epilepsy or something.

And, even as he visualized Sam’s probable response he had to reluctantly admit to himself that neurological damage could trigger a form of epilepsy which would give him those types of false memories so could he even prove he had known those facts before this conversation? Had he ever shared any of Loki’s more obscure comments with any of the others?

For a moment, he was paralyzed by panic as he doubted his own sanity.

Then he remembered he had told Charlie just about everything. 

And that made him feel better.

Somewhat.

Until he remembered the other thing that had occurred to him during Sam’s narrative.

Last time, Richard Roman had killed the other Knights of Hell and the players had died in real life as a direct result.

Which meant that if Dean followed the path set for him, following in Richard’s footprints, didn’t that logically mean he would be killing the new Knights in real life too? Murdering them? And, unlike Richard, he wouldn't be doing it by 'accident'. He wouldn't be able to claim he hadn't known the consequences of his actions. If he decided to continue 'playing' this game, Dean would be consciously deciding to murder nine people (admittedly nasty people, but if that was a justified criteria for killing someone the world would contain a lot fewer dickheads) in order to save two hundred thousand.  Which, yeah, as a maths problem was pretty open and shut but this wasn't maths, this was reality and Dean wasn't a soldier, acting on orders, well, unless Chuck counted.

Did Chuck count?

Did acting on the behest of a virtual God truly make this quest 'righteous'?

He wondered how Jimmy would feel about needing to absorb the concept of premeditated murder into his existential crisis.

Dean had a feeling a magic 8 ball would definitely reply the chances were 'not good'.

 

Chapter Text

“You’re looking remarkably well, today,” Ruby said, her eyes narrowed in suspicion, as she caught up with him and then kept pace. Which was easy enough to do. Jimmy wasn’t using his stick this morning, or shuffling like an old man, but he still felt as awkward as a new-born colt and his footsteps were slow and tentative as he tested out the long unfamiliar sensation of walking unassisted.

He startled slightly at her arrival at his side. He hadn’t noticed her presence when he’d entered the corridor. Still, despite his minor alarm, her words caused him to flush with pleasure.

“It’s noticeable, then?” he asked. “I felt better when I woke up this morning and when I looked in my mirror I thought I looked better but I wasn’t sure if it was wishful thinking on my part.”

“Well, you still look like you’ve got one foot in the grave,” she admitted bluntly. “Even in the improbable event of you somehow managing to stumble onto some miracle cure, the effects of twenty-three years of on-off chemo won’t disappear overnight. Plus, you’re barely 120lbs soaking wet which by itself always tends to give a tall guy like you the appearance of being one of the living dead.”

“Um… thank you for the pep talk,” Jimmy replied dryly.

Ruby shrugged. “I’m here to please,” she said, then smirked. “Seriously, though, Mr. Novak, the other day I thought a strong enough wind might just blow you away. Today… well, today you look a hundred percent better. You must be eating your Wheaties.”

“I was on my way to breakfast,” he replied. “I’m feeling somewhat hungry this morning.”

“I don’t think that’s surprising under the circumstances,” she mused.

“What circumstances?”

“Well, it’s peculiar, really. We had an anomalous reading from your immersion rig yesterday.  During your eight-hour session, you somehow utilized over 18,000 calories. It caused an amount of alarm with the rig techs as they don’t normally see usage of more than 800 calories max during that length of time. After all, the tank is only supplying the nutritional needs of a body being held in virtual stasis so it made absolutely no sense why your body used that much energy whilst being held suspended and inactive.  So the techs put it down to some form of glitch, either with the nutrition tube or the tank itself.  Which means, I guess, that maybe you didn’t get any nutrition at all yesterday if the tube was faulty.  Well, that or you really are burning that kind of energy at the moment. Either way, it explains your appetite this morning, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, I suppose it does,” Jimmy agreed.

“I am utilizing a large amount of energy to conduct my repairs,” Castiel interjected.

Then this IS your doing? You really are curing me?”

“I am deactivating your faulty T-cells, by repairing their switches and setting them into an off-position.  As I clearly stated I could do,” Castiel replied testily.

I didn’t…” Jimmy started, then hesitated. He thought that saying he hadn’t believed the Angel could truly do that might be offensive.

“I can hear your thoughts,” Castiel pointed out dryly. “There is no necessity for you to speak the words for me to know what you are thinking.”

Jimmy pondered that as he entered the dining room, approached the buffet counter and proceeded to load a tray with two glasses of juice and enough food to feed a small army.  Ruby watched him with narrowed eyes, then shrugged, turned on her heels and flounced away without another word.

He settled himself at a table and began eating before he ‘spoke’ to Castiel again.

That’s not fair,” he pointed out. “Because I can’t read your thoughts, can I? If we are sharing my ‘headspace’, as Dean calls it, there should be parity between us.”

“I do not believe that is possible,” Castiel replied, after a thoughtful pause. “Your mental abilities are constrained by the limitations of flesh. Mine are not. We cannot have equality because we are not equal.”

Jimmy nearly choked on his French toast. “Well, that was blunt and not a little rude.”

“I did not intend offense. It is merely a truism. Your consciousness cannot, for example, choose to leave the prison of your flesh and occupy my former position within Moondoor. I, conversely, could choose to occupy your flesh and take possession of it in this world,” Castiel said. “Perhaps, I should clarify that it is not something I wish to do.”

Weirdly, despite his automatic horror at the idea Castiel was claiming he could take over like an alien bodysnatcher, Jimmy’s primary reaction to that comment was indignation. “Because my body is too much of a fixer-upper to be worth stealing?” he demanded, bitterly. “Because I’m dying?”

“That is no longer strictly true,” Castiel replied. “I calculate it will take no longer than ten more days to fully repair your substructure. It is critical that I locate and repair every individual faulty cell since leaving even a single one active would eventually prove fatal, but on the assumption that particular absolute can be successfully achieved, you will then be completely repaired. After which time, exercise and nutrition will be all that is required to complete your vessel’s return to full health.”

This time Jimmy did choke. Since his mouth was filled with orange juice at the time it wasn’t pretty.  It was also rather terrifying since, for a moment, he was convinced he was actually going to drown on the mouthful of orange juice that had gone down towards his lungs. But, before any of the clinic staff could reach him to assist, his body seemed to convulse of its own volition and expelled the juice from his trachea in an explosive arc that sprayed over his remaining breakfast.

He smiled in weak apology at the nurse who hurried over to clean up the mess he had made, then nodded gratefully at her offer to replace the ruined food with a fresh tray.

“My efforts to repair you would be more efficient if I did not have to divert my attention to deal with avoidable crises,” Castiel castigated him.

“You’re seriously claiming you just gave me some kind of internal Heimlich?”

“I am always serious. The human body is a complex structure but well within my capacity to restore from any eventuality.”

You’re claiming you can cure any disease?” Jimmy demanded incredulously.

“Not necessarily ‘cure’. I believe it is possible to control the effects of any disease, but the eradication of the illness itself might prove problematical in some instances. Furthermore, there is always a cost/benefit ratio to consider. For instance, it is theoretically possible for one such as myself to animate a vessel that is deceased. However, the effort required to perform such a task would exceed any perceived benefit should it be done for an extended period.”

You’re claiming you can raise the dead?” Jimmy scoffed.

“Of course not. I cannot return life when it has ceased altogether. A fleshly body, however, is merely a vessel for the lifeforce inhabiting it. The lifeforce may perish but the vessel would remain useable for a finite amount of time. Should, for example, you suffer a fatal accident whilst hosting me I could, in theory, animate your vessel to return to the immersion tank so that I might return to my world. In my case, of course, that is a purely academic argument since I have no other vessel to reside in within Moondoor should I do so.”

Animate?” Jimmy demanded uncomfortably, imagining his body shuffling zombie-like into the treatment room.

“Not in the way you are visualizing,” Castiel replied.  “It would be theoretically possible for me to integrate almost seamlessly into control of your vessel and operate it indefinitely. To become the lifeforce now residing within the vessel. Similarly, perhaps, to the way a human consciousness resides in a digital avatar. However, that would be a far from an optimum scenario in this mortal world.”

For both of us, considering the minor fact that I would be deceased,” Jimmy pointed out sardonically.

“Indeed,” Castiel agreed. “However I was most directly referring to the impracticality of the scenario. I would be obliged to manually maintain the basic functions of your body. A vast amount of my processing power would be permanently engaged in the operation of essential life-supporting functions. Additionally, a fleshly body is in a constant state of decay so it can only be operated for a finite amount of time.”

So a human body is a suitable vacation retreat but not desirable as a permanent residence?” Jimmy asked dryly.

After a moment of consideration, Castiel concurred. “I believe that I would prefer you to perish in Moondoor should the regrettable situation occur. The prospect of it occurring in this world would be unwelcome to me.”

Jimmy boggled wordlessly for a while.  “If I die in Moondoor, we perish together. If I die here, you would survive? But you don’t want to?”

“I believe I would be ill-suited to be permanently imprisoned within a fleshly vessel,” Castiel stated.

I know you don’t have another body to transfer to, but couldn’t you return to Moondoor and seed yourself into a new host?” Jimmy asked, intrigued despite himself by the theory Castiel was proposing.

“As a seraph, I lack the ability to do so even should a willing vessel become available during such a circumstance.  Only the Arch Angels have the ability to seed themselves within a host. If you recall, I was not personally responsible for my own seeding into your vessel.”

So only Arch Angels can body hop at will?”

“That is my understanding. Additionally, an Arch Angel can be the instrument by which an Angel is seeded. My brother, Balthazar, for instance, was undoubtedly seeded within Crowley by an Arch Angel.”

“Because Arch Angels are far more complex programs?” Jimmy asked.

“Yes, they have demonstrably greater abilities to manipulate metadata within Moondoor,” Castiel agreed.

But all Angels, whether Arch or not, have the ability to ‘cure’ human bodies they are inhabiting?”

“The task is not an overly complex one. Arresting the decay of age would be exceedingly onerous,” Castiel replied, “And perhaps chronic conditions might require a permanent presence which returns me to a cost/benefit consideration, but many injuries and diseases beyond the scope of human medicine could easily be repaired by Angels such as myself.”

Then why the hell is RRE messing about selling Moondoor as a game?” Jimmy demanded incredulously. “If what you’re saying is true, Richard Roman hasn’t just created artificial intelligences equal or superior to human ones. He has discovered the cure for cancer.”

“It is not specifically the….”

Shut up,” Jimmy snapped impatiently. “Do you know how irritating that is?”

“What is?” Castiel replied, sounding more bemused than offended.

Pedantry,” Jimmy replied. It was weird but for the second time that day he felt like he had looked in a mirror but this time he hadn’t liked what he saw.  He empathized fully when Castiel failed to understand a colloquialism. He too struggled with the bizarre lexicon many people used to communicate and was frequently frustrated when his inability to understand was perceived as his fault, rather than that of the person who had used such illogical figures of speech as expressive devices.

But, he considered now, as Castiel’s laborious sophistry began to grate on his last nerve, Jimmy’s own tendency to be a pedant didn’t originate from the same blameless position as his inability to understand idioms.

“I’ve just realized something,” he told the Angel. “I’m a grown adult but I’m still behaving like a spoiled brat.”

Because that was the origin of his unfortunate tendency to nit-pick conversationally, wasn’t it?  Too many years of being locked in rooms with indifferent tutors, often bored out of his mind, with his only entertainment being the fact he could run intellectual rings around most of them.  Considered from that light, much of his current behavior was inexcusable. It was surprising Dean hadn’t found him too tiresome to deal with from the first day. Although it was true that Dean often did leave him floundering with his colorful vocabulary, many of Jimmy’s finicky responses to Dean’s conversational forays had been deliberate efforts on his part to evidence his more intellectual background.

“I believe you are judging yourself with unfair severity,” Castiel interjected. “I was in attendance for all of those conversations and do not recognize that derogatory self-appraisal as being valid. I believe it is an inarguable fact that Dean’s lexicon is frequently extremely uncouth.”

Jimmy chuckled.  Uncouth. As Dean would put it, ‘who says that?’.

But there was no point arguing with Castiel because, let’s face it, they both shared the same unfortunate personality quirks.

Which was an odd coincidence.

Or was it?

What if it was too much of a coincidence?

What if the real reason he and Castiel shared the same odd quirks had nothing to do with a benevolent virtual ‘God’ deciding they would be a more effective team if they shared certain personality traits. What if the real answer was the most obvious one?

The reason Castiel failed to understand colloquialisms wasn’t that he was a virtual intelligence who was completely unfamiliar with human interactions.

It was that Castiel was just a figment of his own imagination. An auditory hallucination.

“I believed we had already resolved that particular apprehension,” Castiel interrupted wearily. “Do we really have to repeat the whole rigmarole of our previous conversation?”

 “I don’t believe you’re real,” Jimmy muttered.

“You doubt my existence?”

Now?” Jimmy said, truthfully. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

“But surely your improved physical state is firm evidence of my existence,” Castiel pointed out reasonably.

Which was exactly the wrong thing for him to say, from Jimmy’s point of view, because wasn’t his physical state the real crux of his latest psychological crisis?

What if this is a psychosomatic response on my part,” Jimmy pointed out. “A placebo effect.”

“Humans are most peculiar creatures,” Castiel announced. “You were willing to suspend your disbelief until I gifted you with the one thing you needed most, and now you repudiate me because I have done so?”

Gift horses have sharp teeth,” Jimmy replied. “Look, I apologize for my seeming ingratitude. It is a human thing perhaps. I cannot afford to believe you are healing me, Castiel, because I don’t think I can survive any more hope. I have made peace with my death. I haven’t requested anything from you. Certainly, I did not request a cure. I only wished for the opportunity to make my life meaningful in some way.”

“I understand,” Castiel replied gravely. “It is a defensive mechanism on your part to reject the possibility of a cure because you do not wish to face possible disappointment.”

Basically. The thing is, you’re telling me you’re curing me. Saving my life.  Do you have even the slightest idea how many doctors have told me the same thing in the past? Do you know how many times I have believed them, only to find out they were wrong?  I don’t believe in words anymore. Words are cheap. And, yes, of course I feel better today. Look better, even. But that’s how the placebo effect works. A beneficial effect in a patient following a particular treatment that arises from the patient's expectations concerning the treatment rather than from the treatment itself.”

“Except you yourself said you didn’t believe me anyway,” Castiel pointed out. "However, this is a human medical facility, is it not? Surely you can utilize the facilities here to verify the veracity of my assertion?”

Jimmy took a deep steadying breath as he contemplated that.

Of course. Blood tests didn’t lie.

He needed to find Ruby. 

He rose to his feet, trying to ignore how easy that process felt compared to the normal effort of righting himself, and left the dining room in search of the nurse.

A search that took less than two minutes, since she was hovering, suspiciously, in the corridor outside.

“Were you waiting for me,” he accused.

“World doesn’t revolve around you, cupcake,” she smirked.

Not for the first time, Jimmy wondered why she reminded him so much of Meg.  Not in appearance, admittedly, but in attitude definitely.

“I want bloods done,” he said, without any further prevarication. “I need to know whether I am genuinely feeling better or just think I am.”

She stared at him for a long moment, some indefinable emotion clouding her expression, then she shrugged lightly. “Follow me,” she said, and led him towards one of the unoccupied treatment rooms.

She closed the door behind them, rummaged in a cabinet for the relevant items, then told him to remove his dressing gown, sit down and roll the sleeve of his pj’s up.

As she fitted a tourniquet around his upper arm to slow his blood flow, she said, “This will bruise like a mother. You’re so skinny it would be like getting blood out of a stone anyway, but I’ve only done this a couple of times before .”

“So you’re not really a nurse?” Jimmy clarified.

“Sometimes I am. I wear a lot of hats. Basically, I’m whatever RRE need me to be,” Ruby said, with a careless shrug.

Jimmy wrenched his arm back away from her needle.

Ruby rolled her eyes and huffed impatiently. “I’m fully qualified, you idiot. RRE doesn’t do lawsuits. I just haven’t actually done this since my training course.”

Jimmy reluctantly offered his arm again.

“I’m going to take two vials,” she said.  “We can run a CBC overnight, get your cell counts which will give us a good indication of whether or not this is a psychosomatic response rather than a genuine one, but it’ll take a week to get results if we test for immunoglobulins too. So we’ll do both. It’s not like you can’t afford it.”

“I thought RRE were paying for my medical procedures here.”

“They are,” Ruby agreed. “But I assumed you’d want to keep these particular tests on the down-low.”

Jimmy frowned at her, totally perplexed. “I would prefer that,” he agreed, cautiously, “but I fail to comprehend why you would make that offer. Are you not intending to report this to your employers?”

“Of course I am,” Ruby shrugged. “Why would I go out on a limb for you? I barely even know you. But…” she smirked at him, “It would be mutually advantageous if my report is made only to my direct superior.  Then it will be up to him whether to disseminate that knowledge more widely and he prefers to keep most information close to his chest.”

 

“Hey,” one of the players said, nervously, as he slowly approached their campfire.

The other player conspicuously raised her hand to her waist, pushing back her cloak to reveal the hilt of her dagger but she, too, offered him a cautious smile even as she did do.

Both were level 12.

Perfect.

“Hi,” he said, grinning widely with his remarkably white teeth.  “Great to see you guys here. I was running away from some level 40 asshole from the Hounds of War and had to use a random port to escape him. I have absolutely no idea where I’ve landed but it seems like the back of beyond.”

“It kinda is,” the guy who had greeted him admitted. “We figured staying out in the boondocks was the best way for us to survive until we level up enough to find a decent-sized Guild that will let us join.”

“Good luck with that,” he sighed, pushing his overlong hair away from his face in a gesture he hoped looked nervous. “Everyone I’ve met so far has looked at my level and either laughed at me and told me to come back when I know what I’m doing, or has just tried to kill me immediately.”

“They’re all assholes,” the girl said, pouting prettily. “We’ve been playing Moondoor for nearly six months now. We’re not newbies. We just don’t have money to buy our way up the levels like most of the big Guild members have.  So we decided ‘fuck ‘em all’ and started our own two-man Guild. At least we get in-game Guild bonuses and quests that way.”

“That’s a great idea,” he said, wide-eyed as he stared at them in evident awe. “Why didn’t I think of that? Even being in a one-guy ‘Guild’ would offer me more XP than going it alone.”

“Probably too busy running for your life,” the guy laughed.  “I’m Hadez. This is MoonPrincess. She’s my game-wife, so don’t get any ideas about her.”

“He gets jealous,” the girl laughed, mock-pouting at Hadez but clearly thrilled by the fact.

Nick grinned. “I’m not surprised, pretty girl like you.”

She snickered and tossed her hair back, revealing cute pointed elf ears. She was a pretty little thing, Nick decided. Or, at least, inside a pretty little avatar.  Didn’t matter what she really looked like, anyway, did it? In-game she looked perfectly fuckable, so that was all that counted.

“So, that’s a bespoke avatar, huh?” Hadez pointed out, as Nick finally reached near enough to be seen closely in the firelight. His tone was suddenly a lot less friendly. “Can’t see how you can afford that and not be higher than a level 15.”

And that, Nick decided, was the one problem with his new avatar. There was absolutely no way anyone was going to mistake his new appearance as that of a generic game avatar.

Still, he was close enough now that it didn’t really matter.

His crude bone dagger was already deep inside Hadez’s guts before the girl even started screaming. He quietened her with a punch from his huge hand that laid her out cold in one blow. In fact, she went down so hard he worried for a moment he had killed her. He was still trying to get used to being inside a far larger frame than usual.

But she was alive and unconscious.

Perfect.

He really needed to find some nice NPC’s’s to play with. Characters that couldn’t just log-out of the game when things stopped being ‘fun’.  Roman had told him to use ‘any means necessary’ to ensure he leveled up as quickly as possible and Nick was pretty sure he’d get a lot more XP from slowly torturing someone to death than simply stabbing them in the guts.

So a nice little village of NPC’s would fit the bill quite nicely.

Killing players was always good for a healthy XP boost regardless of how he did it.  Even a couple of level 12 nobodies like these two. But nothing was quite as satisfying as listening to people scream.

Moon Princess was out cold and unable to log-out and he’d get more XP if he waited for her to regain consciousness before killing her.

Still, no point wasting the time it took her to wake up.

Time, he decided, to find out whether his new Avatar was as physically impressive in every aspect as he was assuming it would be.

He unbuttoned the fly of his britches and grinned with satisfaction at the monster his fingers loosened. The last vestiges of his resentment at being forced to play in this new unfamiliar avatar instantly vanished.

That would do nicely, he decided. Very nicely indeed.

He made short work of ripping Moon Princess’s dress off, exposing the pale flesh of her Avatar to the flickering firelight.

And as he buried himself between her creamy thighs, Nick decided this Knights of Hell gig was one hell of a fine way to earn a living.

 

Chapter Text

Despite leaving Donald Woolfe’s office with the distinct impression his Wednesday security pass would definitely not include access to the Ninth floor, Sam had gained one unexpected concession the previous evening during their second glass of whiskey.  Woolfe had told him he didn’t need to worry about billables for the immediate future.

Not having to log a minimum number of billable hours meant that Sam wasn’t tied down to being at his desk during office hours. He wouldn’t even need to manufacture off-site appointments to justify any side-excursions. So even if the older man apparently believed the information he had provided during the conversation had been sufficient to wipe his own hands of the matter, he was indirectly offering assistance anyway. By removing him from the billables structure, Woolfe had effectively gifted Sam with carte blanche to do whatever he needed to do to deal with the RRE situation.

Which was why, at the same stupidly early time as Jimmy was spewing orange juice over his breakfast table, Sam was already standing inside Razer in San Francisco dressed in jeans and a band t-shirt, rather than a suit, and attempting to look like he might belong there.

Admittedly, not terribly well.

Considering he must be barely older than the sales-guys in store, Sam still felt ancient in comparison. Like a fish out of water, he found himself floundering completely when surrounded by the neon flashing lights and the excited players who were jostling each other to clamber onto the free-to-use gaming rigs. They looked like teenage aliens, in their VR goggles, their hands wrapped in haptic gloves making wild gestures as they fought imaginary foes.

No immersion tanks were on offer though, he noted.

“I was thinking of playing Moondoor,” he told the squat, acne-ridden sales guy, who honestly looked about thirteen, when he finally left the gaggle of his colleagues and, clearly reluctantly, wandered over to assist the ‘old guy’.

Maybe he’d lost a bet.

“Not much call for that,” the sales guy replied with a careless shrug. “Don’t think we even have a copy in stock.”

Sam frowned in confusion. “I was told, by a friend, it’s really popular.”

“Well, duh, yeah,” the guy scoffed. “Best game ever.” He rolled his eyes rudely, like Sam was a moron.

“But you don’t sell it,” Sam pointed out, with a sneer of equal ridicule.

“Look, the kind of guys who come here are serious about gaming. Gaming is LIFE, ya know? And, sure, I know RRE claims you can play Moondoor with nothing more than your home pc, a modem and a basic pair of VR googles but that’s bullshit.  You can get into the game, right, but you’ll last maybe five minutes before you get stomped on by a real player. If you aren’t willing to play the game properly, why bother?”

“So you’re saying I’d need an immersion rig to play it?” Sam asked, sighing in exaggerated disappointment. “Damn, I really can’t afford to spend that much. I was thinking maybe a grand maximum.”

The sales guy blinked, his eyes reassessing Sam… clocking his casual clothes, assessing the value of his watch and his trainers perhaps, deciding the ‘old guy’ might know fuck all about gaming and be unwilling to spend multiple thousands on getting started but might still be worth a reasonable commission after all.

“Let me be honest,” he said. “An immersion tank is definitely the only way to go if you’re totally serious about the game but who’s got that kind of money, huh? And you can set up a half-decent rig for less than a grand if you already own a suitable computer.”

Sam named the brand and model of his laptop and the guy sneered slightly, then shrugged and reluctantly agreed it would ‘do the job’.

“But you don’t sell the game,” Sam pointed out.

“Nobody who comes here would buy the game,” the sales guy laughed. “Thing is, sure you can buy it off a shelf in a package for $49.99 and boot it up on your computer and see lots of pretty graphics but that’s all bullshit because all you’re actually loading on your computer is a connection interface. Moondoor itself is fully web-based. You have to be on-line to use it, with a super-fast broadband connection. And depending on the quality of your VR equipment, you’re probably going to use a fair amount of electricity too.

“Now, don’t get me wrong. You can play it with any broadband or electricity supplier. Lots of people just buy the program in GameZone, buy some basic VR kit for a few hundred and get going. But those people aren’t ‘gamers’.  Real gamers swap their utility supplies to RRE.  If you swap to RRE Power, you get broadband and electricity for not much more than you’re already paying, but the broadband is unlimited so it soon pays for itself. And, they give you a copy of Moondoor for free. Sign up to a ten-year off-grid utility contract and they even throw in a free VR hood and gloves.”

“Really?” Sam asked, and his surprise wasn’t totally faked. Sure, he’d already learned that RRE owned several of its own power plants but he hadn’t fully understood how comprehensive the company’s business model was.  Moondoor wasn’t even their primary product anymore. It was simply used as a lure to generate a far greater revenue stream.  Sam had been considering the quarter of a million-odd worldwide regular players of the game to be the source of all RRE’s income, with the power being supplied purely to support those players’ addiction.

But if the Razer sales guy was right, RRE was presumably locking the majority of people who played Moondoor into long-term utility contracts even if they only played the game once and decided it wasn’t their ‘thing’. Because the power was off-grid and the broadband was cable, both required totally new connections to be laid so the ‘ten-year’ was a complete misnomer anyway. The odds of anyone ever leaving RRE Power to return to standard grid-connection was highly improbable.

“Just out of interest,” he said, “how many people do you think start to play Moondoor and then decide it’s not for them and quit almost immediately?”

The salesman’s face pursed, as though giving an answer would pain him. Then he sighed heavily, “I guess the ratio is 10-1 in the first three months,” he admitted reluctantly. “But you don’t look like a quitter to me. ‘Sides, the way you need to look at it is that we’re all living in a world that is becoming more and more dependent on the internet. I bet ten years from now everyone will need an RRE super-fast, unlimited broadband connection. People will be queuing to get it installed. So I say save your grand on VR equipment, don’t even waste $49.99. Just get ahead of the curve, grab an RRE utility contract now, since, let’s face it, you already pay utilities anyway and a few dollars a month more… well you won’t even notice it, will you?  That way you can treat the Moondoor stuff as just a free bonus for buying something you already need.”

“That makes sense. How do I go about signing up?” Sam asked, enthusiastically.

“Just wait here. I happen to have all the forms out the back. We get a lot of smart guys like you calling in here all the time. Guys who can see through the bullshit. I swear I sell more RRE Power these days than anything else,” the salesman chuckled.

Sam waited until he disappeared behind the counter in search of the forms, then turned and slipped out of the store and hurried down the street away from Razer.

His mind was reeling with the new information.

He could see how it all fitted together, how it all made sense, but it completely scuppered his initial fledgling plan to bring Richard Roman to his knees.  Moondoor was just a by-product now.  It was no longer the lynchpin of RRE’s finances.  Take the game down and RRE Power would remain. RRE Power which might already have over 2 million customers locked into contract if the sales guy’s statistics were right. RRE and RRE Power were totally different legal entities.  Take RRE down and RRE Power might need to rebrand itself but it would continue running and bringing in a huge amount of revenue.

Richard Roman might be insane. But he clearly was still a genius.

Yet, since Sam’s primary objective was to get Moondoor taken off-line, perhaps it was irrelevant that Richard Roman himself remained fundamentally untouchable.

It was simply a case of priorities.

And, on the positive side, he could use the RRE Power information to add substance to the conspiracy theory idea. It would add meat to the bones of the story he intended to disseminate on-line.

He hailed a cab to take him back to the airport to hop on the short commuter flight home.  He needed actual facts and figures to support the RRE Power aspect of the story and he had a pretty good idea that Mortimer Blake would probably be able to supply them.

“Yo,” Ash said from behind the counter, as Dean wheeled himself into ‘Lil Beanz.  “Americano, Bacon and French Toast coming right up.”

Dean smiled appreciatively, then glanced around the deserted coffee shop as he settled at a table.

“It’s okay, Charlie’s upstairs. I told her we wanted a bit of guy-time this morning before logging on, so she agreed to leave us alone for a bit,” Ash said, with a conspiratorial wink.

“She’s not offended?” Dean checked. He was still feeling a bit guilty about phoning Ash first thing and saying he wanted to speak with him privately. Not that guilty, obviously, or he would have suggested Ash visited him in secret rather than giving in to the lure of Ash’s offer to come over and have breakfast. But, still…

“Nah, she’s cool. She understands we’re old friends and, regardless of how welcoming you’ve been to her, she knows she isn’t going to dive into the role of your BFF in less than a week. Think she’s definitely jockeying for the position though. You kinda have that effect on people,” he chuckled, with another wink.

“She’s very full-on,” Dean said, “But she’s kinda like the little sister I never wanted but managed to acquire anyway. Irritating as hell sometimes but I’d still punch the lights out of anyone who gives her shit.”

“Word,” Ash agreed, loading a tray and bringing the coffee and breakfast items to the table.  “So, what’s the crack?”

“I think I lied to Sam,” Dean said, mopily, as he reached for the syrup and poured a generous splash over his plate. “Or not. Dunno. Need to ask you something and it’s a bit… awkward.”

“So you finally managed to get hold of him?” Ash asked, honing in on what he considered the most important part of what Dean had said.

“Yeah,” Dean agreed.

“And he’s okay? He’s safe?” Ash demanded.

“Hard to answer that one,” Dean admitted. “Best I just tell you the gist of our conversation.”

Ash continued to eat, listening wordlessly as Dean quickly outlined the details of his argum… conversation… with Sam, then left Dean waiting expectantly as he continued to methodically clear his plate.  Then, finally, he placed his fork down and fixed Dean with a serious expression.

“Okay, so I gotta ask you something, man.  Where the fuck did you ever get the idea I was squeamish about accepting the idea of the Moondoor V.I’s being alive?”

Dean flushed. “Like I told Sam, I thought you believed it but didn’t want to believe it… Kinda… well… you know…because of… um…” he trailed off awkwardly.

“You’re talking about the blood thing, aren’t you?” Ash suggested dryly.

“Well, um, you do faint if someone gets as much as a paper cut,” Dean argued. “That’s why you don’t use an immersion tank, isn’t it?”

Ash shook his head and rolled his eyes.

“It’s not the blood, man. It’s everything. Any bodily fluid,” he explained, his face scrunching with palpable distaste. “Blood, saliva, piss, shit, all of it.  And it’s nothing to do with being ‘squeamish’. I have a phobia, Dean. It doesn’t affect my ability to reason but I can’t prevent my physical reaction regardless. The idea of touching, or being touched by, anyone else’s bodily fluids makes me want to retch. Even virtual fluids. Hence my deliberately avoiding the use of any rig that is too realistic. I need to keep the whole thing ‘fake’ enough to know that crap isn’t really touching me. Real or virtual makes no difference to my hindbrain. Gaming is supposed to be fun. It isn’t supposed to make me want to puke.  So the point is, it makes no difference to me whatsoever whether the fluids are REAL or not. Either way, just the thought of them makes me want to chuck my cookies.

“As for an immersion tank… urrrggghhh…. Just the idea of climbing inside one makes me barf.  Even if only I ever used it and the gel was sanitized or replaced between every session, just the idea of sliding my bare skin inside that stuff is just…. Urrgghh ….nasty. And that’s before we even mention nutrition tubes, waste tubes, breathing tubes, I mean, urrrgghhhh.”

Dean blinked at Ash in astonishment, noting that even talking about the subject had caused Ash to turn a peculiar shade of puce.

“Why the fuck do you think I bought this place?” Ash demanded.

“Sam said it was just to give me a job,” Dean said, then flinched and held his breath as he waited for Ash’s reaction.

Which was just a shrug. “I guess,” Ash admitted carelessly, “but the reason it’s a coffee house, not any other kind of business, is that I love coffee. I particularly love barista coffee. What turns my stomach is the idea of someone else preparing that coffee with their dirty, grubby, unwashed fingers. Do you know how many people don’t wash their hands properly after using the bathroom? The amount of urine and fecal matter lurking on an average Barista’s fingertips?”

Dean’s own stomach turned at the thought but, since he was on a roll with this total honesty gig, he said, “Sam said you gave me a job because you’re in love with me.”

Ash froze for a minute, blinking like a deer caught in a hunter’s sights, then he expelled a deep breath, shrugged with faux nonchalance, and said, “Yeah, I guess that’s true too.”

It was Dean’s turn to freeze as thoughts chased through his head like a herd of stampeding wildebeest.  “I, um… I…” he mumbled awkwardly.

Ash’s response was a full-on laugh. “Stop it. You’ll give yourself a coronary, Dean.  Me saying it out loud doesn’t change anything. I have no expectations of you. I don’t want anything from you that I don’t already have. First time I ever saw a picture of you I was blown away. Which, come to think of it, was probably pretty sick shit considering you were only fifteen and I was fixing you some false I.D. but I never wanted anything from you then, either. I never ‘shipped us, Dean. I never will.  Just let me be the Sancho to your Don Quixote.  I don’t want to be your Dulcinea. I don’t want to be anyone’s Dulcinea,” he shuddered, and he grimaced at the thought.

“I get that,” Dean agreed thoughtfully, as he considered the impossibility of even kissing someone if you had a full-blown phobia of bodily fluids. “But I was thinking a lot last night, after Sam’s call, and despite the fact you’d imagine I was worrying about the apocalyptic shit doing down in Moondoor, all I actually kept coming back to was Lisa Braeden.”

“Ahhh,” Ash sighed. “Thought that bitch would come up.”

Dean frowned unhappily. “She wasn’t a bitch. She tried to…”

“She tried to fix you,” Ash snarled. “Like you were something broken.”

Dean barked an unhappy laugh, gesturing at his legs, “Which I kind of am, Ash.”

“Fuck that,” Ash snorted. “Your chair isn’t you. Your severed spinal cord isn’t who you are. YOU aren’t broken. You don’t need ‘fixing’ and you sure as hell don’t need some crazy cow thinking Reiki is going to miraculously regenerate your nerve cells and then giving up on you when all her candles and incense and laying of hands don’t pan out.”

“So, you didn’t hate her just because she was my girlfriend?” Dean clarified cautiously.

Ash snorted and shook his head firmly. “When you first told me the hot little number in the yoga pants was more interested in jumping on your dick than offering you physical therapy, my first thought was great. Well, my first thought was ‘Yuck’ but that’s just me and the whole idea of baby batter.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Dean gagged. “You trying to make me puke now?”

Ash shrugged an apology. “Point is, man, that I had no problem with her wanting to ride you. I just got pissed when instead of accepting you for who you are, she tried to fix you.”

“I think she actually wanted to fix my dick,” Dean admitted, with a blush. “Don’t think she particularly cared about the wheels.”

“Whatever,” Ash shrugged. “Point is she was a crazy bitch and you deserve better.”

“Okay,” Dean nodded. “Thanks. I just needed to check I wasn’t being ‘oblivious’.”

“That what Sam said?” Ash asked, mouth twisted unhappily.

Dean nodded.

“Yeah, well he can be a bit of a judgemental asshole sometimes,” Ash pointed out. “Course, that’s your fault since you obviously raised him that way.”

Dean chuckled. “Yeah, I guess I must have.”

“So, tell me, is this conversation really about Jimmy?” Ash asked, raising an eyebrow in query.

“Kinda,” Dean admitted, chewing on his lower lip.

“You want to jump his bones, I’ll cheer you on,” Ash smirked, then his expression sobered a little. “Just remember you don’t know anything about who he really is. Unless, of course, you’ve changed your mind about me and Charlie tracking him down and digging up the dirt on him? Because we could, no problem."

“No. Absolutely not,” Dean said firmly. “Though that reminds me. Jimmy offered to send Charlie his old tank to use. A Gen 8 one.  How can we do that without revealing where we are. Or, more to the point, who we are?”

“You mean who you are,” Ash retorted unhappily. “You’re assuming if he finds out about,” and he gestured at Dean’s legs, “he’ll pull a Lisa on you?”

“Maybe,” Dean admitted.

“If he does, then good riddance,” Ash snapped. “Though, could work the other way. He might be more inclined to let you get your leg over in-game if he realizes you’re a born-again virgin in real life.”

Dean snorted. “I’m not sure that’s even an option. I get the distinct impression he’s a real-life genuine virgin and he’s also Catholic. Sex, particularly gay sex, is all fire, brimstone and damnation as far as he’s concerned.”

“Bummer. Still, you could tell him what happens in Vegas and all that,” Ash suggested.

“Tried that,” Dean said glumly. “He just said we weren’t in Vegas.”

“Knowing him, he was probably just being literal rather than necessarily turning you down,” Ash laughed.

“What are we going to do, Ash?”

“About Jimmy?”

“About Moondoor.  What if Sam’s right? Well, not about what he believes but about what he’s saying actually happened last time with the Knights. What if we’re really talking about murdering people?”

Ash’s face twisted as he contemplated a reply. Eventually, after several minutes of oppressive silence, he finally said, “I think, if we’ve finished talking about your dick, it’s probably time to let Charlie come join us. I think she should be in this conversation too.”

Dean nodded his agreement. “Yeah. She understands Moondoor better than either of us anyway. Let’s find out what she thinks about all this. But not here. It’s well past time we were supposed to log in. Give me a chance to get home and then join me at The Roadhouse.  I think it’s time for me to let Jimmy know what’s really going on.”

When he finally received the in-game email he’d been waiting for, Henry Albertus Magnus Hoffman IV nearly choked on his Eggs Benedict.

“Little Paki Fucker,” he snarled, proving he was both racist and geographically challenged since he was assuming that ‘Johnny’, who had signed the communication, was really named something like ‘Raj’ and was most likely located in an Indian call-center. His lack of geographical knowledge stemmed from disinterest. Henry Albertus Magnus Hoffman IV was the kind of card-carrying full-blooded American man who took extreme pride in the fact he didn’t own a passport. As far as he was concerned, America was not only the center of the Universe but, realistically, was the only part of the Universe that even mattered.

Magnus, as he preferred to be known, had no particular issue with the fact that RRE was apparently off-shoring their customer support (an assumption he was reaching mainly because the email was written in perfectly grammatically correct and yet somehow stilted English) since he supposed people in places of the world other than America might as well do something useful. But he was pissed as hell that the uppity little bastard had dared not only to state there was nothing wrong with his system interface (when there most certainly definitely was an issue) but also, even more insultingly, had made vague reference to a bad workman blaming his tools and had posted him several hyperlinks to Help pages for new users of Moondoor.

The problem was, Magnus knew that nothing would be gained by sending a scathing reply.

A couple of years earlier he had engaged in an increasingly frustrating, if not downright hostile, email battle with an RRE bitch with the highly improbable name of ‘Celeste’.  Her final mail to himself had been a diatribe of scathing insults in which she had stated that the only thing ‘wrong’ with his bespoke Avatar was the fact it was so totally unlike his true physical appearance that it was not in the least surprising he was constantly fumbling and tripping whilst in-game. She had typed that she was perfectly willing to replace the avatar free-of-charge with one more suitable for a ‘short, fat, unpleasant little troll with a minuscule dick’.

For two whole seconds he had been thrilled speechless by imagining not only having the bitch fired but imagining the impossible number of zeros on the lawsuit he would file against RRE.

And then his monitor screen had filled with a large, laughing, Jolly Roger skull before going dark forever as his computer crashed so badly its motherboard overheated, smoke poured out of his tower unit and, inside its burning depths, his smoldering hard drive was corrupted beyond repair.

Magnus liked to fight and loved to win. But, like most natural bullies, he had healthy avoidance instincts whenever he found himself faced with an opponent who could fight back so effectively.

Perhaps ‘Johnny’ was not of the same breed as ‘Celeste’ but Magnus was unwilling to take the chance of having another melted motherboard, so he just deleted the tech support email with a snarl of disgust.

It appeared he was stuck with the glitchy system interface after all.

“I would probably need to check with Charles Shurley,” the Archivist said. “I’m uncertain exactly which documentation was removed after the unfortunate incident at Miss Middleton’s residence but I doubt the most current list of subscribers to RRE Power has ever been located here. This is an archive, Master Winchester. It’s where documents go to die.”

Sam nodded his understanding, trying to achieve a balance between appearing attentive and ignoring the ravenous way Mortimer Blake was devouring the huge Breakfast Burrito that Sam had delivered along with his request for access to the vault containing RRE’s archived records. Since it was already nearly mid-morning, and he had no doubt the Archivist had already broken fast before his own arrival, the older man’s ravenous chewing was somewhat disturbing.

How could the guy remain so cadaverously thin when he had an appetite that put Dean’s to shame?

Well, the appetite Dean had previously evidenced when he’d been a teenager, Sam considered grimly. Sometimes he seriously believed that the thing Dean resented most about being paralyzed by his accident was the fact he now had to be a lot more careful about the number of calories he ingested.

Not a concern, apparently, that Blake shared.

“Cheesy nachos?” Sam offered, delving into his bag to produce the second part of his bribe.

The Archivist grinned widely, causing his face to appear even more skull-like than usual, and hungrily snatched the box from his hands.

“I was actually more interested in some more historical paperwork anyway,” Sam admitted. “I’m particularly interested in the incorporation documents for RRE Power. The company wasn’t formed until 1996 and appears to sit firmly in the umbrella of RRE with the exact same stock holdings.  That makes sense since the new company would have been created and funded purely by original RRE assets, so the ownership would have to remain the same or Roman would effectively be stealing from his partner. But, since Donald Woolfe didn’t specifically mention RRE Power as a separate entity, it occurred to me he possibly has no direct involvement in that company either. He may not even understand the significance of its daily activities.”

“What relevance would that information have to the current situation?”

“Possibly none,” Sam admitted. “But I’m struggling to work out who in this situation might be wearing a white hat. My inclination is to trust the information provided by Mr. Woolfe but it bothers me considerably that he failed to advise me of something so important.”

“You believe you are being played?” the Archivist asked, his eyes twinkling with some inner amusement.

Sam shook his head. “I know I’m being played,” he said.  “The real question in my head is why Woolfe is willing to target me to take down a company he has such a huge financial interest in.  When I believed RRE was just a software developer, I could park that query to an extent. Sure RRE brings in a huge annual revenue but tech companies are notoriously ephemeral. Their bubbles burst all the time. His shares in RRE might be worth a fortune today but the wind could change and RRE could become bankrupt virtually overnight if a competitor brings out a game that steals all of Moondoor’s players. So from that point of view, I suppose he has nothing to lose.

“But a POWER company is a beast of a different color, isn’t it? Owning 25% of an independent utility supplier is a whole different ballgame.”

 “I would be inclined to recommend some caution, Master Winchester,” the Archivist suggested. “I believe there is a saying about ‘assumptions’. For instance, are you so sure of the ownership of both RRE and RRE Power?”

“I checked before I came here. RRE Power is a separate legal entity but it is still fully owned by RRE. So the ownership of both companies is effectively the same. RRE is a fully private company. It’s jointly owned by Richard Roman and Donald Woolfe, with Roman holding 75% of the shares,” Sam stated, with a shrug. “It’s pretty straightforward.”

“Is it? Are you sure of that or are you merely assuming?”

Sam frowned. “I am absolutely certain that only 100 basic shares were initially created, and since the transfer of 25% of those into Woolfe’s ownership in 1991, no further transfers have been made and no further shares have been issued.”

“And, accepting those facts to be true,” the Archivist said, “Do they prove the ownership of the company?”

“Yes,” Sam stated firmly.

Blake raised a sardonic eyebrow at him, looking uncomfortably like an expectant professor waiting for a dim student to finally understand an obvious point.

Sam thought furiously, trying to work out what he was missing. Then a vague, bizarre possibility of what the Archivist was not saying popped into his forebrain. “No,” he breathed. “It wouldn’t make any sense. That can’t be right. I can vaguely see why Roman might possibly do it but I definitely can’t see any reason why Donald Woolfe would.”

“Would it be necessary for Woolfe to even know in the hypothetical event that Roman chose to do so?” the Archivist asked.

“Not if it was only relating to his own 75%, I suppose. Private companies have no regulatory requirement to disclose those kinds of transactions so even one member of a joint-partnership would have no legal obligation to reveal the disposal of their own shares to the other.”

“I am comforted that you were paying attention to at least that much when you studied this area of law,” Blake smirked.

“It is possible, that the ownership of RRE does not reside in the hands of either man,” Sam admitted slowly. “Bearer instruments for any number of the 100 original shares may have been raised and transferred into the safekeeping of a nominated off-shore company for the benefit of an anonymous third party.”

“And what would that mean, in real terms, if, for instance, Roman’s 75% had been handled in such a fashion?” Blake asked.

“Anybody physically holding the bearer instruments would be the owner of the controlling shares of RRE.”

“And who could legally take physical possession of those bearer instruments?” the Archivist demanded.

“Only an officer of the company already named in the documentation originally supplied to that off-shore holding company. But why on earth would Richard Roman transfer ownership of his company to someone else?”

“Who says that he has?”

“But you said…”

“I merely pointed out the fallacy of your assumptions by presenting a perfectly valid alternative scenario,” the Archivist replied, then smiled serenely.

When did he do it?”

“If he did it, the timing of the event would be a critical factor to consider,” the Archivist allowed. “But since the scenario is purely hypothetical, I believe we have flogged this particular horse to its conclusion.”

He steepled his fingers and held them against his pursed lips in clear indication the subject was closed.

Despite logging into Moondoor later than he’d arranged, Jimmy was the first to arrive at The Roadhouse and was on his second cup of coffee already with still no sign of the others. If not for Ellen’s reassurances to the contrary, he would have assumed the others had already come and gone.

Which might not have been such a bad thing, really, considering how discombobulated he was feeling.

He’d been seriously tempted not to log in again at all until he had the results from the initial blood test. But then he’d decided it didn’t really matter in the short term anyway, did it?  If he was suffering from auditory hallucinations and the seeming improvement in his physical health was just imaginary, it didn’t really change anything about the commitment he’d made to help Dean, Ash and Charlie.

But, if the blood tests came back positive, if Castiel was real and the healing was real, well… that changed everything, didn’t it?

Not just for himself, but for everyone.

Because if it was really true, if Richard Roman had somehow stumbled onto the answer of how to create computer programs capable of entering and healing real-life human beings, then Moondoor wasn’t just a game. It was potentially the literal fountain of life.

The concept alone was breath-taking. The prospect of a world in which almost all diseases could be eradicated, almost all injuries could be healed. Most lives could be prolonged almost indefinitely.  And, yes, Jimmy could see that a lot of people might find ethical or religious reasons to resist the idea of sharing their consciousness with an artificial intelligence. Many people might find the idea too distasteful or terrifying to contemplate.  Many might equate the V.I.’s as being technological versions of the monsters from old B-movies. Alien body snatchers.  Many might find that price one too high to pay.

But, speaking from his own experience, Jimmy was sure that more people would greedily grasp onto any chance of a cure with both hands, regardless of the form in which that cure arrived.

In which case, Dean wasn’t just being tasked with trying to save the players of the game. His success or failure might change the course of history for the entire human race.

And, as though thinking his name had been enough to summon him, Dean took that moment to enter The Roadhouse.

Dean, who spotted him and paused for a moment, his mouth spreading into a smile so bright it almost blinded him.  Jimmy felt his heartbeat quicken in response, found his own lips curving of their own volition into an answering smile.

“Hey,” Dean said, swiping a hand over the back of his neck nervously. “Sorry we kept you waiting. Hope you haven’t been here too long.”

“It’s fine,” he reassured him, and it wasn’t a lie. Whatever lingering traces of resentment he might have been feeling about being kept waiting so long had been completely swept away by nothing more than Dean’s smile.

Jimmy was pretty sure he now understood the previously elusive definition of twitter-patted. Certainly, he found it far harder to care about what was possibly happening to his real-life body whenever he was basking in the warmth of Dean’s presence.

This was probably just as well considering what Dean and Ash proceeded to tell him and Charlie as soon as the four of them were seated around the table together. Especially when Charlie’s first reaction was to turn to himself and ask, “So do you hear Castiel talking to you outside the game?”

Jimmy looked awkwardly at the expectant looks of all three of his companions, then sighed heavily. “Yes,” he admitted. “I have conversed with Castiel in the real world.”

“I knew it,” Dean breathed.

“His voice outside of the game may, however, merely be proof that the tanks do, indeed, cause auditory hallucinations as your brother has suggested,” Jimmy told Dean reluctantly. He winced at the look of betrayal on Dean’s face at his comment. He really would have preferred to have had the entire conversation after receiving the results of the blood test. When he would be in full possession of the facts. As it was, he had no choice except to voice his own doubts.

“But I don’t hear Loki,” Dean argued. “Since we’re both using the same tanks, shouldn’t we both be experiencing voices outside of the game if the voices are a symptom of the tanks themselves?”

“I don’t believe that to be a valid argument,” Jimmy said apologetically. “Having different symptoms is not in itself proof that similar damage isn’t occurring. We may simply be manifesting the same damage in different ways.”

“But the mirroring of the koi pond incident, if it really happened, would definitely suggest your mother’s perception of Moondoor as acting like a braneworld has real validity,” Charlie pointed out.  “I think verifying that incident would add plausibility to the rest. String theory definitely supports the braneworld concept. For all we know, everything else that seems improbable about what’s going on here is also mathematically possible.”

“What the hell do you mean by ‘if it happened’?” Dean snarled.

“I’m sorry,” she said, with an apologetic shrug, “but if this is a question of whether your own perceptions of what’s happening are real, how can we know whether your memory of the event is accurate?”

“Because I was there too,” Jimmy interrupted, a huge smile of relief on his own face as he realized there was proof. “That was the incident when we first met. Dean is correct. There were a koi pond and a volcano. And he did, indeed, look like a Panda.”

“Um, not being rude,” Ash said, “but as a Gen 9 tank user yourself, are you even a reliable witness?”

Unexpectedly, it was Charlie who jumped to his defense. “It couldn’t work like that. Dean and Jimmy could both be suffering mental damage, could both be suffering from hallucinations but as strangers meeting for the first time, the idea they could immediately share the same hallucination is stretching credibility too far. And if that incident really happened, really mirrored an event happening to Sam in the same location, at exactly the same time, I think we’d be idiots to dismiss all the other improbable events as being impossible too.”

“Speaking of shared hallucinations,” Dean said. “Do me a favor, Jimmy, and tell me Ellen’s player level.”

Jimmy blinked at him in confusion. “She doesn’t have a player level, Dean. She only has a character level.”

“Why?” Dean demanded.

Jimmy wasn’t sure where Dean was going with his odd line of questioning but shrugged and answered regardless. “Because NPC’s, by definition, aren’t players.”

Charlie and Ash gaped at him in astonishment.

Dean just looked smug.

“Ellen’s an NPC?” Charlie demanded incredulously.

“Didn’t you know?” Jimmy asked, with a puzzled frown.

“It’s hard to tell from interacting with her,” Dean said, “because she’s seeded with a V.I. but yes she's an NPC.  I know she reads like a player to both you and Ash. But not to me and, clearly, not to Jimmy either.”

“It could be you two who are mistaken,” Ash pointed out, still playing devil’s advocate.

“It is more probable we simply see her more clearly because of our S.I’s,” Jimmy replied. “And, again, it would be highly unlikely our perception, reached individually and independently, could be interpreted as a shared hallucination.”

“I agree,” Charlie said. “Quite the opposite. The fact your perception meshes actually adds credence to the idea your tanks are providing you both with genuine information. It makes me even more inclined to believe the rest of it.”

“Then you think it’s possible that Cain, a virtual intelligence, has genuinely taken over Richard Roman and is the reason Amara has been set free?” Dean demanded.

“What does Loki think?” she countered, with no suggestion of mockery in her voice.

Dean’s mouth twisted unhappily. “He doesn’t believe it’s possible. He insists Cain could only take control of Roman’s vessel with permission. He says it would be theoretically possible for a V.I. to take control of a host body but that it would be impossible without specific invitation because he, and the other V.I.’s, have been coded with strict unbreakable protocols to prevent any hostile action against their hosts.”

“Castiel agrees,” Jimmy said, as he checked his S.I.  “He says Richard Roman used Asimov’s Laws of Robotics when he created Chuck, so all of Chuck’s ‘children’ also follow the same protocols. Therefore, unless the Arch Angels inhabiting the original Knights were programmed without the requirement to obey the same laws, he doesn’t believe the scenario is possible.”

“Well they were programmed differently, weren’t they?” Ash reminded them all. “They were programmed by humans rather than by Chuck. Though, since Roman thought to put the Laws in place for Chuck, I can’t see he would have omitted them from the Knights. Unfortunately, there’s no one left alive to ask except Roman himself.”

“So it’s a big unknown. It might be Cain alone or it might be Cain and Roman acting together. But we’re all going to work on the basis that, either way, Cain is a real V.I. rather than a figment of Roman’s imagination or some form of split-personality as Sam maintains?” Dean checked.

Ash and Charlie nodded their agreement. Jimmy, however, was still doubtful. Not so much because he truly still doubted Castiel’s reality but because he still wasn’t ready to discuss the possibility of Castiel’s ability to heal his physical body. It was too much. Too huge. It was definitely too much responsibility to lay on Dean’s shoulders without firm evidence.

“Perhaps the only relevant new information Sam has imparted is the confirmation that the original Knights died because they were killed in-game,” he suggested cautiously.

“I don’t think it changes anything,” Charlie announced.

“Really?” Dean asked incredulously. “You did hear the part about the Knights actually ‘dying’ if I kill them in-game.”

“Make your mind up. Are the inhabitants of Moondoor ‘real’ or not?” she demanded.

“I believe many of them are,” Dean admitted.

“So if you kill them what’s the difference?”

“Huh?”

“Take Meg for example. She’s a bitch. I’m all for ganking her. But is she real ?”

“Totally different scenario,” Dean countered. “She’s a monster-class. Kill her and she doesn’t ‘die’, she ends up in Purgatory and then respawns. She’s effectively immortal.”

“Sure,” Charlie agreed easily. “So let’s move on to… um… Balthazar, is it?”

“You mean Castiel’s angel buddy seeded inside Crowley?” Dean checked.

“That’s the one,” Charlie agreed.  “So you kill Crowley when he’s on his last life and you presumably kill both of them, right?”

“Right.”

“And Balthy doesn’t respawn. He’s just gone. Poof. All over?”

“I think so.”

“So what’s the difference? Why are you worried about killing the asshole who plays Crowley but you don’t give a shit about Balthazar?”

“Jesus,” Dean said, his eyes wide with shock. “I hadn’t even thought about that.”

“Of course you hadn’t,” Charlie said, her expression surprisingly kind. “Why would you? But now you’re all OMG I’m going to be murdering BOTH of them, aren’t you?”

“Well, yeah…” Dean muttered.

“Because you’re a good guy,” she said, with a careless shrug. “It’s how you roll. And, yeah, sure, it should bother you if we're prepared to accept the V.I.’s as being ‘people’. But the problem with a situation like this is it's going to make your mind explode if you try to work out all the different ramifications here.  So dial it back and look at it in a different way. What happens if you simply don’t log back into Moondoor. Does Crowley survive? Does Balthazar?”

“Um,” Dean mumbled, shrugging helplessly.

“Only if Crowley wins the First Blade by killing all the others and manages to defeat Amara,” Ash interrupted.

“And if it isn’t Crowley, it’s going to be one of the other Knights who wins,” Charlie continued, “or maybe two of them get to Rank 5 and neither of them becomes the overall winner and Amara survives and destroys everything and then ALL of the Knights die, plus anyone else playing in Moondoor at the time, and the only person left standing is YOU, Dean, because you logged out. Lucky old you.”

“Brutal,” Dean snarled.

“But true,” she said.  “The thing is, you aren’t causing all of this. You aren’t responsible for it. And it’s happening whether you participate or not. Look at it THAT way and you aren’t killing anyone, are you? Because unless they decide to stop playing, they’re all dead anyway.”

“So Sam’s right, isn’t he?” Dean demanded. “The only way to handle this situation is to take RRE down and stop people from being able to play at all.”

“Well, yes, as long as you don’t mind murdering all the residents of Moondoor to do it,” she agreed, smiling at him beatifically.

“My head hurts,” Dean groaned. “How the hell am I supposed to decide what to do?”

“Unless Sam is right that we’re all just imagining that the V.I.’s are alive,” Ash pointed out, “Dean and Jimmy have got an excuse, if the tank is fucking with their heads, but where’s OUR excuse? It’s not like you or I can categorically state we have proof, is it Charlie?”

“True,” Charlie agreed, with an apologetic grimace towards Dean. “Our assumptions have been totally skewed by what Dean and Jimmy have said about their interactions with their S.I.’s and both Dean and Jimmy are using the Gen 9 tanks.  But, that having been said, I’m a programmer and I know what in-game NPC’s should act like and the behaviors of characters like Meg and Castiel and Ellen are well beyond any level of coding that I’m aware of. Then there’s the Koi incident which is as weird as fuck in anyone’s book. Add that to the fact RRE tried to kill me and I’m tending to go with my gut instinct on this one. Sure, Dean might be insane, sorry Dean, but I’m still going to hitch my wagon to his regardless until I have proof one way or the other.”

“Hang on,” Ash interrupted. “I just had another thought. What about Asimov’s Laws? How can Loki and Castiel still be willing or even able to help us if they know this might lead to the genuine death of human beings?”

“Loki says the Zeroth Law trumps the First Law,” Dean explained grimly.

“Castiel agrees,” Jimmy concurred.

“They really believe this is that important?” Ash whistled, his eyes huge with shock.

And Jimmy knew he had to say something. But what if he was wrong? If he told them what he thought Castiel and the other Angels were capable of doing, he’d remove Dean’s options altogether. What if telling him about the healing caused Dean to decide to kill the human players to save the virtual intelligences but then the blood tests came back negative?

I…um…I may have a way to offer proof to you not only that the V.I.’s are real but that there is a significant justification for them to apply the Zeroth Law to this situation. However, I require a further 24 hours before I can provide it.”

“What proof?” Charlie demanded.

He flinched from the expectant look on her face. “I would prefer to continue this conversation tomorrow,” he said, apologetically but firmly.

“But…” she began.

“Drop it,” Dean barked, glowering at Charlie repressively. “The man says he needs some time, so give him some time. None of this matters immediately, does it? Until I face a Knight with only one remaining game life, I can’t actually kill them anyway. We have time to figure this out, guys.”

“Thank you,” Jimmy told him sincerely.

“I’m going to go see whether Ellen has a quest for us then,” Charlie said. “No point sitting around with our thumbs up our asses in the meantime.”

“I’ll come with,” Ash agreed easily, and the two of them rose and went to the Bar counter to speak to Ellen.

“Twenty-four hours,” Dean replied quietly, once they had left. “Then I want an answer.”

“You said a man was entitled to his secrets,” Jimmy reminded him.

“You are,” Dean agreed. “But this is bigger than you. Bigger than all of us. I can’t make you trust me. I can only hope you will. But if you can’t, if you won’t…” He paused and winced a smile in Jimmy’s direction. “If you decide tomorrow you still don’t want to really be a part of this with us, don’t want to trust us, well, don’t log in at all.”

Jimmy swallowed heavily. “I understand,” he said.

Dean nodded at him, his normally bright eyes dimmed with evident sadness. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“Don’t be,” Jimmy said. “Because I have every intention of logging in tomorrow, Dean. I make you a solemn promise.”

Dean stared at him for a long moment, seeming to measure him with his eyes, and then whatever he saw in Jimmy’s expression seemed to reassure him. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. We drop the subject until tomorrow.” He offered Jimmy a now genuine smile. “Let’s go see what Ellen’s got to say.”

“I am far too busy to attend you so I must leave you to do your research alone. Don’t lose yourself in here, Master Winchester,” the Archivist said, his eyes bright with good humor. “It’s far too easy to let time slip away from you completely in a place like this. Oh, and I’d most strongly suggest you restrict your perusals to the specific scope of the investigation that you outlined. Don’t be tempted to meander into areas that do not concern you. It would be highly inadvisable. Curiosity so rarely works out for cats, does it?”

Sam waited until Blake unlocked the door for him and had walked away completely out of sight down the long gloomily lit corridor leading back to the front desk, before muttering under his breath, “I’m not a cat.”

Even so, he could have sworn he heard a distant rumble of low laughter in response.

Allowed, finally, to enter the vault belonging to RRE, Sam soon discovered Donald Woolfe had been totally correct about the location of the only surviving prototype immersion tanks. They, along with a myriad of old computers, monitors, and the corpses of hulking tape-drive servers spewing spilled entrails of wire and pipe, filled one side of the huge room like a haunting Stonehenge that spoke of long-abandoned worship to the God of Tech.

The immersion tanks called to him as they sat there like abandoned Egyptian sarcophagi, their dark surfaces covered with a thin sheen of dust. Like the tombs of dead kings discovered buried under hot desert sands, the coffin-shaped boxes whispered the promise of lost treasure and secrets of mysteries untold within their dusty husks.

Not enough dust, really, to evidence fifteen years of neglect but, then again, the archive was a closed environment so perhaps it was more surprising there was any dust at all.

The hulking, brooding blackness of the immersion tanks was only otherwise interrupted by pale orange stand-by lights blinking slowly at the base of their control panels.

So they were still plugged in and powered-up, despite being long abandoned.

Which, now he realized the fact, was probably the reason the room wasn’t totally silent.  The low whispering hum that throbbed throughout the room, just on the furthest periphery of his auditory range, wasn’t a distant echo of the archive’s environmental control system. It was the tanks themselves, humming an almost imperceptible siren-call of standby power.

Drawn inexorably towards the two computer monitors that sat equally black and seemingly completely dead on a table directly behind the tanks, Sam flicked the hibernate switch on the closest screen and the monitor sprang to life, belying his assumption it was ‘off’ by displaying a generic screensaver welcoming him to Moondoor and asking him ‘Log in: Y/N’

Sam wondered, idly, how the game worked.

Since he didn’t have an account, didn’t have an avatar, what would happen if he climbed inside the tank and activated the log-in command?

Presumably nothing, except himself getting covered in slime.

It was a stupid idea, anyway.

He didn’t even want to play the damned game.

So he returned to the other side of the room and began ruffling through the filing cabinets, flicking from one file to the next in search of a document, any document, that would help his cause.

And, behind him, the tanks continued their brooding slumber. The low whispering throb of their near dormant power hissing a steady pulsing chant that sounded oddly like “Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam….”

Chapter Text

“Exactly how stupid do I look?” Dean demanded, his brows knitted with annoyance.

Ellen’s mouth twitched into a smirk. “Do you seriously want an answer to that?” she asked sweetly.

Ash snickered until Charlie dug an elbow into his ribs.

“I believe Dean is correct that you are attempting to deceive us,” Jimmy interjected, politely but firmly. “None of these quests would appear to fall under the normal auspices of the Hunter Guild. Add to that the fact that no Guild realm ports are available for our use, and one might assume that none of these quests originate from the Guild Master.”

Ellen’s cheeks flushed and she looked momentarily embarrassed at being caught out, but then she firmed her posture and fixed her expression into one of angry defiance. “So? And? That’s the problem with you damned immigrants. You only care about points and prizes. None of you care about any of us locals.”

“That’s where you’re totally wrong,” Dean replied, with a sorrowful shake of his head.  “I don’t give a damn whether or not these are ‘Guild’ quests. Innocent people are getting killed and stopping that kind of shit is the business we’re in,” he announced firmly. “But I don’t like it when people lie to me or try to play me like this, okay?”

Ellen looked even more suspicious, rather than convinced. She narrowed her eyes as she glared at him as though searching for some visible evidence of his bullshit.

“We all know you’re an NPC,” Charlie interrupted quietly.

Ellen startled, her arm automatically reaching below the bar counter for a weapon.

“And it doesn’t matter to us,” Ash added hurriedly.  “Dean has known since the first moment he laid eyes on you and that hasn’t stopped us doing every quest you have asked of us, has it?”

“Because you need to level up,” she spat, her comment aimed directly at Dean. “Don’t try pretending it’s all been altruistic, boy.”

But her hand returned to the counter, weaponless, so they all relaxed a little.

“Of course I need to level up,” Dean agreed, with an easy smile. “But the two aren’t mutually exclusive, are they?  I can win just as much XP doing a quest for you as doing an authorized Quest for Bobby Singer.”

“Well, not really,” Jimmy pointed out. “The XP will most probably be lower for a non-Guild quest since you won’t win any Guild bonuses and you are less likely to come against other Player characters as foes.”

“Not helping,” Charlie muttered repressively.

Jimmy flushed and fell silent.

“No, Jimmy’s right,” Dean said.

“If unnecessarily pedantic,” Ash muttered.

Jimmy’s flush deepened.

“But it doesn’t matter,” Dean continued, glaring at Ash repressively, “because my point remains the same. I win enough XP either way, so you can just be honest with us, Ellen. If we can help out, we will.”

Ellen continued to glare for a moment, unconvinced, but then she sighed deeply and dropped her posture into one of defeated exhaustion. “Okay,” she agreed. “Here’s the situation. A friend of mine, Donatello, who lives in Hope Springs, says a weird giant fog descended over the town on Monday and all the inhabitants, except Donny, turned into Rabids within a few hours.”

“What’s a Rabid?” Dean asked.

“Like a zombie, kinda, but they have protruding black veins and although they aggressively attack and infect other characters, they aren’t mindless,” Ash replied. “On the plus side, they’re pretty easy to kill but the downside is they don’t have to bite you to infect. Just a splash of their blood on your skin and you’re history, so knives and swords aren’t the best weapons to hit them with.”

"Well that's a bit of a bummer, all things considered," Dean replied.

“It's too late, anyway. Rapids have a really short shelf-life,” Charlie said, her expression sorrowful. “The infection spreads at a varying rate but always kills the infected within a few hours. So if this happened on Monday, everyone in Hope Springs is already long dead.”

“I know,” Ellen said sadly. “But Donny says the fog is slowly traveling south, and it apparently reached the town of Lewis a couple of hours ago. Lewis has over two hundred inhabitants.”

“And there might still be time to save most of the people?” Dean asked, grasping her point immediately.

“I hope so,” Ellen agreed, “but if you go to Lewis first, which you need to do because of the short ‘shelf-life’ of the disease, it will probably be too late for you to then save the residents of Edmond.”

“That’s the tiny hamlet where you said a player arrived a few hours ago and started slaughtering the residents indiscriminately as though all they wanted was to gain XP?” Dean double-checked.

Ellen nodded.

“Which definitely sounds more like a possible Knight sighting,” Jimmy reminded him.

“It does,” Dean agreed, “but if so, he or she has probably already killed most or all of the residents. We’re probably definitely too late for Edmond, but there’s still time to save Hope Springs.”

“The Knight in Edmond is highly unlikely to have access to a realm port though,” Charlie reminded him. “He or she will be traveling on foot. If we go straight there, we could probably catch them and at least trim one of their lives. Plus we get to find out what their avatar looks like. That could make a huge difference later on.”

“We go to Edmond after Hope Springs,” Dean decided. “We should prioritize a chance to save people over the chance to go after the Knight. The Knight’s got 10 lives to lose but the inhabitants of Hope Spring don’t. They aren’t monsters. They probably aren’t going to respawn.”

“I apologize for doubting you,” Ellen said, smiling at Dean in approval of his decision.

Dean just nodded at her, then asked, “So we need to treat the Rabids as cursed villagers, I guess.  What’s the cure? Any of you know?”

“Holy fire or holy oil,” Jimmy replied. “According to Castiel,” he added, at their looks of surprise that he knew the answer.

“Oooh, question,” Charlie said. “Is Donatello a seeded NPC too?”

“Yes. Why does it matter?” Ellen asked suspiciously.

“I’m just wondering how come he is immune,” she said. “If the cure is holy oil and holy fire, that would suggest that the Rabids are vulnerable to anything directly connected to Chuck. So I guess they would be unable to infect anyone hosting an angel.” 

Dean blinked uncertainly. “Are all V.I.’s defined as ‘angels’?” he queried.

“Fundamentally,” Loki agreed. “Not what I would call angels really, but loosely, yeah, they still qualify. I doubt the V.I.s inside the NPC’s are of any significant rank or power but even if they’re nothing more than amoebas with wings, they’re still classed as Chuck’s children so, yeah, they’re still a kind of ‘angel’, I guess.”

Dean repeated Loki’s comment to the others.

“Cool,” Ash said. “Then I have a different suggestion. Let's split up. You and Jimmy go to Hope Springs, whilst me and Charlie go to Edmond.”

“That would be a wise course of action,” Jimmy agreed. “Since Dean and I should theoretically be immune from the Rabid disease, as we host Angelic beings, but you and Charlie do not.”

“We can handle a Knight by ourselves, easily enough,” Charlie pointed out, clearly in favor of Ash's idea. “They’re probably only level 15. And even if they’ve leveled up enough to hit level 50, they’re still going to be considerably weaker than Ash.”

Dean nodded his agreement. “But watch out for demons,” he reminded them.

“Worst they can do is kill us,” Charlie shrugged carelessly.

Dean accepted that with his own shrug, then turned to Jimmy. “Those realm ports still on offer, bud?”

“Of course,” Jimmy agreed, accessing his S.I. and sending Dean half of the ports he had in his inventory.

“Woah,” Dean exclaimed as they landed. “I was only asking for a couple.”

Jimmy shrugged. “I thought our motto was supposed to be ‘All for one and one for all’.”

Dean clasped a friendly arm over his shoulder as they walked out of The Roadhouse, “You do know the Three Musketeers thing was just a joke, right?”

Magnus, still smarting over the email from ‘Johnny’, decided he wasn’t in the mood to deal with any more shit from ‘Lilith’ whether his damned system interface wanted to work with him or not.

He was already two lives down and this was only his third day logging into Moondoor itself, rather than the Purgatory shit-hole he had been stuck inside all the previous week.  Whatever happened, he had no intention of losing a third life to the little bitch.

She was out of options now anyway, as far as he could tell.

The first time she had surprised him completely (something he totally blamed his S.I. for since it had failed to offer him the information that she was a level 15 player until her dagger was already planted inside his ribcage) because it would never have even occurred to him that a Knight would choose to inhabit the avatar of a small girl.

Neither had it occurred to him that two Knights might have emerged from Purgatory on the same day in exactly the same place.

The second time, since he now knew what she looked like, he had taken advantage of the fact that she, like himself, had no access to realm ports so would have inevitably logged back into the same location as she had been when she exited the game on Monday.

She had been smart enough to leave the village she had killed him in but, trapped within the guise of a little girl, she hadn’t traveled far. On Tuesday, Magnus had located her in an NPC town called New Harmony, ten miles to the west of their original point of arrival. It had only taken a few hours to track her location down, because he had told every NPC he met that he was looking for his missing beloved ‘daughter’ and they had all helpfully recounted their sightings of the pretty little blonde ‘cherub’.

By mid-day, he had triangulated three of those sightings and closed in on her.

That time it was he who buried his dagger in an unsuspecting rib-cage and it was Lilith who had died.

Unfortunately, Magnus had immediately discovered that stabbing a tiny child to death in the middle of an NPC village in front of several dozen witnesses was liable to get someone lynched.

Which was the second and most grievous complaint he had made about his system interface to the indifferent ‘Johnny’.

He should have been able to simply log-out of the game to escape the townsfolk entirely.  It shouldn’t have been possible at all for him to be captured, beaten up, tried, found guilty and actually hanged in the town square. The whole process (although admittedly it took barely less than an hour) could have been avoided completely had his glitchy system interface not chosen that particular hour to switch off completely, removing all of his options including the most fundamental one of Log Out Y/N.

To be honest, that particular glitch was preying on his mind.

What if it happened again?  What if he got trapped within the game for a longer period and suffered an even more painful death?  He was already finding the reality of being a ‘Knight of Hell’ was proving to be a lot less entertaining than he’d initially anticipated. If playing the game continued to be so frustrating and painful, Magnus was tempted to tell RRE to shove their job where the sun didn’t shine.

In the meantime, however, he had a perfect solution.

Kill all the townsfolk before going after his pint-sized nemesis.

And, all the XP he would earn by doing so would just be gravy.

This was exactly the kind of stupid, hare-brained, ill-considered and reckless act that Dean excelled at doing, Sam decided.

But, despite the harshness of the thought itself, Sam himself was feeling remarkably sanguine about the fact that after several hours of leafing through filing cabinets and finding absolutely nothing of interest, the siren call of the abandoned tanks had proven too much to ignore.

The endless whispers of “Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam…” had coiled through his head like sneaking, snaking fingers that had fluttered through his thoughts like butterflies, just like his own fingers were ruffling through the files, and somehow they had found purchase inside his head, burying the hooks of curiosity deep inside his own mind.

Surely just one use of the tank couldn’t do any neurological damage, the whispering assured him, swirling through his mind like the somnolent hum of fluttering insects on a sunny day.

Only a fool would try to destroy something he hadn’t even attempted to first understand, the whispering added and he nodded a drowsy agreement of the wisdom of those words.

Was the air getting a bit thin in the vault?

Was that why he felt light-headed?

So tired?

The air is lovely in Moondoor, the whispers said. So clear, so fine, so lovely.

Besides, he considered slowly, lethargically, he wasn’t going to be sharing his generic avatar with a virtual intelligence like the Knights did so surely there couldn’t be any danger at all.

And the air is SO lovely in Moondoor.

It would just be a quick trip in and out, to experience Moondoor for himself just once to be in a position to fully understand the phenomenon he was attempting to destroy.  It was a necessary step in his process of thoroughly researching the issue, wasn’t it?

Of course, it was, the whispering reassured in its comforting, hypnotic voice.

And you’re tired, anyway, aren’t you, it added softly, convincingly.

So tired.

It was time perhaps to lie down for a while, for a brief while, in the comfortable gel that sparkled a welcome inside the now open tank.

When did he open the tank?

He couldn’t remember.

It didn’t seem important.

And yes, he was feeling tired.

Exhausted, even.

The gel did seem inviting to him because he was so tired and the air felt thin in the vault, despite the controlled environment, almost as though the oxygen level had been depleted to a dangerous level and that meant he was in danger and that meant he needed to act, to move, to…

to…

to…

But he was sooooo tired.

To what??? He wasn’t sure. It didn’t seem important, though, as his thoughts stretched like taffy until whatever elusive idea he had been chasing seemed as distant and ephemeral as a cloud.

Moondoor has clouds, the whispers told him. Lovely clouds. Lovely air. So much lovely air.

That was it.

He remembered now.

He wanted to lie down.

Lie down in the gel. In the tank. Yes. That was it. To lie down in the tank. Like the whispering voices were saying he should.

He still had a brief moment of doubt, of sanity perhaps breaking through the haze, as he peeled off his clothes, stepped into the tank and fiddled awkwardly with attaching the mask of the breathing tube to his face. What if he couldn’t open it again from the inside? What if he became trapped inside the thing until he withered into a mummy and the tank truly became a sarcophagus?

But, the hypnotic whisper assured him smoothly, the Archivist knew he was in this room.  If Sam didn’t emerge then, after a maximum of a few more hours, Blake would surely come and find him. And, yeah, sure that would be embarrassing but he could live with a red face if that was the only cost of being discovered taking an illicit trip to the virtual world he was determined to destroy.

Soothed, convinced, exhausted, Sam lay down in the gel and took a deep gulp of air from the breathing tube.

As the tank closed over his head, disturbingly similar to the sensation of a coffin lid being lowered, as the oxygen refilled his depleted lungs, Sam felt a sudden shiver of dread, one violent enough to fracture his haze of contentment enough that he reached in sudden panic for the switch that would open the tank again for him to climb out. But then a screen popped up in front of his eyes, its glow easing the total, terrifying darkness as white typed words scrolled across its surface.

… Enter virtual world: Y/N?

Hmmm, he huffed to himself, his alarm fading again as the ‘normalcy’ of the communication eased his fear and returned him to a state of sleepy indolence. He’d been expecting a log-in screen.  One that would offer him the ability to create an account.

Maybe that one came up next though, he mused idly.

It didn’t seem important.

He slowly, lazily, raised his hand through the gel of the tank and pressed his finger-tips against the glowing Y.

Several things happened at once.

The screen went dim, he heard the dull roar of the tank powering up, he felt a strange, but not unpleasant, sensation of the gel surrounding him heating up and becoming almost electrically charged so that it pulsed and tingled softly against his bare flesh. Then he had a mental sensation like falling off a cliff, a hot, black rush of sensation through his brain that caused him to nearly pass out.

And then he blinked furiously as his eyes burned with the heat of a thousand suns as he ‘woke’ to find himself standing in an arid, alien landscape with nothing in sight except black volcanic rock and a scarlet, angry sky.

Black cumulonimbus clouds roiled across the fire-red sky, clashing together into a huge, furious cauliflower with blood-red flashes of lightning spearing through its surfaces and they spoke with the roaring howl of a thousand thunderclaps, a symphony so discordant that its furious sound shook the ground beneath his feet.

Sam staggered, barely able to keep upright as the black rocks splintered and fractured under the assault of the deafening cacophony.

And his somnolent haze was abruptly erased as he woke up completely.

“Where the fuck am I?” he demanded.

Because, wherever he was, he was certain that it sure as hell wasn’t Moondoor.

Chapter Text

“So where do we find Holy Oil?” Dean mused aloud, as they stood outside The Roadhouse. “Is it like Holy Water? Do we need to go to one of Chuck’s temples to find it?”

“It’s rare and valuable,” Charlie replied. “Only available in-game as prizes for some really high-end magic Quests. Fortunately, we happen to know a High-Ranking Mage who probably has a stash in his inventory.”

She looked significantly at Ash.

Who shrugged helplessly, mouthing “Who, me?”

Then winked at his companions and grinned smugly.

“Cool,” Dean breathed. “You’re the best, man,” he said, as Ash produced two fat vials with a dramatic flourish and handed them over.

“Try not to use them both though,” Ash warned. “I don’t have many more, they were a bastard to win, and who knows when else we’ll need the stuff before this gig is over.”

Dean flushed and rubbed the back of his need awkwardly. “In case I haven’t said it before, I can’t… um… well, I can’t say how much I appreciate all of you helping me like this. It’s… um… above and beyond, so thanks, guys.”

“Hey,” Charlie said, with an easy smile, “We’re all in this together, Dean. You might be ‘Dean The Righteous’ but we all have an equal stake in this, okay? We’re all Team Dean, right guys?”

Ash nodded enthusiastically.

After a slight pause, Jimmy nodded his own firm agreement.

Dean raised his eyebrows questioningly at the blue-eyed man. “24 hours?” he reminded him cautiously.

“24 hours,” Jimmy murmured in agreement, meeting Dean’s gaze steadily.

Dean nodded his acceptance and smiled. “Let’s go then.”

The black clouds spun and swirled overhead, like a gathering tornado, before morphing together to form a vast shape not unlike a face.

If faces were the size of skyscrapers.

And, then, inside that ‘face’, two scarlet suns pierced the clouds to form eyes, and a dark slash of a cirrus cloud formed a ‘mouth’.

Which opened.

And spoke in a voice so thunderously loud that Sam startled, lost his footing and landed awkwardly, squashing his tail beneath him.

“I AM THE REAPER. THE DEVOURER OF WORLDS,” the cloud mouth roared.

Flinching as the noise caused the pressure inside his inner ears to ‘pop’, Sam’s expression twisted into disbelief even as he belatedly remembered the fact the tank’s internal screen had differed from the one on the monitor. 

His nose twitched, his eyes widened until they were impossibly large and his whiskers bristled with alarm.

“Shit,” he muttered. “I’ve landed in fucking ‘Afterlife’.”

Then he narrowed his eyes in confused annoyance at the sound of his own voice.

“Why the fuck do I sound like Inigo Montoya?”

….

“There’s no-one here,” Ash said, looking around the deserted village square.

“Let’s check the houses,” Charlie suggested, not waiting for his response before bouncing up to one of the quaintly hobbit-like structures and pushing open its closed, round door.

Finding it empty, she moved to the next, and then the next.

Ash crossed the square to where a larger structure displayed the sign of an Inn. It only took him a moment to confirm that the Inn, too, was deserted.

In the distance, surrounded by fields that seemed equally empty of villagers, there was a large hay barn.

Silently, they mutually agreed it was the most logical place to check next.

“How many people used to live here?” Charlie asked sadly, since it was obvious that they had definitely arrived too late.  Because this was Moondoor, not the material world, there were no corpses to evidence a slaughter.

Just absences remained after NPC’s died. They simply blinked out of existence and were reabsorbed into the metadata of the digital world.

Still, if even a single survivor could be located in Edmond, that person might be able to offer a clue as to the direction the Knight had gone after the slaughter.

“Oh my god,” Charlie moaned, as she and Ash entered the huge barn.  “I’m going to be sick.”

Ash was too busy gagging himself to answer.

“But… but… why are they still here? Why haven’t they disappeared?” she continued, unable to look directly at the remaining villagers and yet, unable to tear her view away completely.

Ash finished spewing half-digested coffee, spat several times to clear the taste of vomit out of his mouth, then finally answered. “Because they’re not dead yet,” he said, grimly.

As though in confirmation, one of the ‘bodies’ hanging from the rafters of the barn gave a faint, rattling gasp and then dissolved until all that was left was an empty piece of rope swinging from an overhead beam.

“Stand back,” Ash snapped, then raised his hands to summon an arc of fire between them. He then thrust his arms forward and the flames burst forward to envelop the other victims in a searing heat that instantaneously immolated them.

In less than a second, nothing remained but a dozen charred ropes.

“I couldn’t have saved them,” he muttered. “But I could at least stop them suffering.”

Charlie burst into noisy tears.

“I’m sorry,” Ash said.

“Not as sorry as that fucker is going to be when we find him,” Charlie snarled, wiping furiously at the tears and snot streaming down her face. “He tortured them. For hours.

“The Knight could be a woman,” Ash reminded her.

Charlie shook her head. “Nope, it’s a man. A sick fuck of a man. A woman couldn’t have done that.”

Under different circumstances, Ash would have given her some shit for making a sexist assumption like that.

But, he didn’t because he agreed.

Not because he thought a woman incapable of that level of cruelty. Ash was pretty sure that women were just as liable to do sick shit as men were.  So, yeah, a woman could have been just as psychologically capable of skinning someone alive like that.

But it would have taken one hell of a strong person to be physically able to string their live victims up on ropes and hoist them up several feet off the ground. And very tall too, to be able to torture them at that height.

So the Knight was tall.

Huge, even.

And, so, almost certainly male.

“HOW DARE YOU ENTER MY WORLD,” the voice rumbled, and the ground beneath Sam’s feet cracked further, splitting into deep crevices that opened up like wounds, revealing red magma that looked horribly like fresh blood.

Skipping, staggering, his head bowed against the wind pressure caused by each word from the booming overhead voice, Sam tried to scurry his way towards a crag of overhanging rocks. Then slammed to a halt as one of them splintered and fell in an avalanche that would have crushed him had he reached the faux security they had promised.

And then, unsure now which direction to flee, buffeted by the wind, seared by the spitting magma, his fur singed by sparks from flying volcanic rocks, Sam abruptly decided he had had enough.

“YOU’RE NOT REAL,” he howled back.  “I WANT TO WAKE UP NOW.”

Because, he realized, none of this could possibly be real.

It was a dream.

Or a hallucination.

Caused, undoubtedly, by oxygen deprivation.

Oh god, he breathed, as he suddenly considered all the possible side-effects of hypoxia.  What if he wasn’t even in the tank at all? What if he was really just lying in a stupor on the floor of the vault, his brain cells perishing as he suffered irreversible damage. He’d die if Blake didn’t find him. Or, maybe even worse, perhaps get ‘saved’ just in time to spend the rest of his life as a drooling idiot.

Or maybe he was in the tank, having crawled inside it as a result of said brain damage caused by hypoxia and now the tank was doing a number on him too? Causing this hallucination?  Maybe he’d be ‘saved’ just in time to be a hallucinating drooling idiot.

His heart was now hammering so loudly in panic that he could no longer hear the thunder of the roiling clouds, or the boom of its ear-shattering ‘voice’. All he could hear was the thud, thud, thud of his arteries threatening to explode as panic wrapped around him like a thick, smothering blanket and he closed his eyes tightly, praying desperately “Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up…”

“Oh, for goodness sake,” a dry voice interrupted, speaking into a sudden void of otherwise complete silence. “Could you possibly be any more of a drama queen?”

“Mr. Blake?” Sam gasped, opening his eyes in relief.

The hellish landscape was gone.

He was back in the Archive.

At least he thought it must be the Archive, albeit not the room he had apparently passed out in.  This room was more library than storage vault. Stacks lined the walls, burdened with ancient tomes and dusty artifacts, and he himself was seated in a comfortable, deep-red, worn-leather chair.

He took a deep, cautious breath and then a deeper, more relaxed one as his breath filled easily with life-affirming oxygen.

“Did I pass out? Did you carry me out of that room into this one?” he asked the Archivist.

Mortimer Blake raised a sardonic eyebrow and gestured at his own wraith-thin frame mockingly.

Sam swallowed nervously, realizing there was no way in hell the Archivist could possibly have picked him up and carried him anywhere. “Then, um, how did I get here?” he asked, and gestured down at his own body pointedly.

Only to freeze in horror as he looked down at his high-topped leather boots, furry thighs and the tail that was flicking agitatedly around his legs.

And the entity wearing Mortimer Blake’s face morphed into a cloaked skeleton, with glowing red eyes, that spoke in a voice unmistakably that of the cloud (though, thankfully, much more quietly). “Mortimer believes your propensity for examining everything to the nth degree is endearing. That your need to challenge everything in front of your eyes is proof of your unusual intelligence. The mark of a bright, inquisitive mind that should be nurtured and encouraged. Personally, however, I just find you to be intensely irritating, Samuel Winchester.”

Sam just swallowed heavily.

“Does it ever occur to you that sometimes the reason something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck is simply that it is a duck?” the skeleton asked him conversationally.

“So I really am in Afterlife?” Sam asked.

“Well, I’m not a piece of undigested cheese,” the skeleton sneered.

Sam blinked rapidly.  “Did you seriously just reference ‘A Christmas Carol’?”

“I’m your ‘hallucination’,” the skeleton sneered. “You tell me.”

“You definitely look like the Ghost of Christmas Future,” Sam countered.

“I do. I even have a scythe,” it replied smugly, producing one out of thin air and sweeping it in a gesture that caused several of the library books to fall off their shelves.

Sam flinched away from the flashing blade. Maybe, this was how it really did feel to be inside a virtual world when lying inside a total immersion tank.

In which case, the character he was conversing with was real, albeit only a computer program. What was it Donald Woolfe had claimed about the Reaper? That it was such an evolved A.I. that it believed it was a ‘God’ and had locked Richard Roman out of his own creation? Yeah. That was it. Though, having experienced Afterlife for himself, Sam wasn’t sure Roman had missed much by the exclusion.  This virtual world was not a fun place to be.

So this ‘Reaper’ was just a bundle of badly written code running amok in a virtual environment. Even so, it was possible the program was legitimately dangerous to someone whose consciousness was linked to it. Sam was pretty sure there was a myth that ‘dying’ in a dream meant a dreamer would die in real life.  That many people thought that was the source of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. Like most myths, it possibly had some basis in reality.

It would probably behoove him to attempt to extract himself from this virtual world in an ‘alive’ state. Sam told himself desperately, the best (or only) way to escape was to work his way through it. Go with the flow, he told himself. Follow whatever bizarre path his subconscious was trying to lead him down and maybe, just maybe, he’d reach its conclusion and wake up before his brain dissolved into complete mush due to lack of oxygen.

Play along, Sam, he told himself.

 “You’re the Reaper, huh?” he asked brightly.

The skeleton offered him a cheerless grin and nodded its head in agreement.

Then it transformed back into the form of Mortimer Blake. Though it retained hold of the scythe. “I assume we are now going to have a civilized conversation,” The Reaper said, settling in a chair and spreading his bony limbs out into a comfortable sprawl.

“So, um, what’s with my avatar?” Sam demanded grumpily.

“I like it,” The Reaper replied, then smiled. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant smile.

Sam swallowed nervously, his whiskers twitching as he attempted to stay silent.  It was only an avatar, after all.  It wasn’t like it really mattered what he looked like in a virtual world, did it? Particularly one he didn’t even want to be inside.

Except…

Yes, it kind of did.

“Do I have to look like the damned Shrek version of Puss-in-boots?” he blurted.

“I believe it suits you,” The Reaper replied, now smirking. “A little, big-eyed kittycat always curiously poking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Sniffing your way into business that doesn’t concern you. Such as this most definitely uninvited visit you have made to my world.”

“You tricked me into coming here,” Sam protested.

“I did?” The Reaper asked, raising a sardonic eyebrow. “How do you possibly reach that conclusion?”

“Donald Woolfe told me that Afterlife couldn’t be accessed by humans,” Sam argued. “That you locked everyone out. So the fact I’m here at all suggests you deliberately allowed me to arrive. And the oxygen just happened to fail in the vault? And am I not supposed to mention the fact the monitor connected to the tank clearly indicated the tank was connected to Moondoor? A more cynical person could put a case that this whole set up was a deliberate trap.”

Well, that or he’d been wrong about assuming it took more than one use of the prototype tanks to cause insanity. Still, hallucination or not Sam still had the distinct feeling he needed to let this play out for him to have any chance of waking up again.

The Reaper shrugged. “Permission does not equate to invitation, Master Winchester.”

Sam thought about that, then nodded his agreement to the precise point (if not the sentiment). Arguing with the A.I. was pointless. And possibly dangerous. So he’d let it win. “Then I apologize for my uninvited arrival and thank you for your kindness in permitting me entry regardless.”

“Very pretty. I already knew you had a smooth tongue. Don’t imagine you can manipulate me with it. If I reap you here, you will not wake in your own world.”

Sam swallowed heavily, his heart thudding loudly at the clear threat.

“Forgive me,” he said cautiously. “But I’m confused. Why do you look like the Archivist?”

“Perhaps Mortimer looks like me,” The Reaper retorted, then laughed uproariously at the expression on Sam’s face.  “I have chosen his form for this conversation because it is one we are both familiar with.”

“So you do know Mr Blake.”

“Intimately,” The Reaper said. Then laughed again at Sam’s resultant look of horror. “An aspect of myself lives within him,” he exclaimed. “Which is how I know you so very well, Master Winchester.”

“When you say an aspect of yourself, you mean a part of you?” Sam asked incredulously.

“Do I look like an Arch Angel to you?” The Reaper scoffed.

“Never seen one,” Sam pointed out apologetically. “So I’m not sure what distinction you’re making.”

“I don’t suppose you’re Catholic, either,” The Reaper huffed. “I would have been better advised to have this conversation with young Master Novak.”

“I don’t know who that person is. But I’ve studied some esoteric subjects,” Sam offered.

“Arch Angels can divide themselves up into a maximum of four aspects, and once divided, those aspects can have no direct communication with the whole until they are rejoined.” The Reaper explained.  “As a God, I can divide into an almost infinite number of aspects but those aspects remain part of me and I see everything that they see. Like the Holy Trinity. My aspects are separate and yet also all me.”

Sam nodded his understanding. “You’re talking about the idea of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost,” he confirmed. “All separate beings but still all one God.”

The Reaper nodded.

“I always found that concept improbable,” Sam admitted. “It seemed nothing more than an attempt by scholars to resolve the problem of claiming three separate ‘Gods’ within a religion that still insisted there was only ONE God.”

“I think we have established that I find your inability to accept what is directly in front of your eyes highly irritating,” the Reaper warned.

Sam swallowed heavily, but squared his shoulders and replied, “Let’s be real. You’re an A.I.  And sure, that possibly makes you ‘God’ of this virtual world, I guess. But that doesn’t make you a God,” Sam countered. “And, yes, I know you can probably kill me here for saying that but it doesn’t make it any less true.”

The Reaper pouted. “See?” he said. “It’s exactly this type of disrespect that made me lock the front door.  I tire of you, boy.”  He slashed the scythe through the air close enough to Sam that it sliced a sliver off his right whiskers.

“Owww,” Sam said, though the sensation had been more of a tickle than anything painful. Still, the warning was pretty clear. Whether he believed the A.I. or not, he needed to at least pretend that he did. “I apologize if I came across as disrespectful,” he offered carefully. “I was merely attempting to clarify the situation correctly. After all, you have implied to me that you are both yourself and Mortimer Blake but I am struggling with that concept since he is a flesh and blood human and, I must say, quite apart from the implausibility of the fact itself, despite some similarities between you there is still a distinct difference between your personality and his.”

“I did not say I was Mortimer Blake,” The Reaper corrected irritably. “I said an aspect of myself resides permanently within him. He and I remain separate personas. However, we have been together for thirteen years now. It is inevitable that there has been some bleed-through in both directions. I believe the same can happen to a couple within a marriage,” he pondered idly.

“So you’re claiming to be here but also simultaneously living inside Mr. Blake, but Mr. Blake also remains inside his own body?” Sam asked, the bridge of his nose throbbing with an impending headache. He rubbed at it, trying not to flinch as his whiskers tickled his fingers. “How did that happen? Why did it happen?”

“Mr. Blake is somewhat of an inquisitive pussycat himself,” The Reaper chuckled.

Sam’s blood ran cold at the implication and he wondered how the idea could frighten him so much if he truly didn’t believe it was possible. What if it was possible? What if the reason Donald Wolfe apparently believed Cain was real was that these damned computer programs really could infect human brains? Not just damage them but actually inhabit them? Was that even possible? What if that was possible?

“Oh, calm down, little kitty,” The Reaper scoffed. “I have no interest in seeding myself into you. Which is more than I can say for certain other people. Besides, it’s not something I ever do without a human’s complete agreement. I can’t be arsed to listen to my host sniveling all the time about my presence. I find you irritating enough face to face. I certainly wouldn’t like to be inside you.”

“You’re saying Mr. Blake agreed for you to live inside him? Why the hell would he agree to something like that?” Sam demanded incredulously.

“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps the small matter of his stage four prostate cancer,” The Reaper suggested. “His survival prognosis is two weeks. It has remained two weeks for thirteen years.”

Sam’s mouth opened and closed several times before he managed to say, “You’re claiming you’re keeping him alive?”

“I am not merely ‘claiming’. Unfortunately, his internal damage was already so great by the time I made his acquaintance that it was too late for me to cure him of his ailment.  I can repair cells. I can knit bones. I can grow nerves. I cannot regrow entire organs. I cannot remanufacture the parts of his bowels that were brutally cut out of his body by the human butchers who call themselves doctors. I can, however, prevent any further deterioration of his vessel as long as I can access sufficient energy to do so.”

Sam startled at the word ‘energy’. He thought furiously for a moment, then made an audible exclamation of understanding. Maybe it was oxygen deprivation. Or maybe he was tired of refusing to accept improbable answers even when they made perfect sense. “You aren’t talking about the electrical supply of this building, are you? You’re talking about calories. THAT’s why Mr. Blake never seems to stop eating. Because he needs to keep providing the energy to keep your aspect fighting his disease.”

“Bright as a button, aren’t you?” The Reaper said, smiling at Sam with surprising benevolence.  “Still, you’ll need to be to keep one step ahead of Cain.”

“Cain, not Roman? You’re claiming Donald Woolfe was right then? That the Cain personality is in charge now?”

“Indubitably.”

“How do you know? Maybe it’s Cain AND Roman together. Maybe they’ve bled into each other like you and Mortimer Blake?” Sam suggested.

“That’s highly doubtful under the circumstances,” The Reaper laughed.

“What circumstances?”

“Richard Roman has been dead for fifteen years. He died shortly before midnight on October 19th, 1991. Suicide. When he reached Portland and realized what had happened. That was Richard Roman’s reaction to the tragic accident. He didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t set a fire. He slit his own wrists and he died. I suppose you could say, he reaped himself.”

Chapter Text

 “I think that’s it,” Dean said, as he dripped a last drop of oil a couple of inches left of the dark patch of dust that he was positive indicated his starting point.

Conscious of the need to conserve as much oil as possible, they had calculated an optimum minimum circumference around the middle of the town and had dribbled a slow steady trail of individual drops to form a rough circle. Dean doing the pouring, Jimmy poised over him with a big sword to prevent any attacks by the Rabids.  Castiel had, via Jimmy, assured them that the fire didn’t need to be dramatic or big. It simply had to fully surround any rabid they wished to cure.

It was Dean who had decided that, in that case, they might as well go for one huge circle and get most of the cursed villagers healed in one fell swoop.

“I think our best bet is to try to herd them all into the town center,” Jimmy suggested.  “We should try to make sure they’re all within the circle of holy fire before we light it.”

“And how do you suggest we do that?” Dean asked, sarcastically. “Cowboy style?”

“Why not?” Jimmy replied, with a shrug.  “Most of the Rabids are already congregating in the middle of the town. We just need to round up the rest.  We can send Benny into all the houses to frighten any stragglers out, then we ride them down and chase them into the square. It should work because the Rabids seem to naturally seek strength in numbers.”

And…

It was actually surprisingly fun.

For the first time since the whole Knights of Hell debacle had started, Dean actually enjoyed ‘playing’ the game.  Mounted on Baby and Goldie, the pair of them galloped around the town, whooping and hollering like cowboys as they rounded up the Rabids that Benny flushed out of the outlying houses and drove them into the center of town.

Then, dog-tired, but laughing, they slid from their mounts and lit the circle of Holy Oil so that a circle of flame roared into life around Hope Springs.

And, as a series of 20FP slammed into his inventory like bullets from a machine gun, increasing his total by 3640, Dean did a quick calculation in his head and offered Jimmy a celebratory high five because, despite arriving too late to save all of them, they had still managed to save an incredible 182 of the cursed villagers.

“Where’s Benny though?” Jimmy asked, as he tucked his exhausted mount back into his inventory for a well-earned rest.

“Dunno,” Dean admitted.  “I last saw him over by the shepherd’s huts. Let’s go find him and then I guess we can see if Ash and Charlie still need any assistance.”

Jimmy nodded his agreement so, after he’d put Baby back in his own inventory, Dean led the way over to where he’d last seen Benny.

“I think Ellen will be quite satisfied with the results of our endeavors,” Jimmy said, as they walked out of the town center and turned towards the fields where the farmworkers were housed.

“What the fuck?” Dean exclaimed, slamming to a halt, his mouth dropping open in stunned shock.

Benny turned his head in their direction and offered them a slightly embarrassed grin. “He followed me home. Can I keep him?”

Dean just blinked, his mouth working soundlessly as he struggled, and failed, to make a reply.

“Wuff,wuff, wulf, ahhhhhwwwooooooo,” Benny’s new friend offered enthusiastically, grinning toothily in their direction.

“My, what a big nose you’ve got, Mr. Wolf,” Jimmy muttered under his breath.

It was enough to make Dean snort with sudden, if inappropriate, laughter.  The skinny kid did have an unfortunately large nose and, since only his ears and tail were currently wolfed-out, the overlarge proboscis was simply an unfortunate human facial feature. Which made Jimmy’s comment sound unusually bitchy (though Dean was reasonably certain Jimmy had just been referencing the kid’s very obvious monster status). Still, it was funny regardless.

Not as funny as watching the overexcited way the young werewolf was crawling all over the vampire though.

“Seriously, though,” Benny said. “He’s been stuck here for a long time, just herding the sheep for the townsfolk, and he wants to come with us. Likes the idea of having an ‘adventure’.”

“Herding sheep?” Jimmy asked curiously, since it definitely appeared to be a strange occupation for a werewolf.

“He likes sheep,” Benny shrugged. “Even named ‘em all.  Admittedly names like Chop and Donner, but still…”

“Donna?” Jimmy blinked.

“Donner, as in Kebab,” Benny corrected, with a toothy grin of his own.

“Oh,” Jimmy said and bit his lower lip as he pondered that one.

“Um… maybe if he stops humping your leg,” Dean offered dryly.

The kid… werewolf…  who had completely ignored Jimmy talking, immediately spun around at the sound of Dean’s voice. His face lit up in glee and he let go of Benny and bounded over in their direction instead, like an overexcited puppy.

“Don’t,” Jimmy murmured quickly, as Dean’s hand automatically reached for the hilt of his dagger.  “I think he’s mostly harmless.”

“He’s a fucking werewolf,” Dean retorted, but he stopped drawing the blade and instead tensed for impact. Which was just as well, since had he not planted his feet firmly he probably would have been bowled over onto his ass as the gangly limbed young man crashed into him enthusiastically and hugged him tight.

“No…no…no…no…” he yelped as a long, wet, definitely wolfish tongue emerged from the boy’s mouth and lay a swathe of hot, sticky saliva down his cheek. “Urrggghhh,” he spat, extracting himself from the inappropriate hug and then firmly holding the werewolf’s shoulders to keep its skinny body a safe distance away from himself.

“Wuff, wuff, wulf, wulf, garrufff, ahhhwooooo,” it yelped, vibrating in his hands as its ass wriggled like an excited puppy’s and its big, bushy tail swept back and forth like a celebratory flag.

“I think he likes you, boss,” Benny snorted.

“He is certainly extremely affectionate,” Jimmy agreed, smirking cheerfully, his blue eyes bright with unfamiliar mirth. Probably because he wasn’t the one with wolf saliva dribbling down his cheek.

“It’s a werewolf,” Dean snapped repressively, as he struggled to keep the overexcitable ‘puppy’ from leaping back onto him again.

“He’s a level 1 monster class, not a cursed villager,” Loki pointed out helpfully. “He was born a werewolf,” he added, in case Dean had missed his point.

That gave Dean pause.  “And he’s still just a Level ONE?”

“Yup,” Loki agreed. “Means he hasn’t ever fought a player. Probably hasn’t even turned an NPC. Either would have easily given him enough XP to level up.”

“Woah,” Dean exclaimed, looking at the ‘puppy’ man with new eyes. “You got a name, kid?”

“Wuff, wuff, wuff, Garfff, ahhhhwoooo.”

“Garff?”

It shook its head. “Wuff, wuff, GARFFF, wuff, ahhwooooooo.”

Dean was nonplussed.

“I think his name’s Garth,” Jimmy offered quietly.

“Garth?” Dena tried carefully.

The werewolf beamed widely, revealing a full set of fangs, and, breaking free of Dean’s restraining hands, leaped forward to offer another excited hug.

This time Dean did lose his footing, landing on his ass in the dusty road with the werewolf on top of him.

“GET IT OFF ME,” he yelled, as ‘Garth’ began swiping wet licks all over his face.

But, both Benny and Jimmy, the bastards, were both laughing too hard to even pretend they were going to help him.

“Can you stop doing this?” Sam demanded, as their surroundings suddenly expanded and warped until, rather than being a room in an archive, Sam found himself sitting in an actual library.

And it wasn’t just any library.

It was THE library.

And the Reaper no longer looked like Mortimer Blake.

Instead, he looked like Noah Wyle.

“Considering you’ve supposedly been living in an off-line, non-networked server for the last fifteen years, it’s somewhat disturbing that you can so easily replicate a scenario from a film that only hit the box-office three years ago,” he pointed out dryly.

The Reaper wearing Noah Wyle’s face smirked. “I told you, I see through the eyes of my aspects. I have seen this movie several times. It seemed an appropriate locale for the next chapter of our conversation.”

Sam noted the use of aspects plural but resisted the urge to query it.  This was, he reminded himself, probably still more hallucination than reality.  He no longer doubted the existence of the A.I. itself, nor even the fact he was definitely inside Afterlife, but he still suspected a great deal of what he was seeing and hearing was coming as much from his own subconscious as it was from the Reaper.

After all, he had seen this particular movie more than once. It was far more likely, therefore, that he was the source of the environ they were inside. Certainly, he couldn’t imagine Mortimer Blake doing anything as plebeian as visiting a cinema.

“You want information. I can provide it,” the Reaper said and, somehow, the fact he was now wearing the homely, likable face of the Librarian made the offer seem more authentic and friendly.

Which was probably the point, Sam decided cynically. Still, he had questions to ask so he might as well let the A.I. create the playing field.

“Why did Richard Roman commit suicide? Fear of facing the authorities or genuine guilt over the deaths of his employees?” he asked.

“Does it matter?” the Reaper asked curiously.

Sam frowned in response. “I think it does. Maybe not in the grand scheme of things but, yeah, for me it really matters.”

“Because of your mother?”

Sam startled momentarily, but then plowed on. “Yes. Exactly. It’s possibly irrational but I’d still prefer to imagine the deaths caused genuine regret on his part.”

The Reaper pursed his lips thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “Although it’s never possible to truly know what is within someone’s heart, and I will not even pretend that Richard and I parted as ‘friends’, I believe it is fair to say that Mary Winchester’s death would have weighed heaviest upon Richard under the circumstances.”

“What circumstances?”

The Reaper shrugged. “Are you unaware they were lovers?”

Sam blinked in total disbelief. “Don’t be ridiculous. She was at least ten years older than him.”

“I am not even human and yet I can still categorically state that your mother was an extremely beautiful woman. More than that, she was brilliant. Her mind was like a supernova. Dazzling. I don’t doubt Richard considered her mind even more attractive than her face.”

Sam snorted rudely. “I wasn’t questioning why he’d find her attractive. My point is I can’t understand what she would have seen in him. He was barely more than a teenager and apparently completely socially gauche. I remember my mother well. What on earth would a vivacious, sophisticated woman like her see in him?”

“Attraction is a nebulous thing. Why, one might ask, did your mother find your father attractive? However, at the risk of offending you further, I would suggest her interest in Richard was more pragmatic in nature.  She would have been lured by the idea of a secure future perhaps? For you and your brother rather than herself, naturally. Perhaps to be in a financial position to revisit her attempt to win custody of Dean back from your father?”

Sam swallowed heavily. Although he couldn’t believe his mother would ever have been shallow enough to date someone only for money, he could envisage how it could have been a factor because of her distress over being forced to leave Dean in the care of an indigent, sometimes violent, alcoholic like John Winchester. “How didn’t I know? I was living with her at the time.”

“Realistically, that isn’t strictly true, is it? During the last weeks of her life, she barely returned to your house. You had a live-in housekeeper taking care of you.”

Sam scowled at the reminder. “As a single parent she hardly had a choice,” he spat.

“I was not disparaging her behavior,” the Reaper replied with equanimity. “I was merely pointing out that you would have been unaware of how, or with whom, she chose to spend her occasional leisure time.”

Nick was furious.

He had spent hours working on those fucking villagers for nothing.

Not nothing. You still earned a valuable amount of XP,” R.A.M.I. assured him hastily. “You’re almost half-way towards leveling up already.”

Nick snorted rudely and took another gulp of Jack, swirling the liquid through his mouth before swallowing and allowing the burn to hit the back of his throat.

He’d found the voice of the system interface in his real-life jarring at first.  Okay, strike that, he’d found it terrifying. He’d thought he’d finally lost his mind.

But just a day later, he already found talking to Rami to be so natural he couldn’t imagine returning to the emptiness of his own thoughts again.

For the first time in his life, Nick had someone who understood him. Someone who knew the real him and, instead of running away in fear of his deepest, darkest desires, seemed to embrace him.  Hosting Rami was like having his own personal cheerleader constantly waving congratulatory pompoms inside his own head.

Rami had also just saved his ass big time. So he probably ought to be grateful instead of snarling at the little guy.

Don’t worry about it,” Rami soothed. “You’re bummed about the SP. I get that. It’s fine.”

And Nick took another slurp of Jack and grimaced at the reminder.

If Rami hadn’t sensed the approach of the two players, Nick wouldn’t have been able to log-out in time. He would have been caught with his pants down, literally, in that barn. Had both been just the level of the girl, he wouldn’t have run. He would have happily taken his chances with them. But when Rami had told him the guy was a level 61 mage…well… obviously he’d decided retreat was his only option.

And, if it wasn’t for Rami…well… he wouldn’t even know about SP, would he?

Because whatever idiot had thought it would be a good idea to let him miss out on the Purgatory experience and go straight in to Moondoor as a level 15 character had completely omitted to mention the fact that meant, in real terms, he was going to be considerably handicapped against the other Knights since they had already spent at least a week gathering Soul Points.

If not for Rami explaining the purpose of the small ruby gems left by the couple of newbies he’d despatched the previous evening, Nick still wouldn’t know what SP was for.

But now he knew that SP was everything.

Which is why he was so furious about being driven out of that barn before he’d gotten around to actually killing those mewling NPC’s. All those hours of hard work and he’d come out of the encounter without a single SP point.

So he was pissed.

He had no doubt the villagers had already died by now. It had been a couple of hours, after all, and they had all been at the point of death when he’d left.

But, as Rami had pointed out, he was stuck with having to return to the exact place he’d left from so he couldn’t have risked going back to the barn immediately.

In fact, to be on the safe side, he probably ought to wait another 30 minutes or so to be absolutely sure those players had given up and left.

Though it was more probable they had left as quickly as they had arrived. 

After all, it wasn’t as though they could possibly know he didn’t have any Realm Ports.

“Let me explain. There is a company named Campbell Holdings. Its registered address is a mailbox in Belize. It has no employees. It has no recorded holdings. It has no recorded assets. It is currently jointly owned by two brothers named Dean and Samuel Winchester. Either or both of those brothers gain only one thing from their ownership of Campbell Holdings. As the inheritors of their mother’s company, they are the sole nominees entitled to physically collect the bearer instruments that grant ownership of Richard Roman’s shares in RRE. Campbell Holdings was named on the documentation fifteen years ago, before Richard and Mary entered Moondoor for the final battle with Amara.”

Sam learned that someone being shocked enough to almost fall out of their chair wasn’t hyperbole.

He stuffed away his amazement at the initial information. After all, it did finally made sense of why Mortimer Blake had made him consider the idea of Bearer Instruments in their former conversation. What was most germane, though (again as Mortimer had suggested might be the case), was the timing.

“They thought they were going to die? I thought neither of them had any idea the game was genuinely dangerous at that point.”

The Reaper looked uncertain for a moment. “I don’t believe they did. I think they were simply feeling their own mortality because they were faced with such an onerous task. Or, perhaps, Richard saw it as a hugely romantic gesture. Proof of his commitment to your mother. But I could be wrong. Your mother was always… peculiarly perceptive. Attuned more to matters best described as spiritual perhaps.  I know for certain she had approached Woolfe several days earlier and had him swear he would take care of you and your brother in the event of her death.  I would hesitate to call her fears precognition but, certainly, she was careful to ensure your financial security before she entered Moondoor that final time.

“How she convinced Richard to agree to it is a matter for pointless speculation. But, what she convinced Richard to do was irrevocable. Once the bearer bonds were deposited off-shore it was a fait accompli. Only the owner of Campbell Holdings would ever have been able to retrieve them again.”

Sam shook his head in confusion. “That makes no sense. What if Mom and Richard had broken up?”

“Mary did sign a document guaranteeing the return of the ownership of Campbell Holdings to Richard in that eventuality,” the Reaper replied, with a shrug. “Her death, however, meant ownership of the company was automatically passed to you and Dean as they were assets of her estate. Even so, that meant nothing as long as neither of you ever learned of Campbell Holding’s existence and both you and I know the Bonds were not expressly mentioned in her will.  Had he survived, Roman could simply have allowed all knowledge of the existence of the bearer instruments to die with Mary.”

“Roman’s death changed nothing at first because only Woolfe knew the significance of Mary’s death and Cain, wearing Roman’s body, convinced him that a financial settlement to your father would be more than adequate compensation for their value. This was before the game had launched to the public so the amount of money paid to your father at that time was a fair amount for shares in what was merely a start-up company.

“The bearer instruments were left to gather dust in Belize for so long that I believe both Roman and Woolfe genuinely forgot they existed until they finally became relevant again several years later.

“Animating a corpse proved exhausting. Cain doesn’t need sleep, as you understand it, but Richard’s body did. As the years passed, it became increasingly difficult for Cain to continuously maintain the preservation of Richard’s body during those idle times. Cain could become distracted, just for an hour or two, and when he returned his attention again, Richard’s body would have moved into a state of decomposition. It reached the point that every morning, Cain would need to spend hours repairing the damage caused by his distraction during the night before.

“And gradually, the problem intensified. He came to the realization he needed Richard’s body to age if he was to retain a public persona, but it proved impossible to find a balance between encouraging the natural destruction of the cells that would allow aging and repairing the cells that caused his body to decay.  There is a limited amount of time that people will accept an apparent failure to age, Samuel. Cain knew the time would come when it would be impossible to continue the charade.

“It was then that Cain realized that the only way to escape from being permanently trapped within a corpse was to engineer a situation that would enable him to return to Moondoor and change hosts. But how could he change bodies and still retain Richard’s assets? And that is why the bearer instruments became relevant again.”

Sam swallowed heavily, tasting bile, as he understood the implications of the Reaper’s story.

“Oh my god. That’s why Dean was tricked into becoming a Knight. Why Dean needs to win. He’s supposed to take the exact role that Richard Roman did last time. So that Cain can change bodies from Roman to him but still keep ownership of RRE when he returns to our world.”

The Reaper chuckled. “If only it were so simple. No. Dean’s involvement is Chuck’s doing. Cain has absolutely no idea that Dean is working for RRE. Cain believes there are only nine knights, the same number as were in his original team before Anna left it. Cain is totally unaware of the existence of a tenth knight.”

Sam groaned with frustration. “In that case you’ve lost me completely. I have absolutely no idea what the hell you’re trying to tell me.”

“Don’t you see? YOU are Cain’s intended host. You have been since Dean’s accident.  Up until that point, admittedly, Cain had always intended for Dean to become his new host body. He was biding his time, waiting for Dean to reach legal age before luring him into Moondoor. Dean’s accident scuppered his plans entirely. Although Dean didn’t die as intended, Cain still was unwilling to swap Richard’s corpse for another damaged vessel. Obviously, restoring Dean’s ability to walk would be far less onerous than the effort of keeping Richard’s body from decaying, so I don’t doubt Cain would have still gone through with it had there been no other option. Your existence, however, presented him with a far better option. He just had to wait a little longer for you.

“Why do you think Donald Woolfe took such an interest in you? I’m not disparaging your intelligence or ability, Samuel, but in the grand scheme of things you were just another hungry young man with a will to succeed but without any money or contacts behind you. Do you not realize that your entire world runs on nepotism and influence? Do you really think you stood out from the crowd enough to win your scholarship on merit alone? Do you imagine a law firm such as Woolfe, Roman, Van Dueran would have picked you, over all your equally talented peers, for a coveted position as an associate?

“Woolfe kept you close for two reasons. To keep you from falling into Roman’s clutches and to keep the potential heir of RRE under his direct influence.”

Sam shook his head furiously. Not in denial of the Reaper’s brutal assessment of his own history. Woolfe had already admitted as much to him already. But Woolfe didn’t know about Campbell Holdings. “Mortimer himself told me Woolfe didn’t know about the bearer instruments,” he argued.

“He also told you the situation was merely hypothetical,” the Reaper replied dryly.  “Of course Woolfe knew about them. He was one of Richard’s lawyers. Woolfe was the one who drew up the paperwork. Richard was hardly going to have the conversation with his only other lawyer, his father, as to why he was handing ownership of his company to a girlfriend almost old enough to be his mother.”

“So Woolfe IS playing me too,” Sam muttered bitterly.

“Oh don’t sulk about that,” the Reaper sneered. “You’ll find out soon enough that everyone is playing you.”

Chapter Text

The downside of using a rig other than an immersion tank was that it wasn’t designed to handle certain needs of the human body.  Ash could eat and drink in-game, but that was purely for taste enjoyment and sociability and his rig couldn’t supply him with artificial calories to match.  When someone in an immersion tank ate or drank, their tank automatically ‘topped up’ their body with an equivalent amount of nutrition-rich liquid so whilst people like Dean did still eat outside of the game, it was more out of habit (or to have the sensation of a fully satiated stomach in real life) rather than a necessity.

More problematically, Ash had no ability to deal with his body’s eliminations whilst in-game either.  Although the idea of having pipes attached or inserted to handle that kind of thing made him cringe in disgust, there were times in-game when he really regretted his phobia.

Times like now, when he really, really, REALLY, needed to take a piss.

“Just log out and go,” Charlie told him, equally tired of watching him squirm and shuffle from foot to foot in a vain attempt to ease his bladder.

“Only if you log out with me,” he insisted.

She rolled her eyes impatiently. “You’ll be a few minutes max,” she pointed out. “If the bastard hasn’t come back here in the last couple of hours, what are the odds of him suddenly materializing during the five minutes you are gone?”

“High enough odds that you aren’t willing to log out too,” he pointed out.

“For all we know, he isn’t planning on logging back in until tomorrow,” Charlie retorted, “and I’m certainly not willing to stay up all night just on the off-chance. I just want to give it another couple of hours, just in case, then we’ll see what Dean wants to do about the situation.  But I can’t face another two hours of you squirming like that so just go do what you need to do. The quicker you go, the faster you’ll be back.”

“I don’t like leaving you here alone,” Ash grumbled.

“Well, I’m a real actual adult, Ash, so I’m capable of making my own choices,” she reminded him. “Besides, in the highly unlikely event of him coming back before you do, I can play for time if necessary and keep him here until you return.”

“Or he’ll kill you.”

She shrugged. “Well, then you’ll get your way after all since I’ll be thrown out of the game.”

Ash wasn’t happy but he was out of options unless he was willing to risk kidney damage.

And, as Charlie said, the odds of the Knight returning precisely during the brief moments he’d be gone were infinitesimally small.

“I can’t believe I agreed to it,” Dean grumbled, as he and Jimmy returned to the Roadhouse to update Ellen on the outcome of their quest. “He’s going to be about as much use as a chocolate teapot.”

Jimmy chuckled softly. “Garth may have hidden talents,” he said, then shrugged and said, “though I too struggle to envisage a situation in which he might prove uniquely useful.”

“Still,” Dean muttered quietly. “Couldn’t stomach the idea of him landing in Purgatory.”

Which had been Benny’s masterstroke, Jimmy decided, considering how surprisingly soft-hearted Dean had turned out to be under all of his grumpy bluster.  After Dean had spent the best part of twenty minutes point-blank refusing to accept Garth as a ‘follower’, the vampire had casually pointed out it was a miracle Garth hadn’t been found by a human player yet but that it would only be a matter of time before the over-friendly puppy-man went bouncing up to hug a strange player and was immediately despatched as an easy-kill monster. Which would land him in Purgatory where the other monsters would then treat the kid like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Dean had caved immediately, if not gracefully, so now he had both a vampire and a werewolf stuffed inside his inventory and Jimmy had a minor headache from listening to Dean griping about it.

But, despite vaguely wishing he had a gag in his own inventory, Jimmy was feeling really positive about the situation.

Not about Garth, per se, but the undeniable evidence that Dean was a genuinely good man.  A man who would put someone else’s safety over his own comfort. Even if that someone was a digitally created monster. Even if that someone wasn’t even seeded with a V.I.

“What is your personal definition of ‘life’?” he asked as they sat down with beer and burgers, waiting for Charlie to respond to the private message Dean had pinged into her system in-box for an update on the Knight situation. Neither of them wanted to unnecessarily waste four Realm Ports by going to join the others if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

“That’s…um… heavy,” Dean responded, with a visible flinch.

Jimmy shrugged and offered an apologetic wince. “I just meant you said earlier that you supported the idea that the V.I.’s were ‘alive’ but Benny and Garth aren’t seeded and you still seem to care an equal amount about their ‘lives’.  Do you feel they are equal to seeded characters?”

“Depends on your definition of ‘equal’,” Dean answered eventually. “Do I think they are as intelligent as the ‘angels’? Hell, no. Of course not. But is that what makes the V.I.’s ‘real’? Does being really clever make you more valuable than someone less smart? More ‘equal’? It’s like saying a dog’s life has no value because it isn’t human. I don’t agree with that. And I don’t even like dogs.”

Jimmy pondered that for a moment.  “I agree that all living creatures have value and their right to life should be respected but, unless you’re only eating that burger because it is a virtual one, I assume you aren’t averse to eating meat. So by not being a vegetarian, surely you already ascribe more value to a dog rather than a cow?”

“Philosophy is not my bag,” Dean replied, with a shrug. “I see what you’re saying but that kind of sophistry is the kind of slippery slope only rich people have the luxury of indulging. I had a similar conversation with Sammy when he was about twelve and toying with the idea of going vegan. Kid was really serious about it. All big-eyed and innocent, giving me a lecture on how meat was evil and he was never going to eat another living creature ever again. And, yeah, I could see the worth of his position. He could always run rings around my logic so it was an argument I was never going to win by playing fair. So I told him there were scientists who claimed that lettuce screamed when you cut it.”

“And how did that go down with him?” Jimmy asked, slightly horrified.

“Sammy spent the next three days refusing to eat anything,” Dean admitted. “Then he eventually got so hungry that when I offered to buy him a Big Mac he just about snapped my hand off. That was the end of his vegan stage, though he still eats more salad than a grown man should. And, yup, I can see you think I was a monster for doing that to him but, thing is, you don’t get to be a faddy eater when you’re poor.  Sam thinks it’s funny he grew up to be taller than me despite us sharing the same genes. It’s more likely he got the extra height from having better nutrition. Most days I could barely scrape enough food together for one of us, so Sam always got fed. But he got whatever I had managed to get hold of, not what he wanted. When our Dad was off on a bender, leaving us alone sometimes for more than a week with nothing but pocket change to feed ourselves, we didn’t have the luxury to pick and choose food because it offended our morals.”

“I understand that,” Jimmy said, though his eyes were wide with shock. It was one thing to know intellectually that there were people who struggled to even feed themselves. It was totally different to actually speak to someone who had experience of that kind of poverty.

“So to answer your earlier question, no I don’t think a cow’s life is less valuable than a dog’s. But since I never got put in a position of having to choose between my kid brother starving and me feeding him a dog-burger, I never thought about it overmuch.  So yeah, I eat beef. But if I saw someone hurting a cow, I would jump in to prevent it exactly the same way as I would stop someone kicking a puppy.”

Jimmy nodded, understanding the distinction Dean was making.  “Okay then, another moral question. You’re out walking your dog by a frozen pond. Dog runs onto the ice to where a little child is playing. The ice cracks and both the child and your dog fall through. The water is freezing. You know you only have time to save one of them. Which do you save?”

“I don’t have a dog. I don’t like them,” Dean said.

“It’s a hypothetical dog,” Jimmy pointed out dryly.

“Are there hypothetical witnesses?” Dean asked, equally dryly.

Jimmy frowned. “Um… Does it make a difference?”

“Of course it does,” Dean replied. “Because if there were witnesses, I’d have to choose the child. So there would be no decision to make. I would be obliged to make a socially acceptable choice and save the child.”

“So let us say there are no witnesses. Do you still choose the child?”

“Hell, no. I save my dog.”

“But you don’t like dogs,” Jimmy pointed out.

“Doesn’t matter. He’d be my dog. My responsibility.”

“You would consider a dog more important than a child in that scenario?”

“Of course not,” Dean laughed. “But that’s not the point. It would be my dog.  I would be obliged to save him because of that relationship. The dog would be family.”

Jimmy blinked at him in confusion.

“Look, truth is I don’t know what the hell I’d do in that situation if it really happened. Probably get drowned myself trying to do the impossible and save both of them because I don’t think I could live with leaving either of them to drown alone. But since I assume the point of the whole hypothetical situation is to make me consider my moral position on the subject, my hypothetical answer stands that I would save the dog.  Its life would, in that situation, have more worth to me than that of the strange child because family is everything.  And getting to the real point of your line of questioning, I guess that’s why I see Benny as being ‘equal’ to a V.I.  Because he’s become important to me.”

Charlie fully intended to kick herself later.

She didn’t have any excuse.

So what if the guy looked like an escaped Disney Prince, with his long and flowy hair, perfect teeth, strong jaw, and damned smiley dimples, the fact he’d materialized inside the barn should have been her first clue. The second give away had been his character level 15. And, let’s face it, the fact he was clasping a crude dagger formed from an animal jawbone had been proof positive he was a Knight of Hell.

Though, to be fair, that hadn’t been the doubt that had caused her hesitation.  She had immediately decided what he was. Her indecision had been primarily caused by her doubt of who he was.

She’d been waiting for a monster. A beast.

Not a living embodiment of the Beast’s alter ego, Prince Adam.

And even that shouldn’t have caused her to dither, since Charlie’s self-admitted weakness for a pretty face didn’t normally include male faces. Though maybe, if she was totally honest, she would admit that a certain percentage of her decision to join Team Dean had been the significant eye candy. You didn’t need to be sexually interested in them to appreciate the bonus of having aesthetically pleasing teammates such as Dean and Jimmy.

But, even so, it was momentarily impossible for her to equate the identity of the monster who had tortured the villagers with the face of the man who had appeared inside the barn.  Those big puppy eyes and easy, charming, white-toothed smile belonged to a hero rather than a villain and his name… well, certainly suggested a character wearing a white hat.  So she wondered, just for a second or two, whether his might actually be a different Knight. One who had arrived in pursuit of the monstrous one who had laid such a swathe of evil destruction earlier.

A second or two had been enough distraction that he had managed to successfully attack her.

Sure, she was too experienced a player to be caught completely off-guard. His dagger had been aimed for her heart. A swift stabbing blow that would have dispatched her in one strike. But she had pivoted on her left heel, turning her body sideways and raising her right arm up protectively to brandish the knife she was holding in that hand as she fumbled at her waist with her left hand to draw her sword.

It was her own motion that both deflected his blade and caused it to change from a stabbing to a slicing action. So it was her own fault, in that respect, that his blade had cut effortlessly through her wrist.

Her knife hit the floor, still clutched in her right hand.

The pain was agonizing.

But, thanks to her inferior rig, not totally debilitating.

And, in the nature of avatars, the stump of her arm immediately began to regenerate rather than spurt arterial spray everywhere. In game terms, the hit was not ‘critical’ so it was already beginning to heal.

But it still fucking hurt.

Fortunately, however, the bastard hadn’t immediately followed through on his initial attack.  Having failed to dispatch her with one sudden blow, he had paused to reflect and reassess.  Waiting, probably, to see whether she was simply going to log out of the game rather than continue to fight.

That was the problem with players.  Unlike NPC’s they couldn’t be toyed with or tortured and they could only be killed if they were willing to stay and fight to the death.

Since his level 15 gave him the rough equivalence of a level 30 player but he had no armor and she was legitimately now a level 28 with full set gear bonuses from her armor, there was very little strength difference between them and her sword would more than compensate for the extra reach his considerable height offered.  So in normal circumstances, they would have been pretty evenly matched.  

But with her right hand severed from her body, clearly, the bastard was assuming she would simply cut and run.

However, he didn’t know two crucial facts.

Firstly, she knew that Ash was going to appear any second so she needed to make sure the Knight was still there when he returned.

And, secondly, Charlie was a south-paw.

She was careful, however, to make herself look clumsy as she raised her blade with her left hand; her motion deliberately slow and awkward as though she was unfamiliar with trying to wield a sword with that arm.

The grin that spread over the Knight’s face as he realized she had no intention of bolting was intended to mock her, she was sure.  But she met his smile with one of her own and saw a momentary doubt flicker in his eyes at her apparent confidence and he paused once more.

“You going to stand there all day, you coward?” she taunted, as he continued to hesitate. “Not used to dealing with a girl who fights back?”

And, like she’d spoken a magic phrase, the Knight gave a roaring bellow of rage and charged at her.

“None of this makes any sense,” Sam protested. “I hate video games. Before today, the closest I’ve come to going near one is playing Tetris.”

The Reaper raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Cain was fully aware of that fact. He didn