Chapter 1 1
Somebody is going to die tonight.
Preferably, it won’t be me or Gabe. We’ve worked for weeks figuring out how to stay alive, gathering magical items, stocking arrows of all different status types, and cloaking ourselves in armor that will deflect sword points and turn us invisible if necessary. Now we’re waiting to get our hands on the boss ruling over this set of abandoned towers in our unnamed postapocalyptic city.
“You ready?” Gabe asks me over my headset. I flex my fingers, prepping them to dance over my keyboard and punch buttons like they’ve never danced and punched before. My character waits patiently in front of me on the center monitor, her shoulders rising and falling in a way more understated manner than mine would be if I were the one about to put my actual life at risk.
That’s not the only difference between us, of course. She’s tall. Strong. She moves as fast as a whip and says funny, clever things in her smoky voice whenever I give her the command to joke or flirt. Meanwhile, I’m all business. “Ready. Let’s go.”
Gabe is already moving toward the gaping black hole of a door. Gritty sand rises around his character’s combat boots with every step, and the moon shines down on him from overhead, just as it does through my real-life window. “If we can pull this off…,” he says into my ear. It catches me off guard, and I jump a little from surprise, as if he were really standing beside me speaking huskily into my ear. Which he is not, and which he never has, no matter how many times he’s driven me home from school. “It’ll be a realm first. It’ll be worth all those nights of skipping out on my friends to train.”
I give him an unconvincing laugh. “Yeah. I’ve been skipping out on my friends too.”
What friends? he’s polite enough not to say back. It’s hard to lie to someone when your best—and only—friend is their sister. Thank goodness for headphones, or Estella would be rolling her eyes on the other side of their shared bedroom wall right now.
But whatever. We’ve got a boss to kill. I make my character follow his silently, her feet moving so lightly over the dust left behind by a thousand battles that they don’t stir any of it up. That’s our party configuration: Gabe is the warrior who charges in and draws all the attention and the attacks, and I’m the rogue who slinks in behind him and destroys everybody from the dark. Most parties have at least a healer, as well, and we will too, as soon as we can convince Estella to join us.
I direct my character forward, and we disappear into the blackness of the room. I tell Gabe to hold back for a moment so that anything there can show itself before we stumble upon it. In the void I think I can hear my dad’s voice in my ear for a moment. Very smart, playing to your strengths. Though I know it’s in my head, I still jolt, jittery as I am. You’re small and should rely on your speed and your evasiveness, not up-front brute strength.
Those skills were part of the reason I chose to be a rogue in the first place, though much of the reason I love gaming is that I can be anything on that screen. Anything at all.
Besides, who am I kidding? There’s no chance my dad would approve of what I’m doing. I picture him back on the compound my mom and I left him at years ago, a self-sustaining home in the thick of the woods, unmarked on any map. He’s shaking his head at me. Frittering your time away on silly games when there’s a doomsday coming? Can you shoot a bow like your character can? Can you scale the side of a building? Can you creep soundlessly behind your prey before you cut them down? I don’t need to answer him. No. No, you cannot. You’re soft. When doomsday comes, you will fall with all the rest of them.
I realize I’m blinking very fast. “Zara?” Gabe says through my headset. “Are we good?”
“Sorry! Yes!” I send my character rushing forward, and for a while I manage to lose myself in the melee, in the spray of digital blood and the crunch of digital bone. Exhilaration floods hot through me. Gabe cheers in my ear.
“I’ll distract the final guard while you climb up high and attack from above, okay?” he says.
“That’s just what I was about to say.” My character climbs like a spider, digging fingers and toes into almost invisible crevices, and then I settle her on a rafter, where she can peer down on the carnage below. She loads her crossbow. Sets it. Waits. Allows the doubt to creep back in.
Wait. That’s me. You should be exercising more than your fingers, Zara, says my dad, his voice disapproving. Like we used to. Drills with the rising sun. Hunting as that sun beats down on the back of your neck, burning it to a crisp. Falling to bed exhausted and hungry after failing to bag that deer you were hunting, because that is how you learn your lessons.
He wanted what was best for me. I knew that then, and I know that now.
It’s just that his idea of what was best for me was different from the rest of the world’s.
I refocus on the game as the final guard between us and the boss’s chamber lets out a loud roar and charges at Gabe. The guard is almost a boss himself, with impenetrable silver armor covered in swirls of browning blood from his many kills. This is where every party has been wiping so far, because they didn’t notice what we have: the opening in the shoulder of his plate. His only weakness. Since he’s so tall, Gabe and I knew we couldn’t hit that spot from below. Someone would need to climb up high. Someone who has skill with a crossbow.
Gabe’s sword meets the guard’s with a clang and a grunt. I twitch my finger. Thwip.
The guard roars again, only this time it’s in pain. His fingers scrabble at his shoulder, but it’s too late. My arrow landed smack in the middle of his weak spot, and his armor is crumbling, falling off him as fine bits of ash. “Yessss,” I hiss into the headset. “It worked.” Now that his armor is gone, Gabe makes quick work of him, me contributing with arrows to stun and poison from above. When I leap down, a distance that would in real life potentially break an ankle but in the game just takes away a few hit points, he gives me a high five.
“It’s finally time,” I say. Electricity courses through me.
His character gives me a bow. “You do the honor.”
I trot forward, door key—which was a whole other quest to obtain—in my hand. My heart thumps. My fingers tingle. The door flies open and the boss cries out. We lunge in, ready to do battle, and—
Everything goes black.