Dreadknights, p.1
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       Dreadknights, p.1

           Tony Breeden
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

  For the Love of the Game

  By Tony Breeden

  Dreadknights #1

  Øtherworld #0.5

  Cover Art by Gremlin Graphix © 2015


  Copyright © 2015 Tony Breeden

  All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means–electronic, mechanical, recording, scanning, or other–except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission of the author.


  This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All characters are fictional, and any similarity to people living or dead is purely coincidental. All other characters are Copyright and Trademark their respective owners.


  This story occurs before the events of Luckbane by Tony Breeden.


  To Jesus Christ, my Creator, Savior & King

  To Angie, my wife, best friend and soul mate.

  To my boys, Justice, Bill, Henry & Jack.


  Part 1: Golden Gears

  1 – Next of Rank

  2 – Nest

  3 – AFK

  4 – Plug and Play

  5 – Gearing Up

  6 – Tesla

  7 – Calabus

  8 – Bellamy Bridge

  9 – Fire Fields

  10 – Capture the Flag

  Part 2: Neverdeath

  11 – Suspended

  12 – Farm Girl

  13 – Trollbogies

  14 – Rosco

  15 – Tour

  16 – Jones

  17 – Level Up

  Part 3: Doomsmack

  18 – Rogar

  19 – Ogre’s Choice

  20 – Maggie

  21 – On the Fence

  22 – Bitter Pill

  23 – Gauntlet

  24 – Devilpede

  25 – Doomsmack

  26 – Tower

  27 – Hurtlocker

  28 – Farewell to Impworld

  Read the first three chapters of Luckbane

  1 – Thief

  2 – Dragon

  3 – Bait

  Guild Rosters


  -Golden Gears



  About the Author

  Also by Tony Breeden


  [Back to Table of Contents]


  Christine Johanssen growled in frustration as she was forced to duck for cover once more. The Golden Gears had her team pinned down and nothing was going according to plan.

  The gravelly voice of Guildmaster Trollbogies barked into her commset. “Hannibal, status report!”

  Christine glanced down at a pachyderman crumpled like a rag doll at the bottom of the tower stairwell. The elephant man warrior called Hannibal wouldn’t be answering Trollbogies’ hail anytime soon, if ever. The only thing that gave her hope was the fact that her heads-up display wasn’t yet confirming Hannibal’s death. Still, unconscious was often as good as dead in a situation like this.

  She started to head down the stairs, in the hopes of reviving him.

  The whistle of a cannonball alerted her to the next threat. The sniper must’ve seen her shadow, or just made a lucky guess, because he almost scored a direct hit. Christine threw herself down on the ground and covered her head and neck with her big meaty paws just before the shell impacted. Rubble and debris bounced harmlessly off her broad thick-skinned back. As she rose to her feet, she shook her head. Even though she knew none of this was real, it certainly didn’t feel that way.

  Her virtual ogre character turned her head this way and that at Christine’s mental command. The nodal implants at her temples made her gaming experience fully immersive. The technology accessed her brain itself, allowing her to see, feel, hear and smell the virtual world of her choice. At the moment, her hearing was significantly muted from the explosion, but she could still smell the smoke from the shell’s impact and taste the blood on her tongue.

  Most folks went full skin in these games, diving into the first-person experience GameComm made available through alternate reality programs like Impworld and Guild Wars, but Christine preferred the tactical advantages of the heads-up display. For example, right now it let her to know there was no longer any point in trying to reach Hannibal. The quartermaster was officially game-dead.

  Taking a quick personal inventory, she realized that a strap had come loose on the fittings of the metal brazier that served as her breastplate. She’d also managed to smash her bottle of happy water. She sighed heavily as she emptied her pocket of glass. The healing potion’s all-too-familiar smiley face logo was still recognizable amongst the fragments. It was a heavy blow. Without happy water, there’d be no second chances if she got badly hurt.

  After she’d adjusted the brazier’s straps, Christine crept up the tower’s stairwell, away from the window. Only when she was relatively sure she was out of the sniper’s range, did she reply to her guildmaster’s hail.

  “Bloodskull responding,” she said, giving her character’s name. “The Quartermaster is out. The Gears sent a sniper.”

  “He’s out of respawns. You’re next of rank.” her guildmaster acknowledged. Christine watched her status change from Vanguard to Man-at-Arms on her heads-up display. Simultaneously, their current MA’s status was exchanged for Hannibal’s Quartermaster rank. “Is the sniper alone?” Trollbogies asked. “Has he alerted the Gears to your position?”

  “Not sure yet.”

  “Then find out.”

  Christine bit back a retort. It already sounded like Trollbogies was cross – even for a troll! She didn’t want her guildmaster’s anger directed at her personally. Especially since the trolls were practically her only allies within the guild. While no one could dispute that she’d legitimately made the cut to join the Dreadknights of Outland, she remained on the team at Trollbogies’ good pleasure – and there were already several members of the guild who wanted her gone. She understood their reluctance, to a point. After all, she was recruited from Doomsmack, one of the Dreadknights’ top rivals. There was bad blood between the Dreads and the Dooms, no lie. Still, the Guild Wars had taken their toll on every guild. At this stage in the competition, it was hard to find a team that could boast even eighty percent of its original roster. Player shuffling had become the norm as each guild tried to gain some advantage over the other finalists.

  “On it,” Christine said. Putting thought to action, she charged up the stairwell at full speed.

  To anyone watching the livecasts on her guild’s channel, Christine’s character must’ve been an impressive sight indeed. Ogres were massively muscled and stood several heads taller than a human. It was said that pound for pound, an ogre could best its weight in dragons. Their skin was like armor. Their teeth and bones were some of the strongest stuff in Impworld. Her character was a female of the species, which meant that she was less heavily jawed and was forced to wear a ridiculously large-cupped brazier rather than a breastplate. Generally, she-ogres were considered far more attractive than their male counterparts, and Bloodskull certainly had her share of amorous fans. Doomsmack had even rendered her character as a pin-up on their calendar. Christine personally thought her character’s ferocity and trademark crimson face paint made her seem far scarier than any male ogre she’d ever encountered. Besides, females were always the deadlier of the species.

  As she emerged onto the top of the tower, she was forced to wave off an e
ver-vigilant Tantrum Bloodfire. Behind the other ogress, Christine could see Killmore and the Dreadknights’ trademark battle flag. Appropriately enough, Killmore boasted more kills than any other member of the guild. Unfortunately, the other ogre seemed to loathe Bloodskull’s very presence.

  “For crying out loud, Bloodskull!” Tantrum snapped, lowering her weapon. “I almost took your head off just now. Would it frag you to give us some warning?”

  Christine snorted. Tantrum was good but she was just a raider, though a blasted good one for certain. Bloodskull had begun her contract with the Dreads at the rank of vanguard, a level above raider, and technically she should’ve been ranked higher than that; she’d been Doomsmack’s quartermaster, but had agreed to a reduced rank when she switched sides. She thought about Hannibal lying at the bottom of the stairwell below. Thanks to his death, she was now one step closer to regaining her former rank. Now she just had to prove she deserved the promotion before some of her guildmates’ resentment turned into friendly fire.

  “No luck on the door mechanism then, I take it?” Christine asked, jerking her head back toward the entry.

  Castle Odious wasn’t a typical castle. It was built by technomancers and, as one might expect of such architects, their design sported a lot of magically-enhanced mechanical inventions. Both the elevator and the door to the top level of this tower had been damaged in previous guild wars.

  Tantrum shook her head.

  Christine sighed. She’d really been hoping they’d have the door working by now.

  “Where’s Hannibal?” Killmore asked. “Any word from Mike?”

  MikeMonkeyMike had volunteered to set up an ambush at ground level. Everything was going according to plan until Mikey didn’t check in when he was supposed to. Christine’s heads-up display confirmed that MikeMonkeyMike was still in the game, so he was either keeping quiet to keep from being exposed or he’d been incapacitated with a sleep spell or something. Christine and Hannibal had been descending the tower to determine why MikeMonkeyMike wasn’t answering his hails when the sniper attack came.

  There weren’t a whole lot of spellcasters on the Gears team. If memory served – and Christine had, admittedly, only skimmed the brief on this mission – there were two magus in the enemy guild. The first was a winged clockwork called Helena Helstrom, who was modeled after the Icarii. The Icarii were a rare race of bird-men. The game’s most famous Icarii was Harper Angelos, the rumored long-lost heir to her fallen empire’s throne and Christine’s inspiration for playing the game in the first place. The other magus on the Gears team was an odd-looking mechanical called Pod. Pod looked like a round metal ball with stick-like arms and legs. He looked harmless enough but he was supposed to be full of surprises. Helstrom was never far from her guildmaster, Goldenboy, so if there was a spellcaster out there mucking up their plans, it was probably Pod.

  “Hannibal’s out,” Christine said. “Sniper. We got separated before we ever made contact with Mikey. Trollbogies wants to know how many Gears are out there.”

  Killmore glared at her with as much contempt as his ugly mug could muster. “Shoulda been you.”

  She frowned and took a step towards him. “I am next of rank. I need that count.”

  Killmore bristled, the coarse hairs of his mohawk rising in response to his agitation. Christine readied an over-sized war cleaver, just in case. She didn’t want to put Killmore down, but she couldn’t afford a loose cannon in their midst.

  Tantrum appeared between them. “Just the one so far,” Tantrum said, giving Killmore a scathing glance over her shoulder. “The mission specs call him Skuttle.”

  “He’s the flamethrower crab-thing with the cannon on his back, right?” Christine asked.

  Killmore sneered. “I see someone skimmed the briefings. Again.”

  Christine ignored him.

  “That’s the one,” Tantrum said.

  Christine sighed. “Right.” Like every other member of the Golden Gears, Skuttle was a clockwork machine. Some of the mechanical warriors in the Gears’ ranks were steam-powered, while others were brought to life with magical soulstones or technofaeries fused into their creative matrix. The bulk of the Dreads’ roster was made up of ogres and trolls, so this Guild Wars match was being billed as Monsters v. Machines for those watching the livecasts.

  Another explosion rocked the tower.

  “We need to take this guy out before that racket draws every Gear within earshot,” Killmore said.

  Christine shook her head. “Who says he’s alone? He could just be trying to draw us out so his buddies can pick us off.”

  Killmore scoffed. “You’re a coward. We don’t even know if there are any other Gears out there. We need to take him out now.”

  “We have our orders. Trollbogies wants a count.” She took a deep breath before she spoke her next words. “I need you up in the Nest.”

  “You’re kidding me right?”

  “It’s the only way we’ll get a clear view.” When Killmore opened his mouth to protest, she added, “And you know it.”

  “Then you do it.”

  Christine considered ordering him to go anyway, but he knew how Killmore felt. If Skuttle was even a halfway decent sniper, the Nest would be near certain suicide. Everyone knew how Killmore felt about her. When Bloodskull signed on with the Dreadknights, he took a bump in seniority, despite that rather impressive kill record of his. If she gave him this one-way ticket, the others would probably accuse her of killing off her biggest critic on purpose. If she didn’t want to have to watch her back for the rest of her contract with the Dreads, she needed to win Killmore over. She’d settle for just not being the reason he got fragged.

  “Fine. I’ll do it, but I need a distraction.”

  “Oh, so now you want me to try to take out Skuttle,” Killmore said, crossing his arms over his massive chest.

  “Maybe.” She turned away from him and tried to hail MikeMonkeyMike again. “Mikey, if you’re out there, we need a distraction. I need to use the Nest.”

  Silence answered her. She bit back a curse. “OK, Plan B…”

  “Draw Skuttle’s fire,” Mikey said. “I’ll take care of the rest.” His voice was barely a whisper, but it was unmistakably him.

  “Be ready for it,” Christine said.

  He didn’t respond this time, but just knowing that he was out there was enough to boost her confidence. She turned back to her team. “OK, Tantrum will stay here as our last line of defense. Killmore, I need you to–”

  “No, wait. Send me,” Tantrum said.

  Christine shook her head. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you’re just a raider. Killmore’s vanguard.”

  “Which is why we need him here as our final defense instead of out there as cannon fodder.”

  Christine sighed. She genuinely liked Tantrum, but there was no denying either her logic or that endearing look of resolve on her ogrish face. Bloodskull turned to Killmore. “You OK with that?”

  Killmore shrugged. “Just remember to shout out when you come back up the stairs,” he warned Tantrum. He glanced at Christine. “If that’d been me guarding the door a few minutes ago, Bloodskull’s life sauce would soak the ground.”

  “Noted,” Tantrum said, sounding impatient with Killmore’s posturing.

  “Shake the pillars of Hades, kid,” Christine said.


  “Sorry. It’s just something we used to say back in my old guild.”

  Nodding, Tantrum took a deep breath, then descended the stairs with an eager grin.

  When Christine turned to face Killmore, he was watching her quietly. “I’ve seen the vids,” he said. “I know why you Dooms used to say that.”

  “Old habit,” she said, “and I’m not with Doomsmack anymore.”

  “You think you just gave her a one-way ticket.”

  “Mikey will look after her.”

  “Sure. Of course.” He didn’t look convinced.

  “I’d better get going,” she
said. “Keep working on this door.” Taking a moment to ready herself, she got down in a sprinter’s stance.

  “Shake the pillars of hades, Bloodskull,” Killmore said.

  Christine ignored his open leer.

  [Back to Table of Contents]

  2 – NEST

  Christine took off like a shot, running across the tower’s top level as fast as she could. At the last second, she leaped between two merlons and over the defensive battlements. She felt her stomach flip-flop as she dropped. Even though she knew Bloodskull’s ogre body could take the fall, her real-life human side just saw a suicide dive. Her aim was true. She landed two levels below on the broken span between her tower and the next nearest one. She broke through the wooden hoardings on impact and landed on the stone bridge itself.

  The flurry of action immediately drew Skuttle’s fire, as she knew it would. She ran back to the entrance of her tower to escape the blast of an exploding shell, but then dug in her heels and ran back the way she’d came. The bridge between the two towers had been partially destroyed in some other guild battle. No human, orc or dwarf could span the gap, but it was an easy, if impressive-looking leap for an ogre.

  No other cannon shells harried her progress. Before she entered the next tower, she peered through the hoardings to check on Tantrum’s progress. Sure enough, the other ogress was running through the rubble strewn ruins of Castle Odious, drawing Skuttle’s fire like a pro.

  Castle Odious was now a castle in name only. Scores of guild battles had reduced the once-glorious structure to a sprawling, war wrecked ruin of barely standing walls and mostly roof-less buildings. Some of the steampunk machines still worked. Most didn’t. Skuttle had taken up position atop what remained of the castle’s great hall in a cathedral-styled window.

  A shadow she recognized as MikeMonkeyMike stealthily moved into position directly beneath the mechanical flame crab. Mikey was a troll. Trolls weren’t quite as big as ogres, nor as strong, but they had their advantages. For example, MikeMonkeyMike could see as well at night as he could in the day. Personally, she thought trolls looked more human than ogres – something like overgrown, thickly muscled Neanderthals, whereas ogres were more like a gorilla parody. A lot of the differences had to do with their character races origins. Both races were Corrupted Elders, races created by balrogs of the Netherworld as fodder for their armies. Trolls were corrupted from dwarves, which explained why they were so thick and strong. Some thought ogres were corrupted from human stock. Others thought they were perverted versions of a lesser race of cloud giants known as the Summa or Anakim.

  She watched Mikey stroke his lush black beard once before reaching up and grabbing one of Skuttle’s legs. With effort, the troll dragged Skuttle from his perch and hurled him to the ground below. With a laugh, Mikey leapt from his perch after the mechanical flamecrab, his over-sized metal mace raised high to pound the Gears sniper into shrapnel. Christine entered the next tower with a grin on her ogrish lips.

  She made her way to the top of the tower with as much speed as she dared. Normally, she took her time, even in Guild Wars. Careless haste almost always led to ruin. Even if the building was clear of enemy guild members, the Gamelords liked to toss in the occasional random hazard or roaming monster to make things more interesting. In this case, she was painfully aware of the fact that her window of opportunity to safely use the Nest was closing. Skuttle had seen her on the bridge. He had to know what she was after. If Skuttle survived Mikey’s attack, the Gears’ sniper would be keeping a weather eye out for her.

  Unlike the other tower, this one still had a vaulted wooden roof. At the top of the tower was an arcane mechanical device, the work of technomancers. At the center of the machine was a big metal cage. She ran for it without hesitation, sweeping the room with her eyes for any sign of her enemies. She was almost at her goal when she felt movement behind and above her. Rolling aside instinctively, she barely avoided a salvo of metal discs. As her enemy passed over her, she got a good look at it. This one was known as Kamizooki, a birdlike machine that was apparently armed with a couple of goblin disc guns under each wing. As it banked and wheeled back around for another pass, Christine readied herself. She took several discs to her broad back. She turned and swung her war cleaver at the last second, delivering a glancing blow that knocked Kamizooki out of the sky. Ignoring her wounds for the present, she lumbered over to the fallen bird and prepared to stomp it out of existence. Kamizooki’s eyes lit up at the last second, the precursor to an electric shock attack that sent Christine’s Bloodskull avatar flying. She landed on her butt. Kamizooki shot out from beneath her like a sparrow startled from its nest. Knowing she couldn’t let her foe get away, Christine cast about for something to throw at it. An enormous gear as big around as a dwarf’s height caught her eye. Swinging it round once like a discus thrower, she sent it spinning after her enemy. The gear connected with Kamizooki before he could escape the tower. One half of the clockwork bird landed somewhere outside the tower, far below. The other half landed in front of a window, sparked for a few seconds and then slumped lifeless.

  Christine took a moment to assess her wounds, keeping a wary eye out for more potential foes. An ogre’s skin in notoriously thick and calloused. Her wounds from the disc guns were negligible.

  After stepping into the Nest’s iron cage, she landed heavily in the control seat and threw a few knobs into position. The metal cage rose on a slender pole toward a conspicuous hole in the roof. In no time at all, she had a vertigo-inducing view of the battlefield below. There was no sign of Skuttle, but MikeMonkeyMike and Tantrum were heading back. Tantrum was heading for the flag tower. Mikey seemed to be heading for the Nest tower instead. She hoped that didn’t mean he’d seen an enemy enter the structure below her. She was vulnerable up here.

  Time to get moving. First, she swiveled the Nest in a wide circle to take in her surroundings. At first, it looked like Kamizooki and Skuttle were the only ones who’d discovered their position. Christine hadn’t gone through all the trouble of getting up here just to rely on her own ogrish sight. The Nest came equipped with a technomancer’s periscope that could zoom in and out, let her see in X-ray or infrared, and a whole lot more. From experience, Christine activated the X-ray first.

  She saw them coming almost instantly. It looked like almost all of the Gears were heading her way, from every direction at once. She tried to make sense of it. Skuttle couldn’t have laid eyes on the Dreaknights’ flag. It seemed foolish to think that Goldenboy would commit nearly the entirety of his forces to a hunch.

  Then it hit her. “Kamizooki.” The bird machine must’ve been watching them from the Nest tower all along. He might’ve even have just returned from relaying their position to the Gears when Christine first encountered him.

  There was no more time to waste. “Master Trollbogies,” she said over the comms, “I have eyes from the Nest. We have a large force of hostiles incoming.”

  “How many?” Trollbogies asked.

  “Almost all of them.”

  “What?? Then who’s guarding their own flag?”

  “Gimme a sec,” Christine said. She adjusted a few knobs as she began a longer range scan. She found Trollbogies’ team before she spotted any more Gears. Trollbogies had opted for an all-ogre entourage for this mission. Their guildmaster had taken clumsy ol’ Belch Hammerhands, as usual. Aside from Captain Hammerhands, the team consisted of two Raiders, Mudflap and Sass-Squatch respectively, and a newbie called Bandersmack, the sole survivor of the late great Edger Angels guild. It was a good bet that even the Gears wouldn’t be able to hold out against Trollbogies’ team for long, once they located that flag.

  “I’m sending Rosco’s team to shore up your defenses,” Trollbogies said.

  Christine suppressed a groan. Rosco was a destruktir, a member of a relatively rare species of sentient arthropod. They had massive spiked shells, strong snapping jaws, and crab-like legs. Their right and left hands varied. The right hand was always a ta
loned claw. The other ended in a chitin blade, club or pincer. Rosco’s leftie was a lobster-like pincer. The Dread’s newly promoted Quartermaster hated Christine worse than Killmore did. His reasons were more personal. When she was Doomsmack’s quartermaster, Christine had almost managed to take his head off.

  Rosco’s team was no less exotic than himself. Apep was an ophidian, a reptilian race of humanoids. He was a long-standing member of the Dreadknights’ vanguard. The other two were ringers, members of the Dreadknights’ auxiliary, what some guilds dubbed honorary members. Tauvek Wraithfell was a minotaur. Calabus Adams was a catlord, basically a feline humanoid. Calabus had been contractually forced into this Guild Wars match. Win or lose, this was a one-shot deal for him, so she didn’t expect him to take too many risks. The last member of Rosco’s outfit was a goblyn, but he was almost never seen in the presence of his cohorts. Like any good scout, Nikky Napalm liked to range abroad.

  Thinking of scouts, Christine took a moment to check the area immediately around her guild’s flag one more time before renewing the search for their foe’s flag. She almost missed it, but then she saw the hulking form of the one they called Gunnar Gladi8r. Gladi8r was twice the height of the average ogre and armed to the teeth. His only limitation was mobility. Instead of legs, he had tank treads. While this gave him speed and stability in combat, it did limit which terrains he could navigate. Unfortunately, he was placed in a perfect spot to capitalize on his strengths.

  "I just spotted one of the Gears in the Fire Fields,” Christine said. “That flag has to be somewhere nearby.”

  “Then keep looking.”

  “Wait. I think I have something.” The Fire Fields was aptly named after the fire jets that randomly erupted across its breadth. Well, not completely at random. The eruptions always seemed to follow a path but the route wasn’t always the same. That was because they were caused by the burrowing activity of a vulcanopede nicknamed Lucy, a monstrous worm one usually only encountered in the Nether realms of the balrogs. Lucy herself had only been seen in all her terrible glory on rare occasions, but given that this was a championship game, well, anything was possible. The only safe havens in the Fire Fields had been tagged with big Xes by past gamers who played this level, but there were a few red herrings thrown in, too. There was also a lighthouse situated at the corner of the gaming level. Hedged in by a magical lightning sea, which was exactly as dangerous as it sounded, the lighthouse afforded ample protection but virtually no escape routes. If the Gears had placed their flag there – and, yes, it was there! She could see it through the glass panes of the lamp house.

  “Trollbogies! The lighthouse beyond the Fire Fields,” Christine said over the comm. “I just found it.”

  There was no response.

  “Trollbogies, come in. Do you read me?”

  When there was still no reply, Christine honed in on her guildmaster’s last known position. Trollbogies and her team weren’t moving. They were all lying on the ground. Her heads-up display said they were still alive, so she figured they must be unconscious. But what had happened?

  Then she saw Helena Helstrom perched on the remains of a nearby tower. The mechanical Icarii was playing some sort of instrument, an ocarina by the looks of it. It didn’t take a genius to realize the magus was using it to keep Trollbogies’ team in an enchanted sleep.

  She had to warn the others. “Rosco, I have located the Gears’ flag. It’s only guarded by one Gear, but Helena Helstrom has Trollbogies’ team under a sleep spell and our own flag is about to be overwhelmed by nearly every other Gear still in play.”

  “Say again?” Rosco asked.

  “Trollbogies’ team is down. You are acting next of rank,” Christine said.

  “Where is the Gears’ flag?”

  Christine grimaced. It’s not the decision she would’ve made. “You’re too far out of position. You won’t make it to their flag before they reach ours.”

  “Then you’ll have to hold them off until I can get that flag,” Rosco said.

  “You glory-hogging moron!” Christine blurted out the words before she considered them, but, black void, he was making the worst decision possible!

  “Excuse me?” Rosco asked.

  “We need to free Trollbogies if we even want a chance at coming out of this on top.”

  “You’re out of line, soldier! Whether you like it or not, I’m next of rank and you have your orders,” Rosco said.

  Christine roared into the commlink. On purpose. Rosco was dooming them all. If it came down to a race for the flag – and that was exactly what Rosco was proposing – well, the Gears already had a mighty head start and a numbers advantage to boot. The Dreads might as well hand their flag over now.

  “MikeMonkeyMike,” Rosco called over the commset, “Bloodskull is being demoted for insubordination. You are next of rank. Understood?”

  “Understood,” Mikey said. “Sir.” To her troll friend’s credit, she could hear the reluctance in his voice.

  “You are to hold that position against whatever they throw at you until we get their flag,” Rosco said. “Do not fail me.”

  “On it,” Mikey said.

  “And put Bloodskull somewhere where she can do the least amount of damage. I’ll deal with her later.”

  Christine couldn’t resist one last retort. “If we live, you mean.”

  “That’s enough, Bloodskull,” MikeMonkeyMike said. “You’ve made your point. We need to dig in and do what we do best, ok?”

  She didn’t answer.

  “Bloodskull? Are you with me?”

  [Back to Table of Contents]

  3 – AFK

  Christine couldn’t answer him. She was out of the game.

  Well, technically she was AFK. Some terms lingered far past the point where anyone remembered their origins. She’d heard once that AFK literally meant “away from keyboard,” hailing back to a time where gaming didn’t utilize nodal technology. The basic idea remained: you weren’t in play because you were away from the thing that allowed you to play the game to begin with.

  Christine thought about these things while she assimilated to the real world with its shrill screaming. The source of the screaming was her Aunt Margaret. Margaret’s two strapping boys, Bryce and Keegan, stood behind her, mean-spirited grins splitting their wide, homely faces. Christine played an ogre in the game; her cousins were the real thing. Their sister Dorothy stood off to one side of the dark room, her perpetually sad, petite face illuminated by the harsh but colorful neon lights outside the window. Christine’s mother was nowhere to be seen. A glance at the wall clock made the reason for her absence obvious; her mother was scheduled for a shift.

  It was no use trying to concentrate on the content of her aunt’s piercing rant. She was quite literally a wall of dissonance. “Stop!” Christine said. “Stop it now!”

  Margaret stopped in mid-rant, her eyes bulging. “You dare to speak to me like that? After everything me and my family have done for you?”

  “Seriously? You unplugged me for this? I’m in the middle of a game, Aunt Maggie!” She didn’t bother adding that asking someone to be grateful for treating them like their own personal servant was a bit much. If it weren’t for her mother, her aunt probably would’ve sold her into slavery years ago!

  “A game? Always with the games! And what good do these games do you?”

  Christine scoffed. “It’s not just any game. This is a championship game. Surely even someone as AFK as you has heard of Guild Wars, right?”

  Her aunt sneered. “And how much money will you be contributing to this month’s rent from these Guild Wars, dearie?”

  Christine fumed. Truth be told, when she’d traded to the Dreads, she’d taken a pay cut. Now she barely made enough to cover the costs of the gaming rig she used. “I get a big, fat bonus if we win this match. You know, the match you’re keeping me from right now.”

  “And if you lose? Will you be able to pay your share of the rent then?” Her aunt stood with her h
ands on her hips, a look of cruel triumph on her face.

  Christine forced herself to meet and hold her aunt’s gaze. She did not have time for this. Every second she wasted here, someone could be scoring an easy kill on her vulnerable avatar. “I’ll be a little short this month. We can discuss this later. After the game.”

  “How short?”

  “Don’t you worry about it. I’ll make it up with extra shifts if I have to.”

  “You ditched the last shift Oscar gave you,” Keegan said. “You really think he’ll give you another, just like that?” He crossed his arms over his barrel chest.

  Christine suppressed a growl. It was just like Keegan to chime in on his mother’s side. “Mr. Diggs is a fan,” Christine said. “Besides, this is my time we’re talking about. I paid for it.” She glanced at the clock again. “And I still have forty-five minutes left, so back off!”

  “Don’t you talk to my mother like that!” Bryce thundered.

  Christine took a step back, genuinely surprised at the outburst. Oh, she would’ve expected something like this from Keegan. He was the mouthy one. Bryce was more the strong, silent type. Most of his friends called him Mountain. They said if the Mountain rumbled, you’d better get ready for the avalanche!

  She licked her lips. “I earned that time, guys. I’ve a legal right to it.” She looked at the clock again. She’d already lost several minutes. If she wasted much more time, she’d probably come back to the game to find her character fragged.

  “And you worked hard for it, didn’t you?” Margaret asked.

  “Yes. I did.”

  “You said you were playing Guild Wars,” her aunt said. “That’s one of them Impworld games, right?”

  Christine nodded. Where was Aunt Maggie going with this?

  Her aunt offered a sad smile. “I’m sorry, it’s just so hard to keep track these days. Last year, you were knee deep in some superhero game. What was that one called again?”

  “The Prometheus Initiative,” Keegan said. Judging from the leer on her cousin’s face, he was enjoying this moment very much.

  “Right. And before that your mother says there was this other game you just couldn’t be pried away from. What was it called? Knights of Doomstank, I think.”

  “Doomsmack. What’s your point?” Christine asked. She didn’t bother explaining to her aunt that Doomsmack was also part of Guild Wars. She was losing too much time as it was.

  Her aunt crossed her arms. “You act like you’re so dedicated to these games, but you can’t even focus on one. The only thing you’re really dedicated to is playing games, any game, so long as you can pretend you’re somewhere else.”

  Christine scowled. Sure, it sounded bad when you put it like that, but she had a good reason for game hopping. She’d quit the Prometheus Initiative when she and her mom had come to live with Maggie on Platform 161. The facility was a typical fish and kelp farm owned by PanGen Aquafarms. Offshore factories like this one farmed and processed sea life into all sorts of products, including a form of coffee made from seaweed. Most PanGen stations were almost fully automated, with one technician and his family on site. The entire reason her aunt had invited Christine and her mom to the 161 was because Glinda Johanssen was a bigshot with AmeriCo’s Human Workers of the Americas union. AmeriCo, or more formally the American Cooperative megacorporation owned pretty much every other company in North and South America, so Glinda’s union pulled a lot of weight. It used to be that unions like the HWA worked to secure Homo sapiens labor forces against the growing trend of utilizing Homo adaptis slave batches. After mutants secured their rights after the Mutant Wars, the HWA found itself trying to secure a balance between mutant and human employees, as well as fighting to keep robot drones from taking over the work force. Thanks to Glinda’s leadership, the 161 was officially designated as a PanGen control station, which basically meant it was one of the few stations that ran with as few mutants or robots as possible. There were other control stations established in the deal, including one that was almost completely ran by mutants. Long story short, Christine had acted as her mother’s personal assistant through the ordeal and initially found herself with very little time for gaming. When she finally got a chance to get back to the games, she decided to give Guild Wars another try.

  Christine was about to remind her aunt that she was one of the reasons for “quitting” the Prometheus Initiative, but Maggie cut off her protest before she could even begin. “But don’t you think that time could be better spent elsewhere?”

  Christine’s expression cooled instantly. She knew where this was going. “This is about the Colonial Trials. You just don’t give up, do you?”

  Ever since the posters had come up, it was like all anyone could talk about were the Colonial Trials. GameComm, the same company that owned Impworld’s Guild Wars and the Prometheus Initiative, had won the so-called “space race,” successfully colonizing the far away planet of Tarak. She’d heard a lot about Tarak lately. Apparently, it was an alien world that GameComm intended to fill with fairy tale sized vegetables. Something in the soil of the planet interacted with Earth plants, causing them to grow to enormous proportions, allowing farmers to harvest improbable things like tomatoes the size of basketballs. When you spent your life eating food made from processed fish and seaweed, so much fresh food like that sounded like a dream come true. GameComm had struck a deal with AmeriCo to build a heilo wave platform that could send people and cargo across the galaxy in a few months compared to the centuries it took by generation ship. Now, GameComm was looking for colonists to populate their world, but you had to pass the Trials to get in. They’d set up practice times for interested candidates and people like her aunt were trying to get in as much practice as possible.

  Her aunt Maggie scoffed. “Give up on a real future for our family? Give up on the chance to breathe unpolluted air? Give up on a chance to live out in the wide open instead of being crammed in here like sardines? The Colonial Trials is our ticket out of here, child.” Her aunt vented an exasperated sigh and shook her head. “I know you think these games are just so slaughter, but this is our real life we’re talking about here, not some fantasy world you can just escape to whenever you don’t like the real one. You’d see that if you weren’t so selfish.”

  “I’m not a child. I’m seventeen years old. It’s my choice. I said I would be there. After my game.”

  Her aunt’s face blossomed into an ugly purple. The Mountain took a dangerous step forward. “I said watch it!” His voice echoed through the room like a gunshot.

  Margaret placed a staying hand to his chest and indulged him with a smile. Turning to Christine, she said, “No, dearie. You don’t have a choice. The only way you’re jacking back into the system is over my dead body.”

  Mountain walked over to the gaming rig. He loomed over Christine for a few seconds before reaching over and turning the game off.

  “This isn’t fair!”

  “I’m doing what’s best for this family even if you don’t see it, child,” Margaret said. “You’ll thank me for this someday.”

  Christine looked past Mountain’s shadow to the clock. She couldn’t fight them. Even if she jacked back in, they’d just unplug her again. And the game was going on without her.

  With a wordless cry, she bolted for the door. Mountain was big but he wasn’t quick enough to stop her. Keegan was content to let her go until he heard his mother screech.

  “Don’t just stand there!” Maggie yelled. “She’ll go straight to Glinda. Get her!”

  Christine was already running down the corridor, but a part of her cheered at the mention of her mother’s name. Maggie and her boys were afraid of good ol’ Glinda. Her mother was as tough as nails. Nobody messed with her lightly.

  She thought about running to her mom, but that wouldn’t put her back in the game. By the time things got sorted out, Maggie would have her time and the game would be over. What she needed was a place to jack back in. A place her aunt would never think of.

  [Back to Table of Contents]


  It hit her in a flash. Grinning like a madman, she took a left at the next intersection and a right at the next. Mountain was chugging fast behind her, but with his mass he couldn’t take turns quite like she could. Taking advantage of his lag, she ducked into a custodial closet.

  She surprised the blazes out of a janitor who was sitting in there on an upturned mop bucket. She was lucky he didn’t scream. Of course, that would’ve been hard to do with half a sandwich stuffed in his mouth. The closet was small but clean, mostly because a janitor’s job these days didn’t involve cleaning; rather, they simply monitored the robots who did the job. The manual cleaning supplies were, like the custodian himself, merely a backup for the drones, in case they broke down and a job needed done before they were repaired. From what she understood, that almost never happened, which meant it was one of the few jobs with a lot of down time. In fact, this particular custodian had been reading the latest issue of Mann from Midwich on his tablet to pass the time. Christine recognized the comic because the Prometheus Initiative game she used to play was based on it.

  She held a finger to her lips to silence him. He stared at her with large eyes, still too stunned to speak. His name tag identified him as Tom. Tom was a Homo adaptis, what most folks just called mutants. Mutants were conceived as a pantropic solution to Earth’s overpopulation problem. They were designed to mine near-airless Martian mines, farm the oceans, fight wars and generally exist in any other condition mankind found undesirable. Until the Mutant Wars, they were basically slaves to their Homo sapiens creators. For example, Tom was designed for life in the ocean, which made sense given that the facility they lived and worked in was underwater. Tom had a functional set of gills, large fish-like eyes and webbed hands and feet. His skin was almost rubbery, reminding her of a shark. He also had no nose and fleshy tentacles for hair. She’d long ago gotten used to seeing mutants, so his appearance didn’t bother her, but his bulging eyes made the moment near-comical. She held her hand over her own mouth to suppress a laugh as she listened for Mountain to pass by.

  When she was sure the coast was clear, she waved goodbye to Tom, who gulped down the rest of his sandwich and wordlessly waved back. Opening the door, she ran back the way she came, made a right at the intersection and a left at the next. At the end of a short hallway was stairwell. Unfortunately, so was Keegan.

  He was looking down the stairwell for some sign of her, his back to her. Gritting her teeth, she ran down the hall with all her might. He shouted a warning to the others when he finally saw her. Too late. She barreled into him, knocking him over. Before he could recover, she headed up the metal stairs.

  Two levels up, she emerged onto a metal walkway leading to the diving station where she worked. The walkway wound all the way around one of the access pools to the farm tanks. Most folks worked as technicians in the processing plant sectors. She was one of the lucky few who got to interact with the biologicals. All because Mr. Diggs was a fan. Her basic job was to subject random plant samples to a battery of tests meant to detect mutagens, pollutants and other potential health hazards. There was a lot of foreign stuff floating around in the oceans these days even if one didn’t count the possibility of biogenetic weapons left over from the Mutant Wars. The world was in chaos before the Megacorporations took over. Many of the great megapolis’ lower levels were actually garbage levels. A lot of that waste floated out to sea. The great trash gyres of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans had basically formed into artificial islands made of plastic and other floating waste.

  She was hoping she could count on Mr. Diggs’s support now.

  She grabbed a rebreather off a rack and slipped it over head. When she had the mask securely over her face, she leapt over the rail and dove into the water. The long vertical strands of a kelp forest surrounded her instantly. The first time she came down here, she got very lost. By now, Christine knew the layout intimately, so she headed straight for her station. There was no need to worry about running out of air; the rebreather pulled breathable air straight out of the water.

  A dark torpedo-shaped shadow parted the kelp strands to her left. Christine gasped involuntarily as the toothy face of a big shark burst into her space. She held completely still as Toto brushed past her. She noted that it was tagged with a bright green marker the same color as her rebreather. Toto was a nu-shark, a genetically modified variant of shark bred to protect the kelp forests from poachers and vandals. The factory’s nu-sharks were trained to leave anyone wearing a rebreather alone, so long as it was the right color. Well, technically, the correct smell. Even nu-sharks were color blind. The company color-coordinated the different scents. For security’s sake, the rebreathers were supposed to be secured in lockers. As always, convenience was the bane of good security, which is why the correctly colored headset was laying out, ready for the next dive tech. The rebreather was also outfitted with communications and a nodal reality relay to allow her to do her job. Once she was at her station, she jacked back into the system. Instead of logging in to her work intranet, she started the interface with the Impworld Guild Wars domain.

  “This is an unauthorized use of this station,” an automated voice warned. “Gaming is not allowed on company equipment. Violators will be prosecuted. Stand by for security.”

  She checked Toto’s position out of the corner of her eye. The nu-shark was circling back around, meaning the station’s security measures were pumping out a scent the creatures were trained to investigate. If she didn’t override security, the station would begin pumping out blood and, well, she really didn’t want to think about what would happen then. She’d come to think of Toto as something of a pet or mascot, but she was pretty sure the nu-shark would just follow its instincts without a second thought to their relationship.

  A moment later, a human voice interjected. “Christine, what are you doing? You know you’re not allowed to use the work rig for this.”

  “I know! I know,” Christine said. “I’m sorry, Mr. Diggs. I didn’t have a choice. My aunt unplugged me in the middle of a championship match. She wants to steal my time and she wouldn’t let me use the one at home and–”

  “Say no more,” Mr. Diggs said. “We’ll discuss this later. Just get back in that game. I have money riding on this one.”

  “Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”

  [Back to Table of Contents]


  When the game came back online, a really big mace with razor sharp spikes was descending for her thick ogre skull. Christine had known she had to be ready for anything. After all that effort, an instant funeral was not what she had in mind.

  Fortunately, MikeMonkeyMike’s weapon parried the potential deathblow. The troll followed up the move by plowing into his mechanical foe, using a bit of heavy-handed shield-bashing technique to drive the clockwork creature further away.

  “Any time now, Bloodskull!” Mikey said between grunts and growls. “I can’t keep this up forever, you know.”

  Christine swept the room with her eyes and took quick stock of the situation. Two Gears.

  One had four arms that currently ended in wicked katana blades. The clockwork man cat-called Mikey. “Don’t worry, troll-boy. We take good care of her for ya!” Their adversary’s metal dreadlocks made him easy to identify as Ninjeremy.

  The one Mikey was sparring with was some sort of anthropomorphic mechanical grasshopper. The machine wore a waistcoat and a steampunk stove pipe hat. As his name suggested, Spring-heeled Jacque was quite agile for someone who carried such a large spiked bludgeon.

  Ninjeremy used MikeMonkeyMike’s preoccupation with Jacque as an opportunity to swoop in for an easy kill. Of course, when he approached Bloodskull, he was assuming she was still AFK. As a result, he opted for a bit of theater when he should’ve just finished her quickly. Placing two of his blades at her neck, he gave a sharp whistle.

  “Hey, troll!” Ninjeremy yelled. “Yo
u’re not gonna wanna miss this.”

  Christine knew what he intended from the way he’d crossed his blades: the mechanical ninja planned to scissor her head off. Not happening. The crimson-faced ogress roared into action. Before her foe could react, she grabbed two of his arms and ripped them completely from their sockets. Ninjeremy still bore an almost comical look of stunned despair as she drove the blades attached to those arms deep into his chest. A second later, the mechanical man’s soul stone shattered, resulting in a small explosion.

  As Christine’s avatar picked herself off the floor, Mikey crossed maces with his enemy. Jacque spat and yelled something in French, likely a threat of some sort.

  Mikey snorted. “Not sure what you said there, fella, but he was right: I’m glad I didn’t miss that.” He winked, causing a howl of outrage and a new flurry of attacks from his metal foe.

  Bloodskull drew her weapon and charged to MikeMonkeyMike’s side. Spring-heeled Jacque wasn’t so hot-headed that he didn’t know when he was out-matched. Taking advantage of his namesake leaping abilities, the metal grasshopper-man launched skyward. He burst through the wooden hoardings while screeching threats in French.

  Both Dreadknights waited at ready until it was obvious he wasn’t going to return.

  “Think he’ll be back?” Christine asked.

  Mikey laughed. “I was beginning to ask the same thing about you. What happened?”

  “Somebody unplugged me.”

  “You’re kidding me. In the middle of a championship bout? Who does that?”

  “My aunt Maggie.”

  Mikey took a deep breath and shook his head. “That’s the Edger’s dice there, sis. Just goes to show: you can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives.”

  “So how bad is it?” she asked.

  “Pretty bad. Rosco’s probably doing us as much damage as the Gears are, but it looks like you’re not going to be the only one he’s gunning for once this is over.”

  Christine tilted her ogress avatar’s head to the side.

  “Calabus and Nikky told him to go stuff himself,” the troll said with a grin. “They’re on their way to help us with the incoming hordes.”

  “Calabus?” Christine was genuinely surprised. The catlord was a reserve member of the guild and was only here for this one match because Guildmaster Trollbogies had legally forced him to. Given his circumstances, she’d really just assumed he’d duck most of the action so he could get back to whatever they’d pulled him away from.

  “Yup. And Nikky. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Rosco’s team is pinned down by that Pod character. We’re running pure defense here.”

  “Yeah, but that’s kinda good news about Pod.”

  “How so?”

  “If Helena Helstrom is busy keeping Trollbogies team asleep and Pod is deviling Rosco that means we won’t be dealing with any magus at least.”

  Mikey raised an eyebrow. “Hadn’t thought of that. Still doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got no offense now.”

  “We need to do something about that.” Running a purely defensive strategy wasn’t a good option. And Auric “Goldenboy” Lothario himself was on his way to claim the prize for his guild. The Golden Gears’ guildmaster had to be pretty confident of his chances if he was going all in on a blitz for their flag. He was a bit of a gloryhound, but he cared enough about his reputation not to risk everything on anything but a sure thing when the stakes were this big.

  “What did you have in mind?”

  “We move the flag.”

  MikeMonkeyMike made a face. “I like the idea of a running battle a lot less than a siege.”

  “Which is why we don’t want them to know we’re moving it.”

  The troll blinked. “But that means leaving most of our forces here as a distraction. The flag will be vulnerable.”

  Christine scoffed. “The flag is vulnerable, Mikey. At least, this way we have a chance.” She turned to the Nest mechanism and sighed. “You still got that chem bomb you like bragging about?”


  “I need it.”


  Bloodskull held out her hand. “We don’t have a whole lot of time here, Mikey.”

  The troll reached into a pack and pulled out a small bundle wrapped in oilskin. Inside that was an odd-looking device made of two alchemical phials connected to a mechanical clock timer. As Mikey handed the alchemical bomb over to Bloodskull, he offered one final objection. “This is a major taboo. You know that, right? You risk the wrath of the Gamelords.”

  It was an unspoken law of Guild Wars: damage to major artifacts like the Nest were only supposed to happen by accident. Still, it wasn’t an official rule or anything and what she intended couldn’t be helped: she couldn’t have the Gears using the Nest to track her. “I’ll take that chance.” She set the timer.

  “How long?”

  “Enough time to reach the flag and tell the others the plan.”

  “What exactly is the plan? Just to keep moving until they catch us? Trollbogies is out and Rosco can’t help us either.”

  “The game is Capture the Flag, not Keep Away.”

  “And?” His face went pale as he suddenly realized what she intended. “You’re going after their flag. With our flag.”

  She nodded and grinned.

  He grinned back. “That’s so crazy it just might work. Only one thing.”

  She raised an eyebrow.

  “You’re going to need someone to guard the bomb to make sure no one disarms it,” he said. “And someone should try to wake Trollbogies.”

  “That’s where you come in.”

  He snorted. “I was afraid of that. Off with you then. Shake the pillars of hades, Bloodskull.”

  She blinked, genuinely surprised at his comment. He shrugged. “Sorry. I thought that’s what you guys used to say back in your old guild. Felt right at the time.”

  She nodded. “Don’t get dead, Mikey.”

  He snorted. “Don’t worry about me. This is all riding on you.”

  “You OK with that?”

  “We wouldn’t even be talking about this if I wasn’t,” he said. “Or did you forget that Rosco made me next of rank?”

  “I didn’t forget,” she said.

  “Well, for the record, I still think it oughtta be you. Trollbogies will sort him out.”


  “Don’t mention it. Now, it’s my understanding that you have not one, but two flags to capture tonight. Let’s get to it.”

  [Back to Table of Contents]

  6 – TESLA

  Bloodskull took a glance at the timer on Mikey’s alchemical bomb and began running.

  She took fire the moment she emerged onto the bridge between towers. On the field below she spotted not only Skuttle, but two other Gears besides. One of the Gears looked like a mechanical centaur with a frog-mouth jousting helmet. She couldn’t remember the centaur’s name. He was making good use of a power lance, blasting away sections of the bridge as she dodged and weaved across it. Skuttle looked really bashed up from his encounter with Mikey, but his back cannon was still operational. Between the two of them, Bloodskull was wondering how she was going to make it across. The other Gear was the only human-looking Gear she’d seen so far. He wore a conical bamboo hat and an ominous-looking backpack with coils coming out of it. The coils attached to his arms and allowed Raiden Tesla to shoot lightning at his enemies. He wasn’t currently adding electrical attacks to the mayhem. Unfortunately, Telsa was entering the tower the Dreadknights’ flag was in.

  She made it to the door of the next tower. Barely. She didn’t dare stop for a breath. She could hear Telsa powering up his weapons downstairs. The electricity jumping off him was bathing the stairwell below in eerie blue light. He was coming and wasn’t bothering to be sneaky about it.

  Bloodskull headed upstairs. She moved fast, taking full advantage of her ogrish strength, but the mechanical man actually seemed to be gaining on
her. How was that possible?

  Tesla hit her like a ton of bricks. The crazy mechanical was actually running on the walls. Sideways. His blow had an extra electrical kick that knocked her flat on her face, but the collision stopped his progress cold. Deciding that one good hit deserved another, Bloodskull rolled over and grabbed Tesla before he could flee. She punch him in the face three times before he delivered a shock attack that she was pretty sure had the viewing audience seeing her in X-ray. Somehow she held onto the Gear and had the presence of mind to bash him into a wall. Dropping him, she kicked him down the stairs. He tumbled down the stairs but his glowing eyes let her know he wasn’t yet down for the count.

  Shaking off the pain, Bloodskull climbed the stairs. She noticed she was smoking slightly from the electrical attack. She doubted she could take much more abuse from that guy.

  When she came to the top of the tower, she was surprised to find the door was closed. On the one hand, she was happy that they’d finally fixed the door mechanism. She wasn’t as thrilled to be trapped on the wrong side of it.

  “Killmore, Tantrum, it’s me,” she called. “I need in. Hurry! I got a Gear on my tail.”

  She heard Killmore roar from the other side of the door. “You led them to us? What’s wrong with you?”

  “They already know where we are. Open the door. Have you heard from Mikey yet?”

  “Yeah, he told me what you guys have in mind and you can just forget it, okay? My orders are to keep the flag safe. I’m not opening that door with a hostile outside.”

  “You’re an idiot, Killmore.”

  Bloodskull heard the crackle of electricity, the only warning she had of Tesla’s next attack. It bothered her that she hadn’t heard him coming. What was the deal with this guy? She might’ve skimmed the brief, but she definitely wouldn’t have missed something as mission critical as an enemy teleporter or anything else that might account for this freak’s otherwise inexplicable speed.

  She rolled to the side as a blast of electricity hit the metal door.

  “Hold still,” Tesla said. “I promise this will only hurt a lot.”

  Bloodskull hurled a throwing hammer at him in response. She stepped to the right and drew another hammer from a holster while Tesla dodged the first weapon. The metal man grinned when he realized she’d backed herself into a corner.

  “Nowhere to run,” he said. Laughing to punish, Tesla hurled another bolt of lightning at her. Bloodskull dropped flat to the ground. The bolt hit a control panel behind her, the one she’d positioned herself in front of on purpose. The door flew open as the panel overloaded.

  Tantrum Bloodfire was standing in the doorway. Apparently, she’d been about to open the door for Bloodskull whether Killmore liked it or not. Tesla blasted Tantrum with a bolt of lightning before she could react. She flew back through the doorway, landing on her rear. Tesla crowed when he spotted the Dreadknights’ flag through the door, sticking out conspicuously behind Killmore. Killmore looked stunned and outraged at being suddenly exposed. Bloodskull took advantage of Tesla’s glorified pause to somersault through the doorway herself.

  Cursing under his breath at missing her, Tesla locked onto his next target. Killmore’s mohawk bristled in anticipation of their confrontation. Tesla’s savage lightning attack should have fried Killmore. Certainly, the ogre’s skeleton was visible in X-ray for a few seconds during Tesla’s attack. Yet at the end of the assault, while Tesla’s power cells were cycling back around, Killmore stood grinning at the mechanical man like a madman.

  “How is this possible?” Raiden Tesla asked. “Are you just too stupid to die?”

  Bloodskull plowed into Tesla before Killmore could answer. She knew the reason Killmore was still alive, of course. His sire was an ogre of the Black Hills. As a breed, they were pretty tough to kill. Better still, they built up a resistance to electricity in their storm-tossed homeland. Bloodskull took particular care to damage Tesla’s backpack, making sure they’d suffered their last lightning attack.

  The metal man broke free from her and bolted for the door. Tantrum was getting to her feet shakily. She made a wild grab for him. For a second, Bloodskull thought she’d nabbed him, but she must’ve seen wrong because the next second Tesla was running through the door. Bloodskull heard a familiar whistling sound, followed by an explosion on the other side of the doorway. Pieces of the mechanical man bounced back through. She turned to Killmore, who held his bow in one meaty paw.

  “Exploding arrows,” Bloodskull said, grinning. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

  Killmore drew another arrow from his quiver and trained his weapon on Bloodskull. Bloodskull’s grin faded, but she held his gaze. After a moment, he relaxed the bowstring, but his gaze remained dark. “Do you have any idea how long it took us to fix that door mechanism?”

  “I need you to fix it again. There’s more coming. They can’t know we’ve moved the flag.”

  “On it,” Tantrum said, walking to the control panel wearily.

  “I don’t like this plan,” Killmore said. “How are you going to get it out of here unnoticed?”

  “A big distraction.” She glanced at the clock on her heads-up display. “Any second now. Wish me luck.” She strode forward and grabbed the Dreadknights’ battle flag.

  Killmore placed a hand on her shoulder. “Guard it with your life, Bloodskull.”

  She nodded. He released her.

  “That Gear really fried everything, but I think I’ve got it,” Tantrum called. “It’s much easier the second time around.”

  “Hold them out as long as you can,” Bloodskull said.

  “Shake the pillars of hades, Bloodskull,” Tantrum said, her eyes agleam with guild pride.

  Killmore snickered. “Yeah, do that.”

  [Back to Table of Contents]


  The door slammed shut behind her the second she entered the stairwell. Bloodskull headed one floor down and entered a short hallway. A room at the very end of the hall led to the privy. The bathrooms were the one part of Castle Odious that the technomancers hadn’t bothered to update, so like most medieval styled castles the toilets were basic. There was a seat. There was a hole. There was a drop all the way down the face of the tower.

  Bloodskull glanced at the clock. Five seconds. She steeled herself. She wasn’t relishing the next part, the most critical to her plan. Mikey’s alchemical bomb went off. The explosion was big and loud, lighting up the battlefield. Bloodskull kicked the toilet seat hard, timing her demolition with the explosion. After making a big enough hole, she jumped through.

  Again she felt the stomach lurching sensation of dropping from a height that would kill any normal person. She landed with a big splash in a moat filled with slime and filth. Bloodskull stifled her gag reflex and forced herself to sink down into the depths. It was hard to see in the murky gloom, but she knew where she needed to go. She forced herself to move slowly and deliberately toward the shore, hoping she’d avoided notice. Her powerful ogre lungs made it possible to hold her breath for a long time, but she needed to get back on dry land and get moving as soon as possible.

  Her head emerged from the water soundlessly. She took a long look around, her back to a bank. No one could see her down here. She could see the top of the Nest tower. In any case, she could see where it used to be.

  Goldenboy wasn’t an idiot. He would figure out that the Nest was gone because his foes didn’t want him knowing where their flag was. She just hoped he didn’t stumble on the idea that they’d done it because they were moving the flag before he actually went through all the trouble of finding out it was gone. It was a risk she had to take.

  She heard the clattering of metal crab legs along the bank above and behind her. Skuttle was somewhere nearby. Had he seen her falling? Had he heard the splash? Playing cat-and-mouse with a Gears sniper was not part of the plan.

  She caught a glimpse of Skuttle’s face. He looked like a metal bearded pirate. His gaze was focused on the bridge betw
een the towers. It took her a second, but she saw MikeMonkeyMike creeping along the bridge, trying not to be noticed. Skuttle trained his weapon on the troll.

  “There ye are, ya little sucker punch,” Skuttle drawled as he readied his back cannon. “Payback’s a – What the?”

  Skuttle was suddenly yanked out of sight. Bloodskull heard a scuffle, punctuated by a couple of low growls. Moments later, she heard the unmistakably buttery voice of Calabus Adams.

  “You can come out now, ogress. Or is this your kind’s idea of a day at the spa?” the catlord asked with a wink and a proffered hand. Christine Johanssen’s heart did flip-flops as she looked into Calabus’ golden eyes. From what she understood, his character always had that effect on women, so her nodal connection was probably responsible for a good measure of her reaction. Not that he wasn’t drop dead gorgeous all on his own. The catlord wore his trademark duster and had his long hair tied back with black ribbon. His forearms and the lower half of his feline legs were wrapped in strips of cloth. He wore a breastplate engraved with the figure of a unicorn’s head. He waited for her to respond, his tail twitching in amusement. Finally, he repeated his offer. “Do you need help getting out of that muck hole?”

  Bloodskull snorted at the gesture. The catlord was strong, but she doubted he was strong enough to pull her up the bank. “I’ve got it.” Once she was back on dry land, she took stock of her situation.

  Skuttle lay in a smoking heap nearby, his metal body sliced open and decapitated, courtesy of the catlord’s astral claw ability. The struggle had been hidden behind the tall grass that even now hid them from the metal centaur who stood sentry in the battlefield proper, waiting for reinforcements to arrive.

  Calabus wasn’t alone. She couldn’t see Nikky Napalm, but she knew he was there. Goblyns could camouflage so well that most folks couldn’t even tell they were there – except for the awful stench. It was really bad. Even soaked in the moat’s sewage, Bloodskull smelled better than Nikky. “Hey, Nick,” she said, to be polite.

  “Nikky,” the goblyn reminded her. Again. It was an old joke by this point. She could hear the smile in his voice even if she couldn’t see his face yet. “So Mikey tells us you have a plan.”

  “And that it’s a really, really bad one, but pretty much the best option anyone can think of, given our present circumstances,” Calabus said.

  “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dreamwalker,” she said, grinning.

  Calabus grinned at the nickname. “We’re to take you as far as Bellamy Bridge,” he said, “and then return here to keep up your ruse, if it’s possible.”

  Without another word, they made their way stealthily around the edge of the battlefield immediately surrounding the twin towers. They managed to evade the frog-mouth helmed centaur’s notice. Frankly, Calabus and Nikky were masters of stealth; getting a big, lumbering ogress to tiptoe past someone was the real trick. Once they got into what most gamers called the Junkyard, things got easier. Before this area was leveled, it was an abandoned village just outside the castle walls – back when Castle Odious still had things like walls. Now the Junkyard was a graveyard of rubble and war machines, hailing back to the time when this level had fully operational Sentinels for gamers to utilize at their discretion. Sentinels, or walkers, were big anthropomorphic steampunk robots piloted from within, usually somewhere in the chest area. The only one that was even marginally operational now was called Martin. Martin required a bona fide technomancer in the pilot’s chair, so he didn’t get much use.

  They saw one Gear on their way through the Junkyard, but they were careful to hide and let him pass by.

  On the other side of the Junkyard was Bellamy Bridge. Unfortunately, it was being guarded.

  [Back to Table of Contents]


  Calabus signaled for a halt.

  “Well, that’s inconvenient,” Nikky said, not bothering to make himself visible.

  “Why are they here?” Bloodskull asked. “The way things looked from the Nest, they were all headed to the Towers.”

  Calabus shook his head. “They’re guarding the exits. Boxing us in.”

  “Which means the main Gear force probably came across the old drawbridge.” There wasn’t much left of Castle Odious these days, but the magical drawbridge that once served as its main entrance was still in good working order. The drawbridge and Bellamy were the only practical ways across the Chasm of Sar.

  “OK, that’s Kali on the bridge,” the catlord said.

  Kali was a robotic naga. She was a snake from the waist down and a human female from the waist up. Her preferred weapon was a bow. The gear archer was scanning the Junkyard vigilantly. There’d be no escaping her notice. Worse still, Christine spotted a golden horn at her waist. The Hunting Horn of the Golden Gears had the ability to call forth Goldenboy and every other Gear on the field to the one who sounded it.

  “Tell me you see that hunting horn,” Christine said, just to be sure everyone was on the same page.

  “Yeah, I see it.” Calabus spat. “We really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. You recognized that Gear we passed, didn’t you?”

  Christine nodded. “Doubler.” Doubler was a mechanical man in a metal bowler who drove a headless robot power suit as his “chariot.”

  “Remember, he may not be a proper magus, but with what he can do,” Nikky said, “and the entire Junkyard at his disposal, I doubt we’ll quibble over the distinction.”

  “I’m sorry, I must’ve missed that part of the brief. What are you talking about?” Christine asked.

  Calabus snorted and Christine realized that someone must’ve filled in their auxiliary member on her habit of skimming the required reading. “There’s probably a reason they have him patrolling the Junkyard. Doubler animates and controls any machine he touches.”

  Christine gasped as the implications sunk in. “He’s going after Martin. We have to stop him.” Martin would decimate the Towers in a matter of minutes.

  “No, we have to stop him,” Calabus said, glancing in Nikky’s direction. “You have to get to the Gears’ flag and to do that we have to get you past Kali.”

  “And how do we do that exactly?” Christine asked.

  Calabus stroked his chin. “Well, we do have a goblyn.”

  “I was afraid you were gonna say that,” Nikky Napalm said. “Fine, wait here. I’ll deal with her. You get ready to cross.”

  They waited on pins and needles while the goblyn made his way to the bridge. He wasn’t actually invisible, but his camouflage was so perfect that he may as well have been. The only time you could truly see Nikky was when he moved. His camouflage lagged a bit in motion, making him seem like a faintly goblyn-shaped smudge against the background, but he was careful not to move when Kali was looking his way.

  “He’s almost there,” Calabus whispered, sounding somewhat surprised. “Get ready.”

  A loud series of crashes and metallic bangs drew their attention to the Junkyard at their backs. The initial cacophony was followed by the squeals and groans of something very old rising from the rubble. A shadow fell over them as Martin stood to his full height. Someone had painted a leering face with sharp triangular teeth on the Sentinel walker’s chest to make it more intimidating, like the fact that it stood several stories tall wasn’t enough. Doubler stared at Calabus and Bloodskull from a cockpit near the headless robot’s neckline.

  Doubler made a show of bending over to inspect them. “Well, well, what do we have here?” he asked. Straightening to Martin’s full height, Doubler raised Martin’s foot and prepared to stomp them flat. “Fee Fi Fo Fum! Watch out, Dreads; you better run!”

  Bloodskull and Calabus were way ahead of him. By unspoken agreement, they split up, forcing Doubler to choose his prey. He chose the one carrying the flag, of course. Having few better options, Christine headed for Bellamy Bridge. She hated running straight into the enemy’s hands – or coils in this case – but she was hoping that Nikky Napalm could help
her come through it all right.

  Seeing the Dreads’ flag, Kali grabbed the Hunting Horn of the Golden Gears and placed it to her lips. Nikky loaded a force phial into his slingshot and sent the alchemical weapon hurling toward the metal naga. The glass phial shattered. A wall of force slammed into Kali, knocking the horn from her grasp and sending her sprawling. Taking advantage of the moment, Bloodskull leapt over Kali’s prone body and darted into the covered bridge.

  Outraged, Kali lashed her serpentine tail at the ogress, tangling Bloodskull’s feet. Bloodskull fell flat on her face. Kali lifted her tail and slammed it down, slapping Bloodskull’s body against the ground like a club. Nikky Napalm hit the naga in the back with a shock phial. Bloodskull was able to get to her feet during Kali’s brief but painful electrocution. Recovering from the shock attack, Kali searched about for her tormentor, bowstring taut and ready. Nikky launched his next phial. Kali zeroed in on the twanging slap of his slingshot. Her arrow shattered the phial a mere foot from his hand. Ice quickly covered the goblyn as the freeze phial did its work. For spite, Kali whipped around and lashed Nikky with her tail. He shattered on impact.

  “No!” Bloodskull roared as Nikky Napalm’s game-death registered on her heads-up display. Nikky had been one of her few friends in this guild. Kali loosed an arrow after the ogress’ retreating form, reminding Christine that there was no time to mourn. The arrow missed, landing several yards behind its intended target. A moment later, Bloodskull exited the other side of Bellamy Bridge. She took a moment to breathe a sigh of relief before jogging towards the edge of the Fire Fields.

  Her relief was cut short when she heard Kali blowing the Hunting Horn of the Golden Gears.

  [Back to Table of Contents]


  Christine tried not to panic at the sound of the hunting horn, but it was difficult not to think about the fact that within minutes every single Gear left in the game would be breathing down her neck. This was not the end game she had in mind. Her original idea had her carefully sneaking across the Fire Fields and nabbing the Gears’ battle flag before Gladi8r even knew she was there. Now pretty much everyone knew she was there – except most of her team.

  She dared a quick look over her shoulder. Doubler was walking Martin across the bridge. Meanwhile a strange glowing symbol was appearing in the air over Kali’s position. It appeared to be a disc-shaped – on second thought, make that a gear-shaped portal – made of pure golden light. The frog-mouth helmed centaur was the first member of his guild to appear through the portal. As he dropped to the ground on the other side of Bellamy Bridge, Pod appeared. After that, more Gears appeared, including Helena Helstrom and Auric “Goldenboy” Lothario himself.

  Christine’s heart sank until she saw the last member of the Golden Gears appear through the portal: Gladi8r. It took a second or two for her confused brain to catch up to the lucky break she’d just caught. The hunting horn rallied the entire guild to it, including the guy who supposed to be guarding their flag! If she could just stay ahead of them long enough to claim the Gears battle flag, the Dreads would win!

  With a grin, she selected Anthem’s “Come Alive” from her playlist to get herself in a fighting frame of mind and took off into the Fire Fields at a sprint. The option to listen to background music while you played was yet another advantage of the heads-up display. It was a desperate gambit just running headlong into the fiery minefield, but she couldn’t very well just wait along the edge for the Gears to claim their prize. Besides, the first few yards were the easiest because the fire jets were relatively rare around the perimeter. It was the next fifty yards or so that usually did folks in.

  Right on cue, the earth began swelling beneath her feet, forming a blister that was equally as big as an ogress. She rolled off to the side as it erupted, sending a column of fire blasting high into the sky. Another blister of earth formed while the first was still raging, but this one was in front and to the left of her now. Since they were caused by the progress of the vulcanopede Lucy, the path of fire jets would have to snake back around before she was in danger again.

  Sure enough, the path of fire jets made a loop and came back around to intercept her. She doubled down, hoping to get ahead of the creature below just enough to make it come between her and her pursuers. Her luck held and she saw that the course of the fire jets would pass behind her and be forced to circle around for another try. Better still, her pursuers were running directly into the path of the line of erupting fiery columns.

  To her surprise, none of the jets fired off when the Gears intersected the path of the fire jets. The ground swelled, but something was definitely keeping the blisters of earth from erupting. They passed over quite unharmed. At first, she was confused by this and slowed her pace a little. Then she realized what must be happening. A glance over her shoulder confirmed her suspicions. Helena Helstrom was flying over the Fire Fields, chanting a spell to prevent the fire jets from erupting so her teammates could catch her.

  The centaur and minotaur reached Christine first.

  “Prepare to feel the wrath of Sir Equinoxious the Bloody!” the metal centaur called as he closed in. Bloodskull was forced to dodge this way and that to avoid blasts from Equinoxious’ power lance. This caused her to lose just enough ground for the minotaur to close in.

  With an exaggerated “Yeehaw!” the mechanical bullman swung a double-edged battle axe at her. The redneck war cry spurred Christine’s memory. This one was called Billhilly Bullroar. Hoping that Billhilly was about as smart as his ridiculous name suggested, Bloodskull spun around, dug in her heels and deflected the attack with the pole of the Dreadknights’ battle flag. She followed that up with a blow from her war cleaver that lopped off one of Billhilly’s horns and would’ve taken his head clean off if her foe hadn’t dodged away at the last second. As the minotaur stepped back to recover, the frog-mouth helmed centaur charged in. Rearing up to his full height, Sir Equinoxious then drove the power lance earthward, intending to skewer the ogress. Bloodskull stepped into the attack, causing Sir Equinoxious to overreach. She used her momentum to plow into the centaur like a linebacker. Sir Equinoxious flipped over her broad back like a hapless ragdoll. Christine brought Bloodskull’s war cleaver down on her fallen foe before he could recover.

  Unfortunately, this left an opening for Billhilly. The one-horned steambot minotaur swung his double-bladed battle axe in a powerful overhand stroke without so much as a warning, much less his trademark bullroar. Forced to react quickly, Christine, stepped backwards, dropped her weapon and brandished the flag pole in both hands to stop Billhilly’s axe. Enraged that his ambush had failed, Billhilly pushed away and swung again, this time laterally. Christine spun the metal flagpole 90 degrees to block him again, then jerked the pole back towards herself, catching the axe head. Billhilly was pulled off balance and sprawled forward. Christine stomped an ogress-sized footprint in his ugly metal face. Billhilly didn’t get back up.

  Of course, in the time it took to dispatch Equinoxious and Billhilly, more Gears had caught up with her. In a matter of seconds, she found herself ringed in by most of the remaining Gears, including Goldenboy himself. Only Helena Helstrom and Spring-heeled Jacque held back. Helena was too busy concentrating on her spell to engage Bloodskull directly. Presumably, Jacque stayed behind to guard Helena Helstrom so she wouldn’t be interrupted.

  She did a quick review of her foes. She’d already seen Doubler, Gladi8r and Kali. She recognized Pod and Auric “Goldenboy” Lothario, of course. The other two were a mechanical man about the size of a half-ogre barbarian and an anthropomorphic beetle type steambot. The latter’s body was covered in round bumps. The briefings said something about a character named EvilWeevil who could launch orb shaped bombs, so that’s probably what the bumps actually were. She’d be Edged if she knew the other guy’s name – this was hardly a meet and greet affair!

  Bloodskull gripped her guild’s flag tightly in one meaty ogre paw while she waited for the first attack.

  “You know, I have been looking all over for you, girl,” Auric said with a snicker. “Why you running?”

  She growled in response.

  He raised an eyebrow and looked at his buddies. “Oh, we’ve got a live one here. This should be very entertaining.” He returned his gaze to her. “Of course, if you prefer, we could do this the easy way.” He held out his hand expectantly.

  “Trollbogies, MikeMonkeyMike, Rosco,” she hissed into her commset. “If anybody out there can read me, I’m in the Fire Fields. I had to run the flag, but I’m surrounded by multiple hostiles.”

  Auric scoffed. “Calling for reinforcements? You should really learn to accept when you’re beaten, you know. You played well. I’ll give you that. But take a good look around: You’re sorely outnumbered. There’s nowhere to run. No one will reach you in time. You cannot hope to win.”

  “What are you proposing?” Bloodskull asked.

  “You know what I want. Just hand it over,” the Gears’ guildmaster said.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “Maybe it’s just the ogre in me talking” – she knocked on her forehead for emphasis; most folks still thought of ogres as big and dumb – “but why would I do that?”

  “Because it’s six to one, ogress,” Auric said. “If you’re smart, you can at least walk away with your life.”

  “If that were six ogres to one, I might be worried. As it stands, I think you’re underestimating me,” she said. Her statement wasn’t mere bravado. It was said that ogres could best their weight in dragons. In theory, at least; dragons were a pretty certain form of death and most of them were much bigger than the average ogre, so who really knew how such an ill-conceived match would end? Still, the point was that ogres were a lot tougher to beat than the average foe – and everybody knew it.

  Auric snorted. He looked at the one who looked like a robotic half ogre. “Tank, she needs some persuasion.”

  Tank stalked toward her without a word. As he approached, his fists grew bigger until they were the size of treasure chests. He was fast. Almost unbelievably fast actually, even if one took into account the fact that he was technically a machine. Still, she took the first two blows just to let him know she could and then plowed into him with a roar. She slammed her foe to the ground hard, jerked him back up and slammed him into the ground again. As he got to his feet, a cannon turret began sprouting from his chest. Bloodskull grabbed the turret and bent it upward. Tank fired a second later. Bloodskull was knocked backwards from the force of the explosion from the blocked turret. Tank got to his feet shakily, gaping at the giant hole on his chest. After shaking her head to clear it, Bloodskull stomped toward her stunned foe. She slammed both fists into either side of his head, crushing his metal skull. Tank dropped to the ground, lifeless.

  Bloodskull looked at Auric and held up a hand. “Five,” she said, breathing heavily from the exertion.

  “What?” Auric asked, his voice strained.

  “It’s five against one now,” she said. “And come to think of it, that makes the fifth Gear I’ve sent to that big Game Over in the sky, too. Kind of poetic.”

  Auric looked at her open mouthed for a few seconds, then shook his head and laughed. “Oh, this is just slaughter,” Auric said. “You’re telling me – to my face! – that you’re the one responsible for the bulk of my guild’s body count.” Despite his laughter, his eyes were murderous. “Who are you?”

  She held his gaze. “My name is Ogress Bloodskull.”

  He considered her for a moment. “You were with Doomsmack at one time, weren’t you?”

  She nodded.

  “Then I shall consider this a prelude to my victory over the rest of Havok Hurtlocker’s sorry guild,” Auric said. As he spoke, one arm transformed into an ominous looking cannon. There was nowhere to run, so Bloodskull dug in her back heel and prepared to take whatever ammo Goldenboy’s cannon was about to deliver.

  “Any last words?” Auric asked.


  He raised a metallic eyebrow.

  She grinned. “You’re about to get whooped by a girl.”

  Auric pulled the trigger. A shot of ball lightning erupted from his cannon. She turned and took the impact on her broad back. The electric shock was way worse that what she’d felt when Raiden Tesla attacked her. She fell to one knee for a moment, but then forced herself to get back to her feet. As she was recovering, Kali lashed her tail, tripping her. Sprawled on the ground, she was an easy target for Doubler, who raised Martin’s foot high in order to stomp Bloodskull flat.

  Something exploded across Martin’s back, knocking him off balance, despite Doubler’s frantic efforts to get him back under control. As a result, he missed Bloodskull entirely. She peered in the direction the attack had come from as she rose to her feet again and almost cheered at the sight of Killmore loosing another exploding arrow at their foes.

  Killmore’s next arrow hit Gladi8r, causing minimal damage. In retaliation, Gladi8r fired off a plate-sized saw-edged disc from his center chest slot. For a moment it looked like Killmore was going to be sliced in half, but Tantrum stepped into the projectile’s path and blocked it with her shield. Spring-heeled Jacque bounded toward them, intent on neutralizing the newcomers. He was met in midair by the equally acrobatic Calabus Adams.

  A shout from across the Fire Fields caught everyone’s attention. Christine’s heart warmed at the sight of Trollbogies’ team and MikeMonkeyMike. The only Dreads missing now were Rosco and the remaining two members of his team. Raising his weapon high, Guildmaster Trollbogies yelled, “Dreadknights forever!” At his command, they thundered onto the battlefield. And nobody thundered onto a battlefield like a bunch of ogres and trolls!

  Auric Lothario laughed. “Goody! Your friends are here,” he crowed. “Too bad they’re too far away to save you.” He ran at her as he fired another volley from his hand cannon. She managed to dive out of the way of his first shot. He wasn’t tossing around lightning this time; that was an exploding shell!

  “Oh, hold still,” Pod said. With a wave of his wand, the odd mechanical magus caused her to levitate off the ground. “She’s all yours, boss.”

  “Thank you, Pod,” Auric said, levelling his hand cannon at Bloodskull. Hanging there in midair, there was no way she could escape Goldenboy now. Bloodskull put on a defiant face as she braced herself for her inevitable Game Over.

  “Shake the pillars of heaven, Bloodskull!”

  Christine snapped her avatar’s head around in the direction the shout came from. She turned just in time to see Killmore let loose the strings of his bow. The explosive arrow detonated across the metal back of Helena Helstrom, knocking her from the sky.

  …and breaking her concentration. Helena’s spell of holding on the vulcanopede ended abruptly. The ground heaved and bucked as Lucy began to stir, breaking both Pod’s concentration and Bloodskull’s captivity. Auric fired his cannon, but missed, hitting Kali instead, blasting her metal head form her shoulders. Seeing Bloodskull was free, Doubler stretched out one of Martin’s giant hands to prevent her escape. Faster than anyone could’ve reacted, a blister of earth began blooming beneath the feet of those surrounding Bloodskull. Realizing what was about to happen, Bloodskull tried to get her feet under her to escape.

  The earth exploded as the vulcanopede erupted into view.

  [Back to Table of Contents]


  Bloodskull would’ve taken the full brunt of the blast, but Martin’s big hand was in the way. It shielded her from the eruption, but the force of the exploding fire jet caused Martin’s hand to scoop her up in its path. Bloodskull landed several yards away.

  She immediately crawled out of Martin’s grip. As it turned out there was no need to hurry. All that as left of Martin was his severed arm. There was no sign of Doubler except a discarded metal top hat. Auric and Pod were hovering in midair nearby, courtesy of a rocket pack and helicopter prop respectively. Gunnar Gladi8r and EvilWeevil had managed to get clear of th
e blast range on foot.

  All of this Bloodskull registered almost absently because at that moment Lucy was her sole focus. The monstrous vulcanopede towered over her in all her hellish glory. The creature seemed to be equal parts exoskeleton and fiery lava. She was obviously enraged at having been impeded by Helena Helstrom’s spell. Of course, Lucy had no idea Helena was responsible so she glared all of her hatred and blame upon the creature directly in front of her: Bloodskull. Bloodskull’s immediate instinct was to run, but the trouble with that option was that she’d dropped her battle flag and it was dangerously near the lava pool Lucy had emerged from. The fiery worm opened its mandibles wide. Bloodskull rushed toward the flag. She felt the heat seer her broad ogrish back as she passed under the jet of lava that erupted from the great worm’s maw.

  Seeing she was after the Dread’s battle flag, Pod swooped down to intercept Bloodskull’s prize. Auric, Gladi8r and EvilWeevil took potshots at Lucy’s head to distract her while their buddy made his move. As he closed in for the kill, Pod retracted his helicopter prop and caused metal spikes tom erupt from his body. Bloodskull saw the spiked projectile in time to put on the brakes. Pod plowed up the dirt just in front of her. Getting to his feet, the spiked metal man lurched for the Dreads’ battle flag.

  With no other options available to her, Bloodskull made a desperate grab for Pod. A big nasty spike went straight through her paw, but she stopped the metal magus cold. Pod brought out his wand efficiently, but whatever spell he intended was crushed in the grip of the ogress’ other hand. After ripping off his mangled arm, she hurled him into Lucy’s lava pool for spite. The battle flag was in her grip within seconds.

  As she turned to flee, Pod burst out of the lava pool, glowing red and shrieking with pain and rage. As he emerged from the pool, a timer was exposed on his chest. The timer began running down. Pod began running toward her. It didn’t take a genius to comprehend his intent. Despite the blood loss she’d suffered from her hand injury, Bloodskull dug in and began running.

  Auric dove down from the sky, raining cannon fire in her direction. A lucky hit knocked her off her feet. One of Killmore’s arrows blasted Auric out of air a moment later, but it gave Pod a chance to close the distance between them.

  “Bloodskull! This way!”

  Rosco was shouting at her from the top of a small hill. Bloodskull bounded in his direction with the running bomb at her heels. Pod was so intent on catching her that he didn’t see Tauvek Wraithfell and Apep closing in on him from either side. Both the minotaur and the reptilian ophidian were fast runners. The ophidian reached him first. Apep whipped his tail around and tripped Pod, but the magus kept rolling. With an enraged bellow, Tauvek brought his mighty war hammer down on the orb-shaped mechanical man, stopping him instantly. Pod’s timer was still very much operational. Tauvek stared at the timer in horror as it expired.

  3. 2. 1.

  Pod sparked. A think curl of smoke puffed out of his ruined shell. Tauvek raised his hammer in victory.

  “Too easy!” the minotaur cried. “I need a real challenge. Where is Goldenboy?”

  With a gurgling roar, Lucy descended on the minotaur. The vulcanopede’s white hot jaws swallowed Tauvek whole and then melted on through into the ground below.

  “No!” Rosco cried. He stood there, monstrous jaws agape, as he stared at the spot where his comrade stood mere seconds ago, until something cold and resolute passed over his visage. His massive jaws snapped shut audibly. “Bloodskull! Let’s move!”

  Bloodskull and Apep hurried to Rosco as fast as they could manage.

  “Look.” Roscoe pointed one insectoid finger to a furrow moving off in the distance. At first, it was just the movement of earth as Lucy burrowed just beneath the surface, but as she picked up speed the path of fire jets began anew. “She’s coming back around. We need to hurry. Give me the flag.”

  Bloodskull gaped at him. “You’re kidding me right?”

  “I’m not,” Rosco said. The destruktir stood up to his full height. He placed the tip of his lobster claw hand under her chin. “You had a good run, kid. I could order you to do this. I outrank you. I could make you. You’re barely hanging on as it is; I doubt you could fight me. But I’m not gonna do any of that, because that wouldn’t be right.” He scoffed. “Frankly, you’ve impressed all of us.” He glanced at Apep, who nodded. Rosco sighed and shrugged. “But you’ve lost your weapons and a ton of blood. Time to pass the torch to a fresh runner.”

  What he said made sense. Nodding wearily, she handed over the flag. “Now what?”

  Rosco nodded toward Lucy who was now headed their way again. “Time to split up. I’ll make my way toward Trollbogies so we know the flag is safe. Apep will be my wingman.” He glanced down the field where Auric Lothario stood glaring at them. He was flanked by Gladi8r and EvilWeevil. Helena Helstrom was still in play and was flying to meet them. Calabus Adams had apparently dispatched Spring-heeled Jacque because his foe was nowhere to be seen. “We’ve got them outnumbered, but now is not the time to get cocky.”

  “What do you want me to do?” Christine asked.

  “Get Lucy’s attention. Lead her away.”

  She raised an eyebrow.

  “Good luck.”

  Christine nodded wearily. Her character’s stamina wasn’t doing too good right now. She could really use some happy water, but she would do what she could. Taking a deep breath, Christine took off at a sprint, heading away from Trollbogies and the rest of her guild.

  The ground rumbled behind her as Lucy approached. Bloodskull looked over her shoulder to see if the monster was following her. Frankly, she had no idea how she was supposed to get the vulcanopede’s attention if it decided to go after Rosco and Apep.

  The Dreadknights were tumbling backwards across the Fire Fields, courtesy of Helstrom’s wall of force spell. Auric Lothario was on an intercept course for Rosco. Given the ground the Dreads had to make up, it looked like the Gears was going to reach Rosco well ahead of Trollbogies. Worse still, Gladi8r had broken off from his fellows and was making a beeline for the Gears’ flag.

  Bloodskull growled. She couldn’t let Gladi8r reach that flag before she did.

  Changing directions, Bloodskull ran for the lighthouse in the far corner of the Fire Fields. Gladi8r must’ve seen her new course and realized she was after the same thing, because he began tossing everything he had at her. Plate-sized discs, exploding shells and lightning blasted the earth around her, forcing her to cut away. In order to stay out of range of his artillery, she was forced take a less direct path to the lighthouse. She chafed at this delay but kept running as fast as she could. She already knew that Gladi8r’s tank treads could outrace her. She was hoping he was far enough behind that she could still seize the prize ahead of him.

  Bloodskull almost cheered when she saw a line of fire jets begin erupting behind Gunnar Gladi8r. At her present rate of speed, Lucy would certainly catch the oversized juggernaut before he reached the lighthouse. Still, Bloodskull kept up her brutal pace, knowing full well that Lucy would come after her when she was done with the Dreadknight.

  She reached the lighthouse first. Heading through the doors at it base, she quickly found the stairs and began bounding up them three at a time. As she passed a window, she couldn’t help but peek out to see what had become of Gladi8r. She was shocked to find him almost to the lighthouse with Lucy far behind. What had she missed? How did the Gears juggernaut reach her so fast?

  Shaking off her confusion, she continued up the stairs. Without warning, an oversized morning star shattered the stone walls just above her, nearly decapitating her. Gladiator’s weapon effectively removed the entire top of the lighthouse, sending the lamp house and the Gears’ flag to the ground below. Bloodskull emerged from what was now the top of the stairwell to see Gladi8r reaching down into the rubble to pluck out his prize.

  It couldn’t end like this, Christine decided. Not while she still drew breath. With an ear splitting roar, Bloodskull leapt from the to
p of the shortened lighthouse onto Gladi8r’s back. Once there, she grabbed hold of the juggernaut’s neck and began beating his helmed head with her ogre fists. She left dents in his helmet that would’ve killed a human combatant. Gladi8r batted at her in alarm and managed to swat her away. She landed on her back several feet away.

  “Stay down, Ogress Bloodskull!” Gladi8r shouted. He held out the flag to taunt her. “It’s over. You have fought well, but you just weren’t good enough.” The disc shooter in his chest began whirring as he prepared to fire. “For the glory of the Golden Gears!”

  Lucy erupted from the earth in white-hot fury. Gladi8r was able to scream just before her mandibles snapped shut around him, severing his hand in the process. The Gears flag fell to the earth between Bloodskull’s feet, still clutched in Gladi8r’s smoking hand.

  She blinked at it in disbelief for a moment, while Lucy burrowed back into the earth. A grin split her ogrish face as she reached forward to seize the prize.

  Everything froze with her fingertips just inches away.

  “Game Over!” a voice thundered. “Victory goes to Auric Lothario and the Golden Gears!”

  Christine couldn’t believe her ears. Much against her will, she was treated to an image of Auric Lothario waving the Dreadknights flag like some hero of old. The surviving Gears, Helena Helstrom and EvilWeevil, stood at his side, fist pumping and shouting wordless cries of joy. But even though they stood in the background of the scene, it was Rosco and Apep who held Christine’s attention. What were they doing there? Why weren’t they hurt or dead? How exactly did Goldenboy get the Dreadknights’ flag?

  A sinking feeling of betrayal accompanied her fadeout as the nodal connection to the game ended.

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