The sea was hot, the salt like acid against his wounds, burning gloriously as he trudged through the dwindling surf to stand upon the pebbly shore once again. Demonhatch had smacked him a good one with its fifty-foot tail, launching his body toward the ocean, beyond where the mammoth waves showed themselves as more than a brooding swell. And so he’d swum, ditching his heavy breastplate, his helm, his chain mail—all the things that wished to drag him down so the foul water could fill his lungs and silence his heart.
Except his greatsword, Slayer. No, never that.
Gunner Skale had clutched his weapon with one hand and swum with the other, his eyes open to watch the fiery beast, no matter how much the salt stung. And now he was back, exhausted and achy, but ready to finish the job. If he killed Demonhatch today, so soon, Gunner would easily go down as the greatest gamer ever to enter the world of Plague and its thousands upon thousands of bloodthirsty monsters.
Soaked, muscles scorched, his sword feeling as if it weighed half a ton, Gunner broke into a run once he reached dry ground, sprinting as best he could to where the beast crouched, eating the remains of something that had once been human. Clearly, Demonhatch thought its last blow had finally killed the greatest warrior it had ever faced—and if not, the raging sea would’ve finished the job. And so, ever arrogant, it feasted, its back to the gray-green waters of the ocean and its battered shore.
Gunner picked up speed, holding Slayer’s hilt with both hands, his arms cocked to thrust or swing on a moment’s notice. The pebbles turned to rocks, rocks to boulders over which he bounded without so much as a glance down. He couldn’t afford to take his eyes off the beast. And so he trusted his instincts, his balance, his feet, his peripheral vision. Hell’s glory, he was Gunner Skale, for crying out loud. With a smile, he charged forward, knowing that the biggest, baddest, deadliest monster in Plague was about to get its head chopped off.
Demonhatch finally heard his approach and whipped around to look at Gunner with all four of its slitted, red-tinged eyes. Then its mouth opened, a monstrous bear trap of a thing with hundreds of blade-sharp teeth, jagged points with serrated edges, perfect for ripping up its prey. Then came the roar, followed by the burst of fire, an avalanche of liquid flame that poured down on Gunner.
Gunner rolled and ignited the Shield spell for which he’d had to betray his closest comrade-in-arms to gain. It kept off most of the heat, though he knew he’d feel some residual burn when he Lifted back to his Coffin. He landed, spun, leapt back to his feet, hefted the greatsword Slayer up above his head, ignoring the variety of pain that crisscrossed his body. He wanted this to be over.
Igniting an Air spell, he flew thirty feet into the air, vaulting toward the beast’s head. A quick slash of his sword pierced one, then two of Demonhatch’s eyes, black liquid spurting out in streams. But then came the claws and the tail, the beast screeching its roar of agony as it counterattacked. Gunner flipped and dodged, landing on the beast and bouncing off, igniting all the spells he’d saved up—Pouncer and Burst and Waterswell and Fists of Iron—throwing all his power at the creature in one final onslaught.
A final onslaught that took another hour.
An hour of ruthless battle, stroke and counterstroke, three more trips out to the sea, three long trudges back to the shore, spell ignition after spell ignition, sword against claw and tooth, quickness and Shield against liquid fire. Gunner took out the beast’s remaining two eyes, then severed its arms, its legs, its tail. But still Demonhatch fought, and Gunner fought back.
Until Gunner ignited the Air spell one last time, leaping into the sky, far above the wounded, weakened beast. With a raging yell that he knew could be heard throughout all of Plague, Gunner fell back toward the ground, raising his massive sword above his head in a two-fisted grip, manipulating his descent with the power of his eyes. Demonhatch tried to flee, tried to roar, tried to breathe out flame one last time, but it was too late.
With a scream of fury, Gunner brought the sword down and severed the head of the most feared monster in Plague with one mighty stroke. The warrior landed on his feet under a shower of Demonhatch’s hot blood. After sheathing Slayer in its home on his back, Gunner ignited a Strength spell and picked up the beast’s head, ready to show it to the world.
Later, after claiming the ultimate victory with the Game Masters, he Lifted back to the Wake.
Gunner Skale was late for work.
Most people hated the transition from the Sleep to the Wake. The disorientation, the retraction of the NerveWires pricking out of your skin, the strange discomfort until you were finally up and out of the Coffin. Not to mention the disappointment that came every time—no matter how long you’d done it—in realizing that the vast world of the VirtNet wasn’t real. That real life was real, and eventually you always had to go back to it.
Gunner relished the transition. He wanted the reminders, the discomfort. As great a gamer as he was, and as much as he loved the VirtNet—and no one loved the Sleep like Gunner Skale—he was too smart to let it take over his life. He’d seen it happen to too many of his friends. The line between what was real and what wasn’t became blurred, then disappeared. After that, there could be no happiness.
How can you enjoy ice cream if you never eat broccoli?
That was something his grandma used to say to him. And even though it didn’t stand up if he thought about it too much—Gunner was pretty sure he could eat ice cream and only ice cream for the rest of his life and be just fine—the point had been taken and never forgotten. To fully appreciate the Sleep, you had to embrace the Wake and all its drudgery.
Once the devices of the Coffin had fully retracted, the blue light came on and the lid rose on its hinges, showing him the sparse office in which he kept this most treasured possession of his. There was a desk and a couch, nothing else outside of the NetBox. Groaning, he sat up and dragged himself out of the Coffin. Wearing nothing but a soggy pair of boxers, he stretched and yawned, felt the weariness, the soreness, from head to toe.
Dawn’s pale beginnings shone through the window, just starting to light up the city beyond. Gunner headed for the shower.
Rachel was sitting at the kitchen counter, sipping tea and eating a bagel, when Gunner walked in, all spiffed up and ready to go for another day in the jungle of real life. Her eyes lit up when she saw him, reason number one that he loved her so much. Because she loved him, and had since the day they’d met in high school, way before Gunner Skale became the most famous gamer in history. She was way too pretty to love someone with an ugly mug like his, but she hated it when he said that out loud.