Read an Excerpt
By Ann Lawrence
Copyright © 2002
All right reserved.
Stars moved through a midnight sky. Planets converged, bowed
to one another, and continued on in their timeless journey. A
small green figure resembling a zucchini with arms and legs
appeared. A red question mark bobbed over its head.
Neil Scott watched the creature as it hopped about his
computer screen, indicating stars and planets with a pointed
finger. Across the bottom of the screen facts about each
heavenly body appeared and disappeared.
He punched in another search request, then paused, hands
poised over the keyboard. He heard only the rain's gentle beat
against the roof and the sounds of the computer processing his
The office of Virtual Heaven, his video game shop on the
boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, was chilly and dark
except for the glow from his computer. The clock on the
monitor said 7:12 p.m.
"What are you doing here so late?" he asked without looking
"Damn. How'd you know it was me?" asked Gwen Marlowe, his
partner in the shop. "I was really quiet."
Neil swiveled around to face her. She was a black silhouette
against the shop lights behind her. "You smell like roses."
She shook her head, flipped the wall switch, flooding the
small space with a stark glare. "What are you doing here,
Neil? What's this? Astronomaniacs? Isn't that acomputer
program for kids?"
Neil shrugged. "The program may be for kids, but it's easy to
"This is a list of lunar conjunctions." She shoved him over
and leaned in to peer at the screen. Her short blond hair was
damp from the misty rain outside.
"So what?" He quit the program, rose, and strolled out of the
office. Gwen trailed him into the main room of the shop,
weaving between aisles of computer and video games.
"So, why would you be interested in lunar conjunctions?"
"It was stellar conjunctions, and why not?" He couldn't help
glancing at the poster behind Gwen. It advertised the latest
and hottest of virtual reality games-Tolemac Wars III.
Gwen whirled around, then back to him. "Oh, no. You can't
be ... you wouldn't ... you aren't thinking about going into the
game, are you?"
Gwen reminded him of a wet hen ready to chase a misbehaving
rooster. He cleared up the service counter to avoid eye
contact. "Why not? You did. Or so you say."
He could almost hear her grit her teeth. "You don't
understand. I've told you this before; it's a barbaric world,
complete with slavery."
"So I'd have to make sure I didn't go as a slave. What do you
think of this newest game? Really a departure from the norm,
Gwen tapped her bottom lip with a manicured fingertip. "I
can't decide if I like it. I'm used to a warrior as the
feature character ... and this time it's a woman-"
"What about the Unknown? He's a man."
"Yes, but he's so ... spooky. If you choose to play the Unknown
Warrior, you're inside his head when you're playing, you see
what he sees, move with him and so on, just like when you
choose to be one of the other characters, but you never really
know whose side he's on. He's ..."
Gwen didn't smile back. "I don't like him. He could so easily
be on the side of evil."
"Sometimes it's good to be bad." He wagged his eyebrows.
"I know you don't really believe that."
"It's a game, Gwen. Check the stats on this game and you'll
find that the Unknown is the most selected character to play,
and let me tell you, the dozens of men who line up to play him
are not interested in Refrigerator Girl."
Gwen giggled. "Is that what you call her?"
Unlike the earlier versions of Tolemac Wars, which attracted
flocks of women because they featured a really ripped guy,
this game poster portrayed a woman. Gwen claimed she'd
described Refrigerator Girl for the game's creator, and Neil
knew she was quite proud of that accomplishment. Gwen also
claimed that the woman she'd helped create for the game really
existed. The idea was tantalizing.
"She's beautiful, though, isn't she?" Gwen said. "And in real
life, not a bit icy."
"In 'real' life. O-o-okay," he said with a grin.
"Yes. In real life."
"Why don't you go, Gwen? I'll set everything up for tomorrow
and lock up."
"You wouldn't really try to enter the game, would you?"
"You did it. Or so you claim."
"Accidentally. If you went in, it would be for all the wrong
His hands felt sweaty. She was going to screw it all up. He
forced his face to relax into a smile. "I just need a
vacation. Maybe I'll go to Tolemac or maybe ... Tahoe. Why don't
you let me decide what to do with my life?"
She worried it like a dog with a bone. "If you went into the
game, I might never know what happened to you!"
"I'll send you a message no matter where I go. Surfing in
Maui, rafting on the Colorado, questing in Tolemac. Satisfied?
Now let it go, Gwen." He had to restrain himself from checking
his watch. "We're going to have more beach erosion if this
storm escalates. If the roads flood, you'll be stuck here all
And I'll miss the conjunction.
She sighed and nodded. "Okay. But don't stay here too long."
He accompanied Gwen to her car and watched her drive off. When
her taillights disappeared around the corner, he grabbed his
jacket and the jewelry box he had put in his desk drawer, and
quickly changed into a linen shirt and long scarlet robe.
With a deep breath, he headed into the booth housing the
Tolemac Wars virtual reality game. It was four freestanding
matte black walls surrounding an inner room, also with black
walls. The inner room had a wide screen for spectators who
wished to watch a player's progress throughout the game.
Players wore headsets and lived the experience. It was
expensive, heady, and very addictive.
He started the game and consulted his watch. With
satisfaction, he heard the nearby crack of thunder. The storm
was escalating right on schedule.
As the game warmed up, he felt sweat prickling his neck and
back. Despite his subtle and not so subtle questioning, Gwen
had only vaguely explained to him how she'd come and gone from
the virtual reality game. Conjunctions were important to the
process. So were the designs of the ancient Celts-and a power
The stars were in alignment. Almost. The Celtic design he'd
taken care of at Sid's Family Tattoos (Walk-ins Welcome).
The power, whatever it was, must come from someone or
something greater than himself. He didn't really believe in
any of it, but he didn't believe in anything in his life in
Ocean City either.
The hum of the game filled the room. The words Tolemac Wars
III flashed on the huge white screen before him, filling the
purple Tolemac sky like angry clouds. The O in Tolemac was the
flaming scarlet of the sun of the virtual reality world. He
felt as though he stood on a mountain, a distant row of jagged
peaks straight ahead. They were aglow in a wash of violet,
crimson, and gold.
The title turned and twisted, blowing in the wind across the
screen over a landscape of mountain meadows and towering
pines. As the words twisted, the sun faded and vanished, the O
becoming the turquoise of a Tolemac moon. The sky deepened to
A woman in green appeared by a stand of pines. She was sweetly
pretty, reed thin, gliding with elegant grace toward him along
the meadow. The woman conjured a fire in her hands. She turned
in a circle, casting small flames from her fingers. A ring of
candles sprang up, surrounding her. The flames lit her face,
touched her blond hair with gold. Neil waited for what he knew
The Tolemac Wars title shredded apart, leaving only the
turquoise moon behind.
Neil took off his wristwatch and set it on the control panel
where he could see its face. When he looked up again, three
other moons were rising slowly through a sky now filled with
The view shifted, spun, turned.
Terrain sped before him on the screen, taking him deep into a
landscape of forest, an ancient, night-filled forest, so dense
it looked like a maze. Finally, the dizzy kaleidoscope of
movement halted and he was back on the mountain meadow, now
bathed in the luminous greenish blue of the four moons.
Tapping a few keys with practiced ease, he chose the character
he wished to play. The Unknown. A man with no face, owing
allegiance to no one, taking part in the Tolemac wars if he
wanted, fighting for good or for evil if he wished. He could
go either way. His choice. Not someone else's.
Thunder reverberated overhead, and Neil smiled in
His watch said 8:03. Lifting the headset, he put it on.
He pressed play.
* * *
Breath tight in her chest, Ardra turned her face to the
heavens and awaited the coming of the conjunction-the first in
fifty such conjunctions-when all four moons would rise
together. The ancients had believed it was an augury-of what,
she knew not.
They came. The first of the four moons, blue-green, smaller
than the sun, but magnificent in color, cast a green glow into
the heavens to mingle its cool color with the purple and red.
The rest of the moons rose. Legend said they were sisters,
holding hands to kneel before their mother, the sun. They
brought a blessing, some ancient prophesies said; a warning,
said others. Some feared seeing both the sun and the moons at
the same time, in such a precise row. Others marveled. Ardra
felt only empty.
A sound behind her made her look up.
Three men stood there. Dirty men. Outcasts.
Her throat dried. With unsteady legs, she rose. The men held
rough sticks loosely in their filthy fists. She stumbled back,
putting the fire between her and them. They came at her
slowly, their intent gazes skimming up and down her like
One grinned. His tongue licked along his lower lip. The
gesture sent a flood of fear through her.
She glanced over her shoulder, to the trees and the way down
to her guards.
The outcasts leaped over her fire.
She whirled around, but a man blocked her way.
A man afire.
She screamed. He stood bathed in the last of the sunlight,
rooted in flames of red and gold, his eyes black holes in his
She danced to the left, stumbled on her hem, went down on one
knee. The outcasts fell upon her from behind. Pain flashed
through her shoulder from the harsh blow of a stick.
They tore at her jewels. One grasped her hem and tossed it up.
The flaming man swayed and shimmered.
She fought grasping hands, kicking and clawing with her nails,
wordlessly begging the stranger for help.
The red and gold man staggered forward, clasped his hands
together, and smashed them down against the filthy head of the
outcast now questing beneath her skirts.
With a howl of anger, the outcast turned to the man. Another
outcast, his feral smile a gap-toothed sneer, raised his stick
and signaled his friends.
In an instant the outcasts had abandoned her and swarmed the
man. Suddenly free, Ardra scrabbled backwards on her hands,
then with a sob forced herself to stand up and run.
The trees seemed so far away, her feet like iron weights.
Breath on fire in her chest, she hurled herself into the
shelter of the pines and scrambled up the trunk of a tree.
The vision of the red and gold man still danced in her mind's
eye. The sense that he had been conjured from the air made her
tremble. Nay, her eyes had deceived her. It was just his
scarlet and gold robes aflame in the remaining glow of light
that had made it seem so.
As she gripped the rough bark and pressed her head to her
hands, she could not forget his sudden appearance. He had come
just at the conjunction to save her. How she wished for some
means to fight the outcasts as he had fought for her.
From her perch she could see nothing ... but she could hear. She
wanted to press her hands to her ears and block out the
terrible noises, but doing so would deny the man who,
bare-handed, had come to her rescue.
She must find a way to help him. Cautiously she slipped from
the tree branches and crept to the edge of her shelter. The
outcasts were like scavengers on prey. They had stripped the
man and left him sprawled on the ground, his arms and legs
outflung as if beseeching the orbs overhead for mercy. Was he
dead? Her eyes filled.
The three filthy men crouched with their backs to their
victim, arguing over his robes, his belt, and his pouch.
One of the men cried out. He shook his hand, flinging
something away as if it burned his fingers. The others peered
at the object, then also backed away, their arms filled with
the man's clothing. They darted into the trees with their
booty and disappeared.
Her first instinct was to go to the man. But she forced
herself to pause. Perhaps 'twas just a ruse by the outcasts to
draw her out. When the crash of their progress down the
mountain grew faint, she tiptoed from the shelter of the
They had left their victim no dignity in death. Drawing off
her cloak, he knelt to cover him, tears rising in her eyes.
"If I had been a man, I would have killed at least one of
them." With a hesitant hand, she touched his chest.
His heart beat strongly beneath her palm. He rolled his bloody
head from side to side and groaned.
"By the gods, you are alive."
There was hope.
She cast her cloak aside to examine him. How terrible it would
be if the man bled to death while she fetched help.
His hair was not bloody. His face was, but 'twas not blood
that made his hair so dark. She wondered at the deep brown
color, but could waste no time on the matter.
Quickly, fearful the outcasts might return, she examined the
rest of him. He was young, his battered body as strong as a
warrior's. None of his wounds looked mortal.
With a whispered prayer of gratitude to the gods, she stood up
and gave him a final look. Blood ran down his inner thigh, a
thigh hard with muscle. His stomach was ridged with muscle as
Then her glance fell on his right arm. She reached out to
assure herself that what she saw was real. Aye 'twas the flesh
of a strong man but painted with a serpent. It coiled three
times about his arm. She rubbed the tips of her fingers over
the paint, then sat back to think. "This is a terrible omen,"
Gently she draped her cloak across the man's body. He was
taller than the common man, though not as tall as some of her
guards. If she covered his feet, her cloak would come only to
the middle of his chest. She tugged the cloak up far enough to
conceal the symbol on his arm, leaving his feet exposed.
His eyes flickered open. "What happened?" he asked. He licked
Ardra stood and backed away. He tracked her movements and
lifted a hand.
Something glinted in the dirt. A broken chain. She bent and
retrieved it. The outcasts had thrown it away, fearful of it
for some reason.
Then she understood. Dangling from the chain was ... nay, it was
impossible. It looked like glass, but glass could not be
shaped in such a manner. The flames of her meager fire flared
a moment, illuminating the small object. A rose. The personal
emblem of Tolemac's high councilor.
There in the dirt was another rose. She threaded it on the
broken chain and knotted it. Two perfect red roses created of
an impossible material.
She folded her hand into a tight fist about the token and
forced herself to go for help, when in truth she wished to
abandon her savior to the cold night.
Excerpted from Virtual Warrior
by Ann Lawrence
Copyright © 2002 by Ann Lawrence .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.