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Chapter 1The Last Condition Hand over hand, I climbed the ladder in the stale darkness. If I never had to do this dungeon again it would be too soon. Struggling with the weight of the hatch, I pushed up at the old wood and light suddenly invaded my eyes. It wasn’t so different to the first time I had entered the Dream State tutorial over two months ago. I gasped as the dusty air from inside Apollo’s Lookout became the fresh air of the sky. Of course, being in a Dream Game, the air hadn’t really changed; even something as trivial as the wind was an illusion here. Climbing up onto the surface just below the Dream State’s blazing sun, I sighed in relief. There didn’t appear to be anymore Chaos Engine monster-generators up here. If there were no more monsters I had to face, it meant I had finally completed Wona’s final condition for working with them. I was officially the leader of Catastrophe. I walked out onto the rooftop and looked around. The gap in the railing I had created after being hit by FranktheTank’s cannonball was no longer there, probably refreshed when the game designers had gone over it after my first attempt to beat this place. I spun to the black plinth where the sword, my Wakizashi encoded with the video of the beta testers’ drug overdoses, was supposed to be. It hadn’t been there since my failed first attempt to complete this cursed dungeon. During that attempt, I had stabbed the Wakizashi into the plinth to load the videos into the game and was then blasted over it by Frank’s cannon. Why she had done it and why the Wakizashi was missing seemed to be connected. Siena had obviously shared with her what Brock had told all of my friends: that I had betrayed them. I’d explained exactly what I had to do to become Catastrophe’s leader and yet she had acted to stop me.She must have it. If this was true, and Wona was still willing to give me a second chance, it meant that they hadn’t picked up everything that had happened on their feed. If Wona found out that someone not employed by them had an item encoded with those incriminating videos, all of this would be for nothing. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a dark cloud suddenly appear behind me. Sneaky. The last Chaos Engine was a hidden one. A giant, clawed hand shot out from it and I whirled to avoid its reach, but its claw still tore a chunk out of my red Captain’s Coat. It took a quarter of my Hit Points, but that was to be expected. Tertiatier monsters were not to be taken lightly, even by someone like me.It looks like my mission here isn’t complete after all. I faced the beast as it stumbled out of the hidden Chaos Engine, a much stronger monster than the one I had fought last time. The thing was massive, humanoid but hunched, with dark gray skin and ragged wings that looked no good for flying. With its fangs and horns, the closest comparison I could give the creature was a demon. I grinned in amusement, seeing that it was big enough that the rooftop of Apollo’s Lookout could have been a mere perch for it. “Demons don’t belong in Heaven.” It swung out another claw at me but I jumped, accessing my Key Triggers and casting three spells in quick succession. First, I spun in the air and raised my hand, then swept it to the side. The gestures were for the spells Illusion and Wind Blast. The next time the demon tried to rake me with its claws the giant hand passed right through me. Wind whipped at me and I fell after my Wind Blast shot me around the Demon. I avoided it but flew too far out and was forced to use another blast to make sure I didn’t clear the roof entirely. As I landed, I saw my illusion flicker and then blink out. A shiver ran up my spine as I remembered the image of Sue doing the same in Rubik’s Castle after Sirswift had used the illusion spell to embed her image into the game and trick me. I ground my teeth.He still hasn’t paid for that! The Demon rounded on me, but it was too late; my Graviton spell warped the air above it and descended, making the Demon shake in the realistic strain that it took for it to move. Gravity spells didn’t last long, but they both slowed your opponent and also made their downward strikes twice as powerful. Considering one of its blows had quartered my health, I knew I had to be quick enough to avoid another. My Mana reached the last third as I cast Rush on myself—the second level of the Speed Amp spell. Instantly, my movements became quicker and I easily dodged around its next striking claw, spinning as the Ruby and Sapphire Edge swords flashed into my hands. The Color Blades shone from the sun above me, and as I continued to dance around the beast, bright arcs of energy shot toward it every time I swung them. The Demon growled but could do little as my Shockwaves rocked it back—blue and then red and then blue again. Before long, I had evened the odds on the creature and then surpassed the Hit Points it had taken from me. However, when I saw that my Mana was running out, I knew I would have to get up close and personal again. I dashed in, cutting and then dodging away. When my Graviton spell had worn off, so had my speed and I was forced to time my strikes more carefully while letting my Mana regenerate. I had learned two things in the time I had possessed my Plasma Beam ability: the first was that I needed at least a quarter of my Mana to use it, and the second was that it was my most powerful single-enemy attack and more than enough to take away the Demon’s remaining Hit Points. As I flipped back from another blow that caught my ankle and took my health down to the halfway mark, my Mana had finally regenerated enough for me to use it. Backing up as it advanced again, I balled one hand at my side until it glowed a bright blue and then pointed my finger at the monster. Just as its last strike was going to lower my health into the red zone, the Plasma Beam cut through its hand and then its chest. It stopped suddenly, its claw dropping to its side limply and then it fell forward, its head mere inches away from flattening me. I was tempted to put my foot on its head and make a victory pose, but before I could, the particles that made up the Demon began to explode and drift up into the air. After killing a normal monster, it would fall and then simply fade away, but this Demon’s death was more dramatic. It was more akin to fireworks, just like when killing a boss. When it had vanished entirely, the realization struck me. Granted, it was the first dungeon I had completed in the new area called Heaven, but this was also a Tertiatier dungeon, meaning that was a Tertiatier level boss. I had just killed a Tertiatier boss on my own. I did form a victory pose then, lifting the Color Blades up into the air to let the nearby sun shine through them. A banner then unrolled in my vision, saying:—— DUNGEON COMPLETE —— It wasn’t the banner that crushed my joy, but seeing the dual blades raised above me. I knew that without them I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish such a feat, but I also knew that if I were to keep my promises, I would have to eventually give them up. Although Siena had said she would fight me and win her Ruby Edge back fair and square, I would’ve returned it to her even in the unlikely chance that I won. The Sapphire Edge belonged to Data, and even if he did give it to Brock in order to fight me, I still didn’t want any animosity between us—not while we were working for the same company. I lowered my swords and spun back to the hatch leading down to the tower’s top floor. A player could not simply summon their mount and fly down, nor could they pad their landing with a Cyclone spell as I learned to my chagrin on my second attempt to finish this cursed dungeon. To complete this dungeon alive, I would have to trek all the way back down the stairs to the bottom, and considering how big the place was, it was a long, arduous affair.This place is still being designed. Maybe I could point out to Windsor that forcing players to do this ruins some of the fun. Opening the hatch, I climbed down the ladder. The place seemed darker after having been out in the bright sunlight up above, and brought me back to yesterday’s meeting.
*** Mere minutes after Frank had blown me off the roof of Apollo’s Lookout, the Wona Company van had picked me up right outside David’s apartment. They’d driven me to a giant, window-walled facility, where some men in suits had taken me straight to the office of Windsor Wona. The place was clean, organized, and about as large as a boardroom, with the only personal effects being a single picture of two men posing for a photograph. He was waiting for me inside. With my body still weak after being paralyzed for a month, I was relieved when he offered me a seat across from him. Even though we had taken the elevator to the twelfth floor, I still felt out of breath. Windsor Wona, the Asian-American boss of the most popular VR game in the world, didn’t look all that different to his in-game avatar. He had the same childish smile with the same exuberant air, although his Dream State avatar had his crow’s feet removed. The man was in his fifties after all. “Well, Noah Newbolt, I think the first thing we should do is make sure your family knows you are alright.” He raised an eyebrow at me, as though trying to imply how foolish I was for not contacting my mother after my escape from their asylum. “After not hearing from you for a good part of two weeks, I feel they might be worried.” I raised an eyebrow back. “You do realize that for the longest time I thought your nephew was trying to kill me, right? I was on the run, and who do you think was the first person they would go to to find out where I was?” Windsor grinned and nodded. “Of course, of course. However, I have been getting very harsh phone calls from your mother and the police believing that you were kidnapped from the facility and that it was my fault.”Not so far from the truth, even if I was kidnapped willingly. “So, what lie are we going to tell her?” “Ah!” Windsor winked at me. “Very good question. I was thinking for both of our sakes that there was a bit of a miscommunication.” My brow furrowed. “A miscommunication?” Windsor rolled his wrist. “You were merely moved to another of our facilities. We tried to send a letter to your parents but the post office messed up the address and it was lost in the mail.” He picked up an envelope. “Despite email being the chosen form of communication these days, there are still some businesses that prefer snail mail to prevent being spammed. This just happens to be an apology letter from the postal service for losing the letter I sent your mother about the transfer.” I couldn’t help but grin. “You bribed them to lie for you. Isn’t that just more corruption?” He inclined his head. “On their part, yes. For us, it’s simply collusion. Nothing too major considering they accepted the bribe.” “Another nice little bow to tie everything up, huh?” “Not entirely.” Windsor’s eyes caught mine. “You’ve yet to complete your end of the contract.” “But I thought I only had one chance to meet the conditions.” Windsor raised a hand to stop me. “Did the contract say you only had one chance to complete the dungeon?” My memory returned to fighting my friends in the lighthouse. “You want me to go through all that again?” Windsor shrugged. “Noah, I’m the type of person who likes to complete multiple tasks at once. By sending you up Apollo’s Lookout to give us those videos, we weren’t only giving you a chance to show us your loyalty, but like many of our employees, we were also getting you to beta test that dungeon before Heaven is open to the public, to see what bugs someone with all the motivation to win and all of the resources to do so might run into.” “And?” “And you showed us one of those bugs. Imagine how frustrating it would be for a player to beat every boss in the dungeon only to be blown off the roof at the very end! Hah!” I ground my teeth at the humor in his tone. “I don’t have to imagine.” “Exactly!” Windsor pointed at me. “We thought that by removing mounts from Heaven we would make it so no player could cheat and just fly to the top. Now we know that even if they make it to the top by foot, they can still be blasted off its roof. After seeing you play, we have made it so that propelling weapons like that cannon used on you cannot force a player through the barricade. That would give an unfair advantage to Heavies. Do you understand me, Noah? The game needs to be balanced to give everyone a fair shot so that skill can prevail and not some insignificant option chosen in the tutorial.” It made sense. After all, I had tilted the balance of the game in my favor by combining Crystal Blades with the gravity and speed spells. He was trying to avoid something like that from occurring in Apollo’s Lookout. “So, you want me to check to see if it’s balanced?” Windsor nodded. “This is your baby, Noah, the same as with the players beta testing the other dungeons in Heaven. I don’t want any defects before it’s released to the public, and the only way to find out is to put everything against a player and see if they can still win.” I felt a little twinge of anger after hearing this. “And for me, that was my friends?” Windsor raised his hands. “Each different Niche was there. Besides, I thought you needed a chance to explain yourself to them.” I looked down, realizing his motives weren’t what I thought they had been. “A lot of good it did.” “It did do a lot of good. You even managed to hire—” He stopped and pressed a button on the terminal on his desk. “You can send her in now.” The doors opened behind us and I gasped. By my reckoning, I had known Chloe for a few months now, but not once had I seen her in real life. Windsor raised a hand out to her. “I would like to introduce you to your new teammate.” Although her Range avatar had altered her height, it had still been going off of her look and body type. She still had the dark brown hair and the jawline of a supermodel, but her eyes were no longer as cold, the coyness in her expression doubled from being in my presence. “Noah . . . I . . . hi.” She waved nervously. I smiled at her. “Hi, Chloe. When did you get here?” “I was picked up about an hour ago. They showed me around the place, and even gave me one of their suites.” Windsor threw something and I caught it by instinct. The fact that I managed this showed that my body was on the mend. When I opened my hand, I saw it was a plastic swipe card on a key ring. “Chloe, would you mind showing Noah to his room? It’s on the same floor as yours, just across the hallway.” Chloe nodded, her gaze beckoning me before turning to leave. I followed her out of the office toward the elevator, still slightly speechless. It wasn’t until the doors opened and she pressed the button to the eighth floor that I finally found my words. “So you’ve really signed on with them?” She caught my eyes. “You were very convincing.” From her sarcastic tone, she didn’t sound very convinced. “Then why did you join?” I asked. She didn’t answer. The elevator chimed and the doors slid open. I followed her out into a long white corridor with several doors, all numbered with gold figures. She stopped outside room 8-5 and gestured to the door. I swiped the card on the electronic lock on the frame and the door clicked open. We stepped inside and I froze, stunned at the layout of the place. It was the size of an apartment with a wide lounge leading into a master bedroom with a bathroom en suite. The leather couches and glass tables were nicer than any furniture I’d ever owned before. I knew I would have to bring some of my stuff in and leave some dirty clothes lying around before it truly felt like home. “Not bad.” Chloe nodded, appearing unimpressed. “We’ll have to work for this. In fact, I have to go beta test one of Heaven’s dungeons today. I should go.” She went to leave but I grabbed her arm. “Chloe, please tell me. Why did you really decide to join Wona? It couldn’t have just been because of me.” She sighed, not even turning to face me. “Let’s just say it has something to do with my brother and leave it at that for now.”Brother? I didn’t even know she had a brother. I let go and she left me alone in my new suite. I turned around in awe of the place. That this was my new home didn’t seem real. It almost felt like I was still in the Dream State.
*** Although it had only been a day ago, so much had occurred since then that it felt like a week had passed. I walked out onto the last dusty floor of Apollo’s Lookout and sighed when I reached the door. It was finally over. There was nothing else the Lookout could throw at me, which meant I had completed my contract with Wona. Now they would have to uphold their end of the bargain. I pushed the doors open and looked around at Heaven. As always, the floating city was bathed in sunlight. It filled my heart in only the way a masterpiece could. The place was so peaceful with airships and bright clouds drifting lazily overhead, a steampunk version of the American Dream, colorful and cheerful and yet completely unobtainable. “Alright, I’m done!” I called. There was nothing for a moment, but then an eerie whisper spoke up in my mind. “Congratulations, Noah.” I looked around, noticing a flicker of darkness out of the corner of my eye but seeing nothing when turning to face it. “Hello? I’m ready to find the nearest Gateway.” My comms window popped up and the unfamiliar voice replied, “I wasn’t going to call them that, you know.” I frowned. “Who is this?” A contact request appeared on my comms feed, and although it didn’t show any connection to the voice I was hearing around me, when I saw the name Sirswift, I froze.“I . . . once worked for Wona.” It didn’t sound entirely like Samuel, the guy who had crashed into my car and had started all of my problems in this world, but I also knew that voices could be altered in the game so you didn’t sound like yourself. I ground my teeth. “You bastard. Your uncle said you’re going to be arrested as soon as I come back. You’re going down, you piece of—” Another sudden voice appeared over my comms, breaking my line of thought. It was Dice. “You don’t need to find a Gateway to log out now that you’re Hero rank, you know. There should be an option in your Key Triggers that can cause the prompt stimulus to wake you up.” I looked down to my Key Triggers menu to see a new option simply called: Wake-Up. I returned my gaze to the contact window but saw that only Dice’s communications window was up.Why is Sirswift still able to play in the Dream State after I signed the contract that meant he would be arrested? Is Windsor going back on our deal? Balling my fists in anger, I resolved to confront Windsor about it as soon as I awoke. I raised my finger to the Key Trigger at the bottom right of my vision, and as soon as I touched it, I felt a sudden warm jolt and everything went black.