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Aftermath: Daemon's Chosen
By:
LadyBard

Chapter 15 - Malicious Intent

The present

Matrix kept a safe distance at the rear of the crowd and allowed his eyes to scan the circular room. The air was thick with the cloying scent of narcotic smoke and unwashed bodies.

He stood in a raised platform that surrounded the sunken fighting pit. Most spectators stood around the rim while a select few who had the money and power sat in ordinate chairs on a raised dais. One of the people who held this coveted position was the mercenary Flame.

Sprites taking wagers moved through the crowd. One approached Matrix who immediately retreated when Matrix glared at him. They disappeared down a long tunnel to Matrix’s left, where Matrix supposed the money changed hands.

Matrix wasn’t concerned with any of it. He moved between the raging throng and for a moment the bodies parted and he witnessed the carnage within the hole. Flame sat on her makeshift throne and cheered and Matrix figured she had a lot of money wagered. What puzzled him was Bob had said she was competing, not that she was one of the spectators. The crowd had quieted somewhat. Matrix assumed the fight was over.

Matrix finally found himself beside the dais. A brutish sprite stood guard, his arms crossed over his bare torso. He wasn’t as tall or bulky as Matrix, but the former renegade could see the power within his compact frame. He made no indication that he noticed Matrix was there.

“Flame,” Matrix said.

The man raised an eyebrow, “Who are you?”

“Mind your business,” Matrix said, “I want to talk to Flame, now.”

“Well then,” the man reached behind the dais and took up a wicked looking war hammer, “You’ll talk to me first.”

“Gun,” Matrix raised his formidable weapon.

“No there’s no need for that.”

Matrix looked up at the sound of the voice. The woman who leaned over the dais was not attractive in the slightest. Her burgundy skin was marred by dozens of scars. She had small mean-looking eyes and a pinched mouth. Her nose was set at an odd angle, broken more than once, Matrix surmised.

“Well, well,” she ran her tongue over her lips, “Aren’t you a big fella? You here to fight for me handsome?”

“I’m looking for another mercenary,” Matrix said. “Is there someplace we can talk in private?”

“If you like,” Flame said. “Cracker?”

The brutish sprite laid down his hammer and helped Flame down.

“Follow me tall, green and luscious,” she said.

Matrix grunted his reply. Flame led him down the hall he had observed earlier, past betting cages and closed doors. One she opened with a keycard. Stairs ascended into darkness. Matrix’s infrared revealed a door at the top.

“Guard the door, Cracker.”

“You got it, Flame.”

Matrix didn’t know what to expect when Flame opened the door but the richly furnished room wasn’t it. Flame closed and locked the door behind them.

“Now then,” she walked over to a sideboard and poured two glasses of wine, “shall we begin?”

“You can begin by telling me where I can find Raven.”

He could see the change in her stanch. Her shoulders stiffened and she had the glasses in a white-knuckle grip. Matrix thought she might break the stems.

“I see,” Flame made a vain attempt to relax, “So which one of your relatives did he delete?”

Now it was Matrix who tensed, “He didn’t delete anyone. He kidnapped them.”

“Same thing,” she approached him and offered the wine glass.

“No,” Matrix said. “Do you know where he is?”

“I might,” Flame said, “What’s in it for me?”

“What do you want?”

She licked her lips again, “How about a tumble?”

Matrix didn’t have time for this. Gun flew into his grasp and was pointed at Flame, “How about I let you live?”

“Now, now, let’s not get testy,” Flame said, “Besides the fact that you’d never get out of here alive if you deleted me.”

“You’d be surprised at what I can do,” Matrix smiled. Flame shuddered.

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Flame said. “You seem to think you’re in control here, but I’m the one holding the winning hand. You could delete me if you like but you’d never find out where Raven is.”

“I’m sure someone else knows. You probably don’t anyway.”

“I may or may not, do you want to chance it that I do and you’ve deleted me?” Flame said. “And how much time do you have to find someone else? The longer this person is with Raven the shorter his processing will be.”

She leaned back and sipped the wine, “So, let’s deal shall we?”

Matrix holstered Gun, “I happen to be married with a daughter and a baby on the way.”

“What’s your point?”

Matrix glared in disgust at her.

“All right,” Flame said, “There is one thing you can do for me.”

“And that is?”

“Fight in the pit,” she said. “Once and only once. An opponent of my choosing. I’m going to make the largest bet imaginable. If you win, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

“And if I lose I’m deleted.”

“Basically,” Flame said, “I hope you can fight bare handed. They don’t allow guns in the pit.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Matrix said. “You want to tell me about my opponent?”

“Now that would spoil all the fun. I will tell you that he’s never been defeated.”

“Perfect,” Matrix said, “When?”

“The next fight starts in a millisecond. So do we have a deal?”

For Enzo, Matrix thought. “Yes.”

* * *

Seven hours into the past.

“Dot, get up now!”

Dot struggled to pull herself from the warm darkness. The voice that had screamed within her processor sounded terribly familiar. She could just ignore it and drift deeper into that place.

“Dot! You must get up. Enzo, Ronnie, the baby!”

Dot’s eyes opened and she immediately began to cough from the thick smoke that filled the Diner. The memory returned. The transport careening to a halt, the flash of white light, the explosion, the wave of heat and then darkness.

The Diner was burning down around her.

Enzo, Ronnie, and Baby Dot were still upstairs. Dot forced herself to move towards the back. Her eyes and lungs burned as she half stumbled half crawled away from the merciless flames.

From somewhere far away, she heard a siren but she knew they’d never get there in time. Dot stayed low and crawled up the back stairs. The door was open -- maybe they had gotten out? Dot didn’t want to take the chance. The smoke wasn’t as bad in the apartment, “Enzo? Ronnie?” She checked both rooms and was thankful they had gotten out. Now she had to give herself out!

She stumbled to the front door outside, dashed down the stairs and ran around to the front of the Diner – then stopped cold.

“Dot!”

Dot stared in mute horror at the scene before her. Captain Syn, holding a laser pistol to Enzo’s head. Five other heavily armed sprites stood nearby, two held weapons on Ronnie and the baby.

“No!” Dot screamed, lunging for Syn, not seeing the sixth sprite until it was too late. Something slammed down hard on the back of her skull. Then there was pain and darkness again.

* * *

The malicious tittering woke Dot from her forced sleep. Her brow furrowed from the pain radiating from the back of her skull. The world around her slowly came into focus.

From what she could gather she was in a basement somewhere. Her first guess would be Level 31. The room was semi-dark, stacked with crates of various sizes, with exposed pipes in the ceiling and walls.

It was to one of these pipes that ran horizontally along the wall that Dot realized she had been tied.

How long she had been standing there, bound by both her wrists above her head, she wasn’t sure. The six sprites (damn it all, why hadn’t she seen the sixth one?) were lounging around against or on top of the crates. Two were engaged in a card game. Captain Syn was leaning back in a rickety old chair, apparently dozing.

Then she saw Enzo and Ronnie.

They were both sitting against a crate, their hands bound and someone had stuffed an oily rag into Enzo’s mouth.

“He was getting on my nerves.”

Syn was now awake and staring at her.

“You sorry piece of null fodder.”

“Better mind your manners, Ms. Matrix,” Syn spat, “You’re not exactly high on my list right now.”

Dot looked at Ronnie, “Where’s the baby?”

“I--” Ronnie had never looked so stricken. “I don’t know. They took her away.”

“Syn,” Dot glared hatefully at him, “If you’ve hurt that baby – if anything happens--”

“I’d be more worried about what happens to you,” Syn approached her. He moistened his lips and stared lecherously at her. “Your Guardians ain’t here to protect you. You’d better be real nice to me if you want to live.”

“Syn, where’s the baby?”

“Don’t you worry none about the brat. She’s fine for now.”

“Please,” Ronnie begged from across the room, “Let me see my baby.”

Syn didn’t even look at Ronnie, “Now you’re gonna do something for me Ms. Matrix.”

“And that is?”

“You’re gonna call that old coot in the Principal Office and have him get your Guardian here.”

“So I’m the bait in a trap for Bob?” Dot said, “Not very original, Syn.”

“It’ll work,” Syn grinned with his rotted teeth, “If they want to see you – Syn motioned to Ronnie and Enzo – those two and the baby alive again.”

“No!” Ronnie screamed, “Oh please, not my baby!”

“Do what you want to me Syn,” Dot said, “But leave them out of this. This is between you and me. I’m the one who humiliated you.”

“Yeah, you did,” Syn growled pushing his face close to Dot’s, “And I’ll get back at you for that in my own way.”

Syn turned away, “Get that old fart in the Principal Office on a vid-window.”

The moment the window came open and Phong answered the call, Dot screamed, “Phong!”

“Dot? My User! What has happened?”

Syn stepped in front of the window, “You’ll be talking to me, old man.”

“Captain Syn,” Phong said darkly, “What is the meaning of this?”

“Getting senile in your old age? This is a request to have the Prime Guardian join us. You know the drill. Get him here in two milliseconds or well --,”

“You will not harm her!” Phong warned.

“Not just her,” Syn switched the vid-window to double-sided. “The baby is here too.”

“Not even you could be that calloused and cruel,” Phong said.

“Don’t push me old man. Get the Prime Guardian here now. I’ll contact you in two milliseconds and no funny stuff or rescue missions. And you tell that renegade brother of hers not to try anything either, understand?”

“Yes, understood,” Phong said. “Now you understand this, my son. Hurt any one of those sprites and I will be forced to delete you.”

The vid-window closed. Syn snorted, “Big talk from a senile old man.”

“You don’t know Phong,” Dot said.

Syn turned back to her, “Now I wonder how we can make those two milliseconds go faster?”

“Syn!”

The captain turned abruptly. A dwarfish sprite, followed by two other sprites and a binome strode up, “What in the net do you think you’re doing?”

“What do you mean? You wanted Dot Matrix I got her for you. I’ve already been in contact with Phong--”

“You basic idiot! You could have used her to get into the Principal Office and caught the old sprite unawares! Now he knows all about you. We’ve lost the element of surprise!”

Syn looked completely taken aback, “I – I thought this is what you wanted. I told them to have the Prime Guardian here in two milliseconds. Besides, I wasn’t about to face that renegade.”

“Yes,” Dot smirked, “I’m looking forward to watching Matrix break your spine in half.”

“Shut up!”

“What’s the matter, Syn?” The dwarf said, “You’re not afraid of the renegade, are you? There is no room for cowards with the Chosen.”

“So I take it, you are the leader here?” Dot addressed the dwarf.

“Ripper at your service, Ms. Matrix,” Ripper inclined his head. “I’ve been wanting to meet the woman who defeated General Ashar. You are quite impressive.”

Dot ignored his words, “Syn took Ronnie’s infant. Where is it?”

“The baby too?” Ripper looked at Syn with something akin to respect, “Maybe there’s a place for you in the Chosen after all and perhaps we can make this plan of your work Syn.”

Syn looked inordinately pleased, “See!” He pointed a pudgy finger at Dot. “I told you I’d get back at you!”

“You haven’t done anything yet,” Dot said.

“Not yet,” Syn was leering at her again.

“You want her, Syn?” Ripper said, “Well I’m certainly not going to stop you. Might be fun to watch.”

Syn took a step towards her but halted when from across the room, Enzo started screaming around his gag. Syn turned and walked over to him. “I’ve got a score to settle with you too, Little Freak!”

Syn yanked Enzo up by his collar and swung a meaty fist to strike him across the temple.

“No!” Dot screamed, as she struggled against her bonds, “Syn don’t you touch him again! Do you hear me? I’ll delete you myself!”

Syn reached for Enzo again and in a desperate act, Dot changed her tactic, “Syn! Why are you bothering with him anyway? I thought we had unfinished business?”

Syn paused. He lowered Enzo to the floor, “What?”

“Why are you wasting time with a little boy? That’s not what you really want is it?” Dot purred.

Syn moved carefully towards her. “No.”

“I’m tied up and helpless,” Dot said, “And you have an audience. Don’t you want them to know how a real man does it?”

Syn was standing before her now. “I always knew you wanted me.”

“Well?” Dot said.

Syn grabbed her by the back of her neck.

Dot smiled sweetly at him and rammed her knee into his groin.

Syn gave a sort of strangled whine, like a newborn kitten and pitched onto his side.

The other gathered members of Daemon’s Chosen burst out laughing.

“Well done, Ms. Matrix,” Ripper said, applauding. “I like a woman with fire.”

“If you want to end up like Syn, come a little closer,” Dot hissed.

“Oh you won’t do anything to me,” Ripper’s voice was dangerous. “Unlike Syn I have no qualms about shooting certain sprites between the eyes.”

Ripper looked down at Syn, “Somebody get him out of here.”

Two of the sprites helped Syn up and half dragged him away.

“There will be plenty of time to get to know each other Ms. Matrix,” Ripper said, “For now, we await your true love. He’s the real objective after all.”

“You won’t get him that easy.”

“Oh it will be quite easy. You see that was Dariem’s problem. He was too honorable.”

“His – name – is – Bob,” Dot enunciated every word, “Don’t forget that.”

“It doesn’t matter what his name is, you’re all going to be deleted anyway. So enjoy your last few milliseconds of processing.”

“You won’t get away with this!” Dot yelled as Ripper walked away. She looked at Enzo and Ronnie and thought of the baby. She had to do something. She wasn’t going to give up yet.

* * *

Phong watched Matrix pace through the War Room. The venerable sprite was again trying to make contact with Super Computer. If they couldn’t, it would be up to Hexadecimal to try and open a portal. They didn’t have much time.

“Matrix, my son, please calm yourself,” Phong said.

“Calm myself?” Matrix threw his hands up in frustration, “How can I be calm? That son of a virus has Dot!”

Hexadecimal, who was sitting across the room, holding Melissa in her lap cleared her throat loudly.

“Oh--” Matrix said, “Sorry Hex – nothing personal.”

“Yes,” Hex said sounding rather putout. “Any luck, Phong?”

Phong leaned over the console, “AndrAIa?”

AndrAIa was poking around the inner workings of the console trying to boost power, “Give me a nano and I’ll let you know.”

The game sprite climbed to her feet and walked over to one of the workstations and began programming, “I’m going to tap into the core energy and divert it to the portal generator. Think the boost will help, Hex?”

“Immensely,” Hex smiled. “You’ll lend me your power, my sweet treasure?”

“Yes,” Melissa said, “I hope Enzo is all right.”

“Don’t worry Melissa,” Matrix said, surprising everyone in the room, “We’ll get him back.”

Phong nodded his approval, “Then let us hurry to the Portal Generator and let us all pray to the User that we succeed.”

* * *

“Prime Guardian, what are you doing here this early?” Rule stepped into the office.

Bob clutched at his stomach, “I wasn’t feeling to well, so I figured since it will be dawn soon, I’ll get a leg up on some paperwork.”

“Listen,” Rule smiled, “It doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe the storm passed. I hope to call my parents soon. I know they’re worried.”

“Try it now. I’m sure they won’t mind.

“Thank you,” Rule said, “Um sir, are you all right?”

“Well I could use an antacid,” Bob said. “Must have been that five alarm chili of mine.”

“I have some in my desk,” Rule said.

Bob sighed with relief; glad the storm seemed to be passing. He had been worrying himself, about his friends in Mainframe and at the factory. He had received a garbled message from Mouse and Ray about AndrAIa and a portal appearing but then communications had cut out again.

To make matters worse, he had been up all night with nausea. Plus, he was pretty certain he had a fever. He hoped he wasn’t coming down with the stomach flu or something. That was all he needed.

Rule re-entered his office. “Here you go sir. Um – I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds Prime Guardian, sir, you look rather flushed.”

“I think I have a fever,” Bob said.

“It’s probably the flu from being out in that weather. Why don’t I make you some tea?”

“Thank you, Rule,” Bob said. “Maybe I’ll nap a bit.” Bob put his head down on his desk.

The next thing he knew Rule was shaking him awake, “Prime Guardian!”

“Yes – what?”

“An urgent message from Mainframe, sir!”

Bob activated the vid-window. The picture was still distorted somewhat but Bob could make out Phong’s worried face. “Phong?”

“Oh Bob! Thank the User! You must – to Mainframe – have Dot--”

“What?” Bob said, “Phong, you’re breaking up. Rule, try and increase the power.”

The picture distorted wildly for a moment, then Phong’s voice came through loud and clear, “Daemon’s Chosen have taken Dot!”

Bob’s world shattered, “No! No it can’t be!”

“Must return – two milliseconds – time running out – portal.”

“I read you Phong!” Bob said, “I’m on my way to the portal generator room now.”

“Hurry Bob! We will be waiting.”

The window closed, “Prime Guardian?” Rule said.

“Contact Katiyana and tell her where I’ve gone. She’s to assume control until I’ve returned,” Bob was already running from the room.

* * *

“Come on, come on, what’s taking so blasted long!” Bob said.

“We’re trying to increase the power now,” Zif said. The Chief of Operations had been called when the technicians had been unable to get the generator to work. “We’ll get you there, I promise.”

“Dot,” Bob whispered. They had better not have laid a finger on her!

The portal came to life.

“Good luck, Prime Guardian!”

Bob stepped through the portal and could sense the energy was unstable. No more portal travel would be possible until the storm was completely over. Then he was on the other side and Matrix and AndrAIa was waiting for him.

“Bob!” Matrix said.

“What happened? Where’s Dot?”

“Come on,” AndrAIa started away and Bob hastened to follow, “Daemon’s Chosen have her. Captain Syn is one of them.”

“Captain Syn is a member of Daemon’s Chosen?” It was too incredible to believe.

“Yes, and they’ve given us two milliseconds to bring you here,” Matrix said. “And time was up twenty nanos ago.”

As they entered the War Room they found Phong at a vid-window. Bob had never seen the dwarf before, but Captain Syn was in the background holding a laser pistol on Dot, who was tied by her wrists to an exposed pipe.

“Was Captain Syn not clear, old man? The Prime Guardian in two milliseconds or Ms. Matrix dies.”

“I’m here!” Bob strode forward, “Let her go, you miserable sons of nulls.”

“Just her?” The dwarf smirked, “What about the others?”

The vid-window rotated to the left to reveal Enzo and Ronnie Lore.

“Enzo,” Bob’s voice was an agonized whisper, “What do you want?”

“Why you, my dear General Dariem,” the dwarf was tremendously pleased with himself. “Alone, on Level 31. Behind Al’s Wait and Eat. You’ll be contacted then, and please Prime Guardian, no rescue attempts, or tricks, or having Matrix back you up. The baby is here too, hidden, and I have no qualms about deleting it, understand?”

“Yes, I understand,” Bob spat, “I’m on my way. I should be there in ten micros.”

“Very good,” and the vid-window closed.

The questions started immediately.

“Bob you’re not going alone are you?”

“You’re really going to do it?”

“Is it wise, my son?”

“Let me back you up,” Matrix said, “They’ll never know I’m there.”

“No,” Bob donned his Glitch armor, “You heard what they said, any tricks and they’ll hurt the hostages. I have to go alone.”

“Bob – please,” Matrix whispered.

Bob placed his hands on Matrix’s shoulders, “Don’t worry Matrix, I promise I won’t fail.”

“We will be watching your every move, my son,” Phong said. “Good luck to you and may the User protect you.”

* * *

By the time Bob reached Sector 31 he felt awful. His skin was clammy, his body feverish and his stomach roiled unmercifully. Yet he pushed himself on. Dot and the others were counting on him.

WARNING: INCOMING GAME

“No!” Bob hissed, “Not now.” Then he realized it was going to land right where he was supposed to be.

Would they allow him to finish the game? Surely they knew that if he didn’t they’d all be nullified. He would have to wait until the Chosen’s representative met him then hope he was allowed him to finish the game. If not they were all deleted sprites.

The cube slammed down with an ominous finality.

* * *

“Where do you cowards think you’re going?” Ripper demanded.

Four of the six sprites were heading for the door.

“That’s a game cube, Ripper, I’m not staying for that!” One of them tossed the remark over his shoulder.

“Cowards! You are banned from the Chosen!” Ripper screamed. “And what of you Syn?”

Syn, having recovered somewhat from his injury, said. “I go to meet the Guardian,”

“And you two?” He said of the remaining.

“For the Glory of Daemon!” One of them said.

“Good,” Ripper said, “I am glad I have a few loyal comrades left.”

“Ripper!” Dot said, “Let Enzo, Ronnie and the baby get clear of the cube! If Bob doesn’t make it in time --,”

“He will and you know he will,” Ripper said, “He doesn’t want to see any of you nullified either.”

When the field passed over them, the room abruptly changed. No longer were they in a basement storeroom, but a forbidding dungeon. Oily torches burned in scones on walls coated in slime. The exposed pipes became wood timbers. The crates treasure chests. Dot now found herself tied to a wooden wheel, etched with archaic symbols.

“Fascinating,” Ripper said, “This is not the first game I’ve been in though, yet it amazes me every time.”

Ripper approached Dot, “Syn, do you think you could find your way up to the Prime Guardian?”

“Yes.”

“You had better reboot,” Dot warned.

Syn ignored her and kept walking.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Dot muttered.

“Not a bad idea,” Ripper said, “I believe this is the way one does it?”

Ripper tapped his icon, “Reboot.”

The greenish glow enveloped him and he found himself in a plain brown tunic and pants, with a leather belt around his waist and a small dagger in a sheath.

“Well this isn’t very flamboyant,” Ripper said. “Let’s see what you come up with, Ms. Matrix.”

Ripper went to reach for her and must have noticed Dot’s look, “Keep the laser pistol on her brother. If she does anything, shoot him between the eyes.”

Dot’s teeth ground as Ripper reached over and tapped her icon, “Reboot.”

Dot closed her eyes against the light and when she opened them –

Ripper was giving her a look even worse than Syn’s. Dot looked down and saw she wore nothing more than a leather loincloth and halter.

“How sweet,” Ripper ran a finger along the edge of the halter.

Dot recoiled from his abhorrent touch as bile rose in her throat.

“Maybe I’ll just have my revenge on you, hmm?” Ripper smiled evilly, “For your sake, your Guardian had better come soon.”

* * *

Bob knew the game, Spire of Infinity. The object was simple. You started at the top of the tower and worked your way down to the bottom and rescued the sacrifice that the owner of the tower, an evil necromancer, was going to use in a dark ritual. Each floor of the tower had greater dangers. Bob rebooted into an armor-clad warrior, with a glowing broadsword and four daggers in a sheath across his chest.

Bob knew he was not up to his full power. He felt lightheaded and ready to vomit. Still he forced himself to wait a few more precious nanos for the Chosen’s contact. He knew the User was stuck on the floor below him. He had to get to him before it was too late.

When he sensed the User moving, Bob entered the Tower, hoping to both stop the User, end the game and get to Dot before the Chosen decided Bob had double crossed them.

Bob made it to the second level, missed the User taking the door to the third by a nano and was trapped having to solve several complex riddles. He dashed from the room, dodging traps and game sprites, but missed the User again on the third level when he was seized with agonizing muscle spasms.

For the nth time, he wished Matrix were fighting alongside him. He nearly caught up on the fourth but missed again. His strength was ebbing at an alarming rate and now he was fighting just to keep going.

So it went on like that for eleven levels. Then on level twelve, he managed to trap the User. If he could get to the damsel first (and he had a hunch about that) the game would be won and hopefully, he would be where Daemon’s Chosen was holding Dot.

Bob practically dragged himself down the long hall and was astonished to hear voices, one familiar.

“Looks like we’re all going to be nullified,” Dot was saying.

“No! Your Guardian is here! He will come for you!”

Bob heard someone crying and he realized it was Ronnie. He couldn’t begin to imagine how terrified she must be. Keeping his back pressed against the wall. Bob moved closer to the dungeon entrance.

“Face it,” Dot was saying, “You’ve lost.”

“Shut up, wench! I’m going to enjoy taking my revenge out on you.”

“You can try, but you’ll regret it.”

“You try something, Ms. Matrix and your brother and the woman will get a shot between the eyes,” the dwarf said, “Relax. You may just enjoy this.”

Bob peered around the wall into the room. Dot caught sight of him first.

“It’s a shame about your other two companions,” Dot said, “While you have all the fun, they get to stand there and guard the prisoners with their nasty lasers. No rest for the lackeys eh boys?”

Good girl, Bob thought. Now he knew how many he was dealing with.

“We gonna get a crack at her, Ripper?” One of the guards asked.

“Of course, just wait your turn,” Ripper’s hand seized at Dot’s breast cruelly.

Random fury, nothing like Bob had felt in some time, came to explosive life in his core-com. With an animalistic cry Bob rushed into the room two fiery blasts dealt severely with the other sprites.

“What in the net --?” It was all Ripper had a chance to say before Bob blasted him with a bolt so powerful it knocked the dwarf several feet.

Bob was across the space of the dungeon in a split nano. As Ripper was struggling to rise, Bob threw himself at the dwarf and began to beat him senseless.

“You never,” Bob growled, punctuating each word with a blow to Ripper’s face, “ever -- touch her again!”

“Bob!” Somehow Dot’s frantic voice broke through his bloodlust, “Bob stop!”

“What?” Bob stared at his balled fists, which were smeared with Ripper’s blood. What in the net am I doing? He looked up at his love, “Dot?”

“It’s okay,” Dot said. “Bob -- Enzo and Ronnie!”

“Yes,” Bob fought to compose himself. He left Ripper there and stumbled over to Enzo and Ronnie. “You two all right?”

Bob pulled the gag from Enzo’s mouth and the little sprite doubled over and heaved. Bob held him, “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”

“B-Bob – I tried to stop them but they came into the apartment and--” Enzo said.

Bob cut his bonds, “Enzo I need you to do something for me.”

“Okay.”

“Take Ronnie and look for her baby. I’m going to free Dot and end the game, all right?”

“All right Bob, you can count on me,” Enzo said.

Bob went to Dot, “Baby I was so worried,” he kissed her over her face, “Did he --?”

“No,” Dot said. “Bob are you all right? You don’t look well at all. You’re burning with fever.”

“I--” Bob realized, with the adrenaline rush fading, how really very bad he felt. For a moment, he leaned against Dot for support.

“Bob you’re sick,” Dot said, “Why hasn’t the game ended?”

The ominous sound of footsteps echoing down the hall and the User stepping into the room answered Dot’s question.

“That’s why,” Bob said. “I thought this would happen. You’re the damsel, the sacrifice. If he frees you first, we’ll lose the game.”

“Sacrifice?”

Bob drew one of his daggers and began to frantically saw at Dot’s bonds.

“Bob!” Dot suddenly said.

Bob turned. The User now held a blood-red gem that glowed with an ill-omened light. His body suddenly became as smoke, which passed through the gem to coalesce on the floor. It began to reshape itself but not in its original form.

“No, not a shape changer!” Bob drew his sword and waited.

When the transformation was complete a golden gryphon with razor sharp beak and talons and burning red eyes stood before him. And without preamble, it struck.

* * *

Captain Syn dashed through the halls of the spire, clutching Baby Dot in his sweaty grasp. He had to find a place to hide until the game ended. The storage bin in which he had laid the infant had transformed into a treasure chest in the game, which he found ironic because of the tremendous wealth at his grasp that he could never have. He had almost expected not to find the baby there after the cube landed. This little brat may be his one chance to still come out on top. He could ransom her back to the mother, or steal off of the system and sell her on the black market at System 998.

He had almost been deleted several times by the game sprites. Now panicked beyond belief, every corridor held a hideous beast or deadly trap. They wouldn’t catch him, they wouldn’t!

“Syn.”

The captain came to a screeching halt at the sound of his name. The hall was empty when he turned to look behind him.

When he turned back again Phong was standing in his path.

“What the --?” Syn cried, “How in the hell did you get in here?”

“Give me the baby, Syn,” Phong held out his spindly arms.

Syn laughed, somewhat hysterically, “Out of my way you senile old fool!”

As Syn went to move past him, Phong reached out and tapped Syn at a certain spot on his left arm. Pain shot up the appendage, followed by a numbing of his whole left side.

“What – what did?” Syn nearly dropped Baby Dot, but Phong reached out and lifted the baby from Syn’s arms, opened his built in file drawer and created a makeshift cradle.

“Now will you surrender peacefully?”

Syn reached for Phong with his good arm, “I’ll delete you!”

Phong’s arm extended and he tapped another spot. Syn’s right side lost all feeling. The captain toppled over.

“You – you – old --!”

Phong leaned down and put his face close to Syn’s, “Remember my son, there is only one path to success but many paths to failure.”

And the elderly sprite left him there.

* * *

Bob leapt and rolled to his right, bringing the sword up and the beast roared in pain as steel sliced through golden fur and flesh. The gryphon leapt and the ground shook when it landed. Bob was running for the exit, hoping to lead it away from Dot but it leapt again and blocked the way. For a tine they stood staring at each other, man and beast, then the gryphon’s mighty head darted forward and Bob had barely enough time to leap out of the way, but in doing that, Bob didn’t notice the beast’s tail. It whipped around catching Bob in the face and the monster smashed the crown of his head into Bob’s torso.

“Bob!” Dot was screaming as Bob hit the floor hard. He rolled, narrowly avoiding being crushed by the beast’s great paw. Bob chanced a glance at her and saw that she was trying to free herself. He had no idea what would happen with the game if she did, but he did know he couldn’t let the gryphon near her.

He was on his feet as his enemy leapt again and Bob did a forward roll, came up and slashed at the gryphon’s underbelly eliciting another howl, as burning blood spattered on the floor. The gryphon whirled around, its eyes filled with murderous rage.

Bob beckoned to it in challenge with his hand. The gryphon roared and lunged, but Bob wasn’t fast enough that time and the hooked beak closed around Bob’s arm. Now it was Bob who roared in defiance and pain. The gryphon lifted him up, shook him like a dead carcass, and tossed him aside. Bob hit the floor hard and rolled several feet

Unconsciousness was stealing upon him, but Bob fought against the urge to merely lie down and sleep. He was a Guardian, to mend and defend. The gryphon was circling again and Bob drew two of his daggers. When the gryphon charged again, Bob hurled both daggers into its eyes.

The gryphon screamed a high-pitched wail that had Bob falling to his knees and covering his ears, then the beast fell on its side, trying to paw out the daggers. Bob dashed across the room, avoided its thrashing body and plunged his sword into its side. The gryphon gave one last dying scream and went still.

Bob collapsed against the carcass that was already beginning to cool. The darkness was calling to him.

“Bob! The game!”

Dot’s voice sounded like she was millions of sectors away. With much effort, Bob climbed to his feet and stumbled over to her. He drew his third dagger and sliced through the rope.

“Dot,” he said hoarsely, “In order to win – well – you’re a sacrifice.”

“Bob--”

“Give me your hand.”

“But Bob --”

“Trust me.”

Dot held out her hand and Bob pricked her finger with the tip of the dagger, then pressed her finger against the wheel.

GAME OVER

“Oh Bob,” Dot went to kiss him but he was slipping away, falling down a dark tunnel and Bob welcomed the oblivion.

* * *

“Oh man, this is getting ridiculous,” Bob said. He came to in what he immediately knew to be the examination room of the infirmary. That had to have been one of the roughest games he had ever played and he felt every bit of his time within.

He thought he should get up. He wondered where everybody was. Yet he didn’t have the energy to make the attempt. So he lay there, slipping in and out of consciousness, wondering why no one had come to be with him.

Finally, the door came open and Bob managed, with much difficulty, to raise himself up on his elbows and was surprised to find it was Rose Norton.

“Rose,” Bob said, trying to concentrate around the throbbing pain in his skull “What are you doing here? Is the storm over?”

“Yes,” Rose moved up to him and gently pushed him back down. “Lie still, you’re busted up pretty bad.”

“I can feel it,” Bob muttered. His stomach was still protesting, though not as badly. “So why are you here and where is everybody?”

“Dr. Chancery called me.” Rose opened her Notepad and examined it critically, “As to where everybody is, I asked them all to stay in the waiting room until I finished my testing.”

“You still didn’t answer my first question,” Bob said, “Why did Dr. Chancery call you?”

“He found something he couldn’t identify on some routine tests he did, so he had me called in. You’ve been unconscious for six milliseconds.”

“Six milliseconds?”

“Bob there is something important I need to tell you and I need for you to listen to me, understand?” Rose asked.

“Yes.”

“After Dr. Chancery called me, I decided to run my own tests,” Rose unexpectedly laid her hands on Bob’s own, “We're sure of your diagnosis although we're not sure how you contracted it yet. You have Hybrid-X.”

“T-the – viral infection?”

“I’ve run the test four times to be sure,” Rose said, unexpectedly, her eyes filled with tears. “Bob, I consider you a friend and I promise you you won't find better care than what I’m going to give you. I will do everything in my power to find the answer.”

“Rose,” Bob whispered, “You’ve got to tell me – is it contagious? Can I infect others?”

“No,” Rose said.

“You’re certain?” Bob’s voice rose in panic, “I’ve been with--” He halted, feeling sick, but not because of the illness.

“Yes Bob, we’re certain,” Rose said, “Since examining you, we’ve made some new discoveries. This is not so much as a virus, but a virulent strain of poison. I’ll need to run more tests on you.”

“You’re saying poison,” Bob said, “So this was deliberate?”

“It would seem so,” Rose said, “So we’re going to have to figure out who has the knowledge and technology to create such a thing but for now, we have more immediate problems to address.”

Rose glanced towards the door, “Did you want me to tell her?”

“No,” Bob said. “I will. Are they all waiting out there?”

“Yes,” Rose said. “I’ll have a orderly bring in a wheelchair.”

She left him then and Bob lay back down on the bed and tears escaped from under his lids.

My User, he had the infection. How in all of the net was he going to tell Dot?


Read Chapter 16 | Back to Aftermath: Daemon's Chosen