The forest of Evil Haunted Darkness came into focus as the robed, frail-looking elf male sat up. Castfate had been lying by a campfire near two other companions. One was another elf, but unlike Castfate, wore dark leather clothing and wielded daggers. Kevy Thievy was the party’s rogue. Next to him was a half-giant paladin called Astro`Gar, serving as the party’s meat shield. His armor glistened in the light of the steadily burning fire, providing a truly impressive sight.
Astro stood and stretched. He tapped his wrist, causing a brief shimmer to surround him. His weapon and shield appeared on his back. Kevy followed with the same strange movement, causing his daggers to appear in his hands. He placed them at his sides with hardly any noticeable movement. Not wanting to be left out, Castfate made a similar motion. Instead of a weapon appearing in his hand, a small portal opened nearby. A small goblin dragged a glittering staff out of the portal and offered it to Castfate. After he took the staff, the goblin averted its eyes and slowly backed into the portal while singing praise to “Castfate the Mighty.” With a pop, the portal and goblin disappeared. Astro and Kevy scoffed and rolled their eyes.
“You spend too much in the cash shop, Cashface!” Astro mocked, using the derogatory nickname he and Kevy had come up with early in the game.
“Yeah, it like totally kills my immersion!” Kevy claimed, while reading a virtual layout of his stats.
“It gives no bonuses! I’m supporting the development process!”
Astro and Kevy looked blankly at Castfate.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Let’s get started,” Cashface Castfate said.
The others agreed, and they headed east towards the last known location of DarkRuler, the evil necromancer they had been chasing for the past several months. He had thus far always been able to escape at the last moment.
They reached a clearing in the forest, finding the current tower hideout of DarkRuler. Two undead guards were at the entrance, but something was off. There was no evil cackling, and no booming voice from DarkRuler, taunting them. Every other encounter had this. The group attacked anyway. Astro said something heroic and slashed down the undead. Kevy disappeared. Castfate cast a level 32 fireball and melted the second undead. The fight was routine, with no surprises.
“What the hell, no loot?!” Kevy reappeared at the first corpse, to check the loot.
Castfate and Astro shrugged.
“Pick the lock on the entrance. I’ve got 30 minutes before practice,” Astro said. Actually, a pizza was on the way, but no one else needed to know that.
Kevy easily popped the lock and the door swung open wide. The group charged in only to find a gray room. Nothing else had been created for the adventure, so they were surrounded by the default gray space.
“Uh… am I broken? Now what?” Astro asked.
Castfate looked around. Behind them he could see the open door they had just come through, which led back to the populated forest, even down to the small detail of birds fluttering around.
“Hey, Lordy, are you there?” Kevy called out.
Castfate elbowed Kevy to shut up. The DM hated being called that.
“Is the Lord present?” Astro yelled out in question, instead.
No response. There was no booming voice from the heavens that they would normally hear.
“Why did the game loaded if the DM didn’t finish?” Kevy asked.
The others both shrugged.
They waited another 20 minutes before Astro had to go to “practice.” The other two waited another hour before deciding to log, hoping the Lord DM would be back the next week.
“See you next Friday I guess?”
“Yeah. Seeya then, Kevy!”
Kevy touched his wrist and disappeared into a shimmering light. Castfate did the same.
Castfate, or Adam, as he was known in the real world, stood up from his chair as he removed his VR gear. He had a large bedroom in his parent’s penthouse, with a large window overlooking the city. He headed down the long hallway to grab something to eat, passing by his sister’s room. The steady beat of techno music could be heard as he passed by her closed door covered with hearts cut out from notebook paper. All else was quiet.
He grabbed some chips and returned to his room. He posted on the chat system where their DM, the Lord, would normally hangout and update the group outside of the game, hoping for a response.
The whole week passed, with no response from their DM Lord. By the end of the week, Astro and Kevy were also asking “Where are you?” in the chat program. None of them had any means of contacting the DM outside of that method.
The next Friday, Adam sat at dinner with his parents. He was anxiously checking his phone, hoping for an update before their scheduled game, while his mom was worried about his sister not wanting dinner. Adam ignored her mostly, responding just enough she was satisfied he was listening. He was too focused on his game to pay any thought to his sister. He wolfed down his dinner, excused himself and hurried to his room. Adam threw on his VR gear.
Castfate appeared at a campfire just outside the tower where they left off the week before. The others were still laying on the ground, so he stood guard over them waiting for them to log on.
“The Lord, are you there?” he optimistically called out.
A few minutes later, the others stirred.
“Do you think the Lord is back? Should we check the tower?” Astro asked.
Not much for talk, Kevy was already inside the tower and peering through the door they had found last time. It was still full of grey emptiness.
“Looks like a bust, Cashface, Astro!”
Castfate started to glare at Kevy, but noticed something on an upper window ledge of the tower. He cast levitate with a cash shop item and floated up to find a rolled-up parchment. He grabbed it and returned to the others who huddled around as he unraveled it. They found a series of symbols written in a demonic language. Kevy grabbed the letter, as he had an ability that let him read most languages in the game.
Kevy activated his skill. “It says… 867…53…uh, 09? What the heck does that mean?”
“It’s a phone number, bright guy,” Astro said.
Castfate tapped his wrist and used the interface dialer to punch in the number. He put it on speaker as it rang. They reached a recorded message, and the familiar modified voice of the Lord DM filled their ears:
“Prepare for adventure beyond the bounds of woven code. Come find knowledge on Third Street and George Road. Inside on the row of ancient faiths, lies a tome made of gold, with the next answer you seek to hold!”
The message beeped as Castfate tapped his wrist again to end the call.
“Third and George…”
“The library?!” they said together. A bit shocked, they looked at each other, suddenly realizing they might all live in the same city.
“I’m like a 5-minute bike ride from there, I think that’s Edison Library!” Astro said.
“I could take the train and be there in 15 minutes,” Kevy offered.
The two looked over at Castfate.
“Well… I guess I can go too. I’m on East Street. Yeah, I can get there soon.”
They all agreed to meet at the Edison Library.
Castfate arrived and parked out front. Climbing out of the car, he put on his Canali wool overcoat. He walked up to the front steps of the library, spotting a well-used bike chained to a nearby light pole. He hoped that meant Astro was here already.
Walking inside, he realized they had not exchanged numbers and did not know what each other looked like in real life, other than small things mentioned in passing. He pulled out his phone and tapped in a message on the chat system they used. Nearby he heard a chime. A short, greasy haired guy wearing a leather jacket dug through his pockets and looked at his phone. Castfate walked up behind him.
“Hey Kevy!” he said.
The greasy haired guy looked up from his phone and glared at Castfate.
“Actually, I’m Astro. You must be Cashface.”
“Oh… uh, sorry. I, uh… Online you said…”
A tall, lanky guy wearing a basketball jersey spun upon hearing the names ran over.
“Castfate, Astro! What’s up guys?”
Both were taken back – Kevy’s description of himself did not match his in-game description.
After being shushed by a nearby librarian, they all headed down a side row and whispered.
“We should introduce ourselves. My real name is Adam.”
“I’m Kevin!” Kevy said.
“I never would have guessed. My name is Adam as well,” Astro glared at Castfate just like he frequently did in game.
Kevy appeared to be thinking hard for a moment, then shared his brilliant idea.
“Let’s just stick to our game names then.”
“Yeah, I’ll just stick with Astro. You still suit your name, Cashface!”
Castfate looked over himself. Admittedly, his everyday wear was a bit out of the norm.
“Whatever. Let’s find this golden book.”
It was nearly closing time. The group literally had to run from the librarians to avoid getting kicked out. Eventually they found the “Faith/Religion” section. Many of the books had gold inlaid spines. They figured it would be a note inside one, so not knowing which one, they started checking each one. Astro finally found a note after going through nearly 30 books just as they were captured found by the library staff. He shoved the note in his pocket right as they were escorted out of the building.
“Oh well, we tried. I can come back tomorrow morning and let you know if I find it,” Kevy offered.
Astro held up the paper triumphantly.
“Nice! What does it say?”
Astro opened the parchment and frowned.
“I think it’s written in Russian or something.”
Astro and Kevy considered their options as Castfate pulled out his phone. He opened the app he used for translating words on photos and scanned the paper.
It was another puzzle. It led to an entire series of other puzzles that took them back and forth across the city. They even climbed down a manhole into the sewer to find the one clue.
Around midnight, they arrived in front of a large corporate building. Kevy tried the door, but it was locked and had a keypad.
“What did this one say again, Kevy? Are we sure it’s this building?” Astro asked.
“This letter reads: At 15th and 40th Street, you will find the prize on the 24thfloor. Hidden among you is the key to make the door open wide and let you inside.”
Astro and Kevy patted themselves down, digging through their pockets only finding some loose change and notes from the previous puzzles. Looking up at the building again, Castfate slowly pulled out his wallet and touched it against the keypad scanner. The door beeped and opened.
They were fully enamored with the quests and puzzles and didn’t even stop to think about how strange this situation was.
“Sick! Let’s go!” Kevy said.
“How’d you do that? Another cash shop item, Cashface?” Astro grinned and followed Kevy to the elevator.
Kevy ran inside, hitting the button to go to the 24th floor. Castfate slowly followed, trying to figure out why they were here.
The elevator doors opened. Kevy ran into the dark office space. Large glass doors blocked his way. He was about to pull on them when Castfate shouted.
“Stop! It has an alarm.”
Castfate turned and tapped on a keypad near the door and disabled the alarm. The lights in the office turned on. Taped to the keypad, Castfate found another note. In a bit of shock, he handed the paper over to Astro who took it quickly.
“Nice find, Cashface!”
“This is one of my father’s offices. I’m a little weirded out by all this. How did the Lord know I had the key? How did the Lord get here?”
Astro and Kevy had already read the note and gone through the glass doors, running down the hallway towards the final goal. Following, Castfate made the realization which office they were about to open. He yelled for them to stop, but they flung open the door. An alarm blared. Looking around the room, they could see papers had been thrown around, and furniture damaged. The safe was wide open, and completely empty except for a small post-it note. Astro and Kevy ran out of the room and headed back towards the elevator.
Castfate picked up the note before following them. It was a little heart with the message “With love, the Lord.” He felt like the handwriting was familiar, but just couldn’t place it.
They went on the longest most awkward elevator ride down and ran out the front doors to Castfate’s car, which roared to life. They sped off into the night.
Eventually they slowed down and started arguing about what to do. Before coming to a decision, blue and red lights flashed to the rear of the car.
“OMG! Pull over!” Kevy yelled.
“No, get us out of here! Do you know how shady this looks?”
Castfate pulled over the car. The officer gave him a ticket for a burnt-out tail light and let them go.
“That was close, but we still need to figure this out.” Castfate said.
Before he could offer any ideas, all their phones chimed in unison with a message on their gaming chat system. It was followed by the screech of tires as the officer made a U-turn and headed back to them.
Kevy read the message out loud. “The Lord: Good luck with the police, idiots!”