Tarot looked around at the high cliffs as he slowly advanced forward, watching his shadow grow deeper. He tried to hold his head high, tried to keep up his confidence, but he felt it slipping and fraying at the edges. For once, the area of the Dark Lord’s Lair actually seemed, well, forbidding.
Pausing for a moment, he checked his defensive wards, ensuring that his spells were still in place. They were, of course; nothing had changed since he last checked, two minutes earlier. Still plenty of time on the shields, even without the perks that extended their durations before they’d need to be recast.
Tarot snorted to himself, a little of his natural swagger returning. Amateurs. No one who actually read up on the forums, researched the most advanced and effective builds, ever bothered with perks like that. The real players, the ones who thought about true strategy, made sure to put as many points as possible into offensive attacks as they leveled up their skill trees.
Twisting his right hand as he moved through the spell menu – a menu that Tarot knew better than the back of his own hand – he brought up a Level 8 Disintegrate spell, holding it at the ready. Reassured by the thrumming of its energy, vibrating against the insides of his fingers, he continued his advance into the Dark Lord’s Lair.
The area had been scary when the Eden designers first revealed it, Tarot remembered. He hadn’t been around back then, but it still intimidated him when he first grew strong enough to venture inside its boundary, to attack some of the monsters that dwelled within its region.
Now, of course, he didn’t have anything to fear from the monsters of the zone. Thanks to weapon upgrades and spell modifiers, he could easily send anything here, short of a world boss, all the way to kingdom come with a single bolt of energy.
The natural monsters – the non-player characters, or NPCs, didn’t give Tarot any pause. But he knew that, somewhere deep within these bleak and dreary crags, lurked monsters of a different sort.
If he put one foot out of place, they’d destroy him.
Tarot pulled up the logfile that he’d been given, that he’d worked on for hours to crack its cipher. The instructions hidden within had told him to come here, to enter into the Forgotten Maze area of the Dark Lord’s Lair. Back when he cracked the cipher, Tarot remembered feeling a huge surge of excitement, of victory over the shifting algorithm that nearly stymied him.
Now, he struggled to hold onto some of that excitement, to feel anything but dread and a growing insistence that he needed to turn back. Think of the power, he told himself. Think of the prestige.
Think of how, after the Rebirth, you’ll be more powerful in Eden than you ever could hope to attain on your own.
That thought, more than anything else, lent him strength. He advanced forward, entering into the Forgotten Maze. Four huge statues guarded the entrance, their shadows falling forward over him as he passed them and entered the narrow stone corridors of the maze proper.
Tarot paused for a moment, frowning. Four statues? He only remembered two-
He spun around, bringing up his right hand. The Disintegrate spell glowed brightly in his fingers as he spread them out, searching for a target. He stared into the dusk behind him, his heart pounding like a jackhammer in his ears.
“You were summoned.” The voice, heavy and thunderous as an avalanche, rolled out of the darkness.
He needed to respond. “Yes,” Tarot called out, hating how his voice cracked a little on that single word. “I cracked the code, accepted the invitation. I was called here, and I’ve come to take what’s mine!”
It sounded like a good speech in his head. He heard nothing from the dusky gloom around him for a moment – and then his ears, on high alert, caught the thumping of approaching footsteps.
Two sets of footsteps – and they sounded heavy.
Like the Kraken rising from the depths of the ocean, two faces appeared out of the mist. Minotaurs, bull heads on top of huge, heavily muscled and hair-coated bodies. They wielded great-axes in their massive hands, the heads big enough to chop a small cottage in half. Their eyes glinted as they stared down at Tarot. He saw their noses flaring, beads of snot dripping down into their thick beards, and, distantly, found himself marveling at the level of detail that Eden designers put into all of their creations.
Tarot relaxed a little at the sight of the minotaurs. They looked intimidating, sure, but he’d seen them before. These were just recolored models from the Raid of the Hedges, with new weapon skins. He’d fought those monsters before, and guessed that the same tactics would apply with these versions.
“You were summoned, Tarot,” one of the minotaurs spoke, its voice deep as a chasm. “You were given a location…”
“…and a password,” its companion finished the sentence, tightening its grip on the massive great-axe in its hands.
Tarot paused, his anxiety creeping back up a notch. Minotaurs were just generic enemy NPCs, regarding everything not in their faction as hostile – and as far as he’d been able to tell, there wasn’t any way to join their faction. They didn’t normally speak. Had someone hacked these particular NPCs, given them custom script templates, coded them to recognize his player name?
“Yes, I have the password,” he said quickly, his eyes flicking towards those huge axes. If some rogue programmer had created these monsters, he might have also put a few nasty spell surprises on their weapons, something to catch the unwary attacker off guard.
“Provide it,” snarled one of the huge beasts.
Tarot didn’t speak in response. Instead, with a cocky grin that he hoped seemed convincing, he pulled up the deciphered file, finding the right chunk of code that he’d decrypted out of the complex hash. He activated it in his free hand, not quite willing to let go of the Disintegrate spell just yet.
From his left hand emanated a single note, high and pure. After a second, the note seemed to split, transforming into a dozen chords, conflicting and yet perfectly in harmony with each other at the same time. A bright light glowed out from his hand, one that reflected back from the round orbs of the minotaurs’ eyes and momentarily cut away the shadows that lurked in the Forgotten Maze.
The incredibly complex chord died slowly away, its tones faintly echoing back from the dozen pathways that branched ahead of him. The minotaurs remained impassive, still staring down at him, but they at least didn’t appear to be moving forward to kill him.
That was a good sign, Tarot decided.
Finally, just as he got ready to open his mouth and ask what he needed to do next – the instructions didn’t tell him what to do beyond providing the password to the guardians, at the proper location – the minotaurs shifted once again. “Correct,” boomed out the one nearest to Tarot, as they both strode forward.
For a second, Tarot shrank back, fearing that, despite providing the right password, they would still attack. Maybe he needed to defeat both of them in combat to demonstrate that he had the combat skills to join Rebirth?
Even as he once again raised his right hand, however, the minotaurs simply strode past him, one passing on each side of him. They advanced into the Forgotten Maze – and ahead of them, the Maze itself seemed to shimmer, twisting to reveal a new, straight path, leading deep into the heart of the twisted passages.
The minotaurs didn’t speak, but Tarot followed after them. A glance behind him revealed that this new path vanished about fifty feet back. If he lost them, he’d be stuck in the Forgotten Maze – and he, in his excitement at solving the cipher, hadn’t thought to bring his map of the region. He could log out and search for once, of course, but that would take days of in-game time, and he’d have to start over from square one for joining Rebirth…
Tarot broke off that thought, picking up his pace a little as he trotted after the twin minotaurs.
They walked for several minutes in oppressive silence. Tarot wished that he’d known there would be this much walking. It was in the game, of course, but his legs were still moving in reality, enough to activate the receptors in his synaptic suit. He’d paid a hefty price for the suit, drooling over its ability to translate his movements directly into in-game motion – no more need for keyboard controls! But he still wasn’t totally used to just how much effort it took to move around Eden, to walk for the long distances that his character needed to cover. Thank goodness for mounts.
On a whim, Tarot tried to cast his mount spell, calling up his ebon steed. Unsurprisingly, however, a skeletal horse failed to materialize. Already, it was becoming clear to him that he was leaving the game’s natural environment, going to somewhere… else.
An off zone.
Most people, of course, knew about the existence of off zones. The term simply referred to any part of Eden that was created by players, rather than by official game designers. As Eden swelled in popularity and swept around the globe, players clamored for more content than the developers could build – and some of the more enterprising players took matters into their own hands, putting their coding skills to use and creating new environments where they could relax or adventure.
Heck, Tarot even owned an off zone of his own. Most hackers owned at least one, usually several. It had become something of a rite of passage – and a way of proving his skills, trying to code deeply interactive and intricate environments.
This one, however, didn’t seem particularly impressive. Sure, the creator had managed to hide its entrance in the middle of the Forgotten Maze, which was a feat in and of itself, but they hadn’t bothered with any detail. Formless gray fog swirled around Tarot, obscuring any details. The ground beneath his feet was just a default sand texture, probably cloned and repeated every dozen feet or so.
“Here,” one of the minotaurs grunted out, as the pair ground to a halt.
Tarot looked around, not sure why his escorts had stopped. They just stood in the middle of nothing, with more gray sand underfoot and nothing but swirling mist in all directions. What was he supposed to be seeing?
He turned to the two minotaurs – and froze, the question dying on his lips.
Both of the guards stood in front of him, side by side. They’d brought the handles of their great-axes down to stab into the sand, the blades pointing up – and between those tall handles, each one nearly ten feet in height, energy crackled back and forth. First, just a couple of bolts leapt from one handle to the other, but more and more followed, until a near-solid wall of energy hung in the air between those two weapon handles.
“What am I supposed to do?” Tarot asked, staring, transfixed, at the wall of blindingly bright energy.
“Enter,” intoned one of the minotaurs in response.
For a moment, Tarot hesitated. That much energy spoke of a very powerful spell, indeed. Someone who could summon up that much power could be very dangerous to meddle with, and if the portal in front of him wasn’t properly coded, it could dump him into just about anywhere – or worse, throw him out of Eden entirely…
“Enter,” the minotaur repeated, and Tarot took a deep breath. He’d come this far, he reminded himself. He couldn’t turn around now.
“Unlimited power,” he repeated to himself. “Rebirth. This is my chance to have all that I want, to make my dreams come true.”
The minotaurs kept on staring down at him impassively, showing no sign that they even heard his words. Tarot glanced up at them one last time and then, with a sigh, let the Disintegrate spell fade from between the fingers of his right hand.
“I’ve come this far,” he said aloud, one more time.
He strode forward, into the gate of crackling, burning energy that stood between the twin weapons of the minotaurs, and vanished from the world.