In last week’s installment, a modern longsword fencer who’s lost his game meets a mysterious stranger who promises to help him get it back—at any cost. Our fencer friend agrees to a virtual reality exercise . . . and learns too late the game could cost him his life.
The sudden shift from darkness to light scorched my eyeballs senseless. Only gradually did spatial awareness return, placing me first in a white room worthy of THX 1138, then in a museum display, and finally an outdoor square ringed by wooden houses worthy of a European postcard.
People ringed the cobblestone field, dressed in costumes vaguely reminiscent of the renn faire where I worked each summer.
No, not like the renn faire at all, my mind fired back. A lot dirtier.
I blinked and looked away, but that only forced me to reckon with the other side of the square. It too was a solid mass of spectators. All of them, looking at me.
“Nice graphics,”I muttered aloud, hoping my strange companion could hear me. “You designed them yourself? If so, I’m pretty sure Blizzard would like to talk to you.”
The stranger was nowhere in sight, but his voice swaddled my mind. “They aren’t graphics.”
“What are they then?”
“What do you think they are?”
He said something else, too, but at that moment a roar erupted from the crowd, spreading like fire around the square to a makeshift dais off my left shoulder. A gaggle of merrily-clad worthies—the rich townfolk, I guessed—sat in rows of oaken chairs, hands resting in silken laps or fondling docile hawks, hooded and perched on their wrists.
From their midst, a white-bearded man in a great gray robe rose and walked to the edge of the dais.
I glanced down at myself. I was wearing light armor. I was carrying a sword. And here I was, standing in the middle of a veritable movie set, devoid of cameras or lights, where one of the principal actors was just about to deliver his monologue.
Suddenly, I knew what this was. We had studied it at guild, mostly as a quaint historical exercise. Some called it “the judicial duel.” Others called it “trial by combat.” Either way, it meant one thing: justice at the edge of a sword.
Oh, shit . . .
My pulse thrummed, turning my temples into a veritable bodhrán. Inside my gloves, my sword hand dampened. If this were a judicial duel in the true medieval style, then I must either be the aggrieved, or the aggressor, or perhaps a champion elected to fight on one of their behalf.
The man in gray must be the judge. He was speaking now, addressing the crowd in a language I could not understand.
“Very funny,” I muttered again to my unseen companion. “So you design a trial-by-combat scenario in a medieval world that doesn’t exist. This is your idea of shocking my skills back to life?”
“You tell me,” came the stranger’s reply.
“Well, I’m guessing there’s not a playbook or an online forum to consult. The least you could do is tell me who I’m fighting for, and against.”
“You get one, but not the other.”
“Whatever,” I said impatiently.
“Very well, then look up onto the dais, just to the right of the judge.”
My eye followed that path. “Okay.”
“Tell me who you see.”
I squinted, hoping the man in grey would prove longwinded. “There’s skinny kid in a tunic and leggings that bag around his ankles, and a sharp-faced man in puffed sleeves whose pants are too tight. Sheesh!”
“Well done, Sherlock,” was the irritated reply. “And the other side?”
I grazed back over the man in grey—noticing for the first time a single sapphire that winked brilliantly on his right middle finger as he waved his hand. Then I let my gaze rest on his nearest neighbor.
My heart nearly stopped.
“It’s a woman,” I stammered. “And a pretty one. Dark skin. Lots of dark hair. A green dress, but not anywhere near as fancy as the other ladies.”
“Bravo, Brain Boy! Now we’re getting somewhere.” The voice paused. “You’re that woman’s champion, her only hope, and all that. It’s your job to fight for her side of the dispute. So, you know, don’t f— this up. After all, your life, as well as her honor, that’s on the line.”
A flush spread through my cheeks, and the humidity inside my visor was nearly unbearable. I had always imagined being called up as a champion-in-arms. But now, it was really happening.
Or was it?
Isn’t she just part of the game? my brain taunted me. A motivation to ensure that I stay on track?
I glanced at the lady again. She was staring back at me this time, and I realized her eyes were a darker green than her dress: cloudy, and full of trouble. They seemed to beg me not to fail, yet at the same time warn me of the challenge to come.
A single dark hand slid up to her throat, and she made a swift sign. I blinked. The sign of the cross? No, something else. Something she seemed to think I would understand.
If this wasn’t real, then it was darn close to reality. Closer than I had ever imagined.
“If I’m her champion, where’s the other guy?” I muttered to my handler. “You know, the one she’s accusing? Am I fighting him, or does he have a champion, too? And why were they in court, anyway?”
Before my companion could answer, the man in gray stopped speaking. Silence reigned in the square.
I held my breath with everyone else’s, then waited for my companion’s response. But this time, no voice came. I called again in vain. Soon, I was forced to admit the truth: my companion had abandoned me in the square, with more questions and even less conviction that this was really a game.
“Come on, man!” I shouted now. “Let’s get on with this! Can’t you go to the menu and press ‘play?'”
No sooner had the words left my lips than a tremor rippled the stones beneath my feet. Audible gasps erupted all around. In their wake, my hot flush of attraction congealed into a cold dread.
The blinding light darkened. The festal mood dampened. Against my own will, I turned toward the epicenter of the quake. After all, my companion had promised me only one piece of information. He had revealed the woman as my sponsor, leaving my adversary to reveal himself on the court.
I knew before I saw him who he really was.
Go back to Part 1.
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