Control Alt Corruption Episodes 1-20

Characters

1
Lava explodes from the mouth of the volcano, showering the landscape in a molten rain. From the pit of magma an enormous hand bursts forth, bare of flesh. Boney fingers as black as the volcanic rock dig into the side of the blazing mountain. Another hand breaks the surface, pulling whatever monstrous creature that dwells beneath the lake of fire out of its home. Shadows cast over the lip of the mountain, as an enormous skeleton emerges from the depths of the volcano. Even with only half of its body breaking the surface, it stands one hundred feet tall. The beast has three faces, each pointing in different directions. Eyes burning with the fires of hell fill its empty sockets. Steam slithers from its mouths, as it notices the humans at its feet.

A knight, with sword unsheathed, lunges at the titanic beast. Steel strikes the rib cage, slicing the remnants of tendons and muscle it once had, but shatters against the bone. The valiant soldier tries to escape, but the giant catches him in its massive hand. Lifting the man up to its face, it playfully observes the knight struggling to break free of its fingers. The creature strips the man of his armor, bringing metal and man to either side of its mouths. At once the knight is devoured. Screams fill the air, only to be drowned out by the gnashing teeth of the titan.

Blood filled saliva slips from its skeletal jaws as it eyes the rest of the warriors that dared to trespass in its territory. It eyes another man, much larger than the knight. He dresses in animal skins and holds a battle-axe nearly the same size as him. The colossal monster reaches for its next meal, but this warrior is a bit wiser. As the claws come for him, he takes a mighty swing of his battle-axe, batting away the hand. The creature pulls back and lets out a horrid scream. Its voice causes the entire volcano to tremble, knocking the band of fighters off their feet.

“What do we do?” the man with the animal skins asks the rest of the group. “My axe barely put a scratch on him!”

“And he ate Damien,” a woman, dressed in white robes screeches. “I hope Atlas gets here soon.”

“You put too much faith in him, Sophie,” a dark-skinned archer exclaims, grabbing a few arrows from her quiver.

“He’ll come, I know it,” Sophie argues.

“Either way,” the man jumps in, “We will have to handle Pallas for now…”

The creature they have named Pallas slams a fist into the mouth of the volcano, causing lava to scatter, nearly burning the trio. Other warriors around them are not so lucky. Some are melted by the magma, while others are sent falling down the side of the mountain, most likely to their deaths. A few try to attack the titan, only to be scooped up and consumed.

In the chaos, only the three warriors remain, trapped between two rivers of lava that slither like two fiery serpents down the mountain. Pallas eyes them, blazing with hunger, crimson saliva drips from its teeth. Rather than devour them, it rears back its head as fire builds in its center mouth.

Just before the titan can release its destructive blast, an enormous boulder crashes into the side of its face. Pallas falls backwards, releasing the beam of fire harmlessly into the air. It lays there, stunned for only a second, but quickly recovers. The monster bellows another ear-shattering roar. All six of its hellish eyes search for whoever threw the rock.

“Sorry I’m late, guys,” a heroic voice calls to them.

“Atlas, you came!” Sophie beams.

Their hero stands along the lip of the volcano. He is a fierce looking warrior with wild white hair. Tattered black robes hang over plates of equally dark armor. Blood red tint decorate his apparel. His right arm is encased in a metal gauntlet, an array of spikes climb up the blackened steel. The hand is fitted with razor sharp blades, making them terrifying claws. Covering most of his face is a dark gray helmet, void of any features, except for a pair of glowing red eyes that are as daunting as the hellish gaze Pallas has fixed on him.

Atlas seems to chuckle from behind the fearsome helm, reaching for his weapon. Strapped to his back is a pair of swords, both half the size of his body. The weapons appear to have been forged from the fangs of a terrible beast, yet decorated with stones of violet, crimson, and blue. A long steel chain links both blades by the ends of their hilts, which hangs at Atlas’ feet. Despite the weapons looking as if they are considerably heavy, he swings them around as if they were light as feathers.

“Alright, big boy,” he mocks the colossal creature, “Show me what you’ve got.”

The titan sees him as nothing more than another thing to eat, as he goes to grab the fighter. At the last second, Atlas leaps over the hand of the colossus, and runs up the arm. Using the bones as a bridge, he races up to the three-faced skull before Pallas realizes what is happening. Reaching the shoulder, he leaps into the air, driving one blade into the forehead.

Grabbing ahold of the chain, the masked warrior swings to the other side of the colossus’ head. The second blade pierces the skull. Pallas roars in pain, thrashing wildly to get the weapons out of him, but Atlas makes sure to hold on tight.

“Attack while he is weak!” he shouts to the others.

The others follow the command, relentlessly bombarding the titan with arrows, steel, and magic. Pallas continues to thrash, trying to escape the onslaught. Failing, the colossus falls over, too weak to stay upright. With no more resistance, Atlas rips his swords out of the skull. He stands on the cheek bone of the fallen titan, looking into the dim embers that are the creature’s eyes. There is no strength left in the beast, and Atlas knows it. The warrior turns his blades over, ready to deliver the final blow…

When everything turns gray, a young man stares at the computer screen, his mouth nearly touching his keyboard in shock. Looking back at him is a circle with a frowning face, as if it were sad for him. Underneath, he can read a caption that says Sorry, your browser has crashed.

“Are you freaking kidding me!” he shouts at his computer. “You stupid computer, I was just about to beat Pallas!”

His eyes are taken away from the mocking frowning face when he sees that a message has been sent to him on a social network. Changing the windows on the internet, he sees it is from his friend, Eric Winters.

“Hey dude, what happened?” the message reads.

“My computer crashed on me,” he writes back, as the name Darrel Flint pops up on the screen. “Did you guys beat him?”

“No,” a third party joins the conversation, simply named Alyssa. “He was able to wipe us all out with one last trick up his sleeve.”

“But we don’t blame you, Atlas-Baby,” a person by the name Alex Jones comes into the group. “We will try again later.”

“Yeah,” Darrel types, “By the way, I didn’t see Damien with you guys.”

Alex answers, “Ha, he died right away. The dumb-dumb got eaten.”

“Ha-ha-ha, that’s funny,” he writes back. “Anyway, I’m gonna reload and meet you guys at the tavern.”

Switching back to the gray screen, Darrel hits a few buttons on his computer to reload the crashed browser. After a few seconds of loading, the title screen for the game Quest of Kings appears. Underneath there is a spot for him to type his character’s name, Atlas Grey, along with the password. He hits enter, and finds something strange. Instead of the normal loading bar, he sees odd swirls of purple and black dancing. The computer begins to make strange noises, like that of a digital wolf crying in pain.

As disturbing as what he sees and hears is, Darrel is fixed to the screen, unable to shut it off. While the swirls continue, the cries disappear, but are replaced with odd mumblings, as if people are having a conversation. Still he does not stop it, only looks on. And then, something begins to appear on the screen, being typed one letter at a time.    

“DO YOU ACCEPT THE CORRUPTION?” 

2

Y-E-S

His fingers strike the keys one by one. Each clicks loudly, seeming to echo in the silent room. There is no hesitance when he hits the enter key, putting him on the path of no return. A bright flash nearly blinds him as the screen blurs with an array of colors. Numbers swim before his eyes, zeroes and ones. Darrel’s eyes remain fixated on his computer, lost in a hypnotic trance. But then a high pitch squeal ruptures through the speakers, bringing him back to his senses. Shaking his head of the fogginess, he stares at his computer with a bizarre look.

“What the heck?” he groans, unable to comprehend what is happening to the device. “Oh man! No-no-no…”

He begins frantically hitting keys, hoping that something he presses will cancel whatever is happening to his computer. Instead, each keystroke only seems to enrage the device, as the squeals become angry growls. Realizing nothing he is doing seems to be working Darrel reaches for the power plug, deciding that forcing a shutdown would be the best chance of saving his computer from this strange virus. Leaning down, it lets out one last high-pitched scream, and then falls silent. The screen dims, all light leaves it, except for a minute dot at the center.

Darrel looks up to see that the strange light show has ended. He looks over his computer, making sure that nothing is damaged. Luckily it appears to be okay, nothing broken. But the real check happens once he turns the computer back on. His finger hits the button…

Zap

The single dot of light bursts through the computer screen, and hits Darrel square in the chest. It strikes him like a bolt of lightning, knocking him off his chair, sending him smashing into his bookshelf across the room. Books and notebooks tumble on him, a rain of papers scatter everywhere like fallen snow. He does not get up, only twitches every once in a while. After ten minutes, he manages to sit upright. A groan gurgles from his throat, his head pounding from the heavy textbooks smacking him in the skull. Dazed, he holds his head with his right hand, and winces when he feels something cold and sharp touch his scalp.

Pulling his hand in front of his face, he sees his entire arm encased in a metal gauntlet decorated with a plethora of black spikes. Fingers fitted with razor-sharp blades. Darrel’s eyes widen when he sees the armor his character wears in the game has latched onto his limb. The Gauntlet of the Under Realm has somehow leapt into the real world.

“Whoa,“ is all that he can manage to speak, eyes locked on the piece of armor. “I think I hit my head harder than I thought…”

Nothing of the sort, Atlas…

“Huh?” Darrel leaps to his feet, looking around for a voice. “Who said that?”

Have you forgotten me, young warrior?

Looking at the armored arm gives him his answer. In the game, Atlas Grey had traveled to the Under Realm, a land of undead and devious demons. Fighting against the fiends, he ventured to the throne room where he met Tartarus, King of the Under Realm. A fierce battle ensued, and Atlas emerged victor winning a piece of the cursed armor worn by the king. The bewitched gauntlet carried a fraction of Tartarus’ soul, so that he could one day claim Atlas’ body for his own. It would appear that the spirit of the dark king had traveled along with the gauntlet.

“This can’t be real,” Darrel shakes his head in disbelief, trying to pry the armor off of his arm.

You seem to be acting strange, Atlas. Both you and I removing the armor is impossible. Why do you try to fight it?

“Oh crap, this is real,” he gasps, eyes locked on the steel glove.

What do you mean real? Wait…heh-heh-heh hah…You’re not Atlas. That means…hah hah hah…

The wicked laughter is followed by an icy chill running through Darrel’s body. Every muscle feels like it has locked up, become as stiff as steel. The cold spreads over his flesh, like a living parasite eating away at him. But it is not an insect that crawls across his skin, it is metal. Black spews from the gauntlet like a plague, spreading to every inch of his body, coating him in armor.

“No, get off of me,” Darrel demands, barking at the Tartarus.

You are weak…weaker than Atlas…your body shall be mine!

Darrel struggles harder to remain in control, but the armor stays incredibly stiff. All he can do as the armor cocoons him, as the helmet of his character, Atlas Grey, drowns him in darkness. He lets out one final scream, hoping that it will get someone’s attention.

Except for the tattered cloak, the spitting image of Atlas Grey stands in Darrel’s bedroom. The horrid king that dwells in the suit has taken control of the boy. The armored soldier takes its first steps, out of the room and into the hallway. As the haunting armor rounds a corner, Tartarus is met by Darrel’s father. The forty-year-old man has just stepped through the door, still gowned in his police uniform. He came just in time to hear his son scream. And now he sees a man in full armor stepping out of his room.

“Who are you?” Mr. Flint demands to know, as he grabs his weapon.

Tartarus answers by charging like a bull. Officer Flint is forced to fire a few shots, not knowing it is his son that dwells inside the armor. Bullets ricochet off the metal. The armored knight reaches the police officer and grabs him by the collar of his uniform. Planting his steel foot, he tosses the man, sending him crashing through the door.

The officer falls onto the grass, covered in the brick debris. Despite being bruised, he shakes off the pain, and looks to the gaping hole in his house. Tartarus steps through the opening.

Darrel’s father grabs his radio, “This is Officer Flint, requesting backup…now!”

**

Across town, a young woman steps out of the shower, dressing in a bathrobe. Alyssa Cain wraps a towel around her head to dry her hair, and enters her bedroom. Sitting on her bed is her laptop, which she thought she had shut off. Instead, a strange question appeared on the screen.

DO YOU ACCEPT THE CORRUPTION?

3

Alyssa looks at the ominous message skeptically, thinking it is just another prank from that oddball, Alex Jones. Rolling her eyes, she shuts her laptop and sets it on her desk. Stripping her robe off, she finds a comfortable pair of pajamas to dress in. Once she is settled in her desk chair, she looks at the clock to see it is only nine. Two hours before bed and no homework needed to be done. So, she decides to watch some television with her parents.

Walking through the hallway, she finds her folks sitting together on their couch, eyes glued to the television. Their expressions suggest something is amiss.

“What’s going on?” she asks.

Looking to the screen answers her question immediately. Aerial footage from the local news chopper shows over a dozen police cars gathered outside a local household not too far away. Standing in front of the door is a man dressed in a suit of black armor, a spotlight from the helicopter covering him in a haunting glow. The camera focuses on the metal man, and Alyssa gasps.

“Atlas?” she covers her mouth to hide her words from her parents. Luckily, they do not seem to notice.

Atlas Grey as she sees him is in truth Tartarus. He stands his ground against the platoon of gun-drawn officers. Fearlessly, he steps toward them, only to be hit by a barrage of bullets. Lead pierces his suit, but he does not bleed in a normal sense. Black sludge falls from his body, leaving holes where the bullets penetrated. The sight of these bizarre wounds causes the policemen to cease fire. Tartarus watches their dumbstruck faces through the glowing red slits in his helmet.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the reporter beside the cameraman speaks up, “I…I’m not sure what we just witnessed, but this man…does not appear to be human. Wait, is he…is he healing?”

The camera focuses on the black knight, and indeed the wounds over his body are closing quickly. Many have already healed; even the armor begins to fix itself.

Tartarus takes another step closer, and small cracks materialize across the length of his helmet. Fire pours from the jagged mouth that seems to be forming, crawling across his face, reaching the corners of his jaw. Completing the opening, the mouth hangs open. Suddenly, a horrific shriek bursts out of Tartarus like a bomb.

Even from her house miles away, Alyssa can feel the vibrations of the attack. Windshields of the police vehicles shatter. Police officers fall to their knees, clearly in pain from the sonic screech. The camera starts to sway as the helicopter becomes damaged. Horrified screaming comes from inside the chopper, and the footage cuts out.

The image on the television switches to the newsroom, where a nervous looking anchorman glances at the camera, unsure of what to say, “Uh, I…I’m sorry folks. We are experiencing some technical—”

Alyssa wastes no time to listen to the rest of the report. She needs to get her cellphone to call Darrel. She needs to make some sense of what she just saw on the television. Her eyes were not playing tricks on her. That was definitely Atlas Grey.

When she enters her room, she finds yet another surprise. Her laptop is opened to the mysterious message with a swirl of violet and black on the screen. Behind the words is an image that is very familiar looking. The outline is the titan of destruction, the final boss of Quest of Kings.

“Pallas?” Alyssa shakes her head in disbelief. “This is getting weird.”

The laptop rattles as if a beast has been trapped inside. A bright flash of violet light fills the room, blinding the girl. The strange burst lasts a second, fading as quickly as it came. Opening her eyes, Alyssa finds a visitor stands in her room. A knighted skeleton guards her computer, wielding a hefty battle axe, one that he swings to lop off her head.

“Yikes,” she squeaks, ducking the decapitation attempt.

The blade cuts a few hairs and digs into her door frame. The skeletal warrior tries to pull it free, but struggles; giving Alyssa the perfect opportunity to escape. She turns to run, only to be attacked from behind. She is hit hard in the back of her head, knocking her flat on her stomach. Slightly dazed, she eyes something rolling in front of her face. The undead axe man threw his skull at her. Its empty sockets glow bright red, brought back to life with necromancy. The skull cackles evilly as chunks of wood fall on her.

The axe is freed from the frame. Alyssa can hear the clambering of his armor as he adjusts step. His weapon held high over his headless body, ready to execute. Its boot stamps to the ground as it swings down.

She acts purely on instinct, rolling away as the weapon smashes into the floor. Instead of running, she fights back, sweeping the legs of her attacker. She kicks the knees out, and the rest of the skeleton falls with it. The undead axe man falls apart, becoming a large pile of bones. Yet, the skeletal arms still cling to the axe. But the skull is not ready to yield. It bites her fingers as she tries to stand. Its bony teeth tear at her flesh, causing her to scream.

Flailing her arm a few times, she manages to fling the skull off her, sending it crashing against her laptop. It smashes to hundreds of pieces like glass. The words fade from the screen, and only Pallas’ image remains. The titanic necromancer reaches out, and his monstrous arm passes through, entering the real world.

The young heroin gasps, “This is not good…”

“ARCHER OF THE WESTERN FOREST! YOU WILL NOT STOP ME. I SHALL CLAIM THIS DOMINION FOR MY OWN!”

Pallas’ voice reaches her like a thunderous roar from the hellish heavens. It causes every cell in her body to tremble. A voice in the depths of her mind screams for her to run; yet, she does not. Summoning the courage of her character, Zale, she prepares to stand against destruction incarnate. 

4

Knowing he must be stopped, Alyssa sprints for her computer. The colossal arm of Pallas tries to crush her in hopes of stopping the young heroin. She throws herself out of the way, tumbling across the floor as the massive skeletal hand smashes through her floor. The entire house shakes violently from the blow, knocking items off her wall, including a full standing mirror. It shatters next to her, shards leaving gashes across her arms.

Ignoring the stinging pain of torn flesh, she crawls up to her bed. Alyssa grabs the screen, pulling it down to stop Pallas freeing himself. His limb thrashes around in her basement, getting caught in the Christmas ornaments. She presses down, putting her body into it. Pallas roars from the game world, causing the house to tremble. Alyssa can feel him push against her, like a beast trying to escape its cage.

“I CANNOT BE STOPPED BY A MERE HUMAN!”

Yet, it is this mere human that will stop him. Enraged screams echo as she shuts her laptop. Though Pallas does not escape the game, his arm remains in the real world. It rips out of the basement, and manages to grab Alyssa before she can react. The boney limb disintegrates with each passing second, squeezing the life out of the girl. She wails in pain as her ribs creak from the pressure.

Alyssa does not give up, pushing the enormous fingers away from her, struggling to survive. Time is on her side, the limb unable to keep up its strength as it turns to ash. It lets go of her. She hits the floor, gasping for air.

The remnants of Pallas crumble to dust. Just before it vanishes, a strange light bursts from the skeletal core. It blinds Alyssa. She groans, seeing spots until it finally vanishes. Once she can see, she finds her room in shambles. She gets to her feet just as her parents scramble in.

“Honey, are you alright?” her mother asks, throwing her arms around her daughter.

Alyssa winces from her sore ribs, but is able to hide it, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“That earthquake came out of nowhere,” her father remarks, looking at the hole in her room. “Thank goodness you’re safe, sweetheart.”

Her mother looks at her husband, “What are we going to do? The house is a mess.”

“We’ll get a hotel for the night,” he answers. “We can deal with this in the morning.”

The three of them leave her bedroom. Alyssa eyes the broken mirror lying on her floor. That is when she sees something that stops her. In the reflection, a strange figure hangs over her. It is a man wrapped up in flames of red. An all too familiar three-faced skull gazes at her, the mouths grinning as it is charred black.

“Alyssa, what’s wrong?” her mother asks.

Looking to her mother, she takes her eyes off the mirror for a second. Turning back, she finds that the haunting image is gone.

“It’s nothing,” she remarks, walking out of the room.

**

Miles away from the suburban neighborhoods is a large forest, stretching across the mountain range. Amongst the sea of trees is the armored knight, Tartarus. Breaking free of the police blockade, he finds himself taking refuge among the evergreens. His armor is tarnished from the gunfire.

Frustrated, he lets out another sonic-like screech that uproots hundreds of trees. He growls like a monster, as something stirs inside him. Out of his control, his metal claws reach for his helmet. His head thrashes to shake them off. Razor sharp talons sink into the metal helm and rip it off his face. Tartarus snarls as he loses control of the body.

Darrel stands in the middle of the forest. The armor sheds off him like snake-skin. All that remains of the knight is the metal gauntlet.

“Finally,” he sighs. “That’s the last time you get the drop on me.”

Tartarus falls silent to his remark, which brings a smile to the young man’s face. Fingers fumble through his pocket. He grabs his cellphone. Quickly Darrel calls his dad.

“Son?” he hears on the other end.

“Yeah dad,” Darrel says, “I’m alright.”

His father lets out a sigh of relief, but then asks, “Son, what happened?”

5

“You are accusing my son!”

Police Chief Greg Flint slams his hand on the desk, roaring at a cowering deputy. Everyone else in the station stops what they are doing, turning their attention to their commander’s office. Many look at Darrel, who sits at the deputy’s desk. After spending several hours wandering the forest, he wishes he were back there instead of having all eyes on him. He looks down at the floor, knowing that the accusation is not too far from the truth.

The young deputy tries to calm his ill-tempered chief, “I am just saying that Darrel is wearing a piece of the suspect’s armor. In any other case we would have booked him.”

Chief Flint thinks otherwise, “This is not a normal case. That armored thing threw me through my front door, withstood a barrage of bullets, and somehow damaged our equipment with just its voice. Do you honestly think my son is capable of that?”

The deputy shrinks away, “Well…no. But—”

“There are no buts,” the chief snaps back. He lets out a soft groan as he holds his side. “I’m going to take my son home. We’ll pick up on this case tomorrow.”

He steps out of the office, leaving the deputy looking foolish. In the station everyone pretends to be working, and not eavesdropping. Of course, the chief knows better, but pays them no mind. Motioning for Darrel to follow, both head to his truck, and get in. The drive that follows is awkward, filled with an uneasy tension.

After the first mile of silence, Darrel’s father asks, “Are you sure you didn’t see anything else?”

“It’s like I told you,” he lies, “I woke up in the forest. And I had this thing latched to my arm.”

His dad eyes the metal gauntlet, “No one in the station could rip that off. This night keeps getting stranger…”

“Tell me about it,” Darrel whispers to himself.

“Anyway,” his father steers the conversation away from gloom, “I talked to your brother. Mr. Winters has offered for the two of you to stay at his house for the night.”

“Okay,” Darrel forces a smile. “What about you?”

His dad holds his side again, “I need to go to the hospital. Pretty sure I broke a rib or two…”

**

Hours later across town at a local motel, Alyssa is sound asleep in a foreign bed. She is lost in the depths of dreamland. The queer events of today have been left behind. As she slumbers, sinister yellow light oozes from her body, writhing as if it were alive. It slithers from her sleeping self, making its way to the window.

In such a small town, the city’s cemetery is just a stone’s throw away from the hotel, which gives it the ironic name, Gravekeeper Inn. The living ectoplasm sloshes through the gaps in the glass, entering the nightly air. It flings itself off the fourth floor, splashing into the damp grass of the graveyard. The yellow goo sinks into the soil beside a headstone. In marble, it reads the name of a young man who perished decades ago, only living to thirty before his years were cut short.

A crow cries out in the distance as the full moon casts its glow over the dead. Suddenly, a hand bursts from the earth. Flesh has rotted from the limb. Only strands of muscle and tendon cling to bone. The corpse pulls itself out of its final resting place, taking a fresh look at a world it had left.

Dressed in the tattered suit it was buried in, the body stands up. Its skin is as pale as snow and hair in long strands of white. When it opens its sunken eyes, they blaze a fiery red. The corpse studies itself, seeing the chunks of rotted flesh, able to reach in and touch its still heart. A twisted smile creeps over what is left of its lips.

“This body shall do, for now,” the corpse speaks in a gravelly voice that causes the earth to tremble. The soul that clings to it is one that revels in death. Pallas speaks softly, “I must become familiar with this world…before it becomes mine.”

6

The school bell rings, bringing first period to an end. Darrel and Eric step out of math class, walking side-by-side down the hall. Other students stop and stare at Darrel, seeing the metal hand, while the rest remains hidden behind a long sleeve shirt.

“I’m surprised they let you go to school with that,” Eric remarks.

“My dad called the principal and told him about it,” the young flint answers.

“Good thing you’re an honor student too,” Eric jests. “Could you imagine someone like Marcus getting away with this?”

They share a laugh as they step into the locker room for PE class. Darrel and Eric go to their usual lockers to change into their uniforms. At first, Darrel hesitates to remove his shirt, fearing to expose the gauntlet. Of course, if he does not, the gym teacher, Mr. Cask, will chew him out. Sighing, he swaps it with a blank white t-shirt, which leaves his entire arm exposed.

“Flint,” a large teen hoots from the opposite wall of lockers. “What’s with the armor? You afraid of hurting your ‘happy hand’ or something?”

Other large looking guys join the guy in a laugh. Darrel just rolls his eyes, “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, Marcus.”

He and Eric leave. In the gymnasium, they spot Alyssa speaking to another girl. Getting closer, she waves to them, and the other girl squeals happily. Before Darrel knows it, this girl has tackled him to the ground. Ignoring the pounding in the back of his head, he looks up to see the girl straddling him.

“Hi, Atlas-Baby,” the girl muses with a sweet smile.

“Atlas…” Darrel immediately recognizes the pet-name. “Wait, Alex? Is that you?”

“Uh huh,” Alex Jones answers. “I bet you’re surprised to see me looking like this.”

“Yeah, kind of,” Eric picks Alex off Darrel, “I’m pretty sure you’ve always been a guy.”

“Not anymore,” she smirks, grabbing at her chest. “I look just like Sophie Sweets.”

Darrel blushes, but asks, “Did you get a strange message too?”

“He…she…ugh,” Alyssa chimes in, but gets flustered. “Alex got it and so did I. He typed yes and became a girl. I shut my computer off, and Pallas tried to smash up my room.”

“Pallas,” Darrel gasps, “Did he—”

The conversation ends with a blow of the whistle. Immediately all the students line up against the wall. Mr. Cask marches in front of them, a red ball tucked under his arm. He eyes them like the drill instructor he never got to be, and catches sight of someone not in uniform.

“Maggot,” he barks, “Where is your gym attire?”

The person he asks is a young man at the end of the line. He dresses in a long black coat and over-sized jeans. Long, spider-web strands of white hair have been tied in a ponytail. Sunken eyes that blaze red stand against the pale complexion.

“I’m sorry,” he speaks with a slight accent, “I’m new.”

“Well then,” Mr. Cask growls, knowing he has to be nice, “Come see me after class. I’ll get you a set of clothes. Anyway, what’s your name?”

“Troy,” the boy answers, “Troy Grimm.”

“Alright then,” the teacher nods. “As I was saying maggots, time to count off. We’re playing bombardment!”

The teams are created instantly, and the players line up at the end. A treasure trove of red balls sit in the middle of the gym. At the blow of the whistle, war breaks out. Balls are sent hurtling in all directions. In the chaos, Darrel makes his best effort to dodge, ignoring any idea of throwing himself. All of a sudden, he is knocked on his backside, a red ball smashed against his face. The thrower is none other than Marcus.

“Marcus, that’s a warning,” the coach shouts at the jock. “Darrel, get up!”

Darrel is a bit dazed, sitting upright. Looking at Marcus, he thinks he is seeing things. Floating overhead is a gauge in Quest of Kings that measured the player’s Health Points. And according to the meter, that head shot took out ten-percent of his overall health. Rubbing his eyes, he looks again, but it is still there.

“Oh man, this can’t be good,” he gulps.

7

“BAM”

Another dodge-ball smacks Darrel in the face, making him see stars. The health bar floating overhead dips again, his life force depleting. Disgusting laughter slaps him to his senses. Across the invisible line of the bombardment court, Marcus is laughing.

“Hey, I said no head shots,” Mr. Cask howls. “One more and you’re out of the game, Marcus!”

The bully ignores the coach’s warning, and throws another. It screams across the court, aimed to mark Darrel’s forehead with the manufacturer logo. Before it makes contact, five metal talons sink into the rubber, almost popping it. Darrel rises, his eyes burning with anger.

That’s it, Atlas. Show him your wrath…

Tartarus whispers to fuel the flames of his fury. He roars like a titan as he whips the ball at Marcus. It hits the jock in the blink of an eye. The force sends him sailing into the wall, shattering the brick upon impact. In that moment, the game comes to an abrupt halt.

Marcus lets everyone know he is alive, managing to groan. While the class rushes to check on him, Darrel is left in a state of shock. He looks to the metal that clings to his flesh. More of Atlas came to him than just the armor. The strength brings a smile to his face.

“Hey, he’s not breathing,” someone shouts, wiping away his grin.

Darrel looks over to Marcus, and his jaw drops. A health bar hovers over the jock, the green disappearing quickly. At halfway it turns yellow. A quarter it turns red. And then, his health hits zero…

“Somebody, call an ambulance,” the coach shouts while starting chest compressions.

Other students hastily rush to the lockers for their phones. The only people who remain are Eric, Alyssa, and Alex. Darrel stands shell-shocked, only able to watch the coach fail to resuscitate Marcus.

“It’s no use,” he says when his friends crowd around him, though his eyes stay on Marcus.

“Darrel,” Eric grabs his friend’s shoulder, “Let’s get out of here.”

The big man is able to carry him out of the gymnasium while the two girls follow.

**

On the other side of the building, Troy has slipped into the school during the confusion. The pale student takes in his surroundings, ignoring the waves of smoke that trail him. His walk down the hall is disrupted by a teacher, who catches him out of class.

“What are you doing?” she asks him in a strict tone.

“Walking,” he answers earnestly.

Believing him to be acting cocky, she asks, “Where is your hall pass?”

“I don’t have one,” he says.

“Then you are coming to the principal’s office, young man,” she states, grabbing his arm.

“I am sure you have other priorities,” Troy remarks, pulling away.

He continues his stroll, the teacher screeches behind him. Before she chases after him, her long nose catches the scent of smoke. She screams as she turned to find the halls caught in a hellish inferno, and something dancing among the flames. 

8

The fire alarm shrieks. Students flee from their classrooms, running from the spreading flames and sea of smoke. They exit the building, coughing from the inhalation of the toxic smog that fills every hall. Staff and students get out just in time. The fire bursts through the windows, raining glass onto the streets below.

In the halls, the flames continue dance, burning everything in their wake. Not all students were lucky enough to escape. Darrel and his friends find their route blocked by the arsonist. It pads the floor like a stalking wolf, but is as large as an elephant. Blood of its last meal streaks its ash colored fur. Three heads of the hell-hound snarl, liquid fire trickle from its massive jaws.

Allyssa is the one to ask, “I-Is that—.”

“Cerberus,” Darrel answers.

The beast howls, singing of destruction. It breathes fire, creating a wave that intends to capture everyone in the roar of flames. No time to run, the group stands firm waiting to be consumed. Suddenly, a winter’s wind rushes past them, dousing the flames and injuring Cerberus. Above the creature, a health bar dips over each of the heads, but just a sliver.

Alex Jones steps to the forefront of the party, a colorful wand held tight in her hand. She speaks a language foreign to this world, and found only in the game. Chanting brings a blizzard from the tip of the wand that sprays the beast, causing it to reel. All three suffer a quarter of their health lost.

“You can use magic?” Eric asks, his jaw hanging open.

“I guess so,” Alex answers with a giggle.

Her cheery attitude and hope of victory disappears when Cerberus attacks her with a chilling breath. Jones is knocked to the ground, half her health vanishing. Eric runs to her aid, while the others look to the beast. Despair runs rampant, as it has taken a new shape. Each head has changed. The left head has its fur shifted to blue crystals, ice forming for fangs. Its middle has been washed in a coat of fire. The final head appears electrified with its golden fur. All three of its new coats mix together with the ash coat.

“Fire, ice, and lightning,” Darrel grits his teeth, feeling helpless. “It’s Cerberus from the Under Realm.”

With Alex injured from the attack, and the other two without any gifts from Quest of Kings, it is up to Darrel to stop the beast. The last time it took an entire army to take the beast down. Now he must stand alone. He marches forward, as Cerberus unleashes a breath of ice, fire, and lightning. The elements come storming at him…

“Tartarus,” he calls out to the demon dwelling inside, “Give me your power!”

You dare order me, child!

“If you want to live as well, you shall do as I say,” Darrel answers, the attack barreling toward him. “And it is not child. I am Atlas Grey…” 

9

Darrel is struck by the attack, being consumed by fire, ice, and lightning. Alyssa shrieks, and tries to run into the fray, but Eric reels her back by her shirt. She is forced to watch her friend being ravaged by the elements, feeling so helpless. Yet in the storm, the growls of another beast brew.

Amusing child…I shall help you. Do not confuse this as me submitting to you. I merely need to teach my pet a lesson…

In the cloud of chaos, an armored figure rises. The iron crown upon its head scrapes the ceiling, towering over the lot. Cerberus appears a pup in comparison. A blood red cloak swirls from the elements. Upon the cloth is the emblem of the Under Realm. The black-steeled creature marches forward, a massive broadsword hanging from its belt. It reaches for the weapon, drawing it with a single pull. The King of the Under Realm, Tartarus, reigns forth.

You forget your master. For that I will be sending you back to the Under Realm…

He holds the massive weapon in both hands, requiring all of his strength to wield. Cerberus lunges at the armored king. A single stroke of the sword cuts across the beast, and depletes all three of its health bars. The hell-hound lets out one last shrill howl before bursting into shards, showering the area like sand. The flames that blanket the halls die with it, returning the school to normal.

Thankful, yet frightened, Alyssa manages to squeak, “D-Darell…”

The king turns to them, thrusting his blade into the ground at his feet. Tartarus stands like a sentry, staring intently watching the three humans through the slits of his helm. Then, the armored lord breaks apart like shattered glass. Left behind is his host, Darrel, the gauntlet still latched to his right arm. The young man staggers, left in a brief daze from the possession. He comes to when he finds Alyssa with her arms around him, a smile across her face.

**

“A useful distraction,” Troy smiles, as if he knows that the hell-hound has been slain.

The young corpse looks about the computer lab in which he has barred himself. Each screen shows the same image, the login screen of Quest of Kings loading. That is until they morph into black and violet swirls, a chorus of horrid sounds fill the room. Grimm finds the noise to be a pleasant orchestra for his intentions. Following the swirls of colors, he finds a familiar image, almost like a mirror.

Pallas’ three-sided face appears behind words on the screens, all asking “DO YOU ACCEPT CORRUPTION?” Troy looks eagerly at his former body, knowing that soon it will be back in his possession, and that he can discard the decaying facade. Running from keyboard to keyboard, he answers the question: accepting corruption to run wild in the world.

“All it will take is a single keystroke, and the world shall fall into madness,” he grins evilly, crimson eyes blazing bright with the fires of destruction.

10

Crash!

The door to the computer lab falls off its hinges, the heavy metal smashes into a handful of desktops. A high school freshman stands atop the downed door. Using it as a springboard, he vaults over the scrambled desks, and plants his sole into Troy’s chest. The corpse goes reeling to some keyboards, terminating the corruption onslaught that plagued the monitors.

“That’s for chomping on me yesterday, Pallas!” the attacker sneers.

Troy, truthfully Pallas, looks up to find the boy running at him, a baseball bat in hand. Planting his sneaker into the floor, he swings. The wood cracks into the undead skull. A hollow crunch fills the room, as splinters scatter around them. Even with his split bat, the freshman is far from finished. Taking what is left, he drives it into the corpse’s chest. Bloody spittle gushes from his mouth when he coughs.

“How?” Pallas gurgles, “Who…are you?”

“The name is Ryley Damien Flint,” the freshman answers, ripping the bat from Pallas. “You probably know me better as Damien Dark.”

Pallas tries to crawl away, but Damien attacks him again. A swift kick to his side takes the wind out of the undead boy’s lungs. Another sends him sprawling on his back. Damien continues the savage beating, intending to re-kill this necrotic titan. He only stops when his foot begins to hurt, pulling away a bloody sneaker. A soft groan comes from Pallas’ throat, meaning that he yet lives.

“I’m gonna make sure you die this time, you stupid boss,” Damien says, stepping away to find a makeshift weapon.

Believing the titan is done for, Damien mistakenly drops his guard. While his back is turned, Pallas crawls to one of the last working computers near which shows the message “DO YOU ACCEPT CORRUPTION?”. With his only working hand, he types in his answer.

Y-E-S

Meanwhile, Damien searches for some tool to finish the job. He makes do with a broken desk leg, holding the metal like a sword. When he turns to slay the beast, he is grabbed by a large skeletal hand. Troy is back on his feet, protected by a rib cage of charred bone. The upper body of Pallas surrounds the boy, regaining a portion of his undead might.

“The tables have turned on you yet again, Damien Dark,” he remarks. He and the three-faced skull share a grin. The boy continues to thrash in his bony grip, causing Pallas to laugh. “Such young strength, it would be a waste to snuff you out.”

His human eyes grow brighter, as he chants an ancient language of the game to invoke dark magic. Damien yells, frustrated that he cannot break free of the bones that bind him. Yet, with every archaic word uttered, his roars turn to screams, pain coursing through him. Whatever spell the undead titan is casting appears to be having an affect on the poor boy. The spell comes to an end when Damien’s body erupts in a flash of green light.

When the light fades, Pallas lets go of the body. Instead of a high school freshman, an undead lands to its feet. It is a knight, dressed in armor of bone and skulls. The helmet is the dead head of a dragon, a mesh of fangs hiding any remains of the boy hidden in the armor.

Pallas examines his Dead Knight with a satisfying grin, “Damien Dark, who do you pledge loyalty to?”

The soldier of bones crosses the blades built into his arms, as he kneels before the titan. In a voice as hauntingly hollow as his still heart, Damien speaks, “I pledge myself to you, my lord.”

11

A shrill, horrifying shriek fills the air. Darrel stands at the entrance to the locker room, his face a deep shade of red. By the lockers, his friend Alyssa covers herself with her gym shirt, while Alex, with her chest bare, lets a sly smile cross her lips. Time seems to stand still for a moment until Alyssa grabs her backpack and hurls it at Flint. He is still too stunned by the sight to move out of the way, and has his face smashed with a bag full of textbooks.

“Learn to knock!” Alyssa shouts at him, her face just as red as his. “It is bad enough I have to dress in front of this freak.”

She points an accusing finger at the gender swapped Alex, who giggles at her reaction. Darrel slinks up from the floor, but shields his eyes.

“Sorry,” he says, clearly embarrassed. “I got a text from my brother. He says that Pallas is here.”

He slinks out of the girl’s locker room and waits for the two to finish dressing into their regular clothes. In the halls they regroup, he and Eric are already dressed. Darrel even managed to snatch a jacket from one of the other lockers to help conceal the gauntlet. It hangs loosely on the rest of his body, looking more like an overcoat.

“So what are we going to do?” Eric is the first to speak.

“We’re going to find my brother,” Darrel answers. “Then we will go after Pallas.”

“With what?” Alyssa demands. “We didn’t even beat him in-game. We have no weapons, no armor, and no items. All we have is you and princess over here.”

“I guess we’ll have to go shopping then,” Alex smirks, keeping her hands on her hips.

While Alyssa and Darrel laugh it off, Eric thinks otherwise, “There’s that new hunting store down the block. We can buy Alyssa a bow and me an axe.”

“That won’t look suspicious,” Alyssa mocks.

“It is better than nothing,” Darrel speaks up. “At least we have a game plan. Now…”

Before they can continue formulating a strategy, something comes crashing down through the ceiling. Darrel pulls Alyssa out of the way as a steel beam smashes the spot where she stood. The group looks to find a massive foot, which picks up again, traveling to who-knows-where. Unable to stay stunned, they rush outside, or risk having the school fall on top of them.

In the parking lot, they find the stomper towering over all, casting a shadow that looks to stretch for miles. Even as it is hunched, the beast makes Pallas look like a dwarf in comparison. Its flesh appears gray and cragged, as if composed of stone. Long, bony arms pull itself along the ground to keep it mobile. A sharp head is carved in the stony form, giving it a long muzzle filled with sharp teeth. A mane of stalagmites drape around its neck, giving it a regal look. The creature appears blind, save for a blood red ruby in the middle of its head.

Rusted chains wrap around its limbs and torso, rattling as it stomps through the lot. Iron binds a castle to its back, one that appears desolate and haunted. The creature turns, causing the ground to quake with every step. As it peers down on the group, ten life bars float around its head, showing its nearly endless health.

“Uh guys,” Alex squeaks, looking up at the beast, “I don’t think that thing was ever in the game…”

12

A powerful quake ruptures beneath the hero’s feet, making it a struggle to stay standing. Even in the distance, the Cyclops presence can be felt when he takes a step. The towering beast still looks menacing, as it razed the school to the ground with a single swipe of its hand. Despite its threat to the town, Darrel and his friends have another priority. In order to fight off the creatures that seemed to have flooded into the game, they must arm themselves.

For that reason, they find themselves stepping through the sliding doors of Keith’s Outdoor Depot. A local hunter, Keith Urbane has received many company sponsors to open up this mega-store in this town. But once inside, the group finds that there is a new batch of hunters.

Keith lets out a horrid shriek as he crashes to the ground. A hovering health bar dips into the red. He rolls over to find his attackers crowding for him. Vicious skeletons armed with steel turn their weapons on him, finishing off the little health he had. The owner lays there motionless, his game now over. With another kill under their belt, the horde of undead turns their hollowed eyes on Darrel and the others.

“Alex and I will hold them off,” Darrel announces, freeing his gauntlet from the jacket. “You two go find something to fight them.”

“Right,” Alyssa answers quickly, and takes Eric into the store.

One of the skeletons turns to go after them, but Darrel makes sure it goes no further. He pounces on the bag of bones like a hungry lion, raking his claws through it. The undead minion crumbles to pieces, leaving only a pile of bones and a stolen machete. Darrel picks up the blade, and gives it a quick swing.

“It’s no sword, but it’ll do,” he says to himself.

A sudden clicking sound gets his attention, as he turns to find an axe-wielding one. The skull seems to rattle a battle-cry as it swings. Steel meets steel, Darrel offering the gauntlet up as a shield. Inside his mind he can hear Tartarus roaring in frustration, but nothing more. Their power struggle does not last long, as the skeleton suddenly becomes engulfed in flames. The creature thrashes as if it can feel the burning, but does not scream. Seconds pass before the fire dies, and the bones are reduced to charcoal.

“Don’t worry, Atlas-Baby, I’ll protect you,” Alex giggles.

‘Thanks,” Darrel answers, “Let’s go find the others.”

Toward the back of the store, they spot Eric and Alyssa with weapons. However, that is not all they find. A strange soldier armored in bones stands between them and their friends. Thrust at the knight’s feet is a massive great sword, one nearly as tall as he. Through the skulled helm, the Dead Knight observes those that surround him.

“Is that another enemy?” Darrel asks.

The Dead Knight turns abruptly toward him, “…”

A bead of sweat trickles down his brow, “I’m getting an uneasy feeling about him…”

The Dead Knight looks away and returns a hand to his sword. Pulling the bone blade from the ground, the floor becomes painted with archaic runes. Before the others realize what is happening, they become surrounded by some strange light.

“What’s going on, Atlas-Baby?” Alex whines.

An arena, a voice whispers among the dancing runes. Three may leave, but one must stay. Choose your champion…

13

“I’ll do it,” Eric Winters steps forward, brandishing his hatchet.

When he approaches the Dead Knight, the archaic text closes around just the two of them. The others are set free, but they do not leave just yet. They move toward their friend, only to be bounced back by the barrier still in place. Darrel reaches for his best friend, only to be shocked. He reels his hand away, the tips of his fingers singed.

“Guys, it’s okay,” Eric turns to them with a weak smile. “I’ll be fine. Once I’m done with this guy, I’ll catch up.”

“Be safe,” Darrel requests as he turns his back on his friend.

Reluctantly the group abandons him to fight the bone-armored knight. Both ready themselves, as the runes that keep them bound vanish. They are fighters ready to lay down their lives for the sake of others. The Dead Knight draws his great sword from the ground, tossing its weight over his shoulder. Eric keeps his hatchet prepared, but it looks miniscule compared to his size. He even stands a foot or two taller than the undead soldier. Yet compared to his warrior version in the game, he is not quite as fearsome.

Bones rattle, as the Dead Knight makes the first move. He swings his great sword with ease. The blade of bone meets the metal of the hatchet, and does nothing to slow down the soldier’s assault. The force of the blow bats Eric into the wall. Over his head, his health bar takes a dip, reducing by five-percent.

Getting back up, he throws his weapon to counterattack. The sharp blade sails through the air, digging deep into the Dead Knight’s shoulder plate. Eric grins when he sees the hit, but it soon fades when the armored soldier’s health does not diminish. His opponent simply wretches the axe free from his armor, and tosses it aside.

With moments gone from the opponent, the Dead Knight strikes again. Eric is helpless as the great sword meets his flesh. The bone sword is not sharp enough to rip through him, yet it is heavy enough to slam the poor boy onto the ground. Pinned under the weapon, he must watch as his own life force disappears. The health bar reaches the red, suffering monstrous damage from that last attack.

Reigning up his weapon, the Dead Knight stands over the weakened warrior. His sword held high, ready to plunge into Eric’s chest. Bones rattle again, sounding like chattering teeth as he tightens the grip. Thrusting the weapon down, he …

“Hold,” a voice commands the Dead Knight, stopping him.

The tip of the sword grazes Eric’s chest, poking into his shirt. Though he is safe, for a moment, he holds his breath, worried that his chest might puncture into the sword if he were to exhale. Looking around, he finds the man who orders the Dead Knight, a familiar face that approaches the soldier. The young man he recognizes from gym, Troy Grimm. Dead red eyes gaze down at him. Behind the student hovers a ghastly image, wroth with bones as black as the abyss. A three-faced skull looks hungrily at Eric. The gaze of Pallas seems to sear into his soul.

“You are the great warrior that fought me?” Troy sneers, squatting beside Eric to get a better look. “You are disappointing, a pitifully pathetic human.” Eric only answers with silence. “It is not that your body is weak, only your mind.” A fanged grin reaches the undead boy’s face. “I can offer you power, if you swear loyalty to me. Of course, if you were to refuse I can still make use of your corpse. Either way you will be subservient, only the former you will still live. So what’s your decision, Eric Winters…or should I say…Boyd Bersker?” 

14

Death hangs inches from his chest, a sword ready to plunge into his heart. Pallas has given him a horrid ultimatum, with his demise at the end of either path. With nothing else to lose, Eric gives the undead boss a third option. His massive hands reach for the razor-bone edge. It slashes at his flesh, but the brave young man ignores the stinging pain, ripping the weapon out of the Dead Knight’s hands. The weight of the weapon comes down on him, nearly killing himself. Yet, he manages to get it under control, and arcs it against the corpse held by Pallas. Troy Grimm, as he calls himself, has a deep cut raked across his chest. A still-heart keeps blood from being shed, yet the pale man stumbles.

The Dead Knight is too slow to stop the next strike, as he is batted away by the weapon. A quarter of his health vanishes from his health bar. Having both foes away, Eric finally gets to his feet, keeping his new sword at the ready. He turns back and forth between the Dead Knight and Pallas, making sure neither gets any closer than they need be.

Pallas stays the furthest back, the body of Troy holding the gaping hole. “Consider this your victory, child, but know that we will win this war.”

The image of Pallas wraps its rotting arms around Troy, and both vanish in a cloud of smoke. Eric turns to the Dead Knight and finds him gone as well. All that remains is the great sword that the skeletal soldier left behind.

“I’ll consider this loot,” Eric smirks as he hoists the heavy weapon over his shoulder. With his prize by his side, he leaves the store to catch up with the others.

**

A palace of darkness sits upon the Cyclops’ back, a denizen for a creature of unbridled evil. Through the veil of shadows, Troy and his faithful soldier emerge into what dim light the dancing candles bring. The living dead man appears worse for wear than he did moments ago. His wound has festered, appearing to be rotting at an alarming rate. What little life force the corpse had has been drained away from him, bringing Pallas to his knees.

“This body is at its limits,” he pants, sweat dripping down his pale face. “I need another soon.”

“Παιδί της καταστροφής , γιατί έχουν να μου αποτύχει”

A voice that quakes like thunder calls unto the undead god from on high. Pallas’ eyes climb the mountain of skulls to find a throne sitting atop. A figure keeps itself wrapped in shadows, yet by the fear in Pallas’ hollowed eyes, the throne is the being’s rightful place. Even the Dead Knight bows its head to the one sitting on the gilded seat.

“I throw myself at your mercy,” Pallas says, descending onto one knee in fealty.

“Άνοδος , το παιδί της καταστροφής . Έχω μεγάλη ανάγκη από εσάς ακόμα . Ένα σώμα είναι ό, τι χρειάζεστε για να δείτε στην βασιλεία μου . Θα έχετε επιτύχει ένα τέτοιο σώμα αντάξιος σας .”

“Thank you, my lord,” Pallas says with lowered head. “I will accept your gift humbly…”The ground opens up at the undead man’s feet, shadows crawling and writhing to escape, yet they only offer up another. A human body is thrown from their world, arms and legs bound by blackened chains. The man they hold captive is beaten and bloodied. The police uniform he wears is torn. The man is older than Troy by several years, but unlike the corpse, he appears far more stable a host. Pallas grins, looking down on his new body, when Greg Flint opens his eyes, and a scream can be heard throughout the palace of shadows. 

15

The earth shatters to pieces like broken glass. Darrel falls between the gaps, dropping into oblivion. Silver talons of the gauntlet save him by digging into the stone. Yet even with the strength of Tartarus, he cannot keep the grip for much longer. Peering up through the cracks in the ground, he sees the Cyclops batting one of his friends away like she was a gnat. In comparison to the colossal monstrosity, she may well be one. The creature roars, only to be blasted by a massive fireball. Hovering around its head are nine empty health bars, and one that is only a sliver of life-force in the tenth.

“Are you okay Atlas-baby?” Alex calls down to him.

“Don’t worry about me,” he says, panting, “Finish it off.”

As he makes the command, the Titan Cyclops gets back on its feet, towering over them. It rears back its head and lets out a sonic screech. Green light seems to shine through the cracks of its stony body, allowing it to glow with a forest aura. Only Alex can watch at the horrific sight, the health bars they have spent hours chipping at restore themselves. What took an eternity is undone in the blink of an eye.

“Did…did it just heal itself?” Alyssa asks panting, getting up from the savage swat.

“What?” Darrel gasps, trying to pull himself out of the crevice.

The beast roars, moving as if the battle had just begun. Meanwhile the other three are in a dire state. Their health bars are in the yellow, around forty-percent of their life left. Death nearly claimed them at one point or another.

“All hope is lost,” Alex cries, falling on her bottom.

“Not yet!” Darrel barks to his friends. Glaring at the gauntlet, he commands Tartarus, “If you have any power left, give it to me!”

The anger swelling in him seems to drive the evil spirit to a decision, as the young man is able to hoist himself out of the abyss with ease. Once he is planted back on the ruptured terrain, he is granted yet another gift from the Lord of the Under Realm. The rest of his armor has garnished his body, save for the helmet. A fresh bar of health hangs overhead, gearing him up for the fight.

But before he can strike, he sees a rather large figure rush by him carrying an equally large sword. Darrel and the others find it to be Eric Winters, sporting a new weapon. The big berserker jumps into the air as the Cyclops throws a punch into the ground. He lands atop its arm, using it as a bridge up to the creature’s face. Using the same ploy Atlas did to defeat Pallas, Eric makes his way to the beast’s face. Diving from the shoulder and driving his great sword into the jeweled eye of the titan. The bone blade pierces the gem, causing it to shatter.

The Cyclops stops abruptly, as if it were a toy whose plug had fallen out. It stays motionless, for but a moment, until it topples over, crashing into the school face first. The ten health bars have turned grey, like it were never a monster to begin with.

“Alright Eric,” Darrel shouts to his friend who stands triumphantly on the Cyclops’ head.

“Thanks,” he smiles, but then turns to the back of the beast. “I think Pallas is in there.”

He points to the castle with the tip of his blade, as the others scurry up the mountain of stone that was the devastating adversary. A massive palace is chained to its back, the gates wide open for them to explore.

“What should we do then?” Alex asks being the last to join the others atop the dead beast’s skull.

“Looks like the final level,” Darrel jests, looking to his friends. “You guys ready?” 

16

“I think you and your ragtag band are over their heads,” a familiar voice booms inside the dungeon.

A figure passes through the shadows, the iron gates upon the Cyclops’ back screeches open. Darrel is shocked to see his own father exiting the castle along with the Dead Knight.

“Dad?” he seems confused, “What are you doing here?”

His father chooses actions over words, giving a smile while a dark enigma flourishes behind him. The dark three faced demon, Pallas, shows itself. Its titanic image appears to sprout from Greg Flint’s back.

“Daddy isn’t here,” Pallas speaks through the father’s lips. “This corpse is in the control of another.”

Corpse makes Darrel turn a ghastly shade of white. Looking at his father, he notices the sunken eyes and yellowed flesh. What he fears is realized when Pallas tears at the police uniform he wears, revealing a gaping hole in his chest. It is an empty void where his heart used to be.

He is unable to mourn the loss when the Dead Knight rushes him. Darrel is too stunned by the death of his father to react, so it is Tartarus that throws the possessed gauntlet up against the undead soldier’s blade.

No time to be losing yourself, child!

By the time Darrel comes back to his senses, his friends have repelled the Dead Knight back. The bone-armored soldier stands beside Pallas, a new broadsword held at his hip.

Pallas looks to the others through the sunken, dead eyes, “I’m afraid you must excuse us. This is a family matter.”

Yellowing fingers snap, and Darrel’s friends are abruptly yanked into the ground. Rotting hands grab at them, pulling them into the depths. It is so quick that none of them have the chance to scream. Only Darrel is left; alone with his possessed father and the skeletal soldier.

“You said family matters,” Darrel’s voice cracks. “Call off your knight then.”

Pallas laughs, “Oh, but he belongs just like me.”

The undead god glances to the Dead Knight, giving him the subtlest of nods. The knight returns in kind, and then removes his helmet. Somehow, Darrel becomes paler when he sees his brother’s face, flesh rotted to the bone. His brother simply stares, not uttering a single word.

“Darrel,” Pallas sneers, “You’ve lost. You’re alone. Even if you somehow manage to defeat us, it will be hollow. Everyone you cared for is gone.”

Darrel winces at the thought, making Pallas burst into a sinister laughter.

“Do you doubt yourself?” Pallas continues to taunt. “Have no more drive?”

Darrel does not answer. For the first time in his life he does not act. He just keeps a blank look, eyes shifting between his father’s and brother’s corpse.

“No retort?” Pallas questions, a fanged filled grin across his face. “Then I guess this is Game Over.”

Pallas motions to Damien, who charges with sword drawn. The Dead Knight obeys, showing no hesitation of cutting down his own kin. Darrel watches his undead brother close the gap, but does not move a finger. The bone blade comes down.

Darrel falls to one knee, a deep gash across his chest. Above his head, the health bar reaches only a sliver of red. He keeps his head down while the Dead Knight raises his weapon for the finishing blow.

You stupid child, move!

17

Darrel sits on the ground with little hope left as his thoughts race in what feels like his final moments.

“This is the end . . .”

Move, you idiot!

“I lost . . .”

Do you want Pallas to win?

“No hope . . .”

He took everything from you!

“He . . . that’s right . . .”

Are you going to let him get away with it?

“No . . . I . . . I won’t. He won’t. He won’t get away with this!”

The boned blade of the Dead Knight swings to cut out the little sliver of health Darrel has left. Before its cracked edge can reach, Darrel catches it bare-handed. It slices into his flesh, but stops at the bone. The knight tries to cut through, but it refuses to budge.

Darrel growls, as he pushes the weapon away. “You killed my father, you killed my brother, and you killed my friends. I’ll make sure you pay!”

His anger seems to manifest itself. Fire begins to combust out of thin air, wrapping him in a cloak of flames. The Dead Knight drops his weapon and flees the consuming inferno that has become the boy. Even the undead god, Pallas, backs away from the young man when their gazes meet. Such seething hatred in Darrel’s eyes causes the great necromancer to tremble.

“I’ll kill you,” Darrel roars, his fury growing, “Nothing will be left!”

The fiery rage reaches its critical point, exploding with such fervent force it knocks Pallas and the Dead Knight on their backs. Dust and smog lingers for a moment, until it is dashed aside by a powerful gale. In the epicenter of the blast stands an ominous swordsman. The upper torso is protected with the spiked armor of Tartarus, while the rest has the robes of Atlas Grey. In the warrior’s hand is a sword that is as wide as he. The blade is cut in two, appearing to be the mouth of some beast with sharpened teeth connecting the steel together.

Darrel opens his eyes, burning in a golden hue soaked in a calming rage. Black scorches his gaze. He says not a word, but raises the unusual sword in the air. The teeth separate from each other, as if the weapon is opening a great maw. Suddenly, a shrill scream fills the air, the same scream Tartarus used against the police of the town. Pallas and the Dead Knight shield their ears, feeling the sudden pain of the attack.

He moves in a blur, attacking before either of the undead enemies could react. The Dead Knight’s health bar disappears just as quickly, being vanquished with a single strike. Pallas watches his bone knight crumble to dust and is no more. Then the dreaded swordsman turns those golden eyes onto him. Pallas throws his skeletal arms up just in time to intercept the sword. His massive health bar takes a heavy toll, dropping to half.

“I will not lose to a human,” Pallas defies defeat.

Darrel’s tone becomes cold, “Die to one . . .”

The sword opens its mouth again and releases a point-blank sonic screech. Pallas suffers the attack, his health draining fast while his skeletal form starts to crack. The undead god roars in pain, unable to stop it. Darrel takes the screaming sword and slashes at the weakened three-faced skeleton. The single blow causes it to shatter like glass. Pallas is left without power, with nothing left with the corpse of Greg Flint as a host.

Pallas lies against the wall of the castle, having no power left. The roles have reversed dramatically. Only a sliver of health remains of him, and a single strike will end the skeletal boss. The warrior that nearly beat him before now stands over him to deal the final blow yet again.

The undead god laughs. 

18

“You are quite the remarkable child,” a voice calls out to Darrel, causing him to stop the downward thrust of his blade, sparing Pallas of the final blow.

Soft soles step through the castle archway, basking another in the light of day. It is a man not much older than Darrel and the others, yet he has the look of wisdom beyond his years. Raven black hair is touched with wisps of gray. The crow’s feet around his eyes are partially hidden with the round glasses, which he slides up the bridge of his nose.

“Master Cronus, “Pallas grins.

Darrel knows the man by another name, “You…you’re Adam Werner. You created Quest of Kings.”

“That I did,” Adam says. “You are astute to know that. Many players do not bother to learn about the people who create the games they play.”

“What are you doing here?” Darrel looks horrified.

Adam smiles, “I am the final boss, after all. Cronus, as my fellow titan mentioned.”

“Master,” Pallas pleads, “Heal me, so that I may vanquish this human.”

Cronus, or Adam Werner, looks at the fallen titan, “You know that I cannot do that. It is against the rules for me to interfere with a boss fight.”

Pallas looks at his master with disbelief. “You forsake me? How dare you…you…you lowly human!”

Using the sliver of strength he has left, the undead god rises, summoning the skeletal guardian that is his true self. The three faced beast lashes out at Cronus, only to be batted away. The skeletal hand bounces off of nothing, as if struck by an invisible wall. Blackened bone shatters on impact, disarming the beast.

“Bosses fighting one another is also against the rules,” Werner says, adjusting his glasses. “As an administrator, it is my duty to deal with rule-breaking.”

Pallas continues with an onslaught, bashing at the barrier that protects his creator. Werner pays the titan no mind. With a wave of his hand, a keyboard seems to materialize from nothing. His hands begin to work diligently despite the fact that his own creation has turned on him. Each keystroke creates code that surrounds him in a sea of binary. Upon the last key, he looks to the three-faced skeleton, the creature he worked so hard to develop for players. One he hoped would be a grand challenge.

“Delete,” he says, without remorse.

Upon those words, Pallas begins thrashing wildly out of control. He roars, as if consumed by pain, trying to get his master before he falls. His hand hits the barrier and it shatters to dust. Roaring louder, he smashes his own head against the invisible wall, and Pallas’ entire body bursts, becoming the same black dust. It wafts in the air, before it is taken away by the wind. All that remains of the undead titan is the corpse that he possessed, Darrel’s father. The body falls limp. Darrel looks away from the corpse.

“Congratulations, Darrel Flint,” Cronus says, “You have faced many dungeons. Mastered the powers of Tartarus, and even managed to vanquish the undead titan, Pallas, alone. There is only one fight left; the final boss you must face is none other than me.”

Darrel tightens the grip on his blade, looking at the game master and final challenge.

19

“Why are you doing this?” Darrel demands to know.

“For the sake of the game,” Adam answers.

“You murdered my family,” Darrel seethes, clenching his teeth, “sent my friends to some abyss, ruined my life . . . all for your stupid game?”

The game creator chuckles, “Stupid? Darrel Flint, take a look around you.   Look what I have created in the real world. Look at yourself, how strong you have become.”

Despite his anger, Darrel knows it to be true. His physical strength has gone far beyond the normal realm, delving into the realm of superhuman.

“I have brought this world to the next step,” Adam Werner continues, “Each person can become their ideal self just by imagining it. Pain and illness are no longer a threat.”

“And death?” Darrel glares at the man who calls himself Cronus.

“Ah, yes,” he chuckles at the boy who calls himself Atlas. “The realm of life and death shall still belong to the gods. It will be up to them to determine such finalities.”

Darrel realizes, “Cronus, you intend to rule this world as a God!”

“Certainly not,” he admits, “No man can declare himself a god. Deities must be forged like tempered steel.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” Darrel shouts.

“It does not matter,” Cronus says, “It will all become clear soon enough. For now, draw your sword and fight me, Atlas Grey.”

Darrel grits his teeth, until calm overcomes him. Taking the monstrous blade in his hand, he slams the weapon into the ground.

“No,” he says defiantly.

“What?” Cronus looks surprised, “You are quitting before completing the game.”

“I’m not playing this game,” Darrel answers.

“Then all that loss you suffered will be for naught,” Cronus says.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says, “I have lost everyone that I cared about. Killing you won’t bring them back.

“Ah, but what if it does?” Cronus inquires.

Darrel looks at him in disbelief, “That’s impossible, you said…”

“I am aware of what I said,” Cronus interrupts, “Yet I am the creator. I am in control of all the code that is in the game. Code and flesh have merged, giving me control.”

“Then show me,” Darrel shouts, “Bring back my friends.”

Cronus smiles, “As you command.”

The same screen that he used to delete Pallas appears. Cronus’ fingers dance across the keyboard that has appeared before him, working line after line to correct the system as it is. Hitting enter, he motions for Darrel to look behind him. Obeying, Darrel finds his friends standing there, completely unharmed. Just the sight of them being okay brings tears of joy to his eyes. Eric Winters, Allyssa Cain, and Alex Jones are all there, perfectly fine with confused looks on their faces. Seeing them, Darrel drops his blade and lunges at them, wrapping his arms around all of them at once.

“What’s gotten into you?” Eric looks at his friend.

“I thought I had lost you,” Darrel sobs, choking back tears.

Alyssa looks over Darrel’s shoulder to see Adam Werner, “Wait, isn’t that…”

“Yeah,” the time for joy is over and Darrel let go of his friends to face Cronus, “The game’s creator, and the final boss.”

Werner folds his arms, smirking, “Atlas Grey, Sophie Sweets, Boyd Berserker, and Zale. Four powerful warriors have banded together to fight the final boss of Quest of Kings, Cronus. Should you prevail, then the fate of this world will be in your hands. Be defeated and Cronus shall rule…”  

20

“We’re ready for you, Cronus!” Darrel lets out a battle cry, drawing his weapon.

He and his friends arm themselves against the man that has plagued their town, the man that has thrown their lives upside down. Creator Adam Werner looks at the band of warriors from his pedestal at the castle gates. Below his feet is the corpse of the Cyclops that had once been their enemy. He looks at the creature he crafted pixel by pixel, something devious working in his mind. A smirk arises across his lips.

A wave of his hand summons the translucent keyboard he uses to control existence. Glancing at the warriors, he says, “I was not quite as ready for you, but I am now…”

His fingers dance across the board like a pianist playing a concerto. Binary code begins to crawl across the corpse like a cloak. Zeros and ones consume the body, and devour Adam in the process. He sinks into the body, leaving only a mound of glowing green numbers. Darrel and his fellow warriors remain ready, knowing that this is some sort of trick.

*Rumble*

“What’s he up to?” Allyssa scowls at the mountain of code.

*Rumble*

“Uh, guys,” Alex squeaks. “Did the Cyclops just move?”

A hand suddenly bursts through the cocoon of code. It tears at its prison, the beast breathing life anew. The final boss, Cronus, towers over them, growing twice as large as the Cyclops before it. Flesh of iron gray covers its body, though scattered like plates of armor. The exposed muscle glows like lava, as if the core of the beast is an unforgiving inferno. Looking down on the ants it calls humans is a monstrous version of Adam Werner. Solid eyes of white show no traces of the man within the monster.

“I am Cronus,” Adam bellows in a deep voice of his colossal form, “King of the Titans, God of this world, and mine to command!”

“Well, he’s one for the theatrics,” Allyssa points out, careening her neck to take in the entire form of the boss.

“Are you sure we can beat him?” Eric looks worried. “We couldn’t beat Pallas. And this guy is the king of them all…”

“Guys, don’t worry,” Darrel reassures them all, “No one is going to be crashing this time.”

Cronus makes the first move, slamming a mighty fist into the earth. The ground ripples like a wave beneath their feet, tossing them like dolls. Concrete melts from the sheer heat the titan’s body gives off. Running across the crumbling road, Allyssa reaches for an arrow and notches it to her bow. Planting her foot, she spins around and fires. It screams through the air, punching a hole through the fist. Cronus is silent as he stands up again.

Eric Winters gets his footing, racing back to the boss with his bone blade drawn. He lunges at Cronus’ heel, hoping to bring the giant to his knees. Slicing into the Achilles tendon causes lava to burst from the wound. The intense magma careens at him like a wave, ready to reduce him to ashes.

“I got you,” Alex shouts, waving her staff out in front of her.

Eric feels a blast of cool air rush past his face, ice forming between him and the lava. The frigid spell causes the lava to harden into molten rock.

Darrel leaps high into the air, swinging his horrific weapon. The mouth of the beastly blade opens, releasing an earsplitting screech. The sonic shriek causes the iron flesh to crack, but not much else. Cronus swats Darrel back down to the earth, causing him to crater in the concrete.

“Darrel,” Allyssa and Alex shout at once, Eric following behind as they approach their friend. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Darrel sits upright in the hole he made. “I don’t get it though. I hit him, but his health bar didn’t appear to record it.”

“You think he’s cheating?” Eric worries while helping Darrel up.

“I don’t think so,” he shakes his head, “He could just kill us at any point if that were the case. There’s got to be another reason.”

Cronus attacks again, causing the earth to quake. Darrel and his friends are attacked from below, as a giant spear breaks through the ground. They tumble while their health bars are sapped, reaching the yellow warning. Alex is the first to get up, using her staff to heal them. Quick incantations restore their health, though hers remains untouched.

“This is going to be just the like the fight with Oceanus,” Eric groans. “We’ll need to protect Alex so he…I mean she can cast healing spells.”

“Yeah just like…wait a minute, that’s it!” Alex giddily jumps. “I know why he has no health bar.”

Allyssa looks up nervously as Cronus grabs the flying spear that harmed them, “Well don’t leave us in suspense!”

“Cronus is just using abilities from other bosses,” she says. “Remember that boss we fought, the one that attacking didn’t do anything to him?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Darrel shouts, “It was Erebus. Instead of a health bar, he had three sigils on his body. Maybe Cronus is the same way.”

“That’s good and all,” Allyssa says, “But Erebus was a lot smaller. If they are in the same spot, we have a long way to climb.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Darrel argues, “We have a plan now. Eric, Allyssa, you two take out the shoulder sigils. Alex, stay out of the way and cast long range spells.”

“Got it,” his friends shout.

Cronus repeats his first attack, slamming his fist into the ground. While Alex retreats out of harm’s way, the three warriors head for the titan. Allyssa and Eric scale his arms. Cronus stands upright again, stretching out his arms to observe them, like insects scurrying across his body. Darrel meanwhile sneaks up the back of the titan, using the clawed gauntlets to climb.

Allyssa is surefooted, leaping from plate to plate of the boss’ armored skin. Lava erupts in bubbles nearby, creating obstacles. She changes directions, zigzagging her way through the field of fire. The journey is relatively short, as she stands along his shoulder. And there, sure enough, is a glowing insignia etched into Cronus’ body. Taking an arrow from the quiver, she draws her bow, ready to fire upon the sigil.

Her counterpart, Eric Winters, is not quite as agile, stumbling with every twitch Cronus makes. Lava sloshes at his feet, melting the soles of his boots. He yelps from the intense heat, but rushes away before he melts along with them. Hoping across the molten planes, he finds the other sigil. With the trusted bone blade at his side, he lunges through the air. He screams like the Berserkers of old, ready to pierce the glowing mark.

Darrel takes the furthest and most perilous of the sigils. Reaching the top of the head, he sneaks quietly to not alert the boss. Unsheathing the sword from its scabbard, he steps to the forehead. The screeching blade is thrust into the flesh, piercing…nothing!

“What?” Darrel gasps.

The ground beneath him trembles; Cronus laughing triumphantly, “Foolish warrior! Do you think me foolish enough to put ALL the sigils in the same spot?”

Adam revels in victory, even as both the sigils at his shoulders are destroyed. A monstrous grin crosses his face. He slams his hands together as if praying. A light shines overhead, Darrel turning upwards to see. Floating over them in the heavens is a ritualistic circle. It shines golden as archaic symbols are etched in the air. Cronus chants in a tongue unknown to Darrel, as the circle finishes itself.

“Cronus shall rule,” Adam shouts from within the King of Titans, “Tremble at God’s Light!”

The earth trembles as light rains down from the sky like thousands of daggers. Piercing the earth, they explode, basking the world in a blinding light. The spell is complete, and the light fades. Cronus still stands, where the others have fallen. Each only has a sliver of health left, but they are no longer able to fight. Darrel has fallen, sliding down Cronus’ head. The young man that has been through so many trials no longer has the strength to even hold one. Slipping off, he plummets to his death.

“It is over, Warrior of Tartarus,” Cronus laughs, watching Darrel fall. “So much you have overcome, all undone with dead. There is nothing now…”

Darrel fades in and out. His vision blurs, yet he sees something glowing against Cronus’ chest. Carved over the heart is the final sigil.

“Sorry guys,” Darrel says, holding his sword tightly, “Looks like I’m crashing after all.”

Though he barely has any strength, he throws his sword just as he passes the chest on his way to the grave. It pierces the iron skin of the titan, but misses the sigil. Cronus begins to laugh, when he suddenly lurches forward. The blade lets out its sonic screech, resonating throughout the titan, causing the sigil to shatter. With the final sigil destroyed, Cronus roars as his body explodes.

Debris rains around Darrel Flint, as he hits the unforgiving ground.

Two months later

“Hey wake up,” a voice shouts to a young man lying in bed.

Darrel Flint opens his eyes with a loud yawn. Crawling out of bed, he stretches before going downstairs. In the kitchen he turns red when he finds his friends all around the table waiting for him. He looks down, embarrassed by the dragon pajamas he is sporting.

“Are you going out in that?” Allyssa smirks

“I think they look good on Atlas-Baby,” Alex giggles. “They’d look better off, though.”

Darrel flushes at the thought, “I-I’m gonna go change.”

“Hurry up,” Eric shouts as his friend runs back upstairs, “We are going to go grinding.”

Darrel comes back down a few minutes later dressed much differently. Steel and black cloth gowns his body, the attire of Atlas Grey. Thrust over his shoulder is the screaming blade.

“Alright guys,” he says to his friends, “Let’s play.”

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