Friend Ann on Facebook!  
Ann on Tumblr!  
Visit Ann's Blog!  
Ann on Twitter  
Ann on Pinterest  

Virtual Warrior

Perfect Heroes #3
Ellora's Cave
October 2013
ISBN: 978-1419946479

Buy eBook edition:

Order print edition:

The enemy stands at the border...
Ardra needs a strong warrior to save her fortress...
Neil needs a place to lick his wounds and heal...
he wishes he'd gone to Tahoe!

Chapter 1

Stars moved through a midnight sky. Planets converged, bowed to one another, and continued on in their timeless journey. A small green figure, much like a zucchini with arms and legs, appeared. A red question mark bobbed over its head.

Neil Scott watched the creature as it hopped about his computer screen, indicating stars and planets with a pointed finger tipped in yellow. Across the bottom of the screen facts about each heavenly body the creature highlighted appeared and disappeared.

He punched in another search request, then paused, hands poised over the keyboard and listened. He heard only the rain's gentle beat against the roof and the sounds of the computer processing his request.

The office of Virtual Heaven, his video game shop on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, was chilly and dark except for the glow from his computer. The clock on the monitor said 7:12 PM.

"What are you doing here so late?" he asked without looking up.

"Damn. How'd you know it was me?" Gwen Marlowe, his partner in the shop asked. "I was really quiet."

Neil swiveled around to face her. She was a black silhouette against the shop lights behind her. "You smell like roses."

She shook her head, flipped the wall switch, flooding the small space with a stark glare. "What are you doing here, Neil? I saw your car out back, but no lights. I figured you were in here brooding--" She frowned. "What's this? Astronomaniacs? Isn't that a computer program for kids?"

Neil shrugged. He pulled off his tie and looped it about the neck of the desk lamp, a habit he knew Gwen hated. "The program may be for kids, but it's really easy to understand--"

"This is a list of lunar conjunctions." She shoved him over and leaned in to peer at the screen. Her short blonde hair was damp from the misty rain outside. She still wore the neat black suit from his mother's funeral that afternoon.

"So what?" And so much for distracting her with the tie wars. He quit the program, rose, and strolled out of the office. Gwen trailed him into the main room of the shop, weaving between aisles of computer and video games.

"So, why would you be interested in conjunctions? Lunar conjunctions in particular?"

"It was stellar conjunctions and why not?" Neil sealed Astronomaniacs in plastic and then tossed it into the used program bin. "Why aren't you home with your husband?"

"Oh, I was, but this is the night my sister tutors Vad. I got tired of hearing Vad's dissertation on why he'll never use Algebra down at the restaurant. If he spent as much time doing the problems as complaining . . . oh, you don't need to hear this. Let's just say he never bickers over his history lessons."

Neil kept her diverted. "So who's baby-sitting little Natalie?"

"When I left she was in her usual position, curled up in Vad's lap. She's cutting her three year old molars and only daddy will satisfy her." Gwen tapped Neil's shoulder. "You're not really interested in Vad's education or Natalie's teeth, so what's going on?"

Neil could not help glancing at the poster behind Gwen. It advertised the latest and hottest of virtual reality games--Tolemac Wars III. She whirled around, then back to him. "Oh, no. You can't be . . . you wouldn't . . . you aren't thinking about going into the game, are you?"

Gwen reminded him of a wet hen ready to chase a misbehaving rooster. He cleared up the service counter to avoid eye-contact. "Why not? You did. Or so you say."

He could almost hear her grit her teeth. "You don't understand. I've told you this before; it's a barbaric world, complete with slavery."

"So I'd have to make sure I went as something other than a slave." Lying across the end of the service counter in the front of the shop was the jacket from his suit, a brand new suit purchased for today's funeral. He planned to take it off and never put it on again.

Gwen shook her head. "Please. Don't make me crazy."

"Then butt out." Neil pulled a small box labeled "Salt Water Taffy" from beneath his jacket and shook it. "This is all that's left of my mom's jewelry. Did you know she gave away the stuff from my dad? I never understood that."

"I know you're probably sick of sympathy from this afternoon, but I'm so sorry about your mom. She seemed to be getting it together there for a while."

He nodded and flipped open the box lid. "Yeah. I did a great job, didn't I? Really took care of her."

Without a word, Gwen wrapped her arms about him and gave him a big hug. He stood it for about ten seconds, then broke away.

She frowned at him. "You can't blame yourself for what happened. You quit a fantastic job in New York for her. You put your life on hold to help her."

"Yeah. Little good it did." Suddenly, his head ached. "Why don't you go rescue your sister before Vad reverts to warrior mode and trashes his math books?"

"Neil. You have to stop beating yourself up. You weren't driving the car, she was."

"Yeah," he said. It was all he seemed able to say today. Yeah, my mom drove her car into a bridge abutment. Yeah, second time for that trick. Yeah, she's dead this time.

Gwen examined the collection of jewelry and then slowly draped all that remained of his mother's life in a neat row. Except for two items, what remained was costly and mostly bought in moments of depression--something pretty to cheer herself up, she'd said.

As if to echo his thoughts, Gwen said, "This is pretty." She held up a small chain with a cross on it.

"Take it for Natalie," he said, glad of the change of subject. "Mom really liked her."

"Thank you." Gwen carefully wiped a tear from her cheek. "What's this?" She held up a glistening object about the size of Natalie's thumbnail--a tiny red rose. "Is this glass?" she asked.

He nodded and took it from her. "My grandfather worked at the glassworks in Millville. He made these earrings for my grandmother. There should be another somewhere." He plucked it from a tangle of necklaces. "I guess I should keep them together." He stirred the pile with his finger until he found a simple chain. He threaded it through the earring shanks and gave them to Gwen. "Would you like them?"

"They're lovely, but I couldn't possibly take them. If your grandfather made them, you might want to give them to your own daughter one day." She put all the jewelry into the box.

"No thanks. The last thing I want is kids. No offense to Natalie, she's a doll, but kids are a huge responsibility. The last thing I want is responsibility--of any sort. I'd just screw it up anyway."

"Neil! You can't think like that." Gwen slapped his hand.

He walked over to the game poster. "So what do you think of this newest Tolemac Wars game? Really a departure from the norm, isn't it?" Damn. He'd brought the conversation right back to where he didn't want to be.

Gwen stood in front of the Tolemac Wars poster and tapped her bottom lip with a manicured fingertip. "I can't decide if I like it. I'm used to a warrior as the feature character . . . and this time it's a woman--"

"What about The Unknown? He's a man."

"Yes, but he's so . . . spooky. If you choose to play the Unknown Warrior, you're inside his head when you're playing, you see what he sees, move with him and so on, just like when you choose to be one of the other characters, but you never really know whose side he's on . . . he's . . ."

Neil couldn't help smiling. "Unknown?"

Gwen didn't smile back. "I don't like him. He could so easily be on the side of evil."

"Sometimes it's good to be bad." He wagged his eyebrows.

"I know you don't really believe that."

"It's a game, Gwen. Check the stats on this game and you'll see the Unknown is the most selected character to play, and let me tell you, the dozens of men who line up to play him are not interested in Refrigerator Girl."

Gwen giggled. "Is that what you call her?"

Unlike the earlier versions of Tolemac Wars that attracted flocks of women because they featured a really ripped guy, this game poster portrayed a woman. She guarded the ice for the Selaw.

The ice was the source of all the hostilities between Tolemac and the Selaw and hence the reason for the many wonderful outbreaks of war that kept the game series going.

Everyone wanted the ice and what may lay beyond it--lands with fantastic weapons and great riches.

Gwen claimed she'd described Refrigerator Girl for the game's creator, and Neil knew she was quite proud of that accomplishment. Gwen also claimed the woman she'd help create for the game really existed. The idea was tantalizing.

Neil leaned his back on the counter and folded his arms over his chest. "She looks as cold as her product. And too skinny."

"Yeah, she's a bit thin. I'd kill to be that thin again."

"Again?" Neil stared at Gwen's waistline.

"Shut up." Gwen fisted her hands on her hips. "She's beautiful, though, isn't she? And in real life, not a bit icy."

"In 'real' life. O-o-okay," he said with a grin.

"Yes. In real life."

Neil held his hands out palm up. "Okay, she's real and beautiful. Just in a boring way. Sorry."

"I suppose you like your women with . . . ?" She held her hands in front of her chest.

"With a big rack? Sure. I'm as shallow as the next man."

"I don't get why men are so attracted to big breasts."

He shrugged and walked away from the counter and stared out of the shop window. Only a few lone souls walked along the Ocean City boardwalk on this misty evening in November. Rain dripped down the large display window, distorting the view, but he had it memorized. No matter where he went, he could close his eyes and see the Atlantic Ocean in all its many guises and smell the scents that were only found near the shore.

The wooden boardwalk extended beyond his vision. He could not see the nearby lights of Atlantic City to the north.

It would be 8:03 in another twenty-two minutes. "Why don't you go, Gwen? I'll set everything up for tomorrow and lock up."

"You wouldn't really try to enter the game would you?"

He saw her anxious face reflected in the shop window. He shrugged. "Maybe one day. Don't worry, I'll leave you the store in case I don't return."

"Stop it, Neil." She grabbed his arm.

His anger felt on the edge of control. He turned to face her. "You did it. Or so you claim."

"Accidentally. If you went in, it would be for all the wrong reasons."

"Wrong reasons?" He strode to the service counter and picked up the taffy box, shook it. "What reasons? This is all I have--"

"And the store." Gwen hurried to his side, the staccato tap of her high heels echoing in the empty shop.

"You don't need me here. Let's face it. I've had it with everything and everybody." His hands felt sweaty. She was going to screw it all up. He forced his face to relax into a smile. "I just need a vacation. Maybe I'll go to Tolemac or maybe . . . Tahoe. Why don't you let me decide what to do with my life?"

"I know you gave up a lot to help your mom, but was it that bad?" she asked softly.

He couldn't meet her eyes. "No. It wasn't. Lots of it was good. Just go home, would you? I need a vacation, that's all. I want to get the inventory together, then I'll lock up."

She worried it like a dog with a bone. "If you went into the game, I might never know what happened to you!"

"I'll send you a message no matter where I go. Surfing in Maui, rafting on the Colorado, questing in Tolemac. Satisfied? Now let it go, Gwen."

"Yes, but what if something happened, you got sick or hurt or lost or--" She counted out the possible perils to his life on her fingers.

"Or killed in a car wreck on the Parkway? Anything could happen anywhere, any day." He slapped her purse into her outstretched hands and had to physically restrain himself from checking his watch.

"You're coming home with me. Right now. You need company. I'll make some coffee, and you can explain to my dear husband how you use Algebra in your daily life. Come on."

Neil gave Gwen a hug, then quickly released her. "Forgive me, Gwen. I didn't mean to upset you. I'm just feeling a bit maudlin is all. Please, just ignore me and go home." When she hesitated, he forced another smile he didn't feel. "Anyway . . . I couldn't lie to your husband. I never use Algebra." Her shoulders relaxed, and he pointed at the shore outside the window. "We're going to have more beach erosion if this storm escalates. If the roads flood, you'll be stuck here all night."

And I'll miss the conjunction.

Then she sighed and nodded. "Okay. But don't stay here too long. Go home. Maybe call that girl who came to the funeral. Eve? Right?"

"Yeah. Eve." He'd never call Eve. When he'd needed her most, she'd left him. She couldn't understand how he could trade a place on Wall Street for a place on the Ocean City boardwalk, hadn't really understood the responsibility he felt for his mother. Eve, too, had said he wasn't responsible for her. But both Gwen and Eve were wrong. He had been responsible. And he'd failed the miserable assignment.

He accompanied Gwen to her car and watched her drive off. When her tail lights disappeared around the corner, he grabbed his suit jacket and the jewelry box, then ran quickly upstairs to the apartment above the shop. Only thirteen minutes remained.

The apartment was deserted, used only for storage these days. He dumped the contents of a carton labeled Costumes/Tolemac Wars Ball out onto a bare mattress and rooted through the contents.

He rejected the warrior stuff because the leather jerkins left the arms bare. Although he worked out and ran everyday, warriors needed armrings and those he didn't have. Finally, he found what he was looking for, a linen shirt and a long scarlet robe, heavily embroidered with gold. It was a generic costume denoting a man of wealth, possibly a merchant or craftsman.

"Let's see if you can figure out where I've gone, Gwen," he said aloud as he carefully placed the empty carton so its label faced the door.

In a few moments, Neil had stripped to his shorts. He continued his one-sided conversation. "You'll probably be a bit pissed with me in the morning, but I figure tonight's the night. As they say, it's written in the heavens--virtual heavens, that is."

He slipped the linen tunic over his head. It fell to mid-calf and struck a strange contrast to his boxers but would conceal the tattoo on his arm. Next he belted the long scarlet and gold robe about his middle with one of his old leather belts studded with silver conchas. It was Southwestern, not virtual-reality, but so what?

His old hiking boots which he pulled over some ski socks didn't go with the rich robe, but he'd buy more appropriate footgear when he got there.

There. An almost euphoric sensation coursed through him. There no one knew him, and no one depended on him.

He poured the box of jewelry into a soft leather pouch which he suspended from his belt. "Sorry for lying, Gwen. Except for the glass earrings, this stuff is all destined for barter. I figure real gold and silver are going to be just as useful a commodity in Tolemac as it is in the good old US of A."

Especially if he went by the jewels draped around the neck of Refrigerator Girl on the Tolemac Wars poster.

In case Gwen missed the costume hint, he arranged his suit on the bed with one arm pointing to the window. He took a final look at himself in the mirrored closet doors. His hair was too short, but hair grew. There was nothing he could do about the hole in his earlobe--or his tattoo. He checked his watch. Time to go.

With a deep breath, he headed back down to the shop and into the booth housing the Tolemac Wars virtual reality game. It was four free-standing matte black walls surrounding an inner room, also with black walls. The inner room had a wide screen for spectators who wished to watch a player's progress through the game. Players wore headsets and lived the experience. It was expensive, heady, and very addictive.

He started the game and consulted his watch. With satisfaction, he heard the close crack of thunder. The storm was escalating right on schedule.

As the game warmed up, he felt sweat prickling his neck and back. Despite his subtle and not so subtle questioning, Gwen had only vaguely explained how she'd come and gone from the virtual reality game. Conjunctions were important to the process. So were the designs of the ancient Celts--and a power boost.

The stars were in alignment. Almost. The Celtic design he'd taken care of at Sid's Family Tattoos (Walk-ins Welcome) on the night Eve had deserted.

The power, whatever it was, must come from someone or something greater than himself. He didn't really believe in any of it, but he didn't believe in anything in his life in Ocean City either.

The hum of the game filled the room. The words Tolemac Wars III flashed on the huge white screen before him, filling the purple Tolemac sky like angry clouds. The O in Tolemac was the flaming scarlet sun of the virtual reality world. He felt as if he stood on a mountain, a distant row of jagged peaks straight ahead. They were aglow in a wash of violet, crimson and gold.

The title turned and twisted, blowing in the wind across the screen over a landscape of mountain meadows and towering pines. As the words twisted, the sun faded and vanished, the O becoming the turquoise of a Tolemac moon. The sky deepened to indigo.

A woman in green appeared by a stand of pines. She was sweetly pretty, reed thin, gliding with elegant grace toward him along the meadow. An uptight librarian dressed for story hour. "Prissy, boring," he said to the screen. "Go tend your ice."

The woman conjured a fire in her hands. She turned in a circle casting small flames from her fingers. A ring of candles sprang up, surrounding her. The flames lit her face, touched her blonde hair with gold. Neil waited for what he knew came next.

She vanished.

The Tolemac Wars title shredded apart leaving only the turquoise moon behind.

Neil took off his wrist watch and set it where he could see it on the control panel. When he looked up again, three other moons rose slowly through a sky now filled with stars.

The view shifted, spun, turned.

Terrain sped before him on the screen, taking him deep into a landscape of forest, an ancient night-filled forest, so dense, it looked like a maze. Finally, the dizzy kaleidoscope of movement halted and he was back on the mountain meadow, now bathed in the luminous greenish blue of the four moons.

Tapping a few keys with practiced ease, he chose the character he wished to play. The Unknown. A man with no face, owing allegiance to no one, taking part in the Tolemac wars if he wanted, fighting for good or for evil if he wished. He could go either way. His choice. Not someone else's.

Thunder reverberated overhead and he smiled his satisfaction.

His watch said 8:03. Lifting the headset, he put it on.

He pressed play.

Continue to Chapter 2


Return to top