The Screenshot of Dorian Mage

Dorian woke up. The sun was shining through the window. Birds tweedled. It was a lovely June day. He turned over and nuzzled his girlfriend's hair and kissed her neck, and she stretched and made lovely little noises.

"Fancy a pre-breakfast shag?" Dorian said.

"That'd be lovely," she said, turning over and pulling him closer. She had great tits. Dorian loved his girlfriend.

In the land of Arguna, Mithrodas the Unsettled sat in the doorway of his hut, peering out into the gray fog surrounding the village. Off in the distance, wolves howled. Much closer, something shrieked once and went silent. The dark shapes of decrepit hovels loomed around him. It was cold, and damp, and droplets of water clung to every surface.

Ye gods, he thought, pulling his ragged blanket tighter and clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. What's keeping that wandering hero? He'd only asked him to kill that wild boar that kept digging up his turnips. In return, Mithrodas had promised his last valuable possession – that tarnished ring of dubious provenance with the snake carved into it. Passed down in his family for generations, sacred heirloom, all that. His grandfather – gods keep his soul and make him happier than I am – would be spinning in his grave.

Well, Pop-pop, and Papa after you, you aren't hear now, are you? You lived back before things got hard, before the Mist and the Snow and the Wolves, before the sun was blotted out and the land flooded with evil swampwater and the earth stopped giving. Back when things were good, and the hut was filled with fuckin' heirlooms, so you could hardly move for tripping over swords from the Old Campaigns, or that musket somebody won at a festival a million years ago. Before my wife and kids had died of the Crying Plague, and my knees went bad, and my back twisted, and I can't walk a mile for coughing. Before I traded every bit of metal I had in return for small favors. Puts things a bit in perspective, doesn't it, Pop-pop? So why do you appear at the foot of my bed every night, shaking your beard and telling me I've got a hot iron bed reserved in the Underworld?

Mithrodas stood in the entrance of his hovel, and stewed, and worried. The hero would come back, he was sure of it. That ring had some power. Killing that boar was a small price in return for such a relic. The hero would return. He had to.

Mithrodas started at the sound of another wolf howling. He shut the door quickly and locked it. The fog closed in.

Dorian walked to work whistling in the sunshine, balls pleasantly aching. He'd spent the last hour boning his girlfriend into a state of utter distraction. Woke up the neighbors with her yelling. Three orgasms, two different positions. Not bad for a wakey-snakey. Sure, he'd be late for work, but his boss didn't really mind, not with the money rolling in like it was.

The sunlight shone through the leaves, yellow-green. Dazzling. It's like he'd noticed them for the first time. Hell, he noticed them every morning, but it always seemed brand-new. The sun was warm, the breeze was just cool enough that it felt like fresh water flowing in his face. He whistled at a robin, and the robin whistled back, tugging up a worm in a well-manicured lawn. A neighbor waved to him, and Dorian waved back. He didn't know the guy's name, never been to his house, but he was a friendly old duffer. Nice neighborhood where everyone minded their own business, except the kids, who were always playing basketball around the various hoops in the well-maintained driveways.

Dorian's office building was right around the corner. It was brightly-colored with large, modern windows. A sort of Google-plex lookalike. He sauntered through the clean glass doors, and nodded to the smiling, happy employees as he passed.

Captain LeCaar jerked his sword from the carcass of an orc, wiping the black blood on its tattered furs. All around him in the billowing smoke resounded the clash of weapons and shrieks of the dying. He was dazed, boggled, unsure of which direction he was headed, and – yes – shaking like a leaf. That orc berserker, a nightmare of gray-green muscle with fiery eyes and boarlike tusks, had split his chestplate with a single blow of its great-axe. An charmed chestplate, at that! Carven like unto a snarling lion, imbued with layers of magicks woven by the finest sorcerers of the Kandilarth Empire. The orcs must have their own enchanters, just as powerful, or perhaps…perhaps the magick was failing…

He cast the horrible thought from him, shook his head to clear it. Must get back to my company, he thought. He just needed a mend and a sit-down, and then his mages could put more layers of magical protection around him. The enemy's magic was strong now, so his own would have to be stronger; the escalation of things was getting out of hand, everything was magical now, down to the horses' harness, his socks, eating utensils. It was getting into the food, even. Men were walking around with sores, their hair falling out…but surely the magicks were harmless, otherwise the Generals would never approve all these new enchantments…

Captain LeCaar, head down, nearly stumbled into another man coming from the opposite direction, moving laboriously in the sucking mud and bloated carcasses. He was dressed in maroon robes and a wide-brimmed hat, covered in mystic runes, but not bespattered with mud and fluids of dubious provenance; he carried an ash staff in his hand. The two men stared at each other, startled, yellow eyes standing out in ghostly faces, dark circles in each socket.

"Birathor!" LeCaar finally spluttered. "My most trusted mage…how fare you?"

Birathor's mouth flapped open once or twice, and he sputtered as his last wispy traces of beard stuck to it. His lips were covered in sores. "I lost my platoon," he said, then backtracked. "Not lost-lost, I just mean, I can't find them, Captain. I sent out a locating spell, but I sort of lost track, it's so hard to concentrate out here…"

Something groaned by the Captain's feet. A huge green hand clamped down on his ankle. Instantly Birathor lunged, sparks flew, and the orc's arm shattered into a greasy, smoking stump. Birathor stared at it, shaken.

LeCaar dropped a heavy hand on the mage's shoulder. "Birathor, I need you to focus. Where is the Hero?"

Birathor looked up slowly, blinked twice. "He was with Griffon Platoon…they had his standard flying and everything…" He shook his head again, trying to dislodge the mental fuzz. "He was like a whirlwind of fire and spells, tearing through the enemy line, sword flashing. You should have seen him!" He looked up at LeCaar with a face suddenly enlightened, eyes sparkling, as if he were seeing the whole scene again. Then he faltered, and his face drooped. "Something happened…he just…just disappeared. Like he was there, and then a second later, he was gone. Like he'd never existed."

"We have to find him," LeCaar said, squeezing Birathor's shoulder so that the Mage groaned and stooped. "We can't win this battle on our own…the orc-horde outnumbers us a hundred to one…they'll swarm the Citadel…"

There was the sound of a trumpet – huge, deep-throated and awful. And then, through the clash and screams of the dying, a howl rose up, raising the hackles on LeCaar's neck. Birathor moaned. The sound of pagan drums, shrieking pipes, and clashing symbols echoed across the field. Was there movement in the fog? A great black mass of creatures, lurching, loping, galloping, shambling over the mud on broad reptilian feet? Was that breeze just now, the collective exhalation of a million charnel-house throats, desperate to sate their thirst for human blood…?

LeCaar turned about. He looked down at his sword – his enchanted blade. It seemed so thin, so small, the fell tracings of enchantment so ridiculous, child's scratchings. And so he raised it above his head, his prick-needle, and he let out a hoarse yell that fell into the woolen blanket of the fog and turned thin.

"The Citadel!" his tiny voice hollered against the wall of approaching, barbarian sound. He advanced through the mud, one agonizing step at a time, while Birathor remained frozen in place behind him. "Long live Kandilar!"

Dorian sat down in his ergonomic chair in his spacious, sun-lit office. There was a red-eye latte waiting on his desk – double-shot of Espresso, hot and fresh. The receptionist had the hots for him, she wanted to be his secretary. Chuckling, he booted up his sleek desktop computer, which bounced to life with a cheery little sound. He opened his company email and waited for it to load, sipping his coffee.

Not much in the old Inbox – a couple of meetings he didn't have to go to, an invitation to a birthday party for one of his colleagues. His boss had sent him a congratulatory note on closing the Jenkins Account. He opened it and read it over twice, smugly; the old bitch had eaten crow, sure enough, and this was icing on the cake. He could picture her in her office, door closed, clicking "Send" before kneeling on the floor in front of a tanto knife and a cup of sake. There'd be cherry blossoms raining down. The scene was so ridiculous, Dorian couldn't help giggling, and he moved his mouse to exit the work browser.

One last Unread item caught his attention. He looked at it for a long time. His brow darkened. How had his spam filter missed this one?

The message was titled, "DarkLands Needs its Hero!" He clicked it open. The message had a darkish background, over which the DarkLands title hovered in golden letters, ringed with fire. Very slick. The body read, "Ye gods! You haven't signed on in over two years! The universe of DarkLands is in desperate need of you!" or something to that effect. It was like getting one of those, "I'm going to die someday" cards from your grandmother, contemplating her mortality in a breezy, chirpy way calculated to trigger your Massive Guilt Complex. Well, DarkLands wasn't his mee-maw, that's for damn sure.

The message got worse. Down below the bulleted sell-points ("Massively multiplayer online adventure-gaming experience for any skill level!" "Open-map worlds allow for endless exploration!" "A hundred and fifty levels with branching skill tree!") were a selection of actual messages from his war-party, under the heading, "Heed the call of your allies!" Sure enough, there was a dozen entries from CroMagnum667, mostly along the lines of "dude" and "hook me up dor-dor we be questing" or "wtf r u?" and other inanities along that line. Interspersed with CroMagnum's bon mots were others, including Galadrielf1987, WarWulf32, PrinzXizor999; even a passionate screed from MoonBlayde, full of capital letters, going on about how "my so-called FRIENDS who don't want to campaigne [sic] w/me anymore and im so sick of the FONYNESS [sic] yall dont know how DEPRESSED I AM ALL THE TIME and this is my only OUT-LET [sic, sic, etc., all the way down]…"

Christ, Dorian thought, scrolling down. I used to be one of these people. The messages stopped at around twelve or so, but Dorian figured there were a lot more. The latest was dated two weeks ago. Looking at the tiny, serifed letters in the message boxes, green against the dark background, Dorian almost felt like he was back in his dark room at the old apartment, blue light painting his face from the screen, pale and bloated, his acne-riddled face framed by greasy hair, eyes unreadable behind his thick glasses. Wearing that black shirt for some death-metal band he'd forgotten about under a black zip-up hoodie, unzipped over his gut, right hand on the mouse, left hand tapping the keyboard, wrist encased in a Carpal-Tunnel brace. Behind him in the room, outlined faintly by the streetlights of the early morning, his room was a den of piled clothes, pizza boxes, old computer equipment. He had a mattress on the floor. The walls and ceiling were slowing coming apart. There was one standing lamp, globe askew, whose working condition he hadn't ascertained in a month or so. He was pulling unemployment. He rarely went out. He was too busy saving the DarkLands.

Dorian shook himself, looked around. Everything was light and bright colors. His old smeary glasses were gone, replaced by thick frames; his hair was cropped close on the side, piled in a sculptured mass on top. No more black clothes – tight 505 Levis over high-tops, brown shirt showing off his taut physique. No more grease, no more smell.

He smiled, reassured. He closed the message, clicked the checkbox next to its line on his inbox, hit "Send to Spam", and noted its disappearance with satisfaction.

Work time. He sighed, but just a little bit. His work was fun and fulfilling. He'd lose himself in it for a bit, then change into his running gear and jog down to Girelli's Bagels for lunch. Gotta keep that heart-rate up. He closed his browser and opened a waiting tab at the bottom of his screen, ready for spreadsheets and layouts and oh so much more.

Jortan and Minda lay huddled under the roots of an ancient Craggis tree, peering out into the gloom with saucer-like eyes. They could see the shadows of the graveyard from here, markers nothing but wooden boards already mossy and rotten, sticking up like black teeth muddy gums. Two crows fought over something they didn't want to look at too closely. Out there in the blowing fog, things grunted and yowled. Far away, or nearby? The children couldn't be certain. Jortan kept his arm around his sister, and for once she didn't try to shrug him off.

They weren't old enough to remember when the Craggis tree was alive and still full of fruit, when the Fall Festival would grow up around it, gaily-colored tents and banners flapping in the breeze, booths hawking everything from fireworks to wind-up birds made by the Dwarfs in the Southern Mountains. Now the tree stood in the middle of a stinking waste, naught growing but loops of hookthorn bramble. The graves, once relegated to the well-clipped lawn behind the Temple, now sprawled everywhere, higgledy-piggeldy, and no longer seemed to correspond to anyone recently dead. It was as if they were popping up on their own, sprouting like mushrooms in the night, a terrible fungus spreading over the skin of the earth.

Jortan licked his blistered lips, tongue a flash of pink on a dirty face. For once he found himself without a Next Move. Usually there were haybales to hide behind, or overturned oxcarts; out here, there was nothing, just skinny dead trees. They'd run from the village as soon as the Raiders attacked – being an urchin gave you the benefit of an early warning – and he'd crammed himself and his sister into the little cave, watching the glow of the burning town, hearing the cries of pain and clash of steel. Seemed like every hooligan this side of Kandilar had descended on them, a great swarm like locusts. He supposed they were hungry – even bandits get hungry – and he thought if he were older and alone, he'd pick up a cudgel and join them. Better raiding and drinking and whoring than wandering the streets, dodging mad dogs and madder shopkeepers for scraps. But he had his twist-legged sister to look after. Raiders didn't treat women-folk well at all – no matter how young. So he ran with her, and hid.

He stuck his head out as far as he dared, peered back toward the village. It was just a bunch of dark shapes, with smoke drifting with the perpetual fog. Did he dare return? The Raiders would all be passed out drunk by this point; but he couldn't risk being spotted. Setting out parallel toward the fields would probably earn him an arrow in the back, either from the Raiders or from a wary farmer. The only way to safety would be to cross the graveyard; eventually he'd reach the King's Highway, and they might be able to make it to Mata-Kandilar, the Capital of the Empire. Queen Tyristal would help him. Her heart was pure and wise, and she refused no one. She had to help them.

He roused his sister, who had fallen asleep. "Come on, Minda," he said. "We have to get to the Highway. Just a little walk, and then we can rest."

Minda looked him square in the eye. "I don't want to go."

Jortan stared. "Minda, if you stay here, you die."

She shook her head. "I don't care."

Jortan got angry. "Stupid little mop-head!" he said, shaking her shoulder roughly. He knew it hurt her spine, didn't care. "You're coming with me, and that's final!"

She almost cried out in pain, then bit her lip, eyes brimming with tears. "It's no use, Jor," she said, sniffing. "It's all dark…things were supposed to get better weren't they? Wasn't the Hero supposed to come and make it better?"

Jortan snorted. "The Hero was just a story," he said. "Nothing's going to make the fog go away. There's no Crystal Shards, or Ancient Throne, or Secret Sword. That's all just stupid stories for stupid little babies like you!"

Minda buried her head in her hands. "Mum believed it," she said.

"Mum's dead," Jortan said flatly. "We've only got us now." His voice softened, and he stroked his sister's hair. "We'll go to the big city," he said. "We'll go see the Queen. She'll make things better…for us. Us is what we've got to worry about."

Minda said something into her hands, about not wanting to live in a world like this, or something equally stupid and just like a little baby. Jortan crawled out of the hollow and grasped his sister by the arms, gently but firmly, and held her up while he retrieved her crutches.

"There you go," he said, dusting her off. "Good as new. We'll make good time today, it's not raining." He knocked on the tree trunk behind him, thinking Gods keep it from raining.

With Jortan's cajoling, Minda leaned her cruches and swung her twisted legs and misshapen feet, lurching forward. The pair walked away from the blackened Craggis tree across the slimy hardpan, moving off until they were nothing but pictures in the fog, and the gloom closed over them.

One of the grave-boards shifted. It lifted out of the ground and fell over with a dull clatter. Out of the swelling earth, a fleshless hand emerged, scrabbled at the mud, and heaved a ragged, half-bald skull out of the ground. The creature blinked its silver eyes. It sniffed the air. Then it pulled the rest of its body to the surface, black flesh stuck to the bone, clothes hanging off in rags, and stood reeling for a moment. Then it hunched forward and began to shamble, slowly but inexorably, in the direction of the little boy and his lame sister. And around it in the fog, other dark shapes rose, until there was a crowd, a mob, lurching in silent pursuit.

After work, Dorian hit the gym, logging a great half-hour workout, heart-rate elevated, burning off most of the carbs and calories from lunch. He focused mostly on his core and glutes, earning some admiring glances from the female trainers, distracted from their puffing middle-aged clients. Then he did some cardio with jumprope, and ended with a light 3-mile run on the treadmill. He jogged home, Jack Johnson trilling through his earbuds, running the curves of the River Trail, waving at the Subarus and Lexuses that drove by on the Scenic Parkway. The sun was still high in the sky, the breeze cool, the leaves rattling merrily in the aspens as birds tittered and flew about their business in the June afternoon.

Dorian couldn't focus on it. Something was bothering him. Like a pebble in his cross-trainers.

When he got home, his girlfriend was waiting for him on the bed, wearing the black tights with the garters and corset he'd bought her last week. She wouldn't listen to his protests that he hadn't showered, saying he "smelled like a man", and quickly divested him of his running outfit. They were soon rolling across his silk sheets, in a gentle rain of garments.

They were ten minutes into a leisurely cowgirl ride when she stopped and looked down at him.

"What's the matter, sweetie?" she said.

Dorian snapped out of his reverie. "Sorry?"

"You're just usually so…turgid by this point. Right now you're merely hard."

"I'm turgid!" Dorian said, and redoubled his efforts, just to prove his turgidity. "You've never experienced such blimplike turgidity. I'm a damn zeppelin."

She smiled, but dismounted anyway. His confused member remained at full attention, as if expecting the ceremony to resume at any time. "I guess I'm spoiled," his girlfriend said, golden-skinned body rolling onto the sheets beside him (wonderful tits fully on display). "Usually I'm transported to about the fifth Chakra by now. Is something troubling you? You know I'm always willing to listen."

She snuggled into his arm. Dorian was a little miffed. He contemplated grabbing her taut ass and giving her what-for, I'll show you less-than-turgid-style, but then she'd get all sullen. Dorian did his best to avoid emotional quagmires. It ruined his peace of mind.

"I guess I've just been thinking lately," he said. "You remember I used to be a gamer?"

She reminded him he played Call of Duty. He smiled. "Not like a normal gamer. Like, I used to play that MMORPG crap. Stuck in my room all the time, with the lights out, pretending I was a hero."

He told her about the reminder he'd received, with all the messages from his old war band. He knew it was a tactic to reel in a lapsed player, and an underhanded one at that; but for some reason it got under his skin. Like he'd abandoned an actual quest, just when his friends – hell, the whole world – really needed him. It was weird, he knew. Just pretend, a pixelated fantasy. Immersive masturbation. So why did he have this guilt?

He remembered what it was like. Yeah, the real world sucked balls. Nothing was going right. He still lived with his parents. No job, no talents, no girlfriend, a body turning against him, no money and no hope. The closest he got to real-world social interaction was when he drifted down to the comic book shop once a month for the latest Justice League permutation, or to the phone store to argue with a blue-shirted cipher about his spotty service. Dorian was another nobody, a schlub, a useless parasite sucking on the scabrous teat of America's underbelly.

But in the DarkLands…he was DorianFirelash77, warrior-mage, a knight with wizardly powers. His enchanted armor was impermeable, his sword a sheet of flame; he could summon demons and spectral bears to scythe through his foes. Whole armies fell at his feet. Champions spoke his name with awe. No wrong couldn't be righted, no right infringed, so long as Dorian Firelash upheld the cause. He had his own banner to announce him in battle, and a tribe of minions (controlled by AI) who healed, assisted, and attacked when needed. He'd healed the zombie-scourged land of Dirfiria, rolling back the darkness with Findle's Egg; defeated the Hell-drake of Barna'Dor; restored the Fey Queen Tyristal to the Oaken Throne at Mata-Kandilar. His war band relied on him, often stepping back while he plowed his way through an orc-horde. Sometimes they complained that he was taking too much of the fight, so he'd hang back and cast spells of healing and magical assistance while they battled the foe. Dorian Firelash was renowned throughout the whole realm of the DarkLands (thanks to DarkLand's patented "Renown" system). Here he was somebody. A goddamn hero.

And then one day he'd just…stopped.

Okay, it was a power outage – no intention on his part. He'd been in the middle of an extended campaign, "The Battle of Mirward Citadel", twenty-seven hours and running; his desk space was full of used energy-drink cans, pizza-slimed paper plates, a package of M&M's that he kept putting his hand in. Other than to consume something or click, most of him was completely motionless, bugging eyes red and fixated on the screen, headphones on, his whole body hunched forward. He was literally on the edge of his seat. His keyboard-hand was a blur. This was one huge-ass motherfucker of a battle, they hadn't counted on it, none of the forums had mentioned anything this big. The Orc Horde usually spawned about five hundred bots; you kill a bunch and the rest run away. This was different. This was definitely more massive. Message chatter was abuzz with speculation – "Dude, the Moderators are messing with us," "Shit naw, it's a glitch, they're bugged up on an infinite spawn", "Watch out, there's another Fire troll, that's three Fire Trolls…!" And Dorian Firelash spun and hacked and summoned and threw gouts of flame across the battlefield, numbers scrolling over his head, orc bodies flying in great sprays of black ichor. His pinkie flashed over Hotkey 1 to drink a health potion, his character taking a long moment to gulp the tonic while the battle roared unabated around him. Then he plunged back into the fray, sword swinging in an arc of fire, jabbing it forward to cast a jet of flame into some unfortunate beast, a giant, ghostly green bear launching from his hands and tackling a Fire Troll to rip it to shreds.

"We've got a dragon…repeat, got a dragon approaching…what's the specs, do we have eyes on that…?"

"Copy that, VerdeGreen, he's a Level 60 Necro-Drake, repeat, skeletal dragon headed your way…"

"Is he Dark-Charmed?"

"Is that the black shadow-thingie around him?"

"Yeah you faggot, that's the "shadow-thingie", he's immune to Spells of Light or Holiness now…"

"Dor-dor, where are you? We're gonna need your help over here…"

Dorian Firelash swiveled, the screen swinging around. He could see a huge shape off to the west, black as night. He unleashed a Holy Wind upon the orcs in front of him, blasting a path through the flying green flesh, and sprinted toward his comrades.

"CrimsonRage is down!"

"I'm out, guys. He got me."

"Fuck! Fuuuck!"

"Ice spells are binding him, I'm hangin on by my testicles, oh save me sweet Dorian!"

Dorian snorted into his mic. "Gaaaay-aayyyy," he intoned as he plowed through the Horde. He could see the Necro-Drake, a white skeleton of a dragon ensconced in black fog edged in purple. It reared back and shot a green beam out of its empty, toothsome jaws, engulfing another player in a whirlwind of acid bubbles.

"This is NightMareEater, I'm gone."

"Stand back, fool mortals!" Dorian growled. "Behold my might!"

Cheered on by snickers and sing-song shouts of "Gaaaay-aayyyy" (his catch-phrase), Dorian's character twirled his treetrunk arms above his head and formed a gigantic ball of fire. The miniature sun coalesced, became solid, began to blink, and all at once he reared forward and hurled it toward the Necro-Drake. The miniature sun caught the beast mid-ribcage, drew itself in for a moment, and then detonated with a flash that washed out the screen for a moment and cast long black shadows behind everything. The frame-rate stuttered for a nice effect as the bone dragon wheeled in agony, and then the skeletal monster stood, reeling, head drooped while little red "-2"'s ticked above its head like bubbles in a fishtank.

"It's stunned! It's stunned! Attack now, fucktards!" Dorian screamed.

Twenty spells lashed out at once, brilliant golds and purples and blues, bolts and beams and balls of light. The red numbers continued to reel out. The dragon bellowed with surprise and pain, lurching this way and that as the blasts impacted. The creature's health bar was down to half, and steadily falling, and Dorian felt himself pounding on the keyboard.

And then the health bar stopped. It was down to a quarter health, but still dangerous. And the undead beast was winding up for another attack.

"I'm casting Undead Protection and Shield," Dorian said.

"Do it quick, I'm down to two health."

"I'm down to one!"

"Anybody got health potions…?"

Dorian's character made motions with his hands, as if building a cat's cradle out of spider silk. The Undead Protection spell took a couple of seconds to weave. The Necro-Drake had a glowing purple ball in its mouth that sucked in little gobs of shadow, like a black hole gathering for an explosion. A couple of the players next to him turned tail and ran away. Dorian tapped his foot, knee jiggling the desk; the dragon reared back; Dorian Firelash spread his arms to cast his protective net over his war band…

The screen said PEWww and went black.

Dorian sat there for a moment. Frozen. The room was completely dark. Somewhere, an old watch ticked loudly. The trees roared in the wind, and rain lashed the windows, speckling and pattering. There was a flash of lightning, illuminating the blocky shape of his desktop monitor, the wriggly piles of clothes, his makeshift bed, the crowd of bottles and tall cans on every available surface. There was a boom of thunder, making the window buzz in its casing.

His first feeling was one of immense loss. The bottom dropped out of his stomach. He'd never felt a sensation quite like it. He was astonished by it, part of him recoiled, said dude, chill out, it's only a game…

And then the implosion rebounded. Hot blood surged into his face. He grabbed his monitor with strength he didn't know he possessed and hurled it across the room. It hit the wall and shattered with a satisfying glissade of glass and crunch of plastic, the drywall booming, a perfectly square hole punched through. It felt so good he grabbed the heavy wood desk and turned it over, bruising his ankle badly. It was a frenzy, a free-for-all, an Everything Must Go sale – his shelves full of fantasy novels, his collection of figurines and knickknacks, his framed posters off the walls. Christ it was fantastic. He felt like a fucking monster. A Hulk. He even grabbed a phone book and tried to rip it with his teeth, but it tasted bad, so he tore the pages out and flung them every which way. God he felt so good…and so bad. Worse than he'd ever felt in his life. He put his greasy face in his chubby hands and lay there on the floor, bawling. Outside the storm petered out. He slept on the dirty floor.

Next day he cleaned up. Pulled his old backup monitor out of the closet. Canceled his DarkLands account, even accepting the "termination fee". Fuckers. Then he took a shower, put on his best shirt and slacks, combed his hair. Hit the pavement. Started applying for every fucking job he could imagine.

"So I started working," he said, back in his room on his silk sheets with a beautiful woman in his arms. "Made friends, started hitting the gym. After two years, here I am."

His girlfriend listened, stroking his hair. "It must have been so hard. To start life over again."

Dorian thought about it. "Not…not really," he said. "Now that I think about it, it was really easy…almost like I just had to, you know, put myself out there…or quit playing that game." For the first time in a while, his unlined forehead creased. "Like the game was, I dunno, pulling the life out of me, and when I quit, it poured it all back in…everything was so easy…"

His girlfriend tittered nervously. "Baby, that's just weird. C'mon, stop thinking like that." She frowned when he continued to stare at the ceiling. Then she smiled wolfishly. "I know just what'll get you back to normal again," she said.

She crawled down to where Little Dorian had come to attention again, like a private scrambling as the General approached. And Big Dorian did get back to normal.

But though the strange thoughts went to the back of his mind, they didn't go away.

Queen Tyristal stood in the highest room of the tallest tower of the Adamantine Palace, face bathed in the light of a blue flame. Shifting patterns showed images only she could understand, strange phantoms from other planes. The room was dark and circular, wrought of ancient stone blocks, the ceiling of joined timbers. It was cold. Outside the wind flapped around the pointed roof, and the whole structure groaned and swayed.

"We are finally breaking through, Mureial," she said to the darkness.

A man in a long blue cloak and white beard, eyes glittering under beetled brows, stepped forward into the circle of dim light. He was tall and thin, mouth pressed tight together; on his shoulder sat a raven. There was a white crystal staff in his hand.

"Yes, your Majesty," he said. "I just hope it is not too late. Already the Gloom is spreading to the edges of this kingdom; soon it will be at the very gates of Mata Kandilar. Then even I, with my thousand years of magicks, will be overwhelmed and brought to shadow."

If Tyristal was worried, she made no sign. She wore a shimmering gown of unicorn hair (molted fur, gathered in tufts, and with the beasts' permission); around her neck was a high collar like a sea-creatures fin. She wore the Braided Crown upon her silver hair. Her thin, Fey features and upturned eyes, once joyful, were now webbed with lines of care. Fey may not die, but they grow old with the sorrows of their kingdom. So old.

"The Hero's mind is finally awakening, in his strange netherworld," Mureial said. "The Gloom is somehow bound to his life-force in that other place…the worse it becomes here, the luckier he is over there."

Tyristal's looked up at him, eyes wavering. "Do you think…do you think he did this on purpose?"

Mureial's raven stirred; he quieted the huge bird with a long, stroking finger. "None of this was a-purpose," he said, voice soft as silk. "If there is an enchantment being woven, it occurs in a far-off plane, beyond even my ken."

Tyristal went back to staring into the flames. They shifted languidly, barely crackling. "Happenstance," she said quietly. "All this suffering, all this terror. All for no reason at all."

The wind gusted strongly, and the tower creaked. Coming on the wings of the wind, there was a howl, like far-off wolves, only much greater and more ghastly. They looked at the ceiling, fearfully – the two greatest magical beings in the realm, shaken by the song of the night wind.

"The Great Working must be done tonight," Tyristal said. "I must break through into that other realm and bring back the Hero."

"And if he won't come?"

Tyristal looked at Mureial then, and he could not meet her strange gaze for long. "He will come," she said. "His life is bound to this place. He cannot but come to our aid."

Dorian showered, went to bed naked as usual, though his girlfriend wasn't in the mood. She said he was "acting all weird", and they'd had a bit of an argument – it was nothing, really – but for the first time in recent memory, before-bed sex was out of the question. Dorian hated that. He required at least three orgasms a day, otherwise he got headaches. If his girlfriend was being so difficult, he'd get what he needed elsewhere. He wondered what the cute receptionist was doing right now.

He drifted off. He had a weird dream about being attached to a computer with wires. It was sucking his blood, or something. Digital dialysis. It wasn't bad, it wasn't good; it was just eerie, watching all his fluids go into the monitor until the screen went red, and the sudden flash startled him awake.

Something was glowing in the room. Like light through a fishtank. Waves of blue rippled across the walls and ceiling. It was coming from down the hall.

Hesitantly, he swung his feet off the bed and stood up. He stepped into his boxers. After a moment's pause, he reached under the bed and retrieved a 9-iron. Maybe this was some kind of burglar trick. The "Aquarium-Light Gang".

He walked as softly as he could across the carpet, turned the corner. The light was shining brightly through the TV room doorway. Golf club upraised, he crept down the hall, pressed his back against the wall, and peered around the corner.

He let the golf club drop to the carpet.

There was a glowing blue woman standing in the TV room, naked. A hologram. Beams of light were shooting out from somewhere low in the closet, projecting her translucent body above the gray carpet. She stared straight at him as he came in, and said, in a voice like molten bronze: "Dorian Firelash."

"Jesus," Dorian whispered. He walked through the doorway. He stood right in front of the digital phantom, face dull. He was dreaming. Must be. "Oh Jesus God..."

"You know who I am?"

The girl. The girl from the game. She was on the box art, he remembered that - standing like she was now, except clothed, arms beseeching, the title Darklands and a picture of an orc-human battle laid across her breast. "Tirasha," he said. "Tyrical. Tyramid."

She smiled sadly. "You are sorely missed," she said. "Our world is become darkness, now that you have gone. It is a strange and terrible enchantment."

"I quit," he said. "I quit the game, and I got my life back."

Even as he said it, he knew something was off. Far in the back of his mind, way deep down, a tiny part of his brain spoke up. Not your life, it said. A facsimile of a life. A cartoon.

The apparition seemed to be looking through him, reading that finger of doubt, and her brow knitted. "You are pulling life from us," she said, dismayed. "That is why we are dying. You are taking happiness and light from Kandilar. That is why your destiny is so bound to ours." She looked at him with deep unhappiness. "You must come back! You must restore the balance!"

Dorian felt the room reel. I'm talking to a video game character, he thought. It's 3 am, and I'm talking to a hologram of a video game character, telling me to start playing the game again. Jesus, the lengths they'd go to...this must be the most advanced - and most desperate - customer-retention campaign ever advised.

He ran his hands over his face. "Okay," he said. "Okay, you win. I've, uh, got to start up my account again..."

The apparition relaxed. Its unearthly face grinned. "You will find everything waiting for you, Dorian Firelash," it said. "Do not tarry." It stepped forward, and planted a kiss on his cheek. Dorian fancied he actually felt something, an electric tingle - or maybe it was just his imagination...

The lights flicked on. Dorian blinked. The hologram was gone. He turned, and there stood his girlfriend in the doorway, staring blankly at him through puffed-up eyes and a thicket of hair.

"You start playing that fucking game again," she mumbled, "and I'm leaving you."

She shambled back to the bedroom, leaving him standing in the TV room, bewildered.

He hunkered down and peered into the closet. There was a bunch of junk down there...what could have projected the hologram? He cleared the cardboard boxes out of the way. One was particularly heavy. He pulled it out, ripped off the tape, and looked inside.

It was his old computer monitor.

The one he'd smashed.

No, it must be the same model. It can't be the same one. He pulled it out, and looked at it again. Sure enough, there was a tiny crack in the corner, and his name printed on the back in Sharpie. So he must've, I dunno, hallucinated smashing it...he replayed it in his mind, felt the weight of it leaving his rage-fueled arms, saw it arc across the room, saw it smash with a horrible tinkling CRACK-SHH as it knocked a hole in the drywall, shooting glass shards across the floor...

There was an unused desk, currently full of ironic knickknacks. He cleared it off, set up the monitor and the stack. Plugged them in. Switched it on. Sure enough, the long-obsolete machine wheezed and blinked to life. He waited the two minutes for it to finish loading, then checked the wifi connection (facilitated by a plugin card) and booted up Darklands.

The game opened to his account.

I deleted this, he said to himself. I deleted it two years ago. Yet there it was: level 100 Mage-Warrior, all stats just as he left it, inventory still full, Flameblade of Tirkonen still equipped. The image of his warrior glowered at him from the screen, eyes glowing, blue face framed by a mane of fiery hair and beard, armor bulking up an already hulking frame.

This was the "outfitting" tab, one of a set of tabs running across the top of the screen. He clicked on the tab marked "Campaigns". The screen opened with a running list of "completed" and "open" campaigns. A window popped up in the middle of the screen, and when he read it, his jaw dropped.

"The Battle of Mirward Citadel is still raging! Continue campaign?...Yes/No"

Dorian sat there for a long moment, glasses reflecting the prompt. The lights were still on in the room. He had on a band t-shirt and his boxers. After two years, the battle - not the campaign, but the very battle - was still in progress? After his warband had given him up for lost, gone their seperate ways?

He hovered the cursor over the "Yes" button, and the hairs on his neck stood on end. Like, once he clicked this button, something irrevocable was going to happen. Get up and walk away, a voice in his head told him. This ain't worth it. Go back and lie down with your beautiful girlfriend, on your silk sheets, in your huge house. And in the morning, you can take the Ferrari to work.

Dorian stood up. He walked over to the closet. He rifled through the clot of old clothes hanging on the rail, until he found his old death-metal t-shirt and black hoodie. He put them on. The shirt hung down from his now-broad shoulders like it was still on the hanger. He grinned goofily. He turned off the room lights and, still grinning goofily, sat down in the welcoming blue glow of the monitor. He put the cursor over the Yes button once more.

"Fuckin' great customer-retention program," he chortled. "I'll have to send them a letter. Okay, time to get Gaaaay-aayyyy..."

He clicked Yes.

The screen went white.

The ambulance pulled up in the driveway of Dorian's house, lights on. It didn't need the siren. They'd responded to his girlfriend's frantic call, and now the EMTs trooped past her into the TV room from where she stood frozen in the hallway, a bikini model in a tank top and panties, covering her mouth with her hands. She looked like she'd seen a dead guy, true, but there was something more she'd seen a ghost...

Dorian was face-down on the keyboard, acne-blasted jowls slopped across the keys. The monitor had an obvious burn-mark in the middle. Subject must've weighed 250 pounds, ass flab oozing over his desk chair, and stunk like an unwashed goat. His fingers were stained orange from barbecue chips. The EMTs shook their heads - another case of internet gaming addiction gone awry. Probably a heart attack.

Still, they found it a bit odd - pristine house (no barbecue chips), gorgeous girlfriend (great rack!), ferrari in the garage. Dot-com wizardry? Then how to explain the ten-year-old monitor? Not that they were particularly tech-savvy, Lord knew, but it wasn't hard to pop down to Best Buy and get a plasma screen, for crying in the rain. This kid looked like a transplanted set-piece from the early aughts. They hoped for Miss February's sake the turd had a good life insurance policy.

The coroner ruled it was indeed a myocardial infarction, although the organ looked otherwise healthy, no congenital defects. Apparently there was a power surge from the old monitor, must have grounded itself through Mr. Flabby's ticker. What a way to go. Zapped to death while jerking off to wizards and elves. Well, folks, there's another lesson for why you never let your kids play those durn computer games.

And somewhere far away, a hawk cried, voice echoing over the cacophony of clashing steel and cries of pain and rage below. The land of Kandilar had its hero once again. And the darkness began to retreat.