“. . . with increased American presence along the border, though current talks suggest a possible scaling back of . . .”
Anna Timofeyeva put down her paintbrush to lower the volume of her phone’s news stream, and listened carefully.
The house was far too quiet.
“Girls?” she called, wiping her fingertips on a paint-stained scrap of towel. “What are you doing?”
Giggling from the other end of the hall. “Nothing!”
Anna rolled her eyes, smiling.
“Mm-hmm,” she called, making her way toward her daughters’ bedrooms. “I love nothing!”
More laughter. Loud shushing.
She found them in Polina’s room, sharing a blanket and piled onto her bed, Lada’s laptop in front of them.
“What kind of nothing do you have there?”
The girls looked at each other.
Anna crawled onto the small bed and nudged them until they scooted over to make room for her. “Show me.”
“We wanted to surprise her,” Polina said.
“Who?” Anna angled the laptop to reduce the glare from the window. Video editing software filled the screen, and the face of her wife, Olenka, was frozen mid-expression. Footage taken from one of her gaming live streams.
Lada couldn’t help giggling. “Mama.”
Anna hit play, and the footage resumed. She recognized it instantly: one of Olenka’s sillier evenings of gaming geared toward younger viewers, full of jokes and self-deprecating comments. The girls had cut in animations and subtitles to emphasize the humor.
“It’s a present for Mama,” Polina said. “For when she gets back. All our favorite videos.”
Anna kissed their heads one after another, then made sure to click save before gently closing the laptop.
“Hey!” Lada said. “We’re not—”
“I’m sorry, dorogaya moya. It’s wonderful, but we have five minutes until the brownout. Tomorrow we can work on it again. Come help me paint Mama Olenka.”
Ben | Class: Elemental Mage | Level: 5
HP: 0/0 | Mana: 0/0 | Status: Deceased
XP: 12,152 | Next Level: 15,000
Ben opened his eyes to a black stone ceiling.
Something cold at his back. He was lying down. Disorientation dizzied him; the darkness made him feel as if he were still floating in an endless void. He covered his eyes with a hand to ground himself in the physical, anchoring his attention to his body.
His HUD was empty. No in-game clock. Chat was completely missing. He couldn’t even access chat records or personal notes. No map, no inventory. No personal data such as XP or stats. Not even any background music.
Wait. Was he dead?
Actually dead? As in, real-world dead?
He sat up. Looked around at the dark cell into which he appeared to have been transported. Looked down at himself, patted his chest. No injuries, but all of his gear and items were gone. In their place he wore a threadbare, stained pair of pants and a matching shirt—both a drab color that might have been white in some distant past life. No shoes. No anything. Not on his person, and not in the room.
Stone walls. Stone floor. Wooden door.
Pressure churned inside him, roared in his ears—panic, threatening to surge and take hold. He could actually be dead. That would explain why his HUD was gone. Had his last moments on Earth been in a video game?
His body went rigid with the realization that he’d never get the chance see his son again.
No. Maybe he was still alive. He shoved himself up off the cold floor and walked the couple of paces to the door. Pressed his ear against it. Quieted his breathing.
Nothing. No tormented screams of the damned. No angelic choir. Just the sound of his own heartbeat pulsing in his ears.
A heartbeat. He pressed his hand against the left side of his chest, clung to the certainty of blood pumping through his body. Why would he have a pulse in the real afterlife? Unless that’s . . . just how it worked. Dread crawled up his throat.
He grabbed the handle and tugged it. The door opened.
Immediately a notification popped into view:
Welcome to the Afterlife! Everything is fine.
You are dead. Do you wish to return to the land of the living?
Objective 1: Cross the Soulstrewn Plains until you reach the Bridge of Eternity.
Complete the task that will be evident before you.
Objective 2: ???
Objective 3: ???
Objective 4: ???
Relief rocked him like vertigo. He was alive.
Or, well. He was dead in Alternis, but still in the game, which meant he had to be safe in the real world and there was more life to live and he would see his son again. He laughed out loud and took a moment to collect himself.
Okay. No time like the present to get the heck out of Alternis’s Hell.
No. Heaven would have let him keep his robe.
He accepted the quest, then took stock of what was behind the cell door. Some kind...