Thursday
Dec192013

The Inventory of Marcus, Level 16

Simon Jacobs


 

1.

  _(\ _ /)_
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ELYTRONIC CUIRASS
Defense: 32
+25% Poison Resistance
+4 to Dexterity

 

This is the shell that protects him. Elves are traditionally woodland-born, and Marcus's warlock in Demon Keep is of elven stock, so it stands to reason that he should possess a piece of armor representative of his forest ancestry. In fact, the beetleshell chestpiece is by far the most visually impressive item he's collected thus far in the game, an iridescent coat around his midsection that flashes green and blue as he moves his character across the screen. Nevermind the fact that he did not find this item on a giant insect but on a measly red forest imp, early in the game's first act, and that the instant he dealt the killing blow with his staff this piece of armor materialized miraculously in the air, impossible by any realistic standards but generated based on the parameters determining which items a monster could drop at this level. Content with his good fortune, Marcus picked it up, and has been wearing it since character level nine. By this point, it is habit.

On this play-through, Marcus has only invested about twelve hours in the game, but he's played through Demon Keep before, many times. When he is not at school, this is what he does. This, or another role-playing game. But mostly this one.

 

 

2.

   /|
  / |
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  | |
  | |
  |\|
  |:|
  |/|
==---==
  |x|
  |x|
  ===

 

TAG B'RAKI'S BLOODY RED BASTARD
Damage: 35-42, two-handed
+10-12 fire damage
Life Steal 6% per hit
Required Level: 18
[Tribesman Class Only]

 

His utterly unique, blue-haired friend, Nikki Rice. His only blue-haired friend. Or rather: his only, blue-haired friend. Nikki is two years older than Marcus, sixteen, his Demon Keep character's level. He'd noticed her long before they ever talked—in a school like this it is impossible not to. Besides the blue hair, which hangs to just below her ears, she is pale and skinny and wears angry clothes and a belt made of bullets, plus has a pierced lip, all of which combine to give her a fuck-off vibe that is repellent and magnetic to the rest of the student body. They treat her with the tolerance afforded a dangerous outcast. She looks like she has experience in hurting people. You can't have blue hair anywhere and not expect to be noticed.

 

 

He treasures this sword, just having it, even though he knows he can never use it. Obtaining this sword was one of his defining moments in Demon Keep: he got it from Gemband, the goblin metallurgist whose laboratory lies on the fourth and deepest level of the sulphuric Underground Forge, by far Act I's most challenging section. The quest isn't required to complete the game, but it is assumed that most players will complete it for the items and experience it offers their character.

The battle takes place over lava. Gemband is an oily-skinned little green creature ensconced in an enormous, steam-powered automaton, and not only do you have to cope with him and his army of goblin minions, but halfway through the battle—once you've broken through his outer metal shell and revealed the spinning gears and machinery within—the floor begins to fall away in great chunks, and to fall into the lava beneath it means instant death. When you totally destroy his animate iron encasement, tiny Gemband falls from its ruins onto his green knees before you, begging for mercy.

Even though Marcus has played through this part of the game many times, it always catches him off-guard. To see this knobby creature at his warlock's feet, to hear his wordless entreaties—Gemband doesn't speak, but lets out high-pitched, mewling cries—inspires in him only pity and guilt.

You are meant to kill him. You can't complete the quest without killing him, can't even leave the level, save for quitting the game. While he cried Gemband would offer you weapons and items that he'd forged, trying to buy your mercy. He'd raise his two tiny little green hands in supplication, a randomly-generated magical item sitting on the palm, a product of the Underground Forge. Left-click to take the item, right-click to smack the hand away and knock it into the lava. Take an item, and Gemband would attack. He'd offer three times. When you turn him down for the third time, also, he would attack.

But this time, for some reason, Marcus can't bring himself to finish off the pleading green man. This little collection of pixels, he can't touch. Instead of killing Gemband, he saves his progress and exits his game, which keeps the items and experience he's accumulated but causes all the monsters to respawn, and leaves the Gemband quest unfinished.

It is when he logs back in the next day that he finds Tag B'raki's sword sitting, completely unexplained, in his inventory. It has simply appeared. As a warlock, he knows he can't ever use the sword—its use is restricted to the barbarian Tribesman class, those tattooed warriors of the east—but he keeps it, despite the valuable eight squares it takes up in his inventory.

Seeking an explanation, he fights to the bottom of Gemband's dungeon once again, but the goblin metallurgist is nowhere to be found. He's gone, just as if Marcus had killed him, even though he hadn't, and even though the game journal marks the quest as incomplete. Gemband has vanished from the game, and left behind this sword that Marcus cannot use. He checks the online forums, the walkthroughs and strategy guides, but can find no explanation.

Just having the sword worries Marcus. At the same time, it thrills him.

 

 

Approaching Nikki is for Marcus a feat of surprising and unfathomable courage; probably, he's riding high after the discovery of the Tag B'raki sword. He is walking past her in the cafeteria one day, where she usually sits alone at lunch, and suddenly he recognizes on her elaborately accessorized backpack the painted silhouette of Demon Keep's logo—a broken sword and scepter intersecting, at odds, over fire—prominent among the rest of the patches and buttons.

Adrenaline racing, he strolls up to her before he can stop himself. He taps her shoulder. She turns, looking awfully annoyed. He almost loses heart at her expression. "Is that the Demon Keep logo on your backpack?" he clamors.

Her face softens into a smile. "You're the first person ever to recognize that."

Marcus barely keeps his heart rate in check. "Do you play?"

"Of course."

He glows, because this was not a given. Demon Keep is not a new game. It was released six years ago, and fervor for it has died down, save among dedicated longtime fans and latter-day devotees like Marcus. There have been no sequels, no expansions. Its logo, however, is popular among gamers, even those who have never played it, as a symbol of cultural awareness, just to prove they know it. It is rare, so rare, to find a player in real life.

"I got a really cool sword from Gemband last night," he says.

"That little goblin guy? He's pretty early on."

"Yeah. I mean, I've already played it through a bunch of times."

And then he's telling her about how he got the sword. And then they're talking.

 

 

3.

 MM
<()>
 {}
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 ˇˇ

 

BONE CEREMONIAL SCEPTER
Damage: 14-17, one-handed
+50% Damage to Undead
Stun 1 second

 

In one hand, his dominant, a short staff. Not a traditional weapon for an elf—they usually prefer short blades—but he likes the look of his warlock holding it, the crunch of bone when he strikes, the holy power of it. To use it resembles smiting. To swing it, a pixelated God.

 

 

Occasionally, Marcus has these encounters online, anonymous chat-site interactions with entities like angelfire1995 or hotyoungteen1111, trailing numbers like wings (their names are always ethereal, these beings), and together they formulate elaborate compositions of bodies in first and second person—I'm on top of you, you're in my mouth, I'm cumming on your tits—and he gets off on it. He has a strange facility for it, for this typing. He has a feel for the clipped, abbreviated erotic dialogue; he knows the right words, how to pace the lines.

It's the filthiest thing he does, these internet chats. On a bad night, he sees himself as if from afar, all the lights in his bedroom turned off, his face lit only by the computer, the pink-bordered screen reflected in his glasses, one hand on the keyboard, his boxers around his thighs. He watches himself isometrically, in top-down, the on-screen perspective from which Demon Keep is played, and he is repulsed at his behavior. Each time, after he's finished, he tells himself he'll never do it again.

Lately, with these beings who act so close yet are so distant, he is pretending they are her.

Despite the chatrooms, he will say this for himself: he is generally not a wallowy type of gamer. He does not submerge himself in junk food or go to school in unwashed clothes. He showers daily. He has no need to shave yet, but if he did, likewise, he would every day. His hair has always stayed above his ears. He may be fourteen, but there is a discipline to it. He is often alone and he is big, yes, but neither of these can be helped. These are his nature.

 

 

4.

  _      __     
 |xXx|  xxX|
 |XXx|^|xxX|*
 |Xxx  |xXX|
* Xxx   xxX| *
  xX/   \xx

 

SJALDSKAR'S SCALE GREAVES OF FROST-DEATH
Defense: 60
+30% Resistance to Cold
+5 to Endurance
Required Strength: 45

 

He has no business with these greaves. By the game's logic, he shouldn't have them.

When he killed the monster that bore them—a Barrow Wraith, in the Imperial Catacombs of Act I, a mere wisp of a thing—as when he killed any enemy, unbeknownst to most players the game instantly performed a set of parametric calculations to compile a list of potential items that the monster could drop, based on Marcus's level, the monster's level, and various other factors. In the space of a few milliseconds, an item was randomly selected from the list and generated in-game for Marcus to pick up.

These greaves were not supposed to be on that list, not yet. He has asked the online forums, and he knows that their appearance this early in the game is unprecedented. These greaves only make it onto the list of items dropped by high-level monsters in Act III, the Northern Tundra, when his warlock will have reached at least level 25. Once he'd progressed to that point, it would have been possible—albeit exceedingly rare—for an enemy to drop these greaves. But where he'd found them, it was impossible.

Marcus fears that the appearance of these greaves is a glitch in the game, that the engine has jumped a step in its code and created this temporally un-haveable item out of thin air, then materialized it in his world, dropped from its frigid home in the North into the dungeon-clogged forests of Act I. He fears that this anomaly will be repeated, that the game has created a rift through which anything might enter—items, maybe, but also monsters, creatures from the game's upper reaches, things that he is totally unequipped to face.

That the same might appear in his life.

An entrance has slid open, he thinks. Who knows what might come through it. What hordes.

If the game is wrong, then everything is wrong.

He could trade the greaves, sell them to the town blacksmith for their value of 17,422 gold, triple his character's net worth, and banish these impossible things back into the game's algorithms, where he would never see them again. But he won't. He won't surrender them. He keeps them the way he keeps other things, to treasure.

 

 

He starts eating lunch with Nikki at school, with this girl, this new friend. Every once in a while they'll mention their progress through the game, but mostly, surprisingly, they keep to other topics.

She talks about things he doesn't know—comic books, bands, anime ("Have you ever listened to Screeching Weasel?" "No." "You should.")—and some that he does—fantasy series, video games. Mostly Nikki talks about herself and he listens. She is polite, though; she asks him questions and Marcus answers them, but his answers are usually short. She is funny, cynical and sarcastic as anyone he's ever met. She wants tattoos as soon as she's eighteen. She wants more piercings as soon as she can afford them—her nose, her eyebrow.

He gets the sense that she is unattached, independent of her family. This unsettles him—personally, he doesn't know what he'd do without his parents. He doesn't know most things. He doesn't know how at sixteen Nikki is still in this school, but he doesn't ask. He is attracted to the questions he still has. When he finally gets up the nerve to ask her if the bullets on her belt are real, she laughs. "Sure. I mean, no. Obviously."

He understands that it is a cliché, to be in love with this girl. He knows that this is an archetype of his youth—if he didn't understand archetypes, he would not be playing role-playing computer games. He would not be who he is, and neither would this game.

 

 

5.

 }o{

 

Left hand:
SPINAL COLUMN RING
+50% Damage to Undead
+20% Resist Undead

 

6.

 _
.o.

 

Right hand:
RING OF ENCHANTMENT
+12 to Mana
+8% Resist Magic

 

The ring that in real life is lost in his pocket except when he is at home on the computer. In-game, two additional fortifications. On his left hand, against the undead—the highlands and swamps he walks in this act are crawling with undead, the work of the resurrected enchantress Kastyla who waits at the end, under the cathedral—on the right, a general ward against magic. Neither of these rings are exceptional.

 

 

In real life, the ring was given to Marcus by his grandfather at his Bar Mitzvah, a plain silver band inscribed in Hebrew with the Sh'ma prayer—"Hear, O Israel: the Lord is Our God, the Lord is one"—which his grandfather has bid Marcus to always wear, in remembrance of his faith and his ancestors. At school, if he puts it on, he's called a faggot; still, he feels duty-bound to carry it with him. He reaches into his pocket to feel it there, for solace, although he's never seen any evidence that God is anywhere. In Demon Keep, it is assumed that one will be accessorized with what's been earned in combat and exploration, weapons and jewelry alike. Not so amongst the young men of Hopkins Middle School.

Sometimes after talking to Nikki, Marcus goes home and sits in front of the computer rubbing the base of his ears and Google image-searching. Nikki told him that his earlobes were "a good size for gauging." The images he finds online look tribal. He's never been complimented on any aspect of his body before.

In-game, Marcus's elven warlock has pierced ears.

 

 

7.

 ___
(   )
 \ /
 /Õ\
 ˇ ˇ

 

AMULET OF VITALITY
+20 to Health

 

Like every trinket and potion he stows in his extra inventory space, the amulet is meant to make him last longer, to make him harder to batter down. Above all, he plays a cautious game. If he had anything outstanding to replace it, he would, but for now, it works. From its necklace the amulet hangs heavy at his chest, in the shape of a woman's head, some goddess from Demon Keep's mythology, vaguely like the lady on the Starbucks logo.

 

 

Nikki wears dog tags around her neck. Marcus has seen her toy with them, and when she bends down in front of him (it's happened once) he can see them dangling, but he hasn't been close enough to see what information is written on them, if it's hers or someone else's. It seems like something a girlfriend might wear, a boyfriend's personals.

 

 

8.

<--(0)-->

 

ELVEN HEADBAND
+2 to Guardian of the Forest Skill
+10% Magic
+5 to Dexterity

 

It is a particularity of Demon Keep's world that elves do not wear helmets as armor. It is explained in the game's instruction manual that traditional headwear inhibits proper function of the ley lines marked on each elf's forehead, drawn in accordance with the rhythms and harmony of the forest and mountains, which imbue the elves with their magical power.

In exchange, elves can wear headbands, frail little bands of gold or silver, often jeweled, which provide spiritual benefits to the character but which offer no physical protection. It is a small price to pay to know the forest. No other character classes can wear a headband.

 

 

He makes a decision, and one afternoon he goes with Nikki to the Piercing Pagoda in the mall. Nikki drives a car she identifies as her own, with a long crack in the back window. The young woman behind the counter watches Marcus browse with a mixture of curiosity and amusement: he is against every type who usually comes here—his shape, his size, his manner, his everything. He settles on a tiny pair of silver studs for himself.

Sitting in the chair, he feels other mall shoppers looking at him as they move past, this soft, round boy in the piercer's chair. As the woman comes at him with the gun, Nikki watches with a smile and her arms folded on the glass countertop. Her normally cynical eyes look like an accomplishment.

When the gun clicks, he reaches his right hand into the first pocket of his cargo pants and feels his grandfather's ring. It hurts less than he'd anticipated. When she moves to his other ear, he slides the ring onto his index finger, withdraws his hand.

"How's that look?" The woman holds up a mirror.

It looks ridiculous, truth be told, but that's hardly the point.

Nikki grins at him, then notices the glint on his hand. "What the hell is that? The One Ring?"

He stares at his lap while the woman explains proper aftercare and hands him a bottle of cleaning solution.

Leaving the mall, Nikki claps him on the shoulder. "You look good," she says (he has already hidden the ring). He feels like she's humoring him, but he also feels like a different person.

In the car they compare their recent progress in Demon Keep. She asks about the ring, he shows it to her. "It's an inscription in Hebrew," he says.

"That's cool. Could be a curse or something."

He wears it for the rest of the ride back. For some reason he feels that they're both too small for the car.

After a few minutes she asks, "So what are your parents gonna think of this?"

 

 

They are expectedly shocked and horrified and angry. His father yells and threatens to clip them off, says the earrings make Marcus look like "a fuckin' queer," and for a while it seems as if his mother agrees, but eventually she calms down and just asks Marcus if he's really given this any thought at all.

Marcus offers no explanation. Both of them already have their own answers. He sits there and rotates his grandfather's ring, silently cursing them like Nikki would have wanted, wishing it would make him disappear.

 

 

9.

    ±±±±
 ±±±|\/]
 |\⁄__∆]
⁄__∆]

 

AIR BOOTS
Defense: 20
+75% Running Speed
Required Level: 12

 

Essentially, these are boots for running away, the means by which he escapes from the battles he does not want to fight. Besides the stockpile of healing potions they are the most cowardly item in his possession. They trip up the game, too, these boots, albeit in a minor way. Their effect is to practically double the speed his warlock moves across the screen—presumably with longer, quicker strides. But the game's circa-2000 graphics engine is not sophisticated enough for this, meaning that to accommodate the attributes of these boots the game's default running animation is simply doubled in speed—the result: a ridiculous shuffle across the screen, the least realistic approximation of human movement he's ever seen in a videogame. A centipede crawl on two legs, a bug pedaling on its back. He scurries.

 

 

He does not run. He takes comfort in Nikki. Occasionally, she and Marcus play online together, with different characters they've created specifically for the multiplayer version. Here, Marcus is a Dikrawi, a reptile witch doctor, and Nikki is a Tribesman, an eastern barbarian. Marcus wishes he could transfer the Tag B'raki sword from his single player game to Nikki here, but it's impossible. Demon Keep's online community is sparse now, nowhere near as vibrant as it was when the game was first released. Sometimes it feels as if the two of them are the only people in the world.

They chat sometimes, while playing, on the in-game command interface.

tellmeimokay: howd ur parents like ur new ears?

amarcedman: They hate them.

tellmeimok: :/

tellmeimok: they want to make u get rid of em?

amarcedman: Probably not. whats done is done.

tellmeimok: good.

Their two characters enter a new area and are beset with a tide of enemies. The interface is still for a while.

tellmeimok: I think they look good on u. i told u.

Her language is awkward. It reminds him of the unknown chat partners he pretends are her. He tugs at his ear. It still feels weird.

Marcus hesitates, then types, I hate my parents without really meaning it, because he thinks it's what Nikki wants to hear.

She writes back: yeah they suck. He isn't sure if this means his parents suck in particular, or just parents in general. He feels a tinge of resentment. She doesn't know his parents.

Nikki writes: they cant just decide how you should look. you can be whatever you want.

For a while, Marcus is unsure how to take this, whether it is indulgence or pity or what. At length, he realizes: it is solidarity.

When they finish he goes to the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror. He is thinking about school the next day, about his classmates. He rotates the studs in his ear, the ring on his finger.

 

 

10.

.       .
|\_____/|
||^   ^||
||o\ /o||
|| : : ||
 \\  _//

 

SHIELD OF ARJAAN
Defense: 30
+8% Fire Resistance
Knockback

 

His opposite hand, the one that in real life never wears the ring, holds the shield.

Out in the forest of Act I there's an incongruous tomb in the middle of a distant clearing, three underground levels of ghosts and skeletons. At the bottom lurks Anan Wahshia, assumedly the tomb's main tenant, a unique monster who uses the same creature model as the mummies you otherwise don't encounter until Act IV. The roughly Middle Eastern architecture of the tomb's interior, the sarcophagi—everything there feels like a developmental afterthought, a patched-on dungeon using bits and pieces from later in the game to supplement the repetitious environments of the first act. Nothing in the game's lore backs up the existence of this tomb—it is evidence of lazy, human design, something to add playing time. A mystery tomb is far less mysterious with nothing behind it. In any case, this was where he had found the shield.

 

 

The next day at school is hell. In addition to his pierced ears, he wears his grandfather's ring, and before advisory period even begins he's been called a fag twice by people he doesn't know. A boy he does know asks what's with the "gay-ass earrings." His first period teacher asks him if they're real. Marcus takes off the ring before he's inside the school for fifteen minutes, but he has to leave the earrings in for the day, at least. Part of him imagines a shield, while the rest of him imagines its stupidity. Only the thought of seeing Nikki at lunch keeps him going.

And yet still, when he sees her he breaks down crying. It's the most embarrassed he's ever been, but he can't help it. Nikki looks shocked and rubs his shoulders. Her arm stretches to cover his whole back. "What's wrong?"

"They're all making fun of me," he blubbers. He imagines the silver gleaming on his red ears.

"Why? For what?" Nikki sounds indignant. It helps.

"For the earrings."

She squeezes his shoulders, leans into his ear. "Fuck 'em," she says. Then sits back. Louder: "Fuck all of them. FUCK. THEM."

Faces have turned to them from neighboring tables. His ears redden further. She turns to one of the faces. "That's right," she says. "Fuck you. And you. And all of you."

This continues, until Nikki has probably fucked everyone in the cafeteria and their families. "You can't listen to them." She says, "Not anyone. Just do what you want," while massaging his shoulders.

To he who is rarely touched, this is the most beautiful thing he's ever heard.

 

 

It carries him through to fifth period, when he slides into the desk that has always been too small for him and unzips his backpack, only to find a shriveled green face peering up at him from within it. The squashed features of a mutant baby; tiny pointed nose, narrowed, blinking eyes, glistening skin. Before his mind can fully register the sight, his body spasms and he zips the bag back up and kicks it under his desk. He spends the period ignoring his teacher's smirking comments about his "new look" and stealing glances at the backpack, motionless at his feet.

When the bell rings he sprints to the bathroom and rips open the bag at the sink, dumping the contents onto the counter. Of course, beyond the books and binders, there is nothing, no creature, only a weird dampness like sweat saturating the nylon. He stands there panting, hands on his knees. He closes his eyes and opens them. The bathroom is still the bathroom.

He and Nikki play Demon Keep that night, and he types it to her as they play, what he thought he saw. She replies: Dont let them get to u.

It strikes him a few minutes later, bold like he gets when he goes online, to write to her: Have you ever had sex?

The response comes immediately: what? Though the question is written right on the screen.

Marcus doesn't know what's taken him over. He is mortified by his own brazenness, but he can't take it back. He imagines crumbling. He types nothing. An ambush comes and the two of them make it out with barely a scratch, but he's playing by rote. Another line comes from Nikki: hahaha :p

He works the mouse to move his character, but leaves the keyboard.

She writes again: Yeah. only once tho.

His stomach clenches. His lizard saunters across the screen, drinks a potion of minor healing. He feels frozen. Marcus knows the version history of this game, the date that every patch was released, all of the corrections, the glitches fixed, a useless hoard of information. Now, he does not want to know. He hates the history. He resents the answer he has asked for. Part of him believes it isn't Nikki on the other computer, believes it's a fabrication.

Another line from Nikki: how bout u?

In all honesty. He types yeah right and logs out.

Neither acknowledges the exchange again. It has been established, though: he is a virgin and she is not. She has this history.

 

 

He is awakened early the next morning by the unmistakable smell of sulfur from elsewhere in the house. His nostrils burn. He scrambles out of bed to find the source, the house still dark.

The light is on in the bathroom; from here, the odor is most pungent. Something smoky and immaterial trickles out from under the door. He plugs his nose and presses his ear against it, hears the sink running at full blast inside. The door feels like it's sweating. He's sweating, too.

He knocks quietly and there's no answer. When he pushes the door open a foul orange and yellow steam engulfs him, watering his eyes and flooding his lungs. A whisper of movement, a patter down by his feet causes him to lose his balance. He stumbles forward and grabs the counter for support. He coughs twice, sucks in hot air, then rubs his eyes with the back of his hand before finally squinting open his eyes. The cloud has dissipated, but the bathroom is sweltering hot, everything slick and fogged over with condensation. His bare feet stick to the tile. As the air clears and he comes fully to his senses, Marcus realizes that the sink is filled with a black liquid almost to the brim, its surface eerily still.

Contrary to every ounce of caution within him, he dips a finger into it. The surface ripples, like water. His finger comes out clean. He opens the drain to wash it away and turns on the sink. The water is scalding and takes a while to turn cool.

Marcus stands at the sink, scared witless, breathing hard, sweat matting his hair to his forehead. At long last he wipes the fog from the mirror and looks at his face. The earrings are gone. The silver studs—both of them—gone, little pinpricks in the flesh where they used to be. He feels himself welling up. He runs back to his bedroom and turns on the light, strips his bed, shakes out the pillows, thinking they might have fallen out somehow overnight. But no, there's no trace. His ring, too, his grandfather's ring with the Sh'ma inscription, has disappeared from the bedside table. He knows it was there, he remembers taking it off last night. He overturns every inch of the room, trembling with the confusion and fear of it all. Something is breaking in and he has no idea.

 

 

If anything, school is worse than the day before, because now he is seen as a false start, a coward. To his classmates, it doesn't work—you can't pierce yourself a faggot one day and then double back the next and pretend it didn't happen. Their collective memory is slightly longer than that, their sense of irony sharp as needles.

At lunch he tries to explain what happened to Nikki, but she isn't buying it, even when he tells her the ring is gone too. He can't blame her. "If you didn't want to do it, you didn't have to," she says. "I didn't force you."

 

 

Right after school they both log into Demon Keep to play for a while. They don't chat, just monster-hunt; it's a comfort to them, to be together in this space, and it's clear that Nikki's sympathy for him has won out over her skepticism. In their multiplayer game they reach the Gemband quest. Marcus has been anxious for this. They fight together to the bottom of the Underground Forge, but Gemband is not there. The lava rock is flooded with his minions, but the master of the forge never emerges in his war machine. The goblin metallurgist is gone. This is a different game from his single-player; even if Gemband has disappeared in the first, he should be here. He must be here.

Marcus's chest tightens in anticipation as his lizardman and Nikki's barbarian stand among the corpses of Gemband's minions while nothing happens.

A message appears at the bottom of his screen: where is he?

amarcedman: I dont know.

tellmeimok: must be a bug.

amarcedman: I dont know. i told you he disappeared from my single player game too.

tellmeimok: so fuckin weird.

amarcedman: yeah.

They explore every corner of the map, comb every inch, but Marcus knows it is fruitless. He knows Gemband is gone.

For the rest of the evening he searches the house, but he doesn't find a thing.

 

 

11.

  __   __
/[  ] [  ]\
 |||| ||||
  ˘˘˘ ˘˘˘

 

WORN LEATHER GLOVES
Defense: 8

 

One would think that someone so practiced with his hands would have a better set of gloves. He picked these up early in the game from some random drop and then simply never changed them. He's certainly come across better specimens since then—improved versions like "studded leather gloves" and "superior leather gloves," magical variations, even gloves of a better material, like chainmail—but for some reason he's passed them all up, sold them off or left them lying on the ground. Of all his equipment, he thinks about gloves the least. By the game's time, he's been wearing these gloves for months. Imagine, with his sweaty palms. Maybe they were worn a little thin by now, but so what? He could always repair them. Maybe he had found the right fit.

 

 

The next time he sees Nikki, she has her septum pierced. When he sits down next to her in the cafeteria, she turns to him smiling using her teeth—which is unusual enough itself—and he sees it. Shiny, gunmetal almost-black, swooping out from either nostril, each side tipped with a little spike. He has never seen anything like it in real life.

"Wow," he says.

She laughs, and raises her fingers to it self-consciously. "I got it yesterday."

"Did it hurt?"

"Yeah, a little." She takes her hand away.

"Can I touch it?" he asks.

She giggles. "Of course."

He leans in close—closer than he's ever been—and tilts the tips forward with one finger. He brushes against her skin. It's sleek, surprisingly heavy, the bar thick, the tips sharp. Up close, the dark, metallic silver reflects the rainbow—a flash of yellow, a glimmer of red, blue. It's beautiful. He wonders about the metal it's made from, the mold, the process of building it.

"One of the tips unscrews," she says, and he moves his fingers away. "So you can slide it in and out."

 

 

That afternoon Nikki invites him to her house after school, and he sees her bedroom. The house is empty, no parents, and she shows him only to her room, like the rest of it doesn't exist.

Nikki's bedroom is like Nikki—posters angry like her shirts cover the wall, fantasy books and comics and action figures fill the shelves, a camo bedspread on the double bed. There is a lot of stuff—in opposition to the empty, ascetic appearance of Marcus's room at home—but she isn't messy. In the corner, her desktop computer, powered down. He imagines her sitting in the chair playing Demon Keep, doing other things. She opens a drawer in her desk and shows him the stencil she'd cut out to make the logo on her backpack.

They sit on the bed, talking about nothing. He sits cross-legged, while Nikki leans back on the pillows, hands behind her head. She is obviously more comfortable here than anywhere else.

His heart races so fast that he is afraid she can hear it.

"Do you spend a lot of time in your bedroom?" he asks.

"Almost all of it."

"Me too."

"Does yours look like this?"

"Not really. It doesn't have stuff on the walls."

"Oh."

He traces around the olive-colored pattern on the bedspread with his index finger. He looks over at her. "I really, really like your new piercing," he says. His voice trembles. He looks at his lap. "I think it's really—you're really—beautiful."

Nikki smiles and bites her bottom lip. She touches one of the spikes. "Forged from the finest of goblin steel," she says.

A chill comes over him. His missing jewelry; Gemband the goblin metallurgist gone from the game. The sulfur smell in the bathroom, a forge, the cooling black water in the sink. Nikki's new piercing. He feels something rushing through his pores, something fighting to get in or out. Things are silent for a long time, except for their breathing. Marcus looks around the room, at the posters—angry shirtless men leaping across stages, splattered paint and ink drawings—the bookshelves, the dresser and closet door.

He hears a rustle behind him, and twists around—Nikki, asleep on her side, facing towards him, a glint at her neck.

He stands slowly. He goes to the other side of the bed, kneels down, and with shaking hands unclasps the thin chain from around her neck. He pulls it out, gently, along with the two dog tags. He turns them over in his fingers.

 

 

12.

   ___
  / O \_
  |   | \
  |   | |
  \___/ |
    \___/

 

NIKKI RICE'S DOG TAGS
RICE
NIKKI
DOB: 9/26/1990
B POSITIVE
TRIBE: PUNK ROCK

 

Peering at the embossed print, Marcus struggles to confirm that she is who she says. Because all at once, he isn't sure. Suddenly, he cannot convince himself of which reality Nikki is a part. In the reflection of this metal, he sees a face looking back, and decides that he doesn't care. He leaves the necklace on her pillow, then puts his hand on her shoulder. She stirs, rolls towards him and opens her eyes.

"Hi," she says.

He touches Nikki's face with his hand, brushes her blue hair from her forehead. She either flinches or she doesn't; whichever response terrifies him more, he ignores. If there are ley lines here, they are subdermal.

He leans in and kisses her. He feels the rift opening again, portals to other planes shimmering into existence, bodies pouring through the breach, two worlds merging into one.