Orphic Phantasia

30: The House of the Soulless

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Joel walked up to the now open door. It was strange seeing him dressed in such a conservative uniform, which had enough padded body armour to give the illusion of muscles he most certainly did not have. “Looks like it leads outside,” he said. “First floor balcony, innit? Should’ve picked up that sniper rifle when we had the chance. Bet there’re loads of nasties out there.”

The weapon in question was locked behind a simple children’s puzzle. It was the sort of set-up that pushed Dante’s suspension of disbelief close to breaking point and served to remind him that, no matter how real everything might have seemed, this was still just a game. The puzzle itself involved sliding pieces of a picture around a board, but some were missing. Dante had two of them stuffed in his pocket, alongside a box of matches, a lock pick and a roll of black tape. Joel had insisted they would all be useful ‘at some point’.

Presently, the raven was inching through the door, gun drawn, gesturing Dante to follow him. Outside, the balcony overlooked a courtyard swarming with overgrown weeds and climbing vines. A low moan confirmed that at least one animated corpse was waiting in the nighttime shadows to ambush any player unwary enough to rush out into the open. Across the other side of the courtyard, a pair of flickering lights illuminated a suspicious door, set alone on a concrete-grey wall.

“I bet that leads to the laboratory,” said Joel, as he peeked over the balcony. “That’ll be where they’re manufacturing the virus. Man, what I’d give for a rocket launcher right about now. Could proper blow that place sky high and win the game with a single shot. That bloody ponce wouldn’t know what hit him.”

Joel remained convinced that their rival players — not that there seemed much room for competition in such a game — were Byron and Deneb, if not Chris and Lance. At present, however, the only signs of their fellow initiates had been a few bloody corpses and stray bullet holes in the mansion walls. Without access to modern technology, there was no telling where they were, or even if they were still playing.

Joel slipped back into the shadows and checked the clip of his weapon. “Six bullets ain’t gonna get us far,” he said. “There’s at least as many nasties out there, and they eat these things up like I would a pizza. We’re gonna need that rifle. Think you can get it?”

Dante shrugged. They were still missing a piece of the puzzle, after all.

“Right,” said Joel. “I tell you what. I’ll slip down into that courtyard and stealth the shit outta those bastards while you go fetch it. That way, I can draw them out into the open for when you get back. Things get tough, I can just leg it outta there, right?”

It was an awful plan, the sort of strategy that would leave their Seelie instructors palming their faces in despair, but it was precisely the sort of thing Joel’s virtual heroes would do. Were Dante the one calling the shots, he would have suggested further exploration and careful preparation, using all the tools at their disposal to achieve their goals with the minimum of effort. Dante, however, was not calling the shots. This was Joel’s world.

Oh Joel, if only you had a cardboard box!