The world was dark.
For a time, Donovan lingered in that darkness, the memory of pain, but not the pain itself, ever-present. The scientists had lied about the procedure. Would he have gone through with it had they not lied?
That was all that mattered.
Twelve needle pricks had been used to deaden his scalp. They strapped a device to the back of his head, a drill of some sort. It started with the whine of a motor, then pressure, followed by a sickening, grinding noise.
The room was full of people in white lab coats. They murmured and watched the display of horror, unflinching.
Machines beeped and drummed and flashed. Then the pain hit. A spike so white, so crushing, he couldn’t see, couldn’t feel anything else. A world of agony that ran from his frontal lobe to his cerebellum.
He recalled screaming, or the mental command to scream. An automatic reaction that was so primal he had no control over it.
He lingered in mists of black, the worry settling in his stomach that something had gone wrong. How long had it been that he existed alone with nothing but his thoughts?
There was a glow of red, then yellow. The distant sense of heat pooled at his feet, and the smell of smoke, of firestone, replaced the empty scent of nothing.
Out twenty feet from him, sitting on a jutting stone, draped in pink with legs kicking out of boredom, Nini looked up. She huffed. “You’re late, you’re late, for a very important date! Seriously, what took you so long? It has been like fifteen minutes. Were you arguing with the doctors again?”
Donovan stumbled forward, his heart catching in his chest. His little princess. It was her. The strong, quirky, beautiful daughter of his was alive. He wrapped his arms around her to make sure it wasn’t a dream.
He’d need to tell her. Tell her about the giant cube servers launched to orbit the sun. How this was their reality now, no logging off, no sickness. This place of magic and mystery was their new home, a home they shared with the ten thousand others who were given a second chance.
Not now—it could wait. Would she be sad or relieved? She had always hated returning to the real world. But what was real anyway? This was real. And they had fairies to go find and spells to make up.
“Dad. Dad . . . daddy! You’re going to squeeze the life out of me!”
“Everything is okay now.”
“I know. Don’t worry so much. Besides, I’ve got a new spell for you, and it’s going to be awesome! We should have enough to register the incantation. Even got the first line done. You’ll sing this one too, right?”
“That’s what the Pink Knight does.”
“I like frogs, more than dogs! That’s the first line. You’ve got to squat like a frog when you sing it.”
“Of course, that makes perfect sense.”
“I know, right! I love this spell already.”
“I thought you loved kittens.”
“Dad, didn’t you read the stats on the bracelet. It gives a twenty-two percent bonus effect on frog-themed spells! Otherwise, it’s only six percent.”
“Alright, but what is this frog spell supposed to do?” He summoned the town portal. An oval of swirling blue and turquoise, like water from some tropical lagoon, glowed in front of them.
“Just have to wait and see!” Nini grinned and stepped toward the portal.
Donovan caught her hand, and she turned back, forehead creased. Was it unreasonable, this tinge of fear he felt? It was like none of this could be real, and the moment Nini stepped out of sight, she’d be lost to him forever.
He took her by the shoulder, and they stepped through the portal together. The yellows and reds of firestone twisted and elongated. All the crackling sounds of the dungeon became a distant echo, and with a snap, they appeared within a thriving town of people. People just like them. People who had lost their fight for life, then were granted this world.
Town music welcomed them. The air was fresh, smelling of flowers. People waved and laughed and traded goods. Someone was dueling another player while a cat-woman danced on a stone wall.
Nini looked up, still tucked tightly under his arm, still there in this new world. He smiled and knew, from that moment, everything would be okay.