At some point later—minutes? hours? days?—the blackness gave way to a dark, bleary orange.
Burning. Something was burning. The acrid smell of it filled his nose. But it wasn’t quite right. The scent was charred and rich with sulfur but still… clean.
Gerald forced his eyes open and shrank back against the heat and fickle light of a building burning around him. With a groan, he rolled over onto his back, still on the floor.
The floor wasn’t right. He should be lying on cheap tile. But instead, he was facedown on wooden planks. And they looked wrong just as the air smelled wrong. They were blurry, lacking the right level of detail, even though they were inches from his face. At this distance, every splinter, seam, and imperfection should be clear as day.
The hit to the head from the old man must have given him a concussion. Who’d have thought an old guy with a smoker’s cough could whack someone that hard with a stick?
He coughed several times himself. To his surprise, it cleared his head.
“Z?” he called out.
Muscles creaking at the effort, Gerald forced himself into a low crouch and squinted, taking stock of his surroundings. Zeke was missing, and this wasn’t the familiar Quik Mart. There weren’t enough shelves, they weren’t tall enough, and everything in the place was made of wood, not cheap metal. The floor, the shelves, the long counter to his right, everything.
The place was on fire, though.
To his left was a closed door shrouded by the smoke blanketing the ceiling. To his right, a counter stood in front of an archway, two doors wide or more. He crossed the room on his hands and knees, raised himself to eye level with the counter, and peered over. Beyond the doors, he found a wide, empty space (a storeroom of some kind?) and another set of barn-like doors flung open to the night air. The smoke from the fire poured through them, pointing his way out.
Dropping back to his hands and knees, he skirted around the counter, past the archway, and into the empty room. The wood floor gave way to stone, and the ceiling rose several feet higher, affording him space to stand without being wreathed in smoke.
He staggered across the room on wobbly legs, likely from being unconscious for who knew how long. Closer to the doorway, his feet crunched on a sparse scattering of grain on the floor. The place was a warehouse or something. Or at least it had been.
By the time Gerald reached the cooler air outside, he felt a little less like a corpse. He stood in a dirt-path alley that ran away from him in both directions. He inhaled, filling his chest to capacity. The air was cool and fresh, a marked difference from the tang of the billowing smoke inside. Still, just as the smoke had smelled cleaner than it should, the night air, too, was off. Like being in a car with the air conditioning cranked up, it was light and artificial, synthetic. And now he could only just pick out hints of the burning building when it should have been heavy with moisture and thick with the stench of smoke.
Above him, the flames reached out from a window on the second floor, licking at the structure’s roof. Even worse, the roof was made of straw. What were those roofs called? Thatched? Who had a thatched roof anymore? Where the hell was he? And where was the fire department? He should be hearing sirens or something from emergency vehicles.
Gerald grabbed his radio and pressed the talk button. “Dispatch? This is Charlie three-two, come in.”
He tried again. “Charlie three-two for Dispatch. Come in? Phil?”
Still nothing. He frowned. The radio must have gotten busted up when he hit the tortilla chip shelf or the floor inside the store. He’d have to get to his cruiser to call this in. His cell phone or the backup radio, one, would work. He still didn’t have the faintest clue where he was, but his car should be somewhere along the street at the mouth of the alley. Maybe he had a concussion and was hallucinating Simmsville as a Middle Earth–style village, but his whacked-out brain couldn’t keep him from seeing his police cruiser. Could it?
Deep grooves in the dirt led away from the warehouse. That, too, made him crinkle his nose in confusion. It had rained cats and dogs earlier. The alley should have been a muddy, sloppy stew. Instead, the well-worn path was dry as a bone, although not dusty.
“At least a concussion will mean a few days off to recover,” he muttered.
Shaking his head, he trudged up the alley. Exhausted by the effort—but not out of breath, which was puzzling—Gerald reached the archway at the end and stepped out into the street.
And had to catch himself.
With his mouth hanging open and eyes even wider, he slumped against the stone building beside him in disbelief. Along both sides of the cobblestone street stood similar-looking two-story buildings, each with a thatched roof and single wooden door. Some had painted wooden signs hanging over them, as still as death. The street curved up ahead of him, winding its way up a hill. The street, the curve, the hill, everything took his breath away.
He’d seen it a thousand times. But never quite like this. Never in three dimensions.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered. “It’s… this is… Copperton. I must have taken a worse hit to the head than I thought.” The burning building he’d left behind was MacHarrison’s, one of two competing dry-goods stores in town, and that cobblestone path—if he followed it—would lead right to the steps of Copperton’s Town Hall.
He knew because he’d spent hundreds of hours every week running back and forth through this town. It had been his starting point once and was his home city now, the hub of all his activity—specifically, the hub of all his online activity. Copperton was his second home, the place where he hung his hat. That particular hat, though, was a make-believe steel helmet with dragon wings.
This place wasn’t real. It existed only digitally, as a setting in Realm Quest, the game he and Zeke were just playing.
He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes and rubbed, but there was no familiar pressure and no burst of colored sparks inside his eyelids. When he stopped, nothing changed. The fictional, digital town of Copperton surrounded him. Him. Not an avatar but him in an actual physical body, although a much more fit version of it. He was still wearing his usual Simmsville Police Department uniform with the shiny gold badge and standard-issue revolver and leaned against a make-believe video game building that seemed as real and sturdy as the Quik Mart.
Gerald ran his fingers along the stone surface of the wall. Rough, hard, jagged, just like real masonry. But like everything else, it wasn’t quite right. The texture, especially, was perplexing. Smooth to the touch yet rough at the same time. Almost as if his senses were processing everything into two separate sets of signals and his brain was trying to layer them together, with mixed results.
It all seemed too complicated—too detailed—for a concussion-borne hallucination. Could it be a dream? Possibly, especially considering the odd filter making everything seem synthetic.
“I’ve got to wake up. The Quik Mart is going to burn down on top of me if I don’t.”
Squeezing his eyes shut, he willed himself to come to.
He counted to ten, lingering over each number. Nothing felt like it changed. Peeking out from under one eyelid, he frowned. Copperton, still.
What did people say when they wanted to make sure they weren’t dreaming? “Pinch me”? He pinched himself, hard, on the arm, but it might as well have been a gnat nibbling at him for all the pain it caused.
“Shit,” he mumbled. “I’ve got to wake up somehow.”
Considering other ways to force himself awake, he trudged up the street toward the center of town. The major game characters in town—the ones who handed out quests—hung out there. Maybe his brain was so used to Realm Quest’s system of making everything you needed obtainable via a mission that he needed to accomplish some meaningless task before he could snap out of it.
Buried in his thoughts, he almost walked right past the Miner’s Rest without looking up. But something—a bit of movement, maybe—caught his eye. The Miner’s Rest was the town’s most popular inn, in large part because it hosted the rowdiest tavern in Copperton. Players went there just to act like idiots in front of other idiot players while wrapped in the comfortable shroud of online anonymity.
Tonight, though, the place was idiot free and quiet as a tomb.
The doorway to the Rest’s stable was open, and the light silhouetted a man in shadow. Maybe he needed to talk to that guy? It couldn’t hurt. If there was one hard-and-fast rule for role-playing games, it was to talk to everyone in the town whenever possible.
Gerald trotted across the street and up to the stable. He came up behind the man and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, buddy, do you have a second?”
The man turned. He wore nondescript gray breeches and a matching shirt beneath a beaten leather breastplate. A pair of dark, angry eyes glared at him over a royal-blue kerchief covering the remainder of his face.
“I’m not your buddy,” the man growled. “And who do you think you are? You should be cowering away like all the rest of the townsfolk until my brothers and I finish here.” Looking Gerald up and down, he chuckled. “Especially since you look all dressed up for a Festus play. But it’s not even Harvest. Festus isn’t for four moons.”
Looking over the man’s shoulder, Gerald glimpsed three dirty kids huddled by an old wooden cart. Whatever was going on here, it wasn’t good.
“I’m not so interested in fashion advice from a man with a napkin over his mouth,” Gerald snapped. “When did ‘train robber circa Hollywood, 1965’ become en vogue? Better yet, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Normally, a suspicious-looking guy trying to corner kids in a barn would be facedown in the dirt already, but none of this was real. Why make a fuss in a dream? Was it even worth it?
“I don’t think you need to worry about what’s going on here, Festus,” Robber replied. Then, faster than Gerald could react, the man hammered him across the chin with a right cross.
A burst of light flashed in Gerald’s eyes like nothing he’d ever experienced. It was accompanied by the odd sensation of something clacking together five or six times in his head, like the beads from his first-grade teacher’s old math tool sliding from one side of a row to another. The sharp stab of pain that should have exploded from his chin was instead a dull ache, and that was gone in seconds.
Gerald stumbled back a few steps and reached for his gun. Robber advanced on him, and after another flash, held a cudgel that appeared out of nowhere. “I’ll teach you to interfere with the Exceptas Clan.” Over his shoulder, he barked, “And when I get done here, I’m going to deal with you little snots. You’re coming with me, one way or the other, and if I have to come in there and drag you out, you’re not going to like it.”
“Buddy, stop right…” Gerald started, raising his gun.
“What’s going on here?” a woman said from behind.
He half turned and took a few more steps back, trying to keep both the woman and Robber in view at the same time. She was short, a head or more shorter than the man. They were dressed the same way, though, all in gray and with the same blue kerchief. Her eyes were familiar, but he couldn’t put a finger on where he’d seen them.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
At the same time, Robber said, “Nothing to worry about, Jehnil—”
“Shut up, idiot!” she hissed. “And I’ll be the judge of what’s ‘nothing.’ Explain yourself.”
“This man don’t have the sense the rest of the townspeople do and came out to challenge me. So I was going to make an example out of him. Something for the others to remember the next time we come raiding.”
“You were going to try, you mean,” Gerald smirked.
As she eyed Gerald up and down, the woman’s eyebrows rose in surprise. The expression disappeared quickly, though, and she scowled back at Robber. “What are you even doing here? Why aren’t you with the rest of the Clan? They’ll need help loading up the wagons.”
Robber gestured to the stable. “I saw some kids running around. I thought Tristan would want me to bring them back.”
“You really are stupid, aren’t you?” she replied. “We’re here for supplies. That’s it, nothing else. By Thela, we don’t steal children in the night!”
“But I…” he said, hanging his head.
“Save it. Get back to the group. They’ll need you to help with loading. Go!”
Chastened, Robber shuffled away from the stable without a word. Passing Gerald, he sneered under his facial covering. “I’ll remember you, Festus. Don’t worry. You won’t be protecting townies for long.”
Gerald sighed. This nonsense couldn’t end fast enough.
After the man left, the woman stood by the gate to the stable yard, staring at Gerald in silence.
“Um, excuse me? Lady? Jehn or whatever? Hi, anyone home?”
She kept staring but gave him no reply.
“Okay, then, whatever. Kids?” he shouted into the stable. “Mr. Creepy is gone. You can come out now.”
Three uncertain faces materialized from the stables but didn’t venture out.
“Oh, for the love… come on, come out of there. You need to get home. You’re not going to object, are you?” he asked the woman.
Again, no response.
The three kids—two boys, one girl, all between eight and ten—inched their way outside with caution, as if walking on early-winter ice. They froze once again, seeing the Clan woman.
“It’s okay,” Gerald said. “She won’t bother you. What are your names?”
The girl assumed the role of spokesperson. “I’m Frega. This is Blust and Daven.”
“All right, Frega, Blust, and Daven. Do you all have homes? Parents?”
The boys nodded as Frega replied, “Yes.”
“Solid. Then get outta here. Go home. Now. Stay out of sight. And the next time these guys”—he pointed at the woman—“come around, you stay inside. Got it?”
“Yes, my lord,” Frega replied. The three of them raced off and ducked under the stable-yard fence. The boys didn’t break stride once beyond it, but the girl stopped and turned back.
“Sir? Are you the new Sheriff?”
“What?” Gerald said.
“The new Sheriff of Copperton? Are you the king’s replacement?”
The “my lord” and “sir” were bad enough, but this was getting ridiculous. Jesus, just being the night cop of Simmsville was hard enough. Whatever being Sheriff of Copperton meant, he wanted that about as much as he wanted the plague.
“No,” he replied, making his voice stern. “Now go on. Move!”
Frega scampered away, and not long afterward, all three of them were out of sight.
Satisfied, he turned back to the woman and stepped closer to her. “So, lady, you having a fit or what?”
“What?” she answered. “No, I just… was trying to make a decision. I… I didn’t expect to find you here.”
“That makes two of us. I didn’t expect to find me here either.”
“Thela truly does work in Her own time, I suppose. Let’s hope you’re not too late.”
Gerald scratched his head. “Look, lady, you can start making sense whenever you want. And have you got a name? That other guy called you Jehn or something, right?”
“You’d do well to forget everything that lummox said. And I hope you’ll accept my apology, but tonight is no time for you to be stumbling around town.”
“What does that mean?” But he was talking to no one. The woman—Jehn—was gone. She went from solid and opaque to transparent and gone. In the span of two heartbeats, she’d disappeared.
“Lawkeeper?” she said, somehow from behind him. Gerald whirled around…
…in time to catch the fist streaking toward him.
A burst of light exploded again, followed by that odd clacking sensation in his head. Ten clacks, maybe? Or fifteen?
And then, black.