I crash through the jungle, hacking a jagged path through the vines and branches. Everything around me is green. Leaves the size of elephant ears block the sun, so the light at the forest floor level is dim. This is exactly the kind of environment you’d expect to host dinosaurs. I wouldn’t be shocked to encounter a velociraptor here, but I have a hunch that the dangers in this world are human in nature. And that hunch is confirmed when something buzzes past my temple. A split second later, a hand- made dart lodges in a nearby branch.
I slip behind a tree and scan the jungle for my assailant. At first I see no one. Then a shadow passes across a giant leaf about ten feet off the ground, and I throw my dagger toward the movement. I hear the blade hit something soft, and seconds later a body plummets to earth. I step out of my hiding place, well aware that there may be other killers around. Staying low, I cross the jungle to where I think the body fell. I find an avatar that’s about half the size of an average human, with dark green skin and long claws. The fall appears to have knocked it unconscious. My dagger is protruding from its thigh.
It ambushed me. It wanted to kill me. If its aim had been just a little bit better, it would probably be standing over me right now. I should rip the avatar apart and fling the pieces in every direction. But when I pull my knife out of its leg, a splatter of blood hits me, and the sight and smell remind me of Kat’s leg that night at the factory. I don’t know if the avatar belongs to a headset player—or to someone with a disk. So I grit my teeth until the almost-irresistible urge to kill him passes. Then I rip a strip of fabric from the bottom of my robe and fashion a tourniquet.
I confiscate the avatar’s blow darts and head off into the jungle. I take three steps before I hear a low growl and something springs onto my back. The weight of it almost brings me down. I don’t need to look to know it’s the avatar I just stopped myself from killing. I’m so enraged that I barely feel the teeth sink into my neck. I saved its life, and it’s still attacking. I pull out one of its darts, reach back and ram it into its side. The poison on the dart’s tip takes immediate action. The avatar slips off my shoulder. It’s dead when it lands at my feet. I kick the corpse over and over again until I feel the pressure in my head release. If the guy had a disk, this would be my first real kill. I don’t know if it will be my last. But I do know where I am now. I may not know the realm’s name, but it hardly matters. If Mammon was the land of greed, this one is fueled by rage. The Elemental of Mammon wanted me out of the way. He sent me here to this realm to die.
I move much more cautiously now. I’ve painted my skin with mud from the jungle floor and I’ve woven leaves through the fabric of my robe. I’m not invisible, but I’m no longer an obvious target. Which is good, because the jungle is filled with avatars hunting for humans. I’ve managed to avoid most of them, though I did send a couple of headset players back to Start. But I’ve tried not to indulge my desires too much or too often. That’s how Otherworld traps you. It introduces you to sensations you’d never be able to feel in real life. You discover what you’ve been missing—because it’s taboo or illegal or because you lack the guts to do it for real. And when you find what’s missing it’s almost impossible to let it go again.
I would love to take out my axe and chop each and every one of these psychos into bite-size pieces. And that’s exactly why I can’t let myself do it.