It was on the metro that Ben found the disk that changed his life. He was returning from his girlfriend's house, having just barely managed to catch the last train of the night, and was one of only a few people on the carriage. As he sat down, he noticed his untied shoelace and bent down to fix it. Something caught the corner of his eye; beneath the seat beside him was a square of plastic, about five inches to a side. He fished it out and sat up again to inspect it.
It was an ancient floppy disk, of a type he hadn't seen in many years. The yellowing label bore a description handwritten in a somewhat old-fashioned style, a bit like German blackletter. In a sort of brownish ink, it proclaimed the words "NetHack: Demogorgon's patch". Immediately Ben's attention was piqued; NetHack was a computer game he himself played off and on, and obviously this disk held somebody's home-made patch to the game. From the title, he assumed the patch expanded the role of Demogorgon: one of the more famously deadly enemies in the game, a very powerful demon prince. He looked up and down the carriage. Presumably whoever had dropped it was already off the train, and he thought about handing it in to Lost Property for its owner to reclaim it. But maybe he could just hang on to it for a little while, copy the contents first? He could still hand it in afterwards, and then he'd get to playtest whatever this patch did.
He slipped the disk into his pocket, glancing around him guiltily. Nobody was watching anyway. He wondered where he'd get a computer that could read such an antique floppy disk. Maybe Lewis will have some ideas, he thought to himself.
It was the following evening before he made it round to see Lewis. He explained how he'd come by the volume and asked for some help.
"This thing is ancient!" exclaimed Lewis. "Seriously, I don't even have a reader for a three-and-a-half inch floppy, never mind these great big old things."
"Hrm, okay. Do you know anyone else who might be nerdy enough to have something like that?"
"Huh? Nerdiest person I know is you, I think. Although... actually, I might have an idea of somebody who might be able to help us out."
"Great! Do you need to hang on to the disk or anything?"
"Yeah, I'd better take it over with me. We'll need to figure out the format of what's on the disk, and see what sort of machine you need to run it."
"Huh, yeah, I guess it's probably some really old operating system, right? Probably something nobody uses anymore."
"Yeah, like Windows ME. I'll give you a shout tomorrow, probably."
Later that evening, Ben sat down to check a few websites and see if he could find any hints about what might be in the patch. He found a few patches involving Demogorgon, but none by this particular name. That wasn't so unusual, of course; there were many one-man-job patches people had made that were probably sitting on people's machines and hadn't made it onto the Bilious patch database, or anywhere else on the Internet for that matter. Certainly something stuck on a disk that was itself a relic from the past wouldn't be high on anyone's list for conversion to the modern world. He briefly wondered what version of the original game the patch was based on; NetHack had been around for a long time, and the contents of that floppy disk would probably be something as old as the disk itself.
Asking around some other players on IRC or USENET shed no further light on the question. He would have to wait for the disk to be deciphered and find out for himself, the hard way. Pulling up a few spoiler websites, he looked back through time to investigate some of the major changes made to the game across its long life; if he had some really old version, it would be best to have some idea what he was going to run into. If even the basic game, before the patch, differed enough from the version he was most used to... well, NetHack wasn't famous for being forgiving of mistakes.
A few days later, Ben looked at the strange yellowed-plastic lump of museum technology sitting in his room. Lewis's friend had come up with the goods, finding a machine in the guy's collection of antiques that would run the disk. The computer of yesteryear was of an unfamiliar make, some obscure brand named "Alhazred Technologies". He shrugged and powered up the device as he'd been shown when it was brought round. It had taken a bit of bribery and sworn oaths of terrible punishment if anything should happen to the tired old machine, but eventually he had managed to secure an agreement to lend it.
He pulled up his spoiler notes on his own computer while the behemoth went through its length boot-up procedure. When it was ready, he inserted the "Demogorgon's patch" disk and referred to a piece of paper containing a summary of the commands the computer would recognise. He typed the appropriate invocation, held his breath, and hit the enter key.
"NetHack: Demogorgon's patch" pronounced the title screen. No version number was given. Ben browsed the list of character classes. The usual selection were all there: Rogue, Wizard, Healer, Knight, Ranger, Tourist... but there was also one new addition. Intrigued, Ben selected "Symbologist" as his class. Shortly, he was reading the usual introductory text and entering the Dungeons of Doom with his neutral male human Symbologist. The assigned pet turned out to be a cat, which Ben promptly named "Ray" before inspecting his starting inventory. Awesome! he thought. Symbologists start with a magic marker! This would be a useful tool to let him write magic scrolls and spellbooks.
He spent the rest of that evening carefully combing the dungeons, alert for any unpleasant surprises that might be built into the patch. His starting spellbook of magic missile turned out to be very helpful in dispatching the goblins and other denizens who assailed him, and soon he had cleared out a few levels and even set up a small cache of items for later use. Ray the cat dove into the fray with abandon, soon becoming a competent warrior in his own right.
In fact, it was several days of play before Ben had even an inkling of what was to come. He had just reached the home of the Oracle, and was surprised to find all of the traditional centaur statues already smashed to rubble. Of course, he had been planning to have a peek inside them himself, as statues often contained hidden spellbooks, but this was unexpected. Shrugging, he entered the main enclosure on the level. Lying in the centre of the fountains was a single percentage sign: the Oracle's corpse.
Immediately he was on his guard. This could only be a "bones" file; the state of this level had been stored on the disk during an earlier player's death, and now he had randomly been chosen to bear witness to the results of that player's actions. It was this person who had smashed the statues, killed the Oracle, and now presumably lay in a grave somewhere nearby. And then, of course, there was the matter of whoever — or whatever — had killed them.
In fact, the level seemed eerily quiet. There hadn't even been any randomly-generated monsters since he came down the stairs from the previous floor. Carefully, Ben snuck around every corner and uncovered every square of the map. At last he came across the gravestone he had expected. Reading its inscription, he found that beneath it lay the mouldering remains of Robin, another Symbologist. "Killed by Demogorgon's displeasure". Well, that sounded omnious. Best of all, though, was what lay on top of the ground on this square. Greedily, Ben pressed the comma key to pick it up, with nary a moment's thought.
m - an athame named Magicbane
Of course, the gravestone's mention of "the big D" had raised his guard even further than it already was. He virtually tiptoed around to the down staircase, eyes flickering to every square as it came into view. At last, after what seemed an age, he reached the staircase and was able to flee the level. He had still, he realised, not seen a single creature on the whole level; not even the ghost of "Robin" had put in an appearance. Only his pet cat, Ray, followed him across the deserted ruins of Delphi.
Two levels later, Ben had a nasty shock while walking across an apparently empty room. "You step on an arcane symbol! --More--" said the game, the latter part indicating that further consequences would follow from his stumbling into this trap. Mentally, he riffled through the possible traps available in a typical NetHack game. There was no "arcane symbol" normally; obviously it was part of the patch. Tentatively, he pressed his spacebar to see the rest of the messages. "You feel filled with power! --More--" and indeed the statistics display had updated to show that his magic power meter was now full. Not a bad trap after all! He pressed space again. "You feel as if something is missing." Hmm. No telling what that could mean. Perhaps the trap did something different if he brought something to it? But what to bring, and what else would happen? He made a note and went on his way; the trapped square was now marked with the caret symbol that indicated a trap, as normal. Arcane symbol traps were coloured purple, he noticed.
All thoughts of the strange trap were driven from his mind as he opened the door and recoiled in horror as a blue lowercase e floated into the room. A floating eye! He offered a silent prayer of thanks that at least no other monsters had come along to join the party. By itself a floating eye could be handled; it was in conjunction with other monsters that its paralysing gaze became really dangerous. Luckily, Ben had had the good fortune to have already picked up one of the more surprisingly useful tools in the game: a blindfold.
Leaving Ray outside the room, he dodged the slow-moving floating eye to shut all the doors, in order to avoid unwanted interruptions. He donned the protective piece of fabric, shutting out his character's view of the world. In darkness he struck out against the floating eye's last position. Helpless to fight back now that he had blocked its magical paralysing gaze, the hovering orb was soon killed, and Ben hurriedly removed the blindfold in case something was sneaking up on him. Thankfully, the room was empty. Or almost so, for the floating eye had left an edible corpse!
With an excited whoop, Ben quickly moved into the square marked by the corpse symbol and began to eat. The corpse of a floating eye was a magical delicacy. Sure enough, immediately he had finished his meal, the game announced that he "felt a strange mental acuity". Putting on the blindfold again, he found his "blind" state enhanced by a telepathic view of every creature on the level. Fantastic! he thought. ESP this early in the game! What a find!
His excitement was shortlived, however, as a black glow surrounded Magicbane, his wielded weapon. Oh, not this again! he grumbled. In a normal game, the artifact named Magicbane was known for, amongst other useful abilities, its power to ward off curses. In this patch, though, it seemed to be attracting them. This was the third time Magicbane had spontaneously become cursed since he had found it; now it was welded to his hand until he could locate another scroll of remove curse. Now I see what the magic marker was for, he muttered inwardly. Writing a million remove curse scrolls!
He decided this was a good point to save and go to sleep. That night, he had strange dreams that he was lost in a maze of ASCII characters. Letters stalked through the line-art halls, hunting him. A tide of capital Z and W characters chased him down a corridor. Suddenly, he came upon a parenthesis lying on the ground, and as he grasped for it he felt the ice-cold breath of a wraith at his back. He spun around, raising the weapon he'd found, and at that instant he woke up.
Drenched in sweat, his heart racing, Ben tried to steady his breathing. Just a stupid dream, playing that game too much, he thought as he reached up to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Something cold and metallic flashed as he raised his arm. He grabbed his glasses, not able to believe his eyes. But even after putting them on, the sight before him was undeniable. It couldn't be possible, but there was only one possible name for the wavy-edged dagger before him, its intricately-carved pale blue hilt giving glimpses into strange worlds of geometry and mystical glyphs.
the cursed +2 Magicbane (weapon in hand)
Wearing a heavy coat, Ben kept his hand carefully hidden. As he had feared, the curse on the athame welded it firmly to his hand, and no amount of brute force could remove it from his grasp. He tried to stay casual as he walked into the bookshop. In the game last night, he had seen a shop containing a spellbook of remove curse, but had been unable to afford it yet. The appearance of Magicbane in the real world had, however, given him the germ of an idea. It was a crazy notion, of course, but so was the sharp dagger clutched in his pocket.
He made small talk with a member of staff that he knew for a minute, but took his chance to move off as another customer came over to ask for help finding something. Immediately Ben made for a shelf where he knew there was a copy or two of the Bible. Quietly, feeling a little foolish, he flicked it open and read a passage from it at random. He had no idea if this would work, but it was worth a try.
"Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave Himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works."
At the word "redeem", he felt the weight of the cursed blade shift in his hand, as if a bond was loosening. At "purify", it fell away completely, landing in the bottom of his pocket. Congratulating himself on his cleverness, he put the volume back in its place and left the shop, carefully avoiding touching the athame again until he got home.
Later, he gingerly lifted Magicbane out, using a towel to avoid coming into contact with it. If it behaved anything like its counterpart in-game, it could well spontaneously become cursed again at a moment's notice. He wrapped it in the towel and shoved it into a drawer, trying to forget about it. He didn't play NetHack again that day.
After a while, other cares and worries took over, and the mystery of Magicbane was shoved to the back of his mind. He preferred not to dwell on something so obviously inexplicable. Gradually he began playing NetHack again, here and there during the day. He had quite a surprise upon arriving at the Quest level, for where should the Symbologists' quest be based but at the University of Rochester, Ben's own old stomping grounds? Fascinated, he and Ray wandered around the first level, a passable rendering of part of the main campus in an ASCII map. At length, he found himself face to face with the Quest leader, Professor Cohen.
He read through the usual quest introduction to see what sort of nemesis the Symbologists were pitted against in this patch. He was unprepared for the shocking name the Quest leader gave him. But he had no excuse; it had been right there in front of him all along, right? He should have realised who he'd have to fight in the Quest. He should have been prepared... to face Demogorgon.
Although he nominally passed the simple checks of the game engine, by his character's level and alignment, Ben knew he was not ready for this quest. Fighting the big D was a major undertaking, and he would need to collect some equipment first. A lot of it, in fact. He left the Quest levels behind him and plunged further into the Dungeons of Doom.
The death that came upon him was cruel and pointless. No great stories would be told about Ray's passing, he thought, depressed. Caught up in a swarm of fire ants, battling their way through he had displaced his faithful pet out of the way, straight into a pit trap. The poisoned spikes at the bottom had been more than enough to kill his only ally against the hordes of the dungeon. Saddened, he slew the rest of the ants and found a boulder to push into the pit. This done, he took up a wand of lightning and burned in Ray's name above the now-sealed square. Rest in peace, little fella, he thought.
On the next level, he found another of the arcane symbols, again triggering a sudden surge of magical power within his character. He wondered if his character, as a Symbologist, was able to do anything with these odd traps, but a short period of experimentation yielded no obvious results. His trials were cut short by the arrival of a Green-elf, who announced his arrival by firing arrows from the cover of a corridor. Ben got out of the elf's firing arc and hid by the door, waiting to pounce as the foe emerged. The elf went down to a flurry of stabs even as another of its kind emerged from a doorway on the other side of the room. Hurriedly, Ben made use of his recent magic refuelling to hurl a barrage of spells its way, and the second elf crumpled to the floor on the same square as the arcane symbol, leaving a percentage sign to mark its corpse. Ben checked the remains of the first elf for any useful items — elvish boots and cloaks were excellent magic items — and stepped over to the second.
"You step on an arcane symbol! --More--" said the game. Whoops, thought Ben. Well, a little more magic won't hurt. He tapped the spacebar. "The Green-elf corpse is consumed in a sheet of flame! The blood covers the symbol! --More--" Ben sat up in his seat. He hadn't expected that. The messages weren't like those of a trap. More reminiscent of... of an altar. The human sacrifice messages, to be exact. Heart in his mouth, he pressed space once more.
"Demogorgon appears before you!"
It was a testament to Ben's self-control that he didn't immediately fly into a blind panic. Instead, he got up from the keyboard and let his adrenaline levels subside. A run-in with Demogorgon, prince of demons, could be rapidly fatal, and indeed often was. He knew he was in no way ready to fight the purple ampersand leering at him from the screen, and so his only choice was to flee. He inspected the screen objectively. Demogorgon hadn't, thankfully, actually appeared adjacent to him, so he had an instant's grace. He read through his inventory list, brain ticking over the possibilities. Reading inventory took up no time in-game, so he could afford to stop and think before taking his next turn. Then, he saw his chance; the wand of digging he'd picked up last level! It was perfect. He didn't act immediately, instead taking a few moments to check the rest of his list. It was definitely his safest option. He selected the wand, pointed it at the ground beneath his character's feet, and zapped. He fell...
... and landed, in safety, in a largish, demon-prince-free, room on the level below. Ben immediately let out his breath in a whoosh, unaware he'd been holding it in. He saved the game, and fished out a red pen to make a large warning in his notebook about the horror lurking on the level he'd so narrowly escaped. He circled the note twice, before turning off the computer and going shakily to bed.
The next day, Ben felt strangely invigorated. Because of NetHack's fundamental game mechanics, now that Demogorgon had been generated in the game he wouldn't appear anywhere else. And now that Ben had left the level where the archdemon was, no creature on that level could move off it until the player character's return. In effect, the big D was now safely penned in. Secure in this knowledge, Ben plunged deeper into the dungeons, taking his time to clean each level of monsters and collect whatever useful items he could. After several days' play, armoured with a suit of dragon scale mail and wielding an assortment of powerful weapons and magics, he felt confident enough to take on the Castle.
One of the oddities of the Dungeons of Doom was its bottommost floor. Here, in a titanic cavern, and surrounded by a moat replenished by who-knew-what strange subterranean sea, lay the enormous Castle level. Arriving in the small maze to the left, Ben made short work of the monsters who stood guard outside the drawbridge. He gazed across the moat at the great fortress walls, and contemplated his approach. Playing the correct passtune on the horn he carried would open the drawbridge; he could work out the correct tune with a little brainwork, as he'd done many times before. On the other hand, attacking over the drawbridge was known to have its dangers, not least of which was the throneroom full of monsters directly behind it. Ben donned his blindfold, counting on his telepathy to show him the forces he was up against.
As expected, the castle thronged with enemies. A few aquatic monsters patrolled the moat, as usual. Scanning his inventory, his eyes fell on the boots of water walking. Well, why not? he decided. The back door was somewhat more lightly defended; he could walk over the surface of the moat, take out any denizens thereof — checking his ESP again, he was gratified to see there were no kraken — and launch his assault from behind. He had a few levitation potions that should see him over the trapdoors in the rear hallway, and then he could start slinging spells and wand charges into the throneroom from the rear.
He examined the particular monsters present and planned his assault according to their strengths and weaknesses. His cone of cold spell would be effective against many of the throneroom monsters, he estimated, and so he refreshed his memory of the spell from the book he carried. He made a few more preparations, donned his boots of water walking, and strode out towards his goal. The sharks and eels of the moat fell quickly to his +5 sword, and in next to no time he was taking the Castle from behind. A few guards had filtered along the back passage to see what was going on, and so, pulling out his wand, Ben plunged into the rear entrance and began to give an account of himself.
He swiftly carved a route through the Castle's defences. His brush with the archdemon had given him the impetus to arm and armour himself to a great degree, and by carefully noting the positions and actions of each monster he was able to implacably advance, leaving no being alive behind him. Telepathy was invaluable in noting the approach of monsters from afar. By the time he reached the throneroom itself, many of its erstwhile inhabitants already lay on the floor of the corridor, mere percentage signs in the litter of loot. With one eye on his magic power meter, Ben checked the positions and vulnerabilities of the remaining monsters and began to lay down a barrage of fireballs, cone of cold spells, magic missiles, and more. Those monsters which were resistant to magic he targeted with the enchanted daggers he'd been saving for the occasion, their magically-sharpened edges whistling through the air as he hurled them unerringly to their targets. Taking a moment to quaff a healing potion, he quickly stepped in and began to hack at the wounded remnant with his sword. One of the monsters, a titan, gave him some bother, but before long Ben stood victorious, the new ruler of the Castle. If only Ray could see me now! he thought.
He took his time looting the bodies, making great heaps of treasure in the throne room as he sorted everything into piles according to type and usefulness. The best items went into his bag of holding or main inventory, while the dross he heaped up to one side, hoping he could come back later with a wand of polymorph to try and transform some of it. The most precious item of all, of course, lay in one of the Castle turrets; locked in a chest, protected by the powerful name of Elbereth inscribed in the rock beneath it, lay the Castle's famous crowning treasure.
w - a wand of wishing (0:3)
Before doing anything else, however, Ben locked up the throneroom against intruders and removed all his equipment bar a few vitals, placing it beside the golden throne that occupied the centre of the room. Gingerly, he sat on the magical throne, not knowing what would happen. Thrones were notoriously whimsical at the best of times, either helping or harming those who sat in them. Who knew what strange throne powers the patch had added?
"By thy Imperious order, Sire..."
Genocide! One of the most powerful and useful of the possible throne effects. Not quite as useful as getting a wish from it, but then he had the wand already, so no point in getting too greedy. With genocide, he could select almost any species of monster and have it wiped out, everywhere across the dungeons. He had already decided before sitting down what he would do in the event of getting an opportunity to genocide.
"Wiped out all mimics."
Freakin' mimics. He'd found one shop earlier with two of the dratted things lurking in it, ready to jump any hapless adventurer that wandered too close. One of them had tried to disguise itself as a spellbook, the other as a staircase. A staircase, seriously? Stupid creatures. He often wondered if the shopkeepers were in cahoots with them; after all, the shopkeeper inherited any belongings dropped by an adventurer killed by a mimic ambush in his shop. Anyway, while his telepathy could unmask the shapeshifters easily enough, they did take up space in the shop better used for actual inventory. There were other genocide candidates — liches in particular — but he was planning to collect a scroll of genocide from a stash a few floors up and bless that with holy water to do those in properly.
The throne vanished, as was its wont. Re-equipping his items, Ben checked his inventory thoroughly before choosing his three wishes. First, of course, was a blessed scroll of charging, to recharge the wand for another three goes. Next came the Eye of the Aethiopica. This fantastic artifact, the Quest artifact of the Wizards, granted a plethora of abilities, including magic resistance and fast magic power regeneration. But what really pleased Ben was the ability to teleport him to distant levels, allowing him to reach the Quest once more without having to pass through the floor where Demogorgon was lurking!
In fact, he decided to head up there now. The remaining wishes he would evoke later; he didn't want to waste them all on things he might still find lying around. Stashing it safely in a bag reserved for this purpose, Ben checked his equipment and prepared to invoke the Eye. With any luck, now that Demogorgon was already generated in the main dungeon, the final Quest level would just have some nameless demon standing in for the quest nemesis. Better yet, Ben's quest artifact might just be lying there unguarded!
Open a portal to which dungeon?
Arriving back at the University, Ben cast a small healing spell to bring himself back up to spec; the Eye, sensing that he was not a Wizard, would zap him with a little punitive energy every time he used it. But it was still worth it. This complete, he marched off to where Professor Cohen was standing by the staircase down into the depths of the Quest levels.
Ben could not have known that this would be the point when his world began to crumble. On the floor of the room lay the corpse of the Professor. Who could have done this? No random monsters were in sight; no signs of combat. Ben was sure everything had been fine when he left the level last time, and all activity would have frozen while he was elsewhere. Concerned, he made another search for any possible killer, finding nothing. Still nervous, he descended the staircase.
The Quest levels proceeded in an unremarkable manner. He fought demons infesting the ground floor of the University, and then marched out into the open air. Here the mapping seemed to deviate from the real-world university grounds, for the outside seemed to be covered in a dense forest that pressed right up against the building. It was so thick, in fact, that Ben found himself unable to progress through the thick trunks. He fought off what monsters he could reach and decided to collect an axe he'd stashed away. Passing the main Quest level gave him another unnerved feeling, as he passed the inexplicable corpse of Professor Cohen. It was a short slog through the main dungeon to reach the stash he'd made earlier, and so Ben elected to save and sleep upon reaching it.
A strange dream ensued that night. He wandered around a forest, a real one, in the dead of night. Terrifying noises came from deep in the forest, and he tried to escape. But he seemed to be going in circles. Suddenly he came upon a clearing, in the centre of which lay a flat stone table, holding on its surface a rolled-up piece of paper akin to a scroll. Opening the paper up, he read a message written in what he hoped wasn't blood. Numbers... what could it mean? He awoke with a start as he realised the significance of the numbers. Coordinates. It was a place... an invitation.
Ben couldn't stop thinking about the dream all the next day. He'd looked up the coordinates on his computer, of course, and they fell right in the middle of a forest not too far away. He wished he had the time to go during the day; the thought of reproducing the night-time scene of his dream did not appeal to him at all. But he berated himself for being such a superstitious fool and decided to just go with it.
It was late when he arrived, but he had thought to bring a torch. Its electric beam comforted him as he swept it around the looming trees. Something about the layout of the forest seemed familiar to him somehow. That settled it, he thought. Obviously he'd been out here one time before, and that explained how he knew the coordinates of the place. Right? Maybe the forest in the game had just jogged his memory for some reason. The brain was a funny thing, he told himself. At length he came to a place blocked by two large and very dead trees, their trunks the only thing propping each other up and preventing his passage. In front of them, something shone faintly in the dirt. Bending over, he saw that it was a plain arrow. An arrow... his blood chilled as a picture suddenly formed in his mind. The way blocked by two trees... that was where he'd turned back... attacked from behind by a centaur with a bow, he'd fought his way back out of the Quest level.
But that couldn't be where he was now. Absurd idea. Angry at the crazy ideas engendered by the harmless arrow, he pushed at the dead wood of the trees and was gratified to see them topple creakily to the earth. He stepped forward, pressing deeper into the forest. He'd show himself there was nothing to be afraid of except maybe a few squirrels.
By the light of the waning moon, he came into an open clearing. He refused to entertain the notion that it was the clearing from his dream. Even as he approached the low stone table, his brain steadfastly held that there must be a rational explanation for all this. Not even the unreadable, inhuman runes carved on the side of the stone could throw him off. It took him to glance at the top of the table, to see what lay there, and realise what he was looking at. That was what caused him to lose his composure, fleeing frantically back the way he'd come, out of that hellish forest while invisible things tittered amongst the trees. Somewhere, he dropped his torch and had to proceed by moonlight. Behind him, gazing sightlessly into the night, the torn and bloody head of Professor Frederick Cohen sat upon the cold stone.
That was enough for him. Later, Ben removed the disk from the elderly computer, took it away out of his room. He wandered down the street, trying to decide how best to destroy it. He realised that he was staring right at the means: just down the road, the contents of a trashcan were being tipped into the gnashing jaws of a garbage truck. He ran to catch up with the vehicle and hurled the offensive rectangle of plastic into its maw. Ben stood for a minute and watched the plastic shatter, the magnetic disk splinter, and the whole disappear into the throat of the machine. Satisfied, he went home and tried to calm down. The news announced the brutal murder of Professor Cohen in Rochester; sure enough, the head was conspicuously absent. Ben knew where it was.
For all that he was free of the game's malign influence, his sleep was still unsettled. In a peculiar dream, he found himself in the depths of an ASCII forest, green hash signs all around him denoting the trees. He picked through it carefully, slaying whatever monsters appeared to waylay him. At length he came to a grey underscore, a stone altar. He took the parenthesis lying on it, and all went black.
The next morning, he awoke blearily, and gradually became aware of a thin flat object clutched in his hand. He felt the shape of it, refusing to look. No more! He couldn't stand this any longer! He brought his hand up to his face and trembled as he looked at the floppy disk he held.
A certain stoicism came over him that day. Evidently there was no way to quit as easily as he had attempted. With a grim determination he sat down to fight his way through the game on its own terms. He'd beat it, win the game, and then maybe he would be free of its insidious nature. Picking up where he'd left off, he collected the axe and a few other items from the stash, and made his way back to the Quest forest. A muscle in his face began to twitch as he passed the Professor's corpse, but he forced himself to be calm and marched on. At last he came to the place where the forest was blocking his....
No! This was impossible! The two trees were gone, the way clear. No need for that trek to get the axe, part of his mind complained even as the rest of him quailed silently. What a waste of time, it chattered to itself. Nervously he crept forwards; if he was to beat this game, he would have to win through to the end of the Quest. Of course, he gibbered in his mind, he already knew what he would find at the end of this forest. He stepped through the trees, coming to a clearing. Of course there's a clearing, he thought. And here... here is the altar. He examined the grey underscore to see how the game would describe it. He read the text on his screen and laughed once, a twisted parody of humour, as he realised the meaning of the terrible runes he had seen that night. Of course, he should have realised at once what was written on that bloody altar. Who else would it be dedicated to, but DEMOGORGON?
There, on the profane altar, lay a silver bell and a brazen amulet. As he had hoped, the quest nemesis was nowhere to be seen. This first item, then, was the Bell of Opening; the item held by the nemesis of every character class' quest. And this other thing, the brazen amulet... why, it must be his quest artifact! Strange that it had no name. He picked them both up and ran out of the terrible forest as fast as possible. Along the way, he spotted a tool of some sort lying on the ground; he must have missed it on the way through previously, while he was preoccupied. He stepped over and checked to see what kind of tool it was; perhaps it might turn out to be something useful, like a magic lamp. Suddenly, he gave a cry and leapt up out of his chair, knocking his desk lamp as he did so. It crashed to the ground, leaving only the phosphor screen to illuminate the room with its portentous words.
"You see here an electric torch."
It was a miracle Ben slept at all that night. It might have been kinder if he hadn't. In his dreams, words of pure dread came to him, commanding him to wear the brazen amulet. The hypnotic words poured from a dark void, blacker than night. He could see nothing except his dream-self, languidly complying with the order while the shred of his consciousness screamed impotently. Now the voice came again. He knew it was Demogorgon, now. The thing that was responsible for his dreams, for the terrible events that had plagued him; it could only be the demon prince himself. In days gone past, Ben had sometimes wondered about "the big D". What were his goals? The game normally introduced him with little fanfare. What did he want? As the nightmare voice spoke, bidding his automaton-like dream-self to take up the Bell of Opening, Ben knew. He knew that Demogorgon knew, knew he was a thing in a computer game. And Ben knew what the terrible being wanted.
He wanted OUT.
Ben was not surprised to find the brass token tied around his neck when he came to that morning. But he cried anyway. Through blurry eyes, he looked at it in the mirror; he knew there would be no point in trying to remove the cursed thing. The rune carved into the brass was unknown to him, but he found it unsettling anyway. He shuddered and went to make his bed. Something rolled out of the covers and clanked to the floor. It was a silver bell.
With trembling hands he picked up the Bell of Opening, holding the clapper with a finger so that it wouldn't ring. Oh, how he dreaded to hear whatever sound it would make! The sight of the eldritch signs and symbols embossed on it, the screaming mouths, the swung-wide gates of bone, were enough to make the bell a thing of horror even to one who didn't know from whence it came. But he knew there was no point attempting to destroy it. It was an indestructible Invocation artifact, one of the three items needed to perform a powerful ritual in the deepest part of the game: the hellish reaches of Gehennom.
A sudden surge came up within him, and he bolted to the door of his room, meaning to flee anywhere, anywhere far away from that nightmare game. Was it a burst of insanity, or his last shred of rationality trying to save him? No matter. As soon as he made to throw open the door, he was brought sharply to his knees, choking breathlessly as the chain of the brazen amulet tightened like a garrotte about his neck. The metal cut cruelly into his skin as he clawed at it, but did not relent until, half-conscious, he crawled away from the door. He lay on the carpet and wept as he realised the trap he was in. Demogorgon desired the Amulet of Yendor, the power of the gods. He, Ben Heaton, had been chosen to retrieve it, and the demon prince would never let him go free without completing his appointed task. Sniffling awkwardly, he crawled into the chair of his computer desk, hating to acquiesce so readily but seeing no other option. He gazed at the calendar hung on the wall above the monitor. 31st of October. Hallowe'en tonight. He was supposed to be attending a party with Kate. Shuddering, he pressed the button to power up the old, borrowed machine.
The bootup procedure, formerly tedious, now seemed a blessing, a delay before he had to reenter that horrid world. But it seemed all too fast, now that he wanted it to be slow. Before long, he was back in the world of Demogorgon's patch. Oh! How could he have not seen what that title meant? Not "Demogorgon patch", a patch about him, but the patch of Demogorgon himself! He invoked the Eye once more, returning to the Castle, and made his way to the trapdoors that led down to the famed Valley of the Dead. Entering the graveyard level, he half-hoped some vampire or ghoul would kill his character and put an end to things, one way or another. What would happen in the real world if his character were to die, he suddenly wondered? Dare he find out?
At any rate, it seemed academic at this point. Upon sighting him, every undead monster in the place turned and fled. According to the game messages, "the vampire flees from your brazen amulet!". Naturally, he thought grimly. After all, didn't the bit of brass mark its wearer as a thrall of something terrible and unfathomable? He felt drained, as if the talisman was sucking his life away.
He was interrupted in his musings by a strange smell. At first he thought it was his imagination, prompted by the charnel atmosphere of the Valley level and all its corpses, but he slowly became aware that it was something real. Glad of the excuse, he got up and checked the room. The smell seemed stronger as he pulled open drawers, and he finally came upon the source in the last drawer he wanted to find anything unexpected. The one where he had placed the cursed athame, Magicbane, wrapped in a towel. It still lay there, gleaming out from the folds of the cloth, but the white towel was stained copiously with crusty brown blood. His mind flashed back to that awful head planted on the stone altar, and its ragged wounds. He slammed the drawer shut, heart beating frantically against his ribcage.
Of course he couldn't run. His only hope was to beat the game. He ploughed on, reaching the gate of Gehennom in record time. He gave little heed and ran on, into the mouth of the underworld. In the maze-like world of Gehennom, he found that the demons, too, fled from his brass talisman. Doesn't anyone want to kill me anymore? he thought, half-hysterically. He became reckless, daring the game to let him die now. He would almost welcome it, in fact. It would be escape, of a sort.
But he failed to die, and came at length to the tower of Vlad. The lesser vampires within fled from his amulet, and died quickly. Vlad himself, never much of a challenge to a well-prepared player, was likewise soon vanquished, yielding up the second artifact needed for the great ritual: the Candelabrum of Invocation.
Outside Ben's room, the world grew dark, but he played on, fearing to sleep. The tower of the Wizard of Yendor was his next destination, and so deeper into the mazes of Gehennom he dove. The Wizard, at least, elected not to flee from the brazen token, and offered up a fair fight. But, armed and armoured as he was, Ben the Symbologist soon won through and plucked the Book of the Dead from the Wizard's body. He felt a strange kinship with the corpse, as if he too was dead on the inside.
Now there was no time to lose. Faster he ran, deep into the mazes, heedless of the minor demons who quaked at his passage. He passed through the private demesnes of other demon lords: Orcus, Juiblex, Asmodeus, and more. None of the dread beings showed themselves, preferring to wait for more appealing prey not already marked by the awful prince of demons. Finally, Ben arrived at a level from which there was no descent; the bottom of Gehennom. It only remained to search this level, and after a brief while he found the place for the Invocation ritual; a square where the ground vibrated beneath him.
It seemed that a tremble passed through the real world, too, as he lit the Candelabrum, rang the Bell, and read from the Book. Behind him from where he sat at the computer desk, a demoniac tolling came from the silver bell that lay on Ben's bed, unmoving and untouched by mortal hands. Its unearthly peals mercifully ceased as the ground in the game erupted to reveal the fiery passage to his destination; the unholy Sanctum of Moloch.
Stepping down into the bottom of the world, he was unsurprised to see monsters once again fleeing from his brazen amulet. He giggled as powerful demons and vampire lords jostled each other in a vain attempt to fit through the bottleneck doors. Perhaps he was becoming a little unhinged. No matter. It would soon be over, one way or another. He came to the inner sanctum and engaged the High Priest of Moloch in combat. Although the unholy cleric at least had the decency to stand and fight, it was over all too briefly. Ben was almost saddened as he picked up the greatest treasure in the dungeon.
Y - the Amulet of Yendor
The corpse of the High Priest suddenly erupted, transforming into a magic portal. This was new. Resignedly, Ben walked towards it, already suspecting where it led. In an instant, he was transported back to the evil forest, appearing before the stone altar of Demogorgon. He wasn't even surprised when he saw the purple ampersand standing behind it. Naturally HE would be here now, for his moment of triumph. He expected a speech to appear on the screen, like the messages usually given upon meeting one's quest nemesis. Instead, the monitor went suddenly black, deeper than shadow, and a foul presence insinuated itself in his mind. He couldn't tell if it was using words or merely planting ideas into his brain. But he sensed the unseemly glee of the demon prince as he took possession of the amulet. Ben felt his throat constrict as he was given more orders, more compulsions. The brass amulet would enforce its master's dictates. It seemed to pulse in time with his heartbeat.
The screen cleared, and both Demogorgon and the Amulet had vanished from the display. Ben knew where they had gone. The evilly-fanged Cheshire grin floating in his subconscious was all he needed as proof of that. He struggled to keep his thoughts away from the attention of his vile mental hitch-hiker. He would not bring Kate to that forest! The amulet about his neck twitched threateningly at his thoughts of rebellion. His mind flew back for an instant to that gravestone that marked the resting place of Robin, the last Symbologist to displease his master. Resting place? What rest would there be for such a cursed creature?
Keeping his mind blank, Ben navigated his character out of the Quest levels to return to one of his equipment stashes and collect Magicbane, as he had been ordered. The runed brass amulet lay quiescent. As he dug through the chest in his stash room, he pulled out the cursed athame into his inventory. Suddenly he burst into action. Leaving the chest unlocked behind him, he ran across the level to the staircase. A biting sensation around his throat showed that he had aroused suspicion, but he gave no thought to it and ran to the bookshop on the adjacent level. The pain was becoming overwhelming, but he must reach the spellbook of remove curse! His vision was filled with red flashes as he forced his fingers to move over the keyboard. He had just reached the door of the bookshop when the talisman spontaneously released its stranglehold on him. Confused by this unexpected turn of events, he took another step forwards.
"A fireball erupts from nowhere! --More--"
The conflagration filled the bookshop room. Ben stared unbelievingly as he pressed the spacebar, watching as volume after volume of spells was consumed by the flames. At last the shopkeeper himself was burned to a crisp, leaving the room filled only with ashes. The smile in the back of his mind laughed at him and the brazen amulet twitched demandingly once more. He half-walked, half-stumbled across the room to the drawer where the real Magicbane lay. At least now he knew it was possible, if only temporarily, to keep things from his master. He gazed at the sharp point of the cursed blade. If Demogorgon wished to meet him in the forest... then Ben would bring him a special present.
Kate huddled close as they walked through the forest, wondering why Ben had brought them to this creepy place. She supposed it was some Hallowe'en surprise; the place certainly had the right atmosphere for it. Suddenly Ben stopped, directing his torch at something on the ground ahead. She peered at it. It looked like... some sort of ancient steel helmet.
"What do you suppose this is doing here?" she asked. "Maybe it's worth something!"
"I d-don't know." he said. He was doing a good impression of being scared, but she wasn't fooled.
Kate picked it up and looked at it. "Some sort of gems here. I think we should take it."
"Well, okay, but let's, uh, let's not put it on or anything, alright?" he said pleadingly.
They walked on, coming after a time to a pair of old decayed trees, lying on the ground where they had fallen. Ben shuddered as he passed them. After a little while they came to a clearing, in the centre of which lay a low stone table inscribed with unpleasant-looking glyphs. A dry brown stain of a troubling kind covered the otherwise empty surface. Kate noticed that Ben was keeping one hand in his pocket now, and kept jumping and turning around at the slightest noise from the trees. It was a new moon, but the stars gave enough light to see by even now that their torch was turned off.
"So, this is the big surprise, huh? Very spooky!" she commented, trying to play along.
"Sssh!" he replied, too late.
A pinkish-purple lozenge ripped space asunder on the other side of the altar, and a humanoid figure dropped from it onto the grass. They couldn't see any details in the sudden burst of rosy light, and were left blinking as the diamond-shaped fissure vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. Ben shoved Kate behind him protectively, his hand now out of his pocket wielding a strangely-shaped dagger. Silence fell over the unholy glade as they waited for the figure to rise to its feet. As the intruder came into view, Kate screamed.
It wore Ben's clothes, and had the same long hair, but it was clearly nothing human. Where a face should be was a blank expanse of skin, broken only by two beady eyes. No! she realised silently. Not eyes... two tiny @-signs stared out at her from that wall of pale skin. The thing raised its hand to show the curving blade it carried, the twin of the one Ben had, she noticed. Instinctively she glanced down at Ben's hand even as he did so himself, and they gasped in unison. For Ben's hands were empty.
A voice came from the stone table as the terrible creature came around its side. "Behold, mortal! At last I have all but a shard of your soul, and he is bent to my will!"
The creature performed a mock bow at this as realisation dawned over Ben. He had felt so drained by that cursed game... this thing, this creature, could only be his soul, leached out of him through the terrible power of the demon prince. And now he was coming for the rest!
"Okay!" shouted Ben. "Look, you can have the rest of my soul if you just let her go!"
"Ben, no!" gasped Kate.
The creature continued to advance as the dark, dripping voice laughed madly. "You fool! Why do you think she is here? The final piece of your soul is the one you gave to her!"
Suddenly the creature leapt, jumping like a beast to strike at Kate. Ben sprang into the way and both he and his near-double tumbled to the forest floor in a heap. The nightmarish voice laughed again, a dreadful gurgling noise.
A brainwave hit Kate as she realised she was still carrying the helmet. "Ben!" she shouted, hefting it. "Quickly, catch!"
The two combatants had separated themselves and Ben caught the thrown piece of armour with both hands. He was bleeding from a gash on one arm, inflicted by the cursed edge of the athame. Unthinkingly he jammed the steel covering over his head.
"Your mind oscillates briefly."
Ben felt disoriented. Where was he? He looked down at his hand, feeling the weight of Magicbane there. The artifact gleamed wickedly in the starlight. He adjusted the helm of opposite alignment. He had been doing something... the fight! He glanced around for the Other, the one who shared his shape. But now there was only one Ben. Only him. He felt filled with terrible purpose.
His talisman throbbed, reminding him of his allegiance to the great Master. Of course, he smiled; inwardly, that is, since he had no mouth. Through the @-signs of his face he saw the girl, the last shard. She tried to back away, stumbled over a tree root with a cry. The cry awoke something in him, some deep part of him that rebelled against the Master. With the power of the helm, he quashed the rebellious sprite, forced it down into the back of his skull where it could only watch.
m - the cursed +2 Magicbane (weapon in hand)
Are you sure you want to attack the human? n
He frowned, pushing the unwilling part of him back into its pit.
Are you sure you want to attack the human? n
Kate struggled backwards, trying to get to her feet so she could run. He snarled and stepped forwards, wrestling with the traitor in his mind.
Are you sure you want to attack the human?
Are you sure you want to attack the human?
Are you sure you want to attack the human? y
You hit the human. The human screams!
You hit the human. You hit the human!
You hit the human! The human is killed!
K - a human corpse. Your movements are slowed slightly by your load.
You see here an altar to Demogorgon. You drop a human corpse. Your movements are now unencumbered.
There is a human corpse here, offer it? y
The human corpse is consumed in a sheet of flame! The blood covers the altar!
Your mind is filled with crazy lines! You learn the spell "arcane symbol".
"...and so that's the story." finished the doctor. "They think he was also implicated in the arson of a bookshop nearby, but that's still being investigated."
"Terrible case, Wilson." said his colleague, peering through the tiny window into the secure room. "I see he's got a bit of chalk or something there."
"Yes... we tried taking it off him, but he gets violent. Better to just let him draw on the floor if he wants to. We can always clean it off later." replied Dr. Wilson.
"What is it he's drawing, anyway? Some sort of abstract design, I think."
"No clue. Anyway, let's head back to my office, I'll get you a drink."
They walked off down the corridor, leaving the poor wretch to his scrawlings. They had hardly reached the next corner when a cry of pain echoed down the empty hall. Turning to look at each other, without speaking they whirled about and ran back down to the door labelled "B. Heaton". Doctor Wilson fumbled with a keyring and finally threw the door open. Ben lay huddled on the floor, clutching some strange wavy-bladed knife at his stomach. From the weapon and from the gash in his body flowed a stream of blood, vividly red.
"Where did he get that knife?!"
"...stop the bleeding..."
"...run and get..."
"...temperature, he's burning up..."
"Whoa! Look out, fire!"
"...the alarm! And get an extinguisher!"
"...ridiculous, spontaneous human combustion?!"
The blood covers the symbol! --More--