Ready Player One (Page 28)

“Did you guys throw down?”

“No. The tomb is a no-PvP zone.” I glanced at the time. “Looks like you’ve still got a few hours to kill before the reset.”

“Yeah. I’ve been studying the original D and D module, trying to prepare myself,” he said. “Wanna give me any tips?”

I grinned. “No. Not really.”

“Didn’t think so.” He was silent for a few seconds. “Listen, I have to ask you something,” he said. “Does anyone at your school know your avatar’s name?”

“No. I’ve been careful to keep it a secret. No one there knows me as Parzival. Not even the teachers.”

“Good,” he said. “I took the same precaution. Unfortunately, several of the gunters who frequent the Basement know that we both attend school on Ludus, so they might be able to connect the dots. I’m worried about one in particular.…”

I felt a rush of panic. “I-r0k?”

Aech nodded. “He’s been calling me nonstop since your name appeared on the Scoreboard, asking what I know. I played dumb, and he seemed to buy it. But if my name shows up on the Scoreboard too, you can bet he’ll start bragging that he knows us. And when he starts telling other gunters that you and I are both students on Ludus—”

“S**t!” I cursed. “Then every gunter in the sim will be headed here to search for the Copper Key.”

“Right,” Aech said. “And before long, the location of the tomb will be common knowledge.”

I sighed. “Well, then you better get the key before that happens.”

“I’ll do my best.” He held up a copy of the Tomb of Horrors module. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to reread this thing for the hundredth time today.”

“Good luck, Aech,” I said. “Give me a call once you’ve cleared the gate.”

“If I clear the gate …”

“You will,” I said. “And when you do, we should meet in the Basement to talk.”

“You got it, amigo.”

He waved good-bye and was about to end the call when I spoke up. “Hey, Aech?”

“Yeah?”

“You might want to brush up on your jousting skills,” I said. “You know, between now and midnight.”

He looked puzzled for a moment; then a smile of understanding spread across his face. “I got ya,” he said. “Thanks, pal.”

“Good luck.”

As his vidfeed window winked out, I found myself wondering how Aech and I would remain friends through everything that lay ahead. Neither of us wanted to work as a team, so from here on out we would be in direct competition with each other. Would I eventually regret helping him today? Or come to resent that I’d unwittingly led him to the Copper Key’s hiding place?

I pushed these thoughts aside and opened the e-mail from Art3mis. It was an old-fashioned text message.

Dear Parzival,

Congrats! See? You’re famous now, just like I said. Although it looks like we’ve both been thrust into the limelight. Kinda scary, eh?

Thanks for the tip about playing on the left side. You were right. Somehow, that did the trick. But don’t go thinking I owe you any favors, mister. 🙂

The First Gate was pretty wild, wasn’t it? Not at all what I expected. It would have been cool if Halliday had given me the option to play Ally Sheedy instead, but what can you do?

This new riddle is a real head-scratcher, isn’t it? I hope it doesn’t take us another five years to decipher it.

Anyhow, I just wanted to say that it was an honor to meet you. I hope our paths cross again soon.

Sincerely,

Art3mis

ps—Enjoy being #1 while you can, pal. It won’t last for long.

I reread her message several times, grinning like a dopey schoolboy. Then I typed out my reply:

Dear Art3mis,

Congratulations to you, too. You weren’t kidding. Competition clearly brings out the best in you.

You’re welcome for the tip about playing on the left. You totally owe me a favor now. 😉

The new riddle is a cinch. I think I’ve already got it figured out, actually. What’s the hold-up on your end?

It was an honor to meet you, too. If you ever feel like hanging out in a chat room, let me know.

MTFBWYA,

Parzival

ps—Are you challenging me? Bring the pain, woman.

After rewriting it a few dozen times, I tapped the Send button. Then I pulled up my screenshot of the Jade Key riddle and began to study it, syllable by syllable. But I couldn’t seem to concentrate. No matter how hard I tried to focus, my mind kept drifting back to Art3mis.

Chapter 13

Aech cleared the First Gate early the next day.

His name appeared on the Scoreboard in third place, with a score of 108,000 points. The value of obtaining the Copper Key had dropped another 1,000 points for him, but the value of clearing the First Gate remained unchanged at 100,000.

I returned to school that same morning. I’d considered calling in sick, but was concerned that my absence might raise suspicions. When I got there, I realized I shouldn’t have worried. Due to the sudden renewed interest in the Hunt, over half of the student body, and quite a few of the teachers, didn’t bother showing up. Since everyone at school knew my avatar by the name Wade3, no one paid any attention to me. Roaming the halls unnoticed, I decided that I enjoyed having a secret identity. It made me feel like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. I thought my dad would probably have gotten a kick out of that.

That afternoon, I-r0k sent e-mails to Aech and me, attempting to blackmail us. He said that if we didn’t tell him how to find the Copper Key and the First Gate, he would post what he knew about us to every gunter message board he could find. When we refused, he made good on his threat and began telling anyone who would listen that Aech and I were both students on Ludus. Of course, he had no way of proving he really knew us, and by that time there were hundreds of other gunters claiming to be our close personal friends, so Aech and I were hoping his posts would go unnoticed. But they didn’t, of course. At least two other gunters were sharp enough to connect the dots between Ludus, the Limerick, and the Tomb of Horrors. The day after I-r0k let the cat out of the bag, the name “Daito” appeared in the fourth slot on the Scoreboard. Then, less than fifteen minutes later, the name “Shoto” appeared in the fifth slot. Somehow, they’d both obtained a copy of the Copper Key on the same day, without waiting for the server to reset at midnight. Then, a few hours later, both Daito and Shoto cleared the First Gate.

No one had ever heard of these avatars before, but their names seemed to indicate they were working together, either as a duo or as part of a clan. Shoto and daito were the Japanese names for the short and long swords worn by samurai. When worn as a set, the two swords were called daisho, and this quickly became the nickname by which the two of them were known.

Only four days had passed since my name had first appeared on the Scoreboard, and one new name had appeared below mine on each subsequent day. The secret was out now, and the hunt seemed to be shifting into high gear.

All week, I was unable to focus on anything my teachers were saying. Luckily, I only had two months of school left, and I’d already earned enough credits to graduate, even if I coasted from here on out. So I drifted from one class to the next in a daze, puzzling over the Jade Key riddle, reciting it again and again in my mind.

The captain conceals the Jade Key

in a dwelling long neglected

But you can only blow the whistle

once the trophies are all collected

According to my English Lit textbook, a poem with four lines of text and an alternate-line rhyme scheme was known as a quatrain, so that became my nickname for the riddle. Each night after school, I logged out of the OASIS and filled the blank pages of my grail diary with possible interpretations of the Quatrain.

What “captain” was Anorak talking about? Captain Kangaroo? Captain America? Captain Buck Rogers in the twenty-fifth century?

And where in the hell was this “dwelling long neglected”? That part of the clue seemed maddeningly nonspecific. Halliday’s boyhood home on Middletown couldn’t really be classified as “neglected,” but maybe he was talking about a different house in his hometown? That seemed too easy, and too close to the hiding place of the Copper Key.

At first, I thought the neglected dwelling might be a reference to Revenge of the Nerds, one of Halliday’s favorite films. In that movie, the nerds of the title rent a dilapidated house and fix it up (during a classic ’80s music montage). I visited a re-creation of the Revenge of the Nerds house on the planet Skolnick and spent a day searching it, but it proved to be a dead end.

The last two lines of the Quatrain were also a complete mystery. They seemed to say that once you found the neglected dwelling, you would have to collect a bunch of “trophies” and then blow some kind of whistle. Or did that line mean blow the whistle in the colloquial sense, as in “to reveal a secret or alert someone to a crime”? Either way, it didn’t make any sense to me. But I continued to go over each line, word by word, until my brain began to feel like Aquafresh toothpaste.

That Friday after school, the day Daito and Shoto cleared the First Gate, I was sitting in a secluded spot a few miles from my school, a steep hill with a solitary tree at the top. I liked to come here to read, to do my homework, or to simply enjoy the view of the surrounding green fields. I didn’t have access to that kind of view in the real world.

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