QSFer Riley S. Keene has a new queer LitRPG book out tomorrow: “Darkness Conquered.”
In the False Lands, one’s demise is always one’s own making.
Tanisha Richards, known as Koest in dARkness: Online, has fought tooth and nail to overcome the AI’s challenges. But this new zone is something else. With traps springing, mazes baring her way, and new creatures Tanisha has never seen before, it almost feels like Otekah wants the survivors of DeDust Three to fail.
Too bad Tanisha is filled with determination. She will see that her friends escape the False Lands… or die trying.
Darkness Conquered is the third and final book in the dARkness: Online Trilogy. It features a diverse cast of characters, LitRPG crafting and building elements, augmented reality gaming, and a ton of references to the games we’ve enjoyed over the years!
What seemed like eighty-four years ago, Tanisha had lamented that some gamer forced her to chase an Uber Sleipdeer around the woods in Oregon. It had seemed like a monumental task, and one she had rued quite vehemently. Even if her outdoors wheelchair had been mostly up for the mission, it was still a lot of physical exertion for a world-first legendary Yoichi Bow.
The past version of herself had no idea what true herculean effort was.
Activating the portal was so much worse than navigating a bunch of steep foothills in a wheelchair. It was as simple as it was stressful. The strange symbols on the console glowed with an eerie light that reminded Tanisha more of a sci-fi bomb defusal than of a backlit keyboard. Before her, atop its overly-dramatic dais, the portal itself—that strange triangular frame—glowed with the same light. It was gently pulsing, like radiation did in cartoons from the 80s and 90s.
Definitely probably safe.
Her and her followers almost obviously didn’t have nearly anything to worry about.
Tanisha winced. Hopefully no one was pregnant. Or planning on becoming pregnant.
When she first came upon the device, she had worried that it would take trial and error to figure out how to open the portal. The device had symbols on the triangular frame that matched those on the buttons on the console, but there wasn’t an instruction manual. There was also no phonebook telling her what symbols to dial to get where she wanted to go. It was the world’s worst puzzle game, because there didn’t seem to be any instructions whatsoever. The console might as well have been a giant gonging piano in the back of a rocket’s carcass.
As it turned out, however, she needn’t have worried. When the light that enveloped the portal finished charging up, elements of it flickered and coalesced into a corona around one of the symbols. And that was it. No further instructions. There was no helpful tooltip, or quest update. Tanisha was just stuck staring at the symbol and needing to figure out what Otekah had designed this to do.
Having no better ideas, Tanisha pushed the button that matched the symbol.
The hum of the device shifted up an octave, and the corona moved to a different symbol, sliding around the frame to reach it. While not exactly what she expected to happen, this was arguably good. Maybe she just needed to play copycat.
Tanisha pushed the button that had that next symbol.
The hum shifted again, this time going lower, and the corona moved again. Nothing was blowing up yet, so Tanisha pushed the button for the next symbol. And then the one after that, and the one after that.
The light switched around and touched the symbols in a seemingly random order. At times it doubled back, and other times it lingered on a symbol to prompt Tanisha to push it twice.
She began to worry that this was a trap. Her engineer brain was telling her that, having pressed so many different symbols, the number of possible combinations was staggering. Would every combination open the portal to somewhere else? Would she dial up a new universe, somewhere far from home, and get trapped there until she found a new power source? Or was this just the minigame that provided the one combination that would let them move on?
After several minutes of playing along with the device, the corona vanished. The hum of the device grew more intense, and Tanisha instinctively moved her chair back a step.
She wasn’t the only one.
People around her leaned away, some lifting their hands to shield their faces. But all eyes turned to the portal to watch what the device did next.
The symbols flashed, and the hum shifted with each flash, this time louder. Tanisha quickly realized it was flashing through the sequence she had punched in. The engineer part of her brain tried to find a pattern, and longed to experiment with the device.
It was almost as if the shifting tones were vaguely musical. And nearly familiar, like a chiptune version of something from her childhood. Perhaps from some game? Was it a theme song she didn’t quite remember?
The pattern finished cycling, and the ground rumbled. Tanisha assumed that the metal structure beneath the triangular portal was activating, and her engineer brain complained all the louder about leaving this behind, unstudied.
But she silenced the concern as the air above the structure distorted, waving like the air above a hot summer sidewalk. The distortion grew in intensity, and the light coming out of the sky beyond the dais refracted. Tanisha watched, mouth agape, as the distortion became a multi-hued pattern of shifting colors.
There was a sound that felt just barely louder than someone snapping their fingers, but a great wind rushed away from the portal, blowing back Tanisha’s hair. The colors rushed together into the triangular frame of metal, and formed a pale blue membranous window.
Through the shimmering portal, there was a strange landscape, dominated by an enormous castle on a hill, with a collection of uncomfortably angular buildings forming a sort of town squatting beneath it. But before the town—stretching for what looked like at least a mile—was a vibrantly green maze. She could see it was full of switchbacks and dead-ends, of perfect 90-degree angles, divided into squarish sections.
It looked familiar. Like something she had seen in a movie. Tanisha immediately started trying to memorize the layout, but dropped the effort. It wouldn’t do any good to try. If there was a real maze waiting for them, it probably wouldn’t match. Otekah had just found something from some pop-culture thing and slapped it onto the image for the portal.
Tanisha tried not to smirk at the thought of the AI just stealing something off of an image search and using it uncredited.
“Alright. This is probably right,” Tanisha said tentatively, breaking the silence that seemed to hold the group of survivors around her. She gestured at the upper corner of her UI, where the quest system text was still telling her to use the ZPM. “The quest said to face Otekah in their castle.” She pointed at the still image locked within the portal’s pale blue surface. “There’s a castle. That’s our way home.”
It felt right, sure, but there was no guarantee. With all the different ways Otekah had messed with them so far, there was too much at risk. The portal could be a trap. It could whisk them off to Altair 4, where they’d slowly suffocate while staring into a sea of endless bright stars.
“What are we waiting for, then?” Millie asked tentatively, jolting her out of her thoughts. The woman—her girlfriend?—put a reassuring hand on Tanisha’s shoulder. The affectionate contact helped to dispel Tanisha’s apprehension about this whole endeavor in a way that was more magical than the mysterious portal. “Lead the way.”
Tanisha winced for the second time in less than a half hour. Leading. She had been afraid that might be required of her, since she’d proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with in Otekah’s False Lands. Leading anyone gave her hives.
But she also wasn’t going to shirk her duties and just give up here. Otekah wasn’t going to win just because of a few high school projects gone awry.
Tanisha took a deep breath, nodded, and directed her chair forward.
As soon as the mech had taken a handful of skittering steps, the others began to move as well. Millie stayed right behind her, and Camella was also near at hand. A little behind them was Seamus and his powerleveled warriors, and then the civilians of DeDust Three—the town they’d all left behind—brought up the rear.
Before stepping through the portal, Tanisha reached back to the small space between her back and her chair to check on the smallest member of their group.
Her final companion was a mustelan—a furry little creature apparently native to this world. He looked like a cross between a monkey and a weasel, although he was humanoid. His dark fur was short, almost like the coat of a Labrador retriever, and he had tiny claws on his hands, an animal-like snout, and a bushy tail. She had taken to calling him Shinji—initially as a joke, but it had stuck—and he was not fond of the people from DeDust Three. Instead, he was content to huddle behind her in hiding from them, though she worried about what might happen if he grew too restless.
Shinji sniffed at her probing hand, but he didn’t bite or scratch her. She scritched the top of his head, and then continued forward.
The portal loomed ominously over them as they approached.
It hadn’t seemed that big when she had first come across it, while it was inactive, but it seemed enormous now. The structure towered at least twenty feet tall, and was ten feet wide at the base, before it flared out by about another foot on each side. But with the glowing landscape beyond it, it seemed to envelop her entire field of view. Being closer to the portal’s surface made it all the more clear that this wasn’t an actual image, but a projection. The castle and town looked like little models, as if they’d been built for a tabletop game board.
“Well,” Tanisha said, realizing that if this portal was some manner of trap, these may be her last words, “there’s no going back now.”She stepped through th
Riley S. Keene is the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing duo, also known as Robert and Kristen. They live in the Pacific Northwest and enjoy the rainstorms, lack of sunlight, and excess oxygen that come with living in that part of the US.
Robert is a Pacific Northwest native who has a degree in Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences. He has a love for video games and a dislike for pretty much everything else. Robert is in charge of writing the first draft for all of our books.
Kristen was born and raised in a town outside of Philadelphia. She has a degree in Multimedia Design and works full-time as a marketer for a Seattle engineering firm. She loves gloomy weather, good books, food made from animals, and spending time with Robert. Kristen is in charge of outlining and editing for all of our books.