If Halliday had re-created the Tomb of Horrors just as it was described in the module, I was in big trouble. My avatar was a third-level wimp, with nonmagical weapons and twenty-seven measly hit points. Nearly all of the traps and monsters described in the module could kill me easily. And if I somehow managed to make it past all of them and reach the crypt, the ultrapowerful lich could kill my avatar in seconds, just by looking at him.
But I had a few things going for me. First, I really didn’t have much to lose. If my avatar was killed, I would lose my sword, shield, and leather armor, and the three levels I’d managed to gain over the past few years. I’d have to create a new first-level avatar, which would spawn at my last log-in location, in front of my school locker. But then I could just return to the tomb and try again. And again and again, every night, collecting XPs and increasing in levels until I finally figured out where the Copper Key was hidden. (There was no such thing as a backup avatar. OASIS users could have only one avatar at a time. It was possible for hackers to use modded visors to spoof their retinal patterns and thus create a second account for themselves. But if you got caught, you’d be banned from the OASIS for life, and you’d also be disqualified from participating in Halliday’s contest. No gunter would ever take that risk.)
My other advantage (I hoped) was that I knew exactly what to expect once I entered the tomb, because the module provided me with a detailed map of the entire labyrinth. It also told me where all the traps were located, and how to disarm or avoid them. I also knew which rooms contained monsters, and where all of the weapons and treasure were hidden. Unless, of course, Halliday had changed things around. Then I was screwed. But at the moment, I was far too excited to be worried. After all, I’d just made the biggest, most important discovery of my life. I was just a few minutes away from the hiding place of the Copper Key!
I finally reached the edge of the forest and ran inside. It was filled with thousands of perfectly rendered maples, oaks, spruces, and tamaracks. The trees looked as though they had been generated and placed using standard OASIS landscape templates, but the detail put into them was stunning. I stopped to examine one of the trees closely and saw ants crawling along the intricate ridges in its bark. I took this as a sign I was on the right track.
There was no path through the forest, so I kept the map in the corner of my display and followed it to the skull-topped hill that marked the tomb entrance. It was right where the map said it would be, in a large glade at the center of the forest. As I stepped into the clearing, my heart felt like it was trying to beat its way out of my rib cage.
I climbed up onto the low hilltop, and it was like stepping into the illustration from the D&D module. Halliday had reproduced everything exactly. Twelve massive black stones were arranged on the hilltop in the same pattern, resembling the features of a human skull.
I walked to the northern edge of the hilltop and descended the crumbling cliff face I found there. By consulting the module map, I was able to locate the exact spot in the cliff where the entrance to the tomb was supposed to be buried. Then, using my shield as a shovel, I began to dig. Within a few minutes, I uncovered the mouth of a tunnel that led into a dark underground corridor. The floor of the corridor was a mosaic of colorful stones, with a winding path of red tiles set into it. Once again, just like in the D&D module.
I moved the Tomb of Horrors dungeon map to the top right corner of my display and made it slightly transparent. Then I strapped my shield to my back and took out my flashlight. I glanced around once more to make sure no one was watching me; then, clutching my sword in my other hand, I entered the Tomb of Horrors.
The walls of the corridor leading into the tomb were covered with dozens of strange paintings depicting enslaved humans, orcs, elves, and other creatures. Each fresco appeared in the exact location described in the original D&D module. I knew that hidden in the tiled stone surface of the floor were several spring-loaded trapdoors. If you stepped on one, it snapped open and dropped you into a pit filled with poisoned iron spikes. But because the location of each hidden trapdoor was clearly marked on my map, I was able to avoid all of them.
So far, everything had followed the original module to the letter. If the same was true for the rest of the tomb, I might be able to survive long enough to locate the Copper Key. There were only a few monsters lurking in this dungeon—a gargoyle, a skeleton, a zombie, some asps, a mummy, and the evil demi-lich Acererak himself. Since the map told me where each of them was hiding, I should be able to avoid fighting them. Unless, of course, one of them was guarding the Copper Key. And I could already guess who probably had that honor.
I tried to proceed carefully, as if I had no idea what to expect.
Avoiding the Sphere of Annihilation located at the end of the corridor, I located a hidden door beside the last pit trap. It opened into a small sloping passageway. My flashlight reached into the darkness ahead, flickering off the damp stone walls. My surroundings made me feel like I was in a low-budget sword-and-sorcery flick, like Hawk the Slayer or The Beastmaster.
I began to make my way through the dungeon, room by room. Even though I knew where all of the traps were located, I still had to proceed carefully to avoid them all. In a dark, forbidding chamber known as the Chapel of Evil, I found thousands of gold and silver coins hidden in the pews, right where they were supposed to be. It was more money than my avatar could carry, even with the Bag of Holding that I found. I gathered up as many of the gold coins as I could and they appeared in my inventory. The currency was automatically converted and my credit counter jumped to over twenty thousand, by far the largest amount of money I’d ever had. And in addition to the credits, my avatar received an equal number of experience points for obtaining the coins.
As I continued deeper into the tomb, I obtained several magic items along the way. A +1 Flaming Sword. A Gem of Seeing. A +1 Ring of Protection. I even found a suit of +3 Full Plate armor. These were the first magic items my avatar had ever possessed, and they made me feel unstoppable.
When I put on the suit of magical armor, it shrank to fit my avatar perfectly. Its gleaming chrome appearance reminded me of the bad-ass armor worn by the knights in Excalibur. I actually switched to a third-person view for a few seconds, just to admire how cool my avatar looked wearing it.
The farther I went, the more confident I became. The tomb’s layout and contents continued to match the module description exactly, down to the last detail. That is, until I reached the Pillared Throne Room.
It was a large square chamber with a high ceiling, filled with dozens of massive stone columns. A huge raised dais stood at the far end of the room, atop which rested an obsidian throne inlaid with silver and ivory skulls.
All this matched the module description exactly, with one huge difference. The throne was supposed to be empty, but it wasn’t. The demi-lich Acererak was sitting on it, glaring down at me silently. A dusty gold crown glinted on his withered head. He appeared exactly as he did on the cover of the original Tomb of Horrors module. But according to its text, Acererak wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be waiting in a burial chamber much deeper in the dungeon.
I considered running but decided against it. If Halliday had placed the lich in this room, perhaps he’d placed the Copper Key here too. I had to find out.
I walked across the chamber to the foot of the dais. From here I could see the lich more clearly. His teeth were two rows of pointed cut diamonds arrayed in a lipless grin, and a large ruby was set in each of his eye sockets.
For the first time since entering the tomb, I wasn’t sure what to do next.
My chances of surviving one-on-one combat with a demi-lich were nonexistent. My wimpy +1 Flaming Sword couldn’t even affect him, and the two magic rubies in his eye sockets had the power to suck out my avatar’s life force and kill me instantly. Even a party of six or seven high-level avatars would have had a difficult time defeating him.
I silently wished (not for the last time) that the OASIS was like an old adventure game and that I could save my place. But it wasn’t, and I couldn’t. If my avatar died here, it would mean starting over with nothing. But there was no point in hesitating now. If the lich killed me, I would come back tomorrow night and try again. The entire tomb should reset when the OASIS server clock struck midnight. If it did, all of the hidden traps I’d disarmed would reset themselves, and the treasure and magic items would reappear.
I tapped the Record icon at the edge of my display so that whatever happened next would be stored in a vidcap file I could play back and study later. But when I tapped the icon, I got a RECORDING NOT ALLOWED message. It seemed that Halliday had disabled recording inside the tomb.
I took a deep breath, raised my sword, and placed my right foot on the bottom step of the dais. As I did, there was a sound like cracking bones as Acererak slowly lifted his head. The rubies in his eye sockets began to glow with an intense red light. I took several steps backward, expecting him to leap down and attack me. But he didn’t rise from his throne. Instead, he lowered his head and fixed me with his chilling gaze. “Greetings, Parzival,” he said in a rasping voice. “What is it that you seek?”
This caught me off guard. According to the module, the lich wouldn’t speak. He was just supposed to attack, leaving me with no choice but to kill him or run for my life.