Nothing soothed Pi's temper like a good melee fight. Her current victim was a Brumbarr - which, she supposed was what one would call an eight-foot, upright polar bear with scissorhand claws. Said impaling devices currently lunged for her throat. She twisted away, crushed the ursine wrist in her bare hands and flipped the monster over her shoulder, hammering its HP down to zero and dashing the Brumbarr into digital confetti.

That one earned her level 75 - not too shabby. The hero-worshiping newbs she'd collected on this dungeon run seemed to agree, gasping and chittering amongst themselves in English.

"Whaa, super strong!"
"One-hit KO!"

The tallest of the group - a cynical-eyed Blade with an oversized halberd - felt differently. "Of course she's tough - CC-Corp dog!" Pi's attention perked. This one obviously assumed bilingualism was no prerequisite for company employment. Kneeling, she pretended to sift through the monster's dropped items while dialing her headset's volume to max.

"Wake up, you guys," the blade-user chided. "An all red costume? That's sysadmin colouring! And they all hack their characters super-strong so they can bully us around, the lousy - "

Pi's fingers in his face terminated that remark. The cocky English boy freaked and dropped his meat-cleaver sword to claw at the suffocating vicegrip, so easily forgetting that she'd just chucked a bear over her shoulder. Gutter trash weasels like this lifted like rag dolls.

His skull shattered against the dungeon wall. Once, twice, three times - Pi mashed the attack button a little harder each time; red damage points flew off the punk's head like stone chippings. She didn't stop until his PKed corpse withered to grayscale and disintegrated through her fingers. Now she had the full attention of her little admirers.

"Anyone else wanna call me a god-damn cheater?"

Pi very quickly found herself alone.

Hmph! Their loss - that last monster had put her in a good mood; she'd actually felt like sharing the dungeon's end-treasure with those tag-along leeches.

The administrative assistant ripped into the final treasure chest like a child clawing through a cereal box, tossing out the crusty common pieces (helmet, shield, katana ...), and even flinging the semi-rare marshmallow bits over her shoulder. (Punching daggers, magic wand and ninja stars all joined the garbage pile.) All she wanted was the one-of-a-kind prize at the very bottom.

A Risky Coffee health drink... Bah! Even that rare items made for a sock-and-underwear Christmas! That was the annoying part about playing a hand-to-hand combat specialist: so few of the treasure items applied to kick-boxers and fist-fighters. Ah well - Pi gathered up the loot anyhow - selling all this useless crap was making her rich! Soon, she could buy those dreamy brass knuckles with the poison-tipped spikes she fancied, and she'd climb one rung higher on her route to invincibility. Soon, she'd have the strength, the speed of earth-shattering lightning, and she'd PK that whackjob Ovan before he could even push a button to block! And when he logged back on, she'd kill him again, and again! The Avenger, the Ender! Her titles of respect would roll back in cheering waves! That aught to give the water-cooler snobs something new to yap about!

Reveling in fantasies of the future made Pi mindful of time. Her in-game PC froze momentarily while, off-line, on the twentieth floor of CC-Corp Japan, she lifted the FMD visor for a peek at her watch. Ten after twelve! Pi reanimated with a curse before gating out to Mac Anu root town. She was late for her report!

She had to ignore the catcalls and wolf-whistles her body measurements normally attracted (though she did record screenshots for her list of balls to break later), bouncing over to the Chaos Gate at max speed. A smug little warlock boy in a red, double-breasted overcoat awaited her arrival, leaning up against the doorway. "Little sissy's la-ate," he sing-songed, flicking the know-it-all blonde bangs from his face.

"Shove it, Reki!" The brat was getting his e-mail spammed the second this was over! The teleporter program registered her unique ID signature and offered an extended range of warp possibilities. Pi keyed in the confidential passwords. Admin Server: Serpent, Of, Lore.

When the teleportation sphere dissolved, so did her last glimpse of light. Admin areas were supposed to be lifeless as empty cubicles - the better to concentrate on work, my dear - snowstorm white or basic black, depending on the owner's preferred definition of vacuum. But this holy-of-holies had been a custom commission for the graphics department: torchlight gloom, ominous Roman pillars, and regal, carpeted pathways like trails of blood. The Serpent even came with background music: the thump of tribal drums and the ohmming of choral baritones to complete the atmosphere of a hallowed temple of the ancients. God, this place creeped her out!

Of course, chickening out now meant she'd have to debrief IRL, in his office. In The World, she could at least claim equality. Though dimly lit, her shadow fed off even the smallest flicker of torchlight and spread its wings over the floor, a mighty darkness. Right! Head high, arms swinging, she marched for the black inner sanctum. The golden double doors opened at her approach.

"You're late," boomed the voice of judgment, commanding the doors to slam and seal Pi in abyss. "Running through another dungeon, perhaps? Escaping into a dazzling fantasy adventure, Reiko?"

Pi flinched. She hated when he broke role-play like that! Hands on hips, she tossed her head-tails and stuck to her adamantium girl-power persona. "I was following up on a complaint in one of the low-level fields," she lied - brazenly, and with her chin up. "Everything checks out normal," she finished, crossing her arms and challenging the darkness to refute that.

The flick of a paper fan - openshut, parchment ruffling like a wing - sounded to Pi more like the swish of an axe, the drop of a guillotine. "How wonderful." Sarcasm oozed through the voice like nectar crushed from a fruit. "Because playing games during your work hours would be equivalent to stealing, would it not?" The fan flicked openshut once more while Pi clenched her fists and looked away.

"Ah, but I forget - you're untouchable. How very fortunate of you to have such an infulential brother dominating the CC-Corporation."

Pi raised her head to snap a second too late. The fan clamped shut, ordering the temple to reveal its ancient technology. The curses she had ready drowned under the clockwork gears and electric dynamos throwing the room into motion, reducing her to a mouse caught in an enormous, mechanized trap. Dark stone walls lit up like circuitboards as green light slithered up the concealed energy conduits. Pi could now see the short flight of stairs leading to a raised altar, and the electric mural encompassing the entire back wall - Urobos, the serpent devouring its own tail; symbol of eternity.

And amid the blasts of light and the shine of gold, Chief Administrator Yata descended from the abysmal sky, held aloft on a golden pedestal that suspended his radiant body like a sun on high. His PC shone as an exhaltation to the majesty of mankind - a beautiful, bronzed god sculpted into muscular perfection, a robe of the finest crimson silk draped over his shoulder. Greater than Adonis, lover to a god; mightier than Heracles, son of a god.

But his face - blonde hair skinned close to his skull; spectacles glowing hellfire; chin and forehead branded with occult tattoos - his face so hard with displeasure reminded Pi that this was no second coming of Christ - this was Zeus, the lawmaker, descending on his thundercloud with the wrath of the heavens.

"I'm afraid I'll never comprehend your obsession with this manual leveling," Yata hemmed, flicking his bladed fan. "You are a representative of the CC-Corporation, and my department. If you need more power, raise your stats in the character editor and save me the embarrassment of employing such a weakling."

"I don't need anyone's help," she hissed. The gold and neon glow had fed her anger, and the shadow growing from her feet spread over the circuit-board walls like black ink.

"Hmm, of course," Yata purred, bored and busying himself with the band of gold over his wrist. Pi's arms suddenly jerked to her sides; her entire body froze up. She wiggled the thumb-stick, she mashed every button, but the controller lay dead in her hands. Concentrate! she hissed, matching Yata's hateful stare even while her heels lifted off the floor. Against the wall, the spectacle played more viciously - her winged shadow squirming and throttled in a chokehold.

"Look at you," Yata hissed, tattoos glowing like hot coals. "Five seconds and you've already lost your nerve." Disgusted with further spectacle, his fan sliced the air, dropping his assistant to the floor.

"To business," he boomed. "Did you deliver the warning to Ovan?"

"I did," Pi whispered. On the wall, her shadow shivered in a heap.

Yata leaned forward. "And?"

She bit her lip, taking her time on this one. "I think he bought it. ... No, I'm sure he did! But, it was strange - I mean, the way he had to fight that smile down, he genuinely seemed to react as if it was his group that caused the system glitch."

"Curious," Yata said without meaning it. "No matter. So long as his attention is deflected, our cause has succeeded." Light flashed over the administrator's spectacles - unlike that nutjob Ovan, whose glasses served to mask his face, Yata's worked as amplifiers, drilling his scowls and leers into memory.

"You've done well, Reiko. Despite last night's ... hiccup, Project G.U. has taken a promising step forward. Just imagine: a new world. An untainted world."

"Yes sir," Pi nodded, feeling this was her chance to escape. "Will that be all? Anything else?"

God-like Yata fixed her one last scowl from his throne. "Yes! Check your flash mail, woman! I've paged you three times and I still haven't gotten my coffee!"

Ulp! "On it, sir." She could squeeze one more dungeon run before lunch if she hurried.

"And have you picked up my laundry yet?"

Damn it! Level 76 was getting so far away! "Ahh, not yet ..."

A rare, delighted smile. "Well then, it looks like you have a special event to clear."

Pi willed her chin up and back straight while she exited. Her clenched fists would have drawn blood through her palms had this been reality. Yata never left his golden pedistal, but she could sense him hovering over her shoulder, slamming the doors on her heel. She just kept moving, stuffing down her rage for a safer field. For a field without eyes.

Because it wasn't dim lighting that accounted for the temple's darkness. The pillars, the stone walls - every polygon was saturated by a black shadow swelling out from her Lord's feet: undulating at its borders like the flap of robes; pulsing rhythmically with the heartbeat of living flesh.