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Citadel of Broken Dreams

Citadel of Broken Dreams

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Book 3 of the Gamemakers Online series

The Citadel of Broken Dreams was not meant to be explored. It was—as Alex was told numerous times—a trap.

But the Citadel was the last place Lily's brother had entered before he disappeared. He'd been in search of an object of power, an item created in the early years of the game, which seemed to be at the center of the disappearances.

Alex and her friends must enter a place renowned for its difficulty, a dungeon not meant to be beaten, and claim this mysterious magical item. The Citadel will test them in ways they never imagined, and to win they will be faced with a choice that will change them—and Gamemakers Online—forever.

Synopsis

Despite warnings, Alex and her friends venture into the Citadel of Broken Dreams, a treacherous dungeon, to find Lily's missing brother and a powerful artifact. The Citadel's challenges push them to their limits, forcing a choice that will transform them and Gamemakers Online forever.

Chapter One Look Inside

Chapter One

The only thing worse than a Kentucky summer heat wave in a trailer was having to spend it at the local government center to find out why they'd gotten a bill from the morgue for her father's death—four years after he was buried in a nearby cemetery.
The lines to see the clerk went out the front door. Alex had seen happier people waiting to get their teeth pulled without anesthetic. Most were waving their filing papers in their face to create even the illusion of a breeze. Sweat ran down the back of her neck, which only made her Zelda T-shirt stick to her back even more.
When she finally got to step inside, it felt like a bayou swamp. The little AC unit in the wall was humming and clacking as if it were giving every effort, but it wasn't enough to overcome the plus-100 temperatures that had plagued the state all August.
After a half-hour of trying to find new positions to stand in, Alex finally made it to the front. The clerk, a heavy-set gentleman with pit stains the size of Kansas, blotted his forehead with a handkerchief before squawking out, "Next!" even though she was standing right in front of him.
Alex shoved the paper across the desk.
"What's this? I'm not going to stand here and read this with such a long line," said the clerk, lips in a bunch.
"It's a bill from the county morgue," said Alex, raising her voice. "It says we have to pay fees for my father's death, plus interest and fines for missing payments. But we never got a bill, and why would we have to pay in the first place?"
The clerk's expression unraveled, replaced with rounded eyes. His Kentucky accent deepened with his apology.
"Oh, I'm very sorry, miss."
The clerk skewed his mouth to one side and lifted the paper to examine it further. After which, he jabbed his thick finger into the paper, leaving a sweat stain.
"He got sent to the wrong morgue, which charged your family since you didn't pay taxes in that town. It's probably taken a while to wind its way through the system, which is why you only just saw the bill. I'm very sorry, Miss Duke. You'll have to pay the bill, or they'll put a lien on your house," said the clerk, handing back the paper.
As she trudged away, paper crinkling in her hands, Alex wished there was a spell that could get her family out of this mess. It felt like the world was arrayed against them. Every time they started to climb out, someone put a boot to their forehead and shoved them back in.
It wasn't like she wasn't willing to work. The job at Game Castle had been terrific, but the pay had only been enough to cover her mom's bills for the summer. Between the medical bills from the previous year and the new one from the county morgue, Alex didn't know how they were going to cover all their expenses, especially when she was headed back to the Hundred Halls for her third year of school.
"School, ha!" she muttered as she climbed into the rusty old Toyota truck she'd borrowed from their neighbor Frank, pulling the ball of keys from her pocket.
A few weeks ago, Alex had reached out to Lily Brodziak for help, going through her former agent, but she hadn't returned her calls. After helping Lily get to level 40 to continue in Gamemakers, Alex had thought they'd become allies at least, but there'd been no response.
She decided she'd find out her status with Lily soon enough. In a few days, Alex would leave for the Hundred Halls, where she'd get to log into Gamemakers Online.
While her previous experiences in the game had been fraught with concerns about surviving, her third year came with additional layers of intrigue. When she wasn't working at Game Castle, Alex scoured the internet for information about the missing students and people in Gamemakers Online.
But finding the truth online was like sifting through a garbage dump while it was on fire. It didn't help that the Hundred Halls attracted conspiracy theories like flies. The confluence of magic and power created a powerful draw, warping reality around it. Just the other day, she'd read about how a whole dance club had been enslaved by a weird dark-haired woman for the evening and then released from their servitude, because sure, that's a thing that you do. The account she'd read sounded pretty believable, even if she knew it'd probably been fabricated.
Some circles of conspiracy suggested that Gamemakers Hall wasn't a real Hall, that it was a trap for the unwary, like a spider's web for the mind. But she knew that was bullshit since she'd played the game and helped with the design of the Second Year Contest.
Others thought that people weren't really missing, but exploring a vast world inside the game, which sounded plausible to her, but unlikely. There were some corners of the internet that thought Gamemakers Online was really a storage facility for artifacts of enormous power.
But that didn't make sense to Alex, because you couldn't take anything out of the game, except for what you'd learned.
The nature of the game itself also drew a lot of speculation. How were these grand worlds being created? Was it magic? Or technology? Both or neither?
To Alex, it didn't matter because it felt real. As real as Nayiri's lips against hers.
Which was another reason she couldn't wait to get back to the game. She missed her girlfriend. It'd been a long summer thinking about her.
Alex missed her friends as well. Mancalf's gentle soul. Blaze's sarcasm. Sophia's earnestness. And of course, Sorrow's eloquent moroseness.
When she got home, her mom was in the kitchen in her light blue diner outfit and apron, eating a slice of tomato from the garden with her bare hands. The gray in her hair had gotten thicker, but she'd also put healthy weight back on after the sickness.
"Any luck?" she asked, wiping a tomato seed from her bottom lip with the back of her hand.
"The bureaucracy must be fed with the souls of the dead," said Alex, thinking about what Sorrow would say about it.
"What?" her mom asked incredulously.
"Sorry. No luck. We've got to pay it or they'll put a lien on the trailer," said Alex as she threw the paper onto the table.
Her mom leaned against the counter with a sigh. "Some days I just want to say the hell with this grind and hitchhike across the country, see the world, and forget about bills and liens."
"Only if you take me with you," said Alex.
Her mom's eyes flashed wide. "Why not? What's stopping us? Couldn't we just take off?"
"I... uhm, I still have to finish school," said Alex.
"Oh," said her mom, deflating. "That thing."
"It'll pay off in the end," said Alex. "Then I'll get you out of debt. Make it so you don't have to work again."
"That's nice, sweetie," said her mom, who clearly didn't believe it by the creasing around her eyes.
"Speaking of school," said Alex. "I have to leave in a few days. I'll be out of contact most of the time, just like the last two years."
Her mom nodded absently because she was staring at the paper on the table, the bill from the county morgue for the cremation. She reached out and stroked the paper as if it were a small dog, then her forehead scrunched up.
"Do you remember his face?" asked her mother suddenly.
Alex tilted her head. "His face?"
"Your father, do you remember his face?"
"Of course, Mom. Do you?" asked Alex.
Her mom crumpled in on herself, shaking her head and clutching the front of her apron with a fist.
"No, sweetie," she whispered, the words barely making it out of her squeezed lips. "I don't."
Alex pulled her mother into her arms, holding her tight against her shoulder. Her mother let out a rising sob before shuddering with ache.
After holding her mother until she was no longer heaving, Alex led her mother to their ratty couch and set her down, before grabbing the family photo album off the shelf. Together, they sat with the book across their laps, paging through the pictures, alternating between laughing and crying about the events in their family's past. In a weird way, Alex couldn't remember ever being happier.

Main Tropes

  • Urban Fantasy
  • Magical Academy
  • Found Family
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