The chamber hung in a crumbling, lopsided wing of the tower, overlooking a dark sky that was pregnant with thunder. Loose beams of scaffold sat exposed beneath the masonry, as though exposing the skeletal rib bones of the building. Scattered across the corners, thick as tapestries, hung the translucent whispers of spiders webs. In the distant corner, overlooking an arched window that peered out over the sleepy hamlet of Homestead Farm like a hungry predator in the night, stood the vampire.
Roka felt his hands grow tense in anticipation. The journey had been short but eventful, the game's internal engine triggering the illusion of the passage from day to night. Of course, Roka knew that the game would adjust itself back to daylight as he and his companions left the castle, returning them to the warmth and safety of the sun's caress and banishing the vampire's tower to a perpetual night.
If they left the castle intact, he thought.
The vampire was an imposing figure. He was tall, taller than any character that Roka had encountered before, with the possible exception of the ogre. But unlike the ogre, the vampire was slender. He was not muscled, but he looked sharp, his features angled heavily and his cloak tapering to deadly razor edges. Even his fingers, extending from the black sleeves of his ebony dining suit, ended in fantastically pointed claws. The cleric was nervous, almost terrified at the thought of the vampire opening his lips to show his fangs.
The three stood, roughly ten foot from the vampire, and looked at him. The vampire looked back.
Nervously, Roka asked "What's it doing?"
"Waiting" said the dwarf.
"For what?" asked the cleric.
"For us to attack" said the rabbit woman, jumping up and down the whole time.
"Ah" said Roka. "Isn't he going to attack us?"
"Nope" said Exra.
Roka arched an eyebrow. The vampire stood there, looking at them. "So, it's just going to stand there all night?"
"Until we kill it, yeah" explained the rabbit woman.
Roka nodded. The vampire remained where he was.
"It's afraid of us!" announced the dwarf, "He fears the righteous vengeance of our justice!" He took a step forward, facing towards the vampire. "Foul creature!" he bellowed, "Your days of evil are at an end! We noble warriors of light have been sent forth by our godly patron, Agnes the washerwoman, to bring great vengeance and furious anger down upon you!"
Roka glanced towards the rabbit woman. "Can the vampire respond to us?"
Exra shook her head. "He's just a boss. Don't worry."
Roka gulped. This, he thought, was it.
His two companions rushed forward. Gunnar charged close, moving in towards the vampire to meet him in hand to hand combat, while the rabbit woman hurried to one side. Immediately she began moving her hands, waving them in shimmering arcs that cut through the air and left a fiery twirl in their wake. The blow hit the vampire square in its chest, leaving a dim shimmer in its wake.
A small icon blipped into existence above the vampire's head displaying a little image of a flame. A series of letters appeared, "Status effect: Burned. Enemy loses ten hit points per second for five seconds." Roka smiled, his colleague was a fire witch. He had skimmed past them on the game's creation screen, had been seriously tempted to create one for his own character. Although the game's storyline treated them as a primitive, druid-like class, they played similarly to the clerics, wielding potent spells that could deal damage over time.
The vampire began to rush towards the rabbit woman, but he was intercepted by the dwarf. The stocky figure drove his sturdy, glowing warhammer against his enemy, pushing it back away from his colleagues. The vampire hissed, clawing frantically at the dwarf's robust armour, barely making a scratch against it.
Roka gulped. Despite the lack of any visible injury to him, Gunnar’s health bar had already started to plummet. The cleric made ready to launch a quick healing spell. He wished that he was a higher level, wished that the assortment of bats and rats that they had carved their way through on their climb up the tower had given him enough experience to earn his 'divine smite' spell. He finished casting his spell, and watched with satisfaction as the dwarf's health bar jumped back up until it was almost full.
The vampire barely seemed to notice the wounds of the dwarf's axe, and with a single dramatic gesture the monster thrust out his hand, claws open. To the clerics shock, a thick stream of crimson pixels blazed into existence, forming abruptly into an elongated rope-like cord. One end, the cleric noticed, ended squarely on the dwarf's chest - the other at the vampire's mouth, forming a grotesque straw.
Inhaling, Roka caught sight of the vampire's fangs, wet and shimmering in his mouth as it drank eagerly from the dwarf. Several words blinked into existence above the vampire's head, 'Drain Life' they began, but the cleric barely even noticed the rest of the description. He could tell what was happening, he understood it based on sheer instinct. He hurled a healing spell towards the dwarf, sending a shimmering arc of golden light through the air. The dwarf gaped, the blows from his hammer glancing and missing their target, helpless against the onslaught.
"No!" snapped the fire witch, "he's used the ability too early."
"Is that bad?" asked the cleric, firing off another blaze of light.
Exra rolled her fingers together, bringing a new wave of flame into creation between the clutch of her fingers. "It means that this fight is about to get a whole lot harder."
Roka nodded. His heart was breathing, pounding in his chest. This is exciting, he thought. But if the fight was this tough, there was every chance that the vampire would kill them all. Still, he thought, that wouldn't be much of a problem. Although he didn't much relish the idea of seeing that weird Buddha fox guy again, he was nonetheless relieved that death was not a permanent threat in this game. Even though he knew this, understood it in his mind, he still found his pulse racing with excitement, thrilling at the adrenalin that pumped in response to the fight. This is fun, he thought.
Gunnar let loose a flurry of blows, chipping a good chunk of damage from the towering undead brute's health bar. It was a good hit, thought the elf. The words 'Critical Hit' shimmered into being on a warm, enticing shade of red, as if to congratulate the dwarf for his success. Roka glanced a look at the enemy's health bar, and was surprised that it was well over halfway down. It seemed to him as if the fight had lasted an age, although it couldn't have been any more than a minute yet.
The vampire flexed his claws again. A panicked cry came from Gunnar, fearful, as the shimmering red straw crept back into existence between him and the boss. Roka felt a jump of panic leap within him. The boss was using his ability again, and so soon! He didn't think he was ready. He flicked a look at his mana bar, desperate to see how many more healing spells he could manage. Fear clutched an icy grasp around his chest as his eyes fell on the tiny blue sliver of mana that remained.
It was all happening so fast, he thought. He fired off one last healing spell, hoping that it would last. He knew that it wouldn't. The tide of the battle had turned, and Roka understood the rabbit woman's panic.
As the last of Gunnar’s health vanished, he released a guttural groan. He clutched his chest - all characters clutched their chests as they died, the game's developers having only made a handful of animations to signify a character's death. This brought to Roka's mind the orc, who had died with his hands clutched to his torso, even as it had been the ogre's fire breath that had killed him.
The thought of the orc, though, brought to mind how angry he had been when Roka had been unable to keep him alive. As Gunnar crumpled to the floor, the cleric felt a rush of worry. Please, he thought to himself, don't be angry at me, please.
As the dwarf collapsed, the vampire turned towards the other two.
Damn it, thought the elf, we were so close. He looked over at the fire witch, ready to turn and run. Instead, Exra was standing there, her hands crackling another bolt of flame into existence. She hurled it at the beast, carving another sliver from his health. "Keep fighting!" she called to Roka.
Roka blinked. Fight? With what? He didn't have any attack spells. The vampire hurled across the room, charging at a phenomenal speed, his black cloak billowing behind him like the wings of some gigantic bat. The elf glanced over his spells. He had two healing ones, a large and a small one, and even the small one demanded more vital mana energy than he possessed. His only other power was to create a small, floating ball of light that could cast a candle-like illumination around a room, and somehow he did not think that this ability would be of much use against a ravenous, bloodthirsty creature of the night.
All he had left, then, was his mace.
He glanced down at it. The wood shaft was bent slightly, misshapen and worn, the iron head was held to the handle with leather cords. It looked, for all he could imagine, as if someone had tied half a stone to a brick. The description of the mace said "This is an especially anaemic weapon and next to useless." Roka stared at the description. It was hardly encouraging. He didn't stand a chance.
The fire witch was casting another spell. He hoped that it would be enough, that it would make up for his useless lack of spells and his brick-on-a-stick. But, he realised, if the vampire killed her first...
His heart pounding, Roka rushed forward. The vampire didn't even turn to him; it was heading straight for the fire witch, fangs agape, clawed fingers glistening. It didn't even notice Roka, certainly didn't consider him a threat. He clenched his fist around the mace and, with all of his strength, swung it heroically at the great undead monster's back.
The mace made a faint wet clunk, rather like a small sponge hitting the floor. The handle cracked, splintering slightly as the head of the mace tumbled weakly to one side, clattering to the ground below. Roka blinked at it. Small crimson letters faded into being above the mace, "Durability: Zero. To repair your armour and weapons, visit a local blacksmith."
Roka sighed. He knew that he should have read the booklet in more detail. Hadn’t the section on dying said something about his equipment’s durability diminishing when he died? He was sure that he had read something about that, but just hadn’t paid attention.
The vampire turned to face him.
The elf's heart leapt. The creature was looking right at him, both bloodshot eyes wide and hungry. It towered above him, tall and wild and impossible. It moved, fast, so fast, and Roka wanted to run. He tried to move, but the vampire had him in its sights now, eager to finish the meal that he had began with the dwarf. The monster raised its claws.
A splash of fire erupted over the monster's shoulder. Roka glanced over. Exra was already readying another fire spell. Roka had forgotten all about her for a moment, but then he realised that his distraction had bought her just enough time to finish the spell. The cleric dived out of the way, just as the final blast of enveloping flame cascaded across the vampire.
The vampire, like so many other creatures, clutched at its chest. Then it collapsed upon the floor and died.
For a moment, Roka couldn't believe his luck. He wanted to cheer. They had done it. They had succeeded. Just as the realisation flew into his mind, the cleric was bathed in a great golden light. The brightness shimmered around him, coursing through his body. For a second, he thought his veins were on fire. He felt powerful, stronger than ever before, charged like a battery to its fullest and ready to burst. The light flared from him like a firework. Above him, soaring majestically, the words "Level Up" appeared.
"Congratulations!" said the fire witch.
Roka smiled as the light began to fade. "Thank you" he said, unsurely.
"Well done" came another string of text. It hung in the air as Roka looked around, trying to find the source.
He recognised it the moment he saw the dwarf, and hurried over beside the dead body. "Sorry I couldn't heal you" he said.
"Don't worry, friend cleric" said the text, hanging firmly in the air above Gunnar’s corpse, "We have bested the foul scourge and returned peace to this sleepy hamlet. Don't suppose that you could resurrect me, could you?"
Roka thought for a moment, and checked his spells. He had a new one, sitting proudly and looking utterly bright and delicious, 'divine smite'. But he had nothing that could return his friend from death's chill embrace.
Hurrying over, Exra began to jump up and down once more. "Clerics get a resurrection spell at level seven. Afraid you'll have to walk."
"Sorry" repeated Roka, feeling a little guilty.
"Fear not" said Gunnar’s body once more, "but tell me, did the foul beast possess any items that may aid us in our heroic travels?"
Exra jumped over to the vampire's body. Pausing in her jumping for a moment, she leaned down towards the dead monster.
Roka glanced over towards the dwarf. "I really did okay?" he asked, uncertainly, "I'm really not a crap healer?"
"Fie!" stated the dwarf's text box, "you fought with courage, laddie. It was an honour to fight by your side."
The fire witch looked up. "Bad news," she said, "we didn't get the giant bat mount. That is an elite drop though, only a six percent chance of us getting it. There's garlic if anyone wants it?"
Roka peered at the garlic. Its description read 'Garlic: Regain ten hit points if eaten, causes Status Effect: Stench Breath. Can be used in Alchemy.' The elf shook his head. "Why does a vampire have garlic on him anyway?" he asked.
"Perhaps the foul fiend stole some from the goodly villagers" offered the dead dwarf.
The fire witch shrugged. "I'll keep it for my potions, then. Cleric, do you want the robe?"
The elf blinked. He glanced down, starting at the robe that lay by the dead vampire's form. It seemed a little unusual. The vampire hadn't worn a robe, hadn't seemed to be carrying one with him. But, upon searching the body, his friend had nonetheless found one - a robe, one that not only had no evident reason for being there much like its garlic companion, but had survived the brutal battle without sustaining a single scratch, blood splatter or fiery singe.
"It's pretty good for your level," said Exra. "I can only wear leather, and the dwarf uses plate, so it's yours if you want it."
Roka beamed. Grasping the robe, he quickly slipped it on. It felt comfortable, fresh and new. Even better, it was a perfect fit, utterly flawless, fitting the length of his arms and torso as if it had been tailored for him. Somehow, he suspected that would have been a perfect fit even if he had been a twelve foot tall rock golem.
"Aye" replied the dwarf from his position flat on the ground, "we have done well tonight. Tell me, friend cleric, hast thou a name?"
Roka smiled, flushed with the success of the night. "Sure," he answered, "I'm Ben."
"I think he means your character's name, sweetie" said the fire witch.
"Oh" replied Roka. He felt a little embarrassed. But then, couldn't the dwarf see his name? It was displayed quite easily above his head, suspended there just as it was for every other player in the game. He remembered what the rabbit woman had said, that the dwarf was very into his roleplaying. The cleric had known their names, of course, had known it since they had met in the tavern. Still, he grinned, and humoured the dwarf. "I'm Roka" he said.
"Glad to make thine acquaintance, laddie" said the dwarf, still looking quite dead as he spoke. "I'm Gunnar, warrior knight and protector of the land of Etheria."
In a flat manner, as if suspecting the entire introduction was as unnecessary as it was, the fire witch said "And I'm Exra", and began to jump up and down again.
Roka looked from the dead dwarf, laying on his back on the ground, to the rabbit woman as she leapt back and forth in an excitable frenzy. The night had seemed so unusual to him, so bizarre and yet so fantastical.
"My friends," said Gunnar, "you fight like unto noble battle-hardened warriors, born to shed light upon the darkness of the world. I would be honoured to do battle against the forces of evil with you at my side. Tell me; wouldst thou consider forming a guild?"
Exra continued leaping up and down. “Sure” she replied, “I’ve been looking for one, and I’d like to try out some of the guild-exclusive content. What about you, Roka?”
Roka beamed. "Sure! Definitely. That'd be awesome, dude!" he said, loudly. "What's a guild?"