Bodies were already littering the floor by the time that Roka had broken his way through the crumbling ruin of the keep's wall. He glanced around, a sense of panic growing within him. There were so many dead. Some heaped atop one another, wetly spoiling the forecourt beneath.
The cleric started to run. Before him, fire licked the sky and bolts of raw lightning scarred their way through the air. He had kept to the back, allowing the main body of the conflict to reach its boiling point before he hurried his way through. He was not having fun. How, he wondered, could anyone enjoy this?
The fighting was too fast for him, he thought, too frantic. He had only died twice so far, he was glad that it had been so few. But he did not know how many combatants stood between him and the centre of the keep. And, he thought, even if he and his allies did manage to pummel their way through, did they even stand a chance against the general? The aim of the battle was simple, to slay the enemy's commanding officer, doing so before their opposition did the same Roka's own.
The cleric glanced around, his heart pounding, frantically trying to catch sight of the assassin. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed movement, a flicker of crimson. Charging through the broken wall of the keep, Aria sprinted towards him. “Blues have the farm” she said, breathlessly.
Roka barely understood this. Was the farm of any particular importance? It held a position close to his own team’s base, he knew. He was unsure why they would want to capture it, what use a simple small farm with barely two small fields and a single hut would yield to the enemy team, but nevertheless they had it now, and they were one step closer to his own team’s fortress.
He looked around. Most of the blue team’s keep was empty. Aside from a few stragglers, the blunt end of their forces had pushed their way across the fields of battle, slaying and dying as they went. They had met in brief, terrifying confrontation, a charge into battle on stamping feet, as red and blue colours clashed into one another. Roka’s armour was, like all of his team, dyed a vibrant red. It was a temporary change, lasting only the duration of the match. For Aria, the change in hue made no difference. She was as crimson as the assassin had ever been, and just as deadly. She pointed towards the command hall, “We’re going to need to get inside.”
“That rabbit-man almost blew my head off outside!” he wailed. “We don’t stand a chance!”
Aria shook her head, “I’ve won this battlefield hundreds of times. Just keep close.”
She had said that earlier, before she had promptly sprinted out of Roka’s line of sight, vanishing into the conflagration. He was worried that she was going to do the exact same thing once again. She rushed ahead, leaping into a group of three blue scouts. Pulling her daggers free, Aria’s arms became a whirling, frantic blur, driving this way and that. Roka winced, watching as whole splattered bits of the scouts landed across the courtyard’s grass like a spilled basin of crimson water.
Aria glanced over to him, wiping a tiny fleck of sweat from her brow. “Can I get a heal?”
He looked from the torn, battered blue team to her, his eyes wandering. “For you or for them?”
She gave a chuckle, a small piece of one of the scout’s heads landing beside Roka. He jumped back from it, timidly. “You’re not enjoying this, are you?” she asked.
He shrugged, channelling up a quick healing spell for her. As he leased the spell, radiating a thin aura of light across her wounds, he said “It’s not that. I just don’t think I’m cut out for PvP.”
“The trick is that you need fast reflexes” she said. “For instance, I can stun-lock pretty much anyone, as long as I get the shots in at the right time.”
Roka nodded. He had seen her perform a stun-lock multiple times, a variety of moves rendering her opponent dazed or crippled or otherwise unable to escape her brutal stabbing blows. It was a concept that she had tried to teach him ever since he had asked her to train him in that. She had explained the required actions multiple times, demonstrating the perfect combination of cleric spells and abilities that would render his enemies powerless. Yet each time Roka tried to execute this smooth combination of moves, the sight of another player hurtling towards him with their weapons drawn made the canine want to hide under a table in the nearest tavern.
“Behind you!” yelled Aria. The canine turned, readying a spell. He looked around, catching sight of the towering rock-like figure lumbering towards him, a small trail of blue fabric flickering behind it. For a moment he thought it might have been Biggie, but this golem was definitely not the same one, covered as it was in thick metallic plate armour and swaying a vast, polished axe. The creature tore its way towards the dog, its footfalls reverberating against the ground as it did. The figure was massive, Roka thought, and even appeared even more so when it was wielding the axe, the head of which was as broad as the cleric’s entire body. The golem’s crag-like face was sharpened into a growling snarl of loathing as he pounded his way towards Roka, seeming to grow larger and larger with each step.
The cleric forgot his spell and dived for cover behind a nearby rock. “Oh god!” he wailed, “Please don’t hurt me!”
Aria tutted wearily and leapt at the towering golem.
Clasping his paws around his head as if to fend off certain death, Roka barely heard the muffled sound of stone cracking apart, a thick rasp of metal scraping along granite. He squeezed his eyes shut.
After a few moments, Aria said “I thought it was Gunnar who did all the roleplaying in this guild.”
Opening his eyes, the Canine looked up. Bits of pebbles were strewn across the ground, like a little rock garden in the middle of a warzone. “I, uh” he stuttered, “I wasn’t roleplaying. I just don’t react well to surprises.”
The cat nodded. “I thought you were playing the role of a bleating coward for a moment there” she added with a chuckle.
Roka grumbled, pulling himself to his feet. “How did you kill that thing?” he asked, his eyes growing wide as he looked at the chipped pieces of rock and dented scraps of metal that littered the floor.
Aria gave him a weary expression. “Golems only have a small bonus to their stamina, that means that they’re a little bit better at soaking damage but they’re not really any harder to kill than any other race in the game.”
Roka nodded. “I didn’t know that” he mumbled, embarrassed.
“Worth knowing” she replied. “Remember, when you see an enemy, you start with a ‘curse’ spell.”
The dog nodded. He felt embarrassed. It had, he knew, been at his own insistence that Aria had started to teach him how to fight against other players. He thought back to the attacks of the brigands a few days prior. The speed at their reactions, combined with his abject feeling of helplessness, had left the cleric feeling eager to learn just how he could go about protecting himself and his guildmates in the future. The present result, sadly, wasn’t quite meeting his expectations, not unless he intended to spend any future attacks cowering behind conveniently located boulders.
Together they turned back towards the hall, Aria taking the lead with Roka hurrying to keep up. The dog wasn't sure about this. He knew that even as strong as the assassin could be in combat, she could still be slain easily enough if he were not careful or if he was slow with his healing.
Thankfully, they did not meet any further resistance until they stood together by the vast wooden door to the hall. It towered above them, thick and broad on each side, looking for all purposes as if the door had no intention of ever moving. Roka was just about to ask Aria what she suggested, when his companion turned on her heel and marched towards one of the hall’s decorate towers. He hurried to keep up, quickly moving into a light jog, his eyes darting to and fro as he watched out for any of the blue teams warriors.
He found Aria hunched over a small wooden cart. It sat just a little to one side of the hall’s entry door, as though it had been left behind when the inhabitants of the fort had hastily prepared for war. The canine peered closer, moving up to stand beside Aria as he tried to determine what held her interest. Barely acknowledging the clerics presence, she grabbed a small object no bigger than a grapefruit from the cart. Turning, she thrust the object towards the cleric. "Take this" she said.
Grabbing the object, Roka gave a sharp little cry as it moved, twitching and writhing in his grasp. He looked down at it and saw a round, bulbous green creature. It had a short, squat little face that peered back at him over the top of a globular body. Four little limbs wiggled back and forth as the creature tried to right itself. Roka quickly adjusted his grip, almost losing his grasp on the scaly green critter, trying to keep his fingers away from the things wide mouth in case it decided to take a snap at them. "What the hell is that?" he cried as he juggled the squeaking beast, trying to maintain a grip.
Aria stared at his display blankly. "It's just an imp" she said, unimpressed. "Take it and glue it to the door of the hall."
The dog blinked. Then, wondering if he had indeed heard his guildmate right, he blinked again. "What?" he asked with a sense of bewilderment.
"Glue the imp to the door" she said again, as if it were the most natural command in the world. Glancing down beside the cart, she found a thick wooden pot, readily containing a thick globular mass of glue, all ready for purpose as if the game's developers had deliberately placed it there.
Roka pulled his fingers away from the imps biting teeth. "Uhhh" he groaned, "why? We're here to destroy it, not decorate it."
Grabbing the pot of glue, she thrust it out towards him. "Imps are highly combustible. A single spell would make them explode. That door will need five imps." She glanced around. "I'll watch your back and make sure nobody kills you while you do it."
The canine stuttered in confusion for a few more moments. Aria glanced around. "Damn it" she muttered. Roka turned to follow her gaze. By the outer wall of the keep, a group of three blue team combatants were hurrying forward, growing from small dots on the horizon to far larger figures as they did. Aria turned, shooting Roka a commanding look. "Go!"
With the pot of glue in one paw and the round gibbering ball of imp in the other, the dog sprinted back towards the main door. As he began to plaster the squirming, uncooperative being into place on the timber, he wondered if the game had provided any other means of gaining entrance to the hall or if stacking the entryway with explosive imps was the only sure means of ingress. Slathering the critter with the glue, he found that it held in place on the door quite readily. He stepped back for a moment, watching as the little imp kicked its tiny legs and struggled to pry itself free from its place. He might have almost felt sorry for it, if it weren't for the teeth marks all over his fingers.
Hurling himself back towards the cartful of imps, and wondering why the blue team even had a cartful of imps resting so contentedly within a few steps from the front door, Roka chanced a look back towards Aria. She had already downed one of the enemies, and was in the process of chopping the second one in half at that very moment. The canine found that his eyes could barely even keep up with her. Relax, he told himself, I'm getting too stressed. He reminded himself that he played the game to unwind. The experience that he got from the game, or at least the one that he took from it, was meant to be one of relaxation. This was anything but relaxing. He dropped one imp to the floor, reaching for his glue brush. As he did so, the free imp decided to make a break for it, rolling into its back legs and tumbling into an upright position. Roka jammed his foot atop its head to keep it in place, resulting in a series of irritated squeaks. Frantically, Roka pressed the creature still in his paws against the door, and began to lather the squirming creature with splashes of glue. The first imp, the one already securely in place upon the door, looked down at Roka with an expression of hurt betrayal.
"Nearly done?" called the assassin.
The canine turned, accident letting his foot free from the creature beneath it. It made a mad dash for freedom, and Roka leapt after it, diving towards the creature as if he were trying to catch a football. He caught his breath, clutching the flailing monster to his chest. "Almost!" he cried.
"Hurry it up!" came the reply, "There's more blues incoming!"
The dog rushed eagerly to secure the third little monster in place. Leaving the three imps jabbering angrily as they hung upon the door, Roka sprinted towards the cart for another pawful. Hurling himself back towards the wooden portal, one round creature tucked under each arm, he wondered just how explosive these little imps could really be. And wasn't it a ludicrous idea that a living creature like that could just explode and rip a way through the door, he wondered to himself. He was still wondering this when the fourth imp, looking queasy and nauseous from the wild jog across the courtyard, vomited across Roka's shoulder.
"Is it ready?" called Aria.
Roka was busy trying to wipe a curiously luminous yellow cascade of imp puke from his shoulder when he looked over towards his companion. She had four enemy combatants around her, locked in a brutal struggle. One of them, a mage, snapped a wreath of flames through the air, which the assassin was struggling to dodge. Then the Canine noticed the bristling, wild mass of blue charging down the hillside, hammering their way towards himself and Aria. "Oh crap!" he cried, "there's hundreds of them coming!!"
Aria took a step back, and slammed a smoke pellet against the ground with a resounding crack. Thick clouds plumed through the courtyard, obscuring the vision of her enemies. The cat assassin leapt over one, vaulting high over his head with an elegant backflip. As she landed, she drove the blades of her daggers into the back of her victim's skull and, in the same smooth and flawless move, pulled them apart. As the thick smoke filled the eyes of her remaining enemies, she all but vanished from sight, sprinting from the cloud in a shimmering blur. She skidded to a halt beside Roka. "Don't be silly" she chided, "there are only thirty of them."
"Oh" he replied, "is that all? Maybe they'll let us go?"
Without a reply, she grabbed one of the squawking imps from the cleric's paws. Dumping the creature whole into the pot of glue, she slammed it against the door with enough force to make its fellow twitching critters wince. "Doubt it" she grumbled. "Hit them."
Roka stared at her, confused.
"Cast a bloody spell" snapped Aria.
The canine stared at the door. Somehow, he felt pity for the strange, burbling creatures who he had glued against its wooden frame. He even felt sorry for the one who had bit him multiple times. "It won't kill them, will it?"
Aria blinked. "No," she said, "I'm sure they will be just fine. Which is something we won't be if that rampaging mob get a hold of us."
Roka looked out into the courtyard. The blue team must have mustered their entire force, he thought. It appeared looking much like an ensemble mass of figures. Cats and lizards, golems and dogs, buffalos and numerous other races that Roka didn't recognise, some of which he swore were included only as pre-order exclusives for the game. They were decked in armour that shone with enchantments, robes of billowing magicks, they wielded blades of terrifying sharpness and staffs alight with fire. Some of them rode atop great steeds the likes of which Roka had never seen, and made him wish that he had reached a level high enough to buy his own steed yet. They looked all different, except for their unifying blue hue, buy they were all focused on one very specific target. They were all running towards him. The Canine gulped, and looked at the door. On the other side, he thought, was the general. He didn't know a damn thing about him, but it had to be safer than where Roka was right now.
Mumbling a small apology to the five ravenous, chirping little imps who were about to make the supreme sacrifice for the sake of the red team, Roka began to cast his smite spell.
"Oh god, not here!" cried Aria, "Not right beside the door - get back away from it first!" Or, at least, that was what she tried to say before she was rudely interrupted by the explosion of five very confused imps.
Roka was impressed with the work. The explosion had definitely torn a huge hole in the door. He stood, looking at his handiwork. It was a good explosion, and a grand hole. Large enough, he realised, for the entire red team to charge through and make their way to the general. It would, he thought, look a little bit better if his impression of it wasn't filtered through the misty blue haze that covered the land of the dead. But who, thought Roka, was he to judge.
Beside him sat Buddha Fox. "Hello," he said, "you appear to be dead. Would you like a hand with that?"
"No," said the dog, "I think I've got this one covered, thanks."