"Get out of the fire!" Roka shouted – and to his amazement, the others in the cave did just that!
The ogre bellowed, revealing a row of broken yellow teeth. It lumbered back a step, its huge foul feet kicking up a plume of dirt as it did. The ogre inhaled again, readying to belch another gush of flame from his mouth, but Roka was not worried about it this time.
Exra leapt out of the way of the flames, narrowly avoiding the ogre's cumbersome swing of his club. "Is this as easy as you remember it?" she chuckled.
The ogre glanced after Exra, struggling to keep up with her. He swung his massive tree root of a club, thumping it ineffectually against the ground as he did so. Roka grinned. "A little easier" he said. "Being a higher level certainly helps."
Beside the cleric, standing together as if to hold the line, Sycorax unleashed his newest spell, a grizzly bout of conflagration that rained down from above called, unsurprisingly enough, 'hellfire'. The canine could only think about how appropriate it sounded. The undead turned its skeletal head towards Roka, "This ogre gave you some trouble previously?"
The ogre grunted, slapping out the scorching flecks of charred, searing flame with his meaty palm as if they were wasp bites. It roared, and spat a thick glob of molten filth into the midst of the team with a gurgling splat.
The undead stepped back, wiping frantically at the front of his shirt. The vitreous splatter simply smeared as he clawed at it. "Oh, gross!" he rasped, "Disgusting! I'll eat your brains for that, ugly!"
"Keep moving!" called Roka, firing off another heal spell.
The fire witch sprinted around the ogre, leaping over the charred remains of several spiders. She looked around. They had cleared the rest of the dungeon without any trouble, the spiders having been easy prey, but it was the ogre that was giving them pause for thought. But Exra wasn't here for herself. She was here for Roka, to help him slay the hulking brute that had given him so much trouble all those weeks ago. She paused, midway through her sprint, and fired off another fireball.
The ogre barely noticed. It thundered its fist against its thick slab of a chest, glowing at her as if he were utterly unimpressed.
Sycorax growled, "Why couldn't Biggie join us?"
"Don't know" said Roka quickly, "I asked but he said he was busy."
The undead nodded. "We could use another ranged fighter with this!"
Exra paused, spinning around to face the ogre. From the folds of her jerkin, she tugged free a small wooden object. She held the thick wooden object, no longer than her arm, carved into a sickly mannequin of a figure, and jammed it into the ground. With a flick of her wrist the little totem ignited in flame. "Voodoo totem deployed" she said, commandingly, "All fire damage is multiplied by thirty-three point three per cent!"
"Yeah, very nice" grumbled Sycorax, barely dodging another powerful swing from the ogre's club. He staggered back. "Does it affect him as well?"
As if in answer, the ogre pulled his head back, inhaling for another belch.
"Uhh” muttered Exra, “now that you mention it, I’m not sure."
"Crap" murmured Roka. "Syc, over here! Out of the way!"
The undead was already hurrying, frantic. The ogre threw his head forward, opening his mouth in a great spout of flaming vomit. The liquid splashed across the floor of the cave, igniting the chamber in plumes of crimson. Sycorax barely dodged out of the way in time, the hem of his robe snapping and crackling as it quickly turned to ash. "Guess it does affect him" snorted the warlock.
"Kite it" said Exra. "By my calculations, we should be able to mitigate our threat levels by angling it around the cave."
The cleric blinked. "What does that mean?"
With a wry grin, the warlock said "It means hit it right after I do."
Roka blinked in confusion. The warlock was almost all the way across the cavern, with the ogre's vast bulk between the two warriors. "Uhhh" stuttered the cleric, "right."
The ogre stumbled, struck on the side of its oily head by a fierce snap of sizzling dark energy. It looked around, following the source of the trail of shadows, his eyes locking on the undead. Grunting through its squat nose, the creature started to thunder towards him. Sycorax shouted, "Any time now!"
Without a moment’s hesitation, Roka let fly with a smite spell. The ogre almost fell to one flabby knee in mid-step. Rising unsteadily, it started its charge, this time towards the dog. Roka winced, looking around. He had nowhere to flee. "What now?" he yelled.
Another crack of magic filled the air. Exra released a thick jet of flames, each tongue of fire charring the beast violently. Bellowing now, the ogre tried to rush at the fire witch, only to find himself knocked off balance by another incandescent shot from the warlock's fingertips. Sycorax grinned to Roka, "Good, keep going. We have ogre on the menu tonight!"
* * *
Roka looked into his backpack. Checking the game's description, the food was definitely called 'ogre meat'. Strangely, he had thought that the undead was just being metaphorical.
His backpack continued to confuse Roka. It was laid out in a perfectly arranged grid, with each item taking up a full section of space. This was fine in theory, he thought, but he was confused as to why the eight 'ogre meat's arranged themselves into a single grid square. All eight pieces of ogre meat sat in a single stack, between the small copper ring that he had manufactured earlier and his old wooden two-handed staff, each taking up exactly the same amount of space.
He put it down to magic, as he so often put things down to in Valeron.
Exra jumped over, and offered him a few more stacks of meat. "You can use it to level up your cooking skill" she said.
The canine smiled. He had no interest in training up cooking as his skill. He was already finding jewellery to be utterly boring. But nevertheless, he thought, he might change his mind later. Smiling, he tucked the dripping stacks of grotesque flesh into his backpack beside the various important letters and documents that the NPCs entrusted to him to deliver to various nobles.
"This" announced Sycorax "is the greatest loot in the history of the universe!"
The undead warlock rattled past the cleric, charging back and forth past the mouth of the cave where the party sat. He cheered as he went; a sound that Roka imagined constituted the warlock's closest emotion to sheer joy. It was a nightmarish sound - truly terrifying, like the insane laugh of a bastard maniac. It gave Roka the chills, but not quite as much as the source of the undead's enjoyment. He scuttled past, sitting atop a dark leather saddle that in turn was fastened around a great green and black spider. Roka had seen several spiders of this variety in the game, many of whom he had encountered tonight in the depths of Spider Cave before they had slain the ogre. They had been smaller, no bigger than a cat and easy to defeat. The idea of a spider of that size in the real world would have sent the canine fleeing from the room, but in the safe world of Valeron he felt strong enough to slay any number of arachnids. All apart from his companion's new mount, though, because it was roughly the size of a rhino.
"This is soooo cool!" squealed the undead in delight as he charged past them both, spindly legs skittering.
Roka gave him an unimpressed glare. "That thing is the stuff of nightmare" he muttered.
Sycorax spun around, and caused the spider to rear up onto its many hind legs, its fangs clicking and clattering. "That's why it's so awesome!" declared the warlock.
The cleric looked over to Exra. "What are the odds of the ogre dropping that mount again?"
The rabbit woman recited, as if from memory. "The Spider Cave ogre boss drops the Deathclutch Arachnid mount roughly zero point six per cent of the time."
The cleric shook his head as Sycorax rode past with an audible "Whee".
Leaning down beside him, Exra patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry" she said, "You'll be able to buy your own mounts when you hit level thirty."
The canine nodded. Still, it felt like he still had a long way to go until then, especially if he had to spent the time listening to Sycorax gloating. The undead, who had only recently hit level thirty-two, had not yet purchased a mount of his own. To win one by defeating a boss, without having to spend any gold in the process, was a huge victory for him.
Still, Roka thought, both he and Exra had earned a decent piece of gear each from the victory. He glanced at the fire witch, who had just finished polishing her ogre-spine wand, which somehow made her more resilient to magical attacks. Perhaps the ogre's spine has some mystical properties, thought Roka. Then again, there was his new pair of boots, which he resisted even thinking about the part of the ogre that they had come from.
The cold sensation of polished steel touched against the side of Roka's neck. His senses only kicked into higher alertness from the moment that he first felt it, bringing with it a sense of confusion. His eyes glanced down, noticing for the first time the blade with its razor sharp edge poised at his jugular. He followed the blade along to its handle, to the large paw that held it. It was a fist gloved in leather, a cat’s paw. He followed the arm upwards until his eyes met those of the assassin. He was dressed entirely in black, save for a shock of yellow-blonde hair that escaped from beneath his cowl. "We'll be taking those boots" said the figure.
The canine froze. Turning towards him, Exra restrained a yelp of surprise. Sycorax stopped, mid-scuttle. None of them had even noticed the assassin's approach, and the man was not alone. Next to him stood a short, gnarled figure bedecked in heavy strong armour. Roka recognised the short figure immediately, the ferret who had attempted to rob the group only a few short weeks ago. The cleric felt a rush of anger. "What is this? Round two?"
"Actually" said the third figure, "call it setting the recorded straight." The third man had remained silent, staying near the back of the trio. Now he emerged, and Roka saw him clearly as he emerged from the dark of the shadows into the light. He was thick and white furred, strongly built, with a neat crop of thick black hair atop his head, and where his left eye should have been sat a thin metallic eye-patch. "Now, maybe some introductions are in order?"
Roka glanced down at the blade that the assassin held still close to his neck. "I don't chat with thugs" said the cleric.
The man in the armour snorted, almost a laugh. Roka felt himself shiver. What the hell had possessed him to say that? The adrenalin from the successful fight with the ogre? He gulped. Still, the man gave a sneering, condescending smile. "Let's not be like that. We're just simple businessmen, here to collect on a debt."
Exra glanced over at the dog. "Careful" she said, "don't antagonise him, he's a frost knight."
Roka looked at the man again. He was dressed in hard, dark plate armour, the surface etched with powerful and curiously haunting engravings of skulls. A pall of discomfort radiated from the man, the air around him feeling several degrees colder. "What's a frost knight?" asked the cleric.
"Top of the line" said the man. "Pre-order bonus. We're an exclusive class. Kept for the best of the best."
Exra snorted, derisively. "They were a free extra class for the first one hundred people who ordered a copy of the game. But they don't work right - they're imbalanced."
The man drew his blade, pointing its tip threateningly towards the fire witch. Roka restrained a gasp. The sword was lined with sharp icy claws along its razor-sharp edge. It was huge, easily made to be held in two paws, but the man wielded it easily in only one. "Imbalanced? We were made to be the strongest class in the game. We were made to be perfect." He hissed the last word, a look of haughty loathing in his eye.
"Until the developers inevitably nerf you" she retorted.
The frost knight inched forward, pushing past his squat ferret comrade. "I'll kill you for that!" he rasped, spitting the words.
Roka winced. Even he was aware that the developers of the game would regularly shift the dynamic of the classes, changing their play styles or their strengths. It kept the classes from stagnating, he knew, encouraging the players to try new ones and ensuring that they did not remain constant. It was inevitable that one class would be made far stronger, outstripping their brethren. But that was always temporary, and at any time a mage or an assassin could find his class as having been suddenly reduced in strength. Looking at the frost knight, Roka thought that he saw the anger of a man who knew that his power would not last forever.
The cleric looked down, feeling the assassin's knife slip a little against his slender throat. He thought for a moment that he could risk it, that he could make a move. If only he knew what move to make. He turned his eyes to the frost knight. "You seem to be the leader of this band of jokers. Who are you?"
The man turned, his ebony dark armour glinting in the frostbitten air around him. "I'm Brakka," he announced, "head of Brakka's Bruisers."
Roka glanced over the frost knight. He opened an examination window, checking the details listed for the man facing him. The name checked out, and he was indeed the head of a guild called Brakka's Bruisers. It wasn't the most original name, he thought. In fact, it sounded utterly trite. But the cleric wasn't about to say so while one of the guild's thugs held a blade to his throat.
Sycorax snarled, his quiet sound displaying his agitation, but the warlock remained otherwise silent. Probably watching for a moment to make an attack, thought Roka.
With a dismissive wave of her paw, Exra sneered at the knight. "Brakka's Bruisers? That's what, a flower-picking guild? Or a cheesy eighties prog-rock band?"
Brakka strode closer towards her, closing the distance between them by several steps. Suddenly, the ferret spoke, his voice a high and throaty rasp. "Let's just kill them, boss."
Roka furiously looked through his skills. He had to have something, he thought. Some kind of spell that could be useful here, a PvP ability that he had picked up during levelling. He glanced from spell to spell.
"Not yet" replied Brakka, glancing back towards his underling. "We have to give them a chance first."
The fire witch pursed her lip. "Chance to do what? What do you creeps want?"
"They're a bandit guild" said the undead, finally. "They steal from low level players. Jump them on the road and demand gold, items and the like. If their victims don't give them what they want, they loot it from the bodies."
Brakka turned, looking towards the undead. "That's true, but in your case, I'll skip asking so nicely."
The cleric's eyes stopped scanning the spells as he settled on one. He read the description over again. It was a small spell, one he'd earned at level twelve. It was called 'candlelight', and he had dismissed it as generally useless. It would provide a small burst of light, enough to stun a feline creature for one second. He had never used it, had never given it a second thought. Maybe, he thought, just maybe...
Brakka marched over towards the warlock. "I'm going to enjoy killing you" he rasped. "That spider mount that I'm going to rip from your dead body. I think that will suit me down to a tee."
Sycorax glanced over towards the Canine. "Let the weakling go" said the undead, "I'll fight you for it one to one."
The frost knight shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Afraid you'll lose?" snapped the warlock.
The frost knight laughed. "I'm ten levels higher than you, and your pet assassin isn't online now to protect you."
Roka inhaled. The blade at his neck wavered slightly. The assassin was distracted, watching his boss and the undead argue. As the tip of the dagger lowered, the cleric threw the spell. It snapped into the cat's face, causing him to blink his eyes tightly shut for a moment. In that second, Roka was up and on his paws.
"Portal!" barked the cleric, "Now!"
The next few moments flew past in the space between a heartbeat. Brakka turned to see his cat companion clutch his paw to his eyes. Bloodlust filled the knight’s eyes, his teeth clenching. He turned, swinging his blade at Sycorax. The warlock ducked, almost hitting the ground as he tried to stumble back.
Looking past him, Exra noticed the ferret, the short creature rushing at her companions. With a quick wave of her paw, a vast gush of flame blazed from her palm. The fire landed against the ground, dividing the battlefield nearly in two. The ferret skidded to a halt, inches before the wall of flame. As Roka sprinted towards his companions, Sycorax started to chant, bringing forth his teleportation spell with hushed mutterings in an awkward, unnatural whisper. The cleric looked towards Exra, who was busy churning up another wall of fire to pen in the frost knight's bedazzled feline guildmate.
Then a shudder of fear passed over the cleric as he realised that Brakka was almost upon the warlock, his great frost blade drawn and trailing deathly flecks of ice in its wake. The knight held his deathly blade high, the sword's tapered tip looming downwards towards his prey like the grim finger of death. Damn it, he thought, the warlock was a sitting duck - he didn't stand a chance of finishing the portal spell before Brakka took him down.
Inhaling sharply, the canine realised that he had very little time to act. He didn't stop, he didn't think. He ran, diving towards the warlock.
The sword's frozen bite ripped through the cleric’s shoulder. It exploded with vibrant, terrible cold, hard enough to almost freeze the cleric to his core. For a moment, Roka could almost imagine that he felt the injury, felt the chill blade dig into his shoulder and down towards his chest, just as surely as he could see the look of abject and unfettered loathing on the towering knights face.
In that moment, the warlock waved his bony paws in a great, sinister expression, bringing forth the portal. It seemed to rip its way into being, the landscape around it taking on the image of a torn painting as the warlock finished his dark incantation. "Through it" hissed Sycorax, "back to the guild hall!"
In the last moment before he tumbled forward, Roka heard the frost night snarl. "Run while you can," shouted Brakka, his voice edged with malice, "I'll have back what you owe me!"
Then the cleric was through the portal and the world exploded in a hue of purple. Roka tumbled forward, his companions by his side as the portal opened, ushering the three of them far from the forest, far from the cave and far from Brakka. He tumbled, hurling head over foot through the space between worlds. In a few seconds, he thought, he would arrive back at the guild hall, safe.
A voice rung out, almost breaking the haunting silence. "You did that for me?" asked Sycorax.
Roka blinked. "Yeah" he said, "course I did. You're a guildmate."
Sycorax was quiet for a moment. Then, hesitantly, he said "Thank you."
"It's okay" said the canine.
"I mean," added Sycorax, "you're still a weak, foolish bag of flesh."
"Of course" said Roka.
"And I'm still going to eat your face one day" said Sycorax.
"Of course" said Roka again, humouring him.
"But still" said Sycorax, "thank you."