"Could we get some more dots on the boss, please?" called Aria.
Exra was already in the middle of weaving another spell. "All my dots are on it" she called.
Unlike Aria, who still refused to join the others on the channel, Exra spoke audibly through the voice chat with a deep natural vocal tone that made Roka feel just a little bit more confident. He wondered about Aria, about why she so stubbornly refused to join the others on voice chat, instead relying on the game's inbuilt text boxes to communicate. "What do you mean dots?" asked the cleric.
"Damage over time spells" said Exra, warmly, "like my fire spells. Were you thinking of polka dots?"
Roka looked at the boss. It had been almost two weeks since the guild had made a resolution to ramp up their battles and gain everything that they would need to take down Abbadon, and in that fortnight they had slain about ten of the game's bosses. This particular boss, thought Roka, would definitely not suit polka dots. "Kinda yeah" he admitted.
"It is still very nice models" said Biggie over the voice chat.
"And a stupid waste of money" retorted Sycorax.
Roka rolled his eyes. He had hoped that the two would have stopped bickering by now. "Guys" he said, "the boss."
Biggie unleashed another volley of shots with his crossbow, a new apparatus that he had acquired during the week. In his paws, the weapon which was dubbed a 'refined elven crossbow' looked more like a siege engine. "No, boy does not understand" explained Biggie in his thick accent, "Models are beautiful. Look fantastic on mantelpiece."
"Who has a mantelpiece these days?" snapped back Sycorax.
"Does not matter" said Biggie, "I put them on shelf over computer. Use them in league matches."
The sarcasm in Sycorax's tone was so thick that it could be spread on toast. "It's a stupid game anyway. All you do is roll dice, there's no real strategy."
"It is fun game" said Biggie, "and beautiful models. And plenty of strategy. I have whole orc model army now!"
"Guys!" said Gunnar, "Can we focus on the boss here? It could use its wing attack any second."
"If he does, healer can fix it" said Biggie. "Roka is a very good healer now."
For a moment, the dog felt a light blush rise in his face. He had earned a lot of good gear in the last few weeks, had definitely become more powerful. But he still didn't think of himself as being a particularly good healer. Hearing a compliment like that made him smile.
"And don't forget that you are funding an evil corporation when you buy a new box set from them like that" snapped Sycorax, evidently not happy to let the conversation rest.
A snort ran out in the channel. "Games Workforce is not an evil corporation" said Biggie, patiently. "You are being dramatic."
"You two know that you have been talking about this for almost an hour?" said Exra, "Since before I logged in, in fact, and I still have no idea what you are talking about."
Almost casually, Sycorax directed a crackling bolt of raw flesh-melting darkness at the boss, who merely squawked in reply. "El Dummy here was bragging about how he had sunk an absurd amount of money into the new Warweapon 700,000 model set, I'm just explaining to him what a total waste that was."
"That's lovely guys" called Gunnar, "but the boss..."
"It is not absurd amount" said Biggie. Then he paused, "Okay, so yes is a lot of money, but I am adult. We can afford it."
Sycorax scoffed, "How many rubles did it cost you?"
"Ah!" retorted Biggie, "It did not cost any. In my country we do not have rubles anymore."
"Do they even have Games Workforce shops over there?" asked Sycorax "Isn't your country at war?"
"Only technically at war" said Biggie, "We still have days off."
Exra said, almost contemplatively, "Oh hang on, I know that game. My eldest son plays that."
Silence rang out through the channel.
Roka was the first to break it. "Your eldest son?" he asked. "How many do you have?"
"Just two" she replied. "Both are away at university now."
"I had no idea that you were a mother" said Roka.
"I guess I didn't really mention it" said Exra. "We all know each other so well, but there's still a lot we don't know about - Gunnar, watch out!"
The buffalo stumbled backwards, battling fiercely at the boss. Its large beak stabbed viciously, striking the tank with such force that it knocked the warrior's weapon to the floor. Gunnar fell, landing roughly beside it, his arm twisted and broken.
"Is he alive?" asked Aria.
"Yes" said Roka as he hurried over to stand beside the buffalo, "but his arm is broken. Give me a moment to fix it."
"It is true what they say" said Exra as she stared down the boss. The creature met her gaze with a look of raw, unreserved hated. "Geese really can break a man's arm."
Roka helped pull the warrior to his feet. Gunnar flexed his fingers, checking that the newly fixed arm was still strong enough to grasp a weapon. "It's not just a goose, remember" he said cautiously as he scooped up his hammer, "it's a were-goose."
"I still think that's a stupid idea for a boss" muttered Roka.
Gunnar shot him a cautious glance, "Remember laddie, this were-goose destroyed most of the village of Rivermist!"
"I don't care" said the canine, "it's still dumb. It'd be better if it was a werewolf, those are at least cool. How dangerous can a goose be anyway?"
Gunnar trapped the shaft of his weapon, "Did you not just see it break my arm? Geese are deadly foes, laddie."
"But a were-goose?" sputtered Roka. "How does that even work?"
"Well" said Gunnar, "they were born as the results of a magical experiment. You see, thirty years ago the dread warlock Argonash the Undying tried to breed his own army of giant killer bats, in order to use them to launch a war on the floating city of Naussica. So to raise his army, the warlock went to the magical store of esoteric and unusual animals, only to find out that they were fresh out of bats. They did, however, have a fresh batch of newly born geese in stock."
"This is stupid" retorted Roka.
"No, it makes perfect sense. Listen. Argonash took the geese and bred them to giant size, and used his alchemy to..."
"Duck!" cried Exra.
Gunnar glanced up, and was barely able to dive out of the way in time before the feathered foe tore its way through the air, slicing its path open with its razor-sharp beak. The cleric turned his head as the creature hurled past him, whistling through the air, and vanished into the darkness of a long hallway.
Eagerly helping the buffalo to his feet, Roka said "Okay, forget where it came from, let's just kill it."
Hurrying closer, Exra hurled a volley of fire into the distant shadows of the hallway. "We can drive it into the courtyard" she said, "That's where the next part of the battle takes place. Mount up and ride?"
Roka nodded. It was, at least, a walk that would last several minutes on foot, but since he and his companions had acquired their trusty steeds it was only a short matter to cross that distance in a fraction of the time. Together the six brought forward their mounts, each emerging from the same nebulous subspace that all items within the game occupied when not in active use.
It had taken Roka almost a day to settle on his mount, but he was extremely proud of his choice. Finally he settled on a goat. It was a curious choice, some had thought, but its stubbornness appealed to the cleric. It seemed somewhat sturdy to him, even as the goat broke into a steady trot as it clattered towards the courtyard.
The others had each chosen their own, all six electing to purchase rides that seemed to reflect their unique personalities. The canine looked over to Aria, in her silent and slender manner as she rode atop a smooth and elegant panther, deep and black as the deadly night. Pushing ahead and struggling to get in the lead was her younger brother, the warlock, who had instead opted to keep his prized arachnid, cherishing his saddle-bearing spider with a genuine form of affection. Barely a few steps behind the cleric came Exra, who had elected for a hare, similar to her own form but moving rapidly forward in great heavy leaps, always eager and ready to leap into the thick of things. The hare was running almost neck-and-neck with Gunnar, ever the utilitarian, who had opted for his mount to be a fine and mature chestnut mare, heavily armoured and ready for battle.
Like his companions, Roka said nothing about the curious image of several humanoid animal characters riding down the hallway atop large feral forms of other loping animals, all apart from Biggie.From atop his own wire-wooled battle goat, Roka looked over at Biggie. The golem had managed to drive his motorbike into the wall of the halfway, and was frantically beeping his horn at a rather nonplussed-looking bookshelf. Roka was still unsure about Biggie's choice. The bike was big, red, and left a cloud of choking fumes in its wake, and the golem perched precariously atop it much like a boiled egg sitting on top of a stick. The loud motorbike definitely didn't feel like the calm, leisurely approach to what was otherwise a dramatic high fantasy adventure, but Roka was certain that it fitted Biggie perfectly.
He turned back, focusing his gaze on the hallway ahead. As he did so, though, something caught the canine's attention. A small shimmer glistened as he rushed down the passageway, barely perceptive from the corner of Roka's eye. With a tug of the reigns he brought his steed to bear. He trapped its flank with the side of his foot, urging it to hurry backwards. The goat grudgingly obeyed, turning to allow the cleric a closer look at what had caught his attention. "Hold up!" he called to his companions.
“What?” queried Aria, her words appearing as a silent stream of text.
Dismounting his steed, the dog approached a small alcove leading away from the hallway. It was dim, unlit and, he had assumed, entirely decorative. But it was not unoccupied, and as his guildmates gathered around Roka was able to show them what he had found. It was a large chest, apparently made of wood but etched with a fine gold inlay that shone in the dim light of the hallway. The chest seemed to give off radiance, a powerful aura that made it seem truly impressive. Roka wondered how he could have ever missed it on their first trip down the hallway.
Sycorax leaned closer. "What is it?" asked the skeleton.
Exra leapt up and down. "A gold chest!" she said. "Does anyone have any gold keys?"
Gunnar shook his head. "Any idea what's inside?"
Shaking her head, Exra said "If it's a gold chest, it's always something good. Could be high level gear, or a mount or a pet, it could even be a batch of super powerful potions."
Roka leaned down, touching the chest with his fingers. It felt warm. "Literally anything?" he asked.
"I know two people from the beta test who found some" she continued. "One had a potion full of experience points, blasted him right to max level. The other found keys to a whole new guild house, a massive castle on a mountainside."
Gunnar whistled. “I didn’t know that you could bottle experience.”
"So it's always something good?" asked the canine.
Exra nodded. "They appear randomly around the map, like the entrance to the hidden dungeon. They could appear anywhere, at any time. And then, once they are opened, they vanish never to return. There was a story on the forum about two guilds who found one; they fought each other for almost three days before one of them was the first to open it."
Eyes wide, Gunnar reached for the lock. He grasped against it, trying to shake the lid off the chest. "How does it open?" he asked.
"You need a gold key" she explained.
Gunnar shook the chest again. "Where do we get them?"
"They drop from the highest level bosses in the game," she said "so we're still a long way from getting any."
The buffalo sighed, and gave the chest a sturdy kick for good measure.
"Any other way of opening them?" asked Aria.
Exra shook her head. "Only with golden keys found inside the game. There’s no other way aside from hacking – this isn’t one of those awful games that sells keys for real-world money."
The party looked to each other. Roka sighed, "Guess that wasn't such a good discovery after all."
After a moment, Sycorax said "Would that be possible?"
"Would what be possible?" asked Exra.
The warlock answered, "Hacking the game. Is it do-able?"
"I suppose, in theory" replied Exra, contemplatively. Then she glanced at the warlock, fixing him with a stern expression. "No. No, don't even think about it!"
The warlock smiled.
"I'm serious!" she said. "People have been banned from the game for even suggesting such a thing. The GMs take a very, very serious line with it. Don't even think about hacking the game."
Holding up his skeletal fingers defensively, the warlock said "it’s okay, it’s okay. I was just joking."
Exra gave him an uncertain look. "It's not funny. Don't joke about that."
"Okay" said Sycorax, quietly.
"Promise me" said the fire witch.
With a sigh, Sycorax muttered, "I promise."
Gunnar gave one last look at the chest, grudgingly accepting that its secrets would remain forever hidden. "Alright," he said, "saddle up team. We have a were-goose to slay."
As the team clambered back onto the mounts and proceeded once more down the stone-clad hallway with a variety of clatters, skitters and roars, Roka turned towards Exra. "I didn't know that the game had GMs" he said.
With a nod, she said "Sure does. The Games Masters keep the world running smoothly."
"I've never seen one" said the dog.
"No" she said, "they prefer it that way. It's easier for them to be the neutral arbitrators of the will of the game's developers and ensure that all in-game disputes are handled impartially when nobody knows your real live details."
The Canine nodded, "I guess that's right. Have you ever seen one?"
She gave him a smile. "Sweetie, what makes you think I'm not one?"
* * *
Biggie pushed open the door leading back into the outside world. The gate surrounding the old keep creaked, grinding against the wet soil. One by one, the guild emerged from the gateway. Last to emerge, Roka looked back over his shoulder, giving a final look back towards the courtyard. "That was the dumbest boss we've fought yet" he grumbled.
"But you enjoyed it" said Biggie, a bright grin on his face. It wasn't a question, the canine knew. Across the rock golems broad shoulders he carried his prize of the evening, a quarrel of goose-feathered arrows.
Shrugging, the cleric said "I suppose."
He had to admit that it had been another rewarding evening. Yes, he thought, there was no mistaking that. Almost the entire party were leaving the dungeon with new, well-polished armour and weapons, and there was no denying that dressed in his new goose-down jodhpurs, Roka felt powerful.
Sycorax glanced over towards Exra. "What's the next one?" he asked.
"Well," she mused, "the next dungeon in terms of levels that we could take on is The Pharisee's Sarcophagus, that's attuned for level thirty-five players. We should be able to ace that one. Although with the items that we have, we might actually be strong enough to try a higher-level dungeon, maybe even Quakemire Swamp?"
Gunnar shook his head, "No, no swampy dungeons, not after the Gelatinous Pyramid boss, I've had enough slime in my life to last a lifetime."
Exra hopped up and down. "Well, I know it's a bit of a trek, but if people don't mind traveling all the way, we could try Valkyrie Fjord. It has giant zombie vikings."
Glancing at her, Roka said "Somehow I'm surprised that those three words fit together so nicely."
"Shh!" shot Aria, quickly.
The others turned, glancing towards her. The assassin stood not far from the others, her smoothly skinned features shining almost entrancingly in the moonlight. Something about her filled Roka with a sense of worry, and he noticed what it was. She stood too stiffly, top rigid in her posture, as if she were listening attentively to little more than the gentle night breeze.
Then she said in a quiet, hushed voice "We're not alone here."
The others glanced around. The night seemed still, quiet even. The line of the trees, seemingly ever-present in the environment, sat almost sleepily to the west. Roka glanced around, his canine ears high. Gunnar peered through narrowed eyes. A soft wind blew through the tall grass. Not even the sound of a bird called in the distance. The warrior clutched tighter at his weapon, clutching the pommel of his hammer in his mitted fists. A soft creak sounded as Biggie drew a bolt into his crossbow. Exra sniffed at the air.
Then they came, breaking from the line of the trees in a frantic, eager rush. The figures seemed dark in the moonlight, and for a second Roka thought that it was the shadows themselves that were attacking. A scream echoed from behind him, Gunnar crying out in battle with a bellow of frothing anger.
The cleric scanned the attackers, counted just over ten. A bolt of arcane lightning arced past the cleric, lighting up the assailants. In the mob, he recognised a face, the ferret he had met before, one of Brakka's lot. But there were more, he realised, far more than the handful that they had met before. He cursed.
Gunnar was already in frantic combat with two of them, noticed the cleric, watching as his friend swung his hammer in great sweeping blows between several of the attackers. Biggie let out a roar, slamming bolt after bolt blindly into the fray, turning the area before him into a veritable hail of missile fire. Roka started to channel up a healing spell, levelling his paws towards Gunnar. That was when he felt a dark, shadowed form barrelling into him. Another rabbit person, like Exra (what were they called, Roka wondered, something like esquax or the like?) threw several powerful blows his way, serving like a boxing champion, the rabbit creature's fists edged with glinting brass knuckles. Roka stumbled back, ducking from his enemy's punches. He barely even noticed Sycorax screaming out beside him, the tall undead falling beneath the lunging blow of a dark assassin. Pursuing his lips, the canine tried to push his way forward, shoving past the pugilist and towards his colleagues. "They're trying to separate us!"
he called, "Pick us off one by one!"
Aria spat out a garbled mass of text characters. She flailed around, her paws slashing back and forth with her pristine daggers clenched tight in her thin paws. She tried to rush towards the foes, but her feet were bound in place, rooted to the ground in a thick mass of glistening ice. Noticing the frozen entrapment, Roka glanced around and caught sight of the man in dark armour. He stood near the back of the conflict, his sword slung leisurely across one of his pauldroned shoulders. The canine snarled. The damn frost knight Brakka looked so confident.
With a rush of strength, Roka threw a quick light spell at the opponent that swayed before him. The man clutched at his eyes, shielding them, giving the cleric just enough time to push past him. He shoved the assailant hard, knocking him to the dirt, and rushed towards the frost knight. Behind him, Biggie cried out "Roka, wait!" But the cleric didn't care. He felt anger, real and legitimate anger. Not simply the anger of his character playing a role, not simply following along as part of the game. No, he was angry at Brakka, furious at this man who had come here with a while horde of his friends for no other reason than to... To what? Destroy his guild's fun? Get revenge for some petty slight. No, Roka was sure that Brakka was enjoying this. This was sport to the frost knight now.
A glare of anger meeting his look, Brakka turned towards the canine. For a moment, Roka was almost sure that the frost knight looked like he was about to step back. The cleric strode up to Brakka, looking him square in the eye with each hurried step, and swung the end of his staff. The hard oak cracked against the frost knight's helm with a loud, reverberating smash, a blow that carried all of the cleric's anger and his indignation. Brakka barely moved an inch in response. A smile formed on his lips. The blow, one hard enough to surely fell a level ten kobold with one hit, was nothing to a max level frost knight. In amusement, he slipped his sword from his shoulder, clutching it in a single gloved paw, and raised it to swing down.
And as the blade reached the mid-point of its descent, Roka threw up his paw, hurling a vibrant golden aura against the knight. A momentary look of confusion shot across Brakka's eyes as the dog struck out with his strongest attack spell, his old and trusted smite. The shock of the attack blazed across Brakka's features, and he dropped his sword-arm to his side, reaching to clutch at his face with his free gauntleted palm. "You... You struck me" he snarled, his voice laced with venom. "Nobody has ever struck me before."
Roka raised his staff, clutching it against his chest, ready for the frost knight’s next move. "Welcome to PvP" he said.
Wiping his face, Brakka rose to his full height. "You're going to die for that, little dog" he said. "Each time you log in, I'm going to be waiting to kill you over and over and over again."
"You need a better hobby" retorted Roka. "Why not take up sewing?"
The frost knight took a step forward, filling the space between the two of them. Roka found his eyes drawn to the deft bronze etched symbols on the knight’s dark armour. Good lord, thought the cleric, it was made to look like the skull of a dragon. The man fixed the cleric with a gaze that Roka was sure would be equally draconic. "You really think that you can stand up to me? You're not even elite."
Roka felt his grip waver on his staff. He tightened his fingers, holding securely. "We don't have to be" he said, "We’re a guild. It may only be six against twenty, but you can never defeat us while we all stand together."
Brakka grinned. "Do you?"
Nervously, Roka took a quick glance around. Oh dear, he thought. In the time it had taken for him to smack-talk the frost knight, the rest of Roka's guildmates had been thoroughly bested and slain. The canine looked to and fro, from one eager face of his assailants to another. "Hmm" he said, quietly. "Okay. Right. So, technically I'm the last one standing..."
"One against twenty" grinned Brakka.
Roka sighed. "Eh, it was a good speech."
"Five stars" said Brakka, and then his sword collided with Roka with all the strength of a high speed train.
The world went black. Then, it went into a familiar shade of blue.
The cleric picked himself up from the ground, and looked around at the haze of blue landscape that surrounded him. He grumbled, and almost hesitantly checked his backpack. It was empty. Brakka's Bruisers had taken the lot. His gold, his potions, even his goose-down jodhpurs. Roka blinked, incredulous. They had even stolen his new gear, ripped it right from his legs. Angrily, the canine slammed his fist against the shimmering blue earth.
He really, really hatred Brakka.
"Hello there. You appear to be dead" said the cheerful voice of the Buddha fox "Would you like..."
Roka snorted, "Oh, piss off!"