"Spread out!" cried Exra, as the team rushed into the middle of the room. She hadn't really needed to make the call, everyone present on the voice chat channel was well aware of how the fight began, but the command seemed so precise that nobody could possibly give it any doubt.
The lightning bolt flew from Abbadon's fingertips, arcing through the air, its crackling light illuminating the dread lord's bleak face. The bolt struck Gunnar square in the chest. The buffalo barely noticed, the electricity snapping through him, crossing across his armour in thin waves. It didn't hurt, barely caused any damage, but it was in the next step that the spell posed any real threat.
Crackling around the buffalo, tendrils of the snapping electricity bristled outwards. They clawed through the air like angry fingers, seeking out a new target. Uncertainly, Biggie shuffled a few steps back, away from the buffalo. He knew that for each victim that the lightning could latch onto, the strength that it possessed grew exponentially, dealing more and more damage with each new victim.
For another second, the lightning flexed out, seeking a new target into which it could dive into. But with the rest of the group fanned out so wide, it had nowhere to go, no target to call home. The lightning shimmered into the ground, vanishing from sight. Exra smiled, "lightning's safe, refresh for it in five minutes."
Gunnar barely responded. Five minutes was a lot of time before the next lightning attack, he knew, and plenty time for the team to deal some serious damage to Abbadon. He drove at the boss, colliding with a powerful force that sent both combatants spiralling to the ground below. The buffalo was the first to his feet, bringing his hammer down in a large, damning swing, ready to smite down on the warlord's head, but at the very last moment Abbadon brought his staff to bear, driving it between himself and Gunnar's mighty hammer.
Already Roka was at the fore, chanting swift glowing enchantments into being that knitted together his colleague's wounds the moment that they broke. By his side, Exra was working flame between her nimble fingers, sending blistering sparks jetting towards the undead monstrosity. A loud twang split the air as the golem, standing tall and towering at the back of the group, let fly another volley of arrows. Roka turned his head slightly, looking towards his craggy companion. "Now would be a good time for the bear."
With a sharp nod, Biggie ushered with his hand, and a blur of brown fur blazed past him. The humongous grizzly bear leapt at the ancient warlord, who in turn barely took a notice of the feral creature. As the bear let its jaws descend in a mighty arc towards its prey, the Scourge brought the tip of his thick, heavy stave up in a sharp swing, snapping it hard against the bear's jaw with a resounding crack.
"We have blood fountain in fifteen seconds" shouted Exra.
Sycorax turned to her, "What on earth is Blood Fountain?" he yelled over the noise of the battle.
"No idea" she called back, "that's what the name of the spell is!" The warlock looked, examining his enemy's spellcasting text. Sure enough, that was the name of the power that Abbadon was now channelling.
Immediately the group began to move. Large shimmering marks began to blaze into being on the vast skull-cobbled ground. Swiftly taking the form of sharply realised circles, the marks etched into obscure, haunting shapes, runic and sinister. Each member of the guild moved out, hurrying to be clear of the distressing symbols. "Five seconds!" called the fire witch.
Just as Aria leapt clear of the outer rim of the arcane circle, a vast gush of rippling crimson blood erupted from the middle of each mark. The thick gouts of gore boiled, seething in massive turbulent fountains, sending burning hot lashed of molten viscera across the floor. Gunnar cried out, pulling away from his mortal foe as he attempted to shield his face with the back of his paw. The buffalo waited, pausing for a moment as he anticipated his injury to heal. It did not. Glancing around, Gunnar noticed the broken form of the canine cleric lying not too far. Without his healing spells to bring him to the fight, Gunnar sighed. "Okay, we're down. Wipe this raid."
The other remaining survivors of the battle shrugged, waiting for Abbadon's blood fountains to dispatch them as well.
"Right" said Exra, picking herself up. The Scourge was gone, and the chamber had shifted into its familiar blue haze. "Let's run down what went wrong."
"I died" said Roka. "So need to be out of the blood faster."
Exra nodded, "We also lost Aria in the fountain" she added.
Roka hadn't noticed. Aria's silence over the voice channel had caused the assassin's demise to slip his notice. "What the hell was that attack?" he asked.
"Blood Fountain?" asked Exra. "Looks like it randomly places burning jets of blood across the field. We should be able to move out of the way easily enough."
Biggie shook his head, "BUT IT BURNS TOO."
Sycorax adjusted his cowl. "Yes, it applies a burning effect to everyone around it as well. How much damage did it do to you, Gunnar?"
The buffalo checked his battle log. "Ouch" he said. "A lot. Roka, are you okay for removing the effect?"
The dog shook his head, "Not while I'm handling healing you from his physical attacks. Anyone else got a debuff that they can use?"
The warlock replied, "I should be able to manage it. Weird though, he used a blood attack. I'd thought he'd just stick with lightning."
"There may be a reason for that" said Gunnar, contemplatively. "In the lore, Abbadon slew four gods and devoted their souls, claimed their power as his own."
Aria rolled her eyes. "Of course he did. Do any bad guys in fantasy get their powers by not eating souls?"
Sycorax gave her a grin, "Don't knock it til you've tried it."
"So how does that help us?" asked Roka.
"The first one he devoured was Groth, god of thunder" explained Gunnar.
Sycorax perked up, "Thunder and lightning are two different things" he commented.
"I assume the developers didn't think that growling at us from a distance away would be a strong spell" stated the Buffalo. "Anyway, next was Khabul, god of blood. So it would make sense that the spells follow that kind of pattern."
"What can we expect next?" asked Exra.
"Third one was Vernis, goddess of plagues" said the buffalo.
Aria sat down, "These gods have the lamest names" she said.
Rubbing the back of his head, Biggie asked "SO THAT IS THREE WHAT IS FOR?"
"Fourth?" asked Gunnar. "That would be the nameless god. The god of death."
Roka sighed, "Oh joy."
"Okay, we have our tactics" started the warlock confidently, "are you sacks of meat ready to go again?"
"We're not going anywhere" said Aria. "It's ten thirty at night and you have school in the morning."
Sycorax shrugged, "I'll skip it" he replied, his skeletal fingers twitching in sinister anticipation of more combat.
"No you won't" replied the assassin. "Bedtime, you. And no arguments."
The rest of the guild members glanced between one another, a little unsurely. Turning toward Exra, Biggie said "BIG SISTER IS STRICT."
Sycorax sighed. "Fine, fine. See you all tomorrow" he replied. As he logged out, the warlock faded and vanished from sight.
With the undead gone, Aria turned to the others and said "I'm going to get some battles done too. A few more wins and I can afford a new wolf mount."
"HAVE FUN" said Biggie. The assassin said nothing, remaining coolly noncommittal as she too faded from view. For a moment, quiet settled over the group, before Biggie spoke once more, "DID YOU WANT TO GO SEE THAT THING EX?"
Roka blinked. He looked over at the fire witch, who was lounging against the wall of the chamber, adjusting the contents of her backpack. The rabbit woman looked up, "Sure!" she said, cheerily.
The Canine felt a surge of curiosity. "Where are you going?" he asked, inquisitively.
The fire witch said, "Biggie found a rather nice place on the map that he wanted to show me."
"What, just the two of you?" he asked, and then instantly regretted it. He remembered the seasonal fair, when both Biggie and Exra had snuck off together. "Oh" he said, "sorry. Enjoy your date."
"ITS NOT DATE" said Biggie, a little defensively. "IT IS JUST VISITING LANDSCAPE."
"Beautiful landscape?" asked the Canine.
The golem nodded, "LANDSCAPE IN VALERON IS VERY BEAUTIFUL."
Nodding, Roka smiled. "Sounds like a date to me."
Biggie snorted. "WHAT? CAN TWO FRIENDS NOT GO TO ENJOY MOONLIT VIEW TOGETHER WITH IT NOT BEING DATE?"
"Moonlit?" asked Roka, a little louder. "Now it definitely sounds like a date!"
Exra shrugged, "It doesn't matter. Come on." She walked over, and tugged on the sleeve of the towering golem's leather jerkin. She walked past the dog and, as she did so, turned her head to him and offered him a smirk. Then she and the golem dissolved out of sight as well.
Alone with the dog, Gunnar turned and said "I should go too. I've got some reading to finish."
"For the game?" asked Roka.
Gunnar shook his head, "For my exams. That, and that fight broke my helmet, I need to go to town and get my gear repaired."
Roka nodded, and checked his own armour. They had sustained some damage, but not enough to necessitate visiting the blacksmith in town and paying the required gold for the repairs. The thought did, however, cause Roka to speak up. "How are we doing for gold?"
Gunnar breathed out. "Been better, if I'm honest" he said. "Everyone brings in enough from their quest rewarded, and your jewellery fetches some. Even Aria brings in a bit from PvP. But it's still very tight. This boss is eating through our gold very quickly."
"I understand" said the dog. "The theft hit us pretty hard, then?"
Hesitantly, Roka asked "Are we any closer to knowing who was responsible?"
Gunnar shook his head. "I don't believe what Brakka said" he explained, strongly. "He hacked the bank, not one of our own people."
Roka looked downward. He inhaled, slowly. "I'm not sure about Aria" he said.
The buffalo looked at him. "What do you mean?"
He gulped. Swallowed. "I think she may have had something to do with it" said Roka.
Gunnar looked at him, silently. The chamber was quiet for a while, so long that it seemed almost an eternity. Then, Gunnar said "Why?"
Roka shrugged, almost as if he was uncertain of his own statement. Pursing his lip, the Canine pushed on. “She’s hiding something. Keeping some kind of secret. Surely you can see that?”
“Are you sure?” asked Gunnar.
“It’s obvious” insisted the dog. “Isn’t it obvious? You ask her about her real life and she doesn’t say a thing.” Roka started to speak quicker now, his words coming as a rapid-fire staccato, his paws open pleadingly. “She never comes onto voice chat, does she? There has to be a reason for that. And the way that she turned up just when we first started having trouble with Brakka, that’s just too much of a convenience. Maybe she’s working with him? Maybe…”
“Stop” said Gunnar.
“No” insisted Roka, “Listen, it all makes sense. You don’t really trust her, none of us do. She took the gold and gave it to Brakka. Maybe that’s what she was here to do all along, and-”
“Stop!” snapped the buffalo, louder this time.
Roka fell silent.
Gunnar looked down, his gaze toward the ground. His brow seemed heavy. He sighed. “I trusted you, Roka” he said, slowly.
The dog blinked. “What do you mean?”
The buffalo continued. “I trusted you to lead this group when I wasn’t able to. It was never official, I never said it aloud, but you were as close to a co-leader for the guild as anyone. You understand that?”
Roka nodded, sheepishly. He didn’t know what to say.
Gunnar turned his head back up, looking at Roka dead in the eye. “What you’re saying now though, that’s…” he sighed. “I don’t want to hear it. At all. Not from you.”
“But” started Roka.
“No” said the buffalo, cutting him off. “We’ve had some rough times, but we’re close to getting to where we have always wanted to be. We need to stay together. Do you understand that? I can’t allow you to divide the company with things like this, I just can’t.”
The dog gave a quiet sigh. “I’m sorry” he said.
Gunnar stepped closer. “Maybe, after the boss is defeated and all is said and done, we can worry about it. But for now, I need everyone to be working together. That includes Aria, and that includes you. Do you understand?”
Hesitantly, and almost uncertainly, the dog nodded.
“Good” said Gunnar. “We can do this. We’re really close. But we need to stay together if we’re to stay the course. Are we good?”
Roka nodded, “We’re good” he said. And somewhere, deep down, he really hoped that they were.
* * *
The waterfall in the distance seemed little more than a white dash casually splashed across the soothing green landscape. Draped across the gently sloping hills in the distance, dotted sprinkles of dark green trees criss-crossed the land, creating a vibrant mix of shades that seemed to stretch from here onward into eternity, until they eventually met the swirling orange and crimson setting sun.
A thin trail of dark, coking grey wound its way up and along a thin needle-like bluff, spiralling upwards into the painted sky. The bluff itself was narrow, jutting upwards from the sloping hills as if it were a finger searching upwards; hoping to climb into the sky itself, but it was the dim roar of the mechanical conveyance that stood apart from the landscape. The rock golem who sat atop the motorbike barely seemed to give the contrast between his mount and the serene beauty of the land around him a second thought.
Drawing his vehicle to a halt at the upper crest of the bluff, the golem dismounted. Scrambling from his shoulder, Exra slid down from where she had been perching and took a look around. In every direction, the land around them seemed vast, dazzling and endless. But more than that, the sky itself overhead with its oil-slick of swirling crimsons and yellows and oranges became a vast canvas which shone down over the green and pleasant lands, bringing to them a surreal, almost dreamlike quality. Taking a few steps, the fire witch let her eyes run over the landscape before her. “Oh” she said, quietly, “oh wow.”
Biggie stepped from his motorbike, letting it slide to a rest beside him. He walked over to her, his steps heavy and lumbering. “I LIKE THIS PLACE BEST IN THE GAME” he said, motioning with one large hand. “SOMETIMES I COME HERE JUST TO SIT AND LOOK.”
Exra nodded. She walked a few short steps, until she stood on the very edge of the bluff, overlooking the sweeping forests and the trailing waterfalls below. She pointed, “I remember that area. That one there, over by the waterfall. I did a quest in that area a few months ago, had to recover an ember from some kind of flame elemental.”
Steadily, Biggie added “AND OVER IN THAT FOREST I FIRST CAUGHT BEAR.”
Exra looked at him. Yes, she thought, of course it made sense that he would have caught and tamed the bear that followed him on all of his adventures. As a hunter class, the ability to capture and train animals was second nature to Biggie. But for some reason, the fire witch had never considered that Biggie would have ever existed without his ursine companion. For as far back as she could remember, Biggie and his bear had seemed to be a matched set, always in unison. She looked at him. “You always use your bear in combat” she said. “You never use any of the other animals that you can catch, like the panthers or the eagles?”
With a grinding noise, the golem shook his head. “NO. I CHOOSE BEAR.”
She nodded. “The bear is special to you?”
Quietly, Biggie turned and looked out into the horizon, a silent contemplation filling the crag-like features of the towering figure. “BEAR IS IMPORTANT TO ME” he said, gently.
“Because of your country?” she asked.
The golem nodded. “IN THE OLD DAYS WE HAD MANY BEARS IN THE COUNTRY. THEN THE FIGHTING STARTED. NOW THERE ARE NOT SO MANY.”
Exra nodded, slowly. “I think I can understand that.”
Biggie looked down, towards the forests in the distance. “SOMEDAYS” he said, “I WISH I COULD SLEEP LIKE THE BEAR DO DURING WINTER. WAKE UP WHEN THERE IS NO MORE FIGHTING.”
“Is that why you come here?” she asked.
Slowly, Biggie nodded. “I THINK SO” he answered. “WHY DO YOU COME HERE?”
Sliding down into a sitting position, the fire witch let her legs dangle from the side of the bluff. “I suppose it lets me talk to all kinds of people” she said.
Biggie looked to her. “CAN YOU NOT DO THAT IN REAL WORLD?” he asked.
Exra was quiet for a moment. Then, unsurely, she said “No. No, I guess I can’t.” She sighed. “I was in a traffic accident about a year ago. Broke my back in several places, and I’ve been stuck in a wheelchair as a result. There’s not many places in the world that I can go anymore.”
“EXCEPT HERE” said the golem.
She nodded. “I can run through the fields here. I can jump up and down for no other reason than that its fun. And I can talk to people like you and Gunnar and Roka and Sycorax and Aria, people who will talk to me without…”
“WITHOUT THE CHAIR BEING THE FIRST THING THEY SEE?” asked Biggie.
She nodded. “It does change how people talk to you. How they act around you. People say that it doesn’t, but it really does. People who wouldn’t step back to let you pass when you’re in a hurry will do so because I’m in a wheelchair, and although that in itself may not be a bad thing, there’s always that part of me that knows that I am being treated differently and that it’s because of the chair.”
The golem nodded. “I THINK I UNDERSTAND. IN HERE PEOPLE TREAT YOU THE WAY THEY DO BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE.”
Exra nodded, motioning with her paw. “That’s it. That’s it exactly.”
Biggie smiled, and leaned a little bit closer towards her. Without a word, Exra leaned over, letting her head rest against the golem’s rigid shoulder.
Together they sat, on the edge of the bluff, and watched as the sun gradually dipped beneath the horizon and the sky turned into a myriad shades of dark blue.