"Here" said Roka, pushing the contents of his backpack against the ogre's chest.
The hulking ogre peered curiously inside. "Ah, it's perfect!" said the brute. "You brought me exactly seven wolfling tails, no more and no less. This will be perfect for the stew!"
The dog looked around while the character gave its mandatory quest dialogue. He had never realised how much the characters in the game talk. They chattered on almost incessantly, even the ogres, who by any right should have a dialogue that should be limited to 'ugg' and 'smash puny dog’.
This one, however, continued to talk. "I will prepare the stock. Then you can deliver the stew to the army, and they should be ready to lay siege to the evil temple. It should only take a few..." The ogre paused, mid speech. "Oh dear" he announced. "It seems that the gazelle tongue isn't getting to heat. This could take several hours, friend Roka."
The dog glowered at the ogre, unimpressed.
"If you need the stew brewed faster" said the towering figure, "I could turn up the heat in the cauldron. To do that, I would need three fire stones. Their natural heat should do the trick."
Roka groaned. "Another quest? I just want to finish this storyline, already!"
The ogre leaned closer. "Now, the fire stones are very hot, so you will need to have something to hold them in. I can make a pouch for you if we have the right material. First, kill some of the zebras in the valley to the north..."
"Wait, wait" mumbled the dog. "TWO quests?"
The ogre continued on, barely paying the cleric any heed. "Bring their leather to me, five should do it, and I'll turn it into a pouch. Then you can use that to collect the fire stones from the abandoned gladiator's coliseum. Do you accept?"
A quest window appeared. With a yawn, Roka clicked 'no'. The chatty ogre fell silent.
The dog walked away. He was already bored with this series of quests, which seemed to be leading nowhere. He did not care about the storyline concerning the army, or the temple, and cared even less about the stupid ogre chef, and most definitely didn't care even the least about zebras. None of it, in the least, interested him anymore.
With a sigh, Roka pulled open a menu and checked to see how many of his friends were online. Exra was, he noticed, as was Sycorax. That surprised him. Sycorax had been on the game less and less in the preceding week. Exra had stayed, still as reliable and certain as always. Roka thought that she, more than anyone else, would be active here for a long time.
For a moment, the dog thought that he should say something to them. He was sure that Exra would reply, she always did. Sycorax, though, did not always, not any more. And Biggie, thought Roka, had barely been on at all. The golem was not present today and, when the dog considered it, had not been online yesterday either.
Two people on his list showed their names in a dim grey hue. For one of them, the colour indicated that the owner was no longer part of the game - that Gunnar was banned and would not be able to return. The other name that was greyed out was that of Aria, and it was grey because she had blocked all messages from Roka.
He closed the menu. Looking at the names made him feel sad. He wished, more than anything else, that there was a way to contact either one of them. For a moment, he thought about just returning to the guild hall, sitting in its large chambers and relaxing. But the silence of the rooms, the pervading emptiness, made him feel even worse.
Maybe I should just log out, he thought. He checked the clock. It was still early evening. What else could he do with his time, though? He thought about watching the television, but doing so left him feeling restless. He could almost feel his fingers yearning to twitch as he tried to sit through the length of an episode of a show that would otherwise preoccupy him, and although the images entertained his mind he found that he wanted something else to do to truly interact, much like he did with the game.
He had tried playing other games, returning to the reassuring stability of the shooting games that he had grown so accustomed to in previous years, only to find that they offered little more than what he had seen and experienced in them a hundred times before. He moved through the familiar maps of 'Call to War', navigating the shadowed pathways with a familiarity that seemed almost routine, and before long he started to feel restricted in the virtual landscapes, yearning to venture out and see other parts beyond the boundaries of the world. Once more he thought of Valeron, and found that he just could not escape the appeal.
He looked at the menu again. They had come so close, he thought. So close to defeating Abbadon, so close to victory. It was a goal that they had worked towards, he thought, together as a group. Roka had never cared much for working as a group, preferring to labour under his own initiative whenever he could, but the feeling of being part of something greater than himself hung over him. He had been part of a guild, he thought. A group of many, who could accomplish wondrous things.
And then he had screwed it up, he thought. He sighed.
Lacking any real desire to continue with the series of quests, Roka clicked the game's menu and scrolled through the other options. The game, which came with an abundance of events and hobbies that the player could select to pass their time, spun past him. He could collect small pets, creatures that would follow him around in the game, some of which could even be used as great noble steeds that could bear him through the cities. He could explore every inch of the map, see all of the hidden sights that were secreted away from casual eyes, like the valley of the robo-hamsters, of Grimm Gizzywick's rat brothel. He could collect a huge variety of clothes to dress his avatar in. He could follow the story of the game's central characters, witnessing the rise of the kings of old. He could march off to war, throw himself into the frantic melee of PvP combat...
Just like Aria did.
Roka sighed. No, he thought, none of the game's contents seemed half as much fun when he was alone.
He bit his lip, and turned away from the screen. He needed to clean the flat, he thought. A few friends were coming over tomorrow, and he still had pizza boxes left over from yesterday. He found himself thinking that he really should iron his work shirt as well, if he could muster the enthusiasm to do so. And then, he still had that message on his answering machine from his sister that he had to reply to at some point. None of those, he thought, seemed particularly fun. Secretly, he hoped that tomorrow's game of Dungeons and Dragons with his friends would coax him o out of this dark patch.
He looked back at the screen. Slowly, hesitantly, he switched off the game.
The computer gave a light ping.
He turned back and looked at it. It was a familiar sound, the light tune of an instant message. He sat back down, clicking to load his Skype window open.
A sense of surprise filled him. He didn't share his Skype name with people. He kept his list of friends on instant messages small, knowing that when he was on his computer he wanted to focus on gaming and not run the risk of being distracted at any important boss fights that might crop up.
He read the message. "Hey loser" it said.
For a moment, he was confused. He checked who had sent it, and did not recognise the name. Quickly he typed out, "Who's this?"
Silence for a moment. Then, with another ping came the reply. "Three guesses, Roka."
He blinked. How many people, he thought, knew of his character's name outside of the game? He read the message again, puzzling over it. Three guesses? Someone who wanted to play a game? He shrugged. Okay, he thought, let's play. "Syc?" he asked.
"Pathetic. Guess again" came the reply.
He rubbed his eyes. Something about the tone in the replies struck him as wrong. He closed his eyes, and inhaled. Whoever it was seemed to be going for a response, and he didn't want to rise to it. Not yet, in any case. "Aria?" he tried.
"Fail, fail, fail" replied the message. "You really suck at this."
He grinned. "Hello Brakka" he typed. "You make it a little too obvious."
The message was quiet for a moment. Then it pinged, "The only thing obvious here is what a total loser you are." Then another ping, with a simple "lol."
He rolled his eyes. For a moment, he thought about hitting the ignore button. Out of all the people in the entire game, Brakka was the last that he wanted to hear from. "How are you enjoying your ban?" He asked, grinning.
"Lol" came the reply. He had the feeling that Brakka said that a lot. The message pinged again as Brakka continued. "It expires Friday. Then I'm back on the game and back to winning."
"Oh yeah" he typed, "You’re a real Charlie Sheen. What do you want?"
"Just to chat" pinged Brakka. "That okay with you, buddy?"
He moved the cursor over to the ignore button. The guy was a troll, he thought, and really wasn't worth taking the time to reply to.
Just before he could click, the message pinged again, "How you enjoying your ban?"
He paused, and read over the message again. Slowly, he typed out "I didn't get banned. What are you talking about?"
Skype hung quietly for a moment. He waited, reading again and again over the message. What did Brakka mean by that? Finally, after almost a full minute, the message chimed. "My mistake. It was the buffalo who ate the ban. LOL!"
For a moment, he felt angry. He snorted, feeling his eyebrows narrow in irritation. "What do you care about that anyway?" he typed, his fingers clacking loudly on his keyboard.
"It was very funny" came the reply.
He slammed his hand against the desk. It didn't feel funny, not in the least. "I bet you think it's a laugh riot" he replied, agitatedly.
A few seconds passed, and then Brakka replied "Gives us real winners a chance to finish the secret boss."
He stood. Rising to his feet, he stepped away from the keyboard. He heard Skype chime a few more times, but he didn't look back. Pacing across to the other side of the room, he wondered. What, he thought, had the gloating person said? Nothing, he realised. How could Brakka even know about what had happened to the guild, he wondered.
When the answer came to him, it was so obvious that he wanted to kick himself.
He matched back across the room, and pulled up Skype. He read over the messages, checking for anything that sounded even remotely like a confession. Perhaps, he thought, Exra had been right all along. Even if Brakka could not have hacked the game himself and deposited the daggers into Aria's inventory, he could surely have paid someone else to do it.
Leaning down, he typed a quick message. "You got us pretty good" he said. He held his breath. Confess, he thought, just confesses, just once, just admit that you did it. Admit that you hacked the game. Admit that you framed us.
The reply came. "Just natural when you're the best like me" it said, with a small winking face.
He closed his eyes and thought. Focus, he told himself. Brakka may be an obnoxious kid, but he's not stupid. He's not going to confess to his crime over instant messager, that was clear.
A small grin crossed his lips. "You're going for the secret boss, then?" he typed.
The message pinged back, almost immediately. "I want to be the first to beat him" said Brakka. "Only sensible that it's the most elite that do it."
He shut off Skype. The programme closed with a tune. He leaned back, resting against the chair. His mind reeled. Brakka had done it, he thought. He'd hacked the game or paid off someone else to do so, and framed then all, no doubt angry at them and seething from embarrassment at his defeat. They really had, he realised. They had shown him up, embarrassed him, and beaten him. Of course he would want some form of revenge, but this? To go this far? It seemed almost ludicrous. And now the damn fool had gone and hurt them far more than he could ever have realised.
And even with all that Brakka had done, it had still been Roka who had made matters worse.
He swallowed. Well, he thought, he would make it right. He would fix it. He could, and thanks to Brakka he knew exactly how to do it.
But, he thought, he couldn't do it alone.
Moving his mouse tentatively over to the side of his screen, he clicked to once more open 'Realms of Valeron '. It loaded smoothly, and he once again materialised into the embrace of the game's brought, colourful world.
"Exra?" he said. "I need your help."