“You got a glitch?” Marjorta grabbed Fane by the shoulders to steady him.
Ishan muttered, “Nope, might be a bit tipsy, though.”
“You both went and got smashed before a raid?” Her crisp voice made Fane wince.
“He’ll be fine in a minute. Mind setting the parameters to not be gore?” Ishan pointed to the right of his character to indicate the settings menu.
“If you both are piss-faced, I’d rather you don’t ditch because you puke in your helmets. Yeah, let me set the gore and spin parameters,” Marjorta sighed.
Fane’s skin vibrated from the night on the dance floor. He couldn’t escape it, and he was barely tolerating the acoustic theme music. “Can I set my own music in my headset? Is that a thing?”
“Oh, yeah, here, pop your helmet off, and I’ll show you how to hook your watch up to it.” Ishan lifted his helmet off. This left Ishan’s high elf with his hands stuck above his head. Fane followed suit, and Ishan helped him connect his running playlist to the gear. “It’ll let you still hear what everyone’s saying; it’ll just turn the music volume down when necessary.”
“Awesome, thanks. Can’t do the piano stuff right now.” Fane flipped his list into shuffle mode and relaxed.
“You gonna make it?” Ishan stalled Fane before he could put his helmet back on.
Fane shrugged. “Think so. Been looking forward to it all week in a macabre sort of way. At least getting the gore setting set down isn’t a worry anymore.”
They jumped back into the game.
A knot of people stood out front of the Black Parrot’s guild hall, some talking, some waiting quietly for Marjorta to direct. She waved to the group, quieting those who were talking. A screen across the bottom of Fane’s vision pulled up.
“We have a few newbies on the raid tonight, guys. Say hey to RedKingsRightHand and JournalPage8. RedKings got a high stat and a high hit, but is still new to nerve gear. If he panics, throw a potion at him. JournalPage8 doesn’t have audio, so we’re going to keep the subtitles on for the game. Chat is open if you have a keycode access and need to be able to talk, otherwise we need to keep the audio clean for them to understand what the directions are. Hopefully that won’t bug you too much.” Marjorta pointed to Fane’s avatar and a black-cloaked figure that waved with a skeleton hand.
A foxwoman signaled a question.
Marjorta nodded. “Finnia?”
The foxwoman cleared her throat. “They any good?”
“RedKing’s at a 92 and JournalPage8 is a 56. They both clear the minimum guild join level.” Marjorta folded her arms.
“A 92?” a few voices overloaded the subtitles.
“How has he not played before and at that level?” A half-elf wizard stepped forward, pointing his staff at Fane.
“Hey, I don’t pry about what you do outside the screen world Chaviz. By-laws.” Marjorta pointed a finger right back at him.
The wizard dropped his staff and sneered. “Don’t tell me he’s leading this pack.”
“I don’t see anyone else here who is at his level.” Marjorata yawned. “No. I’m directing. But I’m not getting near his character when that dragon comes in.”
“So, wait, what are we all doing here then? Is he one-on-oneing the golden dragon?” A turtle-shelled individual with an archer’s bow poked through the crowd.
“You mean, we’re just here to make the raid number?” An owl woman huffed. “I wanted a piece of the treasure!”
“Treasure?” Fane asked.
“Does he not even know what’s in it for him?” A dragonkin hissed.
“Look, I can leave if this is going to cause issues for your guild, Marjorta. It’s okay.” Fane backed up a step.
“No! Stay!” several people all shouted at once.
“Uh? Wait. What? Do you want me here or not?” Fane rubbed at the back of his head.
“Yes. There’s only four people over level 79 on the server, and none of them have been able to beat the Three Hills Golden Dragon challenge. That section of the map has been closed off to all the world servers since the game launched two years ago.” The turtle-man walked up to Fane.
“Hold up, what?” Fane felt lightheaded.
The turtle-man went to say everything all over again.
“No, no, I mean the part where there’s only four people over 79 on the server.”
“Yeah, and three of them are necormancers. One of them is a paladin. None of them play raids.” The turtle-man tossed a glass ball at Fane.
The Lamp Sleeper caught it and tapped the sphere. Pictures of the four popped up on a newsletter. He scanned through the text and frowned. “Right. So, will this be dangerous for you all if I’m in the group then?”
“Hell, yeah!” One orc bellowed. “Sorry.” He put a hand to his mouth, his avatar blushing.
“Seems like someone’s excited to get beheaded again.” Marjorta whispered.
Fane and the turtle-man both snorted. The archer stuck his hand out. “I go by Balboa on here. Level 68 Archer at your service. Let’s go kick a dragon butt.”
“Nice to meet you Balboa. I’ll try to keep you all from getting injured.” Fane returned the handshake.
“No need to worry about us. We’ll all be making a muck of this thing anyways.” The orc laughed, causing Fane’s headphones to crackle.
“If we’re all done complaining, let’s go. Here, RedKing.” Marjorta handed Fane a massive crystal.
“Let me guess, throw it?” Fane remembered the ones Ishan had given him that were substantially smaller.
The group emerged through the teleport loadscreen on the side of a volcano. All the landscape flickered purple and red, and Fane’s playlist shifted to a deep bass song. “Hey, Ish-Bostock, does this thing override my music playlist to select for boss fights?”
“Oh, yeah. Forgot to mention it has an AI that looks for music in your playlists for stuff that matches the tone when you encounter creatures. That way you aren’t taken too much by surprise.” Ishan patted him on the shoulder. “Going to go sit on the couch and watch the obs-screen. Have fun.”
Fane waved over his shoulder and pulled his back blade. “Alright, Marjorta. Directions.”
The half-orc woman nodded. “Dragon is in a cave on the volcano. It has three phases and eight life bars in each phase. Most anyone has gotten is down to the last five life bars before the whole raid party disintegrated. Goes through regular fire, to flight attacks, then it does earthquakes and controls the volcano’s eruption. You’ll need to watch for rubble and lava on top of its psychic magic.” Marjorta spoke loud enough for the whole raid to catch that she needed everyone to listen.
“We’ve got the wizards on the back.” The half-elf announced, waving to a group of twenty other wizards.
[I have the sorcerers gathered.] JournalPage wrote in chat.
“The archers have your back.” Balboa raised his bow with a platoon of other long and short bowmen.
“What do you want the paladins and rangers to do, Marmar?” A cat-man got the director’s attention.
“Should we tank first and let RedKing come in when the levels are lower, or use RedKing to knock the levels down first and go after the remaining bars? If you actively use your weapons or a spell, the algorithm will let you have a piece of the dragon hoard. The more you do, the higher the reward.” She left the option up to the group. One of the raiders popped a poll into the chat with a one-minute timer. Consensus came back: Tank first, and Fane would come in on the last phase for the killing blow.
“When we walk into that cave, the barrier will come up, and we will be trapped in there with that dragon, RedKing.” Marjorta turned from him to the lines of armed men. “Set your will, men! We either kill it or die trying!” Marjorta led the charge into the cave, Fane keeping up by her side.
“You said by-laws, Marjorta, so I might be pressing, but you ever served?” Fane dodged incoming robber flies the size of chimpanzees.
“Oh-ho. Is that why you’re good?” Marjorta smirked. Fane rolled a shoulder. Marjorta pulled out a club from her inventory and swatted away several of the flies in time for a slew of zombie frog-men to ooze from the cave walls. “Split my time between a base in Eand on New London and a gym I opened up in downtown.”
“Wait. Can you mute subtitles for just us or private chat?” Fane spun, slamming his blade into a robber fly’s thorax.
Marjorta sent a private DM chat over. “What’s up?”
“Were you stationed out in Mooreshead?”
“How’d you know?”
“Who the fuck are you?” Her voice hit a pitch that told Fane he had scared her.
“Fane. Fane Anson? Part of Zephyr Abadelli’s troops? Do you remember me?” He punched through a pair of zombie frog-men.
“Oh, shit! Bro, get your butt back to base. We are drowning out here.” She barreled through an oncoming surge of fire demons.
“Miss me out there that much?” Fane teased.
Ishan called to him from the couch. “You knew Marjorta in real life?”
“Yeah. She’s an officer on my base. I’ve talked to her a few times at the armory. We’ve sparred a couple times.” Fane palmed his knife to the left and pulled a set of throwing knives from an inventory pouch at his waist. The demons burst in pixelated whisps of gold and red.
“Bostock! You mofo, you stole the one guy who could keep all these goofballs in line here. You better not get him killed out there!” Marjorta yelled through Fane’s earpiece loud enough for Ishan to wince. “No wonder you’re leveled so high, you damn redheaded weasel. I should just toss you at the dragon and wait. Would make everyone here watching feel better about themselves for once.”
“Wait, who the hell is there?” Fane ducked, his heart racing. He was okay with Ishan watching and playing with the rest on the server, but learning that there were guys he had mentored there watching made his chest tighten.
“Speaking of the devil. Abadelli! Get over here and watch. Anson’s about to open up the Carmadoon map.” Marjorta spun, a hook kick taking out another robber fly.
“Anson!” Zephyr’s voice came in over Marjorta’s mic as she stumbled.
“Get off me. He can hear you just fine, you clingy stick,” Marjorta hissed.
“I never thought you’d get in a gear. You said you thought it’d make your scars hurt.” Zephyr’s voice released the rising tension.
“Good to hear you too, chief. I get whacked by one of these miserable creatures, and it sets the plates in my arms on fire, but otherwise, it’s not as bad as I thought.” Fane advanced with the paladin’s platoon into the heart of the cave.
A rumble vibrated through the gear, and the lighting dimmed as a gold dragon unfolded itself from the shadows.
“This is it, men! Be ready.” Marjorta equipped a new set of armour and pulled a helmet visor over her face.
“Why does it not surprise me that you’re a level 92, Anson?” Zephyr asked through Marjorta’s private chat.
“I still don’t really have a grasp what the level differences are. This is only my fourth or fifth time jumping into a game.” Fane took up a defensive position on the paladins to keep them safe on the right from the waves of smaller creatures.
“This should be good. Been waiting for a new section to open for ages.” A voice through Marjorta’s mic and in-game echoed.
“Is that Rogers?” Fane struggled with a zombie frog that had gotten itself wrapped around him. A knife to the gut popped the creature’s eyeballs out in a streamer of red and white confetti.
“Hey, RedKing. Long time no beat down. Been missing them for a while now.” It was the massive orc in the midst of the wizards and sorcerers.
“Holy hell, dude! Tell me you’ve gotten out from behind that desk.” Fane poured a set of potions over several Paladins who had gotten blasted with a boulder thrown by the dragon.
“Anson, save me. I hate pool duty. Don’t tell the recruits.” Rogers linked into Marjorta’s private chat.
“Who else over there is in on this raid?” Fane broached.
“We got everyone on base with a gear in on it. Yo! Flick a blue marker on. Fane Anson’s RedKing and wants to know who all’s in here raiding tonight!” Marjorta called.
A wave of blue outlines covered three out of every five men. The wizard who had first demanded information on RedKing in regular chat yelled, “I thought you said by-laws, Marjorta?”
“I did. Light up in green if you’re a family member or friend to someone in blue in here.”
The rest went up.
Ishan called from the couch, “Anson, you can’t escape Eand even if you did move all the way out to New Punjab.”
“Looks like, Bostock.”
“Right. Just like shot test, let’s see what RedKing can do with monsters.” Marjorta motioned the charge forward. “Clear the fields. Right flank, advance, and block off the landing ground. Manual said a distribution of twenty would keep the algorithm from letting the dragon land. Next, left flank, surround the healing pool. If the dragon goes for it, shoot.”
Fane watched the golden dragon’s life bars slowly dwindle away. Drinking a health and buff potion, he slipped his bone crown on, effectively making himself invisible in the midst of the crowds. Cutting his mic, he crouched, falling out of the dragon’s detect range. A few button presses of his gloves advanced him across the field until he was nearly under it. “Hey, Bostock,” he whispered, “why am I not melting on the lava field?”
“Lamp Sleeper. You’ve got an immunity to fire,” Ishan whispered back.
“I don’t have anything around me that’ll get hurt or broken, right?” Fane stilled until his invisibility cloaking stopped wavering.
“Don’t launch forward; flick the forward button when you jump straight up, if that’s what you’re wanting. The projector is maybe five feet in front of you. That or put your finger on the floor like you did with the chair and back up.” Ishan’s hand settled on his shoulders and helped him back up until Fane had room for his plan.
Marjorta raised a hand. The signal. Fane lost track of the room and leapt. Puncturing the sternum, fuel poured out of the beast, lighting the lava in a billow of black smoke. It roared, launching for the ceiling, but the rogues had bound its wings in rope. Spells and weapons crashed against its sides as Fane dodged its gaping maw.
“Ajay, remind me to call someone in the morning. The AC is getting ridiculous.” Ishan whispered behind Fane.
The images on the helmet’s screen flickered. Ajay muttered at Ishan. The prince snorted, “And now the power’s going fritzy.”
Fane rolled and gained his feet. The boss monster’s head swung toward him. The Lamp Sleeper flicked through his spell slots as he slid beneath it once more and punctured another fuel pouch. “Fall”.
A massive glowing white circle appeared below the beast and ate away half a life bar. “Feels counterintuitive to do this to a fire-breathing dragon, but let’s go with Flame Hands.” Fane clapped and pulled his hands apart; a blue fire snapped out toward the creature, searing a wing. A clawed hand slammed into Fane, knocking his health bars down to half.
“Shiatsu, that thing is bad news.” Fane ducked to hide behind a boulder while the rangers tried to take over the arm. Downing all his health potions, he took a breath to think.“Minotaur?”
“Minotaru,” Ishan agreed.
“Right.” Fane scuttled out from behind his boulder and dashed under paladin shields and archers. “Levitate.” He launched for the creature’s head and buried his blade into the skull, pulling down between the eyes. It roared back, flame engulfing the space. “Fall.” Fane tried the spell again. His blade gave, pulling through the bone and sinew with too much realistic detail. The eyes rolled back in the creature’s head before it imploded into a black hole.
Loot fell down from the cave ceiling. An item flashed in Fane’s inventory. He took a moment to marvel at the pulsating black star before Marjorta got his attention. “RedKing! Do you have it?”
“Have what?” Fane opened his inventory to a crystal white bow and arrow.
“Phoenix Death?” Ishan asked from the couch.
“What?” He pulled the bow and arrow to look them over.
“It’s a one-shot weapon. A phoenix is going to hatch from the black star. When it reaches full fledge, you have to crit shoot it, or else the dragon will respawn.” Marjorta explained as she picked up more loot.
Fane dropped the bow and arrow, which fell back into his inventory. “Marjorta, I have no clue how to shoot a bow in this game? I’ve never even used one.”
“Fuck. Whoever kills boss dragons ends up with the bow. I thought you’d know how to use one of these. You can shoot better than all the rest of us!” Marjorta yelled.
“A rifle, Marmar, a gun. Not this! Tell me where on base there’s an archery range, huh?” Fane bristled back as the black star throbbed, throwing off red and purple waves of light. He pulled the bow and arrow back out of his inventory and fumbled them, the arrow refusing to stay against the wood. Heat pressed against his back, and hands settled over his gloves.
“Breathe,” Ishan whispered in his ear.
“Bostock? You got this?” Marjorta called through his mic.
“Was an archer before I reclassed to wizard. Tension like your rifle, think you’ve got a trigger between your thumb and two fingers, rather than just the one; instead of it going off when you pull, it’ll go off when you let go. Square up your hips, and the long bow will loosen its tension.” Ishan shifted, feet against Fane’s to transform his posture. “Now. Wait for it.”
The black star broke into a million crystals. Fane followed the rise and fall of Ishan’s chest against his back. A scream, louder than the dragon’s roar, shook the cave. They held their breath. The infamous phoenix in its iridescent glory launched for the roof. Ishan kept Fane’s posture in check. Sighting down the shaft, Fane waited for the targeting ring to change to green. A flick of his right fingers sent the arrow flying. A hollow thunk and a sad cry, followed by the raining ash of the phoenix, caused a surge of excited screams around the raid party. A cut screen flashed onto Fane’s helmet. Phoenix ash spread across a section of a map of Carmadoon and burned away an area of mist.
The screen faded to black, and a series of credits rolled across it. “Server update for the rest of the night.” Ishan explained, finally stepping away.
“Mean I can take this thing off?” Fane tugged his helmet off.
“Yep. Your loot portion will be dropped into your inbox. Going to be interesting to see what you get for that.” Ishan eased back onto the couch. Fane dragged hot air into his lungs, all of his scars itching.
“Finally sober up?” Ajay raised a glass of beer in his direction.
“Probably.” Fane wanted out of that room. He needed somewhere private. Somewhere to get the fire in his limbs to stop. Ishan’s warmth still pressed against his skin.
“Why is the AC dead now?” Ajay mopped at his brow with the edge of his sleeve.
“Call down to maintenance. Great job, Anson; you’re sweating; go see if your room is cooler. No use letting everyone in here be miserable. I don’t think it’d be good to run the Nurvo Gear anymore tonight. With being this hot, and those power flickers already, I don’t want to destroy my gaming system.” Ishan leaned his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. “I have to be awake in five hours. Ew.”
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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