Locke didn’t respond. He was too zoned out. This isn’t like me, some part of his brain tried to say as if it could reason with the primal half that was getting ready to fight. I don’t do this. I’m a thinker. I’m not a fighter. What am I doing? Let her kill him. His conscience struggled against a more basic instinct, a hunger, and it was losing the battle. No, the other side shot back. No, I have to go back to the boring life of a gold farmer after this. I have to repeat the same action over and over again but for less money. For much less money, thanks to him. I deserve this. I need this.
“Hey, what the heck are you thinking?” Anthony started backing up faster, eyes glued to Locke, and he didn’t realize he had pinned himself against the side of a building until after he had stumbled into it and his back was pressed against the wall. “Please don’t do this . . .” Anthony drew his own weapon but continued begging as if there were more than a single, inevitable outcome.
Locke’s weak smile broke into a full grin as he lifted the hammer and swung it in a wide-arcing haymaker at Anthony. To his credit, Anthony responded by moving his own sword in an effort to block the attack, but Locke’s blow was stronger. Instead of stopping the hammer, the momentum from Locke’s swing overpowered Anthony’s lighter weapon and pressed the blade back into his shoulder. The sword cut just deeply enough into Anthony’s armor to catch, and Locke seized the opportunity. He pulled his arms straight up and then came for a downward blow.
Unable to move his weapon to defend himself from the incoming attack in time, Anthony instead jerked his head to the side and leaned forward fast enough to intercept the incoming blow and counter with one of his own.
“What? Did you think I was going to be a pushover?” Anthony had grabbed the hammer’s handle and headbutted Locke, sending the merchant staggering backward as he struggled to keep hold of his weapon. “Without your girlfriend, you’re really useless, aren’t you?” Anthony smirked as he wrenched his sword free and swung at Locke, cutting him across the chest.
Anthony’s attack would have ripped through most leather armor, and if it wasn’t for the incredible sturdiness of Locke’s newly acquired loot, he would have been doomed. His armor held up to the attack, but Locke staggered backward again with the breath knocked out of him.
“Whatever,” Locke wheezed. He readjusted himself and prepared for another attack. “You’re still going to die here,” he bellowed as he charged in for another round.
Anthony didn’t bother to block Locke’s attack this time, and he completely ignored the wild swing as he stabbed right into the middle of Locke’s chest.
Locke was struck hard so that he could have sworn he felt the blow pierce through his body and all the way through to his back. The point had directly struck his sternum, and Locke couldn’t stop himself from doubling over coughing violently as his body tried to figure how to handle the pain.
Anthony hadn’t come out of the encounter unscathed, though. Locke’s hammer had struck a clean blow to Anthony’s shoulder, and he had been knocked sideways and forced to struggle to keep his balance. Even after weathering the hit, however, he was still standing and in better shape than Locke.
“Are you done yet?” Anthony laughed as he looked down at Locke. The Alchemist, ill-suited to melee combat, did his best to straighten back up.
Locke gritted his teeth and clutched his sternum where the blow had been received. “Not just yet,” he growled.
The problem was, Locke had no idea how to fight, and especially not with a hammer. With a sword, he could swing, stab, parry, and move from one form to another, even if not smoothly. The weight of the hammer, the way it moved . . . most of the attacks just didn’t seem feasible. An experienced user might have been able to pull them off, and an expert might even have been able to use his weapon more nimbly than anyone could ever swing a sword, but Locke wasn’t an expert. He wasn’t even average. He was just very, very familiar with how to send a hammer smashing down on stuff.
I need to give him the complete opposite of what he expects . . . something that he can’t anticipate . . . Locke rushed forward again, but he didn’t swing his hammer out in an arc this time like he had done so many times before as a blacksmith. Instead, he stabbed it out like a sword–as if the weighted head of the hammer had some magical piercing ability–and the abrupt change in tactics seemed to even things up between the two of them. Anthony instinctively raised his sword to parry the blow, and both the sword and the hammer crushed into his chest, knocking him back a few feet.
“Cute,” Anthony spat out. “Cute, but not enough.”
The swordsman lunged and thrust his blade toward Locke once more. The movement was so fast that, even though Locke saw the incoming attack and did his best to parry it, his reflexes weren’t nearly quick enough to stop Anthony’s blade. The point of his sword struck Locke dead in the center of his chest for a second time, and Locke felt like he had just been on the receiving end of a karate master’s demonstration.
Anthony pulled back and swung his blade in an arc before Locke had time to catch his breath, and Locke was forced to duck under the incoming sword, its sharp edge trimming a few strands of loose hair as it whizzed past Locke’s scalp. Without stopping, Anthony pivoted and drew the sword up in a diagonal slash aimed for Locke’s stomach. Locke was forced to stumble backwards as he tried to straighten up, and Anthony followed up with a horizontal slash that Locke barely managed to block. As soon as the sword and hammer collided, Anthony struck out with a swift kick that landed square in Locke’s gut. It was immediately apparent that the swordplay had been a feint and that Anthony had saved his energy for the kick. Locke was sent flying back a good five feet from where he had been standing before he landed on his rear.
“Without her, you really are nothing,” Anthony jeered, laughing. “I probably shouldn’t keep a pretty lady waiting, though,” he taunted, raising his sword and darting toward Locke quickly, clearly going for a finishing blow.
Realizing his situation was dire, Locke raised his hand and summoned a white-hot beam of light. The searing ray burned straight through Anthony’s shoulder, incinerating the joint where it attached to his sword arm, and Anthony stopped dead in his tracks and screamed out in agony as soon as the beam touched him. The smoking appendage clattered to the ground in front of Locke, and he quickly scampered forward and grabbed the dismembered limb.
As soon as he picked it up, an awful idea came into his head. While Anthony was still reeling from the shock of his sudden dismemberment, Locke took Anthony’s arm and proceeded to clock its former owner right across the face. Taking a note from Anthony, he clumsily chained the movement into another reverse swing and hit his humiliated foe from the other direction before kicking him to the ground.
Anthony struggled to stand back up, a task made much more difficult by the missing arm, and Locke took the opportunity to wallop him a few more times with the severed arm before reluctantly admitting to himself that it just didn’t do enough damage. Locke switched back to his hammer and brought it down on his enemy as forcefully as he could. It wasn’t the same type of strike a warrior would use, but one a blacksmith would use to strike an iron rod and bend it to his will. Steadily and deliberately, again and again, Locke pounded away at Anthony’s skull. It wasn’t until minutes later that Locke came to his senses and realized that Anthony wasn’t fighting back any longer. He stared down at his hammer, covered in blood and gore, and tried to process what had happened.
“I’m pretty sure he was dead after the second swing,” Eliza commented from somewhere behind him.
Locke looked up at her through unfocused eyes. She hadn’t moved from where he had left her at the bottom of the stairs, and she didn’t look like she cared whether or not he had just fought a life or death struggle, that he finally had the revenge he had been craving. As far as he could tell, not even a single hair was out place on her head, but then she hadn’t been the one fighting.
Locke stood up and took a deep breath as he admired his handiwork. Anthony was still dead at his feet with his head smashed like a rotten pumpkin two weeks after Halloween. He imagined that, if he had enough time and an actual ingot to use as the base, he might have been able to fashion the head into something more memorable: Skull Sword of the Pompous Jerk, perhaps. The creation might not even have to be a weapon. He could just make something ornamental, or multiple things, like bone-shaped keyrings.
“Yeah, he was,” Locke finally admitted, knowing full and well she was right.
“I’m also pretty sure that you could have just used that skill from the start and saved yourself a lot of trouble.”
I could have, but then it wouldn’t have felt right. I had to at least try to beat him with my own two hands. Locke’s sense of pride over his victory fell a bit when he remembered how he had relied on that crutch. He had wanted to beat the man to death with his skill, his own effort. Instead, he had used a cheat: a magical power given to him by the game that had nothing to do with ability. But then again, it was a lot better to use the skill and actually win than it was to ignore it and let that stuck-up fool gloat over his corpse instead.
“You’re right there, too,” Locke answered. He still hadn’t looked up from Anthony’s remains, and he was taking his time to admire his handiwork. You really shouldn’t take pleasure in this, his conscience reminded him. The nagging sensation wouldn’t go away. He knew that it was wrong to feel so jubilant when staring at the body of a man he had just killed, but it didn’t matter. Nothing was going to pierce his smug satisfaction at the moment.
“And I’m pretty sure I never thought I’d come back to see Shy standing over a dead body and Eliza just standing around watching,” a voice laughed from behind the pair.
Locke turned around to see Tubal and the rest of the Blue Phoenix Brigade walking toward them. “Didn’t expect to see you all so soon,” Locke admitted honestly. Assuming that they hadn’t changed their bind spot, he didn’t think they would have been able to reach them so quickly.
“Well, we were going to take the scenic route,” Reginald laughed and then nodded his head toward Tubal and Sparky, “but little brother and sister here wouldn’t even let us stop for coffee. On top of that, we had to work real hard and cut a swathe through the enemies at breakneck speed since they were worried we wouldn’t make it back in time to see Eliza here still alive.”
Eliza, who was now the center of attention thanks to Reginald’s explanation, just stood there, frozen in the most un-Eliza-like fashion. Locke could have sworn that she was actually going to blush, and the only sound that escaped her lips was a small “Uhh . . .”
“Now that was definitely unexpected,” Reginald chuckled, taking the attention off the suddenly-shy NPC.
Sampson shook her head at Reginald. “I swear, someone is going to kill you one of these days.”
“What?” Reginald asked, only to have the back of his head smacked by Bianca. “Wait? I didn’t do any–” Another pop made him shut up for a second before trying again. “I didn’t do anything . . . this time.”
“We probably owe you a few,” Bianca added. Then she giggled and winked at Locke when she noticed that he was watching her movements intently.
“As you can see,” Eliza began, “I didn’t need saving. I can handle myself.”
Her defense was much later than expected, but there was a good possibility that she had just saved Reginald from yet another violent blow to his cranium. It’s a good thing this is only a game. If they hit Reggie that much in real life, he’d never have a chance of finishing his undergrads, much less a shot at being a doctor. Locke felt bad for Reginald, but he still chuckled a bit at his aptitude for attracting punishment.
“I’m sure you could have,” Tubal told her, and the way he said it lacked all of the condescension a phrase like that is usually accompanied by. “Rather, I see that you did. But we wouldn’t be much of a team if we didn’t come to help either way, would we?”
Eliza raised one eyebrow just slightly as she studied Tubal for a moment. “You could learn something from them,” Eliza shot at Locke.
“Well, teamwork is about being ready and willing to do your part and to lend a hand where you’re needed. Shy knows that. But maybe I could give him a hand and teach him a few things he might not know yet –” Tubal suddenly stopped mid-sentence as he was cut off by Locke’s laughter.
“What? What’s so . . . Oh.” Tubal shook his head as he realized why Locke was laughing. Locke had just been leaning over to pick up Anthony’s arm when Tubal had made the hand comment. “Come on,” he asked incredulously. “What are you even going to do with that?”
Well, I was getting ready to hide it out of habit so that no guards found it . . . but . . . Locke felt stupid for even thinking to do that as he looked around and realized that, even without his skirmish against Anthony, there were plenty of bodies in the town streets. Most of them were White-Wing, but Humans, as well as the other races, were definitely not off the menu. “I thought I might need it?”
“Yeah, for what? Medical experimentation? Alchemic potions? Dinner?” Reginald threw out a few random suggestions.
Dinner? That particular one caught Locke’s ear as he looked at the arm. They do say revenge is a dish best served cold. Does that mean I won’t even have to heat this up to enjoy it? He immediately felt shame at the horrible idea but still chuckled. “Well, actually” –Locke tried to think of a joke to explain away the creepiness of laughing to oneself while holding a disembodied limb– “I was going to take the leg, too. That way I could afford rent.”
“You’re a very odd one, you know that?” Sampson said, actually laughing at Locke’s terrible joke.
“Him, odd? Speak for yourself,” Sparky said to Sampson. “There is no other girl I know who still thinks baggy cargo shorts are fashionable.”
“Come on, Sparky,” Bianca giggled, “let’s not bring up fashion. We all know that your haircut hasn’t been in style since the last time kids thought hashtag was a form of audible punctuation.”
“Hey! It’s just like your–” Sparky started, but was immediately interrupted by Tubal.
“Absolutely great haircut, which is why it makes her look sharp,” he laughed, giving Bianca the evil eye as he did.
Wait, miss knight-in-shining-armor is the type who worries about her haircut? Locke never ceased to be surprised by his new band of friends.
Even with the occasional verbal sniping of fashion or haircuts, the whole group seemed to be laughing and in good spirits. Locke usually only laughed or smiled while people said nice things –generally about the products or merchandise he was trying to move– and this feel-good vibe while still trading derisive jabs wasn’t something he was used to. He had gotten a taste of it while he was sitting back at the bar earlier, but it still didn’t set right with him. Part of his brain kept saying: ‘This isn’t your world. Your world is work and sales. This is the world that movie directors silence so all you see is the laughing faces, probably because they can’t ever think of good jokes to write in and fill the void, but maybe, just maybe, because it’s not something you should get too close to. This is Jess’ world, not yours.’
A sister that I can’t even–
Hey again! It’s your friendly neighborhood Ash! I thought I’d let you know the good news! You didn’t lose your job. Yay! Now, you might be wondering, ‘What on earth is my amazing goddess of absolute perfection talking about? My feeble mind is incapable of jumping to conclusions and using abductive reasoning like an English detective who spends far too much time trying to separate his assistant from said assistant’s wife.’
There will be a gold market.
That’s the news. Exciting, isn’t it? It’s not coming out for a few days, and I probably shouldn’t tell you, but I couldn’t stand to watch you mope around while staring off into space like you were posing for a Christian rock album. Smile, enjoy the conversation. You’ll be able to take all the gold you earn in the game, and sell it on the soon-to-be released forum’s gold market in about a week when the patch drops. People will be able to buy and sell in-game gold with real life currency. That means you won’t have to sell your items through sketchy black market websites!
Now, you may be asking, ‘Why would they ban me for real life currency transactions if they were just going to release a gold auction later and encourage the exact same behavior?’ Well, long story short, the company running Tiqpa will receive 5% on both sides of all transactions made on the gold market. The new boss is a real demon. He is trying to penny pinch even with the players. Can you believe that?
Anyway, ignore the reasoning. Look dead ahead, smile, and enjoy the victory. Your situation won’t be nearly so dire with all the money you have right now. Heck, you might even be able to knock out those student loans for you and your sister by the end of the month. Consider this information a gift for doing such a good job at keeping me entertained. Have a nice day! =D
Locke was pumped about the possibility of being able to legitimately peddle his wares, but he froze when he reached the last line. It didn’t register immediately. After all, this legal gold market that was going to be announced soon essentially meant that he wouldn’t ever need to look for a real job. Tiqpa’s popularity was growing by leaps and bounds. Rich people who made a hundred bucks an hour would always be around and more than willing to drop twenty bucks to save themselves three hours of grinding, and people would always need potions and poisons for raids and dungeons. This was the type of cash farm he needed. He had been so enthusiastically reading the news that it took him a moment to realize exactly what Ash had said.
Even if his conscious mind didn’t catch it, however, part of his brain must have because he read the sentence at least three times over before moving to the next one. His eyes slowly grew wider, and his mouth gradually opened into an eerie vacancy like a supreme court seat on an election year. How . . . How does she know? His conscious thoughts finally caught up to the question the subconscious was already asking. How does she know about my problem? About my loans and about my sister?
“Shy, I can’t believe you!” Katherine laughed as she threw down her accusation.
“I can’t either. Man, you have an amazing talent,” Reginald complimented him, shifting his position in the makeshift social circle so that he was standing next to Locke.
“Talent? That’s like the fifth time today this pervert has zoned out while lecherously staring at some poor innocent victim’s rear end,” Sampson cried in disbelief.
“I mean, I didn’t even notice her until I followed Shy’s eyes. He’s like a bum radar!” Reginald exclaimed.
What, huh? Locke snapped out of the horror of his realization when he heard his name only to discover that he was once again staring at a woman’s backside. Oh, for heaven’s sake! Not again, he wanted to exclaim. “I wasn’t–”
“Planning on telling your buddy?” More than likely trying to twist the knife than actually agreeing with Locke’s behavior, Reginald couldn’t wipe the smile off his goat’s face as he cozied up next to Locke and joined in his stare.
“I can’t believe it’s got you even sweating. Are you that into–”
“No,” Locke raised his hands up defensively. “It’s not that. It’s just . . . I got a message in game.”
“Sure,” Reginald laughed. The sly troll knew he had already dug Locke’s social grave for the moment. “An in-game message. Likely excuse.”
“Was it that bad?” Tubal asked, putting a hand on Locke’s shoulder as he did. “If there is something that has you worried, we can take care of it as a group. We still have some time before we were planning to log off for the night.”
“Umm.” Locke gulped. No, the message itself was great, but the implication was so terrifying I kind of want to log off and burn the machine I’m using right now. “Not really. It’s just . . . I think I need to go take care of some stuff.”
“Stuff?” Eliza’s voice broke in, and her tone was more piercing than concerned, the exact opposite of Tubal’s and Reginald’s. “What could you possibly have left to take care of?” she pressed as if Locke were on trial.
“I have to get back to farming gold,” Locke answered honestly. He had slowly grown to hate the moments when he had been forced to cleverly reword something–or outright lie at times–to the people he actually liked. “This day has been a fun break, but I still have work to do.”
“Oh.” Tubal frowned at Locke, a puzzled expression on his face. “You sure you don’t want to just hang out with us for the rest of the day? We’re just going to shoot some beers at the Wench’s Best Bubbly Head until tonight when we can do it in real life at the convention.”
“What convention?” Locke kicked himself for asking. If I know, it’ll be that much harder to not attend.
“You haven’t heard about R.E.T.Con, the Revolutionary Entertainment Technologies Convention? Aside from the latest, cutting edge game stuff, it’s supposed to be the biggest cosplay event of the year. The head of Tiqpa has hired over a hundred models to represent his part of the event alone, so there is no way in Hades we are going to miss it.”
Ugh, I shouldn’t have asked. That sounds surprisingly tempting. Locke actually wanted to go. “Those are too expensive anyway,” he justified. After all, money was his key problem to begin with.
“Don’t be a cheapskate, Shy. Tiqpa players get in free, so all you have to do this whole week is just use your Tiqpa ID to log into the event,” Sampson explained, cutting off another one of his excuses.
Locke sighed. Even with only one excuse left, it was the only one he needed: If I goof off and play around and have fun in real life, I won’t be the best. If I’m not the best, then I won’t be able to make enough money to support the sister and cover myself. “I’m sorry. I still have to do work stuff.”
“Shy?” Eliza asked, a full sentence and entire question wrapped into one word. Just looking at her, Locke could understand what she was trying to ask: ‘Does this mean we won’t see each other again?’ He couldn’t help but be surprised.
“I’m sure we’ll run into each other again,” Locke said, preempting her question, knowing she would struggle to form it and get it out.
“Uhh . . . sure,” Eliza answered. “I was just going to ask you to hold on for a moment before you left,” she added, disappearing and leaving the group in awkward silence as they waited to see what she was doing. When she came back, she was holding the bathrobe she had worn when she and Locke first met neatly folded up in front of her. “Here.”
“Ummm?” Locke was kind of confused. Isn’t she always mad at me? Doesn’t she dislike the way I behave? Aren’t I supposed to get a lecture? It’s not like we were . . . No, to her we weren’t. To me, she was probably one of the few people I have ever even spoke in the last few years with without conducting a trade.
“I have a feeling that you might find a use for this. I noticed from the way Tubal behaved that these are apparently pretty rare. You can be one of the few newcomers to have earned one without killing a Demon . . . or joining us.”
Locke was pretty excited as he donned the bathrobe over his leather armor. No stat penalties to speed or power for wearing it. No wonder it’s the armor of choice for the Demon Host, he thought as he slipped his arms into each sleeve.
“Looks like we have another bathrobe knight!” Reginald’s cheesy joke broke the moment.
“Anyway, there are other things I need to go take care of too. Alex is going to kill me, but I think he’ll realize that this was worth it.” Eliza didn’t even wait for goodbyes as she practically vanished before their eyes.
“That woman” –Reginald shook his head– “is all sorts of crazy.”
“You have a crush, don’t you?” Tubal giggled at Reginald.
“Yep,” Reginald admitted easily.
“Well, Shy, you can join us anytime you want,” Tubal said. “If you choose to come to the event, you’ll be able to spot us all in our all-blue attire representing the good, old Blue Phoenix Brigade. If not, well, we should definitely get together again sometime soon.”
“Though, if you do come to the event, Sampson added, “make sure to wear the proper blue. I’ll send you an in-game message detailing the hue. We can’t have our newest member not matching!”
“Thanks.” Locke gave a meek smile. “But I really do have work to get done. It’s been a real pleasure. Thanks again.” He felt worse than the time he had to break up with a girl after two months of not having any time off to hang out with her.
“Stop acting like this is the last time we’ll meet. We’ll see each other again,” Sampson said.
“Of course.” Locke nodded and then turned around and went off in the direction of the woods where he had first started his poison farming as an alchemist, feeling like he had left a part of himself behind.
Later that day, true to her word, Sampson sent the details on how to ‘match’ with the rest of the Blue Phoenix Brigade at the event. She even sent a copy of the blue phoenix symbol that she said was ‘optional,’ but added that she would bring an extra patch if he was coming to join them. Locke just sent back a thank-you note, apologized that he wouldn’t be able to join them and kept going through the preplanned routes he had made, harvesting flowers and making potions and poisons to sell.