Merchant of Tiqpa Ch2

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You self-centered piece of garbage! Locke fumed as he set up his login information. You’re really going to ruin my life just because I won’t bow down and call you boss? Does that punk really think he’s entitled to my services for all of eternity just because I completed a few days’ worth of orders for him in a row? What in the heck is wrong with him?! Locke’s anger didn’t settle one bit. The sinking in his stomach, the tightening of his chest, the shortness of breath–everything was slowly getting worse, and the adrenaline pumping through his veins was the only thing keeping him from sheer panic. Just watch, Anthony. You better hope my account is deleted because if it isn’t, then so help me, I will find a way to destroy your pathetic excuse for a dumpster you call the Holy Alliance. I’m going to make a thousand swords and sell them as cheap as I have to in order for the Demon Alliance to kill you with them! Locke was fuming, and he could have kept going, too. He would have sat there swearing at Anthony all day if it wasn’t for the fact that he realized he had spent more time cursing than actually logging in. Okay, calm down, Locke. Deep breaths. Count to ten, and let’s get this over with. He mustered his resolve, took the deep breaths and started up Tiqpa.

 Locke’s attempt to get into Tiqpa was immediately shut down. He was used to seeing the image of a crowned king during the load, but before it ever appeared, a fancy blue box popped up informing him that Anthony’s jerkish, petty attempt to ruin his life had been a stunning success.

Your account has been banned. If this was in error, or you believe the ban was done for wrongful reasons, please contact a customer service representative or submit a help ticket online.

He was just about to exit the dive device and actually try contacting a GM when the boot sequence automatically resumed, and he found himself loading into Tiqpa. He immediately noticed the familiar hum of a bindstone, letting him know that he had successfully returned to his home city, and the bustling sounds of the city around him grew as the world loaded. Images of the market square came into focus, and he couldn’t help but sigh as relief washed through him. Maybe Anthony wasn’t as successful as he thought he was.

His hopes were quickly dashed, however, as the world flickered around him before going completely black. The sounds of merchants hawking their wares and the clang of anvils being worked in the forges went silent. Whatever comfort he may have felt moments before was quickly replaced by a growing sense of unease and anxiety that welled up from the pit of his stomach and threatened to consume him. The experience only lasted a few seconds before the world started to come into focus, but it felt like an eternity to him.

When he finished loading into Tiqpa for the second time within a matter of minutes, he was left with a strange sense of disorientation. Moving into the game was normally seamless and smooth, but this experience had been almost jarring. What just happened? Where am I? He craned his head around him in every direction trying to figure out where he was, and his sense of alarm grew with every passing sweep of his surroundings. Waves and beach in front of me, forest behind me and not a soul in sight . . . 

“What in the . . .” He looked around, certain that a glitch had occurred. Oh, God, this isn’t going to be one of those awful stories where I get stuck in an MMO, is it? He started to panic. Something is definitely not right. Am I in the developer’s side of the Tiqpa world?

“Hey, easy there. If you turn your head too fast, it’ll unscrew and fall right off,” a woman’s voice called out from behind him, catching him off guard with its friendly word of warning.

Spinning around, Locke was greeted by a suit of full steel plate armor so large and ostentatious that it made him question how he missed spotting it the first time. “Umm . . . Yeah, sorry. It’s just that . . .” How do I explain why I’m so confused to a stranger? Locke was stumped. “I just forgot what I was doing here,” he finally said. He settled for what he hoped would be a convincing half-truth since he really didn’t know what he was doing there. “Have you ever had that happen? Walked into a room to get something and lost track of why you were there in the first place as soon as you walked through the door?” He knew that he was going to have to work for it if he was going to sell his prevarication.

“So you forgot why you are here? Well, do you know where you are?” the suit of shiny armor questioned further.

Locke almost wanted to laugh as he listened to a voice that belonged to what sounded like a cute, young teenage girl trying to be serious as it came from what looked like a giant ogre in full plate. “Well, about that . . . You see . . .” Locke looked around. “I know I’m . . .” Come on, Locke, you’re a salesman. You can do this! “I’m on a beautiful beach, on a beautiful day, and apparently hanging out with a beautiful set of plate armor that I just met for the first time. What’s not to like? It’s almost easy to see how I got so misplaced mentally.” He threw up his winningest sleazy smile and broke eye contact by looking back at the beach. Yep, don’t look at her or what you just did will be even creepier, you failure of a salesman.

“Ha ha ha ha!” The girl’s laughter made him cringe. Yeah, you’re creepy to the point she finds it funny. “You’re good, real good. I’m just messing with you. I’m Ash, short for Ashley–don’t ask, my parents loved zombie movies. I’m the GM handling your case.”

“Oh.” Locke turned around and accepted the offered handshake waiting for him, feeling rather embarrassed about being caught tangled up in his own yarn. “Well, I’m Locke, though you probably already knew that.”

“Yeah, I did. Look, let’s cut to the chase: You violated the Terms of Service and the End User License Agreement for playing Tiqpa, so we should, by all rights, ban you.” She left the sentence hanging like she was waiting on a commercial break before she broke the suspense.

Come on, finish the thought! You should ban me, but . . .? There is a but after that word, right? The words ‘should’ and ‘but’ usually go to together . . . I think. He was doing his best to reassure himself as he stared at the shiny metal plate helm in front of him, but he wasn’t doing a very good job of it.

Ash likely saw his anxiety, and she probably wanted to draw it out for as much effect as possible. The pause between when she stopped speaking and started again was distressingly long for Locke. “But I think I’m going to help you out a bit,” she finally finished.

Locke let out a deep breath.

“I just need you to pick a new name, class, and if you want, we can even reset your race. All up to you, but we need it done quick-like. If you pick a race that couldn’t have made it to this side of the map since Tiqpa’s release, well, I’ll have to warp you somewhere else. That’ll be extra work on my part, so pick something close by if you don’t mind. Naga, Hellspawn, one of those furries or Humans . . . I don’t care. Just make it easy on me since I’m doing you a favor.”

“Oh, thank you. Like, thank you so much.” Locke almost floated as the lead blocks of stress and worry over his account being banned lifted off his shoulders. “But, why the new name and class? Can’t I just keep my old class and level? I kind of like Blacksmithing.” Or, rather, I like the paychecks, and I don’t think I’ll get caught twice.

“Yeah, about that . . . See, I’m restoring your character, but if you haven’t figured it out from the secret meeting and the new name, class and race, I’m not supposed to.” The giant plate armor shrugged. “I just thought that punk Anthony was in the wrong, too, and that Gary, that perverted mouth-breather of a boss of mine, should have banned both of you. God, that guy gives me the creeps. You know he even hits on his boss Robert’s daughter every time she swings by the office? She’s in her twenties! So gross!” Ash’s voice rose in volume with every passing word, and she sounded practically distressed by the time she finally finished her rant.

“Shy, then?” Locke suggested a name quickly before this angry girl could change her mind. “How about Shy? And can I please, please keep my work on the blacksmithing? I worked very hard to get it,” he pressed.

“Um, sure. They’re already unlocked. Technically. I just reset your level to one, so you’ll still have to get back to the level and power requirements needed to forge each item. It’s not a bad idea, though, since you’ve already put so much effort into it. But don’t you want to try something new? We did have that patch recently introducing the Alchemist class. That’s probably the easiest one for you to play as.”

“The Alchemist class? No one has picked that for a reason. Who would want to spend time and money on potions that only last five minutes and add one damage?” Locke scoffed at the concept. Everyone knew about the new alchemy path, but, to date, no one had actually picked it. The reason was simple: Every class had access to the same crafting paths listed, but the alchemist potions barely lasted more than a few minutes, generally required a lot of ingredients, and they didn’t do much more than add a few points of health, damage or a random stat. You could coat a blade with a poison, but when the weapon already did fifty damage, why waste effort on continuously coating it for only one extra damage point? Every player except those who cared about obtaining the fancy title of being an Alchemist had written it off as a joke.

“Well, I thought someone who had spent so much time being a blacksmith might know better than that.”

“Oh.” Locke turned away from the metal-man to look at the beach for a moment. Hmm . . . All the weapons were posted online too, and while I couldn’t make most of them because of the level, power and concentration requirements, the ones I made repeatedly kept getting better. Even the latest sword was just an upgrade of the previous one. What if . . . 

“Alright, I’ll do it.” Locke made his decision and shrugged it off in the same instant. If this really is an undiscovered route left alone just because most people didn’t want to take the time to make new characters, and the advantages look nonexistent, maybe I’ll find my way to riches once again. “I’ll take the alchemist route.” Locke turned back and stuck out his hand to once more shake with the plate-covered giant.

The handshake was returned. “That’s what I like to hear. About the race, though, which one did you want?”

“I’m going to stick with Human,” Locke said. All the other races had size, stat or passive advantages to combat, but Human was the best for crafting. Most skills had a minimum stat requirement, and Humans could raise their stats up faster than any other race. It was their only redeeming attribute.

“Excellent! That means I won’t have to port you to some random noob island for a different race. This will do just fine.” The plate armor extended its hand and pointed in a direction away from the coast. “If you head that way for half an hour, you’ll find the closest town. Where you are now is the only place on the island with the herbs you need for the starting potions and level one enemies.”

“Wait, did you plan on me picking Alchemist?” Locke was shocked as he realized how difficult the task was that he had signed up for.

The two plated shoulders shrugged. “How would I have known what would happen? It’s not like I had a part in building a class that no one picked and that I’m hoping you follow your instincts and become a walking advertisement for it so my perverted creep of a boss doesn’t keep blowing up at me for wasting an entire dev team’s time and resources on a class no one plays. That would be really self-centered of me.”

Locke blinked. Wait, if I didn’t go along with Alchemist, or she didn’t need a walking billboard, would she have just banned me for good?

“Anyway, see you round, Shy. And remember: Don’t let anyone find out who you are.” Ash waved as she faded out of Tiqpa.

Now that it was officially over, Locke gritted his teeth and brought up the character screen. The only items he had were a suspiciously large number of empty bottles and some alchemy gear like mortars and pestles, the starting sword that everyone gets regardless of class, and a cloth outfit that wouldn’t serve as anything more than protection against a soft breeze. He didn’t even have the ten coppers he had started with the first time he played.

Great. Nothing, he grumbled. Freaking nothing. The anger started to build inside him. “This is all his fault,” he spat. He may have been placated when the GM was around, but now that she had gone, the reality of his situation was beginning to set in. He was reduced to poverty, back to square one, and he had even less to show for it than he had had when he first joined Tiqpa. And for what? For actually trying to help out someone he loved and keep his own head above water. I’ll bet he didn’t even receive a slap on the wrist. Locke’s rage grew more focused as he thought about Anthony.

Spoiled, rich brat. Stupid son of a– He kicked at the ground in anger and was rewarded with a reminder of the fact that he was no longer even wearing shoes. He felt his face flush red with frustration, and hate welled up inside him. Ever since he was a child, he had worked hard to suppress emotions like these. They were bad for business. No one wanted to deal with someone who was emotionally unstable or threw hissy-fits. Acting out or lashing out meant he’d lose a deal and any potential earnings along with it. He knew that no good was ever going come out of it, but this time, he didn’t care.

Locke opened up his skill menu to see what recipes the GM had given him.

Layman’s Deadly Poison: Apply to weapon to add +1 Damage (effect expires after 5 minutes). Ingestation will cause 10 points of damage unless the user is undead.

Layman’s Health Potion: Upon ingestion, restores 10 points of missing health and increases the maximum health of the user by +1 (effect expires after 5 minutes).

Locke looked at both of the available potions and decided that, if he had to make one, it would probably be best to start with the deadly poison. While the health potion was more tempting for his solo grind, especially since he was probably going to get hit a lot, and there was a strong chance of him dying even against a level one creature, he decided to go with the damage one. Damage sells better than health. If this GM is right, and I can improve the stats on the potion by continuing to make it, then it will be worth a lot of money in the future.

Almost as if reading Locke’s mind, a PM popped up on his screen:

P.S. Don’t try to violate the EULA by selling stuff on the dark forums again. I’ll be watching you, and I’ll personally ban you before anyone can figure out that I restored your account in the first place. Later! ~ Your Friendly Neighborhood Ash.

Locke put his hands on his head and rubbed his temples. Don’t lose it, Locke. Don’t lose it. We’ll figure out a way. But first: revenge. His earlier profits, the burgeoning success during his recent blacksmith days, had helped buy him some time. He certainly wasn’t on an indefinite time table, but there wasn’t going to be any immediate pressure to produce cash. He had some leeway to figure things out as he went along, just not forever. There has to be a way to make money online. Maybe I can use the fact that she did something illegal as leverage to get her to allow me to trade in the forums, but this is all just hypothetical and won’t matter if I can’t get anywhere, he thought, pulling out his flimsy, brown-handled blade with a rat-tail tang.

Locke cringed at the idea of not getting paid today as he checked the ingredients for Deadly Poison. There were several different combinations of individual flowers that could be used to make it, and, thankfully, he was able to find quite a few of them near him. He used his sword to cut the stem of the first and proceeded to the next one. If she’s going to give me hundreds of empty bottles to fill, then I’m going to make sure that generosity isn’t wasted. He grinned as he dove into the hard work. Flower picking: a real man’s job. He couldn’t help but laugh to himself while cutting the thirteenth flower. This place really is a gold mine of a starting location for an upstart Alchemist, he mused, and by the time he had picked his fifteenth flower, he was in a slightly better mood.

He stopped after he had picked over a hundred flowers, cracked his neck, pulled out the mortar and pestle and began to grind away at making the potentially profitable toxins. There was always something odd to video games that Locke never understood: exactly how the physics in the game worked. He expected to use five or six flowers per poison, but he found it was rather the opposite: one flower ended up producing two to three potions. It didn’t make sense to Locke, especially considering that the flowers were barely bigger than a blooming rose, but after the water was added, and the flower paste was diluted, the math somehow worked out, and the bottles were filled.

Layman’s Deadly Poison. Hmm . . . After twenty bottles were filled, and the effects were still just +1 damage, he was starting to become disappointed. He was hoping that, like Blacksmithing, the progress between the first and second version of the poison would be short. Previously, it had only taken him ten swords to reach the second version, and twenty more to reach the third. With the piddly concoctions he was mixing up now, it felt like making any progress was going to take way too long, but then finally it happened:

Your proficiency in Layman’s Deadly Poison has enlightened you. You have discovered how to make Amateur Deadly Poison. The effect has increased from +1 to +2 damage. The damage dealt has increased from +10 to +20 points of health if ingested.

Locke stared at it. Part of him felt relieved. He had been starting to worry that it wouldn’t ever happen. The other part of him, however, was expecting better. The effects doubled, which was amazing in its own right, but it didn’t tell him if his gamble on the class was worth it. If it had tripled or even quadrupled, he still might not have felt relieved. After all, what if the next version was only +3 damage? Ten iterations down the line, he’d be left with only +12 points of damage. So, without letting himself dwell on how unfair it seemed, he put it out of his mind as he spent another hour gathering flowers and making potions until the upgrade finally occurred again.

Your proficiency in Amateur’s Deadly Poison has enlightened you. You have discovered how to make Greenhorn’s Deadly Poison. The effect has increased from +2 to +3 damage. The damage dealt has increased from +20 to +30 points of health if ingested.

So, it’s just as I feared, he thought glumly. It wasn’t doubling. It just goes up by +1 each level. He kicked the ground again in frustration. The poison was still great, and he knew it, but this type of progression meant that his plans for returning to the scene of world power were going to take a long time. It took a full thirty bottles to reach the first upgrade and then another sixty to reach the second . . . This is going to be a long road, he thought as he sighed to himself.

Then, like he did before every day at the grind, he counted to ten and dug back in. The boredom of doing a repetitive and monotonous task for a long period of time began to seep into his bones and sow discontent in his heart, and he knew from experience that the best thing for him to do was to space out each task into sections. An hour of work wasn’t an hour of work. It was just ten six-minute intervals. He didn’t have a hundred and twenty potions left to make. He just had ten different sets of twelve, and he persisted in his monotonous routine with only one thing on his mind. You can do this. It’s boring, but you can do this. At the end of this, I’ll make the best potions in the world for Darwin’s Demon Host, and we’ll wipe that smile off that Holy Alliance’s campaign. We’ll break it into a thousand pieces until Anthony has nothing left to live for in Tiqpa. That’ll teach that brat that money can’t buy everything. I will collect my pound of flesh, he promised himself.

 

—-

 

Locke would have spent the entire day just harvesting and working on increasing his Deadly Poison ranks if it weren’t for the fact that halfway through the day, long after he had gotten his Deadly Poison to the rank of Journeyman (a bonus of +5 or +50 damage if ingested), he was interrupted by company.

“Hey, what are you doing out here?” a voice called as Locke was bent over by a tree, picking more flowers for his potions.

“Oh, umm . . .” Locke straightened up and looked around to see who had found him. Am I going to get PK’d? Sweat beaded up on his brow almost immediately, and it wasn’t from the strenuous process of picking flowers. Killing was common in MMOs, and it was likely to happen at any time.

“I’m just out here working on my craft, if . . .” Before he could finish his explanation, his marketing instincts immediately kicked in. “If you’re interested, I’m running a very special offer. I can promise you that, after you see the effects, you’ll agree they are the best in the region!”

There were six adventurers in the group that approached him. There was a gruff-looking Minotaur wearing chainmail and holding a giant two-handed axe, a Dragon-Wing similarly in platemail but with a longsword and a shield, a Satyr in what could only be taken as a priest’s robe with a staff, two Succubi wearing leather with daggers and whips, and a man with a bathrobe and a bow. The one who had called out to him was the bathrobe-wearing man.

“Your wares?” One of the two Succubi licked her lips as she eyed Locke, sending a shiver down his spine.

“Yes,” he said, maintaining his composure as the six players began to circle him like prey. He knew that he was in a very vulnerable position, and there was a good chance that they might just kill him to see what items dropped on his corpse rather than spending anything on his gear. “I am a humble Alchemist who believes that what I hold would be of great interest to you.” He produced a Journeyman’s Deadly Poison potion in his right hand as an explanation, extending it for any of the six to take and inspect.

The bathrobe-wearing man hesitated for a moment before he finally reached out and took it. “Let’s see what you got.” His thick Boston accent pressed in on Locke’s ears harshly. The man held it for a minute and the potion vanished.

Locke knew he had to keep his cool here. If he accused the man of trying to steal his product, he was going to lose a potential sale. In the worst-case scenario, he might end up dead. Then again, he’d probably end up dead at the hands or claws of something else even in the best-case scenario even if he did somehow manage to make a sale. Relax. Save your anger for Anthony, he reminded himself as he maintained his fake smile. Don’t forget to make sure you smile with your eyes, not with your lips. “It’s a great product, right? I don’t think you’ve seen anything of that quality before, have you?”

“What’s it do?” one of the Succubi asked, leaning in on his shoulder.

“Yeah, what’s the deal with that green bottle? Is it like Powerade?” The Minotaur shifted closer to the group leader as well in order to get a better look.

“Come on, Tubal, what’s it do?” the Satyr whined.

They all are curious, not hostile. This is good. Locke’s grin turned from fake to real as he watched the group crowd around the leader to figure out what the potion did. Seizing on the moment, he pulled out another one from his bag and extended it to one of the Succubi. “Here, take a look yourself,” he said before pulling out another and handing it to the other Succubus. Not wanting to let the opportunity pass, he took the reins. One by one, he passed one of his Journeyman’s Deadly Poisons to each of the five remaining group members. Make them think the product is theirs, and rightfully so, and it’ll be that much harder to walk away from the sale. You know this, Locke.

“Go ahead and apply it to your weapons. I can make plenty more whenever I need.” He made sure not to phrase it like he had plenty more on him. “Just consider this first batch of poison a gift, and give it a try. If you’re not a hundred percent satisfied, don’t bother returning it! It’ll kill me if you do.” He threw in a forced laugh at his own terrible joke, causing the Minotaur to join him. Thank the big man upstairs there is always one laugher in every group who will find even an awkward silence funny as long as someone else laughs first. “Go on! Apply it!”

Slowly, with careful hands as if one wrong move would cost them their precious gear, they all put it on their weapons. Tubal, the leader, carefully applied it on some arrows. “These are actually really good. What do you want for them?” Tubal asked, looking at his group to make sure they were all on the same page as he extended the offer. “How many silvers are you expecting for each one?”

Ooooh, you novice. You should have asked how many coppers I was expecting for each one. Now, you’ve already let me know you’re willing to pay more than two silvers for each one. Considering they’re dirt cheap to make, you’re letting me rip you off! You’re just lucky that . . . “I don’t want any money for them.”

“What are you talking about? You clearly are trying to sell them, right? You’re not just giving them away, are you?” the Satyr asked, his voice echoing out over the others.

“Oh, I’m not giving them away. I still want to sell them, and if you think my offer is terrible, then I won’t press and will take three silvers a potion.” Locke eyed the group nervously. “Actually, what I want is a lot cheaper, though, and, if you hear me out, I can make sure you have enough of those five-minute poisons to farm with all day. What I want is . . . What I want is to be a part of your group for the day. I won’t eat up much experience, but in return for that generosity, while you farm I can keep making you extras to reapply every five minutes, really helping you level faster. Not to mention, as time goes on, I’ll have even better wares for you!”

They all blinked in unison, clearly taken back by the offer. “You want, you want to be a part of our group?” Tubal asked.

“I think that is what he said,” one of the Succubi smart-mouthed back. “It makes sense too: Who wouldn’t want to be partnered up with me?”

“You’re roleplaying that Succubus way too hard,” the Minotaur said with a laugh and looked at his weapon. “I’m okay with it. This poison will really help us out, I think.”

“Five,” Tubal spoke loud enough to cut the chatter of the group behind him. “Five extra potions you’ll leave with us for every hour you leech, and you have a deal.”

“That sounds perfectly fair to me.” Locke stuck out his hand to seal the agreement. “I’m L–” he paused and shook his head. Too close. Remember what Ash said. “I’m Shy, your friendly Level-one Alchemist.”

Tubal stared at the extended hand, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging half open. “Level 1?” he asked as he finally accepted the gesture. “This zone is designed for groups that are Level 40. There’s only a handful of level 1 enemies around here, and they’re scattered in with everything stronger. What are you doing out here at Level 1?”

“A merchant has to keep his secrets, you know,” Locke answered with a laugh, content with never revealing the truth. Wow . . . and Ash said that this was a low-level zone. I guess I shouldn’t tell them that I was banned by one freak on a power trip and then restored here by another weirdo on her own just to mess with me. It probably wouldn’t be the best story to tell, especially if Ash really is watching.

“Well, either way, we’re the Blue Phoenix Brigade, and you’re welcome to join us as long as you can keep us supplied. I’m Tubal, and these two Succubi are Bianca and Katherine. That Minotaur over there is Mr. Axe-Fetis–”

The Minotaur smashed his axe into the ground before he spoke to interrupt Tubal. “Not again! My name is Sampson. Stop teasing me, Tubal.”

“That Satyr over there is our priest. He is basically our Doctor Whom or something like that.”

“I also tend to go by the name Reginald on occasion.” The Satyr shrugged off the poorly executed jest. He didn’t seem to be half as concerned about the mix up as Sampson had been. “And we generally just call the dragonboy Sparky.”

“It works,” the Dragon-Wing said, not disputing the name at all.

He does realize that’s a dog’s name, right? I’ve actually seen a dog named Locke, so I probably shouldn’t point that out. “Well, it’s nice to meet you all. What are we killing?”

“Time at this rate,” Reginald said with a frown. “Let’s get back out there before we lose daylight.”

You have been invited to Tubal’s Party. Would you like to Accept or Reject?

“Sounds great.” Accept. “If you guys don’t mind, since I’m a pretty low level, I’m just going to hang in the back and watch you all fight while I keep crafting. I have to stay at this pretty much twenty-four seven to keep the numbers up, but you’ll love my new recipes.”

“I feel like I’ve heard that line before,” Katherine said, scratching her head. “Either way, it’s fine by me. You just better make sure Tubal doesn’t see you slacking there, Mr. Daisy Picker.”

Locke decided to let the insult slide. “I’ll take that moniker as a compliment. After all, nothing feels more manly in a videogame than signing up to play an immersive role-playing game centered around slaying dragons and toppling empires and then spending most of your time picking flowers.”

Sampson chuckled and said, “No judgment here, but that sounds exactly like my Skyrim experience. If the Alchemist class had been available when I first rolled this bad boy, I’d probably be right next to you uprooting every garden from here to Alcinous.”

“Alcinous?” The Succubi and Tubal turned their heads.

“You know, that beautiful Odyssey . . . Never mind. But yeah, no shame, little man. Carry on with your weeds!”

“No lying, Sampson,” Sparky said and slammed his shield with his sword. “You could never pass up the urge to fight. The thrill of battle, the call that sounds throughout your blood and beckons you to war! Hearken to the trumpet of glory!”

“Don’t mind him. He’s like that,” Bianca said in a low tone just for Locke.

“I see,” Locke returned in a whisper.

“Well” –Sampson looked at his axe– “I guess you’re right,” he conceded. “I don’t think I could ever pick a class that didn’t have fighting moves or specialize in combat. I wish they had made it a crafting skill though like in other MMOs. I think it’s silly that you have to pick Alchemist, Blacksmith or one of the crafting skills just to make the gear. I can’t imagine more than a few dozen people in the entire game that would give up magic- and might-based combat in favor of making weapons that you can find in dungeons . . . or potions that don’t last more than five minutes.”

“All good points, but seriously, why would you pick that class?” Tubal asked. “Isn’t it going to be boring, watching everyone else having fun while you are only picking flowers? That will have to get tedious after a while. Not that we’re not grateful for the potions, but it’s just that you have our sympathy on the class.”

Locke frowned. There isn’t really anything to say to this. How could I reply? ‘Well, I picked this class so I could make a ton of money in real life while playing video games.’ It was even less impressive considering that he wasn’t even really playing a game. He was just working inside Tiqpa.

“Let’s . . . Let’s just go level,” he said, trying to change the topic to something fun like getting experience.

They didn’t have to travel far until they ran into their first fight, which posed little threat to Locke given his role and position outside the fray. He planned on doing his best to pick up every flower, regardless of whether or not it was the one he needed, and to stay close behind the group. He knew that he was going to be useless whenever they got in a fight, but that didn’t mean he wanted to wander off too far away from them, either. For someone in his situation, leeching experience off a group, positioning was everything. It wasn’t going to be so much of a struggle to help with the fight as a fight not to make the group struggle. Even if he was to do enough damage to help, he would probably just end up being killed on the spot should one of the foes turn and swing at him.

The first set of ‘mobs,’ a common term for enemy monsters to kill for experience and items, was actually a group of giant snakes. They were at least ten feet long, bigger around than most people’s thighs, and each sported a spiked ball about the size of a man’s head on the end of its tail. In the group that Tubal’s party approached, three Knight-Clubbing Snakes were curled up tightly so that their heads, which hung from the top of the coil, and clubs, which slid across the ground from the bottom of the coil, were the only parts of their scaled bodies that protruded from the four-foot-high bundles.

“Careful, these snakes are a lot tougher than the usual mobs in the forest. They can shatter Reginald’s shields in one hit, and we don’t have any way to revive you out here after the fight. So, if you die, there goes our potions,” Tubal cautioned.

“So what’s the game plan, boss? There’s one more here than there was last time.” Sampson pulled his axe off of his back as he spoke and stared down the enemy. His mouth hung open when he finished speaking, and Locke could tell that the bovine was practically salivating as he looked at the snakes.

“We can try the same plan as last time, but we’re going to have to be more careful. Bianca, Katherine, I’m going to need you two to grab the one on the right. I’ll draw out the one on the left, so you three just work on that middle one just like we did last time,” he instructed, looking between Sampson, Sparky and Reginald. “Blue Phoenix Brigade doesn’t lose people!” Tubal shouted excitedly.

“Blue Phoenix Brigade!” the others shouted back in unison, causing Locke to feel a little jealous. He had never been part of a group like that, since work had always gotten in the way of any comradery.

And while you’re doing that, I’m going to just work on my potions. Locke planted himself so that he had a good view of the clearing that would soon host the death of at least three creatures and went back to work gathering the materials he needed.

The snakes watched as Tubal and the Succubi circled around them until they were on either side, and then the giant serpents began untangling their bodies. Tubal drew his bow and readied an arrow, and the Succubi spread their wings, took to the air, and started flapping until they had lifted themselves at least ten feet off the ground, a height that looked like it would be just high enough to stay out of reach of the Knight-Clubbers.

Katherine, only different from Bianca in that she had longer hair, was the first to make a move. She readied her whip and cracked it across the distance right in front of the snake, drawing its head up and into the air. The whip looked nasty enough to flay skin off a grown man, but it barely phased the creature and only served to draw its attention as the monster quickly slithered toward the pair. Before it could get directly under them, however, the two began furiously snapping their whips toward the creature’s head. Finally, one of Bianca’s attacks managed to wrap the leather cord around the snake’s neck. She pulled as hard as she could and yanked the front half of the snake into the air.

“This thing is heavier than Sampson!” Bianca complained. “Can you give me a hand?”

“On it,” Katherine answered, her own whip twisting around the serpentine head at just that moment. She furiously beat her wings and heaved upward as she assisted Bianca in hoisting the snake’s head. Even caught in a noose and hoisted above the ground, the creature was still a threat to anyone that wasn’t airborne. It swung its tail back and forth, smashing into trees and bushes, and its body heaved back and forth on the ground attempting to curl and uncurl.

“We don’t have forever,” Bianca shouted down to the others. “You two better be quick!”

Locke looked over and saw that both Tubal and Sparky had already engaged their respective snakes. Tubal did nothing more than shoot a few arrows into his snake before he turned and ran as fast as his little legs would carry him. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t faster than the Knight-Clubber. Slowly but surely, the terrifying creature gained ground on the fleeing man. You’ve probably got about five minutes to circle around and get someone to peel that off you before things go south, Locke speculated as he watched the sprinter dash off into the woods.

The first crack of Katherine’s whip had been like the starting gun at a race for Sparky and Sampson, and they both dashed forward in a mad bull-rush. Sampson, his axe once more holstered onto his back, trailed in Sparky’s drag. Before Sparky got in range, however, the Knight-Clubber hissed and uncoiled so quickly that Locke couldn’t clearly make out its movements. Its giant tail whipped about with the momentum of the uncoiling and struck out towards Sparky. Reginald waved his staff about while muttering something to himself, and a mostly-transparent yellow shield appeared three feet in front of Sparky. The defensive spell only extended as a ninety-degree cone in whatever direction Sparky was facing, and Locke recognized it immediately from all the time he had spent watching gameplay clips. It was a simple spell that stopped all incoming physical or magical attacks until a damage threshold was reached, and after that, it’d break. The force of the serpent’s attack instantly shattered the protective yellow barrier, and the spiked ball on its tail slammed into Sparky’s metal shield, causing it to ring out like a gong, and the Dragon-Wing went flying back into Sampson.

“Thanks, comrade,” Sparky said as Sampson pushed him back into the fight against the now-uncoiled snake. “Flank on the left. This’ll be cake. To Glory!”

“Don’t talk about cake. I haven’t eaten yet!” Sampson laughed at his own bad joke and whipped out his giant axe as he slowly circled around until he was right on Sparky’s left. When the snake struck again, Sparky once more blocked the attack with his shield, except that this time the beast was partially thrown to the right as he deflected the blow. Sampson took advantage of the opening with a strong downward swing. The Knight-Clubber hissed as its flesh was rent apart and a good chunk of its neck was cut open. It wasn’t enough to call a mortal wound, but the angry serpent clearly showed signs that death was soon going to knock on its door if things kept going the same way.

The next blow from the serpent was so fast that Locke barely had time to register it before the sound of its tail club rang out full-force against Sparky’s shield for the second time. The attack had been aimed at Sampson, and Sparky had responded by rapidly throwing his shield arm forward as if he was planning on punching the serpent in the head, stopping the blow just short of its intended target. The snake twisted around and aimed another attack at Sampson, once again ignoring Sparky, and attempted to bite the burly Minotaur. Sparky lashed out with his sword and struck with the flat of his blade across the side of the Knight-Clubber’s face. It was a swift slap that knocked it’s gaze off towards Sparky’s right, and, just like before, Sampson’s axe chopped into its neck. This time, however, the blow caused a lot more damage.

“Third time’s the charm!” Sampson raised his axe and brought it down into the same spot again even as the reptile tried to withdraw backward from the pain. This time, he finished the beast off.

“Ladies first?” Sampson asked and took off running toward the struggling Katherine and Bianca before his question could even be answered.

“If Tubal comes in hot, I’m working on a snare to slow the blasted thing down. Leave it to me!” Reginald called after him. Locke hadn’t been paying attention to the medic since the action had been elsewhere in the brief fight, but he noticed now that the Satyr had been busy chanting some incantation.

The struggle against the Knight-Clubber that the girls had lassoed didn’t last more than a minute and ended the same way the first one did: Sparky intercepted the blows from the tail club on his shield, and Sampson hacked away at the snake’s neck as if it were a tree that needed cutting and his axe was really a hatchet.

When the creature was dead, suspended from the Succubi’s whips, an eerie silence settled on the scene of the battle.

“Where’s Tubal?” Bianca asked, looking around.

“I don’t know, but that beast was moving a heck of a lot faster than he was. You think he’s okay? Did anyone see which way he went?” Reginald asked.

“Reggy, you were the only one who didn’t have to focus on the snakes. If anyone saw where they went, it would be you,” Bianca snapped back. Locke half-expected her to snap her fingers and throw in a ‘mhmm’ after it given the tone of her voice.

“Hey! I was not the only one.” Reginald turned around and pointed to Locke and said, “He wasn’t in the thick of it either. Why are you looking at me?”

Locke looked up from his work like a deer in the headlights. He already knew the question that was coming next: ‘Well, did you see where Tubal went?’ But the thing was he didn’t have the slightest idea what the answer was. Half of him was focused on mixing as many potions together as possible before they were done with the fight, while the rest was distracted by the spectacular battle. A couple confused bandit hit-and-runs notwithstanding, he hadn’t really witnessed a proper Tiqpa fight since he made it off of noob island, and even though he had only been there for a few days, he didn’t remember a single fight being nearly as entertaining to watch as this one. This Blue Phoenix Brigade out-classed anyone else he had seen in combat, and they had relied entirely on actual skill for the fight rather than the flashy abilities that went by the same term and came with their classes.

Everyone always wants to be the legendary fighter, he thought. He was about to criticize the group’s composition but then realized the position he was in. No, wait . . . Where is Tubal? Prove yourself useful, or they might angrily pop you quicker than a pimple on prom night. Locke looked around, trying to think. No, you idiot, they can see just as well as you can. Do you hear anything? They’re being loud, so maybe they missed something. He closed his eyes and tried to listen for the sounds of either a desperate runner or a giant anaconda-sized serpent. Finally, after hearing nothing, seeing nothing and giving up hope, he braced himself for the question.

“Well, Shy? Did you see which way they went?” Katherine asked, the whole group staring at him expectantly.

If he’s circling around, he’ll either be behind me . . . or . . . flip a coin, Locke. “He’s that way,” Locke said and pointed a little to his left in front of him. “But that was just the last place I saw him. No idea where he is now. I can’t see him at all. Can you?” He tried to deflect any possible blame if his guess was wrong. If you can’t see him, how should I be able to?

“Should we go in that direction in case he doesn’t make it back to us?” Sampson asked. No sooner had his question left his mouth than it became evident that there wouldn’t be any need to try and track him down. A small and almost-inaudible rustle of the brown leaves scattered across the ground in the direction Locke had pointed slowly grew into a much louder series of crunches.

There, still too far away to be certain if not for the bathrobe’s unique black design, was Tubal, running full force in his bathrobe with a giant Knight-Clubber chasing him. Behind the snake, moreover, there were also what seemed like a hundred Tiger-Ants. The Tiger-Ants were tiny, housecat-sized tigers, and they really had no ant-like properties other than the fact that they traveled in large groups just like ants and had two fuzzy little antennas sticking out from behind their ears.

“I brought some friends to the party!” Tubal yelled as he continued his mad dash toward the dumbfounded group

“Crud. Everyone get ready! That snare I cast will only hold the snake, so we’ll still have to take care of the Tiger-Ants!” Reginald shouted.

Get ready? Crap, I should too . . . Locke immediately opened the bottle of poison he had just made and applied it to his weapon as he stood up from where he was sitting cross-legged on the ground.

“Really going to join us, Level One?” Katherine laughed. “Relax and let us handle this. It’s not attractive when a man doesn’t know his limits.”

I’d love to, but those are swarmers. They’re going to wrap around you guys, stream right past and kill me! Locke scowled as he studied the terrain around him, looking for any advantage he could take against the high-level foes quickly approaching. “I’m just getting ready to run if need be . . . Until you can save me, that is.”

“Depending on a pretty woman? Smart man.” Katherine’s smirk managed to grow even wider as she gave him a wink.

Locke’s heart pounded faster as the Tiger-Ants drew closer. Where will I spawn when I die? Did Ash reset my bind point, or will I be square in the middle of the Holy Alliance where they can farm me over and over until a GM bans my account for a second time? Oh, God, I can’t die! Locke’s rapidly growing anxiety had his heart beating three times faster than any doctor would claim is healthy. To make matters worse, he could just imagine Ash watching him from whatever device the GMs used to monitor players and laughing her head off at his situation.

“For honor!” Sparky yelled. He slammed his shield with this sword and charged out in front of the others to intercept the onslaught of incoming foes.

“No! Stop!” Tubal shouted back. “I’ll bring the Knight-Clubber to the snare! They aren’t working together!” It was clear that he was struggling to catch his breath as he ran, and his voice became much clearer when he was no longer a dot yelling in the distance, but almost on them.

Sparky obeyed, quickly backing up to his original position behind the snare, and it wasn’t more than a few seconds after that before the wave of EXP-holders hit. The Knight-Clubber came first and was caught by the trap. Locke positioned himself so that he was a good fifteen paces behind the group, and the battle was actually pretty good for him to watch. As soon as the snake slithered over the trap, magic purple and black chains shot up from the ground and entangled it. One after another, they wrapped around the snake and pulled taut until the serpent was crushed so tightly against the ground that Locke wondered if it would leave a large snake-shaped print even after it was cut up and faded away.

The Tiger-Ants came in behind it, but they didn’t immediately go for the Blue Phoenix Brigade. Instead, they started circling around the Knight-Clubber as if it were an enemy. Three or four of them even lunged out at the immobilized reptile, only to be crushed instantly by its still-free tail which splattered them into the ground with its clubbed end.

“See?” Tubal jumped smoothly into formation with the others like he was trying to take his seat in a class he was twenty minutes late to.

“Can we stain our blades with the lost dignity of these pitiful felines now, Commander?” Sparky raised his sword over his shield.

“Go for it,” Tubal responded. He even managed a chuckle as he pulled out his bow, notched three arrows at once and unleashed them as soon as the string was drawn. Only one of the arrows hit a target, but the one that struck a Tiger-Ant exploded in a flash of blue fire which engulfed the little creature.

What the heck?! Locke mouthed, staring at the burning cat. That is so cool. His mouth continued to hang open in awe as he watched the battle dumbstruck.

The Dragon-Wing and Minotaur, not to be outdone, also charged into the fight against the felines as a good portion of the swarm battled it out with the injured and trapped Knight-Clubber. The Minotaur, approaching the group first, swung his blade a foot or two before he was even in range. Locke thought it was a mistake, but as soon as the axe began to cut through the air, a bright blue flame shot out toward the Tiger-Ants in front of him and incinerated their flesh on contact.

When three felines jumped out from the mass of burning ones, Sparky intercepted them and quickly blocked all three in succession. Whenever one of the attacks struck his shield, a bright blue flame burst out and scorched the attacker in return.

Bianca and Katherine, both still flying above the fray, slashed and whipped the Tiger-Ants with abandon. Unlike their teammates, however, their attacks lacked any of the blue flames signifying special abilities. They used the same, standard whip attacks that they had when fighting the Knight-Clubber, but they were still impressive. The Knight-Clubber died first, and, little by little, the swarm of Tiger-Ants that had surrounded the Blue Phoenix Brigade began to thin out.

“Shy! Watch out!” Katherine shouted.

Since it wasn’t a name he was used to, it took Locke a moment to realize that she was talking to him and that he was about to be jumped by one of the ferocious foot-tall kittens. He nimbly dodged to the right of the cat with a dexterity he wasn’t aware he possessed as it bounced past him. He didn’t miss the opportunity and swung his sword down hard on the beast, slicing it as deeply as he could. Unfortunately for Locke, he wasn’t able to deal more than a bare minimum of damage to the creature, even with the extra damage from the poison on his blade. His attacks were so ineffective that he wasn’t even able to slice into the ant-cat for more than an inch before his sword rolled off, leaving it largely unharmed.

Crap, what am I going to do? He panicked when he realized that his weapon wasn’t going to be effective at all. He didn’t have any time to think it over as the cat turned around, made a loud angry ‘mya’ sound and darted at him with another pounce. Locke repeated the motion, scared to death that even a single scratch on his hand might result in death given their level disparity.

“I could use some of that help you mentioned, Kat!” Locke shouted back at the Succubus, but only got a “Busy!” in response.

You’re not going to die like this and let Anthony ruin your life twice in one day, are you? Locke chided himself. If you can’t handle one lousy Tiger-Ant, how are you going to take on the leader of the Holy Alliance? His internal lecture continued as the feline’s angry ‘mya mya’ war cry sounded off before it went in for a third pounce. Make him taste death, you wimp. Wait a minute . . .

This time, as the cat leaped forward, Locke took out three potions and threw them in the cat’s mouth just as it pounced toward him again. One of them bounced off his snout harmlessly, but two landed directly in its open mouth. Locke took a gamble and slashed at the bottles, smashing them open in the Tiger-Ant’s mouth, and dodged out of the way as quickly as he could. The Tiger-Ant’s claws narrowly missed his right side before the monster landed and went into a coughing fit. Between the glass shards stabbing into its mouth and the poison it had swallowed, the Tiger-Ant had gone from seemingly invincible to near death in a moment.

Not one to hesitate, Locke rushed forward with his poison-coated blade and began to stab the Tiger-Ant as fast and hard as he could, jamming his blade into its eye until a thrust finally sank deep enough to land a killing blow. That’s right, and the next one is for you, Anthony. He grinned from ear to ear as he fell back on his butt, finally able to relax.

When he looked up, he saw the faces of the rest of the Blue Phoenix Brigade members staring at him as they moved between the still-twitching Tiger-Ants’ corpses.

“I’m guessing that all those fancy blue flames you guys shoot are why you went with the name?” Locke asked, chuckling before letting his hands slide down and his back lie flat against the ground. As soon as the adrenaline left him, and the risk was over, he felt light as a feather. All he wanted was to close his eyes and savor the feeling–that good feeling that came with not dying an excruciating death from a devil kitty.

“No, we geared our talents towards the flames after the name. Gotta keep our style, you know?” Bianca giggled.

“Impressive work there, stud,” Katherine cooed. “I think I might just have to raise my opinion of you.”

“Honor is not obtained from a giant crushing a thousand ants, but from the weak toppling the strong through tenacity and bravery. You have done well to earn your merits today,” Sparky said, or at least Locke thought it was Sparky from the voice and the heavy role-playing. Sparky clearly took his role as the ‘Honorable Dragon Knight’ way more seriously than most people ever would.

“Yeah, you’re not bad, kid,” Tubal complimented him as he stuck out a hand. “You going to join us next fight? Or you going back to paying with potions? I mean, if you join us, we can wave the fee of five extra poisons. You’ll clearly be as good as us when you catch up in level, which I imagine will be pretty quick.”

Locke sighed. That’s right, I have potions to make. No sleep for you, Locke, you’ve still got a full day of grinding ahead of you. He grumbled to himself as he stood up and brushed the dirt off his back and pants. “No, I gotta keep working. I really appreciate the offer, though. You guys are great.” He gave his best and most sincere-looking false smile. He wasn’t faking it because he thought that they were bad people, but it was hard to feel any sort of mirth when he knew that he was going to be faced with hours of boring, mindless, repetitive tasks and no break.

“Suit yourself, but you’re always welcome to join us on the front line if you get bored,” Tubal said, dropping the matter as quickly as he brought it up.

“And you’re always welcome to join me at the bar,” Katherine winked. “I mean, as long as you’re buying the drinks.”

“Never take her up on that offer,” Bianca giggled. “It’s hard to really get drunk in the game, and she only orders shots.”

“I do not!” Katherine protested.

“Prey awaits! Idle chatter shouldn’t get in the way. Onward!” Sparky pointed his sword in a direction away from the group and then started walking that way.

“Does he know where he’s going?” Sampson asked Reginald.

“Does he ever?” Reginald answered and the whole group laughed a bit.

Laughter, fun, exciting fights like this . . . Locke sighed. I wish I could take a break and do that.

“Cheer up, Shy. We won’t let your work get interrupted next time,” Reginald said, patting him on the shoulder. “But at least you got some levels out of it, so if we do let one slip, you should be fine.

You misunderstand my pain, but who can blame you? You could never know what it’s like. Locke shook his head. Lonely was the worker’s life, and he’d never see the only people who could ever sympathize with him. The only people who would know the pain of twelve- to eighteen-hour work days seven days a week would be the people he could never meet because they’d be working–not playing Tiqpa. These kids could afford to goof off for hours at a time on a video game, so how could they empathize? How could I ever expect anyone not to have Anthony’s reaction to my situation? Disbelief, shock. That’s all that awaits the truth, especially considering it’s apparently illegal to do what I’m planning on doing . . . But he is right, though, at least I picked up some levels from the fight. Locke tried to focus on the positive and not spend too much time dwelling on problems he couldn’t solve at the moment. I guess I should check those out. We did get a ton of kills, so there will be plenty of . . .

“WAIT!” Locke shouted, stopping the group.

“What? Are we under attack?” Tubal had pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow before the first syllable even left his mouth. “Where is it? Who is there?”

“Sorry, just give me a minute. I’m going to throw these corpses in my inventory. Can you wait a few seconds? Or help me?” Locke pleaded. If there is a product, there is a way to move it. None of this is a waste, there has to be a market for it all! Locke looked at the myriad of corpses scattered across the ground.

Silence fell across the group like their jaws had fallen the floor as, one-by-one, they all gave Locke an even bigger look of disbelief than when he had managed to use the high ingestion damage of the potions to kill the Tiger-Ant.

“You can’t be serious?” Sparky finally asked. “You are going to desecrate the bodies of worthy foes?”

“I’m going to make money so that I can buy more bottles for my wonderful benefactors,” Locke answered, trying to spin his motives as he quickly shoved one corpse after another into his inventory. He sincerely hoped that there wouldn’t be a cap to how much it could hold. Every second they stood around confounded was a second more for him to pillage the recently-made, above-ground pet graveyard.

“If you’re hocking the items, we’ll help you carry them. But I suspect it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask for 10% of the earnings on every corpse you manage to sell?” Tubal asked, nodding to himself while he scratched his chin.

Ugh, that sly dog . . . Locke groaned. Tubal knew that Locke didn’t have much room to negotiate, and just like when they discussed Locke joining the group, he was taking advantage of him. But what am I going to do? At least he’s not excessively greedy. “Sure, that seems fair.”

“Sparky, Sampson, grab the meat, but let’s not take too long.” Tubal issued out the order and then headed off in the direction that Sparky had been charging earlier.

You mean: Let them do all the work so that you can know exactly how many corpses I sell. You’re a clever one, Tubal. Clever, clever. Locke made a note not to underestimate this person. There was a clear reason why he was in charge of the group, and it wasn’t his stylish bathrobe.

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