Merchant of Tiqpa 2 Ch2

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Locke did his best to look around and find Eliza as he left the room and reentered the main part of the dungeon-turned-guild base, but in truth, he was having trouble telling her apart from some of the other Demons from a distance. If he couldn’t get a clear view of her face, it would be nearly impossible to discern her from any other woman of the same height. Alright, whatever, no time to sweat finding her, he thought, dismissing it momentarily. I need to figure out what the market looks like in the Hellspawn capital . . . what goods are lacking and what most players in Witherence would want. I bet that since most of the racial advantages are skewed towards element bonuses there are probably a lot more mages and spellcasters . . . Overstocking hammers and swords might not be ideal . . . Best thing I can probably do is log off and search the forums just to be on safe side. If there’s a demand for certain types of gear, it won’t take long to figure out what it is. I’ll have far fewer chances to randomly hop off when Eliza shows up, so better do it now while I can. Then, without debating it any longer, he logged out.

Truth be told, any player could theoretically browse the web or check the forums, order calzones from their favorite cones-of-parkshire-friendly establishment, or any other activities one might use the Internet to do or view without ever logging out of Tiqpa. It was, after all, connected to the Internet, and given the intricate protection mechanisms that came with the game, it was far safer than any standard browser. That said, on top of the fact he needed to grab some grub and use the restroom, Locke found it clunky to use all the necessary in-game hand gestures and eye motions. He had been playing the game for a while, but he still hadn’t memorized all of them enough to use them fluently like the teenagers that managed to text their friends in the middle of a fight. Granted, much to Locke’s amusement, more than a few videos of people dying while clearly not paying attention to the game and instead using the in-game browser had surfaced to prove that most of them couldn’t multitask as well as they thought. All that aside, there was simply no substitute to the feel of an old-fashioned mouse and mechanical keyboard to Locke, and he always used them whenever possible.

As soon as he finished logging off, he noticed that his phone had two missed calls. Bo-Ram again? he correctly guessed. Bo-Ram was the petite Korean-American girl who played as Sampson, the giant Minotaur in the Blue Phoenix Brigade. There wasn’t a lot of deduction needed to conclude the call was hers. No one else who had his phone number would actually use it. Even his sister, whose tuition he paid for and rent he supported, didn’t call him out of the blue without leaving a text first unless it was an emergency.

Well, I guess I should return the call, he thought as he hit the redial button.

“Hey, Shy, how are you?” Bo-Ram’s rather country accent penetrated his ears as soon as she answered the phone.

“Pretty well. Just noticed I had a few missed calls. You know you can reach me in-game easier than over the phone, right?” He felt the need to ask her, even though she still insisted on calling people. How archaic.

“Yeah, I know,” she replied. Her voice was softer than most women’s and more country than most depressing songs, but it was still nice to hear over the phone. It was a marked departure from the rather brutish and sometimes guttural tones her burly minotaur produced. “I’m just calling to let you know that Tubal got the Blue Phoenix Brigade a few new contracts, and we’re just about to leave to meet our employer. I thought I’d see if you wanted to tag along. I figured that a trained alchemist specializing in poisons would love to come for a round of assassinations. These are official quests, after all.”

Locke blinked a few times in shock. Official quest assassinations? That’s not cheap . . . Most of the contracts Tubal picked up for the Blue Phoenix Brigade were actually the player-to-player-only kind, the ones that someone could easily grab over the web: fill the ranks in an army, defend a player-made town against invaders, go kill a troublesome NPC, or go kill some player who has been extra creepy to our female guild members and needs to die a few times for it. They were the kind that people dropped on the forum, a few players said they could do it, listed their levels and abilities, and the lowest bidder who was still most likely to be genuine was given an in-game gold offer for their services upon completion.

If someone wanted a job done right, and to help guarantee that it was complete, they would sometimes pay the extra gold to have a city notary put the mission on an official writ. It was a pretty simple game mechanic to take advantage of, but most people didn’t want to go the extra mile unless they were really serious about having the contract completed. In the event they did, it wasn’t just gold that would be rewarded. Once a writ was issued, the contract became a formal, in-game quest that also awarded an additional amount of experience, dependent on the amount of gold listed on the writ, to the player or group who finished the job. The writs weren’t cheap, and if the gold price on the bounty wasn’t high enough, the EXP bonus wasn’t worth it. It was very rare for players to be able to afford them, much less front the gold for both the writ and the contract just to guarantee that a job was completed.

“Do you know who you’re killing?” Locke couldn’t help but ask. This has to be a queen or a king or someone very important that most players can’t easily kill! That is going to be so exciting, like the assassination quests in old games!

“Wait! No!” Locke interjected before she could answer. Knowing any more of the details would only make it harder for him to turn down the offer–which he had to. “I’m sorry, Bo-Ram,” he sighed. “I’ve already agreed to take on a quest for the StormGuard Alliance. It’s going to have me pretty busy for a few days, I imagine.” Reginald had questioned whether or not Locke had been avoiding the Blue Phoenix Brigade, but the reality of the situation was that he had been ‘just’ missing them on several different occasions. Sampson really needs to learn how to send PMs.

“For a few days? Want me to help out after we finish up all the contracts?” Bo-Ram offered. “I can treat you to a cup of coffee later if you let me join your group before you finish the last objective.”

“Well, Reginald is still going to be with me. You sure you want to run into him right now?” Locke couldn’t help but throw out the line and see if she took a bite. He didn’t normally like to pry, but he was still curious about what that goat was up to and why he wasn’t first in line to take part in an official, writ-endorsed contract.

“Why wouldn’t I? He is one of our guildies, after all.” Bo-Ram’s chuckle turned into a laugh. “I mean, I’m not sure who invited him to the guild, but all the jokes aside, he’s harmless and fun to hang out with.”

So he’s not avoiding Sampson. “Ah . . . Did you tell him about all the new contracts? I’m sure he’d be chomping at the bit to join in for those kinds of rewards,” Locke said, digging further.

“Of course we told him. What job isn’t easier with a healer? Well, actually D–I mean, Katherine–told him.” She stopped herself before she accidently used Katherine’s real life name. “But he turned us down pretty quick. Said he had some stuff to do.”

“Is it just me, or has he been avoiding the Blue Phoenix Brigade?” Locke asked. “I mean, who turns down a contract job unless they’ve already got one they’ve agreed to?”

“You’re the only one who is that concerned with money, Shy.” Bo-Ram giggled again. She was in a much less shy mood than she had been when they were hanging out at a cafe the day after his first time attending a guild meeting.

“What? Don’t be silly,” Locke replied, shaking off that nonsense. Almost everyone cares about money, in-game or out. “Try to get Tubal to take a job that doesn’t pay.”

“Okay, maybe him too. But other than that, I don’t know anyone else. I’m positive that you two fighting over a penny is the quickest way to make copper wire.”

“But really,” Locke began, dragging the topic back to Reginald, “what’s up with the kid?”

“I don’t know, but now that you mention it . . .” Bo-Ram paused. “He avoided Tubal the last two days the group was in town, and I haven’t seen him in the same room with the grumpy guy.”

“Grumpy?” Locke asked. “Isn’t Tubal usually cheerful? Especially when he’s got a steady stream of paying gigs, which our work in Sine Nomine pretty much guaranteed?”

“Yeah, you’d think. But he’s been really upset about something, like he’s got a real stick up his . . .” Bo-Ram once again caught herself from almost saying something she wouldn’t normally. “I mean, he’s been really tightly wound lately.”

“Well, at least we know it has to do with Reginald.”

“You sure he doesn’t just like hanging out with his new ‘bro’? I mean, he didn’t even come to hang out with Katherine, Bianca or me when we went for a round of drinks recently. Said he ‘couldn’t leave a lonely soul alone,’” Bo-Ram responded, dismissing the idea that Tubal being upset had anything to do with Reginald.

Locke wanted to pursue the subject, but something suddenly caught his attention. He had been going through the forums while he was talking on the phone, and he suddenly realized that there were hardly any players working as blacksmiths, tailors or even leatherworkers anywhere in the Witherence region. He was used to doing business in Sine Nomine, and the number of items for sale over the forums was ten or twenty times the number available in Witherence. Crap, why are the prices this low with so few crafters? Locke frowned as he studied the information he was seeing. He was hoping to make a killing on this venture, but with the rate at which things were selling, he’d be lucky to break even.

“Shy? You still there? Did you accidentally mute yourself again?” Bo-Ram’s voice broke through his concentration, and he instantly felt bad for drifting off in the middle of a conversation.

“Ah, no, sorry about that. Just saw some bad news online,” he answered.

“You talking about that Tiqpa news? With the possible ban after those people disappeared? It’s stupid that they are even trying to blame Tiqpa. But I figure that, if they are trying to pin violence on video games, they might as well go for the whole nine yards and accuse the video games of kidnapping, too.”

“Yeah.” Locke didn’t feel like letting Bo-Ram know that he was actually just trying to get work done while talking to her. “Anyway, I have to get a start on that mission. If you guys finish up, shoot me a message in game. I’ll be sure to pass you an invite before we finish the last part of the quest,” Locke said. He paused for a minute then added, “And I’ll be sure to find a cafe that will let me order whiskey with my tea if you’re treating.”

“Hey! Don’t try to take advantage of me!” Bo-Ram protested the last part, but her laugh let Locke know that she wasn’t really upset by the idea.

“Just send Tubal the bill. Tell him it’s a down payment on the EXP reward,” Locke shot back, joining in on the joke.

“Well then. We’ll kill these unlucky suckers and see you soon,” Bo-Ram replied, her voice a bit boastful.

“Sounds good. See ya later.” Locke had already started texting Reginald the time and place to meet before he even finished saying goodbye and hung up.

Reginald shot him back some line about studying while being on the phone with some girl and said that he’d be on in twenty or thirty minutes if Locke could wait. Given that the Satyr was his only medic, and he would probably be dead more often than not without him, Locke decided that was fine.

He quickly made some of the ramen that his sister had left after her last visit while he was waiting, and he started taking notes about what was trending on the market in Witherence while he shoveled the food into his mouth. They apparently hated white armor, a trademark color option for the StormGuard Alliance these days, and they couldn’t stand larger staffs, maces or swords. Is the entire town full of backstabbers who need to be stealthy in an alley? And why are there more whips and rods being sold than even fifty shades of tan could ever hope for? This isn’t good at all. I’m not going to be able to buy even half of this stuff at Mt. Lawlheima, much less in Sine Nomine. . . .

Locke sighed to himself as he cleaned up his dishes and plotted out his next series of moves. Alright, I’ll go get what I can, but this is going to be a lot more difficult than I thought. Locke grumbled as he put on the DIVE device and hopped back into Tiqpa.

He hadn’t been on more than ten seconds and was still adjusting to in-game world, getting a feel for what was going on around him, when Eliza popped up in front of him.

“Where have you been, Shy?” she snapped impatiently as soon as Locke made startled eye contact with her. “I heard you were released earlier than I was, but I couldn’t find you anywhere.”

“Well, hello to you too?” Locke could tell that her mood was infinitely sourer than it had been when she had met him and Reginald with a train of Elves earlier that day. “That rough of a meeting?” Locke asked, hoping that the foul mood would dissipate before the journey got too far underway. She was already an awful travel partner, and he definitely didn’t want to have to deal with more snaps than Crackle and Pop’s bad breakfast cereal.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it,” Eliza answered quickly, and there was more than a fair bit of grumble in her voice.

“Fair enough,” Locke conceded and decided to put another step of distance between himself and his ill-tempered, murderous Demon bodyguard. Bodyguard . . . Is it just me, or are you not supposed to be terrified of the person who is supposed to protect you? Is it normal to be worried she might stab you before anyone else gets the chance?

He shook his head and blinked away the idea. “How about we go shopping then?” he asked instead, changing the subject to one that seemed much safer.

Years of experience with a younger sister whose mood could be rather temperamental–and rarely for reasons Locke understood–had taught him exactly how to handle a bad mood: listen, and if they don’t talk, shop. It wasn’t that his sister particularly liked shopping, and especially not with the ‘King of Frugality’ as she so often called him, but the act of moving around and the constant change of subjects from one type of item to another seemed to keep them distracted. So much work to keep their mind busy. If it were me, all you’d need is a shiny coin and the promise of another. Locke chuckled at the thought. It really is easy to pull my strings, isn’t it? He sighed, both a little happy and a little sad that he was simpler to handle than minute rice.

“We have a mission, Shy,” Eliza said bitterly. “We shouldn’t be wasting time gallivanting through the markets all happy-go-lucky just because you want a pretty new dress. Get what you need and hurry up.”

Locke frowned at the woman. “I was about to go look for a spear, but I think I already found one.”

“What? Altos is the craftsman who makes spears, and he is easy to find. Anyone could spot him.”

Eliza clearly didn’t get Locke’s reference so he just skipped it. “Here,” Locke said, handing her a portion of the gold Alex had given him for the mission. “How about you take this and get me as many full sets of leather armor as you can?”

“How about I just stick with you while you buy what you want instead,” she replied flatly, instantly shutting down his plan.

“Suit yourself.” Locke immediately headed toward the first item on his list. From what he could tell based on the forums, full suits of leather armor were going to be in heavy demand. If he could get some daggers and wands to go with it, he’d be set. Unfortunately, he wasn’t going to find any of the other items he suspected he was going to need anywhere in this region. He could only hope that some good haggling in Witherence would give him the prices he needed.

The shopping went rather smoothly at first. He managed to get both the armor and the wands without a single issue and without any conversation with his bodyguard. The silence carried on for quite a while until Eliza finally stopped him and asked, “Why don’t you ever even visit?”

“What?” Locke turned around to where Eliza was standing, arms crossed and expression as unreadable as usual. “Visit you?”

“Visit anyone? Why do you always travel alone?”

“I haven’t been alone that much. I usually have Reginald with me more often than not these days,” Locke countered.

“He basically forced himself into your company, and you two barely talk.”

“How would you know?” Locke asked. He was starting to get a bit paranoid with how much people seemed to know about his day-to-day activities.

“I read the reports. You never visit the Blue Phoenix Brigade, and you never exchange more than a few words with Reginald at a time. Even then, it’s usually only when one of you is about to die.”

“Why . . . Why are you guys keeping such detailed reports on me?” Locke asked indignantly. “Are people watching us right now? Is this conversation also being monitored? Do you guys have cameras everywhere?” He was quickly growing more and more irritated. Do they not trust me? I help them out once, and suddenly I don’t have a right to privacy? “Why? Come on, tell me: Why the heck are you guys watching my every move?”

“I thought you would know that already,” she answered coolly. “You’re a valuable asset.” Eliza’s arms wrapped around her own chest as her icy words stabbed into Locke’s.

“Is that it? Just a valuable asset? Then why are you so worried about who I talk to? Or how much I talk?” Locke knew he wasn’t being rational and that being angry never helped anything, but nothing about the situation was rational. Something about the invasion of privacy, the lack of trust, the intrusion–it all seeped into his head and started making him angrier than he should have been in this situation. Normally, he’d take these things at face value and move on. He’d simply adjust and figure out how to evade the eyes that were apparently watching him constantly. But something about this situation just felt wrong. This wasn’t normal.

If you want to do it, just do it. Swing at her. It’s not like you could be blamed. She threatened to kill you multiple times when you met, she always acts like a jerk, and that hairstyle of hers is atrocious! Go on, hit her!

Locke stared at the unprompted prompt from the Tiqpa message system. Swing at her? Where did that come from? No, I shouldn’t. I can’t do that. She’s not a bad person. She’s just doing her job. Locke shook his head and brushed away the random message. If anything, it had helped assuage his anger at her and redirect it more to his own situation rather than at her.

“Look, you’re not just an asset. You’re a friend, and you’ve been more than generous with helping the StormGuard Alliance. But, honestly, that’s exactly why they spy on you. You should know that already, and I don’t really like the fact that you’re taking it out on me. You think we want to watch you farble around all day? It’s a drain on both resources and manpower, but they’re worried that some other guild or organization might try to apprehend you or come up with some other way to forcibly remove you from the equation. If it wasn’t for the fact that your poisons and potions have such a drastic impact on our battles, no one in the guild would even pay attention to you.”

Eliza’s eyes sharpened as the two stared at each other.

Hit her. She deserves it. You want to do it, so just go for it. Strike out and unleash justice against bad hair days everywhere!

I don’t want to hit her. She’s my friend. Why would I want to hit her just because Alex insists on having people stalk me like I’m a Japanese pop idol? You don’t just randomly hit people! That’s not how the world operates! He realized that he was practically shouting at a Tiqpa prompt inside his head and took a breath to calm himself down.

“Are you okay?” Eliza asked. She seemed to sense something was off with Locke but obviously couldn’t tell what it was.

Look, this is your friendly neighborhood Ash, and you’re going to nod your head to the right and swing your silly little hammer at her stomach right now. If you don’t . . . Well, if you don’t, I’m going to ban you right here and now. Also, dodge as fast as you can to your left afterward.

Locke gulped. He knew well enough that Eliza was far better in the melee arts than he was. He moved like an untrained child swinging a hammer at a wall, and her sword arts had reached a pristine level that rivaled the samurai of old in speed and fluidity.

This is not a discussion, Locke. Do it. Now.

Fine! You want to watch my every move? Treat me like a marionette while you pull my strings and make me dance? Then I’ll dance! Locke was half-angry at being spied on and half-angry at being told to hit a person he actually liked and trusted, but he did as he was instructed. He nodded his head to the right then pulled out his hammer and swung out at Eliza’s stomach, giving her no warning of the incoming strike. Eliza immediately sensed the attack and managed to pull out her two swords before the thrust hammer even came close to reaching her. Just as predicted, she proceeded to strike with a swift downward cut at his right side.

Luckily enough, Locke was actually pretty good at following instructions despite all of his bad points in battle. He dodged to his left as soon as he saw his attack blocked, narrowly escaping certain shoulder loss.

Jump!

The simple one-word prompt came in, and he obeyed as Eliza struck at him again with a quick slash toward his legs. The jump, just high enough to dodge the sweeping edge thanks to Tiqpa’s attribute system that gave him a vertical leap good enough to compete with the best pro basketball player, left him wide open in the air. Something that the prompt knew even as the next message came in:

Brace yourself.

Locke had just enough time to frown as he saw the prompt and Eliza behind it as she spun around and began her famous tornado of blades right into his face while he was stuck in air feeling like a pinata about to be beaten ruthlessly by his friend. Well, I did swing first. He took a deep breath and covered his face with his arms like a boxer taking a defensive stance as he pulled his knees up into a fetal position to guard his stomach.

Here it comes.

As the prompt warned him, he closed his eyes just in time before the hit landed. Bam! A blast threw Locke forward, right into Eliza. His health bar took a good twenty percent ding, but it was a lot less than it would have been if Eliza’s sword spin had sliced him up. Instead of being cut to ribbons in midair, he now found himself sprawled out on top of Eliza, his face awkwardly close to hers as he scrambled to get ahold of himself.

“How did you see them before I did? Are you okay?” Eliza asked, her mouth still close enough to him that he could feel the warm air tickling his ear.

This combat lesson has been brought to you by your Friendly Neighborhood Ash. Have a nice day! Oh, and not to sound cryptic, but I couldn’t figure out why you didn’t die in the holly jolly fields of doom earlier after that guy splooshed his milky white holiday cheer on your face from his big milk cannon. I’d be careful for now because, when your hit points hit zero, you might just not wake up. Have fun!

What? Locke blinked in shock. What are you talking about? I can’t–

“Shy, move!” Eliza demanded as she forcibly rolled Locke off of her with a violent shove.

“Right . . .” Locke agreed, scrambling to his feet and turning around. In the short time it had taken between being blasted in the back to scrambling onto his feet, the entire entrance of Mt. Lawlheima had broken out into chaos. There were players from the StormGuard Alliance, NPC Demons and what Locke could only guess were Holy Alliance or mercenaries fighting all over in the gateway.

“Don’t let a single one of these red eyed bastards live!” one of the few non-friendlies in combat, likely the commander, shouted as he raised his twisted icy sword high into the air. “For Glory, For Ferden!”

“For Ferden!” Dozens of other voices echoed, most of them through clenched teeth as they battled against their opponents.

Locke was momentarily stunned by the madness and caught up in watching the mayhem. Demons had spread out across the opening to the dungeon in a haphazard formation and were locked in hand-to-hand combat as they desperately battled for their lives against the attacking force. Most of the fight seemed to be contained to the raised platform that served as a sort of indoor launchpad for Blue-Drakes, but the ebb and flow of the battle meant that it could erupt and spread to other areas at any moment.

One nearby warrior was struggling to hold on against two relentless opponents. It was clear from the Demon’s footwork that he could have handled himself just fine in a one-on-one fight, but he was constantly being pushed further and further onto the defensive as the attacking Wraith players pressed their endless assault. The Wraiths were using ethereal chains, a racial-specific advantage, and whipping the spear- and shield-wielding fighter from two directions at once. Unable to defend himself against either opponent or close the distance between them, he was forced to give ground little by little. Eventually, even if he didn’t die to one of their strikes, he’d fall off the edge of the raised platform they were fighting on and meet his end one way or another.

Eliza obviously saw the same imminent problem that did. “Rutherford!” she shouted in alarm and took off sprinting across the chamber. She vaulted onto the platform in a fluid movement and landed beside her comrade in a flurry of sword strokes that offered the beleaguered soldier a moment’s reprieve from the pressing Wraiths. Almost as soon as her combination of sword strokes came to an end, a fireball crashed into her in a fiery explosion, likely thrown from the same source that had spied out Locke only moments ago.

“Rutherford!” she screamed again as she bounded back onto her feet and once more entered the fray. “Shy, get the caster off me!” she demanded as she dodged around another of the flaming balls. Now that she knew to look out for them, it was highly unlikely that she was going to be caught unaware a second time.

 

Are you sure you want to do that? You might never wake up again if you die trying. Turn around, Locke. Run away until I figure out what’s wrong with your character’s code. None of this makes any sense to me, so don’t do anything stupid.

The prompt interrupted Locke just as he started to run toward the caster, who was one of the annoying Faeries from the Covenant of the Grove. Fancy purple skin, flowery wings and hovering an inch off the ground while blasting fire out of her wand, Locke had already decided that he needed to grind the cutesy little nuisance into ash. This wench has struck me and my friend and dares get in our way! He grumbled as he pulled out a speed potion, which he had grinded up to a not-so-impressive +5 just in case he needed a little extra help running away, and quickly applied a Deadly Poison to his weapon.

If something went wrong here, there was no telling what might happen to him. He had been unconscious for half an hour last time, and next time it might be even longer–if he woke up at all. That aside, he didn’t give it more than a passing thought. One of his friends was in danger, his guild was in danger, and there was no way that he was going stand idly by on the sidelines and watch them die. There was only a chance that something would go wrong if he was killed in battle, but there was certain death for Eliza and everyone else if they died.  He hesitated for a brief moment remembering the warning, then used the speed potion and charged the Faery as he rushed to the aid of his friend.

“Shy, watch out!” a voice called to him through the madness of combat as he pressed forward. He skidded to a halt just in time to avoid being cleaved in half by a giant double-bladed axe twirling through the air in an unnatural way like a spinning baton before started back toward the owner. He followed the throwing weapon back to its source and found a wicked-looking, seven-foot-tall Imp in desperate need of a shirt that must have weighed close to 400 pounds. The disgusting creature was focused in on Locke as he reached out to catch the returning weapon in one hand and simultaneously grabbed a second axe from off of his back. He smacked his fat, frog-like lips snaked a long tongue across them in a crude gesture meant to intimidate Locke, but it only served to turn his stomach a bit more.

“Thanks!” Locke shouted to whoever it was that saved his life. He who had shouted to him, so he called out in a general direction and hoped his gratitude had been heard. Then, ignoring the Imp, he continued toward the caster as if the blade had been nothing more than a passing car he had to wait for at a traffic sign before crossing a street.

“Persistent little brat, aren’t you?” The Faery’s grin managed to be even creepier than the Imp licking his lips. “Insolent boys should be taught their place,” the Faery continued, aiming a wand and throwing another fireball at Locke.

“Do a barrel roll!” The voice that had saved him earlier shouted before the red burst even left the Faery’s wand.

Locke, not knowing exactly how to do a barrel roll without an airplane, decided to attempt the only roll he could think of pulling off with his current momentum: the forward roll. He lined up his shoulders to catch the ground instead of his fat head with a perfect precision that could only ever have been managed with the assistance of the Tiqpa’s physics engine.

“Wait!” The Faery, startled by Locke’s maneuver, started edging backward and looked like she was about to begin pleading. “Hey! Listen!”

Locke reacted on pure instinct. Hearing a Faery say the same words as the most annoying fairy in one of the greatest games of all time was simply too much. Years of pent up rage and frustration immediately boiled to the surface in an unstoppable surge. He launched his strongest attack possible, smashing the Faery with a beam of light from his hammer before immediately closing the remaining distance between the two. The beam of light seared straight through the Faery’s left shoulder, completely removing one of her wings, and Locke’s weapon came crashing downward in a violent overhanded attack before the overgrown bug even fell to the ground. His hammer cracked the Faery’s collarbone, and he could feel her body cave in under the force of the blow. Whatever meager defense her cloth robes provided wasn’t nearly enough, and the girl crumpled to the ground in a wrecked heap at his feet.

And they say you shouldn’t ever hit a girl . . . He laughed to himself as he remembered his sister lecturing him when he was showing her some clips of him in the game last weekend in which he was fighting against a few mermaids during an escort quest. ‘They’re trying to eat me alive!’ he had argued, and ‘That’s no excuse!’ she had retorted.

He pushed that memory out of his head and made sure to deliver a swift kick to the downed woman, smashing her teeth in, just for good measure.

“On your right!” The voice that had been helping him the entire time shouted another warning, and Locke turned to see a Demon that he didn’t recognize join him on his right. This particular Demon was wielding two swords, unlike the shield and spear that most of the troops were trained in or the single sword that most of the players seemed to choose, so Locke could at least assume that he was something special. Only the elite fighters in the Demon Host or the kids who had nothing better to do than spend all day playing around went for the double swords. Either way, he felt was in good hands.

After being assured of his safety for the moment, Locke resumed kicking in the downed Faery.

“Crap, Blake!” the guy who had just come beside him yelled into Locke’s right ear.

Locke turned to see the giant Imp who had only narrowly missed splitting him in half moments ago slicing through one of the more prominent guards. Anyone who had ever visited Mt. Lawlheima would recognize Blake as of the senior captains. There was a good chance that Locke couldn’t pick him out of a lineup in a police station, but having his named shouted in his ear made it all the more obvious. Locke knew that he was one of the original Demons, one of the few who had been there at the creation of the StormGuard Alliance, and he had shared a handful of brief conversations with him during his visits.

The guard had lost his arm somewhere during the course of the battle and was currently on his knees screaming in agony. He was obviously close to death, and worst of all, it was going to be anything valiant. The gluttonous imp tossed away the guard’s dismembered limb with casual disdain before reaching down to pick up fallen man and shoving him legs-fist into the gaping maw that was his mouth. The pudgy, disgusting creature chomped on Blake’s lower half with ragged bites, slowly swallowing more and more of the dying guard. It wasn’t as if Blake was the only one who was injured, dying or possibly even about to be eaten, but Locke could have sworn multiple pairs of eyes across the battlefield watched as the man wet himself. The Imp tossed his head back and chomped its way from the shin bone all the way up to the gut.

“Let’s go help–” Locke was going to suggest the two of them assist Blake, but the words choked off his in his throat. It would be better to give the man a clean death, even if there wasn’t any real hope of saving him, but he couldn’t stop himself from looking around the battlefield for Eliza as soon as the suggestion began to leave his mouth. Crap, indeed, he grumbled to himself before breaking into a sprint toward his friend.

She had managed to kill one of the Wraiths while he was still working on the Faery, but with the plasma left behind by the dead Wraith there to show her progress in the battle, she had been surrounded by a second Wraith and two red-skinned Devilkins.

“Wait! There’s too many!” the man shouted after Locke.

You really should listen to Justin Yoo: There are too many there. You’d already be dead against just that single Faery if he hadn’t helped you. How do you plan on fighting all of them?

As annoying as it was, she was right. If he was going stand a chance here, he was going to have to rethink his strategy and come up with something different. She was on point about him being worthless with a blade or a hammer. When it came down to it, he was more often than not about as useful as a salted slug trying to fight its way out of a turtle shell with day-old pizza crust as a weapon. What she had forgotten, however, was that he had never been the type for hand to hand combat. What he lacked in brute strength, speed, ability, or even strategic and tactical knowhow, he made up with absolutely explosive Deadly Poisons. With his skill The Unlit Fuse, he was more than capable of turning his now-impressive and powerful Deadly Poison into a wave of destruction as the skill enabled him to cause a poison to combust with an area of effect status damage when thrown. There was a good chance that more than a few of the detonations might end up hitting Eliza, which would be sure to earn him a few smacks to the head if Sampson or Sparky were around, but he didn’t really have any other options available to him.

Not wanting to waste any more time, he quickly withdrew six of his little gold-making poisons of doom, altered them with The Unlit Fuse and lobbed them directly toward the group that had Eliza cornered. The potions exploded in a violent sequence of bursts just above their heads, sending up a vaporous cloud of noxious green gas. One of the Wraiths was instantly shredded by the blast, simply falling apart where he stood, and a Devilkin keeled over on the ground, clutching his stupid, pointy, red tail. Within seconds, however, he had pushed himself back to a knee and was in the process of getting back onto his feet.

Eliza lunged forward in an obvious attempt to take advantage of the collapsed Devilkin, clearly to finish him off while he was down. As soon as her blades arced forward, however, the remaining Wraith’s hands fluttered open and a chain shot out, wrapping around one of her blades. The Wraith ripped backward on the chain, and Eliza’s blade was pulled to the side before she could land a killing blow, sparing the Devilkin’s life.

Eliza didn’t miss a beat and immediately switched targets to the Wraith who had impeded her offensive play. She used the momentum provided by the Wraith’s pull against her sword and swung around with her free arm to stab at the enemy. Her aim was true, and it was a brilliant maneuver, but she came up empty as his shadow-like physique–which more closely resembled a series of black capes bound tightly together than an actual body–seemed to part ways and let her blade slip between them.

Not good. Locke began to panic when he witnessed her finishing attempt fail and the subsequent series of events leave her completely open to a counterattack. As if reading his mind, the unimpacted Devilkin immediately made a move to attack her open flank using a short, bone-handled sickle. Even from where he was a distance away, Locke could tell that the blade was riddled with stubby, protruding spikes that would make a mess of anything they came in contact with after only a few blows.

Locke only had two ways to assist her: he could throw out another series of exploding poisons, which would provide a sort of suppressing fire even if he wasn’t able to kill the Devilkin, or he could his light beam skill, Holy Finger of the Sun God.

Thus far, he had only been using the version that created a simple beam of light. It was useful as a good, quick, long-ranged attack. As powerful and as tiny it was, however, it could only be generated once every sixty seconds, leaving him unable to follow it up with anything of merit afterward. It was also hard to use, and while it did enough damage to blow open that Faery’s shoulder earlier, it was not unstoppable. If the Faery had been wearing plate armor, for instance, it might not have even penetrated through the winged creature’s shoulder, much less the wing.

The second aspect of the Holy Finger of the Sun God skill allowed him to channel the skill for sixty seconds, but only once a day. When the White-Wing leader, the boss he had beaten to acquire the title Feather Plucker the Usurper and access to the magic, had used the skill, it had seemed limitless in potential. The White-Wing leader had summoned a massive cage of light that absolutely obliterated anything that came in contact with the bars. When Locke had tried it out, however, the results weren’t nearly as impressive. In fact, the best version of the unpowered skill Locke had found so far was a crude spear-shaped shaft of light. It was far from extraordinary and positively underwhelming.

Given that Eliza was in immediate danger, however, Locke knew didn’t have any other option. He simply didn’t any poisons ready, and there wasn’t enough time to them on the fly with The Unlit Fuse. He really didn’t have another option. He channeled the Holy Finger of the Sun God into a spear and chucked it at the Devilkin as quickly as he could while shouting out, “Die!” He wasn’t used to warcries, but the audible note caused the Devilkin to recognize his weapon’s approach, forcing him to turn away from an easy kill and instead attempt to block the incoming projectile.

Success! Locke cheered himself on as soon as he saw the Devilkin’s attention diverted. He hadn’t really expected the attack to work, but it did. It completely bypassed the Devilkin’s sickle and struck into the player’s thigh. It didn’t have enough penetrating power to go all the way through, so it just sat there, protruding from his leg for three seconds as the player looked at it dumbfoundedly.

Don’t tell me this is your first time getting stabbed? Locke felt like shaking his head at this kid who managed to get so far without experiencing the Tiqpa engine’s pain sensors.

Not one to waste the opportunity, Locke charged forward and pulled the spear out of the Devilkin’s leg with his right hand. In the same motion, he brought his hammer around with his left and aimed a thrust at player’s exposed gut. For a split second, he was actually convinced the idiot would stand there and accept the blow, but the guy managed to come to his senses in time and used one of his sickles to sweep the spear aside. Locke followed up with a quick back-handed blow to the Devilkin’s left side with his hammer, as it was the one that was occupied with moving the spear, but the awkward angle of the horizontal swing prevented any real damage from being done. Even though the hammer connected without a problem, there just wasn’t enough force behind the blow.

The pathetic strike didn’t bother Locke. He knew he wasn’t a fighter, and killing the Devilkin had never been his real objective. The series of attacks was just to stall him while Eliza regained her footing and was able to put up her defenses.

Locke took a moment out of his fight with Mr. Town Guard to Be–that was the name he had given the silly-looking Devilkin whose leg he had managed to nail with the worst spear throw ever– and risked a quick glance over to check on her situation. He discovered Eliza working furiously to fend off the attacks from both the other Devilkin and the Wraith with her free hand while struggling to gain control of the sword that had been wrapped with a chain.

Well, a spear to the leg is not exactly an arrow to the knee, but whatever. Locke shrugged off the inaccuracies in his own reference and stabbed his spear downward, faking an attack as if he were going to try and stab the other Devilkin’s leg. It was a feint that forced the Devilkin, clearly afraid of receiving a repeat of his previous wound, to back up and attempt to parry at the same time. When Mr. Town Guard to Be backed up, Locke used the free space to lunge toward the second Devilkin who was still occupied with Eliza. Locke smashed into the creature with his shoulder so hard that he stumbled sideways and into the Wraith, directly into the arm that was holding onto the chain.

While the gimmick was successful, it still left Locke vulnerable–something he quickly learned as he turned back to Mr. Town Guard to Be. He was met with a quick and ruthless slash as soon as he faced his opponent that he was barely able to block in time with his arm. The impenetrable armor he had gotten from the White-Wing boss in Sine Nomine, General Sun’s #13 Special, stopped the sweeping slash from penetrating through and cutting his arm in half, but Locke still lost a significant portion of his hit points from the strong attack.Even though the blow had been deflected, Locke realized that he was hovering just a little over forty percent of his health bar as he cringed from the fresh stabbing pain in his arm.

Ugh, weapons always hurt more than spells, he bemoaned through gritted teeth. He didn’t have a ton of combat experience, but he had learned early on to never open his mouth unless necessary for fear of biting his tongue after taking unexpected blows.

“Idiot!” Eliza shouted at Locke. She aimed a swift kick at the downed Devilkin, ensuring that he couldn’t get up, and slid her now-freed blade from the chain. As soon as she was in control of her weapon again, she brought both her swords around from either side in horizontal attacks directed toward the hollow hole in the Wraith’s chest. Before he had time to realize what was happening and defend himself, he was clearly parted into two separate halves. She used her momentum from the attack to shift her stance and swing both of her swords around to the same side, and in a rather flamboyant fashion, she followed up by striking both of her swords directly into the Devilkin who had been knocked down yet again.

Locke smiled as he heard the curse come from Eliza. He knew it meant that she wasn’t struggling to stay alive anymore and that there was at least one less worry on his plate if she had time to call him an idiot.

He took a deep breath and ignored Eliza’s situation while he focused on defending himself from the rain of sickle blows coming from the now-enraged Mr. Town Guard to Be. For some reason, he didn’t seem to appreciate the fact that all of his friends were dying around him. The rain of attacks seemed to speed up for a few moments, and it took everything Locke had just to hold on and parry the attacks–until they suddenly ceased altogether, and droplets of blood started running out the corners of the Devilkin’s mouth. It didn’t take more than a moment to realize that Eliza had stabbed both her swords into his back, penetrating each of his lungs, before pulling her weapons clean and beheading the blood-drooling dunce.

“You shouldn’t take such risks,” Eliza chastised Locke. “What would have happened if his attack was stronger?

“You were in trouble,” Locke replied, brushing off her complaint. It’s not like it matters if I die. It’s not a big . . . Part of his brain hurt for a moment. No, wait . . . Ash said my character’s code wasn’t right . . .

“I’ll be in far more trouble if something happens to you than I would be if I’m almost killed,” she griped.

“You can’t be serious? Alex isn’t that strict, is he?” Locke found it hard to imagine the friendly man whom he had been having such pleasant negotiations with ever being that harsh with a soldier. Even though he barely knew the general, he had even felt it was out of character when he chastised Eliza earlier; even then, Alex was still only doing so like a parent might an out-of-line child, not like a warden to an inmate.

“The general takes all punitive actions necessary to ensure the success of the cause,” Eliza responded. “There!” Eliza pointed with her sword to a nearby clash that was much larger than their little skirmish. It was between several dozen Demons and twice as many players from whatever contracted guild was attacking. “Their flank is weakening, I have to go help.”

Eliza was right. Locke followed her sword and saw that the Demons under Alex’s command in the larger, more-organized section of the fight were holding up well. They seemed to be wielding their shields better than their spears, and it looked as if they were focused on blocking as many attacks as possible rather than pressing any attacks. A pack of circling Blue-Drake riders was sniping the mages and archers on the enemy’s backlines to keep them from focusing on the melee fighters and to prevent the line from spilling over. Other than a few apparent casualties in the Demons’ lines, neither side seemed to be losing much, and it was only a matter of time until the Demons were overwhelmed by the larger force of players.

Locke pulled out one of his health potions and tossed it to his wounded ally as they dusted themselves off. Even with the fact Locke hadn’t specialized in the health potions, his terrible performance in most battles had forced him to build up some skill in manufacturing them just to cut out some of the usual downtime that players required to heal up between fights. Without the health potions, he’d have spent most of his time leveling with Reginald nursing his wounds and crying out for a real medic.

He hadn’t even finished chugging his own potion when, out of nowhere, he felt the ground start rumbling.

“He’s coming! He’s caught wind of the battle!” A White-Wing that Locke knew as Daniel, one of the Four Riders, but never actually had the pleasure of meeting, shouted as he rushed through to the field of battle at an unbelievable speed. He soared through the chamber from the deeper parts of Mt. Lawlheima, landing on several enemy players with his dive attack on the way. Each descent claimed the life of an enemy, as if a giant hand from the sky was plucking out their very souls one at a time, before pulling back into the air as if he had a bungee cord attached to him that was ripping him back up as quickly as he dove down.

“He’s not needed! Tell him we have it under control!” General Alex, who was doing his best to maintain his group even in the midst of the player-on-player chaos all around them, shouted back.

Who is he? What’s going on? Locke started to panic. He had never seen Alex worked up, and Locke could sense the tension in his voice. Attacks on the base weren’t uncommon, though usually no NPCs ever died. He had experienced one or two on his visits, and Alex had always handled them quickly and masterfully. No one ever mentioned a ‘him.’

“Too late! He’s coming! Not even Stephanie could stop him from joining the fray after he found out some of our members died! Get our people out of here Alex! I’ll have the immortal newcomers hold defense, but you must get the native Tiqpa people out of here!”

Locke could feel the sense of panic match pace with a growing sense of confusion. He was curious as much as frightened now. He understood part of what Daniel was saying, but the words didn’t make any sense when they were strung together.  

“It shall be done, Daniel!” General Alex replied, then signaled his troops by yelling out some sound that Locke could only guess was a proper signal.

“Eliza! That’s you, too!” Justin Yoo, the guard who had helped Locke earlier, warned as he came back over, carrying the head of the Imp who had killed his friend Blake. “We have to get out of here before he arrives.”

“But he’s our savior, and these are our people . . .” Eliza began.

Locke watched Eliza as she argued with Justin Yoo, but he was still stumped. Savior? You mean . . . No! It couldn’t be?

“You know how he has been in battle lately,” the guard admonished grimly. “Fall in line, soldier. If one of us dies in the carnage because we didn’t follow orders, there will be hell to pay for everyone after.”

“I can’t abandon my charge,” Eliza insisted. “I have to protect Locke.”

“Then bring him back with you, but get out of here! Now! That’s an order!” Justin’s temper seemed to be rising with every exchange.

“To the sacred quarters on the second level of Lawlheima? That’s forbidden. I’m staying here to protect him.” Eliza shrugged off Justin’s insistence, readying her swords and backing up.

“Why do you have to be so difficult,” Justin sighed. He dropped the imp’s head and pulled out two swords of his own, each one bleeding a dark aura that sent chills up Locke’s spine.

“How about we just fly away from the battle?” Locke felt like he had to be the voice of reason. Whoever was coming, he definitely didn’t want to be caught in whatever was going to happen next.

“There is no escaping when he comes.” Justin shook his head and no sooner had the words left his mouth than Locke saw clearly who ‘he’ was.

It was Darwin. The bringer of end times, the Demon King of Tiqpa. The giant beast of a man stood who eleven feet tall and was covered with hulking, tensed muscles that were visible even from beneath his bathrobe. Two wicked-looking horns curled up from his skull and sat perched above smoldering red eyes that looked like they could have been portals into the deeper parts of some fiery abyss, and Locke was almost certain that he could actually spy hooves beneath the bottom hem of the bathrobe. Locke felt the hairs stand up on his arms and his skin crawl at the sight. Even from across the battlefield, the Demon King exuded a violent sense of wrath. This was death, and it was coming.

The Demon King rode in on a giant rainbow-colored dragon which was completely unlike any of the other Blue-Drakes that Locke had ever seen. The drakes were mostly all blue in color, and one or two were darkly-scaled enough to almost verge on black, but the big, full-bodied dragon was iridescent. It had feathers in the place of scales, and it had a tail that was almost as long as its entire wingspan–which was already massive in proportion to its body.  

Then, to make matters worse, Locke noticed the Demon King’s weapon. He was simultaneously dumbfounded by how he hadn’t seen it first and how this behemoth of a man was even able to wield it properly. The mammoth two-handed sword was sinister, awe-inspiring, and every inch of its blade was covered in a bright red fire that was only a few shades brighter than Darwin’s own eyes. Behind him seemed to be a series of Blue-Drakes, each carrying one of the mini bosses of the StormGuard Alliance as they chased after Darwin.

Even before they neared the battlefield, the dragon began shooting balls of fire out of its mouth, one after another.

“He’s here!” one of the enemies, a Wraith wearing a crown and riding one of their ethereal stallions called out. “Ready the poison for delivery! Quickly! Before we all di–!”

The leader’s voice was cut off by one of the fireballs that incinerated him instantaneously, reducing even the man’s bones to ashes. His flunky pulled out a horn and was about to say the same thing when Darwin landed on him blade-first. The lackey was cleaved in two from head to crotch, and it all happened in the blink of an eye. Locke didn’t even have time to register what had happened before he realized that another ten or so of the enemy players had been ripped asunder by Darwin’s blade.

Poison? What the . . . What the heck? Locke scanned the enemy lines to see if anyone was changing their tactic, and he was quickly able to spot a handful pulling out blowdart-like devices. “We have to stop them!” Locke shouted, pointing at one of the assassins.

 

No! You must not get struck by that poison! Let Eliza or Justin do the work!

 

Ash’s message flooded his screen again.

Don’t worry. He answered back without uttering a word, as if Ash could hear even the deepest of his thoughts. I don’t plan on getting hit by any of them. They’re not even going to have the chance to shoot!

Locke grinned as he pulled out some of his remaining Deadly Poison bottles and flung them quickly at the half-wit simpletons that thought they could get away with such a tactic in front of him. Poison is my game! His grenades, all armed with The Unlit Fuse, landed about their targets and decimated five of the closest seven assassins. One of the remaining assassins didn’t even have to be touched as he was cut in half by one of the StormGuard Alliance players wielding a billhook.

Locke readied his channeled light spear and flung it at the last assassin, hoping that he was too distracted by the ongoing battle to notice the incoming projectile. If I was able to hit someone who saw it coming, I should have no problem against someone who doesn’t even– Halfway through the air the spear dissipated. The channeling time had expired and the condensed light turned into tiny dots before fading altogether. Crap!

“Your spear fail on you often?” Eliza taunted as she began her sprint toward the assassin.

“What? No! This has never happened to me before!” Locke insisted. There was no way he could match her speed, but he chased after her anyway, hoping he could intercept any danger she might encounter on the way.

“You two! Get back here!” Justin Yoo yelled after them, but he didn’t join them in their mad dash. One of the enemy players had moved to attack their position just as Locke and Eliza began their attack. He wasn’t a real threat to Justin, but he was just competent enough to bring the guard halt and force him to defend himself against the player’s quarterstaff.

“Never happened to you before?” Eliza, with an unusually jolly expression, continued to laugh at Locke’s expense as the distance between the two of them increased. “That’s what they all say!”

Even though Locke was able to hold his own in the earlier skirmish, he knew that Eliza, a Demon, had innately better stats than he did. There was no way he could keep up with her speed, and sure enough, she reached the target first by what felt like a mile.

Locke wished she hadn’t. The assassin was able to load his device and aim it at Darwin just as she arrived on the scene. Despite her incredible speed and the direction from which she arrived, there was no way she was going to stop the assassin from shooting the blowdart; so, instead, she jumped forward and intercepted the poison. She took the dart struck squarely in her arm instead of allowing it to strike Darwin.

Crap! Woman! What were you thinking?! Locke shouted in his head at Eliza as she landed.

He half-expected her to begin acting sickly, wobbling the rest of the way to her foe, or to fall to the ground unconscious. But, instead, her red eyes flashed, and she moved even faster, ripping out the enemy’s intestines with one sword in the most brutal, barbaric fashion Locke had ever seen.

“Grab her!” Justin, who had now caught up to them, shouted at Locke. “Don’t let her keep fighting!”

Do as he says! Don’t let her kill another!

“Huh?” Locke voiced his confusion aloud but didn’t spend even a moment hesitating as he threw himself on top of Eliza, hoping she wouldn’t cut him in half in the process for his assault. Eliza struggled against him at first, but Justin kneeled down and pinned one of her arms against her side, assisting Locke in his fight to keep the woman in place.

“Get off me, lecher! There are still enemies around!” she roared in protest.

She fought against them for what felt like several long minutes, and there were several times Locke was certain that she was going to break free. He could feel her slender body pressed underneath him, writing back and forth and she tried to work herself free, and he was surprised by the amount of strength in her lithe frame. Eventually, after Locke and Justin doing their best to keep her in place, the squirming stopped.

Locke didn’t have to guess why. As soon as he looked up, he realized that the entire area was almost devoid of life. There were hundreds of enemy players and dozens of StormGuard Alliance players dead piled up in grotesque mounts of flesh. At first sight, Locke assumed it must have been a close fight with Darwin sweeping things up. The longer he inspected them, however, he began to realize that many of the dead StormGuard Alliance players had the same wounds as the enemy players: the same giant cauterized cuts that separated the pieces of their body.

In the middle of it all stood Darwin, replete in all his splendor, covered from head to toe in fresh blood, with his crown and his terrible, fiery blade. Surrounding him on each side were four identical-looking, blonde-haired, green-eyed women in a white princess cut dress that Locke could swear was cosplay to a game he couldn’t quite put his finger on, each one moving in an identical fashion as she extended an arm toward Darwin, reaching out and touching him on each one of his sides. As they touched him, a light spread out around Darwin while the four Stephanies slowly merged into the one that was placing a hand on his back.

“It’s Stephanie. She’s come out to calm him down after the fight and bring him back to the throne. He takes the loss of people from Valcrest like Blake very personally and very hard,” Justin said, the admiration in his voice incredibly evident.

Then . . . Then why did they have to retreat before he arrived? Locke stared at the body of another Demon he could only recognize from the pale skin and dark hair. This was by far the deadliest assault that had ever struck the Demon Host, and even though the casualties were incredibly lopsided for the most part, Locke knew that the enemies of the StormGuard Alliance would eventually whittle away all of the guards if an attack like this hit them daily. NPCs don’t respawn, Locke realized.

Locke gulped again. The thought of losing people who felt and acted as real as Eliza bothered him on a visceral level. He looked back up at Darwin as the Great Lord and Savior of the people, as they often called him over and over again in reverent fashion, returned to his building-sized, rainbow-colored mount and flew off.

“But, what about her?” Locke asked as he slowly got off Eliza. He fully expecting her to slap him just for touching her, much less skewer him for pressing up against her so much as she squirmed on the ground.

“I have a name you know,” Eliza quipped dully as she stood up. Locke braced himself for the hit, but it never came. She just touched her right cheek, eyes wide.

“What’s wrong?” Locke asked warily, still expecting to be struck.

“I don’t know . . . Wh . . . What happened to me?” Eliza’s usually strong and confident voice quivered as her hand pressed more firmly into her cheek. “What was that?”

“You’ve been poisoned.” A Lynx hybrid holding a single katana spoke as he approached the group.

Wait . . . Is that . . .? Is that Kitchens? Locke felt himself being a little star struck as one of the great mini bosses of the StormGuard Alliance came over. He knew that this person was just another one of the leaders in the guild, but few people, if any, were ever given the chance to speak to any of the leaders except for Daniel. They all seemed to stick together, and when they did join battles, they always stuck with the Demons whenever possible.
“I know I have, General, b-but with what?” Eliza swallowed loudly and it sounded like she was having more than a bit of trouble maintaining her normal composure. “Why did I feel like I couldn’t control myself? I . . . I tried to kill Locke,” she added, her eyes meeting his.

So I should have been worried about much, much more than a simple slap. Locke automatically backed up another step as he heard Eliza’s statement.

“That isn’t a poison that kills someone,” Kitchens explained. “Rather, it forces people to face their own worst enemy: themselves. The victims of the poison will find it increasingly difficult to calm themselves, to control themselves.”

“That means . . . That means I can’t do my job,” Eliza muttered softly. “If I can’t stop myself from hurting the people I’m supposed to protect, I’ll be useless.”

“Is there no cure?” Locke asked as Eliza’s expression deepened into a depressed and concerned look that didn’t suit her at all. “Is there any way to undo it?”

“Not necessarily. The initial poisoning is always the worst, and the rate at which it grows is affected by how many people you kill under its influence. You only killed one, so now that you’re you again, you should find it easy to fend off the toxin’s initial advances,” Justin explained. “But, I don’t know of any antidote for this venom.”

That’s why it was so important not to let her kill more than one person, Locke thought.

“There is one, actually. It doesn’t even need a skilled alchemist to make it,” Kitchens said, scratching his beard and looking at Locke. “Many people in our guild used to mixing drinks could produce such a simple concoction, but perhaps someone with your talents and abilities could improve upon it.”

“Really? Then you guys can cure her, so it’s no problem. You hear that? You’ll be fine Eliza,” Locke said reassuringly, stepping close and patting her on the shoulder.

“Not that easily. While we’ve gathered information about the antidote, the ingredients aren’t available to us. We’ve scoured the area, but our intelligence says the flower we need to produce it is on the other side of the mainland. There is only one place anywhere within reach of the StormGuard Alliance that has the key ingredient: Witherance, the Hellspawn city-state. Specifically, some of the nobles and aristocrats grow it in their exotic gardens there. We believe that even some of the better-off trade guilds might have access to gardens with the flower as well too. For all their claims to be better than the royalty, they do everything they can to be just like them,” Kitchens explained.

“So we can just go to Witherance and buy the flower?” Locke felt a wave of relief wash over him. “See Eliza, you’re going to be absolutely fine. If it’s expensive, don’t worry. It won’t be a problem. I’ll cover it for you,” he assured his companion, patting her on the arm as he did. A little bit of money to save a friend’s sanity? That’s no problem at all. He found the words much easier than the last time he had been forced to make this decision.

“You know only where you stand, and what you need,” Kitchens began while shaking his head. “That is but half the conflict. You must know both yourself and your enemy in order to exceed. Be careful that you do not assume your enemy is a mirror of your intentions, for that is the first step to defeat.”

Huh? Locke blinked. I’m . . . I’m not? He wanted to correct the man who managed to turn a simple bathrobe into something that looked like a samurai robe, to assure him that he knew what he was doing and everything would be just fine, but Locke found it hard to dispute the warning because of the mysterious, zen-like confidence with which Kitchens lectured him. “I’ll remember that” was all that came out.

“Even if they have the necessary ingredients for an antidote, I’ll still need to stay here, away from you Locke,” Eliza said, looking at the hand that had moments ago been on her face. “I could have killed you. I would have killed you. I can’t complete my mission to protect you. I need to tell Alex to reassign me and get someone else.”

“Hmm . . .” Kitchens stared at her then back at Locke and then nodded to himself. “If that’s what you wish, but if his mission takes too long, there is a chance the poison will destroy your mind, erasing who you are and any memories you hold dear.”

Eliza’s already waning constitution took another blow from his words, and her face melted into a sickly white pallor. “My . . . memories?”

“Indeed. I have a friend who fights madness as we speak. I know well its symptoms,” he gave a wry half smile. “It’s up to you, but just to make your choice easier and ensure Locke still makes it to Witherence safely . . . Minx!”

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