Merchant of Tiqpa 2 Ch3

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“You’re a Blacksmith, aren’t you?” A cheerful and overly-peppy female voice asked from directly behind Locke.

Startled, Locke turned around to find a five-foot-tall, cat-looking girl with spotted ears and golden eyes practically bouncing in place where she stood. “Huh? I’m an alchemist.” Locke replied, correcting her.

“Hmmm . . . . Nope! Nope nope nope! You’re a Blacksmith!” The red-kimono-wearing girl, who couldn’t have been older than his sister by a day, dismissed his claim and once more insisted on her initial observation.

“I am an Alchemist,” Locke stated again, a little more sternly this time. If his benevolent-but-omnipresent slave-driving guardian Ash caught wind of him giving away his old identity, he wasn’t sure if he’d wind up dead or banned first.

“He is,” Eliza interjected, backing up Locke’s story, “and a rather famous one at that.”

“Fire, wind, and water to be sound, void itself is never found! But earth is there, the solid ground . . . No swish, no swipe, just pound, pound, pound!” The cat’s head tilted back and forth in a hypnotic fashion, almost dragging Locke into its alluring sway as her melodic tone snuck under his skin, each pronunciation of the word ‘pound’ more suggestive than the next.

“That’s . . . nice . . .” Locke shook his head, breaking whatever voodoo she was weaving over him. “But it doesn’t change the fact I’m an Alchemist, not a Blacksmith.”

“He’s earth! I got it right right this time, right?” Mynx leveled a firm finger at Locke as she looked over at Kitchens.

The older man watched Locke with a passive, unreadable gaze, but Locke felt like he was being stripped bare and dragged through the streets naked, like he had been reduced down to only his core self and this man could read his innermost thoughts and deepest, darkest secrets. His only reaction was to nod his approval, affirming what Minx had said.

“Mmhmm! Knew it, knew it!” she cheered herself on.

“But I think this one very much wishes to be an Alchemist,” Kitchens said to the cat girl.

“Well, that’s too bad! Fire’s fire and water flows. You said you can’t change! He’s ground! And dirt should just stay dirt!” She humphed at both of them and crossed her arms over her chest.

Locke was just about to say something else, to try and refute her odd-but-eerily-accurate claim about his identity, when a giant black bear with bright red eyes stood up behind her. Staring down at him from a towering thirteen-foot-tall height, Locke was struck with the feeling that the animal more closely resembled a two-story wall of carnage rather than an actual bear. The intimidating mountain of revenant demon bear shook his furry head in unison with his kitty counterpart, crossing his furry arms and mimicking her movements.

Locke decided that arguing with the girl and the doom machine right behind her might not be a good idea, so he switched subjects back to one that needed resolving. “Returning to the topic of Eliza, I don’t want to leave her here. Even if she isn’t the best bodyguard, she’s mine, and I trust her. Poison or no poison.”

As soon as he got the sentence out, though, the girl started laughing.

“Huh?” Locke couldn’t help but stare at ask the chuckling pint-sized figure.

“You’re more ground than ever! The dirt can’t see the sky, so how can he dream of clouds?” the cryptic Feline mused. “Come on, Fuzzy Wuzzy. We’ll wait at the entrance while the dumb blacksmith gets hammered into a better shape by the superhero sage’s best advice,” she said. Still giggling to herself, she climbed on top of the ferocious-looking bear and proceeded to exit Mt. Lawlheima.

What . . . What in the heck was that? Locke was so confused he didn’t even know what to say. Where did that bear come from? How did she know I was a blacksmith?

“She’s a good girl, but sometimes she doesn’t say things clearly enough,” Kitchens added, smiling warmly at the parting figure. “What she meant to say is you have the temperament of a blacksmith. The way you wield your hammer, it’s direct and straightforward. It’s unusual for a man who relies on poisons and potions to approach battle in such a straightforward manner.”

“Did she have to say I was dirt?” Locke wondered aloud. Her words stung a little.

“It’s a compliment dressed poorly. Dirt is what we seed our hopes and dreams in. Though it cannot see the sky, as she correctly points out, it is how we grow our future and sustain our loved ones. Without dirt, the foundation of man would crumble into chaos. You should not look for fault in such solid praise.” Kitchens nodded once or twice at his own wisdom. “And you do swing a hammer like a blacksmith . . . like a craftsman who is more used to building than destroying but sees the value of destruction to build.”

Uh . . . “Thank you?” Locke said quickly, not entirely sure if those were the right words.

“Minx and her teddy bear will go with you.” Kitchens scratched at his chin as if there were a beard there, a habit that Locke noticed he did often. “I think you will learn a lot from her.”

Teddy bear? More like Ursa Major! “Well, I’d still rather have Eliza with me.”

“Eliza will go with you, too, and ensure that you keep focused on the goal in front of you, not that which is behind others.” Kitchens’ face suddenly looked much sterner, and Locke got that same eerie impression again.

“Huh?” Locke couldn’t understand a thing Kitchens was saying, and for some reason, the battle seemed to have shaken his ‘this might be rude’ detector out of place. “What is behind others?”

“You know what I mean.” Kitchens’ voice became unusually cold and low, more so than any person he had met in Tiqpa. ”Don’t think I haven’t heard reports of your wandering eyes. Keep your hands and eyes to yourself on this journey.”

“Y-Yes! Yes, sir!” Locke didn’t even bother protesting as he immediately bowed his head. “I would never think of it at all!” he said, then quickly headed toward the entrance before the general’s thick-to-the-point-of-being-almost-tangible killing intent could do the job his hands hadn’t even started to try.

One of these days, I’m going to figure out how to get a decent reputation back, Locke assured himself. While he didn’t understand Kitchens at first, the meaning after that second statement was crystal clear: Don’t stare at her rear end, or I’ll kill you. Ever since the day he first started having problems with the Holy Alliance, he had somehow managed to be caught multiple times appearing to stare at a woman’s callipygian qualities when, in reality, he was usually either just looking at one of the Tiqpa menus or lost in thought. He often speculated it was one of the reasons Reginald hung out with him. No matter what inappropriate things the kid said, at least he wasn’t the guy who got caught staring.

“Wait up! I still need to grab a few things!” Eliza called after him as she quickly closed the distance between them. She had lagged behind a moment, likely waiting to be dismissed by her commanding officer, but she still managed to be faster than Locke even when she was only walking.

“Grab a few things? Weren’t we supposed to leave right away?”  

“Yeah, but now . . .” Eliza began. “But now we’re going to be with Minx!

“So you want to get her a present?” Locke asked.

“No, I need to go get more rations. You have no idea how much she and that bear eat!” Eliza shook her head in dismay. “How in the world does she manage to keep such a tiny waist while stuffing away entire legs in one sitting!”

Oh, yeah . . . the player food system. Locke smiled. He imagined that if an NPC was conscious about his or her figure, that NPC would absolutely hate the fact that a player could woof down fifty pounds of butter in one sitting without ever gaining even a single pound. Granted, it wasn’t as bad as some games where health would somehow magically be restored after eating a pound of cheese; or where, not only was that wedge of fatty fromage so healthy that it could replenish an entire health bar, one could also eat the cheese along with fifty tomatoes and an apple in the middle of a fight without ever missing a single sword swing.

As far as Tiqpa went, the food system wasn’t perfect by a longshot, but it was integrated better than most other games. The hunger generated by the system was based on one’s real life biological urges. As such, one’s character could theoretically be in the middle of a barren wasteland or stuck deep within a dungeon without a single piece of food in their inventory, but as long as a player logged out and ate a meal in real life, their character wouldn’t suffer. The game developers also made sure that in-game eating wouldn’t interfere with one’s sensation of hunger so that people in the real world didn’t starve to death while playing. It was one of those few things that took away from the realism of the game, but it also prevented lawsuits and needless deaths, so Locke didn’t fault them for the choice.

“Locke, what in the heck is wrong with you today?” Eliza came back, her face rather shocked.

“What? What did I do this time?” he said, doing his best to look innocent.

“You didn’t pilfer a single body,” she began. “You’ve never wasted any time rifling through the pockets of the dead or looting their corpses for scraps of usable material. That’s completely unlike you. You’re normally stealing from the by the time they hit the ground and before their bodies are cold.”

Wait, they dropped items? Locke blinked. I thought they were all players? He was suddenly rather confused by the whole concept. When did players start dropping gear? Did I kill an NPC? He knew the ethos of StormGuard Alliance–never kill an NPC where avoidable–so when that thought crossed his mind, he unconsciously gulped at the thought of having to explain to one of the Player Affairs Representatives why he butchered a non-playable character. Given the circumstance, however, he realized it was highly unlikely anyone would say anything. It was unheard of for the enemy to use NPCs in their daily raids, so the idea of gear dropping hadn’t even occurred to him. “It must have slipped my mind,” Locke answered with a shrug. “Thanks for getting it, though,” he said, extending his hand. “Did we get anything good?”

“I don’t know if most of this junk is worth anything, but one of those definitely looked like it was made for you,” Eliza said, handing over a quickly-put-together bag of items that had clearly been made from a very low-quality +5 to Spirit cloak. “You can look through them. I still need to go get rations.”

Is this helpful loot-fetching thanks for me sticking up for her earlier? Locke puzzled for a moment as he watched her figure dart off.

“You really can’t help yourself, can you? A man who whose eyes must eat every time a feast is presented,” Justin said as he walked past Locke.

I was just thinking about her nice act, not her nice– I just– Locke kicked himself for allowing yet another black mark to appear on his lecherous record. He would have been more upset about it, but the bag of loot in his hands was more than enough to assuage his mood.

Inside the cloak, there were several items with almost no stats. Daggers, whips and other small weapons with fewer bonus points than the brain of an infomercial character. It left Locke wondering what item Eliza was talking about as he sorted through the junk.

Finally, nearly the bottom, he found it: Time’s Grip. It was a long metal chain that, even after being separated from its former user, was still unnaturally cold to touch. The air around it was nearly frigid, as if it were stealing the heat of whatever it came in contact with. With all of these characteristics though, it didn’t actually seem to add much in the way of stats compared to other chains or weapons. In fact, the most it added in terms of stats was a simple boost to Vitality–not something to laugh at, but not something one would write home about either. However, the unusual weapon was far from without merit.

Wow, she really did bring me a prize. Locke couldn’t help but lick his lips as he pulled out the chain. This is amazing, he thought as he started to read the one attribute it had that he had never seen before.

 

Time’s Grip: Grants +20 to Vitality. Automatically wraps around targets when striking. While the chain is indestructible, dealing 25% of the user’s total health bar in damage to the chain will cause the chain to unravel and free the target. Drains 1% of bound enemy’s health every two seconds until chain unravels or user voluntarily releases target.

 

A  weapon that drains the enemy’s life? Is it going to heal me for the amount drained? Will this be a continuous 1% hit point heal per second while attacking? How broken is that! This had to be an NPC drop. No player would ever risk this falling out of his inventory.

Gleefully contemplating the awesomeness of his new acquisition, Locke nevertheless couldn’t help but notice how redundant it was to mention that the chain was indestructible. When he was a blacksmith, Locke had always griped that none of the metal items appeared to ever lose durability or break. Every item from the flimsiest sword or rusted nail to a dull block of iron seemed to take a beating without ever diminishing in durability. Metal weapons held their shape and sharpness fine battle after battle. In the end, it meant blacksmiths would eventually run out of customers as everyone reached the level cap or became stagnant within their own leveling range. It definitely had been a concern of his, especially as more and more players found incredibly powerful items–like the long cold chain in his hand–in dungeons and as loot from boss battles.

“Did you like it?” Eliza asked as she returned. She had an even larger bag, this time a giant leather one that was easily three times bigger than her, hoisted over her shoulder in a rather comical fashion.

“Yeah, I loved it,” he said, failing several times to snap the chain as if it were a giant bullwhip. He knew it would take some practice to use, but that was fine. He had plenty of time.

“I knew you’d find it funny even if it was totally useless.

Useless? Funny? What is she talking about? he wondered as he looked at the chain. “This thing seems pretty useful, actually.”

“Oh, not that. This.” She put down her food bag and started digging through the huge cloak of goods, only to pop out moments later with a leather armor set comprised of nothing more than a pink skirt, corset and high heels. “I figured this would be absolutely perfect for you.”

“How about no.” Locke shook his head in rejection. What in the world would make her think that I would ever want to wear something like that?

 

This is your friendly Neighborhood Ash, bringing today’s next service announcement: What happened to you? Seriously! It’s a novelty set piece that perfectly caters to the more base and lascivious players in the game. Or, you know, those who just prefer style over defense. And you aren’t throwing it in your inventory immediately? Are you crazy? Do you know how much that would sell for? Locke, I’m asking you seriously: Are you okay? Do you feel funny? Is something going on with you? Your character’s code . . . No, your code seems different today.  Please be careful not to do anything that might exacerbate this situation until I can identify what’s wrong. I do not want to lose my job over this. Now, be a good little minion and obey your master’s wishes to stay out of trouble while I go figure out what’s happening.

 

Locke could practically feel the blood draining from his body as soon as he read the message from his oppressive overseer GM. “Actually, on second thought, I’ll take it,” Locke said, throwing the armor set that had likely been stolen from one of the Faeries into his inventory.

“What? Really? I was just giving you a hard time. I didn’t think you’d actually be into that kind of stuff.” Eliza frowned, giving Locke a rather quizzical look.

“What? No, I’m going to sell it!” Locke protested.

“Uh huh. Whatever you say.” Eliza shook her head at Locke. “First the wandering eyes, now the kinky taste. I don’t understand how you were raised, Shy, but you need to exercise more self-constraint.”

“No! I . . .” Locke glowered at the situation. He knew there was no good way to try and talk himself out of this, and any protest would likely just result in him digging his hole even deeper. Lecher Locke, the ultimate perverted person of the StormGuard Alliance. He could only imagine how others had probably already labeled him. I wonder if the gold coins earned from selling this outfit will somehow help balance out the damage done to my poor reputation. “Let’s just get going,” he said, quickly shifting the topic and giving up on defending himself. “I’m sure Reginald is already waiting for us.”

“Sure, just take this for me,” Eliza said, dropping the massive sack down in front of Locke. “I don’t want to lug it around everywhere when you have your magic inventory,”

He was so preoccupied as he walked to the well-carved-out entrance of Mt. Lawlheima that he didn’t bother taking the time to observe the detailed carvings on each of the stones that support the arch of the opening. The artwork was a small touch that he usually liked to admire whenever he passed through the archway. The engravings found there were quite unique and signed by each of the original members of StormGuard Alliance. It was a sort of memorial to their fallen, and a testament to the people who had literally carved this mountain into a home.

Today, however, he just couldn’t get his mind off of the fact Eliza and Ash were both right: he should have been obsessed with the loot. He normally would have been so enthusiastic upon seeing items drop that he would have been grabbing everything he could and then bartering for the rights to grab the rest. When he first started traveling with Reginald, he had done that multiple times: bogarting the loot and talking the poor goat out of his own spoils of war. But lately . . . Lately, he couldn’t even remember the last time he had done it.

This, this couldn’t just be because I don’t have to worry about money anymore, could it? I’m not naturally a good person who shares things, am I? No, no, I can’t be a good person. I’m Locke, the avaricious trader! The shameless man who spent half a year overpricing sugary beverages when selling them to fellow workmates at construction sites. I am greedy by nature. It’s who I am!

 

“Who are you?”

 

The question whispered itself in his ear with no source for the voice as a breeze rattled with it past his auricle and into his head, leave a tingle as it did so.

“Hello?” Locke turned around, still not convinced that the sound had just magically manifested out of nowhere.

“Who are you talking to?” Eliza shot him a strange look. “No one is around but us. The rest of the newcomers in the base are getting debriefed by Valerie, and everyone else is in the back with Alex until the all-clear sign is given,” Eliza assured him.

“I’m . . .” Locke paused, scrunching up his face. “You didn’t hear anything?”

“Did something fall loose when you were knocked out earlier? Do I need to take you to a medic? If you die from internal injuries during the mission, I’m the one who is going to be held responsible. Trust me, if I’m blamed because you didn’t receive proper medical treatment, I will make you pay later on!”

What is going on? Locke wondered. He could feel his stress level rising, the question ‘Who are you?’ making him uncomfortable as it rattled around inside his head.

“I’ll be fine,” Locke insisted. He didn’t want to give her the more accurate and truthful answer. The problem I have is already being looked at, and no one else can fix it, so there is no point stressing over something I can’t fix, is there?

 

The two turned and headed toward the giant bear that was visible even from a distance as soon as they stepped out of Mt. Lawlheima.

 

“Hey, check this out!” Reginald shouted. He intercepted Locke and Eliza before they could make it to Minx and her pet bear, and Locke noticed that he had switched out of his gimmicky green grinch costume into a Santa Claus suit with a weapon slung over his back. “Look at this, man!” he called excitedly, pointing to a giant red ball with a face on top that must have been five feet in diameter rolling around in a gross-looking gooey white substance.

That’s . . . That’s the milk cannon residue! Locke instantly recognized the white gunk after dealing with such a ridiculous number of elves while he was completing the quest earlier. Wait, does that mean . . . ? Locke studied the face, watching how its mouth moved but words never came out and yet all the while managing to show utter contempt for Reginald.

“Reginald, is that a player?” Locke finally asked as he walked up to it. “Did you . . .?”

“Did I find their healer, let him keep healing himself enough so that he didn’t die while I blasted him with the milk cannon over and over again until the weight gain caused him to puff up like a giant balloon? Yes! Yes, I did! I don’t know what was going on inside, but as soon as I logged in, this guy came running out screaming, and I had been itching to try a milk cannon since we got them earlier,” he explained. He pressed hard on the bulbous ball for a moment before letting go, and the Imp-ball bounced almost a foot in the air, demonstrating great elasticity for a blob of blubber.

“Is it bad I kind of want to play catch with him?” Locke laughed.

Eliza watched the two men laugh with each other over the red ball’s awful predicament for a moment before calmly walking up to the corpulent orb, pulling out a knife, and proceeding to stab the man over and over again. Milky-white ooze and blood spewed out from the wound as the inflated Imp shrank slowly down.

“We have a mission,” Eliza said with a touch of annoyance in her voice. “Try to stay focused.” She kicked the still-shrinking body, and it bounced away spewing its lactic froth as it went. “Hurry up. Minx is waiting.”

“Nah Nya Nah!” Minx said, having taken advantage of the spectacle of the dying red ball to sneak up on the trio. “Minx the Lynx would have loved to have played catch!”

“Locke, I don’t know . . .” Eliza began and then went silent.

How much time you have left. Locke finished the unsaid part of her sentence, recognizing what she was trying to say from the penchant expression she wore. Just seeing her face was enough to squash the part of him that grumbled at her killing the mood, so he sucked it up and let it go.

When did I turn into a good guy? he grumbled. “Don’t know how long our assignment will take?” He tried to think of a finish to her sentence, pulling the topic away from what her original intentions were.

“Yes,” Eliza replied curtly. “We should get a move on before we lose even more daylight. There’s a good chance that they’re not going to open their gates to us or allows us entry into the city if we arrive at nighttime. Given their current political climate, there’s a good chance that they may very well be wary of allowing diplomats into the city–or any Demon at all for that matter.”

“It’s a good thing we’re not going to go as diplomats, then. Remember? I’m a trader, not a diplomat,” Locke said.

“I don’t know,” Reginald chimed in. “I think you’d be a great diplomat. I mean, remember how well you smoothed things over with poor Bo-Ram after that bad afternoon date of yours? I heard from”–Reginald paused a moment and looked between Locke and Eliza as if just now remembering that neither of them knew didn’t know Sparky’s real name–“. . . Sparky. I heard from Sparky that you managed to make that frumpish shorty ecstatic again after just one phone call. Talent, brother. Talent.”

“It. Was. Not. A. Date.” Locke stressed each word. For some reason, he felt more frustrated at Reginald’s insistence on teasing him than usual.

“If you say so,” Reginald said. He pulled out a giant red sack from his inventory and then proceeded to reach in and retrieve a few pieces of candy that Locke recognized as being from a sweet shop in Sine Nomine. “Here, have some candy,” he said, giving Locke one of the sweets. “You sound like you could use a little sweetening up.” Quickly dolling out more candy for Minx and Eliza, “And some of the ladies, of course,” he added.

Just as Reginald was about to put the bag with candy back into his inventory like a true Santa Claus finished handing out presents, a long, deep and powerful growl sounded out behind Locke, causing everyone but Minx to freeze in place.

Completely ignoring the terrifying outburst, Minx just turned around and patted her bear, the creature responsible for the growl. “There there, Minx the Lynx can get you sweet sweets too! You don’t have to take off his arms.” Minx stood up on her tiptoes to stroke the top of the massive beast’s head. “Right, mister?”

Reginald had managed to lose enough blood from his face to visibly pale, a feat that Locke actually couldn’t remember seeing before, even when they fought the White-Wing’s head honcho in Sin Nomine. “Of course, of course,” he answered hastily. “No reason to bear arms against me. I’ve got just the snack for you!”

Locke had to give the healer credit for sneaking in a pun even when facing potential death.

“Nya! Minx is never wrong!” The peppy girl did a mini jump and clicked her heels. “You should reward her with extra sweet sweets too.”

Reginald didn’t bother to argue in the least or add anything else as he brought out two giant pieces of chocolate that Locke remembered him buying earlier. He actually had bought five and said that they were all for a friend of his, but the friend would probably be okay even if the number was reduced a little. After he put away the candy bag quickly, he took off his hat and let the others know to look away. “Alright, you girls look away and let me change back into my normal armor real quick, and we can start our journey right away.”

“No, we don’t have time for that. We move out now.” Eliza shook her head, nixing the idea before he could even undo the first button on his red suit.

“What?” Reginald frowned as he clinched his red hat, the cotton ball at the end of it bouncing around as he looked at Eliza in shock. “It can’t be that urgent. You all just start going, and I promise I’ll catch up. There’s no way I can leave looking like this. I’ll look ridiculous and will be much less effective in combat without my usual armor.”

“You are ridiculous, and you’re not that useful in combat to begin with. We move out!” Eliza pointed toward the mounts by the landing pad.

Reginald looked toward Locke for help, but Locke just shrugged and did his best to stifle a snicker. Come on, man, suck it up. You like to play the class clown. Now you are at least dressed the part.

“Since that cool, blue dragon thingy, the Blue-Drake, won’t hold all three of us, do I get to ride on my own? Maybe I can ride with . . .” Reginald looked over at Minx and then back to the awaiting mounts. “Maybe I can just get my own dragon?”

Locke watched Reginald’s reaction as the Satyr considered having to share a ride with Minx, and he couldn’t hold in his laughter any longer. His previously-stifled snicker burst out into a full-fledged chuckle. She isn’t that terrifying, is she? He looked at the bear trotting along next to her as he considered it. Yeah, nevermind. I get it.

“Of course not. For a Satyr like you? We have a mule in the stables, or you can ride on Fuzzy Wuzzy with Minx,” Eliza said matter-of-factly.

“What? Dragons and bears for you? Mule for me? That’s just racist!”

“I figured the son of a donkey would prefer his own kin,” Eliza answered flatly and glared at Reginald. “I won’t be caught handing over one of our prized mounts to a Satyr.”

“What’s wrong with Satyrs?” Reginald protested. “We’re from the same island, aren’t we?”

“And your people tried to burn my hometown to the ground multiple times,” she replied cooly. “What’s your point?” Eliza suddenly picked up her pace and outdistanced the others before anyone had time to respond.

“Minx the Lynx thinks avoiding that one is best for you, Monsieur Chèvre,” Minx said, then looked at Fuzzy Wuzzy. “You sure you don’t want a ride?”

“Wait a minute,” Locke interjected. He suddenly felt the need to ask the obvious question as something occurred to him. “If you guys are on the ground, and we are flying, how are we going to travel as a group?”

“Dirt shouldn’t fly.” Minx shook her head. “Ground should stay grounded. It’s safer.”

“What the . . .” Reginald paused as he looked at Minx, parsing her words in search of their hidden meaning. “What the kind young lady is trying to say is that, depending on the destination–”

“Witherance.” Locke wasn’t sure if he had told him the mission or not, so he interrupted him to fill in the blank for him quickly.

“Depending on the destination,” Reginald continued, “you can’t always fly. In fact, at best, you two will only be ten to thirty feet above the ground. In the most likely scenario, your Blue-Drake will just be a massive inconvenience.”

“Why can’t we fly?” Locke couldn’t understand what Reginald was trying to get at, and it bothered him a bit that Reginald knew some key piece of information that he didn’t.

“Because we don’t have the right colors on our mounts, and there’s a good chance that we’ll be picked off as a threat right away. Consider it akin to sailing a ship through enemy waters: you can do it and get away with it, but you’re still rolling the dice. People on the ground, on the other hand, aren’t usually bothered until they reach the gates of a town because they’re simply not that big of a threat compared to those who can take to the skies. A mounted flier is a far more pressing concern to a country’s defense than some random idiot on a horse.”

“Or a mule.” Locke grinned as he teased Reginald, imagining him riding a poor mule or donkey down a dirt road in a Santa costume while being chased by a massive zombie bear and a dragon. I’m going to have plenty of pictures for Tubal. I need to treat Eliza to a meal as a reward for not letting him change back.

“And here I thought we were bros,” Reginald said with a sigh. “But yeah, take to the skies at your own discretion. It’s definitely not something that I’d recommend, especially if you’re trying to be peaceful and diplomatic, not just charge in flinging fireballs everywhere. That said, the second option sounds so much more fun! I bet we could roast the town’s leader before Tubal finishes that string of contracts he is supposedly working on.”

So he heard about their missions too? I thought he spent all his time chatting up his new squeeze. Locke had a thought run through his head, but it left as soon as it entered. “Welp, given a dragon probably walks faster than a mule, you best get to it. Though, I bet the bear would keep up just fine.” Locke shrugged and then darted over to Eliza’s side just as she finished putting the final touches on the mount’s saddle. It was clear from the amount of care and effort she put into it that she took a great deal of pride in both her saddle and the beast it was for.

“You first,” Eliza instructed, giving the seat one more small tug to make sure it was secure.

“Okay.” Locke didn’t feel the need to say more as he climbed up onto the beast.

The two of them didn’t exchange any words past that as the drake left Mt. Lawlheima and started along the road. In fact, no one said much of anything, and the only noticeable noise escaping any of them came from Reginald as he grumbled under his breath about his mule, which he called Old Maud, every now and then–not that anyone was going to fix his situation for any amount of complaining. Locke was positive that everyone collectively was of the same opinion: this sight was priceless. If it happened that anyone in the group felt down or bored at any point during the journey, they could just look at the goat-bearded Santa Claus Satyr riding his trusty mule on a tiny dirt road while everyone else was dressed in the finest armor and riding the best mounts, and they would have something to cheer them up.

The first half of the trip was actually pretty uneventful. Other than Reginald’s complaints, Locke, Eliza and Minx’s snickers, and the occasional passerby that chuckled at the goat riding a mule, they made it through the forest without incident. The large trees with trunks six feet in diameter, the sporadic distribution of green and brown grass, the occasional flower, and the dark brown dirt beneath provided visual distractions in lieu of the visual entertainment normally provided by watching out the windows on public transportation, and Locke took the opportunity to quietly contemplated his situation.

Am I just being paranoid over what’s happening? I forgot to pick up loot once or twice, but that’s not unheard of with everything that’s been going on. Is this just me overreacting because of the error in my code? I’m probably just overthinking things.

He probably would have delved further into the topic and occupied himself with it for the entire duration of the trip if not for a small whistling sound that interrupted his thoughts. What is that? Locke turned in the saddle just in time to see a bolt of slow-moving, icy death as it soared past his head.

What in hades’ name? Locke leaned back, automatically expecting to dodge another icicle. He could hear the whistling sounds that indicated more were coming, but no sooner had he begun to lean back than Eliza pushed him forward. He clearly heard a much louder whistle pass behind his head rather than in front of it like he had anticipated it would, and he realized that she had seen the attacks coming and was likely trying to get him out of harm’s way. Her push wasn’t hard enough to knock him off the drake, but he used the new momentum to roll forward out of the saddle and onto the ground. The Blue-Drake presented a giant target and had a definite lack of mobility on the ground, and staying seated upon it just didn’t seem wise.

“Donkey!” Locke heard Reginald yell out in his best ogre imitation. Locke looked over to see that while Reginald himself was fine, his mule had been wasted with four thick bolts sticking from its flank, blood splattered everywhere.

The path they had been following wasn’t that wide, no more than a standard two-lane road back home, and the thick tree trunks were spaced far enough apart that one could ride four horses side by side between them, so as a result, it wasn’t hard for Locke to quickly spot the source of the attacks and locate the group that had ambushed them in the forest. There was a pair of ice mages in full channeling mode shooting bolt after bolt at the party, a number of archers, and several heavily-plated armored fighters.

Plated armor in Tiqpa was very expensive, so it was incredibly rare to see someone in a proper set and a clear indication of a high level with loads invested in the character. Moreover, full plate gave a serious advantage against someone like Locke. Since most plate armors offered both vitality, which added flat damage reduction to a character, on top of a very high percentage of damage reduction, a good tank would often be almost invincible against dagger users, or, in Locke’s case, people who lacked combat skills to multiply their damage over the threshold.

“The Phantom Minx!” Minx yelled as she disappeared from atop her mount behind Locke, vanishing so quickly that, even if Locke had been staring directly at her, he wasn’t entirely sure he would have noticed where she went.

Locke glanced back at Eliza to make sure that she was able to dismount in time but realized that the Blue-Drake, unlike Reginald’s newly-pincushioned mule, was able to easily fend off the attacks. Its scaled and leathery wings stretched out and acted as a shield, intercepting the incoming projectiles and hiding Eliza from Locke’s view.

Well, maybe I would have been better off staying on the dang thing. Locke kicked himself, wishing he had known its full combat abilities before he rolled onto the ground in front of it like an amateur tumbler. He would have tried to climb back up again if it weren’t for Reginald’s calls for help as the Satyr squirmed around underneath the fallen mule. When the creature had toppled over, it had taken Reginald down with it and pinned his leg to the ground. Reginald was stuck, flailing around as he did his best to move the beast’s body so he could get up.

“I got you!” Locke yelled as he charged toward his fallen friend.

“Target one is moving! Don’t let him out of your sights!” one of the plated enemies shouted as soon as Locke started running toward Reginald.

Target one? Seriously? I’m target one? Locke was shocked and confused, and he immediately chastised himself for going to rescue the medic while knowing full and well that he’d be much safer on the Blue-Drake and inside its winged defense.

Reginald was just standing up as Locked reached him, and Locke launched himself at the Satyr, tackling him back to the ground before he could even straighten his back and see what was going on. A volley of ice shards whizzed by overhead, piercing through the space the two had briefly occupied a second before. Locke scrambled back onto his feet and grabbed Reginald by the hand, pulling him up from the ground before another wave of magic attacks could lock in on them. Once the healer was on his feet, Locke jerked him off the side of the road and positioned them both behind one of the large trees opposite to the icicle bandits, or whoever these attackers were.

“Dude, just let me die before grabbing my hand like that again,” Reginald said as he took advantage of the momentary cover to dust himself off and pull out his staff. “I am not going to be the chick in this action-packed rom-com. I know you don’t mind playing the damsel in distress for Eliza, but I’ve got a girl to impress these days,” he said sternly. Then he quickly added, “But thanks though.”

“No problem,” Locke answered, peeking around the corner to see the plate-armored knights quickly closing in on their location. “This is going to get rough. Can you get the shield up for me?”

“So it wasn’t trying to grab the damsel in distress; it was trying to pick up the cell phone before heading out,” Reginald laughed. “I got you,” he said, whipping out his milk cannon and using it in place of a staff to channel the usual yellow shield for Locke. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to reach Eliza with a cast from here, and that Blue-Drake seems quite resistant to spells at the moment.”

Natural spell resistance! That’s right! That’s why the Blue-Drake can shrug off the incoming spells. But that shouldn’t stop the archers as well, should it?

As if on cue, Locke saw a volley from the seven archers soared across the road and right toward his face. He jerked his head back and heard several arrows whizz by while others plunked into the tree trunk with dull thuds. This is a full, organized unit . . . Why are they attacking us? That isn’t Holy Alliance armor they’re wearing, and we aren’t in hostile territory. At least, no one who should be hostile towards the StormGuard Alliance.

“Reginald, who the heck did you upset to get so many people here to kill you?” he asked suspiciously. Reginald had been acting funny earlier. He had been avoiding the Blue Phoenix Brigade after all. Not only that, but his mule was the first thing to die. The attackers very well might have even been calling Reginald target one, not Locke.

“What? Are you serious?” Reginald rebuffed the idea as he finished the spell. “Who in their right mind would ever want to kill me?”

I can think of at least ten people . . . Locke refrained from listing out the names that came to mind and instead said, “Whatever, just let me know if we’re going to be killed later on by another group.”

Locke took a deep breath and counted to three to steady his hands and calm himself. This wasn’t going to be an easy–or likely even possible–fight for him, and he didn’t want to go into battle with his nerves having the best of him. He knew that he could easily hide or run, but this game had taught him several times before that charging headfirst into stupidity was sometimes the best answer. If nothing else, it was also the only solution he had as for how to handle the ambush. He had used most of his poisons and potions earlier during the fight at Mt. Lawlheima, so this time he’d have to somehow manage without. After he was ready, he stuck his head out and began his dash toward death and rushed the enemy.

He rolled forward after the first few steps in the hopes of dodging any awaiting destruction. It was a tactic he had seen in several old action movies, and it always seemed to work for them, so he figured it would for him as well. He then recovered from his roll rather quickly and began running full speed toward the first enemy he saw. He was prepared to go down swinging, likely with enough arrows and icicles in him to turn him into a porcupine, but before he even reached the enemy, something unexpected occurred. The two witches who had opened up the combat to begin with suddenly screamed out as Minx appeared between them and managed to stab them both at the same time.

“Attack on the Crones!” she yelled, laughing as she proceeded to finish the job by dissecting the two casters like they were frogs in science class.

The knights and archers all turned around to see what was happening but regretted it as soon as they turned their attention away from the fight in front of them. “Revenge of the Bear!” Minx yelled again, as Fuzzy Wuzzy, who had taken several arrows and a few ice bolts in the midst of the opening assault, leapt on top of the first knight and sank his teeth into the man’s armored helmet. The black bear’s teeth crunched through the thick layer of metal and ripped the fallen warriors face right off.

Locke took advantage of the situation and readied his new weapon, Time’s Grip, in one hand and his hammer in the other. He turned toward the line of knights, who were all still over a few dozen feet away, and immediately opened fire with Holy Finger of the Sun God. He expected the skill to pierce through his opponent’s chest, but, instead, the beam of light only opened a hand-sized hole in the chest plate. Locke could see the smoldering wound and singed skin from where he stood, but he knew it wasn’t enough to have done any real damage.

Crap, that didn’t even kill one? He twisted his mouth around in dismay and what little confidence he had quickly began to disappear. What the heck am I supposed to do now? Despite his doubts, his feet carried him forward toward the awaiting knight. I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die. He chanted the manta, rather sure of his own stupidity after the knight’s plated armor so easily absorbed his most powerful skill.

“Shy, you idiot!” Eliza yelled, and Locke could hear the irritation in her voice.

Her Blue-Drake tore through the middle of the line of knights head-first and twisted sideways as it collided with them. Its jaws snapped shut around one knight’s midsection, and its tail whipped around and plowed into two others. Eliza gracefully dismounted by fluidly rolling off the giant beast as it barrelled into the warriors, and she jumped down, her feet already moving as soon as she landed.

The Blue-Drake was large enough, combined with its wings flapping about, that it sealed off Locke’s left side completely. The drake made efficient use of its claws, fangs and tail to create space against the armored fighters and prevent them from encroaching on that side, quickly sending most of the knights scrambling to escape its wrath.

As a result, Locke was left in a nice little one-on-one in the middle of a battlefield. The only two people remaining were him and the knight with a hole in his plate. Well, maybe I’m not going to die. Locke tried to force a smile, but the reality of the situation kept the expression from being anything more than a lopsided grin. He pulled out his the chain, which he had never used before, and swung it at the plated enemy in front of him in a wide arc.

Unfortunately for Locke, the man was still fast enough despite the heavy armor he wore to reverse course right before Time’s Grip hit him. The ghostly chain was carried around with its momentum in a circular pattern, and Locke quickly realized he had no idea how to stop it. He did his best to dodge the weapon as it came around on its return trip, but the chain quickly wrapped around his legs and sent him face-first into the dirt.

It’s always dirt, Locke thought, doing his best to activate the ‘unravel’ function on Time’s Grip so that he could stand back up again. Any other opponent probably would have taken advantage of Locke’s predicament and killed him on the spot, but luckily enough, his opponent seemed to have a dark sense of humor. Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity, the knight reared his head back and laughed at Locke as the merchant did his best to untangle himself and get back onto his feet.

“Careful you don’t kill yourself,” a biting female voice warned sarcastically. “Wouldn’t want you to off yourself before I can collect,” came a humiliating bit of mockery out from behind the brass-trimmed crusader great helm that this particular knight was wearing.

Collect? Collect what? Are players dropping loot now? Locke wasn’t entirely sure what she meant, but since she had given him a moment to free himself and stand up, he wanted to make sure he didn’t waste the opportunity. He was hoping for a chance to use Time’s Grip again, but he was scared that it would create another embarrassing mishap. He simply didn’t have the expertise needed to wield it without risking a backfire, but he also didn’t want to put the weapon away in case an opening presented itself.

He edged closer, holding his left hand with the chain up as if it were a shield, his right arm and hammer hanging back.

“Time to die for messing up my armor, you little squirt,” the knight taunted, holding up a single ball flail in her right hand and a heater shield in her left. “And unlike me, this ain’t going to be pretty.”

Locke gritted his teeth. Between the taunting, the self-compliments, and the general tone that his foe had, he wanted to kill her now more than ever. Arrogant, little punk, Locke stepped closer, doing is best to stay out of range of the flail as he moved in.

Finally, once more working up his nerves after his last failed opening attack, he lunged forward with his hammer, striking hard at her but instantly being deflected by the shield as the ball on her flail came crashing toward him. He lifted up his whip arm to block it, doing his best to make sure the whip was the first thing it hit in hopes that the effect of binding would trigger, but instead it just softened the giant spike that dug into his arm and peeled off 9% of his hit points, leaving him bleeding and cringing.

He was going to reach for his health potions as he shuffled back, borrowing the impact of the blow to put a foot more distance between him and his foe, but he decided to wait until the situation was worse before revealing his healing ability trump card.

“A new Hole!” He heard Minx shout over the tense moment, likely as she was running some victim right through with her daggers. He couldn’t see her though as the Blue-Drake was still blocking his view of much of the battlefield. Locke was thankful she was here because, without her, given how poorly he was handling his one-on-one duel, there was no way he wouldn’t already be dead without her acting as a great distraction.

Before Locke had more time to think about it, the spiked ball at the end of the knight’s flail came crashing down toward him again, and this time he tried blocking with his hammer, swinging and missing the ball as it sped past and struck his arm in the same spot again. Since it dug into a wound this time, it was able to do much more damage, 16% of his total health bar instead of 9%.

Crap, if this keeps up, I’m going to die from just an injury to my arm. It briefly occurred to him to switch up his stance a bit and not let the flail strike him on the left side of the arm again. He didn’t get much time to think though, as the knight dashed forward, slamming him with the shield and knocking him off balance before bringing her flail down on him once more. This time, however, he didn’t just let it hit him. Almost out of instinct more than any planned motion, as soon as he was knocked over by the shield crashing into him, he flung his left arm, and consequently Time’s Grip along with it, trying to catch his balance by latching on to the nearest thing. It just so happened that there was nothing around him but the knight, so even if he wouldn’t have been able to pull off the attack deliberately, his natural reflexes managed to accidentally get the tip of Time’s Grip to make contact with the knight’s neck, wrapping around it and pulling her down with him.

“Hey! St–!” she started to complain. “Stop it!” she yelled as she struggled momentarily to keep her own balance before finally toppling over as Locke yanked harder in his failing attempts to not fall over. When she first landed on him, the sheer weight and momentum of her crashing body and plate armor propelled her shield downward with great force. It struck Locke in the chest for 7% more of his total hit points. This would have normally left him at only 68% of his bar, but the first tick of Time’s Grip flooded in and he found himself with 2.5% of his hit points restored.

As she struggled to get up, uncomfortably fidgeting on top of Locke while Locke did his best to maintain the cord, another tick occurred and Locke recovered 2.5% more of his hit points. That’s only 1% of her total points per every other second, so that means she normally has two and a half times more hit points than I do? What level is she? Locke wondered as he continued to use his right hand to cover the knight’s visor and push her head into an awkward position by reaching over the top of her shield, his hammer stored in his inventory for the moment and still maneuvering his left arm to try and keep the chain it was holding away from the knight’s frustrated attempts to get herself to her feet.

Thankfully for Locke, the knight was unwilling to relinquish her flail, and the flail had dug into the ground a bit as she landed, causing her attempts at using her right hand to reach the ghostly chain around her neck to fail, and her grunts and curses at Locke to only grow louder as 3% more of her health drained to heal another 7.5% of Locke’s.

Am I actually going to do this? Locke started to see a ray of hope. He had only managed to drain 5% of the enemy’s health even now, but he was starting to feel the terror of potentially dying and not knowing what fate awaited him fade away. He now had a feeling that he might not actually die–not that he would win the fight, but that he might live long enough for Eliza or Minx to finish their prey off and come help him. To boot, it was incredibly hard to worry about anything not unrelated to the battle while he strived with every ounce of his being to keep his opponent in check.

One of the toughest parts of this odd grapple was what to do with his legs. He kept trying to use them, to plant his feet, push up with his hips and jostle the heavy foe off him, but he couldn’t get his feet in the right position for more than two seconds before her shifting around would knock him off balance again. As two more ticks of hit points flowed into him, he stumbled upon some luck. His left foot snaked around her right leg. Without thinking about it, as if his body knew what his brain didn’t, he yanked hard on her flail arm, wrapping his left hand around it while still holding onto the chain and then pushed with his right foot as hard as he could upward, creating a spinning momentum and throwing her onto her back as he rolled on top of her.

She didn’t miss a beat though, and wrapped her legs around him, intending to keep him down, but as he extended his free right hand out, it found its way into the hole on her chest plate that he had opened up earlier with his ‘Holy Finger of the God’ skill. As soon as his hand snaked into the plate, Locke could swear that he saw her eyes go wide even from behind the plate helmet that covered her face.

“Hey! Get your hand out of there you creep!” she yelled at him as another tick of damage from Time’s Grip brought Locke a little closer to being fully healed again.

“Out of where?” Locke asked as he looked more closely at what his hand was holding. That’s not right. The game stops this type of fondling, Locke puzzled as his hand held firm to the softness on her chest.

“I’m going to kill you!” she yelled, swinging wildly at him as he held firmly to the chain . . . and to her soft point.

Her flail had somehow disappeared during the roll, and her shield only occupied one of her arms. That left her one free arm with which she managed to strike at Locke’s hand. Instead of knocking it away though, it had the effect of driving it into the cut in the plate, slashing at his wrists and dealing two to three percent damage with each hit. She hit him three times before his Holy Finger of the Sun God came off cooldown. “Sorry,” he said meekly to her, feeling bad about what he was going to do.

“Sorry? If you’re sorry, then take your hand out!” She stopped striking for a moment to allow Locke to withdraw his hand after realizing that her attempts weren’t helping undo the situation.

“No, I meant sorry for this,” Locke clarified before firing off a searing light beam directly into her unprotected chest. The first, earlier blast had only singed her, but that was because of the plate armor. This time there was no such barrier, and the charge ripped a clean hole right through her chest and pierced her lung.

Locke was going to go in for a kill shot, make sure the finish was clean, when he noticed that the enemy had passed out. That meant that this mercenary, like many of the ones that had assaulted them inside of Mt. Lawlheima, was actually an NPC. Players don’t get knocked out after all . . . or at least, they shouldn’t. Locke grimaced as he remembered his own bout of in-game unconsciousness. Is she a player that, like me, that has a glitch? Is this glitch happening to other people too?

Locke took a moment to get up, and he yanked his hand free from the unconscious knight who was dying in front of him. That shot I fired pierced her lung pretty bad. If I don’t do something . . . he thought, the word ‘dead’ being caught in his head as he wasn’t actually sure. Would she die? Or would she respawn? The question bounced back and forth inside his noggin for what felt like minutes before Locke finally took a deep breath and did something that would result in more pain than his entire skirmish with her had caused him: he gave her a freebie.

He gave her a potion, three to be precise. He administered the concoctions until he saw them begin to work their magic, the cauterized hole where her mortal wound was moments ago now patched up without even a scar to hint at its existence. Locke wanted to admire his work, but this was, after all, still a fight. He took a moment to grab her shield, her flail and her helmet. Half of him was doing it because he wanted to confirm whether or not this was a person or a player with the easiest test he knew. Can I loot her? The other reason for taking her stuff was that he was still thinking about the bug and was starting to feel self-conscious about whether or not his personality was fundamentally beginning to change as a result of something gone wrong with the game.  

He couldn’t give a good reason for why he had shown such uncharacteristic bravado in his charge into battle, his suicidal launch into the fray, especially with the extra extenuating circumstances provided by the glitch. When he pulled her helmet off though, confirming once more that she was, absolutely, not a player, he couldn’t help but pause. There was something off about her. At first, he couldn’t put his finger on it, but her hair, the earrings, the subtle application of makeup–the details kept adding up one after the other. This, this is . . . His internal monologue even stuttered as he realized what was in front of him.

“Captain!” A panic-ridden voice shouted from the side, one of the archers spotting him as Eliza’s Blue Drake moved to let just a glimpse of the scene visible to the blocked opponents. “Men! Ignore the beast! Save the captain!” A mad rush of knights and archers, originally blocked by the Blue-Drake, found its way forcefully past the beast at the expense of at least one being fully chomped in half as they mobbed past the creature and rushed toward Locke.

What the heck?! Locke took a deep a breath, trying his usual tactic to calm down enough to think, but it wasn’t working. The closer they drew to him, the more he felt death was a certainty, and the more the fear of it overwhelmed him and locked down his sense. Where the hell is that earlier confidence that led you to charge across a field at these very same foes? His thoughts even taunted him.

Wait, if they’re this panicked over losing her, then maybe there is a way out of this. Maybe, just maybe . . . “Stop right there or she dies!” Locke said, kneeling next to her and putting his hand inside the hole, ready to fire another blast into her chest and destroy all of the healing he had just done.

“You! You monster! Get your hands off of the captain!” one of the knights yelled, four others still doing their best to hold back the serpent they were battling.

The sight of her being held as a captive has driven them mad? Is she more than just some pompous rich girl turned mercenary for kicks? Why is there so much loyalty? Will her dad kill them if she doesn’t come back intact? Is this a struggle for their lives or her life? Locke asked himself as he looked down at her. He had seen enough NPCs to know that if one of them had product on, makeup and jewelry that might be common in the real world, it meant they were likely nobility. For her to have sapphire teardrop earrings, light blue lipstick, intricately-braided hair–a commoner having one of these might be possible, but for all of them to appear on one person? The odds were just stacked against it. Only a player or a very well-to-do NPC would ever be so decked out even in the middle of a battle.

“Put down your weapons, and I’ll remove my hand. Don’t, and she’ll die by the same force that ripped the hole in her armor to begin with!” Locke threatened, hoping he never had to make good on his words. While he wouldn’t mind killing a mob, killing an NPC always felt dirty to him since he started working with the StormGuard Alliance. Not that he would hesitate–he had killed quite a few for the cause–but it still wasn’t something he liked doing, knowing each one of them may well be another Eliza or Alex, someone he’d have trouble distinguishing from a real person.

But they’re not real, a voice, not his own, echoed inside his head.

Whatever. He brushed the voice aside as quickly as it popped up.

“I said take your filthy hands off of her! You pervert!” the knight shouted again.

“Remove your hands from her, or we shall remove them from you!” another knight shouted.

“You blasphemous heathen! You dare touch her in such a vile, lascivious way!” another knight shouted.

“The Minx Strikes Back!” Their gallant protests and demands were interrupted by Minx appearing next to two of the four knights attacking Locke’s ride and pierced them both in their sides. It was a single fluid move as she opened with two daggers into the kidney of one opponent, then rolled, daggers still out, in a quick fashion before popping out of her roll, blade first, into the other knight. Her knife edge cutting apart his armor and love handles as if they were air, and she were merely performing a kata.

Minx’s vicious bit of can opening freed up the Blue-Drake to knock his remaining foes aside with his tail and then quickly pounce on the second knight to threaten Locke before bouncing off him like a kangaroo as it moved right next to Locke, wrapping around him. It blocked his vision of the oncoming foes but left him feeling safe enough to start thinking clearly again.

Deep breath again, Locke told himself, doing his best to calm down after the scare. “Just, just leave, and I’ll let her live!” Locke shouted out over the drake again, hoping this fight would end soon.

“We will nev–!” he heard a voice begin to call out, but before it could even finish its sentence, he heard a bear roar loudly, silencing the protest.

“Return of the Cuddle Bear!” Minx shouted triumphantly.

“Let her live, and we’ll leave!” the voice said again.

“Shy, we don’t have to spare them! We are winning,” Eliza shouted from behind him. The battle with what Locke could only assume was a noble woman and her entourage had gone on so long and been so intense that he had forgotten about Eliza momentarily. Looking back over, he saw that while he had managed to down his foe, she was still struggling, dancing between the attacks of–but making no headway against–two of the remaining knights. Their armor was proving to be a problem, but as they swung their flails at her, Eliza moved rapidly between the incoming attacks, out-pacing the momentum their swings built up. “Just keep fondling the woman like the filthy womanizer you are. It’s making them irrational and sloppy!”

“I’m, I’m not!” Locke became more frustrated. My reputation! My precious reputation! he grumbled to himself, looking down and realizing it appeared that he was holding the woman hostage by grabbing her chest.

“Usually it’s a different kind of chest people grab after a tough fight,” Reginald laughed at Locke, digging a grave for his character instead of helping prevent the assassination. “I’ll make sure to tell BoRam all about this.”

“What? No!” Locke quickly withdrew his hand. “I, I didn’t, I wasn’t! Dangit!” Locke had to bite his tongue to prevent a slew of curse words from the frustration at Reginald as the latest accuser. I’m doing everything I can to stay alive, and this punk over there doing . . . what was he doing? Locke blinked in disbelief as he saw Reginald standing on a knight’s over-inflated body.

The knight, covered in the milk cannon goo, had inflated so much that his joints were immobile, and he was stuck with his flesh bursting out of the plate as he laid there, spread out like he was he was trying to make a snow angel in the goo puddle and had just frozen in the middle of the procedure.

Does that mean we had an epic fight, and the only one who didn’t knock out their opponent was Eliza? Locke was in disbelief at how Reginald was somehow able to defeat a foe completely unnoticed by the entire group.

“It’s okay, Locke. I approve! If you want, I can let you use the milk cannon to finish the job? A few good shots with it and she won’t be able to walk,” Reginald said, before giving the snow angel knight a swift kick in the side, “just like this girl. Oh, don’t worry, blubber doll. That freshman fifteen will fade away in no time . . . or, well, freshmen five hundred? Hard to say.”

“Somehow, your approval doesn’t exactly make me feel any better about the situation. I think I’d rather get caught shooting a nun than attacking a woman in a way that you’d approve.” Locke had no problem with pointing out that Reginald was always on the side most people didn’t want to be on when it came to lecherous activities and unscrupulous actions. His normal ‘fake politeness’ just didn’t exist with the goat after playing together side by side for so long.

“Shy, that’s so cold, bro. So cold,” Reginald laughed then kicked the fat knight again, rolling it into one of its allies. “My shoulder is darn near suffering frostbite.”

“We’re putting down our weapons,” the knight who agreed to the peace terms said, drawing Locke’s attention back to the now-apparently finished fight. One by one, the knights all put their weapons away, but none of them backed up. “You have our word we won’t try anything funny. Please just leave our captain intact and walk away,” he pleaded.

Sounds good to me, Locke started to think, but then kicked himself for letting that passive attitude supplement his usual avaricious thoughts. “Fine, but, we also need some money for the health potions I had to use to prevent her from dying,” Locke smiled. “And we need you to hand over your weapons, so we know you won’t try anything funny as soon as our backs our turned.”

“You little– !” the knight cursed through the helmet, his face unseen but his words dripping with so much frustration Locke was certain that, if he weren’t already an Imp, he’d still be beet red from anger.

“It’s only fair. I can’t have you stabbing me in the back. Remember, it was you all who ambushed us to begin with. Who is to say that you won’t resume the ambush as soon as everything is accounted for.” Locke tried to sound as polite about it as he possibly could.

“Fine!” The knight threw his own flail, the weapon of choice for the majority of these soldiers, next to Locke, a good distance to the right of where the captain was lying. The other knights and even two of the archers followed suit, tossing their weapons by Locke. After the stack had built up, and Locke had pocketed it. The knight yelled out again, “We’ve done what you ask. Now leave!”

“Don’t mind if I do!” Locke yelled back, hopping on the Blue-Drake with Eliza as Minx climbed up on top of her ursine companion.

“What about me? They killed Betsy.” Reginald looked at the fallen mule.

“You’ll be fine. Just walk it. You’ve got hooves too, right?” Eliza spouted out from atop her giant beast.

“We have another forty acres of land to cover. Do you really expect me to walk that boss?” Reginald griped.

“Don’t you mean miles?” Locke couldn’t help but ask, having to clarify since there really wasn’t that much left to the journey. It wasn’t a twelve-hour trip to begin with, and they had covered a good amount of distance already, so theoretically he actually could walk it. Actually, forty acres sounds about right ‘cause forty acres can’t take that long to cross on foot. Can it?  “Pretty sure that mule isn’t a lawnmower,” he laughed, trying to make light of it instead of correcting Reginald incorrectly. “Though you could leave it in your yard for the same effect, maybe?”

“I expected that from Eliza, bro, not you,” Reginald grumbled, making a face that Locke couldn’t discern. He wanted to believe it was part of Reginald’s usual jokes as they jabbed back and forth, but it was hard to put a finger on it.

Are his feelings actually hurt? “Alright, whatever, I’ll walk with you ‘till you stop crying about it.” It was Locke’s turn to grumble now as he climbed off the comfortable, fast moving, powerful and protective lizard that had carried him this far. “Though I don’t see why you can’t just ride on the back of the big bear. He seems friendly enough,” Locke argued, but the fact that, when he pointed over to ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy,’ it was busy eating one of the fallen knights didn’t help.

“Minx the Lynx can testify! He’s just a big harmless teddybear,” she said, disappearing into the fur of the snacking bear as she nuzzled its back. “Comfy!”

Reginald gave a look at Minx before frowning. “A walk will do us good, fresh air and all. It’s not like it will take us that long anyway,” he said and began walking.

“No, get on the mount with Minx, or watch your hands and get on the Drake with me,” Eliza said impatiently. “Locke, get back on a steed. We have precious little time, and I will not waste it watching you two take long walks on the beach like this is a first date, and Minx and I are chaperones,” she snapped, bossing them around with a harsher tone than even General Alex had used to scold her earlier.

Reginald looked at her, squinting for a moment as he bit his lip in odd contemplation.

How are you turning down the chance to ride pelvis to pelvis with anyone? Locke wondered as he analyzed Reginald’s face, his hesitance. He half expected there to be a big issue made of this, but no sooner had he braced himself for an argument between the two, then Reginald buckled. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am!” he sounded off, saluting and then jumping over and onto Fuzzy Wuzzy’s back, seated right behind Minx.

“See! COMFY!” Minx said as she continued to lay on the bear as if it were a giant body pillow.

“It . . . it actually is,” Reginald laughed.

When everything was settled and they had started the journey, Locke let out a deep breath he had forgotten he was holding, and couldn’t help but smile. I’m still me, he grinned ear to ear, happy that within all the commotion, no one had bothered to ask him about the weapons they had just looted from the enemies. With how high a level that captain was, she had to have something good, he smirked giddily to himself.

“Locke! Stop smiling like that. It’s creepy,” Reginald admonished him from his perch atop the bear. They had abandoned traveling in single file, instead opting for a side-by-side even though their rides were so large it prevented others from passing them either way. While Locke wasn’t a huge fan of being a jerk and making regular merchants wait and make room each time they passed one, Eliza had said that unless otherwise necessary, this would be better at handling future ambushes, something the whole group was concerned about. I should be more worried than them, right? After all, I’m target one. Locke’s face hung for a moment, but then he remembered the loot that had brought a smile back to his face in the first place.

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