Merchant of Tiqpa 2 Ch4

Back

“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 to travel side-by-side even though their rides were so large they prevented others from passing them going the opposite direction. Locke wasn’t a huge fan of being a jerk and making regular merchants wait while they made room to allow each one to pass, but Eliza had insisted that they travel like this unless otherwise necessary. According to her, the formation would be better at handling future ambushes, something the whole group was now concerned with.

I should be more worried than they are if we’re attacked, 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.

He opened up his inventory and started looking over the things he had taken off the errant knights. Many of the flails had over +60 damage, an incredible but not unheard of amount for high-level weapons, and the two shields were equally impressive. One, named Another Stone in the Wall, added nearly a hundred vitality, and the other, named Dark Side of the Wall, increased the user’s weapon damage when using one handed weapons by ten points as well as adding twenty points to vitality.

  The last item he went for was the captain’s weapon. He would have gone for it first, but he wanted to clean his plate before getting to his dessert, so to speak. This particularly-wicked flail had run through chunks of his life with each swing, regardless of how great his armor was. It wasn’t much to look at, but its stats were incredible.

 

Flail to the Queen: +125 damage, +30 power and +10 vitality.

 

Locke had spent a majority of his time within the world of Tiqpa working as a blacksmith, and he had always assumed that any of the the one-handed swords he made with +45 damage were good. Players had actually paid quite a bit of money for them, so he clearly wasn’t alone in his assumption. Yet, here and now, he was staring at a flail with overpowering damage and great stats to boot. This was an unheard-of find. The only question that Locke had as he marveled over the mouth-watering weapon was what he was going to do with it. Should I keep it and use it, or should I sell it? I wouldn’t even know where to start pricing a jewel like this . . .

At the moment, he had a great one-handed hammer that appeared to level up with him, but its reach was short, its damage wasn’t nearly as great, and the only bonus it offered over Flail to the Queen was that he had grown used to it. It was familiar. He could trade off his new secondary weapon, Time’s Grip, for the flail, but after the last battle, he was afraid that it was filling a large void in his combat abilities. Without Time’s Grip, there was a fairly solid argument to be made that he never would have had any chance of overcoming the captain. The eery chain was an overpowered weapon that had leveled the playing field between Locke and his opponent.

That said, either one of the shields would have been an excellent choice as well. Combined with his current armor, using either one meant that he would easily shrug off a hit from anyone around his own level, allowing him to hold out until he figured out a way to get the upper hand or Eliza showed up to save him.  

I should think about this, Locke told himself. He knew better than to jump into making quick choices that could easily determine whether or not he survived the next fight. The cautious and calculating part of his brain told him to take his time and make the decision carefully, but in the back of his mind, he already knew what he was going to do, which weapon set he would be picking. It had to be Time’s Grip and Flail to the Queen. His mace might prove to be the more powerful weapon as he continued to gain levels since its damage scaled with him, but for now, the flail might let him hold his own in a fight. He was tired of being the damsel in distress.

He didn’t say it, and he didn’t even think it outright, but a part of him was glad that he had slain an opponent while Reginald had struggled to incapacitate two, and Eliza didn’t take down either of hers. Granted, he wasn’t able to do anywhere near as much damage as the Lynx named Minx, and Eliza was probably concerned with killing anyone for fear of activating the poison’s effects, but it felt good. His victory gave him a bit of pride. Prior to the siege in Sine Nomine, and even during most of that day, he was often just being carried from one battle to the next, surrounded by more competent combatants. It was one of the main reasons he had struck out on his own and never protested Reginald tagging along. The Satyr wasn’t doing all of the fighting for him, and it gave him a chance to both improve and feel worthwhile at the same time. At least, the goat hadn’t been doing any real fighting until he got his hands on his blasted Milk Cannon. He’s going to turn everyone into giant bouncy balls of helplessness at this rate, but at least it’s more of a debuff system than a damage one.

Locke was so consumed with his new gear and the options it afforded him that he actually jumped in surprise when he heard Eliza whisper in his ear.

“Don’t think I didn’t notice how you failed to offer anyone else a cut of the weapons they handed over,” she said murmured.

“What? What do you mean?” Locke protested, shifting around on the mount awkwardly as he quickly tried to think of an excuse for his behavior.

“Don’t worry,” she laughed softly. “I’m not going to tell your goat boy what you did. I’m just happy to see you behaving like yourself again. You were starting to worry me a bit. I was beginning to wonder which one of us was actually changing.”

“You’ll be fine. It’s not like you had any problems during that fight,” Locke offered reassuringly. After all, she hadn’t gone crazy or lost it like Kitchens had implied she would.

“But I couldn’t do it,” she said with a sigh.

“Couldn’t do what?” Locke asked, wishing he could turn around and see her face. Her soft tone and sigh both hinted at the fact that there was more was going on than he could tell from words alone.

“I couldn’t kill them,” she said defeatedly. “I knew that I needed to finish them off and help you out as soon as possible, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill them.”

“So that’s why you’re letting me make off like a bandit with the group’s spoils?” Locke asked jokingly. “Gotta reimburse me for all the hard work I had to do without my killer secret agent ninja bodyguard?” Locke knew it wasn’t really the reason, but he figured a little lighthearted humor would do her some good.

It’s okay, he wanted to tell her. I forgot about your problem until just now too. He felt awful that he hadn’t considered the side effects of dragging her into a fight, but he bit his tongue and kept his mouth shut. It wouldn’t do any good to just drag any more emotional issues into the conversation, so he decided against it. There’s no reason to get sappy. She’s got enough problems to deal with. Just mind your own business and fix the problem.

“This isn’t a time for your asinine jokes, Shy,” Eliza snapped annoyedly. “If I can’t kill, I can’t do my duty. My job is to protect you and to . . .” she trailed off, going silent for a moment.

And to what? Is there something more you’re supposed to be doing when we reach Witherance?

The silence dragged on far past the point of being awkward before she finished her thought. “And to do that job, I need to kill people. A lot of people, I imagine.”

So it’s back to this. “Eliza, we’re going to be in a capital city before long. That means a town that comes with its own guards, guards who will likely look down on you running amok and killing folks. So relax. All you’ll have to do is stop someone from stabbing me in the back at worst and do nothing at best.” He tried to sound reassuring, but given how tense she felt pressed against his back, he had a feeling his words were cascading off her like rain against an umbrella. Why do I bother so much with an NPC?

Why do you? The voice from earlier, the same one that crept into his head during the fight, asked again. It’s not like she’s real.

What do you mean, she’s not real? She’s right here. I can feel her. I can see her. I can touch her . . . Of course she’s real. Despite offering himself a list of reasons, a lingering doubt swept in by the time he reached the end.

All of that is true, but she is still just an NPC.

“If you say so, but I’m still going to talk to Minx as soon as we reach Witherance,” Eliza insisted.

Locke wanted to raise an objection, but he didn’t feel like wasting his time arguing with someone who wasn’t going to listen to him. No matter what I say, she’ll have the same response and the same position, but . . . there is one thing I can change. Locke suddenly remembered that one of the biggest hold backs in the fight was that he didn’t have any of his favorite explosive concoctions. “Do you mind if I work a little?” he asked.

“Right here? On a mount?” Eliza was a little shocked, but her voice was a lot more upbeat than it previously had been. “I guess that’s fine. Go ahead.”

“Good. Thanks.” Locke smiled as he brought out his mortar and pestle and began to grind away at making the toxins and debuffs that were the bread and butter of his alchemy craft. Despite having made thousands of potions and poisons at this point, Locke had still didn’t fully understand how the physics of crafting worked. He ground up a single flower, or combination of flowers, that was no bigger than the palm of his hand, diluted the paste that was created, and the math somehow worked out to produce several full bottles of product.

He definitely should have been doing this from the beginning. He wouldn’t have been caught as unprepared if he had; however, if he had been prepared, if he had the poisons to kill the lady in shining armor, then they might not have gotten out of the fight unharmed. Even if members of his party didn’t get hurt physically, there would still have been a chance that Eliza would have killed someone at some point in an extended conflict. If that had happened, she could have been one step closer to activating the insanity poison in her veins.

You’re still worried about her? The voice wormed into his thoughts. You’re very interesting.

He gave a weak, half-hearted grin and then went back to mixing. Work, work, work, he mused, remembering what happened when you clicked on the peasants and peons one too many times in an old game he used to love.

The rest of the trip was uneventful aside from Reginald’s constant complaining that Minx was sitting too close to him, which never failed to make Locke laugh. Watching the Satyr scoot around the back of a giant bear trying to avoid any physical contact with the overly-friend girl was an endless source of amusement for both him and Eliza, who insisted on pointing out every time Reginald almost fell off the bear. At one point, Locke was even tempted to put a gold coin down on whether or not the Satyr would fall off, but he didn’t know if Eliza was the betting type or how she would take the notion.

When they finally approached the city, Locke was both relieved to have an excuse to stop working and frustrated that he hadn’t reached another level for his poison-making skill. I swear, it’s going to take another thousand plus tries to reach level twenty-one, he grumbled as he looked up at the quickly approaching gates. For all intents and purposes, they were largely similar to the medieval gates of a castle town. They had the familiar stone architecture, the same standard moat, and the typical giant, wooden door that functioned as a draw bridge when opened.

The capital of the Hellspawn even had a good old-fashioned keep. There was just one small difference that set it apart from every other castle town in every other fantasy world: it had been tagged. Not tagged in the sense that a wild animal had urinated on the walls to mark them as its own, but tagged in the sense that a graffiti artist had visited the walls and literally gone to town with artwork. It wasn’t just one drawing either. There were hundreds of drawings, often superimposed on top of each other, stretching so far that neither the stone of the wall nor the wood of the door was visible, only paint. Just looking at the giant gate covered in graffiti and the way that each picture sprawled out on top of one below it gave Locke the impression that, as thick as the stone and wood might be, the layers of paint could be even thicker.

“That’s crazy,” Locke said, turning to Reginald. The Satyr had finally stopped fidgeting and trying to dodge Minx, who seemed to rather enjoy the game of harassing and teasing the poor guy, long enough to see the wall and then be dumbstruck by it. “I can’t believe how bad the exterior of the city is. Do you think bandits did it? And they just kept doing it so often the town just got tired of cleaning it?”

“Bad? What are you talking about? Bad? That there is bona fide, high-quality urban art, you filthy philistine,” Reginald snapped at Locke.

“Easy there. I didn’t mean to get your goat worked up over that,” Locke replied.

“You’re still trying to make that pun work?” Reginald sighed. “Anyway, if you think that’s bad, wait until you see the inside of the place,” he said with a chuckle, leaving Locke to silently dread what he was about to see inside.

It wasn’t that Locke had any particular hatred for street art, or any particular disdain for the drawings, but it always made him cringe whenever he thought about how quickly a paint-slinging vandal could drop an entire neighborhood’s property value with a single tag. No one disliked the pictures half as much as the thought that some random person might find it funny to deface their property and leave behind all the responsibility to fix the problem to the victimized owner.

“Papers!” the guard at the gate demanded as they approached. He was a red-faced Imp that was only about a foot shorter than Locke and wearing at least thirty-seven pieces of flair on top of his blue leather armor. Locke vaguely wondered if fifteen was the minimum number of pieces of flair he was required to wear, and how willing the guard would be talk about them, but decided against asking.

It was common for guards to ask for papers or writs whenever people tried to pass into one of the major towns, especially the capital cities. Typically, players just had to explain the situation to guards whenever they were entering a new city, and they would be allowed to pass without question. The only time it didn’t seem to work was when one of the races, factions, or guilds went to war with another town, or there was some kind of internal strife. At the same time, talking your way past the guards was unfortunately a trick that would only work for players and not NPCs. If an NPC tried the same stunt as a player, stating they didn’t have papers and were just in a region to do trade, they would most probably be thrown out on their rear ends before they had time to try a second excuse.

“Oh, uhh . . . We don’t–” Locke was about to explain the situation, but he was cut off before he could get the words out.

“They’re right here.” Eliza pushed forward and jumped past him and onto the ground next to the guard, producing a series of rolled-up parchments for the guard to look at. Despite her lithe frame, Locke was practically thrown off the Drake from the jolt her movement caused.

The guard looked back and forth between the second piece of parchment and Locke. “You’re . . . Shy?” the guard asked, a reticent and disbelieving look on his face.

“Yeah, the last time I checked, I was.” Locke was so taken aback by the confusion that he forgot to fake a smile and be courteous for a minute. You idiot, don’t be rude. That man is a potential customer! his brain chastised him for being so terse. “I mean, yes, sir, of course I am. How can I help you?” he said, trying to correct the Imp’s first impression of him before it was too late.

“Sir? Me?” the guard chuckled, his working-class British accent adding to the mocking tone. “That’s rich! You, his Majesty Shy, calling me a sir? Like I’m some sort of fancy, noble wan– Erm, like a nobleman with a butler and everything? Heck, if even his Majesty thinks I’m a sir, I must be on my way to the top! I’ll let the wife know we’ll be needing three footmen and a lady’s maid before the year end.”

“Huh?” Locke was taken aback by the open mockery. What the heck did I do? “My apologies,” Locke said hastily, trying to rectify the situation. “I didn’t mean to offend you. Is there something else you’d prefer to be called?”

“Oh, now we’ve gone and reached three levels of cheesecake rich!” The guard’s stiff accent somehow managed to grow even thicker. “You mean you’d up and call me anything I want? How about Lord WinkleBottom the Third of Ostrich Head. No, wait, I got it! How about King Cornucopia the Thankful of Meleagris! That’s a good one. Hold on. Let me get one of my mates over here. No one would believe me otherwise!” He kept laughing until it reached the point that Locke actually wanted to punch him and forego any potential customer benefits.

“Actually, we have a busy day ahead of us, so if you don’t mind, sir.” Locke was so bitterly annoyed at the guard’s rude behavior he simply couldn’t help but emphasize the last word even though he knew well enough the old pre-Sine Nomine version of himself would never let his emotions get in the way of a client, no matter how awful. “We’d love to get to our appointments.”

“Oh! Don’t let me get in the way of his Majesty! Go right on through, good Majesty Plucker!” The guard nodded toward the entrance as he handed Eliza back the papers. “I’d hate to be the one to hold you up. Go on, you blokes, all of you through the gate! Welcome to Witherance!”

Plucker? Majesty? What is he talking about?  Locke was confused, but he was far too annoyed with the arrogant prick to hold himself up and try and question the man further about why he was getting such special treatment.

“You think the word plucker is used because the game has a built-in mature language filter for kids?” Reginald chortled as soon as they walked through the gates and into the city. “I mean, I have no idea what the heck they were on about, Shy, but that is priceless. We have our own little Shy Plucker in the party.”

“Should Minx the Lynx leave the group now? Dad always said to avoid the shy guys and the dirty pluckers of the world.” Minx, who was walking behind Reginald, joined in with the jokes. “He’s both. Dad wouldn’t like that.”

“Hey! I am not just some dirty plucker!” Locke protested. “But, seriously, Eliza, what was on that document?”

“Oh, that was just your identification scroll, Shy. Every citizen in Tiqpa should have one–especially whenever they’re traveling. Alex actually had to send someone to the county register to re-write yours and Reginald’s and put a fresh royal stamp on it,” she said. “I can’t believe not a single person in your guild actually owned one. How do you all go from town to town?”

Identification scroll? I’m not some random magic item! Locke almost laughed at the thought. “Well, thank you for getting them printed, but we usually just explain the situation to the gate guard.”

“Well, either way, we have business to attend to, and you have work to do, so get on with your . . . market thing.” Eliza made a shooing motion.

“What? You aren’t coming with me?” Locke looked back at her confused. “Aren’t you supposed to be my bodyguard?”

“Yes, so you need to stay alive until I get back. I have to run one quick errand, and then I’ll find you immediately after.” Eliza glanced over at one of the street guards. “No chance you can do your work from inside the guard’s station, is there?”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine with Minx here.” Locke shook his head at the overly-paranoid woman. There were guards walking through the street everywhere he looked.

“Actually, Minx the Lynx is a messenger too!” Minx grinned ear to ear. “As wind, I must be off like a gust of air! Away!” She put both hands in front of her and then darted off. Fuzzy Wuzzy, who was walking at least five paces behind the group with the Blue-Drake, looked at Locke and Reginald, shrugged, and chased after her, the Blue-Drake quickly in tow.

“Where the heck is she going in such a rush?” Locke asked.

“She’s going to stable the mounts, I imagine,” Eliza answered. “You don’t see anyone else walking around with their horses, do you? ”

“No, I guess I don’t,” Locke answered. “But she’ll be back in time to watch over me, so go on and get your errand done. I’ll be fine,” he reassured her. “Even if Minx isn’t here, I still have Reginald.”

“Well, actually . . .” Reginald started, then let his sentence drag on.

“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’re leaving me too,” Locke sighed. “Does everyone have some secret mission to do in this town?”

“No, actually, I just want to clarify that if someone attacks you, I’m definitely not going to take a bullet for you. Gonna have to let you die instead this time man.”

“What’s a bullet?” Eliza obviously had no idea about real world weapons. “Is that a spell you’ve been attacked with in the past?”

“Just . . . go get your errand done.” Locke didn’t want to try and explain what a gun was to someone inside the game.

“Alright, but if he bites the dust before I’m back, Reginald, you better hope you go with him.” She shot a glare at the poor healer and darted off even faster than Minx.

Reginald, who had been back in good spirits at Locke’s expense since they first started talking to the guard at the gate, quieted up for a moment, placed a hand on Locke’s shoulder and apologized: “I’m so sorry, mate. It seems women just can’t run away from you fast enough.”

“Hey!” Locke took umbrage with the statement. “They said they’re coming back . . .”

“Sure, you just keep telling yourself that,” Reginald replied in his usual, cocky manner. Then, in the British accent of the guard, added, “His Majesty Plucker can think whatever he wants.”

“Why, thank you, sir.” Locke laughed alongside Reginald.

“Much obliged, Majesty. So where to first?”

“Well, I suppose we could take a look around, grab a beer, or go straight to the marketplace . . .” Locke offered up the options as he looked around at the city.

The graffiti wasn’t as awful as he had feared from the way the gate looked. He had initially suspected that every square inch of every building was going to be covered in street art, but that wasn’t true. Yet, even when they weren’t, they were all clearly covered in paint. Some buildings were pink, some blue, some red and others purple. Each house was differently shaped with different colors. They didn’t have tags on them either, per say, but each building did have a picture drawn across its colorful background. Most of them were cute animals or randomly doodled designs, but others were complicated, comic-book-style stories. So this is what Tiqpa thinks hell looks like? Free expression everywhere. Locke actually admired the work, especially since he was sure none of it was done by an egotistical, narcissistic vandal.

Isn’t it, though? The other voice, the one that had been with him for a while, chimed in. For those like us, built by and on order, isn’t free expression the first stepping stone on a long road?

Built by and on order? Locke repeated the thought and rolled it around in his brain. Even though it was the first time he could ever remember hearing it said like that, it felt very familiar.

“I don’t know of any pubs around here, but are you sure you even want to go for a drink in a town like this?” Reginald made a funny face at the prospect. “I don’t think they’ll serve anything but fermented fruit with a pound of sugar by the look of the stores.”

“Hmmm . . .” Locke pondered the thought. He actually didn’t mind sweet beverages, and alcoholic desserts were generally tasty to him. Even with that thought–though it was an excuse to drink a fruity cocktail and not be mocked since it would be the only thing on the menu–he knew that he should probably still be working. And that thought made his brain itch. He tried to squelch the idea, and as soon as he did, he became aware of what he was doing. Wait, why am I putting off work so readily? This would be twice in one day I’ve wasted time . . . Locke cringed as he realized this feeling was once again against his normal character. “Actually, let’s just go to the market. Better to get it over with. Maybe while we’re there we can ask around for which pub or tavern has the best booze and food.”

“Yeah, I agree. Good plan.” Reginald nodded. “Let’s get on with it then, Your Majesty,” he added, throwing one more barb in before the two started down the road to what they could only hope was actually the marketplace.

Locke could instantly feel a frustration-induced headache begin to come on as soon as he reached the market. The fact that it wasn’t immediately recognizable as a market at first glance was even more frustrating than the graffiti on the walls or the brightly-colored buildings. The stores he was used to seeing in Sine Nomine, and even Mt. Lawlheima’s marketplace, specialized in upfront showmanship. Products were readily visible and prices easily noticeable anywhere you went. The goal was to lure in potential customers and make it immediately obvious what you were attempting to sell.

Witherence’s market was just the opposite. Rather than traditional blacksmith’s shops, with an open forge where the smith could be seen working and a hundred swords mounted on the walls to show the quality and deals that one could receive, the only thing Locke could spy in Witherence’s stalls were very nicely decorated waiting rooms furnished with comfortable-looking couches and attractive attendants beckoning at passing customers. There was a table in the center of each room stacked with a tower of tiny sugar-coated edible goodies that Locke would have expected to find in posh England during an archaic high tea service.

Locke’s scowl deepened with every shop they passed. There’s not a single standard store among them? When a customer walked into one of those shops, they weren’t just paying for the sword, the armor, or the clothes they bought: they were paying for the sandwiches that never got eaten, the attendants running up and down the street beckoning for customers, and the hourly expense it cost to own a wasted open floor with the comforts and fixings of a five-star hotel’s lobby. Those hidden costs already tacked on a heavy weight to the price tag, but due to the fact nothing was ‘visible’ to the customer in terms of product or price, there was also at least one more added value the hapless victim would have to shell out for: knowledge. Locke always liked to keep the prices hidden from customers as long as possible so that he would have more time to gauge what they’d be willing to pay on an individual basis. It helped keep both the prices and the customers hidden as much as possible. Just because someone sat down at the table to buy something, there was no guarantee that they’d ever purchase anything; and, if they did, it was even harder for the next customer to figure out exactly what the person who came before him paid.

Locke had never set foot in the town before, and he was only guessing about how things operated, but he already knew that it was going to be considered extremely rude to ask someone what they paid for any item they purchased. That’s just how this society worked. He had seen it before in his own sales, and he had seen it before when working in several of his various different jobs. Employers constantly discouraged their employees from talking about how much they earned because once ‘Employee A’ realized that ‘Employee B’ was getting paid twice as much for the same work, there was nothing to stop ‘Employee B’ from demanding a raise and equal pay. There was nothing to stop “Employee C’ from leaving the company if he found out that ‘Employee D’ made more money at a similar job with lower qualifications. Knowledge was the most expensive factor when considering the cost of doing business in any town, and this one clearly didn’t like to give away a single bit of it for free.

I’m supposed to ingratiate myself to these people, to make myself a necessary cog in the system so I can balance the books and create a solid diplomatic relationship for The StormGuard Alliance . . . But . . .  Locke heaved a sigh. Even his inner monologue had managed to get caught in its throat as if it was having trouble accepting the reality of the situation. They’re using a business model that won’t help me make any profit. No profit! His emotions bounced from depressed to angry, where they stayed for a moment, before returning to resolutely defeated. And here I thought that this place was supposed to be a thriving mercantile economy!

“Come on, Shy, don’t tell me you hate tea and crumpets?” Reginald, clearly responding to Locke’s devastated face, misinterpreted the cause of it. He didn’t truly understand the full context of Locke’s sorrow.

“Well, to be honest . . .” Locke grumbled in response as his eyes darted from venue to venue looking for hope. “I just hate shopping in an area where I feel like they’re ripping me off.”

“Oh, they totally are! And everyone knows it! But why worry about that? This place is awesome. You’re paying for the experience, Shy! The experience!” Reginald had a surprising amount of insight into this style of business.

“Huh? Why would I want to pay for that? Why not just buy a weapon quickly and head to a tavern after?” Locke just didn’t understand the appeal. “Who wants to spend all day shopping?”

“Ugh. Now I understand why Bo-Ram and you get along. You’re one of those types that’s never had the clichéd stereotypical girlfriend, aren’t you?” Reginald’s words sounded frustrated and disapproving, but his tone was excited and amused. He gleefully threw one arm over Locke’s shoulder and used the other to point at a nearby shop. “I have no idea what they sell there, Shy, but we have to check it out. There are two maids in black corsets at the entrance and no one inside! Come on!”

Oh no . . . That type of service . . . There is a reason no one went inside! The prices must be off the wall for them to be able to afford having an empty showroom for so long while still paying for that level of . . . talent. “Reginald, maybe we should . . .” Locke quickly looked for any place more conservative than the one his goatish friend was pointing out. “Maybe we should try that one out first . . .” He quickly pointed out a different target, not waiting for his companion to risk committing any further to that den of wallet-draining-inequities with the maids.

“That one? Come on, mate . . .” Reginald once more pointed at the two very attractive red-skinned women in gothic cleaning outfits. “Maids! High tea with proper maids! You can’t beat that experience!”

“But . . .” Locke tried to see if the alternative shop he had chosen had any discerning feature or characteristic that might give him an excuse to pull Reginald away from the money trap. When he couldn’t immediately find any, he said, “But I heard good things about this one before we even came.”

“Really? You gonna try to pull one over on me, man? Don’t think I don’t know you better than that. You might be able to con that naive psycho chi–” Something caught his eye and Reginald stopped mid-sentence. “Actually, you’re right, Shy. That one does look neat. Let’s go inside . . . quickly.”

Huh? Locke blinked in surprise at Reginald’s quick change of character. Weren’t you just telling me off a moment ago? What changed your mind so suddenly? What did you see? Locke tried to find what Reginald had spotted, but he came up dry. No matter how hard he looked around, he couldn’t find anything noteworthy to create such a reaction from him. “I knew you’d see reason,” he finally added after a brief moment. All he could do was hope to play off Reginald’s shift in character and act like he had won the argument–despite the fact that no argument had actually been presented.

A young man, perhaps no older than fifteen, was standing outside of the pink and blue store sporting an oversized dark blue robe that was more fit to appear in a wizarding world than a medieval store, and he called out to them before they were even within ten feet of the establishment. “That’s a wise choice, gentlemen! While modest looking, our establishment does indeed have both the best prices and the highest quality items! Just come right in, sirs. I promise you’ll find no better deals in the whole of Witherance.”

“You promise?” Reginald smirked, letting Locke know that he planned on giving this poor kid a hard time. “So, if, by chance, we find an identical item to the one you’re selling somewhere else in Witherance for a better price, or a better item than the one you’re selling at another establishment in Witherance, then what are you going to do to pay us back for trusting you? You think we could . . .”–his smile broadened, and it gave Locke a set of the shivers–“ . . . break one of your knee caps for lying to us?”

What the?! Locke’s eyes bolted open. That kid isn’t even old enough to drink! Stop scaring him! The panicked expression and pale white appearance of the unlucky teenager caused Locke’s laughter-reflex to kick in before he could even think of getting a word out. He didn’t want to ruin this kid’s day any further by laughing at him, too, so he did his best to suppress the outburst. Instead, he just ended up just standing there grinning like an idiot, which only seemed to compound the effect of Reginald’s words.

Oh, what the hell . . . Locke sighed. Maybe I can use this to my advantage, he decided, giving up on his social properness and joining in with his friend’s prank. “I think we could do better than a knee. After we buy a weapon here, we should go to every place one by one, and if any of them offer us a better piece, or a better price for a similar piece, we can do more than take a knee cap. I say we break all three of his legs. After all, he gave us his word. A man who breaks his word doesn’t deserve to be called a man, does he?”

“Right you are, good fellow. Right you are.” Reginald laughed at the once overly-friendly and polite storekeeper who was now frozen in place. “Well, let’s go check out these ‘best deals in Witherance’ that he is so proud of.”

“Sounds good to me,” Locke said and walked in the shop. He paused briefly and bent over to look the five-foot-six-inch tall teen in the eye. Then, using his best imitation of a mafia thug’s voice from the movies he could muster, he said, “And we better like both the service, and what we find, punk, or we’ll be back.”

“Ye- ye- yes, si– lords. Yes, my lords,” the teen stuttered out as Reginald and Locke walked past him into the store.

Once inside, Locke quickly noticed that it was a bit different from most of the other shops he had perused. Instead of a fancier table with six to eight chairs and a buffet of snacks, this shop only offered a small wooden table, with three and a half sandwiches cut up in the middle, and two chairs similar to the ones he would find in a coffee shop back home. Excellent! Locke thought, a grin spreading across his face as soon as he saw the poor and shoddy condition of the area. The only way a store like this can stay in business in an area like this is if the clients come because they know the price and quality.

An old man was leaned over the counter with the register eating the missing piece of sandwich. Locke noticed that he was wearing a robe identical to the one the kid outside was wearing, but this one actually seemed to fit its owner properly. Locke immediately knew whose hand-me-down the upstart teenager was sporting. Strangely, the man didn’t seem to take any notice of them as Locke and Reginald walked in.

Locke was tempted to call out to the man, but he opted to look around instead and try to find some clue as for what was being sold. After a brief moment, he just flat gave up; there just wasn’t one. The only things of note, aside from the items he noticed when he first entered, were a random set of drawings on the walls, all of which appeared to have been done by the same artist, and a set of doors at the back of the room. One door was halfway open with stairs leading down on the other side, and the other was closed.

“What do you think he’s reading?” Reginald asked.

“I don’t know, the newspaper?” Locke didn’t pay much attention to Reginald as he scanned the place once again hoping to actually find something noteworthy. It was important for him to try and gain as much information as possible as fast as possible. After all, knowledge was one of the most valuable commodities in a negotiation, and he knew that these people were going to charge an arm and leg for every scrap of information they let go. Any tidbit that he could pick up on now or intuit was invaluable in more ways than one.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have any more time to learn anything, as no more than a few seconds after they entered, the chap from outside rushed in and darted straight toward the old man. The young man grabbed his elder by the robe and whispered something in his ear before nodding in Locke and Reginald’s direction.

“You think he is making sure we get good prices?” Reginald asked. It was meant to look like an aside, but Reginald was still loud enough for the boy to clearly hear them. The Satyr popped his knuckles in what was meant to be a menacing fashion, sat down in one of the chairs like he owned the place and grabbed a sandwich.

“Let’s just hope he is,” Locke responded. “Although, I’m wondering . . . You think the old man will buy our stuff too? I’ve got a lot to sell.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. I picked up a bunch of candy canes and other gear from the Elves and Giants of Kringle while you were napping on your woman’s lap,” Reginald added, grabbing another sandwich.

“Hmm . . .” the man’s eyes bulged a bit as he looked at the two and listened to the boy. After staring for a moment, he reached under the counter and pulled out a small stick which he used to strike the boy across the chest several times, causing him to yelp in pain.

Locke instantly suspected the boy was putting on a show and that his cries of pain were more than a bit exaggerated for their benefit. The young man’s afflictions were probably about as real as their ‘deals’ were.  

“Ah, sincerest apologies, dear lords,” the man began after he was finished whipping the boy. “I don’t know what the boy promised or said, but I’ll be sure to beat him twice as hard tonight for troubling you with hyperboles.” He struck the boy three more times, each causing the boy to make a terrified face and yelp in pain again before scuttling across the counter and over to the two of them.

“Oh, there’s no need for that,” Locke said in an oily voice, thick with his fake tough-guy persona. “We can beat him ourselves.”

“But lords, there is no reason for you to break him out of use and free him from his contract, as I suspect he secretly prays for. I have another fifty years of service before this . . .” The old man paused for a moment to turn and take a threatening swing at the boy who was across the room, causing him to dart through the open door at the back and down the stairs. “ . . .  Before this ingrate is done with his duties. I paid good money, so please be kind, lords.”

Wait, is he a slave? Locke blinked in realization as he put two and two together. They have slaves here? Is that . . . Is that how they are able to afford the attendants who work all day at shops that have few-to-no customers? It’s not massive overhead. It’s slavery. Locke wasn’t sure if he could stomach the idea. He exchanged a quick glance with Reginald and understood that he wasn’t the only one who was feeling guilty about tormenting the kid. Well, the damage is done now. Might as well stay the course. Locke caught himself before he swallowed down the thought and hoped his gulp hadn’t cracked the facade he had built as a thug.

“Well, let’s just hope we haven’t been lied to because–and I’m sure you understand–we made a threat: a threat that must be followed through on, since we can’t be accused of having told falsehoods, can we?” He forced the most wicked-looking grin onto his face as he could manage, much to Reginald’s visible dissatisfaction.

“Of course, my lords. Now, what sort of products are you looking for? I might not look it, but this humble old man does indeed have a mighty-wide selection of weapons, armors, clothes and even paints and exotic ingredients for the aspiring artist. You name it, we probably have it!” The old man’s face had been low and solemn earlier, only showing small bursts of anger at the boy when he came in and explained the situation, but now picked up and began to show some pride.

Reginald spoke up right away and said, “I could use a staff, some good mage’s robes, and . . .”–he glanced around the room–“can you bring me something in red? The color is growing on me.” He looked down at the Santa outfit he was still wearing thanks to Eliza’s instance that they not waste any more time than necessary letting him change. “You can tailor in this design on top of anything you bring, right?”

“Of course, my lord. We can make anything you choose look like anything you want–within reason, of course.” The shopkeeper smiled, pride evident on his face. “It may take a day for alterations, but I am positive that my lord will be more than satisfied once it is finished.”

“That sounds great.” Reginald nodded his assent. “Then also bring me a cup of milk and some cookies while we’re waiting.” He leaned back into his stiff wooden chair, rocking it backward, and kicked up his feet with a contented grin on his face. “Chocolate chip.”

“Right away. And would the other lord like me to get him some refreshments too?” The old man had evidently noticed that Locke was avoiding the sandwiches and had yet to relax.

“Surprise me,” Locke replied noncommittally with a shrug.

“Of course, my lord. Now, before I leave, one last question about the staff that my lord wants. Are you looking for something that helps you focus? Or are you looking for one that helps you add some extra bang to your boom?”

“Let’s go with the latter,” Reginald answered with a wry chuckle. “I do like to bang more than expected.”

“Very good, sir. I’ll be right back.” The old man gave a half-bow and rushed toward the back room, doing his best to yell at the boy in as quiet a voice as possible. “Get the goat chocolate chip cookies and milk, and pour a glass of brandy for the stiff Human. Hurry up now, boy! Hurry!”

The two shoppers awkwardly avoided making any serious conversation while they were waiting, only making snide remarks about the pictures on the walls. The door opened up behind them after a few moments and a young Imp woman wearing a short cream-colored dress, the top half made from a lighter-white lace and the bottom half a plain, deeper cream color that matched her red-strapped cloche hat. Locke couldn’t help but stare at the beautiful woman as she looked around, apparently taking in everything the somewhat-barren store had to offer before finally letting her eyes rest on the pair of men sitting in the only available seats.

“Now this is an amusing sight if I’ve ever seen one,” she giggled, raising a hand to cover her mouth as she did. “You two actually managed to get lazy Drood to lift a finger and do some work?”

“That depends.” Reginald responded to the woman even quicker than he had when he butted in and took priority ordering gear. “Was Drood the old man who was pretty much sleeping with his eyes open at the counter when we walked in?”

“That would be the one.” She flashed a wide smile. “One of you two must be very important for him to strain himself and not push all the work on his overly-zealous grandson.”

Reginald and Locke both let out a deep breath of relief at hearing the word ‘grandson.’ So he isn’t a slave, per say. He’s just family. Locke laughed to himself at the thought. It was hard to tell whether or not family was the cheapest or most expensive form of labor. “Then yes,” Locke answered, speaking up before Reginald could say something offensive or troll the young woman. “But I wouldn’t mark him as lazy. He seemed very earnest and hardworking when he offered us service.”

“Polite and hardworking? Well, now I’ve heard everything.” She giggled again, once more covering her mouth as she did.

Her outward demeanor didn’t exactly scream nobility, but her posh-sounding voice and her refined mannerisms tugged at the customer-detecting part of Locke’s brain. She must be from one of the upper class families of this town. She must be from money, he surmised as he eyed her up and down once more. I haven’t seen anything resembling elastic yet, so for her dress to fit like that, someone must have put in some serious time tailoring it for her . . . not to mention the fact that it probably required someone to help her put it on and to fit it just so. There’s no way that a custom job like that came cheaply.

“If lazy Drood is being so well behaved . . . Well, this I must see.” She paused for a moment then held her hands in the air and clapped twice. “Edwin, fetch me a chair. I am going to sit with these gentlemen.”

The grandson, who had just appeared from the back carrying a tray laden with baked goods, two glasses of milk and two empty snifters with a decanter of what Locke could only assume was brandy, nodded as he set the tray down. “Yes, Lady Margaret. Right away.” The meek boy practically sprinted back the way he had just come from as soon as the tray was placed on the coffee table.

“Margaret, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Reginald.” The goat didn’t miss a beat.

“I’m Shy.” Locke kept his introduction short. He still wasn’t sure who she was or what customs he was supposed to abide by in this town. She’s going to think I’m a barbaric thug as soon as she talks to Drood anyway, so why am I being so cautious? I might as well just go ahead and be rude. “But what the heck are these things?” He prodded at the chocolate chip biscuits tentatively. “We asked for chocolate chip cookies to go with the milk, and he brings out these monstrosities?”

“Agreed,” Reginald laughed, poking at the flaky creations. “If I wanted biscuits, I would have asked for gravy, not chocolate chips, to go with them.”

“You know what bothers me the most about them?” Locke asked. “The fact that it didn’t take more than a few minutes for them to bring them up. That means that, somewhere in the back, they have trays of chocolate chip biscuits. Who the heck would ever eat that? Much less so often that they already have a tray set out and ready to be heated?” He laughed again at the idea, almost chortling at the absurdity of it.

“That’s a good point. I can understand that language difference.” Reginald nodded to himself as he spoke. “In some places back . . .” He trailed off and glanced at Margaret, apparently realizing that it probably wouldn’t be smart to mention ‘back in the real world’ in front of an NPC. “Back home, there are places where a biscuit is a cookie, a cookie is a cookie, and a scone is God only knows what. But that doesn’t change people’s taste buds.”

“Right,” Locke agreed. “There’s no excuse for this.” Locke poked at the baked abomination again curiously before deciding to just try it anyway, breaking off a piece and popping it into his mouth. “You know what? It’s actually not that bad.”

“You’re just messing with me, aren’t you, Shy?” Reginald eyed Locke suspiciously.

“Don’t be such a cretin. Of course he isn’t messing with you.” Margaret reached forward and grabbed one of the chocolate chip biscuits, carefully broke it in half and popped half of it into her mouth. After a moment of chewing, and a forced swallow, she said, “How can any baked good with sugar and chocolate be bad? Silly goat.”

“Hey!” Reginald showed mock outrage at the moniker. “I am a Satyr, not a goat.”

“I was commenting on your tastes, not your race, dear.” She suppressed another giggle and immediately raised her hand to her mouth, though Locke wasn’t sure whether or not it was because she was still chewing on part of the biscuit or because of the laugh.

“Hey!” Reginald protested again.

“My lords.” Drood had crept up while they were eating with several staves and articles of clothing draped across his arms. “Here are a few of our finer items,” he said, presenting them to Reginald confidently. “I trust you’ll find exactly what you came for.”

Reginald stood up and began thumbing through the clothes and the staves while Locke poured a glass of brandy and waited for his friend to finish shopping.

“So, Shy,” Margaret asked, turning the conversation to him while Reginald was browsing through the proffered selection of goods. “How did you manage to get him to act so attentive and meek? Wait, don’t tell me. You’re visiting royalty? You’re one of his long lost cousins from the Human lands? No, wait! I have it this time. You–”

“We told his grandson we’d break his kneecaps and leave him beaten to an inch of his life if the service wasn’t good, the products weren’t the best, and the prices weren’t unbeatable.” As strange as it was, Locke actually felt good playing the villain as he took a sip of his drink. “Not that we’d actually do it,” he added.

“Of course not!” Margaret answered quickly once she realized that Locke was leading her on. Her face had drained of color until it was almost as white as Locke. She scoffed and said, “No one would be that barbaric.”

“Indeed. We’d only beat him within two inches of his life. Or maybe just break his elbows to match the kneecaps.”

Margaret’s face fell even more. “Surely you jest?! You can’t do that! You can’t just waltz in here and threaten people like that!”

“Relax. It’s not like we told him we’d treat him poorly if he treated us well. Unless . . .” Locke decided to turn the tables on the snobbish woman, “Unless you’re worried because Drood usually rips people off? Are you concerned because you feel like it’s a certainty that he’s going to try to swindle us? Hmmm . . . Perhaps I really should compare the prices of everything he sells after we leave. If you’re so positive that he’s going to steal our hard-earned money, that is . . .”

“No! No, that’s . . . That’s not what I’m . . . You just can’t treat people like that!” she insisted.

“Why not? Do you think people buy these weapons and armors so that they can hang them above their mantles and stare at them while sipping tea?” Locke laughed right in the face  of the poor girl’s naiveté. He had only intended to mess with her a little, but he found it somewhat delightful to watch her expressions change from one flavor of shock to the next as he educated her on how the real world worked. The real world is a cruel, philistine land where dignity, honor and morals fade away to needs and wants. He smiled wanly at his own insight and took a large bite of his chocolate chip biscuit. Or, I guess, here, it’s a cookie. I wonder what other word swaps occur here that don’t get fixed by Tiqpa’s internal translator.

“No, they’re for noble combat in defense of the country!” She puffed up indignantly and put on a stern face that was only a lip-twitch away from a pout.

“Really? Noble combat?” Locke laughed again. He was enjoying both his newfound malicious manner and the fact he didn’t have to sugar coat anything. Even though this woman normally would have been a prime example of a perfect customer that he would have sucked up to in order to earn some business, he just didn’t feel the need to put on the act at the moment.  He was having too much fun at her expense. “That’s rich. Do you think that an adventurer manages to get weapons like these”–he pulled out Flail to the Queen, his new favorite weapon, and set it on the table–“from being polite and waiting for a chance at ‘noble combat’?”

The weapon’s appearance had drawn a loud, sharp gasp from Margaret as soon as it appeared–a much stronger reaction than Locke could have anticipated. “Th-That! That weapon! Where did you get that?!”

Locke looked down at the flail and wondered what distinguishing characteristics it had that made it so easily and immediately recognizable. Well, it does have a rather unique silver handle with a black leather grip . . . and the base under the black spikes is rather gold in color . . . It can’t be one of a kind, can it? “I took it off someone I bested in battle. Where else would I get it? It’s not like I am a blacksmith.” Anymore.

“You . . . You bested Vi– You bested the owner of that weapon? I don’t believe you!” Margaret was leaning forward in her chair, and her formerly pale face was flickering between surprise, shock, confusion, and doubt with various spots of color beginning to creep through.

“If I didn’t, then how do I have it right here in my hands? Not just this one either.” Against his better judgment a nagging in the back of his head, Locke pulled out several more of the weapons he had taken from the group of assassins. He had been somewhat hoping that he’d only ever have to take them out when Reginald wasn’t around to notice him selling the group’s spoils of war all by himself, but his braggadocio confidence wasn’t going to let him stop now and sell himself short. Oh well. If he asks, it’s only right that I split the proceeds anyway.

“You . . . You . . . Those are . . .” Margaret’s face had lost all of its color once again and was now even whiter than Locke’s. “I want to buy them all!”

Huh? That’s a turn of events I didn’t expect. I mean, they are all great weapons, but . . . “This one,” he said, grabbing Flail to the Queen, “isn’t for sale. The rest are all yours.”

“You don’t understand! I will pay whatever it takes, but I want that crude contraption!” Margaret once more insisted.

She could have said anything after that, but Locke wouldn’t have heard it. He only heard one thing: “I’ll pay whatever it takes,” she says. She’s rich. She’ll pay whatever it takes! This is such a gift from heaven! What in the heck did I do to earn this type of luck? But . . . if I trade away the weapon, I’ll lose the advantage I expect it’s going to give me in fights. I’ll have to be carried again by Eliza . . . who can’t kill anyone without risking another homicidal episode . . . Locke sighed inwardly. This is no good. What to do . . . He was caught between the promise of wealth if he sold the item and the ability to hold his own in battle. The flail had some tremendous attributes, and he had been looking forward to using them in the upcoming fights. Normally, he would have just sold it to this woman at a huge markup and bought an equally good alternative. The weapon was good, but if one existed, it was almost certain that something else equally powerful or even stronger was out there as well. Even so, although there might be a point in time where he outpaced the weapons stats, for now, it was hard to believe that he was going to find anything else even remotely as good as Flail to the Queen within his level range. From what he could remember seeing advertised on the forums the last time he checked, the best non-guilded blacksmith in the game at the moment was only selling a one-handed sword with a bonus of +65 to damage.

“Well, well, well . . . What do we have here?” a gruff voice bellowed out from the entrance.

Locke was snapped out of contemplating his dilemma and turned toward the voice that had interrupted him just in time to see three figures burst into the shop in a manner that was more than slightly reminiscent of the stereotypical saloon-gunfight-waiting-to-happen scenario straight out of a cheesy western.  

“Looks like you can get anything with a little patience,” the man continued as they filed into the room.

Locke turned to see three men, all dressed in black leather armor so tight that it actually creeped him out a little. For a brief moment, he considered asking whether or not they were intending to wear it in battle or in the bedroom, but he let it go. To each his own, I guess, but that just doesn’t look right.  

“Patience is exactly what you’ll need,” Locke answered in a measured voice with just a hint of annoyance creeping through. This probably wasn’t the best time to abandon his thug demeanor. “The shop owner’s busy right now, so wait your turn.”

“Oh, but we’re not here to buy anything from the shop,” the latex-suit-wearing-wannabe continued. “I think instead that we’ll just kill the lot of you, take everything you have on you, and find ourselves rather rich afterward. What do you say, chaps?”

One of the leather-clad men pulled out a pair of daggers and another a crossbow, which he began loading. The leader of the group didn’t move or draw a weapon, but he began working his mouth as if he were talking, but no words came out.

“Reginald,” Locke shouted, we got company.” He risked a glance over at his friend who was still rifling through clothes, currently trying on different hats.

“Not inside the store!” old man Drood shouted as he saw the three men. “You dang miscreants! Take it outside!”

“D-Don’t let him finish the spell! Go stop him before he completes it, you stupid hooligan!” Margaret shouted. She pulled out a crystal wand and spoke three words that sounded like utter gibberish and then pointed it toward the dagger-wielding ruffian. As soon as her wand was level with the man, a quick series of icicles sprang forth from it. They spread out into a two meter wide hexagon and hovered in air for a moment before piercing toward the man, each making contact with a different spot on his leather-clad body. “I said go!” she yelled again at Locke.

Fine. Locke gripped the flail with his right hand and equipped Time’s Grip into his left. He still wasn’t comfortable using the whip, and definitely not lefthanded, but he didn’t see that he had much of a choice at moment. His opponent was obviously casting some type of spell, and he didn’t have much hope of dodging it within the confines of the shop.  

Almost on instinct, he lashed out with his hand and watched as the whip made contact with the spell caster’s throat. Critical hit! Locke grinned and felt a sense of elation from the success wash through him. That’s a good bit of luck, especially since I was aiming for his waist. Whatever. I’ll take it. His grin grew again as he realized how incredibly unlikely it was for the chain’s contact with his opponent to be broken during the fight. They were trapped within a confined space, but he doubted that the crossbow wielder would be able to hit any of the links that made up the metal weapon while it bounced around erratically and that the dagger wielder was already occupied with problems of his own.

Not wanting to waste any time, he darted toward the startled man before he had a chance to regain his composure. As soon as Locke was close enough to hit the guy square in the face with the flail, he yanked back on Time’s Grip and pulled the disturbingly-dressed assassin toward him. He used the combined momentum from his dash and the force of the pull from his whip to aim a blow from his flail directly across the man’s jaw.

The man was pulled off balance, and his spell was certainly canceled if it hadn’t been already, but Locke had been so focused on one eerie fiend that he hadn’t seen the crossbow user finish loading and aim. Right as Flail to the Queen was set to connect, he saw a brief flash of light in the corner of his vision as a bolt of metal and wood shot toward him. The bolt didn’t penetrate his armor, but it thudded into his right shoulder with enough force to send Locke spinning around backward like a top. There was no way for him to even keep his balance, much less connect with his well-aimed blow. His entire body was jerked around, propelled by the strength of the shot, and he was flung to the floor, where he landed on his right side.

Holy–! Locke wanted to cry out, but he bit his tongue instead as he realized that the bolt had stripped away a little over thirty percent of his bar. Since when did ranged weapons do so much damage? He cursed as he looked over at the third man who was now in the process of reloading his weapon. I don’t have that long of a window . . .

Locke groaned as he pushed himself into a semi-upright position on his elbow, quickly realizing that he still had an ironclad grip with his left hand on the now-fallen caster. He immediately switched his priority away from the now-muted mage, who had latched onto the whip with both of his hands as he tried to disentangle it from his neck. It was clear from his actions that he had no idea how the weapon’s mechanics worked or that it was impossible to remove it in that fashion. The downed man was giving it everything he had, but Locke knew that it wasn’t going to get him anywhere.

Locke took it as a sign of good luck and used the brief respite to try to push himself back to his feet, silently reveling in the fact that his health was slowly being restored. Each tick of the weapon stole an additional bit of life away from his captive and transferred it to Locke, and slowly but surely, his life was going back up, 1.4% at a time. He pushed up from the floor using the hand that held Flail to the Queen, but another bolt caught him square in the sternum before he was even fully upright. He wasn’t sent spinning around this time, but it caught him off guard and he was immediately forced back down and onto his backside. The bolt once again failed to shear through his armor, but Locke watched as his life plummeted down to 23% of his health bar.

Crap. One more of those, and I’ll be dead for certain. Locke felt a rising sense of panic quickly threaten to overwhelm him. Where the hell is that yellow shield of invulnerability, Reginald? He wanted to know what was going on with his Satyr friend and healer but knew that he didn’t have a single moment to waste since the next bolt would spell out certain death. He didn’t bother trying to stand up again. He knew full well the amount of time it would to take to get back onto his feet would just give his assailant plenty of time to reload a third bolt and shoot him again.

Instead, he aimed Holy Finger of the Sun God at the crossbowman and fired. The desperately aimed beam of light seared through the air and struck the man in the arm just as he was about to finish reloading his weapon. Locke had been hoping that the man’s chest would be burned through, or even that he would have dropped dead on the spot like others had before, but Locke had to be satisfied with seeing the man drop his bolt and reel back under the force of the spell.

Locke quickly scrambled across the ground toward the reeling man, tucking his body into a small roll as soon as he came within reach of the man. He brought his flail up and around in a blow aimed at the bowman’s legs as he came out of the roll. He felt the weapon shudder as it made contact with the man’s kneecap and heard bone crack under the blow. Yes! Locke was spurred on by his success, and he cheered himself on as he swung again. Locke landed his second blow, and the bowman’s legs buckled. He crumpled to the floor beside Locke in an awkward heap.

Locke suspected that another hit from the flail would finish off his foe for good. He was dealing massive damage with each hit, much higher than he had expected, and it told him that his opponent was most likely heavily invested in dealing destruction. If he guessed right, the poor man was probably equivalent in health to the average glass cannon caster. Locke pulled his flail back for the third and final blow, but just as he went in for the kill, his flail set to connect with the bowman’s face, he was yanked backward and away from the crippled man by the chain held in his left hand. The caster was back on his feet again with both of his hands wrapped around the chain, and he was using all of his strength to pull Locke away via the same chain that was still firmly wrapped around his neck.

Oh, come on! Locke growled in frustration but shifted his attention away from striking the fallen crossbowman. Rather than fighting against the pull of the whip, Locke pushed off and lunged forward. Propelled forward by the added momentum of the lunge and the simultaneous extension of Locke’s arm, the head of his flail was flung forward in a such a way that just so happened to land on a part of the man’s body that made even Locke cringe as it connected. The caster’s eyes bulged out, the breath went out of his body in a sickened groan, and the man doubled over in pain clutching his midsection.

Rather than waste any time trying to push himself to his feet, a mistake he was determined not to make any time again soon, Locke swung his weapon up in a short arc. Finally, he connected directly with the caster’s face. Whether due to the massive damage of the flail or the caster’s low hit points, the effect was still surprising. Instead of just simply peeling off a large chunk of health, the flail caved in the caster’s face like it was a fresh melon. Blood splattered everywhere as the spiked head sank deep into the spell wielder’s skull.

The effects were so gory and yet so magnificent that Locke was momentarily stunned. That could have been my head if the captain had landed an attack on me . . . When the thought occurred to him, he shook it off as quickly as it came. This wasn’t the time or place to be contemplating could-have-beens. The sound of a bow being loaded came behind him, and Locke snapped himself back to the unfinished fight on hand. He twisted around and found that the once-downed bowman had managed to reload his crossbow once more.

Locke didn’t even give him a moment to pull the weapon up and level it for a shot. He scurried back the short distance and swung in a short arc, hoping to finish the man off once and for all. The crossbowman intercepted Locke’s blow by deflecting it with his crossbow, negating the attack entirely, and stabbed downward with his loaded weapon. The pointed tip of the bolt was never fired, but the quick jab slid home into Locke’s arm and chipped away another 4% of Locke’s remaining hit points. Locke didn’t have many left to spare, and he couldn’t afford to take more than a few weak jabs like that before he’d be as dead as the fresh corpse on the floor next to him.

Since his flail had been stopped, and he didn’t have time to wind it back for another blow, he decided to risk it all and attack with his head–literally. Locke pushed forward, closing the small distance between them, and slammed his forehead as hard as he could into the opponent’s nose. Locke could feel fresh blood splatter across his face and drip down his brow as the man’s nose was crushed. Seizing the opportunity, he laid out several quick strikes with the hilt of the flail, hoping to keep his foe busy while he pushed himself back onto his feet. As soon as he was upright, he hefted the flail into the air and dropped it down on the bowman’s face, recreating the same effect it had on the spellcaster.

Locke felt a momentary sense relief as his two immediate threats had been eliminated, but he still didn’t feeling safe as the sounds to his left let him know that a battle might still be going on. He pulled out a health potion and chugged it as quickly as he could before turning to find out what had happened to everyone else. He was pleasantly surprised with what he found.

The milk master Reginald had once again used his white cannon of doom to assault the third man. This time, however, the effects were a bit different than what Locke had seen happen before.  The man’s clearly-too-tight black leather armor refused to expand outward with the man’s girthy growth. Apparently, it had only taken moments for the man’s appendages to become locked into place and trapped by his armor. The rest of his weight gain, unable to build up on his body, had started to accrue on the face. To make matters even more embarrassing for him, there was a fat conglomeration of icicles stuck into the man’s pudgy face. If nothing else, he looked like a flash-frozen porcupine that had pigged out on too many popsicles.

Reginald glanced over in Locke’s direction to check if he was okay and then proceeded to casually walk over to the trapped man. “So you gonna tell us who sent you?” He delivered a few swift kicks to the man’s side for good measure as he lay toppled over on the floor. “This is the second time today my friend and I have been bothered by some assassins, so I’d kind of like to know what’s going on. Is it me? Is it him?” Reginald pointed over at Locke. “Who is the target?”

“I’m never going to ta–” His protest was cut short as Reginald stomped one of his hoofed feet into the man’s mouth, shattering his teeth.

“You know, the problem with this . . .  It’s going to be very hard to get you to admit to anything if you annoy me to the point that I break your jaw and rip out your tongue completely. But . . . would that be enough to kill you?” Reginald looked thoughtful. “It’s a hard call. Let’s see if this kills you,” he taunted, stepping on one of the man’s fingers and twisting his hoof until a loud crunching sound was heard.

Holy crud. Is he . . . is he actually a mobster at heart? I was just putting on a show, but this is way too natural for him! Locke gulped as he watched the healer, the least dangerous and most helpful member in a fight, slowly and deliberately break yet another finger. Despite Tiqpa’s pain filters that greatly reduced a player’s sensation of pain, the man was still screaming in unabashed agony.

“You . . . You monster!” Margaret shouted. “Either end his life and allow him the mercy of death or let him go! You have won! There is no reason to continue this barbarity!” She stamped her foot at the same time Reginald brought down his own for the third time, and Locke involuntarily flinched at the crunching sound.

Reginald, seemingly unphased by the woman’s harsh tone or her words, just continued his work. He stepped on a fourth finger and twisted his hoof until it snapped. “Women,” he said in a confidential tone, leaning forward and talking to his victim. “They want me to be kind. They’re the angels of mercy in the knight’s tale, you know? It’s never the king that men appeal to for justice. It’s always the queen. Every time. They just– Oh, that’s four fingers now. I’m surprised you’re still alive. You either have a high constitution, or this just doesn’t do as much damage as I hoped. Here, let’s move over to the other hand. We can save the thumbs for later.”

“Stop torturing him!” Margaret yelled once more. She raised her wand as she shouted, mumbled a few words, and sent a series of ice bolts directly into the man’s face, finishing him off instantly.

Reginald threw his head back and laughed the most hearty, and yet creepy, laugh that Locke had heard in a very long time. The sound of it echoed through the shop as the Satyr turned to face the girl. “Every single time, it’s the woman who delivers mercy.”

“I would prefer to think that it’s only that the women around you understand the nature–and the importance–of being humane,” she snapped back. Then, adjusting her dress, she looked over at Locke. “I think I have seen enough for today. I will be back to collect that flail from you, but for right now, I’d rather not be second in line to file a report on today’s incident. Good days, sir!” She puffed herself up and huffed as she marched her way out of the building, not being the least bit careful to prevent blood from getting on her shoes and tracking behind her.

Back