A Hop, Skip, and a Pan Away!: Valerie

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Valerie felt awesome, like a super-secret agent, a sexy black widow with wings. The word badass was the only way she could think of describing what she was doing. In her mind, they weren’t three kids playing a videogame–they were spies with a deadly mission. She was the level-headed leader in her leather armor with her fancy daggers sneaking around giving hand signals to her friends so as not to talk. Daniel wasn’t just the random guy that had been roped into the group–he was a smooth-talking operator who could get in and out of any situation with his quick wit and likable personality. And Mclean? Mclean was the warrior girl who would murder anyone if their trio was discovered. Valerie didn’t feel silly at all as they crept through the sand towards the entrance to the Fire-Walkers’ lair–she felt cool.

They etched their way across the sand, making sure to be careful and use the terrain as a cloak to hide themselves as they approached the shadowed entrance in the sand. Whatever the Fire-Walkers were up to, they hadn’t been easy to find, and they probably wouldn’t take kindly to being infiltrated either. People generally didn’t like others spying on them if they went to this much trouble remaining secret. Being very close to the cap level of the area, Valerie was sure she could handle most of the competition if anything came up, but that didn’t mean she wanted to test her luck. It also didn’t mean she was confident in finding out what she needed if they just rampaged through a sketchy, hidden town–even if it was supposedly friendly.

“Are you seeing all of this? Look at that entrance. It’s better guarded than the President’s ride. How are we supposed to sneak past that?” Daniel whispered to Valerie, as if she was the idea girl at this point.

“We . . . We aren’t. There are too many guards. Wait, do any of you guys have a box to hide under?” Mclean answered, causing Daniel to chuckle and almost get the group spotted.

“Well, there is always the other option,” Valerie thought out loud. “We don’t have to sneak past them without getting spotted; we just have to make sure whoever spots us isn’t alive to sound the alarm.”

“Don’t let them ring the bell–as if we’re playing Assassin’s Creed, you mean?” Daniel asked, pulling out his daggers.

“Yes, like Assassin’s Creed. Except, this time, you can’t even let them shout. Let’s do this!” Valerie said, accidently saying it loud enough for the closest guard to hear.

Crap! I can’t let hi– Valerie panicked, instantly fearing what would happen if they were caught out. Fortunately, however, Mclean had already closed the distance and slit the guard’s throat before Valerie ever made a move. That girl is insane.

“Maybe you should be a little less enthusiastic,” Mclean joked, cleaning off her blade.

“Hehe, okay, I’ll remember that,” Valerie answered, feeling a bit embarrassed at her outburst. She was too excited about the whole mission to let it get to her though.

Now that the two guards standing watch over the entrance were dead, there really wasn’t a rush. Valerie tried to make her breathing as quiet as possible as she descended down the glass stairs.

“Umm, do we . . . Do we have any way to see down here?” Daniel asked, making everyone painfully aware that the Fire-Walkers clearly hadn’t felt it necessary to add torches, probably given the built in ones they carried.

“Oh! I know!” Valerie beamed excitedly. She quickly pulled out a number of glowing rocks. “I got these at the market earlier. The guy who sold them to me called them the ‘Stones of the Sun God.’ They aren’t bright enough to really make any noticeable change in light during the day, but I think right now they are perfect. They should give off just enough light to let us see, but not call attention to us.”

“Wow, that’s pretty awesome!” Daniel said as he and Mclean each grabbed two of the glowing rocks. As soon as he had them, he squinched them in place over his eyes and stuck out his arms like a zombie. “Aaagghhhh . . . brains!!”

“Don’t be silly, why would zombies have glowing eyes?” Mclean knocked him on the back causing both of the ‘eyes’ to shoot out of his head and onto the floor.

“I don’t know. Movies always do weird things with lighting effects and zombies,” Daniel said, scooping down to pick up the rocks. “It’s not like zombies have any basis in science.”

“Maybe, but they’re still scary,” Mclean said.

Wait, Mclean is scared of something?

Daniel cut the conversation short by putting his finger over his mouth. Footsteps could be heard, and no one wanted to be spotted just yet. They had just gotten down the glass stairs, which opened up into a perpendicular fork in the road with the footsteps coming from the left path.

“Those bird-brained idiots will never know what hit them,” one of the voices said.

Could we really be so lucky as to get vital information this quick? Are we natural born spies?

“Yeah, they are out there tirelessly working at the harbor to expand our Empire. They have no idea what’ll be waiting for them when they get back,” another voice said.

“So glad I picked Fire-Walker. Can you imagine how awful it would be to be bound to that hunk of glass in the sky when it comes crashing down?”

“No idea. It serves them right though, arrogant little feather-heads.”

Valerie had to stop herself from dashing out and punching the owner of the voice in the throat. It was getting closer every second, so the amount of time she’d have to eavesdrop was shrinking by the moment. Don’t do anything rash just yet guys, she thought, eyeing her two friends. If she wanted to jump out from behind the corner and stab them, Mclean definitely would.

“The best part of it all? Most of them will die during the invasion, so they’ll have no way to stop us by the time they finally realize what’s happening.”

I know no one is supposed to be down here, but you are giving away way too much plot information haphazardly. You idiot, are you trying out for a role as the villain in a Bond movie?

“Hah. Maybe I can strap a saddle to one of those feather-brained idiots an–” Nothing but the sound of gurgling blood escaped his mouth as he tried to finish his sentence. He had gotten too close to the corner, and Daniel had rounded it and killed him, jamming a dagger right through his throat. Mclean had followed suit and carved up the other one.

So much for hostages.

“What? Don’t hold me responsible: I’m just a feather-brained idiot,” Daniel said, kicking the dead Fire-Walker.

Valerie couldn’t blame him, but they were at a crossroads now. “Do we go back and report what we found, or do we clean up the mess?” she asked, voicing the question everyone was thinking about.

“The question is, how deep does this conspiracy go? It sounds like they’ve planned to attack the holy city while we lay siege to the White-Horns. If that’s the case, they’ll clean us up. Everyone over Level 10 will be participating in the siege. . . The city will be defenseless,” Daniel said.

“Yeah, and these guys clearly hate us. I didn’t know this game had racial slurs, but we’ve already heard at least two for our race in less than five minutes,” Mclean added.

“Well, Boss, what do you want to do? Turn this in or investigate further?”

“Aren’t you two worried about someone finding out we are investigating?” Valerie asked, looking at the two bodies. They had already racked up a body count of four, and it had only been five minutes. Someone was bound to discover them sooner or later.

“Well, what’s the worst case scenario if we get caught?”

“They could hold us prisoner so we never talk?”

“Hmm. Then, in that case, we need a plan.”

“You mean a plan like cyanide pills, like the spies in one of those old action movies?”

“Yeah. Look, I don’t think we have much to lose, but if we don’t do this right, then we may end up going to war and coming back to find we don’t have a home. I think it’s worth the risk. If we just go back and tell the authorities, they probably won’t do anything; or worse, they’ll cancel the war altogether, and we’ll be left with a week of hard work down the drain,” Valerie said, pretty sure of the decision she was ready to make.

“Yeah. I agree. If it comes down to investigating and taking a serious risk or not doing anything and running back to tattle, I say we investigate. I say we break this whole thing open; and, if need be, kill them all.” Mclean brandished her daggers.

“Well, who am I to argue with two ladies?” Daniel said, pulling out his daggers too. “The real question is; do you want me in the front or back?”

Mclean laughed, but Valerie didn’t get it. They were on a top secret mission to save her new world from seedy, cave-dwelling Fire-Walkers. She didn’t just feel cool, she felt awesome.

——-

 Valerie took a deep breath. Each kill brought them closer to discovery, and it was starting to take a toll on her nerves. They were already deep within the underground warren and ant-hill-like maze that was the Fire-Walkers’ base, and there was still no end in sight. Whereas the sky-city felt like an actual city, sprawled out with all of its parts connected, the Fire-Walker domain did not: it was chambered and segregated. There were always more of the long, narrow, sloping hallways that continuously led deeper and deeper into the earth. Although the passages oftentimes split off into different directions, they always ended in chambers of varying sizes. Typically, each of these chambers was large enough to contain around ten buildings each; and, from what she could tell, each separate area was designed for a specific task. At the moment, the group had entered a blacksmithing chamber containing forges for the glass weapons they would make. Valerie was both shocked and surprised to varying degrees. She had known that the Fire-Walkers were capable of designing both study and intricate weaponry, but she had never truly stopped to consider the fact that it would require anything other than a handful of sand and the Fire-Walkers own natural flames in order to do so.

Valerie was trying her best to steady her nerves as Daniel and Mclean dispatched the seven Fire-Walkers still inside the chamber. We’ve come this far, and there hasn’t been a problem yet, Valerie told herself, looking around the room for anything they could use. We’re not just mindless murderers; we’re looking for evidence. I know we’ve got those three documents hinting at the plan, but if we don’t get something hard and concrete fast, then it’s likely we’ll be dismissed.

“Got anything in that stack of scrolls?” Mclean asked.

“No, nothing. It’s just more weapon designs and junk, like every other blacksmithing section we’ve found.”

“Why couldn’t the documents be as plentiful as their yapping mouths. At this rate, we’ll have killed every Fire-Walker in the damn town before we find enough hard evidence to condemn them,” Daniel complained.

“I don’t see what’s wrong with that. It might be for the best; after all, if there aren’t any of them left, then they won’t be attacking while we lay siege to the White-Horns,” Mclean posited.

“Yeah, but don’t you think the Sun God Emperor will be angry when he finds out that we took out half of the Empire because we had suspicions it was going to attack the other half?” Valerie’s question was rhetorical–she knew exactly what would happen if turned back up at this point without hard evidence. I’ve seen way too many dramas on TV to not know how this will turn out.

“Suspicions? We heard them confess! Valerie, it’s not just suspicion: it’s fact!”

“Yeah, but, Mclean, you still have to prove it to the Sun God Emperor. He won’t know what we heard. He’ll just think we made up some stupid excuse to go on a killing spree and murder a bunch of Fire-Walkers,” Daniel reminded her.

“It would be our word against theirs. I’m guessing our word isn’t good enough?” Mclean sighed.

“Yeah, probably not.” Daniel patted her on the wing. “It’s okay though. I’d still believe you over those hot-headed Fire-Walkers.”

“Daniel, that’s kind of racist,” Valerie said, hoping the joke would break the ice like her sister’s jokes always did when her family was about to break into an argument. We need the evidence, but we also need to stay calm and clear headed.

“Be careful with comments about race, Valerie, you might start a flame war,” Daniel replied, making them all chuckle.

They hadn’t realized what a divide there was between the White-Wings and the Fire-Walkers until they got here. In the city in the clouds, there wasn’t talk of Fire-Walkers at all, but down here, the White-Wings were the subject of a thousand insults and slurs. They couldn’t sneak into a single chamber without hearing about how the White-Wings deserved to die.

“Well, shall we go on to the next and ‘investigate’ some more?” Mclean asked, already heading towards the nearest tunnel.

“Maybe, but at this point I think we need to start making a map. Do any of you know how to get out of here?” Valerie pointed out, causing them both to shrug.

“Of course I do. I’ll have you know I’m a pro gamer. We’ve been sticking to the left wall, so all we have to do to get back is turn around and stick to the right wall. Didn’t your dad teach you anything about mazes and video games?” Daniel said, clearly feeling smug.

“Actually, I didn’t even know that. Does that always work?” Mclean said.

“Mostly. Unless you happen to be playing Portal, you’re probably gonna be fine using the trick. Some games will complicate it though with circular dungeons or one way doors, but I don’t think this is one of those.”

“Neato. So all we have to do is turn around and stick to the right wall?” Valerie glanced behind her, as if to reassure herself that the plan would work.

“Yes ma’am,” Daniel answered. “Or you can just log out for the night when there aren’t enemies around and your login tomorrow morning will be back in the city.”

“So I’m being paranoid thinking we need to draw a map and figure out where we are going?”

“Yeah, probably. To be honest, I don’t know why the game doesn’t do it for us. It maps out every other dungeon we’ve been in so far.”

“It likely has to do with the fact we’re hostiles in a player town, so the town won’t show up on our radar.”

“Hostiles in a player town . . . How come we haven’t run into any of the players yet?”

“DUN DUN DUN!” Daniel said in a booming, dramatic voice. “THE PLOT THICKENS!”

Valerie wanted to facepalm, but he was right. The plot had thickened. They had spent three hours cleaving their way through the heart of what should be the Fire-Walker’s capital town, only to find that there weren’t any actual players. There were only NPCs plotting to overthrow the White-Wings–a fact that surely would have slipped onto the boards if the players knew.

“I don’t like this at all, but if there aren’t players, then must mean one thing,” Mclean said, as if something just hit her.

“What? That no one here besides us had pizza or ramen for dinner?” Daniel couldn’t help himself.

“No, that we’re probably the strongest things in this dungeon. Most NPCs barely scrape past 20 or 25, and we’re almost 40. I think that means we can be a little less cautious and a little more murdery.”

Daniel shuddered. “You weren’t murdery enough already?”.

Mclean only laughed, showed her evil smile, and dashed into one of the corridors so quickly she might as well have been flying again.

“Ladies first,” Daniel said, bowing as Valerie followed after Mclean. “It’s a front row seat to genocide.”

Yeah, genocide . . . because every Fire-Walker in this cave is going to die tonight if we keep going like this, Valerie thought, trying to prepare herself for whatever lay ahead. We don’t have anything to worry about down here . . . Yeah. We’re going to be fine against them.

They tore through the NPCs one after the other. The dungeonesque design of the whole town made it easy for them to clear out the Fire-Walkers unnoticed. They never had to engage more than twenty or so at a time; and, for the most part, it was just small handfuls here and there.

Eventually, they entered into chamber several times larger than any of the others they had encountered. Valerie had long since given up on trying to determine exactly how far down they had traveled, and the sheer size of the cavern they entered let her know that they were probably far deeper than she would have guessed. The far side of the room was lost in an inky darkness, yet one thing stood out exceptionally clear.

There, in the middle of the room, sat a gargantuan Fire-Walker on a burning throne. Lines of flame radiated out from where he was positioned, doing nothing to dispel the darkness. Smaller flames stood out interspersed amongst the larger one. Fire-Walkers, Valerie realized. This is their ruler, their secret Emperor, and we just walked in on him holding court.

“Who dares enter my throne room and challenge the will of the Sun God,” the enthroned Fire-Walker spoke as soon as their first foot entered the room. Its voice was deeper than any voice Valerie had heard before and echoed ominously off the walls of the chamber. “Who beckons death?”

“I’m honestly a little scared right now,” Daniel admitted, his knuckles turning white as he gripped his daggers. “That dude looks like he could mess us up.”

“Yeah, he’s giving even me the shivers,” Mclean said. “Not sure if we can take him.”

The Fire-Walker stood up. He was over 8 feet tall with black skin, which glowed with an array of red and orange lines, and the ground where he walked left patches of fire burning. He looked at them again and his voice boomed out, “You have defied the will of the Sun God for the last time!” as he raised his hands and sent scorching fireballs at them, disintegrating everything in their path.

All three of them had managed to dodge in time, but it was only thanks to the distance between them and the Boss that they were still alive. The fireballs had come within inches of scorching them to death.

“Do you think we can actually kill this guy?” Mclean asked skeptically, making Valerie’s hope sink even further.

“No, probably not,” Daniel answered. “But, I think I know what we need to do.”

“What’s that?” Valerie asked.

“They don’t respawn, do they? The NPCs. If we kill them, they won’t just respawn. I don’t know what the respawn mechanism is, but I’ve heard that it could weeks or even months to repopulate a town; if it’s even possible to begin with. Regardless, it sure as heck isn’t instant.” Daniel was fumbling over his words, repeating himself, clearly trying to work out a plan on the fly.

“Where are you going with this?” Mclean asked.

“I’m saying, we can’t kill him, but how much you wanna bet every one of the Fire-Walkers in here is either a general or a leader of some sort? This is his crème de la crème, the cream of the crop. If we die, we respawn back in town: no harm, no foul. We don’t even lose experience, just the items we haven’t really gotten along the way. If they die, this guy could be crippled,” Daniel explained.

“I like it.” Valerie smiled. It’s a plan, and it’s a plan that doesn’t require us to just give up after we’ve come so far. She was glad that, even in the face of an impossible task, they weren’t just giving up.

“So what you’re saying is: Admit we’re going to die and beat the mini-bosses while he tries to kill us?” Mclean asked, dodging a fireball. The flames didn’t fade after they hit the wall behind where she had been standing. Instead, they just kept burning as if to remind the three of what they were up against.

“So . . . See you guys in the next life?” Daniel asked, making sure everyone was on board with the plan. They could still turn around, really. They could run as fast as they could down the hall and out the path they had come. They didn’t have to die. It was just that pang of pride that stopped them.

“Yeah, there isn’t any hope of winning, but I’ll be damned if I go out losing.” Valerie hefted her daggers and flew as fast as she could at the nearest Fire-Walker. It drew the attention of the boss, and she felt the heat from a fireball on her back, letting her know how close to death she was before her daggers sank into the Fire-Walker’s chest. One down, nineteen to go. She planted her feet into the ground and pulled the Fire-Walker corpse up like a shield to block the next fireball as it soared at her. The shield worked–somewhat. Even with the body blocking most of the fire, she still felt the impact from the blast and the heat from the flames. What the hell am I thinking?

She caught a glimpse of Mclean taking out two Fire-Walkers while the boss was distracted with her, and decided she wasn’t about to let the other girl beat her on kills. She shoved the body she was holding into her next victim and followed it up by jamming one of her daggers into his temple. Two down. This time the boss wasn’t just shooting out fireballs; he was leaping at her. He jumped in the air using his flaming feet as propulsion and landed fist first right where she was standing two seconds ago, unleashing a fiery nova.

The nova dispersed outward in a fiery with blue blaze, catching her in the back as she hurried towards her next target. The fire sent a searing pain through her wings and let her know that left her gasping for breath, but she forced herself onward. She used the concussion wave from the nova to dive at the feet of her prey, ripping her daggers through the tendons in his legs. The Fire-Walker fell over into a heap on his face, giving her enough time to scramble on top of him and viciously plunge her daggers into its back. Three down.

No sooner had she finished him off, however, than she had to roll out of the way of another set of fireballs. I didn’t think this happened outside of Jackie Chan movies. She rolled back to the other side, dodging another incoming projectile. A third of the health bar left and only three kills? I can’t let those two beat me this badly, she thought, pushing herself up and running at the fourth Fire-Walker in a mad sprint. She knew she wasn’t going to be breathing for much longer. Just the after effects of this guy’s flames were ripping her to shreds, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her. She stabbed, hard, and her blades dug into the Fire-Walker’s chest. Four down. A fireball landed next to her and knocked her off her feet. Crap, what do I do now? she thought. The flames from the last blast lingered on her body, slowly eating away at her over time. At this rate she would drop before she made it to the next one.

“Don’t die just yet, girl! I’m already at seven!” Mclean yelled at her, seeing her predicament.

That’s right. I didn’t get to be the first player ranked Herald of the Sun God Empire for nothing. I got here through hard work and determination, not giving up just because I’m about to die from a damn, rigged Boss. You can do this, Valerie, she said to herself as she stood up. The pain of the flames left her weaker than she realized, however, and the adrenaline of battle was starting to wear off. She struggled to even stand, and it was hard to get her balance. Screw you for going for me first! She pulled her daggers out and threw them at the fifth target. The Fire-Walker managed to dodge the first blade, but the second one landed square in his throat. As the flames consumed her and her vision started to fade to black, she felt happy. She could see her last kill choking on his own fiery blood on the ground in front of her. Five . . . Five isn’t too bad, right?

You have died. You will have the option to respawn at your bind point when your death counter expires.

Valerie sighed as she logged off. Sure, she had died, but it had been the most exciting fight she had been in since she started playing the game. The heat from the flames that chased her across the field, the certainty of sure death that followed, and the overpowering aura that the Boss exuded–it was epic. It was a Boss fight worth fighting.

She was just about to go to bed when her phone beeped. She had an email. It was a notification that someone had sent her a private message on the forums: “Just died. We got all of them before the Boss got us. Didn’t think you’d be so eager to play bait, but you bought us plenty of time! Anyways, had a lot of fun, look forward to playing again with you two. – Mclean.”

It worked! I got burned, it hurt, I died, but it worked! And it worked because of Valerie, fearless Herald of the Sun God Empire! Yes! Valerie thought, mentally high-fiving herself. She wasn’t used to putting herself out there that much, but she had been part of a team for once and gotten carried away in it. She wasn’t even used to caring that much about the outcome of the stuff she worked on, but this time, she had put everything she had into that fight, and it worked. They had won, and the smile it left on her face was one she knew wouldn’t fade for days.

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