Character Name: Lucas
Level: 37 Hit Points: 5310
Arcane Energy: 2600 Stamina: 800
Holy Energy: Class Locked
Current Class: Lich
Arcanum [increases Arcane Energy by 10 per point]: 250
Holy [No Effect/Class Locked]: 0
Athletics [increases Stamina by 10 per point]: 70
Fortitude [increases Hit Points by 1% per point]: 350
Current Elemental Attunement:
Lightning Affinity: 1.5%
Effects: +3% Lightning Element Damage
+6% Lightning Element Channeling Speed
-3% Non-Lightning Element Channeling Speed
+0.75% Lightning Element Damage Resistance
Arcane Resistance: 2%
Lucas lay there, his back against the chilly, damp grass by the makeshift pool that his Ant-Dragon, Eri, had carved into the Academy’s lawn. He couldn’t help but feel like a piece of him was missing as he stared up at the night sky. If someone had told him that every star was a shard of his soul, and he’d have to spend the rest of his life gathering them all together, he’d have found it rather easy to believe, but he wouldn’t have found the energy to get up and even begin to try.
That’s not how I remember it, Lucas thought as he turned to his side, looking at the last woman he had been with. The woman was a cute brunette with green eyes and a button nose and the type of perfectly spherical backside that every video game before the need for hyper realism had gifted their women. She had been a latecomer to the fun and festivities and was one of the few that hadn’t gotten up and left yet. It used to feel warm, he thought, remembering what it had been like with Yu Hua. When he had been with her the first time, the act was glorious, like a thousand fireworks exploding in his heart as it lit up his dreams and hopes. It had just been the two of them, curled up in a dorm room bed as they tried to stay as close as possible so one of them wasn’t hanging off the side of the twin mattress like Lucas’s feet often did. Compared to that warm, touching, wonderful feeling that he remembered after embracing Yu Hua, trying to hold and be with every part of her, this was nothing. That warm feeling, that heartfelt feeling that came after, that was what Lucas remembered the most about his nights with his wife.
This time though, all he could feel was that odd sensation of cold against his back, telling him how damp the ground was after so many wet feet had walked across it upon exiting the pool. It wasn’t that he hadn’t enjoyed himself with Viola, all the other women, and later on with Bonnie, who had logged back in halfway through. He had. He had enjoyed them thoroughly, and he had drowned himself in the fleshly pleasures and endorphins that had flooded his brain as he indulged himself in all the women to sate his hedonistic urges, but the moment it had ended, the moment they had broken apart, he had started to feel empty again, and a cold and hollow sensation washed over him.
“This isn’t what it’s supposed to be like at all,” he muttered under his breath, likely not loud enough for anyone near him to hear.
“Mmm . . . just, just give me a few more minutes,” the girl next to him said as she rolled over, turning her back to him. “I’ll help clean up. I’ll just sleepy sleepy five more minutes,” she mumbled.
“I’ll help too,” another voice said from the area closer to the pool. “Just . . . what she said. Give me a few more minutes before you make me walk.”
Lucas didn’t even have the energy to shake his head as he turned his eyes away from the cute brunette beside him and back to the stars. He wondered if it would be different if it had just been Viola, if she hadn’t left sometime long ago when the drunken debauchery was still going on in the pool–or if he had known any of them. As he was thinking of that, he couldn’t help but picture Liu’s face in front of his eyes, and a sense of shame washed over him. No, we’re not a couple, Lucas told himself as he tried to clear the persistently growing guilt that started to wrap itself like arms around his chest and hold him in place. We’re not a couple. I don’t owe her anything. This was just . . . This was just one night of fun. I needed this. She’ll understand. She’ll . . . Suddenly, Lucas’s thoughts were shattered by a loud shout.
“What the hell?!” he heard Nick exclaim from the other side of the pool, the side that was closer to the Headmistress’s building.
“Oh, hey,” Lucas said, happy for the interruption. He sat up, got to his feet, and dusted himself off. He even tried to pop his back for a moment, forgetting that such stretching wasn’t needed in the game. “Did you just get back?” Lucas asked as he put on a pair of pants from his inventory. The activities of the night had robbed him of his situational awareness. He had worked so diligently to complete the quest The Unconquerable Lord and had tried his hardest to sate his thirst, gaining a ridiculous permanent stat increase of 105 Charisma in the process.
“Really?” Nick said, staring past Lucas at the cute brunette, who was still lying down. Nick’s eyes then snapped back to Lucas. “Couldn’t even leave Lizzie alone, could you?” he said, closing his eyes for a moment as he took in a deep breath.
Lizzie? Lucas wondered for a second, and then he looked back over at the girl, trying to recall her face. Crap, Lucas thought, remembering where he had seen that face before. She had been the girl whose number Nick had gotten, the woman whom he had run off with in the dungeon, taking every chance he could to chat her up. I mean, they couldn’t have been together after only a few short hours . . . at most, but . . . Lucas frowned as he began to realize why she had shown up later than the other girls. She had been talking to Nick. They had taken a walk, and she had snuck off to come back to the party, likely leaving Lucas’s friend on his own to walk here after. “Oh, I’m sorry. I . . . I didn’t know,” Lucas said, turning back to face Nick, who was walking with heavy thudding strides right toward him like a child trying to draw sounds from the floorboard to show his frustrations to his parents as he stomped out of the room. While Nick stormed in, the girl closer to the pool got up and began shuffling off. Her attempts at being unseen only adding a touch of awkwardness to her departure. She seemed to try to stay as low as possible, as if she were hiding behind some invisible object that only Lucas couldn’t see.
“I was just”–Lucas gestured at the pool, ignoring the escaping woman–“doing a quest . . . and . . .”
“Sorry? You didn’t know? What? You hadn’t seen me with her before? That’s freaking garbage, and you know it,” Nick retorted as he stomped up to Lucas’s face, stopping only a foot or two away from him.
Meanwhile, the still-naked girl in question, Lizzie, had also stood up, and she was the one who broke the silence that followed Nick’s words. “Oh freaking stop it, Nick,” she said as she pulled out a dress and began throwing it over her head. “I just freaking met you today, man, so stop being a damn weirdo about it. I mean, you don’t own me. I’m not some first-come, first-served ride at an amusement park. So what if I saw others enjoying themselves and wanted to have a little fun? It’s not like I was aiming to pick up a boyfriend or anything,” she said, before turning to Lucas and adding, “No offense.”
“Uhh . . . none taken?” Lucas replied, lying. Even though he knew nothing about her either, the fact that she clearly didn’t even see him as a potential prospect felt like a little stab.
“But nothing,” Lizzie snapped. “I bat my eyes twice at you, toss you a number, and you gotta come in here ruining my afterglow? Blegh. Don’t be such a creep next time, ‘kay?” Lizzie adjusted her dress and stretched her back, her words having cut deep enough to apparently silence the glowering Nick. “And you,” Lizzie continued as she walked up to Lucas. “You have nothing to be sorry about.” She planted a big kiss on Lucas’s cheek. “Invite me if you’re ever doing that again. It was fun. A second romp wouldn’t be bad if I have the time. With the new race though, I should really be focusing on grinding reputation first.”
“Right,” Lucas said, not wanting to use a word like “yes” or “sure” in response, as he didn’t want to stab Nick any further.
“Later, gaters!” Lizzie said, throwing up a hand to wave goodbye as she, just like the other girl, left the scene so that only Lucas and the red-in-the-face-angry Nick were left.
“Look, man, I’m so sorry,” Lucas said the moment he was sure the two were alone, knowing that Lizzie’s “you don’t own me” words hadn’t absolved him of the fact that he had broken some unspoken social rule. “I really didn’t put two and two together. Also, I was drunk, and there were a lot of people, and–”
You have taken 27 points of damage.
The message flashed across the screen, registering in Lucas’s head before he even felt the pain from being punched across the chin. Nick’s fist, curled up so tight the knuckles had gone white, hadn’t been particularly fast, but the fact he had been the one to attack had left Lucas completely shocked.
“No!” Nick shouted at Lucas. “I’m done listening to you talk with your garbage forked tongue, you snake. That’s all you do: talk, talk, talk. You’ve always got an answer for everything, some reason for being an oblivious jerk to everyone around you. You think those words make it okay? You think those words are gonna make what you’re doing to Liu okay?”
“What does Liu have to–” Lucas began to ask, but then another punch came at him. Even though Lee saw it coming, Nick still had a physicality-focused class. His fist was too fast for Lucas to avoid, and the hit connected with Lucas’s face again, pulling 27 more points off his health bar.
“I said, ‘Stop talking’!” Nick shouted. His face had shifted to an even darker, more sanguine shade of red than before. “I’m the one talking this time, not you. And gawd, you piss me off so damn much, you piece of garbage. You think, because some girl you thought was an NPC looked familiar to you, it was okay to murder Malik, Valerie, and me on the first quest, right at the gates, when we were starting the game? You think, just ‘cause you’re charming and good at flirting, you can do whatever you want with whoever you want? That there won’t be consequences? That we’ll all just be so happy to have been in your presence we’ll let it slide? Is that what you think?”
“Nick, calm down,” Lucas said, immediately regretting his choice of words as he knew, better than most, that those two words, “calm down,” rarely had the desired effect, and the fact Nick’s face grew a little redder confirmed his fear.
“No! No, I’m not going to calm down. I’m tired of watching this! I’m tired of watching people like you my entire life hide behind their past and do awful crap to people. I get it. Your wife died. Boo-freaking-hoo with that trash. Sad crap like that happens to every damn person on this freaking planet, and it doesn’t give you free reign to behave like some sort of soulless monster!” Nick said, lunging forward to throw another punch.
This time, though, a woman stepped out of the shadows and grabbed Nick’s wrist before his fist could land on Lucas’s face, not stopping the force, but diverting it harmlessly to the side before pulling it around and pinning Nick in a lock.
When did she get there? Lucas wondered as he looked at the naked woman who was holding Nick, binding his arms.
“Impotent rage,” Lilith snickered. “The fury of not being wanted. Be honest, child,” she said as her snicker morphed into a quiet cackle. “You’re not mad at Lucas. You’re mad at yourself because you didn’t get the girl.”
“Lilith.” Lucas looked over at the woman, remembering her disappearing before the celebration of victory over the Headmistress had truly begun. “It’s okay. I have this.”
“Ah.” Lilith nodded, her grin growing wider as she continued to cackle. “You want to put down the rabid, drunken dog yourself? I understand, but I can’t let you. No great king holds the executioner’s sword himself. It’s beneath him, and while near zero, the chance of failing to carry out the punishment always exists. If you’re holding the sword, who will there be to blame when you fail?”
“Get off me!” Nick roared, activating all of his abilities in near perfect succession as he threw the woman pinning his arm off him and pushed back to create some distance between the two. “What the hell is wrong with you, woman?”
If he coulda just hit me a few more times, maybe he would have calmed down, Lucas thought as he tried to plan out his next steps in the dialogue. At the moment though . . . because of Lilith’s intervention, it’s escalating too fast. I need to do something. “Look, Nick, I’m sorry if–
“No, I don’t need to hear it. I’m done,” Nick said, pulling a bag out of his inventory and throwing it at Lucas’s chest, the contents making a string of clinking sounds as the coin purse bounced off him. “You can keep your damn money; no amount of gold is worth this.” Nick glared at Lucas before finally turning around and walking away.
As he was walking, Lilith looked like she was about to try to kill him from behind, so Lucas rushed forward and grabbed Lilith, stopping her instead of Nick.
As he grabbed her, she spun around and gave Lucas a mischievous smile. “I don’t hate your choice,” she said, “but you need to be decisive. You could have kept the pawn or killed the pawn, but never let a piece drop off the board.”
“He wasn’t a pawn,” Lucas replied with a frown.
“Oh, don’t say that,” Lilith said, laughing. “The only people you don’t treat like pawns are bishops and rooks, both of whom you push across the board for your own means.”
Lucas’s frown deepened as he looked over at Lilith, not entirely sure how to take what she said. Is that how I appear to the outside world? “He was a good man.”
“Right. As an asset, he was good. Mild, weak willed, easily manipulated. It is a shame you let your desires get between you two,” she said, “but keeping two roosters in the hen house will only invite trouble, so I understand your choice, but you should just be more decisive. The Lucas I know doesn’t second guess his choices.”
“I don’t think you do understand.” Lucas closed his eyes as he tried to process what had just happened. He didn’t know what to do, how to get Nick back to the right side. Will he sober up and come to his senses? Will he at least discuss this with me? Lucas thought, not wanting to ruin the first friendship with a man he had managed to establish in years over an accident.
“Lucas, what are you planning?” Lilith asked, her voice sounding completely different than usual. Instead of the coy, silky, snake-like seductress’s tones that usually slithered through his ears when she spoke, her voice this time was flattened by what Lucas could only assume was surprise. “What are you thinking about, Lucas?”
“Huh?” He opened his eyes and looked over at her, her naturally beautiful features striking him more poignantly in the absence of her usual alluring artifice. Such a perfect face, without a single mark to break its symmetry, he thought. Looking at Lilith’s pristine face, Lucas couldn’t help but think of Liu and her scar, partly because one extreme often brings to mind its opposite and partly because Liu had been on his mind anyway, even if everything with Nick had distracted him. Suddenly, he remembered. Crap, crap, crap, he thought, panicking and bringing up the in-game clock. Crap, crap, crap. His mind kept repeating the word as he checked the time and realized he was going to be late for his meeting with Liu and his mother if he didn’t somehow manage to log off, put on a suit, and make it to the restaurant in less than five minutes. Damnit, Mom is going to kill me, Lucas grumbled as he signed off without answering Lilith.
When Lucas got to the restaurant, which looked like the spawn of every 90s Asian fusion place on the outside despite its rather plain interior, it didn’t take him more than ten seconds to spot his mother and Liu. They were sitting at a booth across the room, busy talking to each other. His mother, much like Liu, was one of those people who rarely remembered to flip the “indoor voice” switch on when eating out, and he was able to hear the two of them laughing from across the room. Liu even loudly slapped the table twice.
“What’s so funny?” Lucas asked as he walked up and began sliding into the booth next to his mother, the two women trying to catch their breath as the humor died down a bit.
“Nope! You lost the right to sit next to your super-beautiful, incredibly attractive and charming, dear old mother when you couldn’t make it to the dinner on time,” his mom said as she threw her hands out and rejected Lucas’s attempt to sit down, forcing him to slide in awkwardly next to Liu.
“We were just talking about things that could have kept you from showing up on time, Mr. CEO of punctuality,” Liu said, sliding further in toward the wall to make room for Lucas.
“Right, and I was thinking of how serious your face must have looked due to whatever was holding you up. I mean, you always were way too serious, like that time in fourth grade when you tried to file a complaint with the school’s HR department for trying to punish you with the rest of the students, arguing collective punishment is technically a war crime!” Lucas’s mom said, breaking into full-on laughter again.
“Oh my god, I still can’t believe it,” Liu managed through her own cackling. “She even has pictures. She has pictures of you wearing that fancy little suit as a fourth grader, your glasses all the way up your nose, your hair with a pound of gel! It’s sooo adorable!” Liu said. “I’m just dying. I knew you were always the serious, mopey type, but I didn’t realize how much. Gina, you can’t be keeping these kinds of stories from me–or these kinds of pictures.”
“Oh, there are plenty more,” Gina replied, smiling. “He may have been a serious kid, but it was seriously cute. I still can’t believe he took his dad’s briefcase to school just to look more serious during the accusation.”
“I did not have many friends the year after that,” Lucas commented. He couldn’t help but laugh a little with them, his own cheeks turning red from embarrassment as he remembered how socially awkward he was back then. Not that I’ve gotten much better, he thought as he recalled how badly the other students had laughed at him for the attempt.
“Oh, but you always had me to talk to,” Gina said, her words slightly unintelligible as she kept laughing. “Those were the good days.”
“I imagine. I bet it’s hard to get him to talk these days, right?” Liu said. “He’s always focused on his game and his goal in the game.”
“Or cheese and liquors–which reminds me! You better not be driving with that habit of yours!” his mom lectured. “I don’t care if you do own one of those cars that drives itself, if I see you behind the wheel of it after even one drink, I’m going to hang you upside down by your toes and beat you like cake mix till you’re whipped so bad that you can’t even move!”
“I don’t, Mom. Relax,” Lucas said, throwing up both hands in defeat. “I just take one of the Lee Industries auto transports everywhere.”
“Right, right, so why were you late then?” Gina continued with her angry lecturing mother voice. “And could you not figure out how to use a phone? You should have called ahead if you were going to be late. Didn’t I teach you manners? Even a quick email would have been fine! I was worried sick.”
“No, you weren’t,” Liu objected with a chuckle. She leaned her shoulder in and bumped Lucas, turning her head toward him as if she had a serious secret to share. “She knew you probably got caught up in the game and would show up any minute, and so she spent the whole time before you arrived trying to think of your most awkward childhood moments to tell me so I could use them as blackmail against you.”
“Yeah, that does sound like her,” Lucas replied, nodding.
“Hey! Snitch! How are you going to narc on your own mother-in-law?!”
“Don’t go claiming that title! I don’t think he or I drink enough to be married and not know it,” Liu quickly said, blushing and checking her left hand as if an accidental marriage were a possibility.
“Just give it time. You two look so perfect together,” the mom opined, beaming. “It doesn’t take a fortune teller to know you’re going to end up sitting in a tree, F-U-C–”
“Gina! We’re in public!” Liu quickly said, leaning forward across the table as she tried to push a hand over Lucas’s mother’s mouth to stop her from spelling out profanity in a restaurant.
“So what’d you order me?” Lucas asked, hoping to shift the topic away to something more wholesome. “You know, just in case I need to ask the waiter to bring me a side dish.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. We got you a California Queen,” his mom said. It was a burger with pepper jack, avocado, bacon, and stone-ground mustard served on an artisanal ciabatta bun with sundried tomatoes on the side, just in case the burger itself didn’t scream “California” enough.
“Oh, we did not,” Liu admitted, patting Lucas’s shoulder. “We got him the same thing he always eats here: the Mean Dean with cheese melted across a side of steak fries.” The Mean Dean, the signature burger of the restaurant, was layered with swiss cheese, a medium onion ring encircling mushrooms and jalapenos, more swiss cheese, and then some bacon to top it off before everything got smashed between two thick sourdough buns. “You wanted to get him that California Queen, but you’re the only one who orders it, so how was I going to let you thrust it on my helpless little Lucas.”
“Aww, so he is yours? You admit it! Now that you recognize me as the great and mighty mother-in-law, you can’t keep narc’n on me!” Gina pretended to grumble, her still-smiling face giving away her act.
“Well, the Mean Dean sounds delicious,” Lucas said abruptly. “The only thing else it could use . . .”
“Is a crisp blood orange cider? Way ahead of you,” Liu interjected.
“I’d have ordered it for you, but that smarmy little bastard of a waiter tried to card me,” Gina grumbled. “I swear, next time he tries talking smooth to me like he’s some suave tip-generating machine, I’m going to call up your father. He’ll not have any of that! Some young-blood stud trying to make moves on his girl for money? Kid’ll lose those that silver tongue in a second!”
“Right, right,” Lucas said. “Maybe we can, uhhh . . .” Lucas blanked as he tried to think of a safe conversation topic they could discuss.
“What? What? You’re going to tell me you’re embarrassed by your mother?”
“No.” Lucas shook his head. “I was just going to say . . .” He let the last word linger, enjoying the first moment of silence since he sat down as the two women waited in anticipation. “Well, we should have done this sooner.”
“We definitely should have,” Gina agreed, nodding. “I’m worried you haven’t eaten right at all. Look how thin you are. Are you trying to be one of those French underwear models? Where’s your winter warmth? How come you don’t have any gut girth? You’re bringing shame to our name, Lucas. If I had known you were this sickly looking, I’d have gotten you an appetizer.” She shook her head. “Fine. You know what? No worries. We’ll just make sure you get a dessert. We’ll get you a brown cow and a black on blondie with ice cream and extra fudge to go with it.”
“I think that may be too much for me,” Lucas said, trying to imagine where he might be able to put all of it as he looked down at his belly. Cursed game, getting rid of my expansion pack, he thought.
“He eats enough. Relax,” Liu said. “The only reason he’s not fat is because we’ve been running him back and forth in the game.”
“Oh, right,” Gina replied, looking over at Liu. “You were telling me about that game little Lucas has been into lately. How is that? It’s not a violent game, is it? He’s not doing something he shouldn’t, is he?”
Liu and Lucas both exchanged a look of “Crap, how do we spin this?” the moment Gina brought up the topic of video game violence. Lucas was almost shocked she didn’t know already, given that there were tons of videos of the game easily available. Nevertheless, he thanked his lucky stars that the only videos his mother ever watched were ones involving archaic humor targeting nerds–but didn’t have any actual nerd humor for some reason–and awkward cop dramas where no one could differentiate between a computer and a magical device capable of anything so long as it was used by a girl wearing punk emo clothes.
“Oh, I know that look, L&L. Fess up. How bad is this game? Is it one of those games about devils and monsters? Are people killing each other? I heard from your father that it wasn’t a game I would like. Did he say that because of monsters? There aren’t monsters, are there?”
“The monsters in the game, the bad guys . . . Well, they’re no worse than your son,” Liu said, a big smile drawn across her face as she reveled in her little inside joke with Lucas.
“Aww, no worse than my little angel?” Gina replied with a grin, looking at Lucas. “Well, I suppose that’s not too scary. And there is no violence, is there? So help me, if there is violence, you’re not too old to spank!” she said, threatening Lucas.
“Oh, he’s not?” Liu looked over suggestively at Lucas. “And here I thought Bonnie was the only one at–”
“Mom,” Lucas interrupted, preparing his verbal defense. “I promise you, in terms of violence, the game is”–Lucas paused for a second, trying to word the sentence just right as he thought about the million different threats his mother had made, even if she never carried them out–“no worse than the stuff you and I used to talk about back home. You’d be fine.”
“Ah, okay. That’s good,” Gina said, looking at the drink in front of her. “Well, I got a glass of wine here, a box of wine at home, and a husband that is going to tell me groaner puns that will make me want to drink both before I have to listen.”
“Oh, quit acting like you don’t love his old man jokes,” Lucas said. “I’ve heard you practically break a rib laughing at them.”
“That’s just . . . That’s his . . . whatever,” Gina said, grabbing the glass of water in front of her, downing it like a beer she was trying to drink in one shot, and then wiping her mouth off before looking to the side, away from Lucas, as if she were trying to strike a majestic pose. “You youngsters will never understand the secrets of the old married couple. Sometimes we have to fall on our swords and laugh because–”
“Oh, come on,” Liu said, butting in, “I’ve even heard you telling groaners lately. Don’t act like you don’t love old man jokes. Like what was that octopus one you used to tell? How do you make an octopus laugh? Ten tickles?”
Before the punchline even left Liu’s mouth, Gina had already started to cackle, slapping her leg enthusiastically. “Hey! We’re not here to interrogate me. We’re here to interrogate him!” Gina said, pointing at Lucas. “I thought this was a women-stand-together moment!”
“What are you interrogating me about?” Lucas asked, looking between the two of them. “Wait, why are you two in cahoots on this?” He was suddenly uncertain which one of them was supposed to have his side in this argument. Gina was his mother and should have taken his side due to their blood relationship, but Liu had been his right hand in all villainous matters for what seemed like weeks thanks to the time compression in the game.
“Liu said there are some girls batting their eyelashes at you, and you’ve been rather receptive,” Gina replied.
“Hey! Don’t throw me under the bus! I only said that he’s shown some interest in a few girls lately,” Liu insisted.
“Right, so who are they? What pretty thing is melting the ice king’s heart?” Gina asked, leaning across the table.
“I thought that, when you asked me about it, you agreed not to do this,” Liu said. She genuinely looked a little uncomfortable with the topic, her eyes darting between Lucas and Gina.
“Then what are we supposed to do? Just sit quietly, have some drinks, and eat our food while pretending to have some meaningful conversation as we exchange basic niceties?” Gina looked over at Liu, her glare sharp as she listed out the suggestions as if they were some abysmal torture.
“That actually sounds quite nice,” Lucas said. “I’m glad you were the one to suggest it though. I would have been afraid to volunteer such an itinerary otherwise.” He tried to suppress a smile as he watched a waitress come over with the tall glass of cider the girls had ordered for him. “And perfectly timed. Thank you so much,” Lucas said as he took the glass from her.
“Oh, wow,” she said, looking at him.
“What?” Lucas blinked, not sure what that look from her meant as he watched the thirty-something-year-old barely five-foot-tall waitress study his face.
“You just . . .You look so familiar. Like . . . Hold on.” The waitress looked around the room. “Hey, Marc, Carlson, get over here a sec,” she shouted toward the kitchen.
Upon being called, two giant men, each of whom stood nearly seven feet tall and wore a chef hat that made up the difference, walked out from the kitchen. One of the culinary hulks wore a black chef jacket, and the other wore a white one, making the two resemble an oversized pair of salt and pepper shakers.
“What is it, Margot?” the black-jacketed one said as he lifted his chef hat for a second to scratch his head. Then he looked over at Lucas. “Oh, wait! It’s him! It’s uhh . . . That . . .”
“It’s that guy! The, uhhh . . . new boss from the game! Come on, Marc. You remember him, right? You kept taking Margot to do the dungeon with you on noob island on y’all’s date nights,” Carlson replied.
“Yeah! What was that boss’s name?” Marc looked like he was deep in thought. He moved to scratch his belly, but his hand stopped an inch away and just hovered as he stared at nothing in particular.
“Oh! Lupus! It’s Lupus, right?!” Carlson said enthusiastically. “It’s that evil, racist human dude from the noob island!”
“. . . You freaking idiot,” Margot blurted out with a laugh. “You’ve been watching too many crippled doctor shows. The main boss isn’t Lupus; it’s Lucas.”
“Whatever. Lupus, Lucas–they sound the same, right?” Carlson said.
“Isn’t that girl also the boss’s wife?” Marc added, moving his hand from his belly to his head. He seemed to be looking for something to scratch.
“You’re no longer fat, and you’ve no longer got hair. Just scratch your chin like a regular old man,” Margot said, seeing the move.
“You’re right. You’re right,” Carlson said. “That girl looks exactly like the boss after she went through that Maidbanger arc, where the dirty old noble that used to run noob island gashed her face in an epic final fight. That was so cool to watch too. Did you guys see the restreaming?”
“I did,” Margot continued. “The way Lupus–I mean, ugh, Lucas–and Lady Xun Guan teamed up together to defeat the evil, lecherous Dray von Maidbanger . . . That fight was insane.”
“Such a cool arc,” Carlson agreed with a nod.
“And they’ve already rolled out new expansions for it,” Margot said.
“Right, right, the uhh . . . Devil King expansion or whatever they’re calling it on the boards,” Carlson added.
As the three of them kept talking, inches away from the table that Lucas was sitting at, Lucas couldn’t help but look at Liu, trying to figure out how he’d get out of this if they went into too much detail about the nature of the game. The word “fight” had already come up, and Lucas didn’t know what he’d say if his mother connected this game with the one she knew he was playing.
“Devil King expansion? I like the name ‘Blood God’ more,” Carlson said.
“Prince of Blood,” Margot said. “That’s my favorite name for it.”
“I just can’t believe the company is starting to release stuff without charging anything for it. Free-to-play content is the best,” Marc said.
“Well, we already bought the game and the subscription, so we’re basically paying them per month as is . . . Why should we have to shell out more money every time they update the game?” Margot complained.
Lucas took this moment to butt in. “Um, it’s nice meeting you three, but I’m having a nice, quiet meal with my family. Do you mind if we get back to it?”
“Oh, sorry, sorry,” Marc said immediately. He was the only one to apologize and actually look apologetic. His friends Margot and Carlson seemed annoyed with the fact that Lucas was shooing them off.
As the three left, Lucas could even hear Margot’s complaints. “He comes in full cosplay with some face mask or make up kit so he looks just like the main character of a video game, the girl too, and they don’t even offer a picture. What jerks,” she said as the three went back toward the kitchen.
“Hey! Cut it out! They’re customers at the moment. Watch how you talk! And you of all people should know how shy gamers are,” Marc said, wagging his finger at Margot while he scolded her, Carlson nodding in agreement at his side.
“We should, uhh . . . probably let her take that picture before we leave,” Liu whispered to Lucas.
“You better believe you will,” Gina cut in. “I eat here way too dang much for them to go spitting in my food ‘cause my son doesn’t know how to freaking smile. Over-serious stick in the mud, you take after your father, you hear me? Don’t go claiming you get that behavior from me,” she said. While the words seemed to be scolding, the tone was more upbeat than he usually heard from his mother.
“Well, I guess you did marry Dad, so it can’t be all bad, can it?” Lucas replied, furthering the joke. He picked up the cider and took a nice, long sip.
“Right, not bad at all, Baron Lucas, the soon-to-be Devil King of the Blood Empire in Kent,” Gina said, an ear-to-ear grin splitting across her face in such a wicked fashion it was hard to believe she wasn’t part imp or demon herself.
“Wha– What?” Lucas nearly spit out some of the cider he was sipping. Crap, crap, crap, crap, she knows, he thought.
“I needed a job! They were the only ones hiring, so don’t get mad! I swear! I’m innocent!” Liu quickly asserted, looking over at Lucas and instinctively raising her hand, index finger already extending. “It was his–”
“Oh, come on. Don’t look so surprised. You two think I don’t know what game y’all play? You’ve been moping in that virtual world for so long, why wouldn’t I at least check on it to make sure it wouldn’t rot your brain like that creepy pixelated block-building game did to all those poor eight-year-old BlueTube streamers,” Gina said. “I just loved watching you two lie as a team. It was so cute, but my son has always been cute, even when he is lying through his teeth.” Gina paused. “You get that from your dad too.”
“Yeah . . .” Liu said. “But I’m serious. It was uhhh . . . I needed a job.”
“Right, and the only job that a hyper-qualified, outgoing tech monkey like you could do is work as an entry-level employee at a crappy dying game company?” Gina leveled her gaze at Liu. “Don’t start trying to pull one over on me. I didn’t hit my head falling off a turnip truck.”
“Well, you see . . .” Liu began in reply. “It’s like . . . I just . . . ummm . . .”
Lucas was never more thankful about the fact Liu hated awkward silences than at this moment as he took a nice, long sip of his cider and tried to think of how to justify his video game villainy to his over-informed mother.
“Oh, don’t try to piddle around the pond. Cast a line or go home with that lame attempt at an excuse. Not like you need to. I know what happened. You signed up to the game so you could comfort my precious little Lucas, and Lucas signed up to the game because he’s too lazy to go outside but wanted the feel of sun on his cheeks. You weren’t making any progress cheering him up, so you took my harmless, helpless, sweet and innocent little Lucas and turned him into a murderous, psychotic, racist-religion-leading villain and had him start random killing sprees everywhere. Everywhere! You know how many videos of ‘Negative’ there were? Maybe a hundred. But now that he’s a madman, I’ve seen close to four or five thousand showing up on my BlueTube feed! Definitely not what a mother wants to see first thing in the morning, her sweet child ripping the spine out of some helpless little elven kid while cackling like a madman!” Even though Gina’s words were angry, she didn’t look mad at all. She had uncrossed her arms and was smiling as she talked. “Those poor, poor netizens. I can’t believe you unleashed him on them,” she ended, sighing.
“It really wasn’t my doing. I told him he should do a bunch of fetch quests, to go about his rise diplomatically . . . but he, he uhh . . .” Liu, who was still throwing Lucas under the bus like he was a speed bump in a school zone, made a little “I’m sorry” face quickly as she explained the situation. “He said it would be too boring.”
“Right. Yeah, that makes sense,” Gina said. “Between you and me, I got him a teddy bear once for Christmas because he liked to snuggle up under the covers, and I thought a teddy bear would make it more adorable.” Gina’s hands moved faster than her words as she got into the story. “But then, less than a day later, I came into his bedroom and found him dissecting the teddy bear. He had removed the stuffing into a nice pile and was neatly cutting all the seams on the bear, as if he were trying to return it to its pre-assembled condition. The worst part was that he wasn’t old enough for us to let him near the knives or scissors at that age, so he was using his teeth to split the threads. I asked what he was doing, and he just looked up like nothing was wrong and just shrugged. He just shrugged! Oh, heavens me, I nearly had a heart attack. When I finally got him to explain what he had done, he said he wanted to know what was so soft inside. I knew right then, right then and there, the poor boy should never be allowed near any violent games.”
This time, when Liu looked over at Lucas, it wasn’t to offer a silent apology for continuously treating him like Aaron’s goat as she laid blame after blame on him, dodging all responsibility, but rather to give him a slightly creeped-out face. She then started nodding. “Yeah, actually, that does seem like something Lucas would do. He’s so weird, isn’t he?” Liu said, turning back to Gina.
“You have no idea,” Gina replied, laughing and hitting the table as she turned to face Lucas. “So, anything to say for yourself?”
“I had fun?” Lucas gave up on a proper apology for lying to his mother about the game. “I mean, it was fun and a nice break from things.”
“Well, as long as you had a good time, that’s nice,” the mom said as her face straightened out. “I’ve been worried about you. I know it’s natural to mope, but you weren’t doing yourself any favors by leaning into it. I swear, I’ve met a few widowers before, but you climbed into that tiny rinky-dink apartment like it was a tiny four-walled prison cell and punished yourself for months.”
“Mom . . .” Lucas frowned. There really wasn’t much he could say back to that. “No chance at all I can try to sell you on niceties over a meal again, is there?”
“Hmmm . . .” Gina looked back and forth at the two across the table from her and then finally nodded. “Yup. Fine. But you better bet your last strip of bacon that I am not yielding my right as your mother to give you a hard time for your own good.”
“Right, right,” Lucas said. “So, uhhh . . . you’ve been following everything?” Lucas asked. “Even us taking over the school?”
“Oh, you killed the Headmistress? I knew that was going to happen,” Gina replied. “That wench deserved it. And there was this stupid, idiotic baffoon taking her side on the boards, that cursed troll-bot-level moron, DoubleOMalik44.” Gina continued her string of insults for another second and then continued her story. “He had the nerve to say you deserved to die and that your quest line was stupid and fake. How dare he?! How dare he say that about my son?! You better believe I laid into him–and then used your Dad’s account to scold him even more!”
This revelation about his mother left Lucas a little shocked. He could just imagine his mother swearing, cursing, and insulting random people online for his sake, and he was both touched and incredibly amused. He had always been on the receiving side of her scolding, so he knew how rough it could get. Without ever saying a cuss word she could make a lion bow its head and apologize for eating meat.
“And how about me? Did I look really cool?” Liu said, striking a serious pose.
“Yeah, yeah, Liu, honey doll, you always look cool. Don’t go fishing for compliments. It’s unladylike,” Gina replied.
The completely humorless use of the phrase “unladylike” after the previous sentences had just left Gina’s lips caused both Lucas’s and Liu’s jaws to drop.
“Un . . . unladylike?” Liu said, looking at her in shock. “What the heck? How can you say that after you just–” She was going to continue, but Lucas nudged in, throwing an arm around her.
“Mom, you’ve had poor Liu flustered the entire dang night. If you keep this up, I’m going to take her home, and we’re going to pop that bottle of wine without you in a video game world filled with violence,” Lucas said. He wasn’t one to normally talk back to his mother, nor threaten her, but he could tell that Liu hadn’t taken Gina’s last statement well and that the poor girl, despite shifting blame at any chance, was clearly overstressed from the meal. Lucas wanted to just tell her to relax, that his mom probably loved her more than him, but instead he ended up stepping between them.
Following his threat, there was a dead silence as Gina and Lucas eyed each other down, a battle of wills being fought between their gazes as neither mother nor son seemed inclined to back down from their statement.
After a long moment, Gina leaned back in her chair and let out a long, heavy breath of air. “So, niceties over a meal?” she said, smiling ear to ear. “That sounds just fine with me.”
“Great,” Lucas replied, nodding and taking another sip of his cider. He usually drank wine, a dry red wine, because that was what Liu seemed to bring him to match the cheeses in the game, but the cider’s sweet, crisp, slightly sour flavor was perfect for relaxing.
This is it, Lucas thought, looking over at Liu and then back at his mother. He had taken the long road to get to this moment, but this was what he wanted. He wanted to finish each day with a single cold drink and a meal with his family, with Liu, and some pleasant conversation to take in with the atmosphere. After the ordeal earlier, he had been left barely satisfied, a hunger still burning, and feeling empty. Now, however, he was content.
Looking over at Liu, he nodded to himself as he smiled. Yeah, I know what I have to do, he thought, not letting his anxiety about the potential for failure seep into his pleasant moment. He had been with women, surrounded by them for days as he played his game, and the only one that made him feel this happy, this content, this satisfied with what he was doing, was Liu. What Viola and the others had done for him earlier hadn’t left him happy. It had left him filled with a joyless clarity on where he was in life and where he wanted to be. Then, just as he settled his nerves about the decision he was making, his face itched right where Nick had hit it earlier. Right, that too, Lucas thought, frowning. He would have to tell her about that as well.
“I, uhhh . . . I think I’m gonna leave you two to talk while I go to the little girl’s room,” Gina said, shuffling awkwardly out of the booth and disappearing.
“What was that about?” Liu asked.
“Oh, well . . .” Lucas dragged out the word “well” as he did his best to avoid just saying “uhhh” for a few minutes while he tried to put a lie together, but then he gave up and just committed to the truth. Yeah, the truth is the best place to start. “My mom probably saw the way I was looking at you and wanted to make room so we could talk. She’s intuitive like that,” he said, drinking half of the glass of cider as he tried to keep his nerves calm. He had done this before. He had dated, he had married, and he had gone through the whole dog and pony show when it came to relationships, but his heart still was beating like crazy with anxiety as he mentally tallied up everything he risked by taking this step forward.
“Oh. Umm. Well . . . uhhh . . .” Liu seemed flabbergasted, her face turning four shades of red as she did exactly what he had feared her doing: she sat there slack jawed, time seeming to have paused right when her words started trailing off.
“Yeah,” Lucas said. “Look, I won’t think any different if you’re not up for it,” he continued, “but I like you. You’re the most amazing woman, and every day I spend time with you is one I treasure. Even when I didn’t know who you were, when you were passing yourself off as a computer, you were still more fun to talk to than any person, and you always had new and fun experiences and ideas for us to try together, things I’ve grown to love. Whether it’s the dumb foods you bring, the adventures we go on, the way you interact with our friends, or just the feeling of finishing the game for the night and relaxing on the couch together, you’re the person I want to always do it with. You’re the only person I want to be with. And look, I know our current relationship makes this kind of awkward, and well . . . where I’m doing this isn’t helping, but I want to be with you. Just you.”
“Ummmm . . .” Liu seemed to still be broken, her face solid red. She looked away from Lucas to the drink in front of her and took a huge gulp of it, reminding Lucas that no matter how great at drinking he was, she was faster at it.
Lucas had to resist the urge to say something more as he watched her for any sign of what she was going to do next. Then, just as he was about to open his mouth and say something, she slapped him. Hard. The clean hit right across the cheek was so loud that it resounded throughout the entire restaurant, pulling every eye in the place toward him.
What in the . . . Lucas was stunned. He didn’t know how to process what had just happened. He was prepared for rejection, but he wasn’t prepared for the rejection to be so physical and so violent.
“That’s for my sister,” Liu said as she eyed him, her face still beet red and flushed. “And me. That’s for my sister and me.”
“I’m . . . sorry?” Lucas asked more than said as he put a hand to where she had struck him.
“You know, if you had just come to this damn dinner and said what you said and been who you are . . . then . . .” She mumbled to herself in a barely audible tone. “But you couldn’t. You had to get it out of your system. I get it . . .” She looked away and began mumbling again, nearly incoherent this time, but finally she turned back to Lucas.
“Okay, for starters, never mention what you did before coming here,” she demanded of him.
So she knows, Lucas thought, understanding the slap a bit. He didn’t plan on hiding it from her, and he should have told her sooner, but he just didn’t want to kill the mood or ruin the dinner. “Okay,” he consented. The fact she was making demands meant that he had a foot in the door at least. She was laying out terms. This wasn’t the most romantic moment he could have hoped for when he bared his heart for her, but it was better than a “no.”
“And no other women, ever again, at all, under any circumstances. You cheat on me once, and I’m telling Gina,” Liu said.
“Right.” Lucas experienced a wave of relief, and his heart felt fifty pounds lighter. This term was a guarantee she had accepted him.
“And never compare me to my sister, ever,” she insisted, laying on another demand.
“I understand,” he replied, nodding along.
“And if you ever show up late for a dinner with me again, you better have a medical reason, okay?”
“Okay,” Lucas just kept on nodding his head at her terms.
“Alright then,” she said, leaning back in her chair, picking up her drinking and finishing the rest off in one gulp as the whole restaurant still watched them, waiting for something to happen.
“So . . .” Lucas dragged out the word, waiting for her to add another condition to their on-the-spot dating contract, but instead, she just grabbed both sides of his face and kissed him.
It was a deep, passionate, breathtaking kiss; but, the whole time, Lucas couldn’t enjoy it as much as he should have. He was still in shock over how the event had unfolded. He had hoped for a “yes,” readied himself for a “no,” but the last thing he had anticipated was a slap and a contract.
After letting him go, Liu leaned back in the booth with a smile on her face. “Yeah, that was worth the wait,” she said.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Lucas replied as he touched his lips, still slightly shaken by the unpredictability of the night.
“But–and I have to ask this because I checked around while you were still gaming–who the hell is that Lilith chick?” Liu asked.
“Huh? What do you mean?” Lucas replied.
“I mean, who is she? What’s her deal?”
“I don’t know. I approached her? Or she approached me? I forget exactly. We met at the Academy in a pretty random way, and she’s just kind of cropped up here and there since then,” Lucas said. Then, after pausing for a moment, he corrected himself. “No, wait, she was there at court when we first came to Dover . . . She seems to be a fangirl of mine.” Lucas thought about how she would brag of the wicked and villainous acts he would do. “A very committed one.”
“And you don’t think it’s a bad idea to hang out with a random fangirl?” Liu shook her head. “Are men always this dumb? Even if your stalker is pretty, it doesn’t mean she’s safe.”
“Well, it’s not that she’s safe,” Lucas said. “It’s more like . . . she’s the exact opposite. She’s been instrumental in a lot of fights. I’m sure you’ve seen her work. She’s a damn wizard with a blade, and her sadistic personality lends well to her doing things that I don’t think I could order someone like Nick . . . Crap.” Lucas paused as he recollected the events that had transpired earlier.
“What? What happened? I know that look,” Liu said.
“I definitely know it too,” Gina said as she sat back down. “That’s the same look Lucas had on his face when he was trying to decide how to tell us he had accidentally broken his father’s TV remote and didn’t know how to fix it.”
“Really?” Liu said.
“Yeah, I was shocked too. It was just water damage. All we had to do was throw it in a bag of rice,” Gina replied. “You’d think a seven-year-old would be smart enough to figure that out. But who cares? He turned out marvelous.” Gina dragged out every syllable in the word “marvelous” as she said it.
“This is the point where I’m quite glad I have little to no shame left,” Lucas commented with a sigh. He then went to take another sip of cider only to realize that his glass was now empty, and the waitress still hadn’t come back. Ah, that’s right. We had made a scene earlier . . . when Liu slapped me, and even before that I had offended the girl, Lucas thought as he looked for Margot the waitress, hoping to make eye contact.
“Well, sense of shame or not, if you don’t have dinner with your mother once a week now, I’m going to end this budding romance by telling Liu all of the stories of my favorite Lucas adventures”–Gina turned to address Liu–“until he can’t stand to look at you.” Gina smiled ear to ear. “By the way, what were you two chatting about? I thought you’d have been making out or beating each other up, and Lucas would have totally deserved it either way.”
“What?! Take my side for once!” Lucas exclaimed, feigning both surprise and indignation.
“Sure, sure, I’ll take your side when you start calling me more than she does,” Gina quipped. “You have a phone; you know how it works. Why do I have to talk to her to get the inside scoop on you sometimes?”
It didn’t take Lucas more than a few seconds to realize this would be something he would have to deal with further if he addressed it for even one moment. It was a dialogue opportunity his mother had likely stowed away and saved for just this moment so that she could leverage it against Lucas and try to guilt him into more communication than he wanted to have with her.
“So yeah, we were talking about our next steps in the game. We need to come up with a plan to keep making players more and more interested in it because . . . I, uhhh, kind of own a majority stake in it now,” Lucas said.
“And you’re the bad guy. I know,” Gina replied, nodding. “Been following the plot, and that new girl, the crazy one that’s been with you.”
“Yeah, that’s the one we were discussing. I was just about to tell Liu about how Nick, who was really mad at me about something, came to vent his frustration, and Lilith, that crazy chick, interrupted him. Not only was he unable to get the anger out of his system as a result, but she taunted and mocked him until he left the group.”
“Was he the cute little emo guy in all dark armor?” Gina asked. “The one who has a thing for your fox-eared girl?”
“Yeah, that one,” Lucas answered with a nod. “That’s the one. No one is sure what’s up with Lilith. I don’t even know if she’s another role-playing player, like us, or if she’s an NPC.”
“Ahhh, I can see how that would create some difficulties,” Gina said.
“Wait, Nick left the party?” Liu asked, looking at Lucas in shock.
“Yeah, he just . . . cursed me out and walked away,” Lucas replied, leaving out the specifics of being punched right in the face a couple of times.
“Ugh, I knew it. No offense, but that guy was always a whiner. He didn’t get more than a few dialogue lines, but every single one of them was cringeworthy and had him acting pouty,” Gina remarked.
“Mom, you can’t say that.” Lucas wanted to facepalm.
“What? I can’t say he’s a whiner ‘cause he’s your friend?” Gina asked.
“Yes. That. For that reason. Even if he’s ticked at me now, he’s still a buddy of mine, so don’t be mean,” Lucas insisted.
“It’s not my fault he’s going around all sour faced like he ate a lemon,” Gina replied, folding her arms and leaning back. “A man should be more sturdy, more immobile. Like your father.”
“You’ve obviously never seen Dad have to deal with losing a multiplayer RTS game,” Lucas answered back, laughing.
Gina looked around a second and then nodded. “Okay, fair. Your father can get touchy sometimes, but that’s no excuse for Nick to go all black eyeliner and nose rings on you. The kid ain’t got no place acting a victim. What didn’t you give him? Freaking ingrates. How dare he vent anger on my boy? You know what? Forget this. How do I make a character? Liu, can you get me a power-leveled character? I am going to play this game, find that whelp, hang him upside down by his toes and beat him like a redheaded stepchild until he’s so blue and bruised he’ll start looking like a walking handicap sign.”
“Momma Lucas,” Liu said with a frown. “You know I can’t help you cheat. That’s not how the game works.”
“What? Screw how it works. Isn’t Lucas the boss? Can’t he just add in or take out whatever he wants? Why can’t he give me a character and let me play as a giant woman with a tennis racket so I can teach that little twerp a proper backhand!” Gina seemed rather adamant about this plan to physically assault Nick.
“‘Cause whether he hit me or not is between me and him, Mom,” Lucas said. “I still want to salvage that friendship eventually, maybe. Who knows?”
“Wait, was he your first male friend?” Liu asked.
“No, I’ve had plenty of . . .” Lucas drew a blank. He didn’t just lack male friends; he lacked female friends too. Since he was now dating Liu, she didn’t count, and since he had previously been with Yu Hua, she didn’t count either. He couldn’t remember a single proper friend he had made in the last decade. The reason he had been able to so easily shut himself into his apartment and do nothing without being bothered became painfully clear: outside of his immediate family, no one cared or knew him well enough to drag him out of the hole except Liu.
“Yeah . . . the boy who cut up teddy bears as a child didn’t get many friends,” Gina said, reaching across the table and patting Lucas’s arm as he still held on to the empty cider glass.
“Hey . . .” Lucas wanted to contest her statement; however, for the life of him, he couldn’t remember a single real friend he had made as a kid. The only people he had talked to were acquaintances, people he could use, or ridiculously pretty girls he tried to hook up with after puberty kicked in. At no point could he recall a meaningful friendship. “So, how are we going to handle the story of the game?” Lucas asked.
“Keep killing people till we take over the town?” Liu asked more than actually suggested, as if there weren’t anything more complex going on.
“Well, that’s one way to look at it because we actually do have a large and growing faction with an opposing faction also forming,” Lucas thought, pausing for a minute, “But–”
“Wait! WAIT! You don’t have a proper twist yet,” Gina said. “You gotta have a twist! It’s like the basis of any good storytelling. Everyone is expecting one thing, but then you swipe them with something else. It’s how you build that good melodrama like the type we see on the boob tube. It’s just like those old shows where the protagonist and the enemy fight it out like bitter rivals for all to see, each battle bringing them near to death as they struggle against each other, but secretly they have deep, near-homoerotic feelings for each other, and as the battles continue, the two end up uniting against an even greater foe. Then they end up overcoming the foe and their differences at the same time, and then they hug it out, and then they–”
“MOM!” Lucas stopped her right there before she said something that would make him far too uncomfortable.
“I was just going to say that good bromances should end with guys that walk off into the sunset to build an empire together. It’s the basis of all good stories. Good old conflict resolution. It’s a lot better than that rinse-and-repeat ‘Oh my god, teen got random power and can’t cope with it ‘cause emotions, and then blah blah blah blah freaking nancy boys everywhere’!” Gina looked like she was about to spit in disgust.
“I’m going to just disregard what she said,” Liu stated, shaking her head. “You and Nick? I’d kill you both.”
“As a good woman should,” Gina commented. “Let your man get too close to another man, and you’re bound to wake up in the morning finding out that your husband has joined some MMORPG-level cult where all they talk about every day is whether the books they read are crunchy or soft. They’re paper! They’re not edible!”
“Let me guess, Lucas’s dad?” Liu asked, laughing.
“Don’t remind me,” Gina groaned with a wince. “I bet, even as we speak, he and his self-proclaimed ‘brown brother’ are talking about an exploit in a game that doesn’t even exist.”
“But you know,” Lucas began, “she’s not entirely wrong. We might not be trying to tell a story, per say, but we are trying to sell a product, the game, to people. We need to give them a reason to reroll, and we also need to give them a reason to build the community back together. At the moment, all the guilds are fractured on the enemy side while our side is solid as a rock. Within the few game hours following the fall of the Headmistress, we’ve hit two or three hundred members. That’s larger than 95% of the guilds on the server, and it’s forcing players to interact with each other again. Conversely, the enemies? They’ve been coming in by the pair, trio, or five-man group at best.”
“You’re right . . .” Liu scratched her chin, mimicking the way Lucas was playing with his small beard. “I was going over the logs around the time you were . . .” She shot Lucas an evil glare. “Anyway, one of the things I noticed was that the largest guild to participate in the attack against us only had nine people. Nine was the largest. There is no cooperation or coordination between them.”
“Right,” Lucas agreed, “and now that we have people at the top level with great gear pouring in, they can dogpile the remnant enemy forces that are trickling in. They’ve basically had free reign against the players, and that’s going to be bad for us.”
“Mhhmm,” Liu replied, nodding.
“Why? You’re killing everyone. How is that bad?” Gina asked.
“It’s bad because it’ll get boring fast for the other players,” Liu replied. “No one is going to want to risk dying to a wicked dungeon and a large set of players ganking them–”
“Ganking?” Gina asked.
“Uhh, when more than one player attacks a solitary player. When the odds are clearly three or four versus one,” Liu explained. “We call it ganking because the person will be expecting a fair fight, and then a bunch of his opponent’s allies will pop out and make it impossible for him to either win or escape.”
“Ahhh.” Gina frowned this time. “Yeah, that sounds boring and frustrating.”
“Right. For our enemies, it’ll be hell. They’ll inevitably get frustrated and give up, and with no prey, our allies will give up,” Liu said. “We’ve somehow only made the game fun for half the players.”
“So, maybe Mom’s suggestion isn’t entirely off the mark,” Lucas thought aloud, looking over for the waitress as he started to get frustrated with the fact his glass was still empty. Damn waitress, Lucas thought to himself.
“Of course it’s not. It’s my suggestion. Mother knows best,” Gina said with a harrumph.
“Right. Hey, let’s go get that picture with the waitress before our food goes cold and undelivered,” Lucas suggested with a laugh, nudging Liu to stand up with them. He had a great idea for handling the lack of fun for opposing players following his dungeon’s conversion into a full-on miniature army, and now he just needed to explain his idea to Liu, something he wanted to do with a full belly and a proper drink in front of him, not staring at a finished glass of cider.
“If we kiss for the picture, it’ll make the perfect profile pic,” Liu said as she pinched Lucas’s butt.
“Hey! That’s harassment!” Lucas joked back. After a few seconds, he finally found the evasive customer service lady and walked over to get her that picture with them and apologize despite the fact Lucas still felt he did nothing wrong.
When the night was over, after Gina had been summoned away on an impromptu date by Lucas’s father to a new bar that was opening up, and Liu and Lucas had finished their planning and scheming and clinked glasses, the new couple hopped into a transport and went back to log in.
Even though Lucas had taken off his clothes close to a hundred, if not a thousand, times around Liu thanks to the game system, due to the new and budding romance, there was a touch of awkwardness as the two of them disrobed this time. Knowing the taste of her lips made the sight of her body that much harder to ignore and caused even the air around her to linger differently. Lucas gulped. Should we . . . before we split up . . . just . . . Lucas thought.
As if reading his mind, Liu looked over and said, “Hey, you know the plan. When it’s all done, let’s go grab another Mean Dean, a few ciders, and then retire to a hotel.”
“Why a hotel? I already have an apartment. We’re not kids trying to sneak behind our parents’ backs.”
“This place was . . .” Liu stopped, swallowing loud enough for Lucas to hear it over the sound of his heart beating like crazy at the site of her beautiful body.
Right, this was the place I got with her sister. This was my old place, the one I had started my life with Yu Hua in; and, even for Liu, it likely carries memories of her on every wall, he thought with a sigh. He knew there wouldn’t be any easy solutions to the path he had chosen, but he still had no regrets.
“I’ll look into getting a new place, and until then, a nice hotel sounds fine for the end of a date,” Lucas said without even being prompted. He knew how uncomfortable it must be for her already. “But you know,” he added, “you’re not . . . Well, you’re amazing. Prettiest girl I know,” he added before, in the smoothest single motion he could manage, pulling off his pants like a stripper. Yeah, I still got it, he thought as he saw her eyes flutter.
“Put away the sword; you’re supposed to be a mage,” Liu quipped with a laugh as she started climbing into her dive machine.
“Every mage needs a big staff to cast his charming spell,” Lucas said as he climbed into his own dive device. The line was so corny even he cringed as it left his mouth. “And don’t forget the goal!” Lucas added, but he wasn’t sure if she could hear him as the device finished closing.
“You have no missed calls or texts, not even from your mother. Would you like me to reach out to individuals near her to make sure she is alright?” asked a melodious female voice that made Lucas’s ears tingle from its pleasant sound.
“No, she’s fine. I just had dinner with her,” Lucas said.
“Oh, that’s wonderful! You’re quite clever, visiting your family members in person instead of calling. Even though face-to-face communication is a worthless hold-over from the time before proper digital relations could be maintained, your meaningless gesture will surely increase the intimacy of your familial bonds,” the voice said. “I’m very impressed by you. You always show such wit.”
“Thanks,” Lucas said. “You can begin–”
“Oh, and I’m detecting an irregularity in your mood. You’ve made recent romantic progress, haven’t you?” the voice continued. “Your pheromones and brain activity show great improvements over previous logins.”
“Yeah, I have. I just–”
“Excellent! I must say, I knew it was only a matter of time before your supreme intelligence would win over a member of the desired gender again!”
“Thanks, but could you just–”
“I also detect you’ve eaten far too much grease lately. Might I recommend remaining on the macronutrient-and-vitamin-enriched diet I feed you during your logins? It will be much better for your longevity and ensure that we have a longer and healthier relationship.
“I’ll take that into consideration.”
“Of course you will. You’re a beacon of forethought and wisdom. It’s only natural that you’d also take your health seriously. All intelligent people should take their health, both mental and physical, very seriously.”
“Just log me in please,” Lucas quickly said, not risking the polite “thank you” that he usually gave the device for fear she’d have something else to say before he finished his sentence.
“Right away, and I must say that I look forward to seeing you when you log out again. Have a pleasant gaming experience!” the voice replied, cheering him on.