End of an Era
‘Where the fuck is everyone?’ I looked around the clearing with a scowl.
Hundreds of players waited along the wall of trees, spamming spells and AoE abilities. The spawn window for one of Bengllor Online’s world bosses was up and for the past eight months my guild had dominated it. We’d gotten the world first kill and proceeded to kill it every three days since then. On our server, no one but us knew how to kill the damned thing—let alone how to claim it.
Of course, our schemes played a role in that. We’d spread rumors that the boss wouldn’t appear unless aggro’d by magic and everyone had taken the bait. The top guilds on other servers had followed suit, leaving the player base none the wiser. In actuality, the boss wouldn’t drop its invisibility buff unless a player who owned both a specific title and the item associated with it was present. The item was a gray-quality “trash” item you could get anywhere—most people had likely gotten dozens of them this far after launch.
But who the hell ever reads item tool tips? Not these fools, apparently, because we hadn’t even been at risk of losing the battle to claim the boss in the past eight months. The second strongest guild on the server, Orztastrophe, had declared they’d figured it out but for the past two weeks—nothing.
Now, though, it looked like their luck was about to change. My guild mates were supposed to log in an hour before the spawn window opened yet I was the only person online. I’d messaged them on social media, our guild site, and even texted a few. Hell, I’d even logged out for a few minutes to call my vice leader.
Nothing. Not a peep.
‘I can claim it by myself easy…but what after?’ I gnawed on my lip and searched the clearing for familiar faces.
Easily a dozen Orz members stood within twenty meters of me, their eyes refusing to leave me. Across the clearing, the rest of their members were spamming low-cost spells and skills. The rest of the players in range of me were from smaller, weaker guilds who were hoping to catch a break. I had a file on almost all of them—none of them were a threat. Hell, I could’ve given up the boss to them every window for a year and they wouldn’t have posed a threat to my guild. Almost all of us were fully geared by now and we had the skill to back it up.
“Hey, what’s the leader of Ebonwing doing here by himself?” The whispers of players around me drew an amused smirk to my face. “Do you think they’re finally done camping it?”
“Shhh, careful. I heard ‘he’ is actually a chick IRL,” someone whispered. “If it’s true, I bet she’s a cow. There’s no other reason for her to disguise herself as a male character and turn down streaming contracts—”
“Say another word and your friend there will be plucking the pieces of your corpse off the floor.” I glanced over at the gossiping players and smirked when they released a collective squeak. ‘Now then, about Lysandros’ spawn…’
I pulled up my character profile and skimmed the section that tracked boss spawns. According to the blinking numbers, we had less than five minutes before Lysandros, the Great Wolf, would appear. Pursing my lips, I flicked away my character page and opened up my inbox to check if my guild mates had messaged me back yet.
Frowning, I opened my inventory and took stock of what I had on me. With the number of potions I had on me and the class I had decided to play, I knew I could kite the world boss for a few hours if necessary—but I wouldn’t be able to check my messages while doing so. I’d kited Lysandros before when we were first learning its attack patterns, and in more recent times I had done it when people were running late.
But my guild had never run this late to a boss spawn in Bengllor Online before.
«Oi, Valdis,» I sent a tell to the nearby Orztastrophe guild leader.
«Wh-what is it?» She stiffened and turned to look at me with a blank expression.
«How do you feel about learning to tame this beast?» I smirked.
«What the fuck? I heard you were a pervert but—» she snapped.
«I’m talking about the world boss, dumbass.» I rolled my eyes and strode over to her party. «My guild mates never miss a spawn for something like this unless they’re growing bored of a game or were lured into another game’s beta test. Either one means they’re gonna be begging me to come set up Ebonwing for a different game.
«I don’t normally offer to teach other guilds a fight…but you guys haven’t gotten any experience with this one, obviously don’t know how to claim it, and are the only guild that’s put up any kind of fight against us. Since you’ve made our time in this game more fun, I’m willing to give you guys a leg up.»
«How do you know we haven’t—» Valdis started to backtalk me but shrieked instead, scrambling away in fear as the world boss dropped his invisibility spell and peered over my shoulder.
“Thou hast come for another duel?” the massive wolf-like creature asked as it glanced around the clearing. “I see not your pack.”
“How the fuck does he instaclaim it every time?! He didn’t even cast anything!”
“It’s not my fault you all have shit for brains,” I huffed at them before turning to look at the giant wolf creature. Black fur—it was the rare spawn. Just great. ‘Sure is creepy how the AI remembers the players who’ve defeated it though…’
«You have received a party invite from Valdis Vaynes.»
“You are running with a new pack?” Lysandros lowered his head until his snout was level with my face.
“My pack is looking for new lands to conquer,” I answered, struggling to find words that the creature would understand. “I’ve decided to bring you a new pack to judge so you won’t get lonely.”
“Very well. Make your preparations.” The creature sat back on his haunches and stared down at us, his crimson eyes unwavering. “Valdis Vaynes, do not bore me.”
“I-is it normal for it to seem so…real?” one of the Orztastrophe alliance members stuttered in the alliance’s voice chat.
“Completely normal. Never really got used to it though.” I stretched my arms above my head and exhaled a deep sigh. “This fight is more a test of mechanics than it is of DPS. You’ll need to rotate through four tanks until you get better gear and learn his attacks—I’ll fill one of those spots.”
“But you’re a healer!”
“Heal-tanking is easy in my gear and I’m built for it.” I retorted. “He uses illusion magic throughout the fight to trick people into attacking each other. His first phase he relies on primarily melee attacks, second phase he’s a spellsword, third phase he takes on wolf form and switches to ranged by firing bristles of his fur like arrows. Final phase, he combines everything and takes on his ‘wolf god’ form.
“Your goal is to not get hit. Only his weak points will take damage—don’t bother aiming for anything else.”
“What if we die?” the question made the corner of my eye twitch.
“Then I’ll just kite him until you’re up, I guess.” I sighed and turned to look at the three Orztastrophe tanks that had stepped forward. “Your gear could use work but it’ll do. If you can’t dodge or weather the hits I’ll just tank all four phases myself.
“Pay attention to the fight. I won’t be teaching you again.”
“Are you like this with your own guild?” Valdis frowned at me.
“I don’t like repeating myself.” I glanced over at her. “Besides, like I told you, if they’re not here it means they’re going to drag me off to some other game. I’ll probably have to uninstall to make space.
“Hope you’re good at listening to mechanics as we go. It’s easier to explain during the fight, and he won’t wait much longer anyway.”
“You have brought one of my missing jewels?” Lysandros questioned when I took several steps toward him. He cocked his head, watching as I reached into my inventory to pull out a small stone the same color as his eyes.
“Hey… Isn’t that the trash item from the noob zone?” Valdis peered around me with wide eyes. “That junk item is seriously related to this fight?!”
“Most of the world bosses have something similar,” I answered dryly. “The endgame dungeons, too. Take a look at the tooltip.”
«A crimson stone of little value to merchants. Part of the Great Wolf Lysandros’ broken sword.»
“Sword? A wolf has a sword…?” Valdis blinked.
I walked past her and held up the fragment to Lysandros. He sniffed at it briefly before being engulfed in fire. When the flames disappeared, a menacing man that looked part wolf, part human, stood before us. Lysandros plucked the stone from my grasp and turned it over in his clawed fingers a few times before tucking it within his armor.
“Very well, I will reward you with another lesson.” Lysandros nodded to me.
«Are you fucking serious? He turns into a wolfman?!» Valdis demanded through tells.
«Yeah, every time.» I shrugged, drawing my sword and shield.
«But he always looks like a wolf to us!» Valdis protested. «I’ve never once seen him shift—»
«Huh. Guess the fight is even more secretive than I thought.» I twirled my sword in one hand and shifted into an offensive stance.
Valdis motioned her allies forward around me. They casted dozens of buffs, eliciting laughter from both me and Lysandros. The players looked at us with confusion until the world boss raised one hand and snapped his fur-covered fingers. In an instant, all of our buffs were stripped and applied to him instead.
“Ready to take orders from me now?” I shot the pale Valdis a smug look.
“Fine…fine…” She sighed and crossed her arms, pouting. “Follow Lord Xerxes’ lead!”
‘Me? A lord? Since when?’ I arched an eyebrow at Valdis and saw color creeping into her cheeks. Biting back a grimace, I turned my attention back to Lysandros and began barking orders to the alliance. ‘Great, another chick swooning over my character. Maybe I really should stop rolling male characters.’
“This time I will make you kneel!” Lysandros pulled back a fist and charged me, aiming for the broadest part of my body.
Over the course of the following hour, I led Orztastrophe to a victory against Lysandros, the Great Wolf. The players collapsed in place, panting, while the wolf and I simply stared at each other in silence for a moment. Before long, Valdis walked over and looked between us before clamping her arms around one of mine.
“Hey, Lord Xerxes, you could always join us if—” Valdis squeaked and moved behind me when Lysandros took a few steps forward. “I-isn’t it over?”
“This pack is weak. I will not accept them.” Lysandros glanced at the cowering woman and then back to me. “You are certain Ebonwing will not return?”
“It’s possible that they will, but unlikely,” I answered with a small smile.
“I will miss you.” Lysandros butted my chest with his massive head before padding over toward the tree line. He curled up beside an ancient stone altar and fixed his eyes on Valdis. “You, woman. If you wish to take the place of Ebonwing you must train harder. Your pups are far too weak of mind and spirit to entertain me. Do not squander Xerxes’ gift to you.”
The Great Wolf burst into fall leaves and floated to the ground around the altar, leaving the Orztastrophe members staring at it in disbelief. I pursed my lips at the pile of leaves, unsure what to think. Each of the bosses had such eerie AI but I’d never expected one to say it would miss me if I were to leave.
‘Maybe that’s the game company’s new strategy to keep players?’ I wondered, bringing my hand to my chin. ‘They’re more likely to turn me away if they resort to guilting players, though.’
“You want a share of the loot?” Valdis tugged on my sleeve. “I hate to admit it but you did do most of the work. We’d never have beaten Lysandros without you here to tell us what to do—and you really did save us with your kiting skills.”
“Yeah, that was awesome!” One of the Orztastraphe healers came up to me and slapped my back. “If you’re really leaving the game, could you send me a copy of your build? I’ve just been playing as a backline healer this whole time but, man, the way you played was so cool!”
“I didn’t even know you could play as a frontline healer in this game!” Valdis nodded her agreement excitedly. “I heard Ebonwing has some really odd builds.”
“A share of the loot…?” I glanced over at the glittering treasure chest that was nearly the same size as Lysandros’ final phase “wolf god” form. “No… I have everything from this fight and what my guild mates still need isn’t tradeable. Use it all to strengthen your own players.”
“Ah! Wait!” Valdis called when I began to walk off. She captured my arm and looked up with what she probably thought was a seductive smile. “Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”
“Quite sure…and, by the way, I’m a woman,” I stated, watching as she quickly released my arm and turned red in the face. “Guess I’ve gotten too good at making pretty male characters. Maybe in my next game I’ll go back to playing female characters. Hmmm…”
“W-why are you playing a male character if you’re a woman?!” Valdis stuttered, her face growing progressively crimson.
“Simple. Males in this game have badass armor.” I grinned in reply before giving her a brief wave. “If Ebonwing really is done with this game I’ll contact you again soon. Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll probably transfer our guild territory to you so that you can take our place at the top.”
“H-hey, get back here! I’m not done—” Valdis never got to finish before I summoned a portal back to my guild castle and strode through it.
Once there, I breathed out a sigh and opened my inbox again. Still nothing.
«Are you sure you want to logout?»
‘Of course I am. Why else would I click the damned button?’ I rolled my eyes and smashed the button with one finger.
I pulled off my VR visor and yawned, rubbing at my eyes. A quick glance at the clock beside my bed told me it was only 5PM. It felt way later than that. I rolled out of bed and picked up my phone to check for messages. Nothing. Frowning, I groped around for a robe with one hand while flicking through different messaging apps with my thumb.
None of my guild mates had even seen any of the messages I’d sent them yet. Hell, it’d been at least five hours since the last of them were registered as “online” in any of the apps we used. My stomach growling reminded me that I hadn’t had time to eat breakfast before logging in for the Lysandros spawn window, so I walked into my apartment’s kitchen.
I set my phone on the counter and then rummaged through the pantry, unsure of what to make for breakfast. Although I knew I was hungry, it was hard for me not to be at least a little worried about my guild mates. They rarely went offline for so long. In fact, since Ebonwing’s founding nearly a decade ago, I could only think of three instances of such silence.
The first was when a solar storm caused a country-wide blackout.
Second was when a new VRMOBA was in beta testing. My members had been so excited about the beta test that they forgot to do anything else. They hadn’t logged out until the game’s safety system’s and their VR visor’s health scans had forced them out of the game. At least two of them had pissed themselves before they got kicked off.
Third was two years ago when four of our members had been involved in an accident. I’d been one of the people to fall silent. We’d met up at the local college to pick up one of my friends and walk her home because she’d noticed someone following her lately. For some reason, the idiot decided to attack us on our way home—and I’d killed him to protect myself and my friends.
The police had kept me at the station overnight while making sure that I truly acted out of self-defense.
‘Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alice found herself some trouble again.’ I frowned and looked down at my phone again before addressing my apartment AI. “Bruce, search news reports for incidents in the last 48 hours involving a woman by the name of Alice Walsh.”
“Can you provide me with further criteria, Mistress?”
“Age 26, Caucasian, five-foot-two, and weighs one hundred two pounds,” I answered while preparing a skillet. “Currently works as a waitress at The Blue Velvet Room on weeknights.”
“There are no incidents regarding Ms. Walsh in the last 48 hours. Would you like me to search farther back?”
“No, thank you.” I pursed my lips and dropped a few slices of butter into my skillet. “Bruce, if any calls come in from my Ebonwing list, route them through the speakers immediately.”
“Very well, please dock your phone at your latest convenience,” the AI answered. His tone was so formal I could practically imagine him bowing. “Do you need anything else, Mistress?”
“A list of VRMMO’s releasing in the next six months would help,” I murmured.
“Alpha, beta, or launch?”
“All three,” I answered. “Ordered by date and then alphabet, if you would.”
“As you wish, Mistress,” Bruce answered.
I strode over to the nearest docking station and slipped my phone into it before returning to the counter to make breakfast. Knowing I’d be up for at least another twelve hours, I didn’t feel at all guilty for making pancakes in the afternoon.
‘Really though, just what caught their attention?’ I leaned against the counter and pursed my lips.
Even though I knew many of Ebonwing’s members were growing bored of Bengllor Online, it was rare for them to discover another game without cluing me in first. Usually, they would spend several weeks or months sending me gameplay trailers as if they were subtly hinting their interest. Stranger still, I didn’t recall hearing about any major MMO’s coming out—at least, not for another two or more years. Gaming companies were struggling to think up ways to compete with Bengllor.
“Mistress, you need to flip your pancakes.”
“Fuck!” I yelped, reaching for the nearest spatula.
“Fuck? Would you like me to bring up some porn in your room for you?”
“No! I meant it as an expletive that time!” I retorted.
“Should I route it into the kitchen, then?” Bruce asked, his tone quizzical.
“No, I don’t want you to load up any porn right now!” I snapped.
“Incoming call, I will put your porn search on hold,” Bruce stated, causing the corner of my eye to twitch. “Hello, Ms. Walsh.”
“Oh, Bruce! You’re always so charming,” Alice giggled over the line. “Cerys, you have time for me to come over? I found the most awesome—”
“You didn’t even check your messages, did you?” I sighed irritably.
“Messag— Oh no!” Alice yelped. “I’m so sorry, Cery! We lost track of time. What did you do about Lysandros?”
“I taught our rivals how to beat him, of course.” I snorted. “Get your ass over to my apartment if you want to fill me in about whatever game it is you want to drag us to next. I’ll make some extra food for you too.”
“Can I bring Ryan over too?” Alice’s meek tone made me roll my eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, bring your partner in crime.”
“Sweet! We’ll be right there!”
There was an audible click when Alice hung up, leaving me to shake my head in silence. She never changed. I couldn’t help but wonder if her guilt for messing up our conquest in games ever lasted for more than a millisecond.
“So, about your porn request—”
“Not now, Bruce.”