I crossed the street and ran down the sidewalk toward the direction of the damsel in distress. I passed the shoddy, plywood covered windows of the house my first childhood friend used to live in. He was a warrior for our DND team and a rather good one at that. When his parents decided that they needed to move to a better neighborhood a few months back, we were never able to find a warrior to replace him. Because of that, the team slowly grew apart. The Battle Furious Fiends were no more.
I passed the cement mailbox I accidentally drove into when I first learned to ride a bike. I never actually wanted to learn how to ride a bike, but my Gram knew it would be good for me, so she coerced me into giving it a try. If anyone else tried to get me to do it, I refused because I knew I would be no good at it. When I crashed into the mailbox, my self-doubts were justified in my mind, but my Grandma, bless her heart, somehow managed to get me to be angry at the cement mailbox instead and therefore, the rowdy teenagers that drove around smashing other less sturdy mailboxes so frequently that some of the neighbors had to install cement ones. Looking back, it was a great parenting move on her part. Sure, I was suspicious of teenagers for the next few years of my life, but I totally forgot about how I doubted myself and that doubt never got a chance to be internalized and become a part of my character. I haven’t reddien a bicycle since then, but I did have the courage to kick around on my razor scooter for a bit, at least until it turned on me and showed itself to be a shin eating demon from hell.
Endurance Check Failed - You are exhausted.
I keeled over in exhaustion. Goldrin steadily walked up to me, barely out of breath. I looked at him accusingly, as if by the mere fact that he was keeping up with me suggested that I was a terribly slow runner. He wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t admit it.
Another scream echoed through the night air as I caught my breath. Finally, I was able to stand upright again. I could only hope that the Damsel kicked it in the balls to buy me some time to save her. I set off again, this time at a less zealous pace.
I passed the second to last house on my street. It was one of those houses that you never saw anyone come in or out of, but somehow the paper always managed to be brought inside and the cars in the lot seemed to drive off during the day and park themselves at night. It was the type of house that could easily be called home for someone like my Grandma, or someone that you only hear about on the news that is running a meth lab or a cult and you would have never guessed it.
As my eyes left the suspicious house, they caught something odd on the main road the street connected to. It was light. It wasn’t coming from any street lights, or homes though, in fact, all of those were completed dark. It was coming from the ghetto tattoo parlor on the corner. It’s neon lights reflected off the semi-wet surface of the roads. It reverberated off of street signs. It blinded my eyes that were finally adapting to the pitch black of my new world. It was otherwise a beacon in the evil darkness that probably attracted everything I had tried to avoid my entire life. People that got tattoos were not my sort of people. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them, it was just that nine times out of ten we didn’t have anything in common, including tattoos. Now that the world was filled with monsters though, I still had no desire to visit the neon tattoo parlor and its bright signs, but for different reasons.
“That light is going to attract all sorts of bad things,” I whispered to Goldrin. He whined, conveniently reminding me that I was not the coward of the group. I stepped forward, officially making it onto the second street of my journey. I stepped into the judgmental neon and realized in a mixture of horror and relief, that the parlor had been looted. Or destroyed, or attacked or something. The neon signs portraying seductive women with artwork trailing down their long legs, guys with huge muscly arms with anchors emblazing the love they have for their mothers, and more hung crooked from the walls of the parlor. The neon tubes blinked and buzzed determinedly, not caring a bit about making noise and attracting monstrosities, human or not. Still, I was relieved to see some sort of destruction. It meant that I wasn’t going crazy.
The damsel screamed again, this time from much closer. I peeked through the glass of the parlor window and my eyes caught a blur of movement. I stepped closer to steal a better look. The inside of the parlor looked much like it did on the outside - everything was broken besides a few neon lights that cast some parts of the room in brilliant colors and others in flickering shadows. In between glitzy greens, playful pinks, and radiant reds I could see a man fighting another man. The first man had the second in a full mount and was reigning down punches like a thundercloud full of jaw-breaking hail. The damsel, who was everything video games told me she should be, stood to the side, pleading the thundercloud to show mercy. He didn’t though. He just continued to punch the thing he was punching. On and on it went. I had begun to think that Punching Bag must have been beaten to a literal pulp by then. My mind whirled with possibilities. What if it wasn’t a man at all? What if it was a Scrounger? What if the man is going to fight the damsel next? What if the man is a Scrounger? What if the damsel is a Scrounger trying to trick-
“Bork?” Goldrin asked.
“Right, sorry,” I replied, “Thanks.” I slowly inhaled the damp, polluted air and opened the door to the tattoo parlor. I had hoped to sneak in quietly, maybe get a feel for the situation and go from there, but the damn door had a bell on it. It jingled loudly as I stepped in.
Intelligence Check Failed
Everyone glared at me, studying me and sizing me up like new people always did. I stared back as defiantly as I could while holding the door open for my geriatric dog. The entire scene took much longer than I hoped it would, but luckily, I knew a charming way to break the ice that was practically guaranteed to make me a few friends.
“M’lady,” I said, with a slight nod to the damsel.
What the fuck, she mouthed silently before grabbing the attacking man’s arm while he was distracted, “It’s already dead you brute!” she chastised him.
Shit, it didn’t work, I thought, ruminating over my failed social introduction. Probably because I don’t have my fedora, I concluded. Damsels liked style as a general rule, and my fedora was the epitome of style.
Side Quest Received! Find your Fedora
“How would you know?” The man said harshly. He punched the pool of blood and grey matter again, eliciting another scream from the woman as liquid gore splashed onto her.
I cleared my throat, “Um, I think I can be of assistance here. Has the black smoke floated out of it yet?” The man and the damsel paused to study me again.
“Who even are you?” he asked.
“Yes, it did,” she confirmed.
“Great, well it is definitely dead then,” I said with a forced smile, “and… my name is Milton. Did you know it? I mean the Scrounger, was it someone you knew?”
“Just a stupid fucking customer,” the man said as he searched for a towel among the debris of his shop.
“Milton,” the girl said, stepping closer to me. I flushed. “Do you know what is going on here?”
I tried to play it cool and not let the fact that I just had to kill my Grandma show through my words, “No idea.”
Well done, cool as a cucumber, I thought.
“Well, what the hell are you doing here then?” she asked coldly. I blanched, no idea how or when the conversation took a turn for the worse.
“Yea, how do we know you're not one of these Scrunger things,” the man asked, turning his gaze onto me as he wiped the blood from his hands with a towel that had seen better days.
I shrugged, moments before I heard a soft jingle behind me and something hard smacked me in the face. It turned out to be the floor.
Strength Check Failed - you have been tackled to the ground.
Greg Hanson attacks you - Minus 10 hit points - Critical strike!
“Fucking Greg, is that you man?” I heard the muscly parlor owner ask as I struggled to get my bearings. I turned over to my back and sat up, just in time to see Greg, a seemingly ordinary looking, if not a little wrinkly for his age, tattooed man, hopping up and down like a maniac.
“No! That’s not Greg!” I yelled in between heavy breaths.
The parlor owner looked at me with a confused expression, “You know Greg?”
“Obviously n-” I tried to warn, but Greg decided to give up the surprise on his own time and tackled the parlor owner.
Another scream echoed through the night. I thought that it came from the damsel, but it was entirely possible that it came from me instead. I couldn’t be sure because I was too focused on charging the Scrounger. I whirled my Katana around impressively, moments before shoving it through Greg’s back. For good measure, I pulled it out and pushed it back in again. For revenge, I twisted it and just because it felt good, I pulled my Katana out, whirled it around in the air like I did dozens of times before, and chopped Greg’s head off like it was the top of a large water jug. It fell from the Scrounger’s now-limp body and impacted the parlor owner’s head with a soft thud. To his credit though, the owner didn’t complain or grumble. He merely stood up, spat Greg’s blood from his mouth and grabbed his gore towel like he had been headbutted by a decapitated head many times before and knew exactly how to handle such a situation.
Quite impressed with myself, I turned to the damsel, expecting some sort of thanks, words of praise, or even a marriage proposal. It wasn’t often that a woman proposed to a man, but I was comfortable enough with my masculinity and knew it wouldn’t bother me if she did. A proud bork was the only thanks I received. I patted my loyal companion and turned back to the damsel, slightly angrier this time. Her face was blank, as if she was staring through me. I waved my fat hands in front of her sleek face. She didn’t even blink. I titled my head in confusion and turned to the parlor owner, who seemed to be under the same affliction. The suddenly, I was afflicted as well.
Maximum party member limit reached. Next level will begin shortly.
I stared at the rainbow colored words blankly. They seemed to float around, mingling with the flickering neon lights of the parlor but never approaching their level of realness. It was possible the words were more real, but it was subjective and depended on how focused or unfocused my eyes were.
LEVEL TWO: DEFEND YOUR PARTY’S HOME BASE
Round begins in 07 seconds.
Shit, not again.
Round begins in 06 seconds.
Okay, okay, think.
Round begins in 05 seconds.
“Hey, let's grab some stuff-”
Round begins in 04 seconds.
“-and barricade the door!”
Strength Check Failed.
“C’mon, help me with this!”
Round begins in 02 seconds.
Round begins in 01 second.
I readied my katana and assumed a fighter’s stance.
The resulting silence was deafening. No one moved, except for Goldrin, who managed to catch his tail and was eagerly trying to send it down his digestive track. A pair of veins on either side of my head throbbed in rhythm with my heartbeat. I slowly moved my eyes to the damsel, as if their movement would alert something of my presence. She was also in a fighting stance, which I found odd, but given the current circumstances, I didn’t comment on it. My eyes swept across the room like a lighthouse that was being powered by a quarter of the electricity it needed until they stopped on the parlor owner. He was tall, with a beard, and wore a tank top that showed off the artwork that seemingly covered his entire body. A look came over the tattooed man’s face. A look that made him seem like he was going to talk. And, despite my subtle “don’t” motions, he did.
“Man, ain’t nothing gonna-”
An object crashed into the floor of the back room and clattered among other metallic objects before stopping. Moron, I thought as the metallic noise turned into an organic one and stepped closer to the back door with a handmade ‘Employee Only’ sign duct taped to it. Everyone stepped closer to greet the noise. Little did it know that it was going to receive a very warm welcome, one could say a 98.6 degree Fahrenheit welcome. The brass doorknob turned slowly. I poised my katana above my head, taking up the majority of the space on that side of the door coincidently because of my body size, and not my heroic size.
A fragment of a second later the door exploded open and embedded itself into the wall by the doorknob. I gritted my teeth and chopped my katana downward with all my water jug destroying might as I inspected the intruder in front of me.
Joe Suarez - Level 41 Human Scrounger - Increase your inspect skill to see more information.
Goldrin borked. My katana sliced through the air. The parlor owner started in surprise. The damsel screwed up her face in anger. A feminine fist rose through the air. I raised an eyebrow. Goldrun remembered how to growl. My katana fell further. The parlor owner finally realized what was going on and screwed up his face in anger as well. Joe Suarez’s head exploded. My katana passed through where his head should have been and embedded itself in his body instead. A shining red light pulsed from the damsel’s fist. Joe started to fall to the ground. Goldrin went back to chasing his tail.
“WHAT,” I said unconsciously, “in the world was that!?”
The damsel squinted her eyes impatiently as the parlor owner tackled Joe’s body five seconds too late. She bent over to pick up the gore towel that lay on the ground. She was wearing yoga pants, a fact I didn’t fail to notice. I felt some of the blood rush from my head.
“-did you?” the damsel finished.
“Did I what?” I asked confused.
“Jesus, are you even listening to me?”
“Sorry, spaced out for a second.”
The damsel stared at me for a long moment. She was either confused, disgusted, or angry, I couldn’t tell. Women often felt all three of things toward me, so I hadn’t had much opportunity to study the subtle differences between them. Finally, she spoke again, “I was saying it was my ability. You chose one when you leveled up right?”
I shook my head, as much to communicate with the damsel as to shock the images of my Grandma’s funeral from my mind.
“Well have you reached level two yet?” she prodded reluctantly.
I nodded. She shook her head in frustration. “Okay,” I said, “how do I do it?”
“Think about special abilities or something. I don’t know. You're the gamer here, figure it out,” another metallic clinking sound reverberated from the back room as I contemplated how she figured out that I liked to play games, “and hurry!” she finished.
Maybe she chose a psychic ability as well? I thought, excited about the potential abilities and skills I could learn. I mentally pulled up the rainbow text that crashed my Grandma's funeral by waving it into existence with my hand.
You have leveled up! Please choose an ability!
“Okay…” I said.
Available abilities are based on your fighting style and attributes. Please select one. This option cannot be undone.
Inspect Level 2 - Uncovers the maximum health points and a single ability of inspectable creatures and items.
Companionship - Unlocks pet abilities.
Detect Items - Items of use to you will be highlighted more often.
“Hmmm,” I said thoughtfully.
“Hurry up you idiot!” the damsel said as she shoved an ink needle into the eye of a Scrounger.
“Okay, okay,” I said. The decision was easy to make, but still, you shouldn’t rush a man when he is making such an important decision. Everyone knows that.
You have learned a new skill - Companionship!
Your pet has learned a new skill - Bork Bork Growl!
What the- my thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the front door. Luckily, the damsel had enough presence of mind to lock it after the hulking figure that was me walked in uninvited. I inspected the brunette lawyer type standing politely outside and waiting to be let in. She was all done up in a respectable three-piece suit. Her hair was tied back into a tight bun that signaled that she didn’t have the time to play video games and would not react well if I tried to talk to her about them.
Brittnie Cornwell - Level 33 Human Scrounger - Increase your inspect skill to see more information.
“No thanks we are closed,” I told the Scrounger, who immediately dropped her act and started jumping into the glass window, using the seemingly frail body of the tiny lawyer as a sort of self-battering ram.
Crap, I thought in a moment of genius, we don’t want her breaking that window. Following that logic, I unlocked the front door to the parlor and let Brittnie in. She walked through the doorway in a hurry to murder or sue everyone and didn’t even realize that she walked right into my katana until the buttons on her jacket reached its hilt. Brittnie looked down in surprise. That surprise turned to anger, and before I knew it, she was clawing at my face with her manicured nails. I thrashed my head around and couldn’t help but get the feeling that she was aiming to claw my eyes out. That made me thrash around harder, but thankfully I had enough presence of mind to tilt my katana upward so she couldn’t un-stab herself and get away. I bumped into a wall and caught a glimpse of two more every-day-clothed Scroungers enter my home base.
Dangit, I thought, realizing I had no other option than to completely ruin Brittnie’s comely face with my greasy forehead. I tilted my head back and slammed it forward with all the momentum my neck muscles could muster - which was an impressive amount considering that my neck muscles carried my large head around all day. My forehead collided into Brittnie’s general face area with a sickening crunch. The weight of my katana became too much, so I let it tilt downward. Brittnie slid lifelessly to the floor.
Strength check failed.
Congratulations! You have defeated Scrounger!
Before I could wipe away the rainbow words that violated my reality one after the other, I was knocked to the floor. Luckily, the sound of my considerable bulk crashing down was enough to alert my party members of my position, which was prone, and in danger of dying. I inspected my party while they saved my life; the damsel with her explosive punch ability and the parlor owner with his apparent lifetime's worth of experience being violent.
Lorelai - Level 23 human - Level 2 Survivor
Nikko - Level 47 human - Level 2 Survivor
The two humans made short work of the remaining Scroungers, allowing me to get to my feet under pressure from their judgemental eyes instead of under the pressure of being attacked. I wasn’t sure which one I would have preferred.
“What did you choose?” Lorelai asked me.
I dusted off my baggy jeans and replied, “A companionship skill. I think it allows my dog to learn abilities.”
She swore, “Please tell me you have another dog with you. Like a mean pitbull or a giant great dane or something?”
I looked to Goldrin lovingly. He whined and curled up into a cute ball of fur. I considered explaining that Goldrin was a great pet, but what could I say? I’ll have you know that he has already learned the famed Bork Bork Growl skill? It probably wouldn’t go over well, so I deflected instead, “What did Nikko choose?”
“How do you know my name?” Nikko asked, his face verging on that of a psychotic paranoid's.
“I learned the inspect skill,” I replied coolly. Lorelai asked me what that was, I explained patiently and the conversation turned to an examinatory one. In the end, Lorelai and Nikko ended up teaching themselves the Inspect skill as well, and finally gave me the respect I deserved.
“I guess you will be some help after all,” Nikko said by way of thanks.
I nodded before following up with my question that was conveniently ignored, “Nikko, what did you choose for an ability.”
Lorelai sat down onto one of Nikko’s tattooing chairs and rolled up her sleeves. Nikko pulled out a portable tattoo gun that I could only imagine ran on batteries and turned it on. The distinct sound of the tiny needled blurring through the air set my teeth on edge.
“You’ll see,” Nikko said with a deranged smile.
If nothing else, that smile was enough to make me reconsider laying down for some quick shut-eye.