“Ahhh,” a voice reverberated through my head, causing it to throb in pain.
“Ugggh,” it sounded again. I winced, wishing more than anything that the it would stop.
“Gahh-” I said before stopping, finally realizing that the voice was my own.
I opened my eyes. Strangers stood before me. All of them regarding me warily, some with murder in their eyes and some with an uncomfortable confusion. I reached for my Katana, but my hand wouldn’t obey my command. All four of my limbs stuck to the wall, fastened with straps. On a table, that resembled more of a marble slab of stone in the center of the room, laid my Katana and backpack. My defeated facial expression fell even further into despair.
One of the women standing before me spoke up, no doubt noticing that I knew I was in danger and she had the upper hand, and my Katana, “I have seen you around before haven’t I?” She said, stepping closer to the marble island. Pizza ovens made up the wall behind her. I could see that they were all functional, and even turned on. Fires blazed inside them, heating up the room and causing everyone to gleam in a thin layer of sweat. “You are that nerd that lives in the house a street over, aren't you!” She pointed her spear at my face excitedly, “Yes you are! I know because I always thought someone was running a meth lab or a cult in that house. I never saw anyone go in or out, until one day I saw your fat ass!”
“What? No,” I argued, shaking my head and regretting it, “I don’t live in the meth lab house, that house was across the street from me.”
“No,” she said with a tisk, “I saw you in it.”
“Avalanche was in the meth lab house. Ya’know, the sort of house that seems active but you never see anyone come out of. I live in a normal house.”
A man spoke up from the crowd of six people, including the spear chucker, “You have seen an Avalanche?”
The woman turned her spear to the man, “Shut up!” After she asserted her leadership, or dictatorship rather, she turned her spear back to me. “Where did you come from? Why were you walking the streets? What do you know about what is going on here?”
I struggled to answer her questions, mostly because there were so many, but she saw my hesitation as rebellion and turned her spear onto Goldrin, who was strapped to the wall as well.
“Answer me!” She said, “Or your dog will be the topping of the month!” She tilted her head to one of the open pizza ovens.
Suddenly, I remembered the words of my wise Grandma. I inspected everyone in the room as I simultaneously explained that I had no fucking clue what was going on, in excruciating detail.
Isabella - Level 30 human - Level 2 Spear Maiden
Juan - Level 24 human - Level 1 Survivor
Adam - Level 20 Human - Level 1 Survivor
Sofia - Level 33 Human - Level 1 Survivor
On and on the notifications went as I inspected each of the five members of the Pizza Place Gang. Luckily for me, everyone was level one besides the gang leader. That played to my odds well if I needed to fight my way out. Even though they were all low levels, there was still a lot of them. I wouldn’t be able to make it out myself, but I also had Goldrin, so I was beginning to feel a bit more confident in my odds of survival.
Then my hopes were dashed, like that one time the Horde thought they had the Alliance leaders cornered at the battle of a Thousand Orcs. A heavy industrial door swung open to the right of me. A cool mist flowed out of the room. I looked over and could see racks of frozen pizza ingredients, along with a large wooden desk. I couldn’t see the whole desk, or who sat at it, but her voice was as cold as the freezer she hung out in. It was the voice of suburban neighborhoods, yelling at innocent teenagers behind the checkout register, and asking to speak to the manager. It was a voice that stood in stark contrast to the rest of the Pizza Place Gang. When it spoke, I learned that the spear maiden was not, in fact, the ringleader of my kidnappers.
“Isabella,” the voice oozed out of the freezer like spoiled molasses, “Get back to your post and defend our home base. Now.”
Isabella nodded, twirled her spear around her back, and disappeared like a House Elf granted an article of clothing by its master.
“Bring the human to me,” the voice in the freezer commanded, in the tone of a friendly request.
Juan and Adam released the straps that held me against the wall. I rolled my neck and wrists, releasing the built-up tension and allowing new blood to flow into my numb appendages.
“Can you release my dog as well?” I asked, politely.
The two gang members looked at each other in puzzlement, unsure of what to do.
“Hurry. Up,” the voice behind the desk in the freezer said, her friendly tone breaking just slightly, allowing a glimpse of the evil contained within. Juan and Adam started at the command, ditched their tough guy routines, and freed Goldrin from his straps. He wagged his tail in appreciation.
The woman behind the desk in the freezer was everything I expected her to be and then some. She wore the standard garb of suburban mothers that were either on their way to the gym or grocery shopping; no one could be sure. If life hadn’t gone to shit and there weren’t monsters roaming about, I would have imagined that she had a Ford Flex parked outside - just enough room to contain all her kids and all her gossip in once convenient, fuel-efficient SUV. She smiled as I entered the freezer, her cheeks moving so far that the earrings below her hair wiggled. With all of her facial movements working overtime to portray a welcoming demeanor, I would have suspected her eyes to at least twinkle a little bit. But they were dead. As I used my inspect ability on her, I daydreamt about covering the top of her face and seeing a friendly expression, only to do the same with the bottom portion and reveal a condescending and perpetually aggravated one.
Barbara - Level 45 Human - Level 6 Ice Mage
Congratulations! Your Inspect skill has reached level 2!
My Grandma’s words echoed within my head once again. I removed my Fedora and inspected it.
Hero’s Fedora - Head Slot
Special Ability - Increases Chances to Ignore Negative Peer Pressure
“Ah,” Barbara said with another smile, “A gentleman! I like you already. My name is Barbara.” She reached her hand across the desk. I grabbed it and shook it. It was colder than usual but not necessarily colder than it should have been for someone that set up their workspace in an industrial freezer.
“Nice to meet you. My name is Milton,” I said, deciding on the spot that being angry was not the route to take with this woman. Not only was I slightly worried about her being an ice mage, I was somewhat jealous that I didn’t have a cool class as she did. But more importantly, I was slightly worried that I was no match for the type of assault she was probably capable of dishing out. If she were a warrior in one of the video games I used to play, she would have a dash tattooed on her back for every teenager she made run home crying from the local Taco Bell for messing up her order. I leveraged my newly improved ability and inspected her again.
Barbara - Level 45 Human - Level 6 Ice Mage
Max Health Points - 100
Ability One - Icy Stare
“What's going on out there, Milton?” Barbara asked as she shuffled around a pile of now-useless paperwork. I ignored the power move, as it wasn’t even remotely relevant nowadays. “I mean outside of the pizza shop.” She added.
“Uh, well,” I started, “Monsters are running around, taking control of people and whatnot-”
She nodded the entire time I talked until her nods became so fast that she was forced to interrupt me.
“I know that,” she said, “What I meant was - do you have any idea as to why monsters are running around?”
I shook my head and got the feeling that she liked to handle both sides of every conversation she was in. I was okay with that, and let her talk. She rambled on about how no one walks outside anymore and how all the remaining humans are holed up behind various defenses. I only half listened, as I was more interested in trying to inspect myself and see if I could uncover any information that would help me out. It was difficult to pull off, but eventually, my eyes crossed enough, and a prompts appeared before me.
Milton - Level 27 Human - Level 3 Hunter
Max Health - 230
Ability Two - Companionship
Ability Three - The Matrix
“Damnit,” I said, disappointed that I didn’t have a Berserker, Warrior, Ninja or some other impressive class. I tended to be warriors or soldiers in the games I used to play, so one of them would have been nice. But no, I had to be a hunter.
“I know!” Barbara said, letting the stress of leading a gang and having no one to gossip about it with fall from her shoulders, “It's terrible.”
Regrettably, I must have let my confusion show on my face for a moment. Barbara eyed me as if she heard from a friend that a friend told her that I said her kids were ill-behaved. I awkwardly turned my head, attempting to get a glimpse of my Katana so I could inspect it as well. The marble table came into view, and I could feel Barbara bubbling with anger since my attention didn't focus on her. A gust of chilly air flew past me. The metal door to the freezer slammed shut, cutting off my hopes of inspecting my Katana.
That must be another one of her abilities, I thought as I nervously turned back to face the icy woman. By my count, she should have five different skills, unless she leveled up and upgraded an ability or two, and I was only aware of two of them so far.
“Sorry,” I said, “I get anxious without my Katana, you know… because of the Scrounger attacks and all.”
By this point, Barbara’s calm and friendly facade faded and was replaced with an Icy Stare, literally. Her eyes gleamed a bright blue from her pale face.
Negative Peer Pressure Check - Passed. You have resisted Barbara’s Icy Stare.
I relegated myself to celebrate internally. Externally, I was the embodiment of composure and manly grace.
“Please don’t do that again,” I said, mimicking Barbara's overly fake smile.
She stood up.
I didn’t stop him.
Something else did though. Something rainbow colored. It stopped Barbara from shooting me with the Icicles that formed in her hands as well.
The Pizza Place Gang has declared war on the Tattoo Parlor Party. Winners will receive a legendary boon! If either party refuses to fight, or all members of a party do not participate, Ragnaros will be dispatched to destroy both parties.
“What the heck,” we both said in almost perfect unison after reading the prompt. In fact, it would have been perfect, but Barbara said something much less ladylike than I did. She looked at me. I looked at her. Then Goldrin looked at me. I looked back.
“Do i-,” I began to say in a whisper.
“BOOOORKKK!” Goldrin howled, interrupting my command before I could even finish it.
“Agh,” Barbara said, covering her ears. Goldrin’s yell echoed from within the enclosed room. It was loud enough that I almost covered my ears as well. “Shut that mut up or I will-”
“BOOOOORRRK!” He yelled again.
“Okay, okay,” I said, making an earnest effort to act like I was trying to get Goldrin to stop barking.
Here we go, I thought as I patted Goldrin. I removed my hands just in time for him to growl. In an instant, his fur covered everything in the room. Barabara yelled as if everything in the world was aspiring against her and the rest of the Pizza Place Gang could be heard banging on the metal door behind me. I waved away Goldrin’s fur and left him to deal with the suburban ice queen as I moved to open it.
As I reached for the lock, Barbara yelled something, and I found myself looking at the ceiling. Then the floor. Then my arms, and something that looked like my foot but couldn't be since I wasn’t limber enough for that, flew across my vision. When my Matrix skill finished, Barbara was left in the same utter disbelief as I was.
“Let’s get out of here!” I said before Goldrin could repeat his Bork Bork Growl progression and grow more, squishing me to death in the process. He looked at me, then his skinless body lowered to the ground, moments before he flew by me in a streak of slimy red and impacted the metal door. It smashed heavily into the other room. Panicked screams were cut off by the sound of Goldin's nails scratching over the chilled metal surface.
Congratulations! You have defeated Adam!
Congratulations! You have defeated Jose!
The pretty rainbow colored letters of my notification stood in harrowing contrast of the pit growing in my stomach. They highlighted the fucked-up-ness of my new life. I pressed on and followed Goldrin, channeling my inner Nikko as I went. I didn’t want to forget about the fact that I had just killed two real live humans, but I didn’t want to stop and cry about it either. I was determined not to compartmentalize or distract myself from shitty situations anymore, but at the moment, that was exactly what I needed to do.
Goldrin pounced on another faceless and flour-covered member of the Pizza Place Gang. I got another notification.
He must be the guy that made the pizzas, I thought to myself, trying to ignore my innocent companion that was currently turning everyone in pools of blood and organic matter.
I grabbed my Katana from the marble table, just in time to use it to block the sizeable wooden spatula thrown by a member of the rival gang. She quickly grasped for a knife, but Goldrin’s heavy mass of tissue, muscle, fangs, and claws landed on her before she got the chance. I got a notification letting me know I was responsible for the death of a fourth gang member, along with a level up notification that I brushed to the side for later.
“That leaves only two left!” I said to a creepily calm, monster Goldrin. He wasn’t even panting, despite all of his extra exertions. His eyes simply darted around the room, looking for his next play toy. “The Ice Mage and the Spear Chuc-” I said, stopping when I felt the room grow colder. The raging fires in every oven were snuffed out. I tried to step to the front door but found my shoes frozen to the floor. Behind me, the sounds of a glacier crackling to a stop. I twisted my body around, and my panic-stricken eyes landed on Goldrin, growing even more panic-stricken. The invincible monster that was my sweet, sweet companion was frozen solid in a block of ice.
Negative Peer Pressure Check - Passed. You have resisted Barbara’s Tempest Gust.
I wretched one foot free, then the other. The ice queen was busy casting and didn't notice. She should have, especially since I resisted her Icy Stare earlier, but luckily she didn’t seem to pay much attention to the potential of people other than herself.
“Her mistake,” I said, quickly inspecting my Katana.
Hero’s Katana - Weapon Slot
Special Ability - Increases Your Initiative
I was hoping for something a little more impressive, but my Katana decided to prove that my assumptions were folly. I launched forward, as if my Katana pulled me, and charged the spell-casting soccer mom. She noticed my approach but didn’t stop casting. Instead her skinny, but still somehow flabby, arms flailed in a different pattern. A wall of ice grew between us.
Four out of five abilities, I thought to myself.
As I physically inspected the wall of ice in front of me and the ice that encased my companion, I was briefly aware of a disgruntled voice coming from outside. It was joined by an excited feminine one. Then, two people burst into the room.