“I fucking knew it,” Niko said as he entered the room.
Lorelai followed soon after, “Milton! You’re still alive!” she said as she ran over to hopefully hug me. She never made it into my arms though, and instead halted half-way. “Jesus, what happened in here?”
I sighed, “Uh, long story short. These guys attacked me, which I guess was an act of war...”
“We saw that notification,” Niko added as he idly searched the pizza ovens for scraps. “I figured you were behind it.”
“We came to find you!” Lorelai said with a smile.
“No,” Niko corrected, “We came because we didn’t want to find out what Ragnaros was.”
“Well, either way. I am glad you came,” I replied. “The war isn’t over though, so don’t get comfortable. There is a spell-caster behind this ice wall, and there is another woman that can throw an infinite amount of spears at us. I don’t know where she is though…”
“What the…” Niko said, finally noticing the block of ice that encased monster Goldrin, “...hell is that?”
“Oh, that is just Goldrin. Is there any way you can smash him out Lorelai?”
Lorelai glanced at me warily, “Do we want to do that?”
I nodded, “Oh yea, he is still friendly, to us at least. He just lost all his skin and got bigger. Don’t worry though; it is only a temporary ability.” I wasn’t entirely sure that monster Goldrin would be friendly to Nikko and Lorelai, but I didn’t say so. The party was cool, but Goldrin would always be my number one.
Lorelai powered up her super punch ability and slammed her fist into the ice. It exploded into a million shards. Among those shards, my greyish-gold furred companion lay. He whimpered.
I gave a mental sigh of relief and said, “See, told you it would be fine. Now let’s smash this ice wall too and deal with the woman behind it, Barbara.” The woman’s name left my mouth with hatred and genuine disgust. She was the worst kind of people in my book. And I would have meant that even if I met her a week ago.
“Let’s just get outta here?” asked Nikko.
“No,” Lorelai replied instantly, “You saw the prompt. If we don’t participate in the war, then WE WILL find out what Ragnaros is.” She paused and looked at the ice wall. Then at me. Then back to Nikko. “My power punch is on cooldown, so you need to break the wall.”
“Goddamnit,” Nikko complained. Then he grabbed a knife from the marble table and began stabbing the wall repeatedly. Little chunks of ice slowly detached and fell to the ground. He grumbled something under his breath and started thrusting faster and faster. When he was about half-way through the knife broke. He swore, then began vigorously punching the wall. I cringed. He punched and punched. A few seconds in, the semi-transparent blue of the ice wall became tinged with red. Nikko complained about the pain but didn’t slow his assault. If anything, he punched harder. Among the clapping of his bare knuckles hitting the ice, I could hear occasional snapping noises. I wasn’t sure if it was his bones breaking, or the ice breaking, and didn’t want to find out. When Nikko let one of his arms drop and began to punch the wall with his other hand, I caught a glimpse of his mangled hand and found out anyway. It hung loosely at his side, fingers twisted and dripping. I felt my stomach tighten and wrench.
“No, don’t do that,” I said, stifling a gag, “Stop. Stop.”
Lorelai’s face stepped in front of mine before I could fail another constitution check. I took her hint and turned around, grabbing my backpack from the table and putting it on. Facing away from Nikko, I inspected Lorelai as she inquired about what I had been up to.
Lorelai - Level 23 human - Level 3 Survivor
Max Health - 160
Ability One - Power Punch
Ability Two - Power Jump
“I got some supplies for us. Some food. Killed a huge monster with Goldrin. Found my fedora and then I was kidnapped,” I said, trying to make everything seem like it wasn’t as exhausting as it was. “What did you guys do?”
“We explored the street in the opposite direction of the parlor, mostly just looking for food. We didn’t find any though,” she frowned, “There was nothing but destruction and Scroungers. We fought a few but ran from most of them. I think they are starting to roam with more frequency now.”
“Like fucking zombies,” I said, remembering how they had already moved onto my street.
“She’s not fucking in here!” Nikko yelled as he removed his head from a bloody hole in the ice wall.
Shit, I thought as Nikko stalked toward me. I backed up, saying something along the lines of, “I swear she was in there,” or, “Please don’t hit me.”
The scariest thing about facing down an angry Niko was that he didn’t show that he was angry, but you still somehow knew he was. He was calm, focused, and at peace with himself. Still, it was easy to tell that he was going to kill you, just not by ordinary means. His anger and hatred filled the area around him. It was invisible, but yet you still saw it and wanted to shit your pants. It wasn’t readable on his face, but it was apparent nonetheless.
A soft white glow wrapped around Nikko’s hands. It wasn’t his anger or violence though; it was something else. I watched as his fingers straightened and his wrist fell back into place with a wet popping noise. Then I watched as his newly healed fists rose up to punch me. I leaned back, just in time for his dry blood covered fist to swing past my nose. I mumbled something else that even I knew wasn’t going to stop him from attacking me. He swung at me again, and I ducked. The impalpable ‘Nikko-ness’ that surrounded the parlor owner grew more and more intimidating as I continued to dodge him. Then my five seconds of inhumane dodginess was up, and the curtains of my consciousness fell.
For the second time in my life, I woke up in another man’s bedroom with no memory of how I got there. This time I wasn’t on Nikko’s bed though, and I didn’t have a mouthful of dog hair. I did a sit up and looked around. Lorelai was sleeping on the floor on the other side of the small room, using a pile of industry magazines as a pillow. Nikko was fast asleep as well, on his sheet and blanketless mattress. I quietly got to my feet and stepped into the main room of the tattoo parlor. I found my backpack sitting on a parlor chair and swapped places with it. Groping around into nothingness, I pulled out my Thigh Master, which was entirely too large to fit into the backpack in the first place. With a grunt, I removed my dumbells as well and got to work. Squeeze thighs. Curl the weights and try to see if I had biceps yet. Squeeze thighs. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Sweat a little and then, as expected, purple makeup dust everywhere.
“Good. You are getting stronger. Did you find out what your items did?” Grandma said as she sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me, neon lights reflecting off her crocheting needles.
“Yes, Gram,” I replied diligently. Goldrin padded over from Niko’s room and curled up next to her. She patted him.
“You are on the right path then,” She said.
“The path to what?” I asked.
Grandma continued to crochet and not look at me, “The path to a more fulfilling life of course.”
I set my weights down, “What does that even mean?” I said, frustrated.
I leaned forward in my chair and threw my arms out, “I need to know what is going on all around me. Why are there monsters here? Why do Scroungers take over some people and not others? What is Ragnaros?” I lowered my arms and leaned even closer to her, “Can you help me with any of that, Gram?”
“Yes,” She said before slowly raising her head and finally meeting my flustered gaze, “I can try. I don’t have all the answers you seek, but I have all the answers you need. You need to make a decision. Will you wage war among the other parties of survivors for legendary rewards, or will you fight straight to the source of your problems?”
I leaned back in my chair in thought, What legendary rewards? I just want my life back.
“What is the source of my problems?” I asked.
Grandma stared at me. Her eyes bore into mine for what felt like an eternity but was in reality, only a moment or two, “The Orchestrator. The rainbow letters. Ragnarok. The thing that is responsible for all of this.”
“How do I get to it?” I said to the place my Grandma was just moments before. She disappeared, along with the purple makeup dust and the universal smell of old lady.
“Damn,” I said with a sigh, leaning back in the parlor chair once again. I sat there for a while deep in thought until I entered that twilight period that existed between being fully awake and being fully asleep. It was peaceful.
Lorelai reached into my mental meditation castle, grabbed me by the throat, and pulled me into reality. “Do you have any food?” she said, innocently. I jumped at her sudden voice. She was standing in the doorway to Niko"s room, looking worn down and hungry, starving really.
“Yeah…” I said, wiping the sleep from my eyes and reaching down for my backpack. I pulled out the tubs of food from my apartment and my Grandma’s house. They were still cold. “Here,” I said tiredly. She grabbed the nearest Tupperware tub and ripped the lid off. She shoveled the continents into her mouth without even checking to see what it was.
She looked at me and smacked her lips together “Is that… Cream cheese?”
She took another bite and swallowed, “and…Oh, it is salty… and beef?" She swallowed, "Cream cheese and salted beef?”
I nodded again.
She said, “Never heard of it. Kinda strange. It is pretty good combination though. Great actually,” and I think I fell in love a little bit.
I left all of my food for her to eat at her leisure and grabbed a tub of Grandma’s food for myself since it was bound to be healthier, and more fibrous. We ate in silence, and a weird feeling came over me. I felt like I was waiting for something. Something was on the horizon, and yet, the sun never came. It was just always dark. Always. Dark.
“What are we going to do now?” Lorelai asked as she wiped her mouth and sat down in one of the parlor chairs.
I inhaled deeply, “I am not sure. Two members of the Pizza Place Gang are still out there,” I exhaled, “I think we need to find out more about this Ragnarok though.”
“What makes you say that?” she asked, lovingly patting her food baby.
“You might think I am crazy but…” I sat up in my chair, “Do you remember when I said my Grandma was taken over by a Scrounger and I had to kill her?” Lorelai sat up as well and nodded, “Well, I think I found an item that can summon her. Or her spirit or something, I don’t know.”
“Yea, uh, I used the item, and she just appeared. To give me advice I guess.”
“And she told you to find out more about Ragnarok?”
“Well more or less, yeah,” I said. She stared at me blankly and threw an impatient gesture with her hands at me. “Well, she hinted that he was responsible for the rainbow letters and straight up said that he was the source of all of my problems.”
She leaned back in her chair and sighed, “Well, first off. That does make you sound fucking crazy. But, everything around us is crazy right now, and that is the best lead we have to find out why this is all happening. The only lead, really.”
I nodded, relieved that she felt the same way I did.
“Show me,” she asked, “I would like to meet your Grandma.”
“Why?” I said reflexively, before shaking my head, “I mean… I can’t. I think I can only summon her once every time I level up, and I just reached a new level and saw her.”
She shrugged, “Well, it's worth double-checking don’t ya think?”
“Yeah,” I said, grabbing the Thigh Master and putting it in between my legs.
“That is the magical item?” She asked with a slight chuckle.
“Yes,” I whispered in shame. She must have noticed that I wasn’t a fan of opening and closing my legs or just working out in front of her in general, and told me I could relax.
“It’s fine. We have to do what we have to do now. Everyone gets that,” she said warmly.
Nikko stepped into the room, “What the fuck are you doing, weirdo?” he boomed. Lorelai was wrong. He didn’t get that.