“Fuck,” Nikko cursed, “Grandmas gonna be pissed at me.”
My eyes opened just long enough to see him gently set Goldrin down onto the parlor floor, right next to my body. Then he ran right back out the door. My consciousness faded.
Something bumped my body, alerting some sort of biological survival trait that forced me to wake up again. I turned my neck to the side, trying to determine if what hit me was friend or foe. It was Lorelai. She looked worse than I did, or at least, she looked worse than I assumed I did. My bubbly breathing meant that I probably wasn’t in my best shape. Questions flooded my mind, but I could only answer one of them. Lorelai was a friend, and in no condition to hurt me anymore than I already was. Darkness took me as I drowned.
“Just put it on him!” A voice yelled, reaching into my nothingness and taking me out with it. My eyelids slowly rose. I blinked in rhythm with the jumping red of the Parlor’s determined sign. Nikko was busy barking orders at two people I didn’t recognize, both males with tattoos below their eyes. My body coughed. I watched as blood shot from my lungs. It flickered neon - then splashed somewhere down by my feet.
“Hurry up!” the voice said, its hysteria no longer enough to keep me in the real world. I returned to the place I was before. I can’t say how long I was there for until the weight of my heavy head moving around brought me back.
“It’s a legendary item, what good is he going to do with it?” A voice said.
“No. You can't have it,” Nikko replied sternly.
“Okay, okay, relax.”
“What about you?” A new voice asked, “Are you going to stay with these chumps?” Nikko was silent. “You know if anyone survives this thing it will be us. This world ain't much different than the one we lived in before...”
“No,” I said from the floor. I tried to lift my head up, but the effort put too much pressure on my lungs as my stomach muscles activated. The second voice pointed a finger down at me.
“This is your people now? C’mon,” it said, “Come back with me. It will be just like the old times. ” A pause. "You remember George?"
Nikko has betrayed the party and joined the Crypts. Upgrade your base to attract more members!
“No!” I screamed, sitting up in reflex. It was still dark. Goldrin was by my feet, licking the last wound that riddled my body.
“Heal her!” I said, pointing to Lorelai’s limp body.
I stood up, letting my eyes adapt to the world. My body was stiff but functional. The last wound on my leg called out for attention as I walked to the back room. I checked inside and discovered Nikko wasn’t inside. I stood there in his doorway, trying to overcome Death’s mental fog.
We almost died fighting an Avalanche. Nikko healed us until he couldn’t anymore, then got help. That help put something on Goldrin, I thought, turning around and seeing that my companion now sported a black collar. Then he left us?
Lorelai groaned and rolled to her stomach. I limped over to her side and let myself fall heavily to the ground.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“It hurts,” she cried.
“Fight through it,” I said, wincing, “It will be over soon.”
Goldrin was doing his best to heal her - the concern in his eyes told me so. I gave him a gentle pat then focused all my attention on his collar.
Necklace of Healing - Restores 10 health points every minute.
I unhooked the collar from his neck and draped it around Lorelai’s. The skin on her neck was porcelain, covered in tiny pale hairs. The leathery material elongated in my hands, then grew softer until it resembled more cloth than hide. I hooked the fastener and let out a sigh.
After a very uncomfortable fit of despair; Lorelai’s tears dried up, leaving nothing but hate and hunger.
“He abandoned us the first chance he got,” she vented through mouthfuls of beef and cream cheese, “I don’t know why I am surprised.”
“It wasn’t his first chance,” I argued.
“Do not defend him,” she said, glaring at me.
I shrugged, “I am just stating the facts. He could have abandoned us many times already.”
“He did abandon you already!”
“Yea, well, do you blame him. I was a little-”
“It doesn’t matter what you were. He still abandoned us.”
“Okay, okay,” I deflected, realizing I was just feeding her anger, “so what are we going to do about it?”
She chewed her food with vigor as she stared at me. I could see something raging just behind her eyes. It was a battle of domestic calculation and primitive revenge. Behind her eyes were a million thoughts, a million plans. I had a feeling that none of them would be rational.
“Kill him,” she said.
I laughed, “No. We can’t kill Nikko. Even if we could kill him, we shouldn’t. We don’t even know why he left. Besides, he would have dragged us outside of the shield if he wanted us dead.”
My reply fell on deaf ears, but her look said enough. It said, I will kill you too if you get in my way.
I had no idea what would drive a woman so crazy. Really, I had no experience in that arena. But I was smart enough to know when I should let someone cool down. So that was what I did.
After ten or so minutes of gathering up any supplies in the parlor that I could use as potential traps, I went outside and started making them. The occasional abandoned car made it easy for me to keep them relatively concealed. As I put the finishing duct tape on a particularly promising trap, consisting of; a silver tray filled with glue, a bag of fertilizer, and flower seeds, the rainbow colored words intruded into my work once again.
The Thrift Store Gang has defeated the Can it Not Say Gang? Gang and chosen the Legendary Reward = A Traveling Merchant!
I focused on the reward.
Traveling Merchant = A merchant will find you, wherever you are, every few days with useful and rare items to trade. Do not abuse your merchant!
As I swiped the notification away with a wave of my hand, another one replaced it.
Home Base Level Up! Your turf is growing!
“What?” I asked the night air.
“What the hell!” it replied.
I turned around sharply, realizing that it was Lorelai who spoke for the night. The doorbell jingled as she exited the Parlor. The blue glow of our shield followed her as she stepped closer to me. As she got within spitting distance, her presumably worried and angry words were interrupted by the shield. It grew into and over her. Over me, even. We watched in awe as it expanded.
“Oh,” Lorelai said, before doing an about face and heading back inside. No doubt to continue plotting her revenge. Meanwhile, I was beginning to form a plan of my own.
Nikko is gone, so now we are much weaker as a team. We can recruit new members now though. So how do we do that? Build up our base? I thought, looking around to the portion of street and new buildings that were now inside my domain. I racked my brain for things that would attract survivors to my party. Safety was the obvious choice, but I didn’t want just any survivor. I needed fighters, and strong ones, if I was going to take down Ragnarok.
“Safety and a way out,” I told Goldrin, “We need to provide safety and a way out. If we can get people to believe we know how to stop all this, they will fight.”
Goldrin barked his agreement, then took a wiz on my nearest trap. This one had cans of spray paint taped together with another combination of screwdrivers and matchsticks attached.
“Careful,“ I warned before running to the parlor door, “you don’t want to burn your willy off!”
“Lor,” I started as the door sung behind me, “let’s go back to Tele-Pizza.” I sat in a chair across from her and matched her virulent gaze. “Barbara will probably go back there to build up her base. She didn’t seem like the type that likes to wander.”
“And kill her?” Lorelai asked, unmoving of body and facial expression.
“We will offer for her to join us,” I replied. “She will be upset that we tried to kill her, sure. But she is smart. We will have the upper hand and she will see that.” I broke eye contact for a moment. “She will probably try to betray us the first chance she gets, but we will be vigilant. If we have to kill her we will, but we need more people, desperately.”
Lorelai nodded and stood. Then she walked out the door.
“C’mon Goldrin!” I commanded as I followed after her.
It took us ten minutes to walk down the road to Tele-Pizza, mostly because a handful of Scroungers wanted to check out my Katana.
“Fuck,” I said, patting my head just outside the pizza shop.
“What?” Lorelai asked.
“My Fedora. It's gone.”
She removed her hand from the doorknob, “Did you leave it in the parlor?”
“No…” memories of my near-death experience came flashing back to me, “I think Nikko took it.”
She sighed in anger, then turned the door nob. Water rushed out and over our shoes. We waded through it and realized that Barabara was indeed back inside her home base. She was on top of the marble island in the center of the room, covered in flour and tears.
“Come to finish me off,” she whimpered, not even bothering to uncurl her body from the fetal position.
“Ye-” Lorelai managed to say before I could put a finger to her lips. She gave me a dirty look, but surprisingly, didn’t bat my hand away.
“Hi Barbara,” I said, with a deep bow. She sat up, an intrigued expression on her face. When I requested a meeting with her in her office, she managed to pull herself together. Wiping the white powder from her athletic wear, she hopped off the countertop. A small splash was heard, along with a slight whimper, and then she walked to her office in the freezer. I followed.
“What are you doing?” Lorelai whispered into my ear as her tiny hands grasped my, uhh... Tricep.
“Trust me,” I whispered back with a wink. Her grip loosened, but the feeling of her touch remained for a few decades longer.
Barbara sat down in her chair behind the wooden desk adorned with pizza-related figurines and transformed into the ice-queen I knew she could be. She was wearing a heavy coating make-up, which I thought was weird because she dressed like she was going to the gym. But honestly, I had never seen the inside of a gym, so I wasn’t one to judge. Maybe they all wore makeup in there to accent their muscles, who knew? Her eyeliner trailed down her face from old tears, but otherwise, she was a mask of perfect put-togetherness. In fact, she was rather attractive.
“Excuse me,” I said, leaning forward, “you have something…” I reached a hand forward and wiped the stray eyeliner from her cheek, “Ah, there it is.” Barbara’s eyes darted around as I touched her, but she didn’t flinch away. I even earned myself a solid thank you. “So,” I began, settling into my chair. It was more comfortable than I remembered. “I think we got off on the wrong foot, and I would just like to apologize. We are learning more and more every moment that we survive in this new world, and I think attacking each other was a little short-sighted.” She nodded. “I hope that my pet here didn’t harm anyone close to you?”
“No,” Barbara replied, “They were just the people making my pizza. I haven’t seen my daughter since you attacked though. Have you?”
“The spear thrower?” Lorelai said, her back turned to us as she perused the frozen meats and sauces in the freezer.
I shook my head, “No, we haven’t seen her. I can say with certainty that we didn’t harm her though.” The ice queen let out a breath that carried a mountain of lead along with it. “We can help you find her though, if… you help us.”
Her strong expression finally broke, and I got to see how she felt on the inside once again, but only for a moment. It was clear she was scared. But I knew she would agree to my proposal because she was an intelligent woman who understood power dynamics. I did a great job with those two power moves when I touched her face and mentioned my lovable dog of death. I had her all figured out and drinking from the palm of my sweaty hands.
“Fuck you,” she said.
“Wait, what?” I blanched.
Charisma Check Failed.
The green inside Barabara’s eyes began to whirl around her iris’. The colored darkened as it slowly moved in mesmerizing circles before brightening to a gleaming blue.
Negative Peer Pressure Check - Failed. You are frozen.
Oh shit, I thought as I failed to pat my head and check for my Fedora. Barbara leaped over the desk, knocking a small figurine of a short man holding two pizzas on a stick. It clattered to the floor as she straddled my lap and unleashed a primal rage. I felt every single one of her many frustrations, conveniently delivered directly to my face with her fists. Her hands opened when she realized my face was as hard as ice, but luckily Lorelai pulled her off me before she could chisel my eyes out.
“Don’t kill her!” I said as my body began to thaw from the top down. Lorelai realized that, glared at me, then pulled the Ice Queen through a hole in the back wall by her hair. Before my legs could thaw, I heard the sizzle of her Power Punch ability and a soft thud, followed by a notification that a member of the Pizza Parlor gang had been slain. “What the hell!” I yelled, finally able to stand.
Lorelai climbed back through the hole in the wall and echoed my words, “What the hell!” She said it while pointing to somewhere below my stomach. Now is a great time to mention that all those minutes invested into improving my physique had been paying off. My stomach was shrinking, and I was finally able to see something that I hadn’t been able to in a long, long time, at least, not without a mirror. That was probably why my smile stretched from ear to ear in a moment that would have been otherwise largely embarrassing for me.
“Seriously,” she said in awe, “just because she straddled you? She was attacking you for Christ’s sake!”
Lorelai rattled on for another minute or so, but I was too proud of myself to listen in. Then, a scream echoed into the freezer from somewhere outside the hole in the back wall. I traded a quick glance to my damage dealer and ran out of the Pizza Parlor, pants not quite fitting. I was greeted by the clammy, yet cool night air, as well as more than a few, crude, yet sharp, throwing spears. I dodged the majority of them, but Barbara’s daughter showed no signs of running out anytime soon. I activated my Bait ability before the timer on my Matrix ability expired. Luckily, I was allowed to use two abilities concurrently and for the first time ever, I welcomed the disagreeable feeling of my pores stretching to release the yellow pheromone. Surrounded by Scroungers, the Spear Maiden’s attacks were no longer able to reach me. I stalked toward her, knocking down any Scroungers that looked like they were capable of dealing more damage than a spear sticking into my body would. Then an orange glow of light streaked over my head and landed near Barbara’s daughter. Her ranged attacks were no use for Lorelai’s melee abilities, and I got there just in time to see my damage dealer use a new skill.
It was a whirl of lights and combination punches that left our enemy in a rag doll state. But before she could collapse to the ground, Lorelai’s footwork allowed her to get into such a position where she could punch the doll upright again. For the briefest of moments, the Spear Maiden’s body seemed to be standing of its own accord, even though I could tell by the rolling of her head that she wasn’t exactly present. Lorelai’s entire body pulsed with orange and red electricity, then she spun and kicked the rag doll, expelling all her built up power. The body of the Spear Maiden disintegrated into ash and floated away.
The Tattoo Parlor Gang has defeated the Pizza Place Gang! Please return to your home base to choose an award.