Ben, the Master Builder, turned out to be an all-around decent guy. Truthfully speaking, he was a great guy. As we walked up an escalator to his party’s home base, he explained the intricacies of his builder class. Ben said that when the rainbow letters came, he and his small crew were doing repairs to the HVAC units on top of the mall. Things started to go awry, and he rightfully abandoned his project and instead ordered his crew to fortify the mall. Once they build up a defensible location that lead to the roof, they went out to find survivors. The mall itself was a madhouse. He said that screams reached every corner of every department store on every level. People ran into each other on accident, then fought to their deaths just because they thought they were the one being attacked. He said that the Scroungers were hard to recognize at first because there was so much movement. It was difficult to identify a few odd hopping people amongst the crowd, and by the time they did, the Scrounger was already attacking someone. People rushed out of the mall in droves. He described it as ‘Reverse Black Friday’ with genuine seriousness. People broke from the stampede, only to arrive by the safety of their cars and find they had to unlock them with their keys, instead of hitting the convenient button as they usually did. Some people died right then, their keys still stuck in car doors. Others made it inside their cars, only to find that it wouldn’t start. Ben said that they had the worst deaths. They watched other humans, some of them probably familiar to them or family members, knock their heads into windshields until bone and glass shattered. The resulting scenes were of struggle, blood, teeth, and tight spaces with nowhere to run except the back seat. Some of them did try and run though, only to be immediately taken down by the Scroungers that surrounded their cars, waiting.
“At least they died in the fresh air,” Ben said as we reached the top floor of the mall. He lead us to a portion of the wall re-enforced with dark metal paneling. I ran my hand across it and realized that it was warm and that it had tiny flecks of purple in it. “That is from my builder class,” Ben said, “I can create as much of it as I want, and the Scroungers can’t break through it, no matter how hard they try.”
I nodded as I twisted the dark metal doorknob on the paneling, “What about Avalanches?”
“What about what?”
“You know. The big hooded guys that carry around a bunch of chains. Spiked lead balls on the end?” Ben furrowed his brow and shook his head, “Oh, well. I will introduce you two later.” I twisted the doorknob. A dark stairway opened up before me. Ben must have made the entire stairwell out of his magic metal. Deep purple crystals fastened the dark panels together where screws would usually be. A metal sconce protruded from the wall. Inside it was a makeshift torch, made from a broken baseball bat wrapped in what I could only assume was designer clothing soaked in gasoline and wax. The firelight licked the crystals as it flickered and sputtered, causing the stairway to twinkle a slight purple in places.
“Is he your friend? This Avalanche?”
“No,” I replied immediately and without thought. Ben paused at my sudden seriousness, and I realized I was staring at him. I tore my eyes away, composed myself, and continued walking up the stairs, our entire alliance in line behind us, no doubt being harassed by Nikko. “You’ll see. And then you will understand.” I reached the top of the stairs, and Ben stepped by me to open two very thick doors. They swung open without a single screech or heavy moan, and I was greeted by the dull grey sky once again. It seemed brighter from up high, but I figured that it was just because the moon had found a thinner layer of clouds to hide behind. The top of the mall was what you would expect; flat and littered with various boxes responsible for heating, air conditioning, filtration, and other joys of civilized life. Ben had built ten foot high sections of his metal all around the edge of the building so that no one could fall, or jump, off. He did have stairs on some portions that lead to walkways on top of the metal. Two people walked on this walkway, patrolling it and keeping an eye on what they could see below. I climbed the stairs and looked over the edge. The ground was three stories down. It actually seemed quite peaceful from my perspective, but I knew firsthand how perspectives could cloud your judgment.
“Did you see us coming?” I asked Ben.
He shook his head from his spot by the stairs, but away from the ledge, “No. We must have been under attack when you came, otherwise we would have seen you. It was your yelling that alerted us.”
Damn, I thought, peeking over the inside edge of the guard platform and looking for Nikko. He did say I could have been quieter… “The depression Eagles?” I asked.
“What?” Ben asked. His speech was clear and articulate, yet I got the sense that his mind wasn’t the sharpest tool in his belt.
“The depression Eagles. Was it them that attacked you?”
“Oh, I am not sure what they are called. Large birds routinely attack us. They resemble more dinosaur than anything I have ever seen though. Huge and red and scaled and with a wingspan bigger than a Bagger 293 Bucket Wheel Excavator.”
I blinked, “Hmm, that doesn’t sound like a depression Eagle to me,” I said, motioning to the skyline in the direction of Ragnaros, “Do they come from this direction?”
“No,” he said, turning around and pointing in the opposite direction, to the city. “As I said, they are huge. You can see them coming from a mile away.”
“How do you fight them then? Why not just close off the sky with your building abilities?”
Ben looked personally insulted, “What? And be stuck indoors for eternity? That’s not the life for me. I know the sky hasn’t exactly been a sight to see lately, but it is better than a ceiling. Besides,” Ben’s face lit up with childlike excitement, “I have a better solution.” The Builder’s eyes looked off into the distance and became blank, yet the enthusiasm remained on the rest of his face. He poked around in the air; then I heard a mechanical rumbling below me. I looked over the inside edge of the guard platform once again. The other survivors were busy unpacking brand new air mattresses, gathering up food, and taking much-needed rests. Nikko sat with his back to one of the HVAC boxes, a toothpick in his mouth and a butterfly knife in his hands. He was busy opening and closing it with skillful flourishes. It was quite impressive, but I could tell he was doing it for the show. His flourishes stumbled and stalled at spots, but only a skilled knife enthusiast such as myself would notice the novice mistakes. So while his knife wasn’t that impressive to me, I was sure it was the main reason no other survivors, besides the demons, had come over to talk to him yet. What was impressive though, was how he already managed to loot a store in the five minutes it took us to walk to the food court to our new home base.
As I was daydreaming of all the things I wanted to loot from the various stores inside the mall, the mechanical grinding noise intensified. I used my superior hearing to track its source to a large and dark metal plate on the floor. I didn’t notice it before, but now it was apparent that Ben had customized the floor as well as the walls of the towering fort.
“Clear the area!” Ben yelled before leading me back down the guard platform. After a thorough safety check, Ben was confident that no human souls were in danger of whatever he was about to unleash and that OSHA would be proud of him. Then his eyes became blank, and he poked at the air once again. The metal plates in the floor split at the center and pulled away from each other. The slide over concrete and a giant hole opened up. After another thirty seconds of gears grinding together, something began to grow from the hole. It was black, speckled with the same purple flakes as all his other metal, and pointy. It turned out only to be pointy at the top though. The remaining portion of the contraption resembled an old-school canon, complete with wheels and an aiming mechanism someone could sit inside and operate. The cannon didn’t have a barrel, only a sharp point, almost as if the thing was operational at one time or another, but melted from overuse. I wondered how and what it fired, so I asked.
“Crystals, of course,” Ben replied as if the answer was obvious. “Someone sits in here, operates these levers to aim, then hits this button to fire. When the button is pressed, some sort of energy coalesces into crystal form at the tip and fires away. I don’t really understand how it works, but I haven’t given up yet.”
“Yea,” I said, marveling over the heavy weapon, ”You wouldn’t... How fast does it fire?” I asked, imagining myself in the cockpit, unleashing a barrage of crystals into Ragnaros’s face until his body was nothing but a thick ooze on the dirty cracked neighborhood streets. Nothing but a distant memory that I struggled to drown under beer after beer, washing it away until I only remembered it in the morning when my headache came. How fitting that would be. I would smash and dismember his memory until it twisted and resembled something completely separate than it was, for anything else was better than what Raggy actually was. I would mold it and change his memory. I would do the same for others as well, ensuring that his name would be forgotten, and the terror and insanity that he sew was nothing but a fading scar on the brains of all of humani-
Chills crept up my body. I looked around, looked everywhere within the span of a second, my eyes frantically darting from there to nowhere. Fear and confusion and longing fought for territory within me. “Did you hear that?” I asked the Master Builder behind me.
He politely pried my hand off his shoulder, finger by finger. I hadn’t even known I was reaching back and grasping him. “No,” he said, a concerned expression on his weathered face, “hear what?” I looked at him, and it was obvious that he was scared, possibly even a little worried for me. I didn’t blame him; I was concerned about me too.
“Nothing,” I said, doing my best to smile. I looked across the way to where Nikko sat with his knife. He met my eyes and smiled at me. It was a big, genuinely happy smile - one that I had never seen on him before. I looked at the demons. They were smiling at me too. Everyone was smiling at me. I violently turned back to face Ben, half expecting him to be in on the cruel joke as well. He wasn’t. Ben was concerned. Ben was a good guy. Truthfully speaking, he was a great guy.
That was the day that I realized for certain, that I was crazy. I didn’t have to act like a threatening and crazed murderer - I was one. Maybe I was driven mad by everything that happened after the rainbow letters came. My Grandmother’s death, Goldrin and Lorelai’s. The fact that I had to kill real people, just to better my odds of survival with a legendary reward or two. Maybe I was mad long before the rainbow letters came, but either way, you shouldn’t worry - at least not yet. The insanity that gripped me was temporary, like the sort you got from daylight savings time and long winter. Eventually, I would emerge from this like a chubby sunflower on the first day of spring. But not yet. Not now. Currently, the insanity held me tight and firm, like a nightmare encased within other, more disturbing nightmares.
It didn’t take long for word of my strange behavior to spread amongst the people. It even spread to Nikko eventually. My tattooed companion kept me grounded though. He made me realize that the world was going to hell all around me and that what really mattered was how I handled it. He told me that was what made a man; how he carried the weight on his shoulders. So I ignored Goldrin’s calls when they came. They sent shivers right up my spine every time, but I always swallowed them and pressed on. And when the weight became too much to carry by myself, Nikko carried some of it for me. When Nikko showed me this part of himself instead of calling me a fatass and telling me to toughen up, I felt like I was finally in a secret club that everyone else was already a member of. Being in the club allowed you access to life’s simple truths. It let you know that life wasn’t always easy, but if you put your head down and didn’t give up, most problems could be overcome. It sounds like a simple realization for most, but it wasn’t for me.
Nikko had his own struggles too, and when they became too much for him to carry, I transferred some of it to my shoulders when they had space. Our arrangement wasn’t ideal, but it worked. It was the best we were going to get, and for that, we were both silently grateful. We leaned on each other heavily over the next few weeks, always in private, so we didn’t mess up our reputation. If there was a silver lining to all of this insanity, it was that: our reputation. It meant that no one would ask who was really in charge of the alliance, because they didn’t want to upset me. Ben handled most of the day to day operations to accomplish our mission, but I always lingered in the background, ready to overturn his decisions whenever I wanted. I was like the Sith Lord behind the pretty face of the Senate. I was the silent hand that slowly pushed a small army into Ragnaros.
No one in the alliance, besides Nikko, knew that I was covertly leading them to their doom. No one knew that in just a few days, they would be the bullet shields that allowed me to get in close to my enemy. It was a sacrifice that needed to be made, and it was a weight that I needed to carry alone. Such was the curse of heroes, always doing what needed to be done, no matter how ugly the deed was. This particular deed was particularly ugly though, and it tore and gnawed on the very core of me. It chewed up my last vestiges of sanity. It rotted the chain that tethered me to the earth and kept me from floating off into the grey night sky. I was consumed, wholeheartedly, by my obsession to kill Ragnaros and end the affliction of rainbow letters.
My new self was showcased in all its vivid glory the day that a gargantuan, red scaled bird attacked.
I was overseeing the finishing touches of a ramp that would connect directly to the ground from the top of the mall. It was secured and reinforced of course, but even if it wasn’t, no one was worried. Or at least, they didn’t have the gall to say they were. You see, the other day I had leveled up, without even leaving our home base. It wasn’t until I went to visit Avalanche that I saw he had gotten bored and killed anything that moved within the large parking lot in which I left him. The bodies of dozens of Scroungers and other, lesser, Avalanches littered the parking lot, each one falling prey to my Semi-Intelligent Avalanche and therefore, granting me a portion of their experience. I used the skill point to improve my Knock Down ability and spent the rest of the day testing it out and formulating a plan to feed Avalanche more kills while I slept. My improved Knock Down now had an entire range of effect. My stomach still exploded outward, but now it didn’t have to impact anything to work. My enemies merely had to be within a ten-foot radius in front of me. That only took me an hour to discover. The plan to feed Avalanche took much longer, days in fact. I became obsessed with it. I thought about how I could make it work in my sleep and when I ate and when I took my daily shit. When I finally figured it out, I forced Ben to cancel all other building plans and start on my project right away. It consisted of a ramp, so my companion would be closer to me and off the ground, and some bait. I set up a trap below the ramp. It blasted air horns, car horns, and annoying music at all times. I also used all my remaining batteries from Grandma’s basement to power a neon, “Domestic and Imported Beer” sign. I hoped that it would attract any Scroungers in the area and Avalanche would just swing his lead balls down on them when they got too close. He would be safe, and I would have a permanent flow of free experience points to help me with my upcoming battle.
When I saw the bird for the first time, I realized two things. One was that Ben had grossly under-articulated the creature’s size. And secondly, we were fucked - even with the crystal cannon. It came to be on the skyline as if the faraway city had given birth to it. It started as a small rumble below my feet, and then, looking out over neighborhood after neighborhood, I watched a large building in the city tumble over like a child’s stack of blocks. I estimated that it was at least forty stories tall, but it was hard to tell from so far away. Still, the building could certainly be classified as a skyscraper because scraping the sky was what it did. It fell over, knocking down other buildings on its wake and leaving a long straight disturbance in the grey clouds. The red of the bird could be seen then, but not enough to fully grasp its enormity. A cloud of rubble dust quickly masked the little that I could see, but then the bird exploded into the sky, dispersing an entire city worth of dust with one giant flap of its wings. It was much bigger than a depression Eagle, hell, it was much bigger than any plane ever made. It was as large and terrible as my stockpile of purposely forgotten childhood memories, and by the looks of its bus-sized claws, just as damaging.
“Shit,” Nikko said as he joined me on the guard walkway. He turned to Ben, “Is it going to come for us?”
Ben gave a solemn nod, “They usually do.” He waited for a split second to see if we had anything to say, then yelled over the inside edge of the walkway, “EVERYONE GET INSIDE NOW! WE HAVE ANOTHER DRAGON! THE BIGGEST ONE YET!”