My nerves served as an effective alarm clock and ensured I woke up before anyone else. If everything went according to plan, Raggy would be dead before the next time I went to sleep. And if it didn’t, well; I would be dead and wouldn’t care.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and leaned forward in the massage chair. I looked over the side, spotted my backpack, grabbed it, then headed for the door, careful not to wake Nikko. The inner hall of the fortress was vast, poorly lit, and empty. I took in a breath of the nylon laced air. Ah, a beautiful start to the night.
Spreading out all the various hardware and tools I had gathered along my journey, I estimated that I could put ten traps of increasing damage on each level of the mall. Nikko and I’s temporary room would be Raggy’s final stop before he got to the top of the fortress, so I wanted to put my strongest traps there. They would be my last line of defense before my Katana. A minute later I had two menacing traps stationed by this door. An entire two hours later, I had the whole mall, besides the unfinished roof, littered with my defenses. I had enough materials left in my bag to install some traps on the roof, but I wanted to wait until Ben finished building the roost so I can see where the smartest place to put them would be.
Nikko met me by the secured entrance to the fortress just in time, “Goodnight,” he said, by way of greeting.
I laughed, “So far so good. You ready to go out and harvest some skin?” I asked in a low whisper. Ben was out and about, as were many of the other alliance members. They set up stands inside the fortress and yelled across the hall at each other, trying to find the best people to trade with. Each of them had a store to live in and ownership of all its contents, minus the items Nikko and I looted. They all did their best to acquire all the things they would need for a new life. Mattresses traded for clothes and candles. Furniture traded for tools or unique display racks. Food and water traded for everything.
“Yea, I’m ready.” He said, leading me out the guarded door and to the parking lot. We found his motorcycle and my skinless companion a short walk later.
I climbed on top of Avalanche and gave a loud whistle. “Are you riding with me, or…”
“Fuck that,” Nikko said as he threw a leg over his motorcycle. “I will meet you by the old Tattoo parlor.”
I shook my head, “I actually wanted to go further out.” Nikko looked at me, and I gave him a wink, letting him know that we shouldn’t discuss this so close to the fortress. He mulled his thoughts over for a second then nodded. “Meet me on the edge of the city. I want to see where my dragon came from, just in case there is-”
A violent rush of air washed the words from my mouth as the Drade finally answered my whistle. I bear hugged Avalanche’s head and tucked my own to guard against the onslaught of wind from the landing beast. Through the hole in my arms, I could see Nikko struggling not to drop his bike. The surge of air finally ended with a brief quake. That portion of my Dragon landing didn’t affect me much, but it made it impossible for Nikko to keep his bike upright.
“Goddamnit,” he said, buffing out the scratches of his flame paint job as he stood his motorcycle upright again, “I just got this thing…”
I turned to the open parking lot behind me and regarded my red scaled Drade. Unlike the Dragons I was familiar with from movies and games, the Drade didn’t have any obvious weak points. Its large wings were scaled, just like the rest of its body, including its stomach. Its long neck didn’t have any ridges or spikes and its face didn’t have any defining features either. It was just one huge mass of red scales. Even it’s claws and teeth were red, but it was quite possible they were just stained with blood. The Drade regarded me with its eyeless head, causing me to gulp and don my full face helmet.
“Alright,” I said, mentally navigating Avalanche over to the Drade, “Meet you on the outskirts of the city. I’ll try to keep track of you from above, just in case you run into trouble.”
“Yea, fine,” Nikko said, still fussing over the scratches on his new ride.
When I got close to the Drade it consumed my entire field of vision. I realized that without Avalanche I would never be able to own such a companion. It was just too large to climb on my own and its two clawed arms were too short for it to toss me onto it’s back.
Up, I thought to Avalanche. He immediately brought his chains in line behind him. Then he shortened his grip on them, bringing the spiked lead balls closer and tossing them all into the air. They flew almost completely vertical for a second before disappearing over the mountain of red. Then I felt my body lurch upward as Avalanche climbed. When we got to our position on the Drade’s back, Avalanche gingerly grabbed me from his shoulders and sat me in front of him. Then he re-tossed a few chains around our laps to secure us in position. I gave a nod to Nikko and waited for him to drive off. Once he was out of sight, I gritted my teeth and gave the mental command to fly. I was immediately pushed into hard scales and already thankful for my helmet. Although it did stop my face from getting bruised against the Drades hard surface, it didn’t do much to help the fact that Avalanche’s weight was pressing on me from above. The helpless feeling of being squished by gravity and a skinless beast reversed. Now the only pain I felt was from the chains digging into my legs as my body threatened to float off into the sky.
Holy shit, I thought, finally able to sit up straight and look around. The clouds in the sky were brighter than everywhere else, as if the moonlight lingered inside them. I could see the city’s skyline ahead of us, but not much more of the ground. The Drade’s torso was too thick for me to look over, so most of my view was of a red-scaled Dragon neck, a partially illuminated sky full of grey, and far-away portions of the Earth’s horizon. I did a quick check of my chains, then ordered my Drade to tilt, just enough for me to see below us. He did so and the chains around my legs went taut. I grabbed them with my right hand and leaned left, just enough to see the road. Nikko was below us a little ways back, speeding down a highway and dodging abandoned cars like someone that spent a huge portion of their life on two wheels, or had nothing left to live for. I ordered my mount to straighten up, and checked on him periodically as my thoughts drifted.
Ben is a nice dude, I thought from my throne in the sky. Why am I the one that decides if he gets to live or die. Why do I get to decide if they all die or not. What gives me the right to sacrifice them, even if it’s for the greater good? I am no better than Ragnaros. My thoughts continued to betray me as we glided toward the city. They were subversive, trying to overthrow my plan, but no matter how much I doubted myself, I couldn’t come up with something better. Can I just tell them all to flee after I declare war on them? It wouldn’t matter, Ragnaros will still hunt them down. What if I told them of the plan before I declared war? No, they would refuse to fight and probably kick me out.
“This is the best way,” I told myself. The future consequences of my plan and the cold night air both cut into my body and chilled me to the bone. I shivered and repeated, “It’s the only way. The only way to defeat him.” Over and over. I looked down to my frightening friend as he ate up the road below me and wondered if he doubted himself as well. Then I shook my head. No, not Nikko.
We landed on the outskirts of the faraway city after only a few minutes in the air. The landing was just as violent and uncomfortable as take-off. By the time my feet finally touched the Earth, my legs were shaky and I no longer held the opinion that flying a dragon was awesome. I looked around. We landed on a major highway just before it entered the cement forest of tall buildings and block-wide apartment complexes. I peered down the road behind me, looking for Nikko. There was no sign of him. I considered hoping back on the Drade, but the chain-shaped bruises on my legs suggested otherwise. After a few minutes, a dark silhouette appeared further down the road. I watched it approach and welcomed my friend with a wave as he got within range.
Nikko levered his kickstand with a kick and dismounted. “We have some Scroungers coming our way. A lot of them.”
I nodded and gestured behind me. My Drade took off with a surge of air that threatened to strip off my trench-coat and knock over Nikko’s bike again. I waited for more dark figures to appear down the road, then I gestured to my Drade once again. Seconds later, a deafening clap reached my ears and the figures disappeared. Before my flying mount could land, I gave him the mental order to patrol the air above us. Then we entered the city.
If anyone lived in there, they didn’t make their presence known. We passed empty building after empty building in an eerie silence. Occasionally, we would pass a neon sign or two, but no gangs came out to greet us as we walked through their territory. Either we were too quiet, or everyone was hiding from the monstrosity that loomed above. I had to believe it was the second option, mostly because Nikko made a point to make more noise when we passed the illuminated signs.
“What are we looking for again?” Nikko asked in a frustrated tone born of boredom.
“That,” I said, pointing to a pile of rubble up ahead. We jogged down the road and began climbing the pile. It was a mixture of broken cement, office equipment, and daily routines that failed when the building did. We navigated four more such piles, all of them chock full of dodgy footing and promises of twisted ankles.
When we reached the crater in the ground at the center of the destroyed buildings, my gut wrenched in shame. I was expecting to see a dragon egg or another magical treasure chest of loot, or anything really. Instead, there was nothing but disturbed dirt and crumbled pavement. I was searching for legendary loot again. Desperately searching for something that would make me feel complete. As I stared into the empty pit, I realized no amount of loot would fill the pit inside me. My Grandmother’s words came to mind. I can try, she told me the second time I summoned her with my thigh master and berated her for information. 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? The answers hidden in her words were clear now. I wasted my time searching for loot before the rainbow letters came, and I was doing the same now.
I mounted my Drade and flew off in a rage. Nikko had tried to comfort me, but it was no use. He wasn’t a particularly kind friend, but he was a friend all the same. It was too bad I didn’t need comforting. What I really needed was a swift smack upside the head. I should have told Nikko that. Maybe then I would drop my obsession for treasure, and maybe then I would realize I was already prepared to face the orchestrator of my problems, Ragnaros. I had an entire set of gear with an awesome set bonus. I flew around on a literal dragon, and when he wasn’t around, a mean skinless beast with chains and a squad of demons protected me. I also had the support of an unlikely friend, which was more than I ever thought to ask for. There was no amount of magical items or pets that could prepare me further. It was time.
Nikko drove below me as we both surged down the road between us and our destiny. Avalanche held a dead Scrounger for us to skin. As soon as we landed, the shields would go up and it would be time to declare war on the Alliance and summon Raggy. I was more than mentally prepared at the moment. The only thing holding me back was the plan. This dissonance between what I thought I was ready for, and what I was actually prepared for filled me with fits of wrath. It is time. It is time. I told myself that over an over, hoping it would calm my frenzy, but it didn’t. That was why when we approached the fortress and were shot down by the Chrystal cannon, I was more than prepared to unleash some justice.
My Drade fell to the energetic blast like a plane with flaming engines. Except there was no flame, only a long trail of blood in the sky. It followed us to the wreckage of scales burnt by the crystal energy. I climbed from my dead Drade like a Phoenix reborn, no longer weighed down by the morals of betraying the alliance.
“You cowards!” I howled, baring my blade and my teeth. “Come and fight!” I untangled my feet from Avalanche's chains and stalked toward the towering black fortress. “These walls will not keep you from me!” I seethed. The rainbow letters alerting me of the Alliance’s dissolution intruded into my rage tinted vision. I smacked them away with an arm. They shattered against my dead Drade in a shower of bright colors. Ragnaros, I thought, if I fight them he won’t come. A fire burned inside me, and the realization that I was again powerless to my plan was like jet fuel.
“What happened!?” Nikko asked after skidding his motorcycle to a halt. He tossed a leg over and took two heavy steps to my side.
“They killed the Drade with the cannon,” I cringed, “I should have noticed something was up.” I pointed to the top of the fortress. They didn’t even try to build the roost. They must have been planning this for a while now.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHH,” I screamed, letting the fire inside me breathe a little. Nikko moved to bang on the door, but his powerful punches failed to even make a sound against the airtight black metal.
I looked around and my gaze settled upon the mass of red behind me. “Can you heal the Drade?” I asked. Nikko shook his head but tried anyway. Light washed over the scales, eliciting an ear-shattering wail. Avalanche's gloved hand exploded from the wreckage and flailed around like a pained worm from the Earth. “Stop it.” The golden light of Nikko’s healing spell dispersed and Avalanche calmed. “Your magic damages him. Come on, let’s pull him out. Maybe he can get us inside.”
It was no use. My semi-intelligent companion was as good as encased in stone, and we didn’t have any jackhammers handy. The best we could do was move the Dragon’s heavy tail and uncover Avalanche’s hooded head. I stood above it, gritted my teeth, and without any words of farewell, slid my blade through the top of him. His violent wriggling only lasted a second. A venomous sigh escaped my mouth as I climbed down from the wreckage, my blade whipping blood and un-dead brain matter around as I did so.
Then I saw it — the Orchestrator of the Rainbow Letters. I shoved Nikko behind the far corner of the fortress and followed after him. I pressed my back against the wall, Katana out front and pointed down. “I didn’t think he would come so soon,” I said.
Realization dawned on Nikko and the anger visible on his face when I shoved him was replaced with contentment. “So it is time.” He muttered to himself.
“Fuck,” I whispered, noticing for the that another small army of Scroungers followed Nikko from the highway. They were close. I shoved Nikko again and he fell to the ground. I took his place and with a downward chop, cut a Scrounger in half the long way. More came, and I unleashed the eternal flame burning inside me. No amount of Scrounger could stop me, and yet, it was impossible for me to kill them all in one burst without my dragon. They swarmed us. Nikko activated his ghost form, causing his health to refill at a rate proportional to the enemies around him. I could hear Ragnaros talking as I cut down one normal looking human after the other.
“Headquarters, this is FreeBird10, over,” Ragnaros said. “HQ, do you copy?” I sliced and chopped, and eventually, someone must have gotten back to Raggy. “I request an immediate air strike to coordinates one, eight, tango, seven, zero, tree, two, fower, tree, zero, eight, niner, won…” He continued on. Moments later, my teeth were set on edge. A flying object pierced the sky with the wail of a thousand tortured souls. It was red, but not the reflective red of my Drade’s scales, but the deep blood red of Demons.
“Hey!” A thin voice rang from somewhere above me. I recognized it as Snarky Demon. He must have been trapped on top of the fortress. “I’m here, I’m here! Take me with yo-” his pleas were cut short, drowned out by the wail of the demonic vessel in the sky. It was almost as large as my Drade once was, and was shaped like a horizontal figure eight, with dangerous looking spikes protruding from its outside edges. The vessel paused in mid-air, then a black spike coalesced in one of the holes in the figure. Without notice, it shot toward the ground like a demon’s ranged attack and impacted the door. I was deaf. Everything was blurry or covered in dust. My body moved on its own accord. Slowly, very slowly, I realized the Scroungers were eating me alive. My feet left the ground, as did another war cry, although I couldn't hear it. Orange energy left my right arm and blue from my left. It sparked across the silent dust cloud, illuminating foreign faces, teeth, blood, legs, and pieces of clothing. When my knockdown ability finished, the air around me was clear. Clear of Scroungers, clear of dust, and clear of Nikko.
“I’m going in!” Nikko’s voice called from behind me. I turned to face it and caught the back of my friend disappear into the purple flecked surface of the Fortress. His ethereal ability, I thought. I ran around the corner and to the front of the fortress. Ragnaros’s Air Strike had completely demolished the front door, but now the entrance was blocked by a solid wall of demon scales. I didn’t have time to contemplate if Ragnaros was actually a demon or not. My one and only friend was trapped inside the Fortress with my one and only enemy. My fire began to sputter out. I forcefully fed it with every memory I had locked away until it was a raging pier once again. My chest rose quickly and fell violently. My fingers were numb from squeezing the hilt of my Katana. The flame escaped my body through each cut and scrape and burned me with pain on the way out.
“Milton,” a feminine voice whispered from behind me. I stopped banging on the wall of red and turned. Lorelei was there, smiling. Her blond hair seemed to glow and sparkle in the perpetual twilight. The sight of her beautiful face and welcoming eyes would have made me melt if the rage inside me hadn’t long since run away, like a diesel engine that got too hot and could only be shut off by stuffing a t-shirt into the air intake. I ignored her and continued attacking the door. I would get in no matter what, even if it took a thousand years. I would be the water droplet that eroded the mountain if I needed to be.
“No,” I grunted with a shake of my head. My knuckles were bloody now.
“Milton,” Lorelai called, this time a touch of concern coating her words. “We are here, truly. Not for long, but I promise you we are not an illusion.”
“Bork!” Goldrin confirmed excitedly.
The barking of my eldest companion stirred something in me and I reeled on them, exploding, “WHAT!” Lorelai smiled again and Goldrin waggled his tail, then turned twice, trying to catch it. “What do you want. Why are you here?” I corrected myself.
“Two things Milton. Two things,” Lor said. My eyes became impatient. “You need to learn balance, my friend.” I showed her my back and began smashing my fists into the makeshift door again. “You have stopped yourself from feeling for so long, now you are out of control. All that pent up anger and sadness has spoiled inside you. It has poisoned you from the inside out.”
“SO what!” I yelled over my shoulder.
“So what? So what!?” Her hand was on my shoulder now. “Milton, that is everything. That is what this is all about.”
Her words caught me and I turned, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her violently, “What do you know? Where did you go when you died!? WHAT IS ALL THIS!”
Lorelai’s feet sparked orange and she kicked away from me, falling gracefully to her feet 10 paces away. “It is hard to explain where I went, but you will learn soon.” A piece of the love I carried for her broke free from my grasp and shown on my face. “Do not worry about me. The afterlife isn’t bad. It isn’t good either. Just different. But you need to worry about you right now. That is why we are here. To support you.”
I took a deep, long breath, “Can you help me get inside then?”
Lorelai gave a shy smile and shook her head, “I cannot open the door, but I think I can help you open it. Milton, you need to agree to change, to become something more. You need to accept that change wholeheartedly, and the good and bad that comes along with it. If you do that, then I can help you.”
I said I agreed, and deep down I meant it. I truly meant it.
Lorelai bowed, “Very well,” she said. Then my world came alive with color.
Milton - Level 27 Human - Level 10+ Knight
Max Health - 1,666
Ability One - White Mount
Ability Two - Joust
Ability Three - The Matrix 2
Ability Four - Knock Down 3
Ability Five - Inspect 1
Ability Six - Parry Missiles
Ability Seven - Power Punch
I felt my body grow stronger as I realized the change affected my class. My muscles bulged, as did the veins inside them. The thin layer of fat underneath most of my skin evaporated. My portly gut was still there, but instead of Trench Coat hiding it, now there was thick metal plating. It was silver and etched with battles from some far away fantasy. I felt my arm tug downward as my Katana grew. It’s thin blade widened, and its tip grew out before me. It was heavy now, but manageable if I used two hands. I gave it a few practice swings and decided that was all the familiarization I needed.
“Go,” Lorelai cried, “GO NOW!”
I turned, just in time to see Nikko’s body spatter at my feet with a wet thud. I knew this was coming. After everything that had happened so far, how could I not? I turned to Loralai one last time. She was crying enough for both of us. Then I activated two abilities at once: White Mount and Joust. My feet left the ground, but this time I did not float. Instead, I was lifted by a horse. Now I sat on its back, my Bastard Sword transformed into a long metal lance. I grabbed the leather reigns that lay on coarse white hair before me, then kicked my heels into the muscled beast between my legs. We lurched forward, hopping over Nikko’s oddly positioned body. My lance lowered just before we impacted the door at a dizzying clip. I blinked as I was tossed backward landing on my feet. My sword was back and the horse was gone. Now there was an arm-sized hole in the red-scaled door. It was enough for me to get my hands into and pry apart the other scales. A wet film connected them. It was as strong as thick plastic, but I tore at it all the same. A frenzied few seconds later, my forearm muscles were useless and I was crawling into the fortress. All the traps I had laid earlier that night were there to greet me.