Rezzik turned to the other two goblins who were dragging their feet glaring at us and barked out a couple of words in a language I didn’t recognize. Whatever he said, it was enough to get them to put their weapons back in their scabbards.
“We’re going now,” Rezzik said. “You should come with us. This area is full of enemy patrols.”
One of the goblins turned and ran a hand along the sheer rock wall they’d been up against. The rock face rumbled and a moment later it pulled up revealing a secret passage that led down into a creepy dark hole.
My eyebrows shot up at that. They'd been so close and yet so far from safety the entire time they were under attack from Horizon Dawn.
It made sense that the goblins would have a way to get around this area that didn’t involve traveling on the surface. There had to be some way for them to keep returning to the mines Horizon was continually clearing.
Though it was horrifying to think there were a bunch of goblins out there somewhere in this world who found themselves compelled to return to those mines via secret passages only to get killed once they reached their destination.
These were thinking creatures with AI subroutines that were compelled to walk to their slaughter through the tunnels they’d set up all through the area. They weren’t a bunch of unthinking monsters being conjured up out of nothing whose only purpose was to die and who couldn’t feel pain or the existential dread of death.
Then again maybe I was giving the AI too much credit, but the more time I spent in the game the more I thought that wasn’t the case. It was too bad I couldn’t drop Trelor a private message.
"Follow us," Rezzik said. "We’ll keep you safe."
I exchanged looks with Kristoph and Keia, though really we had no choice. We were all carrying too much loot to risk it. There was the goblinsteel ore. The weapons we’d looted from the Horizon Dawn crowd we’d just killed. There was the new stuff I’d spent hours crafting for us to consider.
It took forever to get all the raw materials for that stuff off of the auction house, and those materials made a noticeable dent in the money I’d already made. It wasn’t exactly a huge dent, but it was noticeable which was saying something considering the amounts we were talking about here.
Sure it's not like it’d be the end of the world if we did end up getting killed and losing the nice shiny new equipment I’d made. I still had plenty of that Nhewb’s Blessing potion sitting in my vault that I could sell off, and it would seem I was the only supplier in the game who had the good stuff, but it would mean redoing a lot of basic work.
I didn't want to waste time on pissant stuff like that. Not when I felt like I was so close to doing something major in this game.
So I shrugged and followed Rezzik and company into the secret cave opening. Keia and Kristoph followed, though Kristoph had to duck down. The passage was taller than an average goblin, but it was still short enough that he had to stoop considering his massive frame.
"I really hope you didn't just lead us to our deaths," Kristoph muttered in party chat. "Because if they kill us in here we’re going to have a hell of a time getting back to our bodies to grab our stuff."
"You and me both," I said. "You and me both.”
We moved into the darkness. The goblins moved ahead of us and disappeared as the rock behind us came to a grinding close with a finality that seemed very ominous. There was a brief moment of panic I’d never admit to, not in front of Keia, before the goblins pulled out gems that looked an awful lot like the Spellcrafting gems I used.
A new panic hit me that had nothing to do with the darkness. In my experience a glowing gem like that very quickly resulted in an explosion. So I hit the deck and dragged Keia down with me, expecting my death to come at any moment.
Only that death never came. I looked up and the goblins were regarding me more with curiosity than anything.
“Is… something wrong?” Rezzik asked.
“Um. Why aren’t those exploding?”
They continued staring in confusion.
“Like what I did to the Horizon Dawn people with that gem?” I asked, priming their memories just a bit.
“Oh,” the goblin said, though the other two behind me frowned. “These give light. No explosions.”
“Oh,” I said again, feeling like an idiot.
“Come on,” Rezzik said, gesturing towards the oppressive darkness ahead of us.
“Thanks for trying to save me,” Keia said. “I appreciate it, even if I do have a few bruises now. And it wasn’t strictly necessary.”
“No problem,” I said, smiling a smile I didn’t really feel. Not with potential death lurking in that darkness. Death that would make it impossible for me to do a corpse run considering we were buried deep in a cave system that apparently only the goblins could get to.
Though I figured it still beat the alternative of getting hacked to death by a bunch of angry Horizon Dawn people. Maybe. If we were lucky and not trading getting hacked to death by Horizon Dawn for getting hacked to death by a bunch of goblins. Or having our souls sucked out by whatever eldritch horrors lurked in the depths at the roots of the mountains.
"Am I the only one who has a bad feeling about this?" Kristoph asked in party chat.
"Not at all," I said. "But I don't know what we're supposed to do. We’re stuck here, and we’re kind of at their mercy."
"That's hardly comforting,” Keia said.
She looked down at her current outfit as though she was thinking about switching to her leather armor. Maybe she was thinking about all the things she did while she was in Horizon Dawn. That maybe the goblins would want to take a little bit of revenge if they realized they had someone from Horizon Dawn trapped down here.
She looked around at the walls and sighed.
“What’s up?” I asked.
"This is new," she said in party chat. "There's the raid instance and the ring mines, of course, and we figured some of the caves in the raid led somewhere, but no one had been able to figure out where those cave systems went by the time I had my split with Torion and company.”
“What made you think there’s something more out there?” I asked.
"It's the game lore for this region," she said. "There's hints that the raid instance leads to something big, but no one's ever been able to figure out what that big something is. People figured it was a raid boss of some sort, but no one knows for sure. we hadn't gone all the way through the raid dungeon yet to figure it out.”
“I can’t believe they’ve had exclusive access to that raid dungeon for a month and they haven’t been able to clear it,” I said, shaking my head.
Keia shrugged. "Is it really all that ridiculous? Think about it. There are raid dungeons in other games that it takes a month or two to clear the first time. There's a reason why world firsts are always such a big deal."
She had a point.
"Plus this isn't a normal game," Kristoph said.
“No shit,” Keia said.
“No, seriously. This is an MMO at the very beginning," Kristoph said. "Not like the games we’re used to where people have been playing us their entire lives and since way before we were born. Hell, there are geezers playing WoW who weren't even born when the people who first started playing WoW started having grandkids. This is a brand-new game though. There isn't a ready-made population of high-level characters ready to sprint to the level cap so they can go in and take on that high-level content. Heck, there isn’t even a level cap that’s been discovered yet. Or levels. It’s all skills.”
I reached out and patted Kristoph on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you bud. That was really well thought out.”
“Yeah, well I’ll try not to make a habit of it,” he growled.
"So basically all the end game content is still up for grabs," Keia said. "And for all that they pretty much run things around here, Horizon Dawn hasn't been able to conquer that end game content yet."
"Interesting," I said. “Sounds like an opportunity. I looked to the goblins and switched out of party chat.
“Rezzik, you said something about your king the last time we talked,” I said. “Where was he trapped again?”
The other goblins turned and hissed at Rezzik. They didn't seem to like me having that info. Rezzik exchanged a couple of sharp words with them in their language, and the two backed down.
I wasn't sure what the deal was with them. I didn't know how the whole goblin hierarchy worked. Rezzik seemed to have the upper hand for the moment, though, and I figured that was good enough considering he also seemed to be on our side for the moment.
“He’s trapped in the mines,” Rezzik said. “Held there by the travelers who came to our world a month ago, but they aren’t strong enough to reach him.”
Rezzik frowned, and his next words were quieter. “Not yet, at least. Not sure how long he’ll hold out.”
"Can you tell me more about the goblin king?" I asked.
"I can," Keia said, also switching to general chat.
"What are you talking about?" I asked, turning to her in confusion. “Didn’t you just get done telling me Horizon Dawn players have no idea what’s down here in these caves?”
Her face split in a grin that made me think I was about to get a sarcastic answer.
"Big puffy blonde hair," she said, holding her hands over her head to illustrate the poof. "A giant bulge in his pants. Surrounded by a bunch of realistic looking puppets who break into song at odd times. Has a habit of stealing babies and and awakening young girls’ sexuality. Sort of an early life sorting for people as to whether they're going to be gay or not, whether you're a girl or a guy, depending on how you react to that bulge?"
She rolled her eyes. "Come on. You can't tell me you've never seen Labyrinth?"
"I can't say that I have," I said.
"Well you totally need to watch it sometime. We’re going to make a date of it."
"Woo,” Kristoph said. "A date! That sounds hot!"
"And you're not invited!" Keia said.
"Well where's the fun in that?" he said.
"You can watch it on your own if you’re really that interested,” Keia said with a sniff.
Kristoph stuck his tongue out. "Be sure to tell me if David Bowie's package makes you feel all tingly inside."
“Who says that’s a bad thing for Conlan?” Keia asked with a wink for me. “Date night might be more fun if his date gets all worked up.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Like I was pretty sure I knew what she was insinuating, but I couldn’t conceive of a world where I would be this lucky.
Meanwhile the goblins were staring at us like they thought we’d gone insane. Given the conversation we were having I was inclined to wonder if I hadn't gone just a little insane.
David Bowie? I’d heard of the guy, of course. Who hadn't? It was just that I had no idea what an old singer who was famous in the latter half of the last century had to do with goblin royalty.
Though the idea of watching a movie with Keia to figure out what she was talking about was intriguing. Especially if she came through on some of the promises she was clearly making.
"The goblin king is the ruler of the Underground,” the goblin said.
“Someone on the Lotus scenario design team was clearly a fan of Labyrinth,” Keia muttered.
“And he’s being held in the Goblinsteel Mines by Horizon Dawn?” I asked.
“He was visiting when there was a massive earthquake followed by the travelers arriving. The aftermath of the earthquake kept him trapped until the travelers reached the place and killed any goblins they found,” Rezzik said. “All but the ones guarding the king. They have held.”
I exchanged glances with Kristoph and Keia. It was difficult sometimes to tell how much the NPCs in this game understood about the fact that we were, in fact, in a video game. Sometimes the NPCs seemed remarkably aware of the fact that they were living in a game world, usually when we were doing something that necessitated pulling back the curtain on the game mechanics, while other times those very same NPCs could be completely oblivious to the fact they were living in an elaborate simulation, like when they were reciting a script that’d obviously been written by some Lotus employee and not generated by an AI.
"Definitely sounds like a raid boss," Keia said.
"So that brings up an interesting question," I said, switching back to party chat where the goblins wouldn’t overhear something they wouldn’t understand anyway. "What happens when a raid boss is defeated in a game like Lotus?"
"What do you mean?" Keia asked.
"Well a raid boss in a normal game would reset after they’ve been offed. People get their loot and everything goes back to the way it was before the players went into the dungeon. Or maybe it’s an instanced raid and everyone gets the same experience when they go in, but so far I haven’t seen much in the way of instancing in this game.”
“Oh,” she said. “I see where you’re going with this.”
“Yeah. It seems to be different in this game,” I said. “You said goblins keep appearing in the mines even though Horizon kills them for their ore, right?"
"They keep showing up, yeah," Keia said. “The scouts waiting outside the mines are really only there to alert everyone when the goblins start to trickle back into the ring mines. Standard procedure was to let the goblins go in and mine for a little while before Horizon Dawn moved in to requisition the materials.”
I fixed her with a flat stare, and she blushed and looked away. It was such a bloodless way to talk about the wholesale slaughter of thinking creatures who’d committed no crime other than having something someone stronger wanted.
It turned my stomach.
"Right," I said. "And I'm willing to bet they’re coming to those ring mines from these secret passages and then making their way through the forest to the mines. Like something in their programming is forcing them to literally walk to their deaths and they can’t stop themselves from doing it.”
“Holy shit,” Keia said. "That's terrible!”
“Tell me about it,” I said, my frown getting deeper and deeper as I thought of the horrific implications of Horizon Dawn’s farming operation and what happened when a game company created mobs that were a little too self-aware.
What a clusterfuck, and I wasn’t sure how to unfuck it. One thing was for damn sure though, I was going to fix this horror show, damn it!
Hi! I'm a working writer who's been doing this full time since early 2015. I got my start in the Kindle romance boom, and I'm finally getting around to publishing stories under my own name!
I live in the Midwest with my wife, kids, and cats. Most days find me sitting in front of my computer typing out stories for your enjoyment!
I'm currently releasing Spellcraft. The tale of Conlan, a gamer who loves finding ways to exploit game systems, and how he uses those unique skills to battle a soulless multinational entertainment conglomerate who killed his sister and is trying to take over the gaming world!
Spellcraft is currently released on a chapter a day schedule.
I hope you enjoy my work. Thanks for reading!