Keia looked to the goblins in front of us. She opened her mouth and hesitated for a moment. Maybe she was thinking about some of the things she’d done to them while she was working for Horizon Dawn, but then she obviously steeled herself.
"Goblin?" she asked.
Rezzik twitched an ear in our direction and turned to her. “Rezzik.”
"Excuse me?" she asked.
"My name is Rezzik,” the goblin said.
She smiled. This goblin seemed friendly enough. I chastised myself for thinking of the goblin as “the goblin.” And there I went to doing it again. I was having some trouble getting over decades of ingrained gamer behavior that treated the game world around us like a sandbox to play in, and fuck the consequences for the creatures living in that game world as long as I was having a good time.
I had a feeling that sort of thinking wasn’t going to go very far in a game where the background characters could probably pass a Turing test. Assuming someone sat down and explained to the goblin what a Turing test was and he managed to survive the existential crisis of realizing he was nothing more than a character in a game.
"Why were you going out into the woods?" Keia asked. "You have to know there are bad people out there who want to hurt you. You were running from us the day you got saved, so why would you go back out there and risk it again when you could stay somewhere safe?”
Rezzik thought for a moment and then shrugged. "We have to go to the mines."
Keia’s lips compressed into a thin line.
"Damn," Kristoph said, switching back to party chat for the metagame conversation. "The things really don't have any say in it, do they? They’re just marching off to their deaths so the game has more monsters to fill their mine.”
"I don't think so," Keia said. "The poor things.”
"So where are you taking us now?" I asked.
“You saved me twice," Rezzik said. "So I’ll save you. I’ll get you out of here and back to town."
I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't even realized I’d been holding in. All this time I’d worried there was a chance the goblins might try to take some of their frustrations towards humanity out on us for all that we’d saved Rezzik a couple of times and we’d saved the surly pair of goblins once. It was a relief to hear we’d be going back to town, even if it was also a touch frustrating to go back to town when what I really needed was access to a forge.
I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask them about a forge again, but one of Rezzik’s companions glared back at us and it stopped me short.
"That's not happening," the goblin said.
Rezzik gave the goblin a sharp look. More words were exchanged, but it was in their language so I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Which only seemed fair considering we could do the same thing with party chat. Besides, it’s not like I needed to understand the words to get a good feel for where this conversation was going. This time it got heated. Rezzik seemed to be barking out orders at his two companions, and they didn't seem inclined to follow any of those orders.
Finally one of them turned to me, Keia, and Kristoph. Shrugged as though it was apologetic, but that wasn't going to change what was about to happen.
I seriously hoped that what was about to happen wasn't something terrible. I looked at those goblin weapons and tried not to think about what would happen if these goblins tried to make like an ancient late twentieth slasher and ch-ch-ch my ah-ah-ah with the damned things.
"You have to understand," the goblin said. "It's just business. Humans have to be taken to the Chief. We can't just decide to let you go. Not without risking getting in serious trouble. Rezzik knows this.”
That last bit was said with a look that was every bit as sharp as their knives directed at Rezzik.
Any notion I might’ve had that we were going to get off scot-free disappeared under that glare. Now I felt sick to my stomach. I had a feeling the goblin Chief, whoever that was, was going to be a lot less lenient on us than the goblin whose life I’d already saved a couple of times. Damn.
"I don't suppose we can appeal that decision?” I asked.
The goblin hit me with a flat stare. As though to ask me if I was being serious. I shrugged.
"I figured it was worth a try," I said. "Can you blame me?"
“You could always go for a trial by combat,” the other goblin said, flourishing its sword and doing a little twirl as the lights went out. “But I don’t like your chances since you humans can’t see down here without light.”
I swallowed. Yeah, I didn’t like our chances either. Maybe Keia might be able to get in a lucky shot if we still had those lights up for her to see by, but the thought of getting stabbed by these stabby little murder machines in the total darkness deep under the game world gave me the willies.
It also had me wondering if there was a way to make the equivalent of night vision tech in this game. That was something I’d definitely have to look into, but right now I needed to stop those goblins from doing their murderous thing.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Trial by combat isn’t necessary.”
The lights came back on and I let out another relieved sigh. I didn’t think they’d actually start murdering us unless we took them up on their offer of trial by combat, but I couldn’t be sure and my mind was starting to fill in the blackness around me with hallucinations of creatures moving close around me in that darkness.
“Glad we could come to an understanding,” the goblin said.
I thought about offering the goblins a bribe. They highly mercantile. Like some bored scenario designer had copied and pasted Ferengi traits from the ancient Star Trek over to these goblins. The only problem was we were deep in caverns where we were already very much at these goblins’ mercy. They knew their way out of there, they knew how to activate the exit, and we had no clue how to do any of that.
The practical upshot being we were basically trapped underground in game terms with no way to get back to our bodies should we get killed, surrounded by goblins who could shut off the lights and either kill us right away, or leave us wandering in the dark until we stumbled across something down here in the dark that could kill us. At which point they could take all our stuff. No bribe necessary.
"This isn’t good,” Keia said in party chat.
“I think you were too quick to turn down trial by combat,” Kristoph said.
Keia and I both turned to him. “Are you nuts?”
“Well no,” he said, running a hand along the war hammer strapped to his back. “But if these guys think we’re going to go quietly they’ve got another thing coming. I figure it’ll be a good fight!”
"That's your solution to everything," I groused. "And maybe don't stroke your warhammer like that while you stare at the goblins? They can’t hear us in party chat, but we don't want our kind host to see you stroking that weapon and get the wrong idea."
"Oh," Kristoph said with a blush. "Sorry about that. I still think we could take them though.”
"You're going to be sorry when you get your ass killed again," I said. "Honestly. How do we fight them in the dark?”
“I don’t know?” he asked. “I could wave my hammer in front of me when the lights go out. If I keep it low to the ground I’m bound to hit one of them before they get to us, right?”
I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response.
We lapsed into silence for a good long while after that, following our goblin captors who were now very much our captors. Darkness pressed in all around us, illuminated only by the glowing gems. That oppressive darkness seemed to invite us to be quiet. It was like we were moving through a grave or something.
Honestly it reminded me of my mental image of the mines of Moria when I’d first read Lord of the Rings back in elementary school. Back before I’d sen the movies and had my imagination polluted. I’d been fascinated by the description of the vast underground halls, and a little claustrophobic at the same time. I’d never been a huge fan of tight and enclosed spaces, and the idea of being trapped deep underground always gave me the shivers.
Spelunking wasn’t a hobby I ever intended to take up, is what I was getting at. For all that it wasn’t really a hobby I could take up considering where I lived.
Though oddly enough I wasn't having any trouble now. No, there was enough space above us that I wasn't getting too much claustrophobia. Or maybe it was simply that I was aware this was all happening in a video game, literally it was an experience being pumped between my ears from a server somewhere, and so the claustrophobia didn't hit me nearly as badly as it would’ve if I were taking a walk through a bunch of suspiciously spacious underground caves in the real world.
Whatever the reason for my lack of claustrophobia, I could simply enjoy the walk through the dark and scary cave. As much as I could enjoy a walk when there was a good chance our captors might decide to be done with us at any moment, that is.
I ran my fingers along the stone wall. It felt dry, which was a surprise. I always figured caves would be dank places full of eyeless creatures rather than dry like this one.
"You know what this reminds me of?" Kristoph asked.
I hit him with a look. On the one hand I was aware that Kristoph knew about Tolkien’s works, but on the other hand that was because Kristoph had watched the movies. Not because he'd been a huge fan of the books. Which seemed like a travesty to me, but Kristoph had never consulted me about his choices of reading material which had always tended towards fantasy written long after Tolkien was dead.
"Reminds me of Moria," Keia said.
I looked at her and grinned. She looked right back at me and smiled, then reached out and touched my hand.
I took the hint. I interlaced my fingers with hers. That smile got larger, and for all that we were deep underground in a virtual cave being led to our potential deaths at the hands of some goblin Chief buried deeper beneath the virtual world, I felt pretty good in that moment.
"Oh," Kristoph said. "I was going to say I thought it seemed like Skyrim. You know, like Blackreach?"
I shivered. The less I thought about that place the better. Sure it was impressive, especially for a game designed in the early twenty-first that wasn’t even originally intended for VR rigs, but I didn't like thinking about the creepy things hiding under that particular game world. Or the creepy flying insect things that were always waiting to destroy a wary adventurer with their mandibles of death.
Basically the less I thought about that place in any capacity the happier my life would be.
"What?" Kristoph asked.
"Nothing," I said. "That place just creeped me out."
"That's because you were always trying to mine ore veins and loot alchemy ingredients," Kristoph said with a sniff. "If you just beat stuff over the head like you were supposed to you wouldn't have had a problem."
I figured there was something to what Kristoph said, though maybe not what he'd intended. There were so many games out there where the end goal was killing and maiming. Meanwhile I’d always had more fun with the crafting. Even if it was clear the crafting system was more of a game-breaking afterthought the designers didn’t think many people would use so they hadn’t given it much thought which led to it being so easy to break the game.
It was enough to make me wonder what would happen if I was able to figure out a way to get a victory condition that had nothing to do with killing and maiming creatures that didn't want to be killed or maimed. Especially when we were talking creatures that, for all that they were algorithms in a videogame, sure acted like we were living things.
Again I found myself wondering exactly where the dividing line was between a thinking creature that was thinking because it had a chemical computer that’d been cobbled together over billions of years of trial and error, and a thinking creature that was a thinking creature because it’d been designed by other thinking creatures to be a thinking creature.
That was getting into philosophical territory that made my head spin, and so I decided I wasn't going to give myself a headache thinking about it. For the moment.
There were goblins in front of me that looked, acted, and felt like real creatures. Intelligent creatures that were being put down by people who represented Horizon, who I loathed. That was enough for me.
I just hoped those goblins would realize we were friends, not foes, and we’d survive this encounter long enough to give them the help they so obviously needed.
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!