Stuffed full of buttery crab cakes and a little tipsy from lunch mimosas, we all logged into the game so they could test out the pods. Flush with leather from the Furious Fjords, I killed some time crafting until we made some sort of a plan. With my music up at full volume, I danced to songs only I could hear. Goodbye Horses came on around the time I was stitching a pair of leggings and couldn’t hold in a sharp cackle of laughter.

  “Well, don’t we look crazy, dancing and laughing to ourselves in the middle of town?” Salvo said, sitting on the workbench beside me. He flashed an overly toothy grin at my shriek of surprise.

  “Might have gotten a little too lost in my internal Buffalo Bill,” I said, sucking on my index finger where I’d stabbed myself with the needle and looked around. “Where’s Brad?” The poor guy has been here all of two hours and Salvo’s already ditched him.

  He shrugged and waved a hand. “Somewhere, I’m sure. Getting used to the whole experience of the deluxe pods. I’m bored and killing time until we start stabbing things.”

  I frowned down at my work and sighed. The stitches were beyond salvageable.

  After appraising my craftsmanship, he made a sour face. “Liz, you know I love you dearly, but that looks like shit.”

  “Yeah,” I agreed and deleted the work in progress. With a glance at him sideways, I asked, “So, it’s safe to assume you’re avoiding Brad?”

  He feigned shock, but his shoulders fell. “Is it that obvious?”

  “I noticed, didn’t I?”

  “Shit.” He grimaced and crossed his arms.

  “He still pissed about the vampire thing?” I turned to people-watch while we talked, leaning my back against the surface of the worktable, slapping absently at a fairy that buzzed around my head like a mosquito.

  “Surprisingly, he hasn’t mentioned it at all, but I’m sure the tirade is coming. We’re set for another championship tourney tomorrow.” He pulled his dagger and twirled it while we watched a dwarf scurry from one table to another, dropping pieces of subpar armor on the ground instead of destroying it. “Any word on Viv?”

  I knew he meant the situation as a whole and not just our friend, so I gave him the full rundown, including the recent updates with Cale’s friend and the foot thing.

  “You do have grotesquely long toes, so I’m sure he’ll love the pictures. Here’s hoping something comes of it.” He smiled weakly and ran a hand along his cheek. “Ever wonder what we’re doing?”

  “In the game or life in general?”

  He snorted. “Take your pick.”

  Introspection and Salvo didn’t normally fit in the same sentence. After years of watching him do what he wanted with whoever he wanted, I was left nearly speechless. So, I scoffed and said, “All the fucking time for both and still don’t have an acceptable answer.” I checked the clock, noting it was close to when we agreed to meet up in the tavern, but felt uncomfortable interrupting.

  He jumped off the table. “Me too, lately. As much as I hate to say it, maybe mom was right. I need to start thinking about the future. Grow up a bit.”

  “Well, we’re kinda stuck in a game for a while, so don’t grow up too fast.”

  “Right. We’ll save Viv first, and then I’ll start thinking about the future. Look into college or… who knows.” He shrugged and his eyes grew distant. “If we get that payout, maybe I’ll buy the bar and clean it up.”

  As we walked to meet our friends, he was back to his old self, dreaming on his feet about all the things he could do if he only had the motivation to do them.

  The table of dwarves at the tavern raised their mugs when we walked in, yelling, “Norm!” And returned to their conversations as if nothing happened. A few of them hid their chuckles behind upturned beer steins. They were all definitely players, just content with spending their time in the game as dwarven barflies.

  To each their own, I thought, and found our table.

  Cale and Ice9, I wasn’t sure who was actually playing her, were already there, along with a level 45 risen necromancer I’d never met before named Blisterpus.

  He waved; his paper like skin rustled with the movement. “Hey Liz, it’s Nate. This is my main when I’m not leveling Mom.”

  “How are you level 45 already if you were leveling Ice9 too?” I asked as I sat next to Cale.

  Nate shrugged. “Dunno, just am. Not much else to do, I guess.”

  Maddie’s little gnome face twisted into guilty lines and patted her son’s decaying hand. “That’s my fault. There’s not a lot of kids his age to hang with where we live and technically, I’m the only employee at the library so I end up working a lot.”

  “Hey guys,” Luke said through his feminine voice modulator. Once he was up to speed on the necromancer, he asked, “Have any cool pets, Nate?”

  “Mom made me get rid of Porsche and Jade,” he said, his face turning into a sheepish grin. “So, I got a couple of zombie spiders instead since she hates spiders.”

  “You named them?” Maddie shivered and rolled her eyes. “Boys. My son was running around with two zombie ladies in their bra and panties.”

  Cale choked mid drink and toweled himself off.

  “Hey Luke, you wanna see my pets?” Nate asked.

  At the sound of his actual name, Luke frowned and leaned in. “Luke is fine in private chat, same for he and him. Anywhere else people can hear outside of our little group, stick to Angel and she’s. I got a good thing going that I’ll explain when you’re older.”

  Brad arrived with Bob the timber wolf at his heels. I waved before giving my full attention to his pet, along with a piece of meat from my inventory and lots of scratches before we set off for another dungeon.

  We ran through the undead dungeon a few more times over the course of the afternoon, made easier by Nate and his overleveled character. By the third time we killed Salvo’s vampire daddy, I leveled up to 40 and my gear was feeling pretty old. Despite all the running through the dungeon, my luck was evening out the chance of anything good dropping that I could use. There was plenty of cloth and plate drops. But dammit all if there wasn’t a single drop outside of the stupid undeath set.

  I was starting to get nervous and excited, we only had 10 more levels to cap. But then what? It’s not like we’d know who was behind the attacks the second we hit level 50. We’d just have a better chance of surviving against them.

  It was getting late and obvious that some of the travelers, Maddie in particular, were getting a little too tired to stay online. It had been a pretty eventful day and flights had a way of sucking the life out of you.

  Somehow, Nate convinced his mother to run one last dungeon before she logged off for the night, and we headed towards an area full of fire and brimstone called Dante’s Depths. At the center, in a landscape full of razor-sharp obsidian mountains and smokey geysers that belched flames, sat a great dragon’s skull. It’s eye sockets, though empty, followed all throughout the area. It’s mouth, missing a few teeth, sat opened wide for any dumb enough to enter and venture into the hellish caverns below.

  And, yes, we were absolutely walking through the mouth, deep into the belly of that bitch.

  Funny thing about fur, it smells like absolute shit when it burns. So, between myself and Bob, our first fight wasn’t just hot and miserable; there was a pungent aroma of burning hair each time a shitty little imp hit us with a fireball. Which was a little too often, since our tank, my dear boyfriend, was too busy fixating on how to handle the prostitute healer he’d gotten a handy from who, in reality, was a very large black man.

  Maddie’s reaction time wasn’t as good as Nate’s to begin with. Add in jet lag and she dealt less damage than Bob. Despite the fact that she should have been our top damage dealer since her blizzard and various ice spells easily cut through most of the enemies we were facing.

  In short, we should have called it quits for the night after we hit level 40, but we pressed on.

  Morale was at an all-time low as the last of the imps fell and we moved to the next room, where a drop-dead gorgeous devilkin sat admiring herself in the mirror. She watched us in the reflection and ran a hand down an exposed thigh. Her tar black lips pursed; charcoal shadowed eyelids grew heavy over glowing amber eyes made her resemble a demonic Marilyn Monroe.

  Behind me, the sound effect of a camera shutter went off in rapid succession and everyone but Nate, who suddenly realized we could hear him taking screenshots, got the giggles.

  The femme fatale, named Anyanka, didn’t laugh either, but I doubted someone would have scripted her to react to screenshots. Even though she had to have been one of the most heavily screenshotted mobs in the game. Some lonely developer paid extra attention to detail with her, getting each curve and dimple just right. Despite the dungeon temperature feeling like it was in the triple digits, she sure looked chilly.

  She squealed with delight and slapped her rump, summoning four well-toned and well-armed fighters to her side. Their eyes held a fervor as they drew closer to her and dropped to their knees, kissing her feet, shins and calves.

  Their worship formed a bubble of disgust inside me as I wondered what Cale’s informant was doing with the pictures of my own piggies. “Ugh, seriously,” I whined. “Enough with the feet already.”

  Cale covered a chortle with the back of his hand before he looked for everyone’s ready signal. Once clear, he ran in, casting his blanket of holy magic around him, taunting the enemies with loud battle cries.

  Salvo and I moved through the shadows behind the demon, with him knocking one of her pet’s unconscious on the way. In one practiced beat, we both attacked at once. My claws rending flesh while his daggers stabbed deep into her organs.

  Anyanka screamed and whirled, lashing out with taloned fingers that passed inches from my snout.

  To regain control of the boss, Cale bashed her in the back of the head with the corner of his shield, hurled something that resembled a fourth of July sparkler at her and ran his blade along one of the bleeding gashes left from my claws.

  The twin oozing daggers in Salvo’s hand glittered in the hellish light as he raised them over his head, ready for an attack aimed directly at her kidney with one hand, and heart with another. Just as they sunk into flesh, there was a flash of sulfur and a blood-curdling scream. When the smoke cleared, Luke lay dead on the ground, having received the massive blow meant for the demon. Who’d swapped places with the healer and lashed out at Maddie who crumpled into a tiny heap.

  “Fucking noobs, we’re gonna wipe,” Brad yelled and shot more arrows.

  “Getting Luke up,” I said, shifting to my elven form and casting Resurrect, lightning crackled between my fingertips as they moved. “Cale, use potions and shit, but get that bitch under control.”

  “I’ve got mom.” Nate’s throat scratched out a dusty cry as black energy twisted around him. Tendrils of ichor moved from his palms, entering the gnome’s nose, mouth and eyes.

  Maddie moaned and stood; gazing at us through milky white lenses. Her head settled on one shoulder, and she lurched forward towards the demon.

  “I mean, I kinda got her. When Luke’s up, she… I mean, he can purify her.”

  A bolt of lightning struck the healer when my spell finally finished. His body lifted from the ground as invisible tree boughs set him back on his feet. A soft breeze blew through the air and he opened his eyes, finishing the scream cut short by Salvo’s misplaced attack.

  “Goddammit, Salvo,” Luke said and healed himself back to full. He turned his attention to the fight; working quickly to keep Cale up with my help and restoring Maddie to the living. When he finally nodded in appreciation, my mana bar was nearly depleted and I shifted back into the fight in cat form.

  Anyanka only had a sliver of health left when I jumped into the fray, mouth wide and clamped down on her throat. I thrashed my head violently from side to side until I felt the tendons rip and give way.

  She screamed and kicked; her fingers tore into the air until finally she collapsed. The last remaining servant, still unconscious on the floor, imploded into a plume of dust.

  A stunned silence crept over the group as our brains caught up with our success. Salvo was the first to laugh, though tired and a little manic. The rest joined in one by one as we collected our loot.

  Maddie shook her head and yawned. “If I stick around much longer, I’m falling asleep in the pod.” Gusts of air pulsed around her little form as she summoned a portal to Lighthall. “Least I can do before turning in.” She disappeared into the summoned disk of light and shortly after left the group when she logged off.

  “I should probably work on getting more poison made,” Salvo said, his inventory icon displaying over his head. “Didn’t realize how low I’d gotten on them.”

  We’d all been so busy discussing what to do next, we didn’t notice Bob’s tiny whimper at the portal until it bubbled over into full-blown howls. The wolf glanced from Brad to myself then turned, his ears flat against his skull, muzzle lifted in a silent growl.

  “One of these days they’ll get the pet AI figured out,” Brad said, rolling his eyes at his pet. “It’s bad enough his pathing is so fucked he gets stuck on trees.”

  “I take it you’ve never owned a dog before,” I said, realizing what he thought was faulty pathing amounted to canine AI. The wolf had only been doing what all dogs do around trees, sniff and piss.

  He crossed his arms and pouted.

  A gurgling noise behind me caught my attention, and I spun, just as a two-toned blade left the front of Cale’s body, his health bar flashing red.

  Angel and I both hastened our spells, casting in rapid succession. Angel’s heal landed first, putting the paladin to full so what would have been the killing blow was just another damaging attack that left him back to a sliver. My healing spell brought him back up to full again.

  Cale grunted, the reality of how close he’d come to falling to the assassin etched across his face. When another attack came, he was ready and blocked, knocking the attacker off-guard.

  Bob and Nate’s two zombified spiders, oozing gashes in their chitinous bodies dripping with infected rot, closed in on a second assassin. The wolf growled, dodging a blow before lunging between the attacker’s feet and spinning with deadly grace. His jaws snapped with a hamstring attack and pulled with rapid jerks.

  “Two?” I said while shifting, focusing my attacks on the one engaged with Cale. My claws only grazed what felt like full plate as I sent one attack after another. Not a single one finding purchase in flesh. Asshole must have upgraded his equipment since the last time we squared off. Useless in melee combat, I fell back to Angel, offering what little heals I could as backup.

  Deathly energy erupted from Nate’s fingertips. A void black snake with a head on each end coiled around the attacker engaged by the pets, fangs lodging into the neck and inner thigh before constricting; holding him hostage long enough to focus our attacks on one. The teen grunted under the strain of concentration and said, “You’ve got about thirty seconds before I’m out of mana and the spell goes out.”

  The assassin fighting with Cale turned his attention, and ire, to Nate. He moved to attack, but the two spiders tangled him in pustulant webs that sizzled on impact. A smell I can only describe as burning metal filled the room, making my eyes water and sting.

  The spiders went to work, weaving an acidic cocoon around the first attacker while he screamed and lashed out. The blows from his sword created further holes in the chitinous abdomens, but proved otherwise ineffective. All the while, the metallic odor in the air shifted to the smell of rotting flesh.

  Salvo’s daggers flashed with unnatural speed, finding purchase in the gap between helmet and the vulnerable contents underneath. The blades sunk in, crunching through windpipe, bone and out the other side. Before the first assassin’s body hit the floor, it vanished, leaving only an acrid mess of armor and flesh soup behind.

  I had enough time for a quick celebration of downing our first foe before turning my attention to the next, but a glance in Brad’s direction sent my blood boiling. He wasn’t fighting. In fact, he watched with a bored expression; not a single concern they would target him. The final nail in his coffin, the thing I'd think about while I pummeled him later, he pointed at Cale and the assassin nodded, moving in that direction.

  I’ll deal with this bullshit later, I thought and focused on the remaining assassin. Shifting to my cat form, not giving one shit how I could hurt him. Only that I needed to hit something before I exploded.

  I tore, bit, and scratched in a blind frenzy before the figure vanished just as the other had.

  Instead of joining the rest to celebrate, I logged out; jumping out of the pod, pulling on my robe and marching to the adjoining suite where I waited for the pneumonic hinges to rise on the bubble that housed a traitor.


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