T he almost real sun burned bright from the monitor, setting ten times faster than the real one. Its heatless, coded beams flared the autumnal leaves of the maple tree his character stood beneath and fell into eclipse behind the five-spire basalt fortress on yonder plateau. Seen from an over-the-shoulder perspective, the Nordic paladin, donning white crystal armor bedazzled with glinting gold rivets, idled with an occasional programmed turn of his helmeted head. Jean-Luc, who customized this character down to power bonuses and width of eyebrows, shared no physical resemblance to him save for being of Norwegian stock. Whereas HoNoR_BlAdE91 (the username HoNoR_BlAdE was already taken) looked to be forty with a bodybuilder’s physique, Jean-Luc was nineteen with receding acne and a curvature accentuated by the tight XL shirts he wore. Sitting before his desktop computer, he idled in his own way, impatiently taking gulps from a two liter of Diet Mountain Dew. He’d just talked to his Dad on the phone so the wait was increasingly irritating.
Finally a figure approached, ambling up the hillside, obscured by metronomically swaying prairie grasses. When the other crested, Jean-Luc stuck out his jaw. Standing before him was a spritely, grin-lucky Garden Elf, waist-high with green hair tufting out of a brown Robin Hood cap. A leather Peter Pan leotard left nothing to the imagination. His father, a financial advisor who told people how to invest their money, had customized a character wearing booties with bells on the ends of their curled points.
<Jean-Luc?> asked a chat prompt from Jean-LucsDad.
“Dad, talk into your mic like we talked about,” he said into his headset. He’d specifically told him to not pick any of the elves for his race because of about a thousand reasons.
“Come in, Jean-Luc, can you hear me?”
“They don’t have apostrophes for the login name.”
“Look, it’s okay,” he said. “But I told you not to be an Elf and you picked the worst kind!”
“Sorry,” he said. “He just looked funny so I picked him.”
“What class did you pick?” Jean-Luc took another swig of pop. “Tell me you’re at least some kinda Mage.”
“I picked the Courtier.”
Jean-Luc groaned. There were no rules against playing as a Garden Elf or as a Courtier, for each had its niche advantages, but those who didn’t know better should not have been allowed to pick a Garden Elf Courtier. It was doubtful that any player had ever picked that combination in Questalot’s history. And rules being rules, new users were allowed one character in their first two weeks of play. An appeal to the mods to change it was technically possible, but matters of policy were often carried out to the letter. So they were stuck with both the Garden Elf Courtier and his embarrassing user name.
“Come on,” he grumbled. “Let’s get ya set up.”
He handed over a mahogany bow and a quiver of pearlescent arrows he had gone to the trouble of dipping in a flaming curare obtained personally from the Frog Queen. It took a foolish amount of time to teach Dad how to equip them, but when he had it Jean-Luc walked him down the hill and talked him through target practice on the maple tree. The first ten arrows—he counted—were all air-balls. None flew anywhere near the trunk. Worried that he was wasting the pricey arrows, Jean-Luc cursed himself for not bringing along standard iron ones, which came a dozen for one piece of gold. Once the trunk met three arrows, Jean-Luc decked his father out against class and build in heavy armor. Elves, the physically weakest of the races, had Agility bonuses for wearing light armor and penalties for heavy. All the same, he’d bought his dad a suit of peach-colored Dungeness armor, comprising of cuirass, helmet, gauntlets, greaves, and boots, and even enchanted each piece with shielding magic for added protection. Equipping it, the avatar looked stupid, with his idiot grin and huge eyes shining out from the crab shell helmet. He may not be able to fire arrows in quick succession but at least he’d be protected.
“Are we going to attack the castle?” Dad asked, indicating the black tower in the distance.
“Are you kidding? That’s a Goblin stronghold–you’d last five seconds in there if that.”
“Oh, are Goblins tough?”
“Very. We’re gonna start you out with something hard but not that hard.”
He took his father in the opposite direction, over the hills and into the thicketed Forest of Wyrral. The idea was to earn Dad bookoo experience points and level him up quickly so he would fend better on his own. Finding a tough monster would do. There were no glades for safely camping in these woods but anti-social players seemed to dwell there nevertheless, Godless necromancers and vagabond treasure looters preferring its darkness to the open highway. Luckily for his Dad, Jean-Luc’s character wore a peacock plumed enchanted helmet that could detect life nearly two hundred feet away, souls showing up with a hazy blue glow long before he could really see them.
“Remember when we used to play D&D on the old Intellivision? When you were little?”
“They sure have come a long ways…”
The sound of thirty dogs bayed and it appeared, fading in amid bending ferns, a Level 20 Questing Beast. It was a child’s nightmare amalgamation, the head of an anaconda mounted on a leopard’s middle, with stag’s hooves and lion thighs and tail. It unhinged its jaw and unleashed its horrible canine chorus again. Discounting neck and tail, the monster was as big as a Datsun.
Jean-Luc attacked, casting fire on his Vorpal Sword and hacking at it with mouse clicks. Dad was to stay behind a tree but, of course, wandered into the open, letting fly arrows without aim.
“One hit from this thing’ll wipe you out, Dad!”
“I can’t seem to… Wait, how do I—”
He ran between the beast and his gnomish father, taking the full force of a bite that sank his health bar. Gulping poultices with the P key, he kept the index finger slashing and, with great concentration and properly timed right click shield blocks, whittled the monster’s health bar to a mere sliver of red. Calling his Dad into the open, he circled the monster.
“You’ve got to shoot it. Shoot it now!” If he gave it one more hit their purpose for the fight would be lost. Dad let loose an arrow. It went straight up. “Aim at the big monster!” Another zipped wide.
“I think my aiming thing is broken…”
The creature slammed the paladin so hard he lay stunned on the forest floor. Unable to move for ten seconds, he screamed into his headset. “Point your mouse at it and click!”
He watched, unable to help, as his dad let a flaming arrow rip, the game slowing for effect, a definite kill shot. The shaft sank into the Questing Beast, setting its hide ablaze. With prerecorded cry and animated agony, the sprite faded away, replaced by the number 20,000.
“Grab that, Dad.”
“What is it?”
“The XP you just won for killing a Level 20 Questing Beast.”
His father, the whelp, toddled to the number and claimed it.
“It’s saying I ‘leveled up?’”
“Yeah, I’ll talk you through it. But listen, what we just did, killing that monster, we’re gonna do that over and over.”
“All night tonight?”
“We’re gonna level you to the baddest Garden Elf anybody ever saw.”
For the next fortnight they, along with tens of thousands of otherwise powerless middle class Americans, embodied the hero archetype and enacted the mono-myth from the safety of rolling chairs. They leveled Jean-LucsDad every evening for a week before he was ready for any kind of adventuring. Jean-Luc would slog up to his dorm room after dinner in the dining hall and sign on to find Dad waiting for him under the same tree. It was a tough grind, the toughest in Jean-Luc’s memory—and he’d mastered many an MMORPG in his day. Dad had put every starting perk and bonus towards Charisma and Mercantilism in a game played more for its monster-slaying aspect than its economics. His hit points were half what most characters started out with, galvanizing Jean-Luc’s duty to protect and teach him. His daily Latin homework may have taken a slight slide, his Intro to Prehistory readings gone unread, but this was his father he’d brought into this dangerous world. He felt responsible for him. Jean-Luc’s sister took Mom. He took Dad.
Soon they were hunting Bandersnatch and Giant Vermicious Knids. Jean-Luc played the tank, battering foes with might, while Dad picked them off at a distance with bow and arrow. They sieged Kobold crypts and looted Wight barrows, Dad’s misplaced merchant skills actually counting for something when they sold the booty in the nearest towns. Other players would snicker into their headsets, make their avatars bite their thumbs at the duo, the crystal-armored paladin and his pantywaist sidekick with the pointy nose and clunky Dungeness armor. Oh, but they rolleth in gold.
“What are these guilds people talk about?” his dad asked one night, skipping along at his side as they left a merchant.
“Drama, Dad,” he said between bites of nachos he’d nuked in his dorm room microwave. “Drama and a lot of politics.”
Jean-Luc didn’t shun the social aspect of Questalot so much as he cultivated himself a lone do-gooder. There were a few players he’d seen around, fighting the odd mission together. Guys like gatewaytohell and Hedgehawg and LeeroyJenkins. But the guilds—he’d never bothered with the guilds.
“Are they like clubs?”
“Clubs of all the geekiest geeks you went to high school with, yeah.”
He explained in brief the guild in concept (unionized players sharing their own uniquely designed meeting hall and competing with other guilds for gold, glory, and prestige) and reality (cliquish fraternization with plenty of in-fighting, backstabbing, and competition amongst the guys for the attentions of the sole token female member).
“I was in a frat in college,” Dad said for the umpteenth time. “Sigma Phi Epsilon.”
“A lifetime supply of nachos couldn’t get me to join one of those,” Jean-Luc said, crunching into a corn chip laden in melted processed cheese product.
By the time midterms came around, Jean-Luc’s academic focus had sagged. Knowing this, he drove himself to study, cutting back to a mere three hours of Questalot a night. By now, Dad’s stats were good enough that he could fare alright on his own. Marauding rogues were always a risk no matter your level. Sooner or later the old man had to venture out into the wondrous wide world on his own.
The first time he left his father alone, he did so with the same advice Dad gave each time he dropped Jean-Luc off at the arcade as a kid. “Have a spider’s wit about you,” Jean-Luc said. “Always be aware of who’s on your web at all times.”
They were standing halfway across the broad stone bridge to Dragon Jaw, the game’s capital city, so named because its fortressed spires looked like teeth rising from a reptilian jawbone. The programmed wind whirled their capes and Dad made his character dance a three step jig by way of farewell.
“Good luck with the Latin test tomorrow.”
“Look out for pickpockets,” he called, not needing to call, his dad’s voice right there in his earpiece. He watched Dad cross the bridge and let a lizard-mounted Orc pass, and waited until he disappeared behind the massive oaken doors to the city before signing off to cram.
The next time Jean-Luc logged in, Dad, hopping boot to boot under their tree, was not alone. A sylphish, near-nude Sand Elf towered over Jean-LucsDad, two heads taller than the top of his conical helmet. She had a Saharan lankiness, her complexion indigo with Farah hair flowing in violet hues. Copper ringlets decorated her arms. She wore thigh-high camel-foot boots, a black mamba thong, and a seam-teasing tortoiseshell halter. The scorpion tail staff she carried gave away her class: a Red Mage, placing her on the vengeful side of sorcery. Not as bad as, say, a Necromancer, but on the malevolent end of the spectrum all the same. Not the kind of folk virtue-loving Paladins caroused with. Her name floated over her head in lavender script: PurpleTia
“Jean-Luc, I want you to meet my new friend, Tia,” Dad said, emphasis on friend. “Tia, this is my son, Jean-Luc.”
<hey> she typed.
“Hey,” he said, drawing up her personal profile.
“How was your test today?”
Location: Boring, OR
About Me: Want to know more about me? Be careful what you wish for.. I bite. ; ) Has to be a brain behind the face please. No smartasses need apply here.
The thumbnail photo portrayed a headshot of a woman, neither attractive nor ugly, whose stringy brown hair hung over her eyes. The use of such an extreme close up gave away the attempt to hide massive bodyweight. If the person behind this avatar was in fact “Tia,” she was definitely obese.
Dad shared, a little too eagerly, the story of how they met the night before at a tavern in Dragon Jaw.
<The Salacious Krumm> she added.
“Yeah, that’s right. That’s the name of the tavern.”
Jean-Luc knew of it, passing by on his trips into the city to barter, never bothering with its offerings. They had card tables where you could lose heaps of gold, a small ring where you could box other players in unarmed combat with the crowd betting, and special rooms upstairs where you could engage in in-game prostitution. The Egyptian mascara on this player’s cartoon princess eyes made him hope to Dawkins they hadn’t met under those auspices.
“So this Witchfinder—that’s what he called himself—was boasting real loud and threatening Tia here, because apparently that’s what he does, he hunts down witches for a living—well, in the game. So you know me. No man is gonna threaten a beautiful woman in my presence. I get up from my fifth pint of ambeersia and stand up to him. Tell him to leave the lady alone or else. What’s-his-face laughs at me, I mean he virtually spits in my face. Here’s this drunk little Garden Elf, that’s what he’s thinking, challenging a level eighteen Witchfinder decked out in twelve-point antler armor. I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit, I’m no David to this Goliath. The ambeersia’s got my stats down and I’m in close quarters with a bow and arrow…’ He draws his sword so I arm my bow and pull back the string, pointing right into his helmet and just when I think I’m dead there’s this jingle-jangle purple smoke and this guy’s totally frozen in place.”
“Yeah, I love that word. She ensorcelled the S.O.B.! So he’s frozen in place, you know, and he can still talk into his microphone and he’s cussing us up and down and I just thread arrow after arrow into him, whittle his health down one shot at a time, the other folks in the bar are loving it because he’s a real jackass. She keeps recasting Immobilize on him and I’m throwing in lines from Dirty Harry and he looks just like that saint with the arrows when I finally finish him off. Tia loots his body and then drags me the hell outta there before one of his friends shows up. It was so great!”
“Yeah, sounds like it.”
Her character, he discovered while Dad yammered, was at level nineteen and had logged in 971 hours of gameplay. Seeing as he was a level nineteen Paladin with 982 hours to his name, they were comparable in terms of experience. Immediately he suspected deception. What woman would want to get involved with a forty-eight year old noob? And the lack of a microphone, another giveaway. He couldn’t trust a single thing this stranger typed.
<dad she might not even be a she> he typed in a private message. <she doesn’t even have a mic so you can’t even know its a woman>
“Oh, I’m sending her a mic,” Dad said, reacting to his message in public. “Tia didn’t have one so I got her one off Amazon.”
And his father’s status as a cyber sugar daddy snapped into focus so sharp his appetite for a large Slaughterhouse Five pizza from Falbo’s perished. So it goes.
“I told her you know all the best places for loot. She’s looking forward to meeting you.”
<lets go kill something mean> she suggested.
Jean-Luc led them to the Desert of Shrieks, a snarky move because it’s the homeland of the Sand Elves. Was he testing her? Sure. But he had to gauge just how bad Dad had it. And he had to show that he was still the expert. They wandered past Clitheroe, the biggest desert settlement, and made for a rocky ridge. Once there, Dad regaling the both of them with giddy recaps of the fight with the Witchfinder, Jean-Luc took them into Death Rattle Canyon. At dusk every night, Giant Bats funneled from their roost at the canyon’s armpit to feed, leaving their naked young vulnerable in the cave. The bats themselves were enormous, the size of city busses, and nearly impossible to slay. Their batlings, however, made great slice-n-dice targets, both for their inability to fly and the fact that their spleens were worth mondo gold to Alchemists.
<looks like we’re battling batlings huh>
“You’ve been here before?” he asked.
<i went from mama’s teet to this canyon> she typed back. <i’m down>
<isn’t she cool?> Dad typed to him privately. <and almost a nubian look to her!!1>
Jean-Luc disregarded the message and dragged a vial of Guano Musk from inventory to Dad and then to PurpleTia before using one on himself. If one approached the cave without masking his or her scent, the Giant Bats would drain you dead soon as they flew out of the cave, whereas if you smelled like poop, they didn’t know you were there. When they reached the entrance, the three of them sped up the game clock to dusk and waited for the show to begin. Out flew the Giant Bats, zipping and zooming over their heads, flitting in a brown cyclone into the cornflower sundown. Once the show ended, the trio crept into the cave, weapons drawn.
When the interior of the cave loaded, it was time to fight. Batlings, great, hairless beasties with undeveloped wings and crooked teeth, left their spit-cup nests on the walls to attack the invaders. These bats went blind only at puberty, making the guano musk useless. The fight was brutal, Jean-Luc’s special Sunlight Redemption move stunning the lot for a good twenty seconds so they could cut up and do away with the monsters in assembly line fashion. They went on, filleting batlings, racking up experience, Jean-Luc forfeiting half of his to Dad. PurpleTia, too, he noticed, sent XP his way. And once he had enough to level up, reaching level ten, they celebrated his ascension to double digits with a tent rest at a designated safe spot in a side branch of the cave.
“You wanna put those two points into Strength and Agility, Dad.”
<agility yes, strength no> Tia countered. <do the other in intellect>
“His Intellect is already at nine,” Jean-Luc said. “Strength is still down at three.”
<which is why it makes sense to top out intellect now and focus on the other stats later>
“Intellect gets you like nothing. It’s just talk and trade bonuses.”
<exactly> she typed. <which means he has our back when trading in town just like we have his back in the wilds>
“Yeah, I think Tia’s right, Son.” And he took her advice. And thus began her habit of contradicting every bit of expertise Jean-Luc had when it came to anything. Anything at all.
At the end of midterms, that Friday, Dad and his irritating little friend weren’t there under the tree when he signed on. They were both online, their names, the only ones on his Friends List, lit blue. He sent a message to Dad.
<oh sorry! middle of a fight…>
Dad didn’t write back for half an hour, by which point Jean-Luc was already hunting down a Hornswoggler in the Sumpish Swamps.
<sorry about that. i think me and tia are just going to have an us night if that’s o.k.?>
Jean-Luc didn’t write back.
“What’s up?” Jeff asked when he rolled in from the bars at two in the morning, stinking like smoke and vomit. Jeff was a Business major from Mingo. “You look pissed.”
“What? No.” Jean-Luc clicked through a swarm of swamp bugs, dragonflies big as condors. “I’m just trying to concentrate.”
The roommate threw his wallet and keys at his side of the room and exaggerated a hard look at Jean-Luc, imitating his hunch in his chair. “Dude, you seriously look pissed as fuck.”
“I’ve watched you kill shit on there every night since August and you’ve never looked so fuckin’ pissed like that.”
He danced his character over the XP points and gold pieces, collecting his booty for killing the insects and turned only his head, only halfway. “My dad’s getting involved with this stupid bitch on here from Boring, Oregon, who thinks she knows Questalot’s ins and outs better than anybody…”
“Every man wants a little pussy,” Jeff said, dropping his pants and going into that Chippendale pants-twirling thing he needed to do every night before bedtime. “Especially after a divorce you didn’t ask for.”
He received the invites for membership as an officer in Jean-Luc’s Dad’s Guild – guild names could apparently handle apostrophes. They came from his dad and PurpleTia and he denied them regularly. Perhaps it was rude, not what a good knight should do, but he remained, principally, solely, in the service of nothing but virtue itself.
Thanksgiving was to be with his dad and sister at Gramma’s house in Beaverdale, their first since Mom left. Jean-Luc, on moral grounds, refused to give thanks at Mom’s boyfriend’s table. His sister, always more diplomatic than him, would attend both gatherings. But it was Jean-Luc’s season of turning down invitations. He didn’t negotiate with philanderers.
So Dad was the one who drove to Iowa City to fetch him home for break. Jean-Luc waited, forehead cold against the reinforced glass window in the door at the end of his hall. He had his high-performance gaming laptop in his backpack and dirty laundry stuffed into a duffel at his feet. The small parking lot outside lit up red with brake lights as parents evacuated their undergrads from Cresthill Dormitory in a rush hour jam. He saw the mustard-colored sports car edge up the line before Dad had a chance to ring the phone in his pocket. Jean-Luc shouldered out of the residence hall and into late autumn evening, crossing the quad to Dad’s Nissan 370Z, his first gift to himself after the split. The trunk popped and he crammed his duffel in before hopping in the front. As usual, the heat was blasting on full.
“Hey there, HoNoR_BlAdE91!” He socked his son in the meat by his knee.
Half an hour of traffic later they were finally driving west on I-80, the harvested hills of Iowa stretching outward in all directions. The moonlight gracing the rows of stubbled cornstalks illuminated a landscape almost too strange for any of the computer games he had played. The land so still and blue.
“Listen,” Dad said, once through the McDonald’s drive thru at Williamsburg, his mouth smiley, full of French fries, “what can I do to get you into the guild?”
“Honestly?” He reached for a chicken nugget at the bottom of the bag. “Pretty much nothing.”
“But why? I don’t get it. I started out with your help and I want you there with me, fighting side by side, father and son. You know, we could really make something of ourselves in Questalot. The first family-run guild.”
“I don’t do guilds.” Jean-Luc peeled back the foil seal on a plastic serving of barbecue sauce.
“But wouldn’t it be fun?”
“I go it alone. I’m a knight for the sake of good and nothing else.”
“We could make all the decisions together.”
“Together?” He held his barbecue sauce-dipped nugget. “We haven’t even played together since your girlfriend showed up. And that’s been weeks now.”
“Well, but a guild takes a lot of oversight in the beginning.”
“I got you into the game to begin with because I didn’t want you to be alone in the house with nobody to talk to.”
“And I’m not alone! That’s the thing. Drink?” Jean-Luc hovered Dad’s Coke so he could take a slurp and put it back in the dashboard drink-holder. “Thanks. About the not being alone, me and Tia’ve been doing Skype a lot. You know Skype?”
“Yeah.” He considered tearing apart the chicken nugget and plugging his ears with it.
“Yeah. It’s good, you know. I mean it’s great. I got her set up with a webcam and, uh, her living situation isn’t too good out there in Oregon. She and her dog’re living with her ex-boyfriend. William. He’s a few years younger than me—I guess she has a ‘Daddy’ thing. But yeah, I don’t know what you and your sister were thinking for Christmas, if you were gonna spend it with Mom since you’re doing Thanksgiving with me and Gramma or…”
The sauce had dripped from the nugget down Jean-Luc’s thumb and forefinger.
“Because Tia doesn’t really have anyone out there. She’s actually from Humble, Texas, but can’t go back home ’cause her stepdad is a real monster, I guess. Real monster. Did things I would never, ever even—”
“So PurpleTia’s coming for Christmas.”
“Not definite. I was thinking I could fly her out. Thinking of asking if she’d like that.”
“So you can have sex with her.”
“Well and why not?” Dad asked, giving the steering wheel a rancorous smack. It got Jean-Luc’s attention but failed to impress. “When your mother was boinking that Southridge Mall optometrist behind my back for three years!”
“I won’t come home for Christmas if she’s there,” Jean-Luc said, “and I want nothing to do with you two’s dumbass guild.”
A week later, while hunting for the Square Egg of Cibola, a gem said to be as big as a Scottish duck, Jean-Luc cut and slashed his way through teams of Skeleturtles to the top of a minaret and found the one thing he’d been avoiding.
PurpleTia stood calm in the gallery, looking like a Goth Metal Bratz doll.
“You looking for the Square Egg of Cibola?”
It was his first time hearing her voice. She sounded fat, kind of country.
“Well no kidding.”
“Listen, Jean-Luc, I know you’re not thrilled about me and your dad—”
“He’s been through a lot, okay?”
“Don’t think I don’t get that. ’Cause I do.”
“Yeah, I’ve got an Egg to find, m’kay?”
“Could you just do me one tiny little favor?”
A window offering an inventory item opened. She was trying to give him a vial of Crozzled Coelacanth Liver.
“Hold onto this for me.”
He accepted the vial, more out of curiosity than good will.
“Thanks,” she said. “I remember the Egg of Cibola quest. You should try the tower over—”
“I’ll find it on my own!”
“Alright. Happy hunting.”
PurpleTia vanished in a swirl of lights, teleporting somewhere else in the game.
Jean-Luc drew up his inventory and right clicked on Crozzled Coelacanth Liver. It bore no special description. A throwing potion, he armed it and launched it off the top of the minaret. Down it fell through coded space and exploded in a brown cloud on a date tree in the courtyard.
And while he kept dibs on the guild, its ranking rising stupidly fast—from #58,118 to 387—he wanted nothing to do with it. He was a mercenary of the most holy order, the last of his kind, pledging allegiance to no group or man, not even his father, but to everyone who had been made a victim by evil.
It occurred to him that maybe he should stop by the guild hall in a show of good will to Dad and Tia, even if he didn’t approve of them guilding in sin. The closest he came, however, was a grove at the base of the hill they’d built upon. There the hall rose, part pagoda, part massive toadstool, like an island in the mists of the Painkiln Plains. Players were coming and going like worker bees from their hive, or junkies from a crack house, he couldn’t decide. Questalot message boards had been buzzing for a month about how Jean-Luc’s Dad’s Guild had a genius at its helm, a man able to turn profits on investments like the game simply hadn’t seen before. They’d already snatched up vast swaths of real estate, all of it virtual of course, and were making gold by the minute on rentals all throughout the realm.
“Hello, wayfaring Paladin,” someone said, startling him. “You’ve come to bear witness to Jean-Luc’s Dad’s Guild.”
ChickenbonesMcKenna, a Druid clad in robes and silver cords, stood at his side.
“You’re not sure if it’s for you. But surely you, a Paladin, are more than worthy of joining the cause. Surely you know of all the good works Jean-LucsDad and his queen PurpleTia have done for the realm. Just last week they provided security at a vigil held by Goonies Guild for one of their players who died in real life. He’s vowed they won’t let anything like the Serenity Now funeral raid to ever happen on his watch.”
“Yeah, that’s great.”
“They say he’s so accepting because he lost his own son. No one knows who Jean-Luc was or what happened to him—only that Jean-LucsDad loved him so much that he named himself for him.”
“Oh go worship the moon!” He ported out to the hill with the maple tree, the first location on his landmarks list, before the Druid could respond. There, in the shadow of that black goblin fortress his father had wanted to raid on his first day, Jean-Luc vowed to himself, there being no higher authority, that he would never return to the guildhall or even the Painkiln Plains.
For some reason they turned the overhead lights off in the dorm’s halls over winter break. Before going home for Christmas his roommate warned him that he heard Cresthill was a mental institution before they converted it to student housing, so it might be haunted by the ghosts of “schizos and serial masturbators.” It made no difference to Jean-Luc. He had never lived anywhere so empty, so vacant. The place, meant to house a thousand people, felt entirely different when occupied by five or six other stragglers with nowhere to go between semesters. The dining hall closed, he fended for meals, subsisting on gas station burritos he could zap in the microwave and pizza delivered from Falbo’s. Food gathering only interrupted his days briefly, there being no reason to leave his room otherwise. Having the space to himself without Jeff snoring or farting was nice and the high speed internet connection kept him far from bored.
It was his first Christmas alone. Both his parents had sent him care packages full of presents. These sat stacked out of reach on Jeff’s side of the room.
On the night before Christmas, en route to obliterate a clutch of demons who had overrun and ruined a beloved chapel, he ran into Jean-Luc’s Dad’s Guild. The lot of them, probably three hundred players, marched in procession, trailing through Hapsworn Hollow like ants on the move. They clogged the dirt road, players of all classes, Knights and Berserkers and Mages and Shamans and Druids and Rogues and so on, all dressed in their finest armor. Jean-Luc stalked alongside the long line of warriors, keeping many paces off the road so they wouldn’t see him. Looked like a raid in progress, though the snippets of conversation he could pick up from other players without microphones suggested celebration. Dad and Tia were surely in attendance, probably up at the front. In the end he had gone to her for the holiday. Jean-Luc had his flight info and contact numbers for the Best Western in an e-mail he’d kept but only glanced at once.
Over the River Lune and left at Pendle Rock, they came closer and closer to his own intended destination. Soon the desecrated Chapel of Iamblichus sat before all gathered, ruby light shining out through holes in its slate roof. There wasn’t enough room within the broken walls for all the guild members.
Jean-Luc held back, knowing the game’s AI would compensate for the size of the opposing force with stronger enemies. And sure enough, given that an army had come to siege the broken chapel, Questalot spawned dozens of level 25 Letch Demons. He watched as the black, thorny figures splintered from the red-lit chapel, one after the other. They slammed into Jean-Luc’s Dad’s warriors like infuriated bracken. His urge to help lay slack. As a Paladin, Jean-Luc’s obligation was to smite evil wherever he found it. But this was a snafu, the chapel glade a swarm of twitching character names and numeric damage totals ringing up one over the other, the din a legion of runaway cash registers. The battle heaved. Good men fell. But so did demons. One hellborn cry of defeat would trail off and be replaced quickly with that of another. He needn’t play the deus ex machina. The guild fended without him.
He was just ducking out when an epic crash of thunder hit like a bucket of marbles hitting concrete, signaling a surprise game challenge, followed by a voice like Orson Welles on Robitussin:
“Who dare challenge Asmodeus, King of Demons?”
An explosion birthed a creature twice as tall as the chapel’s ruined steeple, which dashed to the ground. A terrible monster, three headed of bull, ogre, and ram, shook a’rage, cawing harmonized terror. Triple-crowned, he sat on the back of an enormous fire-breathing lion with a serpentine neck.
A bank of Druids cast sparkly blue protection spells on the warriors, who made for its mount’s feet. Each shuffling step of Asmodeus’s beast stunned those closest to it while a green fire spouting from its mouth scorched all within its arc.
He still hadn’t placed Dad.
About to leap out of the undergrowth, he received a private message from PurpleTia.
<HELP! bring that liver potion i gave you. the time is now! your our only hope!!!> She sent a teleport offer to join her in Hapsworn Hollow. She didn’t know he was already there.
<why do you need the liver potion?> he typed back.
<we’re up against Asmodeus – big bad demon – coelacanth liver its only weakness>
Jean-Luc balked. He thought back to throwing the vial off the top of the minaret.
<hold a sec> he typed.
He teleported to Dragon Jaw and made for Ape’s Tooth Remedies in a Shift key run. The shop was like every other independently operated small business in Questalot, floor to ceiling flat thumbnail images of merchandise on every wall. The only time he could recall seeing Coelacanth Liver was when PurpleTia had given it to him. He scanned the wall once, twice, skimming over item names, not seeing it. He drew up the shop’s list of items for sale and searched for liver. No results. Of course the shop’s owner wasn’t around. It was just him and a butch Dwarf wearing a Dragonhunter’s wyvern-hide cuirass. Sleater_Kinney didn’t look entirely approachable but he needed help.
“Hi, excuse me?”
“Hi. I’m looking and can’t find this special ingredient. It’s a vial of this kind of liver, Ko-ell-uh-canth liver?”
“It starts with a C and—”
“Yeah, yeah. You won’t find it here.”
“Only place you get it is in the Driffledaw Pearl quest. It’s the prize for killing the Giant Coelacanth.”
Jean-Luc hadn’t even started that quest. It was supposedly impossible to complete unless you went through it on a team.
“Need it quick?”
“Yeah, my dad’s about to be killed by the King of Demons if I can’t pull this liver outta my ass.”
“You could try the Black Arts Market,” she said. “If you can stand being seen in such a place, Mr. Paladin.”
<HURRY!!!> PurpleTia typed in their private chat window.
“Thanks for the tip, Dwarf.” He was about to do a search for the market’s location when Sleater_Kinney sent him a landmark. Using the link he teleported directly there.
His avatar shone like the full moon in the near pitch bazaar, a halo of light pouring off his shoulders to bring out the dirty green and deep purple surfaces normally obscured by darkness. Other players, the Necromancers and Vampires and criminal underclass who thrived here, threw jeers as soon as he arrived. A place of commerce, with its leather-tarped booths and bamboo cages holding men, critters, and monsters, the unsavory shoppers weren’t there to fight. He gulped a Shield potion just to be safe and dashed to one of the booths boasting serpent charms, potions, and familiars. Taffy Ben Hassan’s Serpenporium read the sign. Taffy, an iguana-dewlapped Saurischian, was in.
“You got the fish liver from the Driffledaw Pearl quest?” he asked, not attempting to pronounce Coelacanth again.
“How much gold?”
“Uh, you’re the one selling it.”
“How much gold,” he asked, “do you have?”
The lower right corner of the screen displayed his wealth next to an icon of a piece of gold. “Uh, like, three-hundred-thousand-some.” He was quite proud of what he’d managed to save over the course of his career.
“That’s how much it costs.”
<come on kiddo> PurpleTia typed. <i’m trying to make you look good…>
“Dammit.” He right clicked on Taffy and selected the Pay option. He typed in 300,000, okayed it, verified the Okay with an Okay, and watched his savings drop to 9,437.
“Gimme the liver!”
“It went through now gimme the effing liver!”
“In a moment. I’m the finder.”
“You mean you don’t even have it!?” He struck the F key, drawing his Vorpal Sword.
“You paid me. I know a guy. He’ll be here.”
Jean-Luc groaned and responded to PurpleTia. <sidetracked… sorry…>
He waited for her reply while waiting for the courier, his knee hopping up and down in an anxious spasm.
<too late> she answered.
<literally on my way!!!!>
A wiry Saurischian dressed in black mummy rags rezzed out of a teleport in front of Taffy Ben Hassan’s. It was wearing silver goggles and had piercings running the length of its tail. A window popped up, asking if he would accept a vial of Crozzled Coelacanth Liver from Naga_Champa. He accepted, checked his inventory to make sure it was there, and teleported out with a double-click on PurpleTia’s offer to join her in Hapsworn Hollow.
The screen went black and reloaded on the scene of battle. The Chapel of Iamblichus stood rebuilt. The sky and suns were out. Fallen warriors had resurrected, their blood in the grass washed clean away. They stood en masse in front of the chapel, lining the path up to its decorated brass doors. No fight, no archdemon, no struggle. As if nothing had happened at all, order completely restored to the glade and its house of worship. Jean-Luc, who’d teleported in amongst the troops, stumbled into the path, rotating his view all around to try and find his dad.
“Private ceremony, Paladin,” Paul_the_Fool warned him. “Beat it.”
“What happened to the battle? Where’s the…?”
“Cleaned up. Our lady weakened it with some kind of potion and we took it from there.”
“In there doing their commitment ceremony,” he said. “Making their union official.”
“Why do you think our guild exorcised the chapel?”
Jean-Luc tore off his headset and threw it. It bounced off the wall and landed in the sink. He stood, kicked at his chair. Disgust. He aborted Questalot, exiting to desktop.
He was meant to wait until morning but no one would know and he was angrier than he’d ever been in his nineteen years. He opened the presents from Dad first, out of spite. He shredded the Santa Claus wrapping paper and scowled as they piled up. Expansion discs to Questalot. He shoved them across the floor and turned to Mom’s gifts. His fingers had more trouble with the plastic foil wrap she’d used. Lots of working his fingernail under each open place between strips of tape.
Mom, unexpectedly, had come through. She’d given him exactly what he asked for: World of Warlords, Questalot’s leading competition in online gaming. She’d sent him everything. The game, the seven expansions, everything currently available. He rolled over toward his desk and grabbed his mechanical pencil, wondering why he hadn’t thought of it when he struggled with the gift wrap, and used its steel tip to slice through the seals on the boxes, one by one. He withdrew and set out each instruction manual and disc. Here, arranged before him like a tarot prophecy, was a brand new world to explore and rid of the forces of darkness. Here was months of life, maybe even a year. Here was escape.
He got up and uninstalled Questalot. When prompted if he would like to save his character, without a thought he opted for complete deletion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steve Gronert Ellerhoff is an Iowan. A graduate of the creative writing MA at Lancaster University in England, he also holds an MPhil in Literatures of the Americas from Trinity College Dublin, where he is currently pursuing a PhD exploring myth in the short fiction of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. A novel,Time’s Laughingstocks, will be out later this summer.