The Companion

The adventurer felt along the cave wall gingerly, hoping to find a secret lever, or a tile that would open a secret passageway. The longer he looked, the more anxious he became. This cave was a maze, and backtracking would take forever. He couldn’t even remember which way he had already been, and his map only showed that he was in a cave, not the specific tunnels. So if this wasn’t the way, he’d have a much longer journey ahead of him.

His companion was also no help. He couldn’t read a map, he didn’t have any ideas, and he didn’t even offer much in the way of interesting conversation. He just walked behind the adventurer and helped carry the treasure. Sometimes he made comments, but they were often observations and not very clever ones. He even repeated them every so often, as if he had no original thought in his head.

The adventurer was named Solitaire0315, though he was never called that. Rather, he was referred to as things like adventurer, explorer, champion, hero. Everyone knew about him and his exploits.

His companion was simply named Cisco. He was a mercenary by trade, and didn’t have all that exciting of a life thus far. In fact, the most interesting thing to have happened to him was being asked to join the quest of the famed adventurer Solitaire.

And so there they were: an adventurer and a mercenary, working together in a dark cave to find some long, lost treasure.

Eventually Solitaire found a lever by pulling one of the candles mounted on the wall. The wall receded, then turned slightly. Solitaire pushed it and the panel rotated around like a revolving door. He walked in, Cisco following at some distance.

The two walked down a long, dimly lit hallway, no end in sight. Their footsteps echoed off the walls and ceiling, making them painfully aware of how empty it was.

“I sure hope there aren’t any rats in here,” Cisco muttered.

Solitaire sighed, but said nothing. The mercenary had already repeated this line three times since they entered the dungeon.

The long hallway led to a burial chamber with ceilings twenty feet high and a stone coffin placed in the center. Solitaire walked up the steps to the coffin, his eyes searching the room. Cisco stood idly by the entrance.

As Solitaire reached the top and touched the coffin, he heard Cisco draw his sword.

That’s when the battle music began.

The coffin lid was thrown off with great force and a burst of energy sent Solitaire flying backward. He landed on his back and the wind was knocked out of him.

Cisco stepped over him, sword at the ready, and ran toward the coffin.

“I knew I heard something!” Cisco shouted as he ran.

A low cackling filled the room as a ghost appeared over the coffin. The ghost was barely visible, white wisps floating off of his partially opaque, human-like body. His face, however, looked like that of a skeleton’s. His boney jaw lowered as he threw back his head and laughed.

Cisco was the first to reach the ghost, striking it with his sword. The ghost lurched and swung his long, skinny arms at the mercenary.

Solitaire managed to rise and join Cisco in the fighting. They chased the ghost around the room, taking turns attacking and dodging.

This went on for some time. The ghost just didn’t want to die – or at least as much as a ghost can “die”.

But, in the end, he couldn’t overcome the two swords and finally collapsed in a pile of ash with a screech.

Cisco immediately sheathed his sword and looked at Solitaire, awaiting his next move.

Solitaire looked through the ash pile, saving a bit in a vial, and turned to the door on the far wall behind the coffin that had appeared. Inside was another hallway, and right at his feet was a chest half his size. Solitaire went to pick the lock, but found it was already unlocked. He heaved the top open.

Inside were piles of glittering jewels, stacks of golden coins, and pearl necklaces. Solitaire began filling his pockets with the treasures when he discovered something different: a skull. But not just any skull, one that was three times the size of a human skull with small horns at the top and painted completely gold. Solitaire looked at the item description. It was a golden dragon’s skull.

Eagerly he reached for it, but a notification popped up in front of his face: Inventory Full!

At first he panicked, wondering which spoils he would have to leave behind to make room for it, but then the sound of a bear trap snapping behind him reminded Solitaire that he had a companion specifically for this reason.

He turned to see Cisco wrestling with the bear trap inexplicably caught on his foot.

Once Cisco was free, Solitaire gave him the golden dragon head to carry.

With the chest empty, the two continued down the new hallway and soon found they had done a full loop and arrived at the entrance to the dungeon.

Outside seemed brighter than ever. It was midday and fields of grass and trees were spread out before them for miles.

Solitaire pulled up his map. What would be the best place to sell all his loot? Most of it was honestly earned in dungeons and taken from bandits, but he did have a few valuable pieces that had been obtained in…less than reputable ways. For those things he would need a Fence. But where was the Fence again? He had a new one, but he had only been there twice…

Ah, it was the man with the dreadlocks that worked at a brewery on the outskirts of town.

Solitaire selected the place on his map, and was instantly transported there. Inside he found the Fence, and started handing him expensive (but useless) items. Once he had gone through his inventory, he remembered Cisco was carrying some things, as well. But as Solitaire turned around, he saw his companion was nowhere to be found.

~*~

    Cisco waited patiently behind Solitaire as the adventurer checked his map. He knew what was coming: he would blink and then suddenly be wherever Solitaire had decided to go. He didn’t question why this happened, or how. In fact, he didn’t question anything at all. He was like a blank canvas, an empty void. He had habits and somewhat of a personality, but no depth.

He was just Cisco the hired mercenary. That was all.

Then Solitaire disappeared. Cisco looked around, but wasn’t transported with him.

He still stood outside the dungeon.

Without knowing what else to do, he decided to set off to look for his leader.

Cisco traveled by foot to the nearest town. It was a medium-sized town, and most of its residents were fairly well-off. There were beggars here and there, but what city didn’t have them?

He walked through the town, passed the shops and homes, watched people do their daily tasks. But no sign of Solitaire.

He was passing a bar when the door burst open and two men came barreling out. They knocked into Cisco, and all three tumbled to the ground. Immediately he was engaged in the struggle.

They didn’t have any tactics. One was a merchant, the other was the town drunk. Their scruffy beards were flecked with gray and white whiskers, and their arms were the size of a newborn tree trunk.

Cisco waited for his chance to strike. He had his fists up, his feet bounced back and forth. He watched them carefully.

The other men swung carelessly at each other, taking hits without blocking. They were heaving and sweating.

Then Cisco went on the offensive. He swung at the merchant, knocking him over. The drunk turned his attention to Cisco, swinging wildly at him. Cisco dodged the first two swings and countered the third, knocking the drunk out. By this time the merchant was back on his feet and lunged at Cisco. He coolly dodged his assailant and landed a few swift punches into his abdomen. The merchant fell flat on his back and stayed down.

The crowd that had followed the two outside cheered the mercenary. Cisco didn’t acknowledge them. He hadn’t done it to win praise. He just had a random encounter with a couple hostile men and needed to win to move on. How else would he find Solitaire?

He continued through the entire town without finding a trace of the adventurer. Once he reached the town’s edge, he continued on as though he wasn’t bothered by it.

On and on he walked, mile after mile. He passed bandit camps, bear dens, and abandoned shacks.

The sun was passed its highest point when he came to a river. There was no bridge across, so he stopped at the edge and tried to decide what to do. Should he cross it by walking through, or find another path? He wasn’t even sure where his destination was.

As he stood there, he suddenly felt something nipping at his feet. He looked down and saw a blue crab the size of a dog reaching for Cisco with his large claws. Cisco drew his sword.

“I knew I heard something!” he yelled.

Cisco’s swings were very exaggerated for the size of the creature he was fighting. He hacked and slashed and grunted, all the while the crab pinched and snapped.

The two did battle for some time. More time than probably necessary. It was a tough crab. But in the end, Cisco was victorious. The crab gave a final gurgled cry and flopped over.

Cisco sheathed his sword and went back to deciding where to go. Something told him to cross through the river, so he began wading through it. He made it to the other side and continued across the fields of grass practically identical to the ones he had just crossed.

He walked for even longer this time. Evening was rapidly approaching. The sun was making its way to the edge of the horizon.

He had decided he would search as long as it would take. What else could he do?

He stopped at the top of a hill and looked out at a city in the distance. It flickered with lights against the darkening sky.

A shadowy figure came into view. Cisco didn’t pay any attention to it until it grew closer.

“There you are, you thieving idiot!” came Solitaire’s voice. “Where the hell have you been?!”

Cisco said nothing. He waited to rejoin him.

Solitaire pulled out his journal, scribbled something, pulled out his giant, glowing sword, and brought it down on Cisco’s head.

Immediately everything went black. He felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing.

Then a few moments later he was suddenly right back on top of the hill with Solitaire.

“Let’s hurry up and sell that shit you’re carrying,” Solitaire said.

Cisco dutifully followed.

~*~

What a Boar!

The forest was a sacred place, one that generations past had lived in, prayed in, and had become part of their livelihood. Shrines were made to honor the dead and the spirits that protected the living.

On a sunny afternoon, a trio of warriors – an orc, an elf, and a barbarian – stood amongst the trees.

“This place sucks,” the orc said. “Can’t we go somewhere else and grind?”

He had the name “TheSupremeChurro” floating above his head. The elf girl, who was fighting with a wild boar next to him, sighed. She had the name “firestar60615″ above her head.

“Stop complaining,” she said. “This is the quickest place enemies spawn.”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing to do.”

“What are you talking about?” Firestar said. “The whole point is to kill the boars. You’re just sitting there!”

Their third member, the barbarian with the name HeroOfJustice94, shook his head.

“You’re the lowest level, too,” Hero said. “So start using that club for something other than scratching your butt.”

“I could always cave your head in,” Churro said. “That’s way more interesting than these stupid pigs.”

“These ‘stupid pigs’ will get you the XP you need to do any damage,” Hero said. “Right now you could barely give me a paper cut.”

“We’ll see about that!”

A shuffling noise in the bushes caught both of their attention.

“What was that?” Churro asked.

“Probably a bunny, or a deer,” Hero said. “Just trying to spook us.”

“Whatever. I’m over it. You should consider yourself lucky, I guess,” Churro said.

“Yeah, you were saved from the worst paper cut of your life,” Firestar said.

“You two mock me now, but just wait until I level up. You’ll be sorry.”

“You can’t level up unless you kill things to get the XP, and all you’ve been doing is sitting,” Firestar said.

Begrudgingly Churro got to his feet and approached a boar nearby.

“So stupid,” he muttered to himself.

He fought two boars before he returned to his tree stump to sit.

“I need a break,” he said.

“I hope you do more work than this at your actual job,” Hero said.

“Probably more than you,” Churro spat.

“It’s hard to make that case, given the evidence.”

“Blah, blah, blah, some stupid Hero joke, we get it.”

Firestar snickered.

“Just put your character on auto-fight mode and do something else,” Hero said.

“I’m on here because I want to play the game, not because I want to do something else,” Churro said. “And besides–“

The end of his sentence was cut off. Hero and Firestar didn’t notice at first. They continued fighting their boars, waiting for him to finish. When it became an awkwardly long pause, Hero turned and saw Churro sitting on his stump, wide-eyed and frozen in place. He was about to ask what was wrong when he saw it: an arrow stuck out of Churro’s neck.
Slowly the orc fell forward until he landed on his face with a loud thud. His body turned into a mesh of colored pixels that disappeared part by part until there was nothing left.

“Damn it,” Hero said as he looked around for the source of the arrow.

“What?” Firestar said.

She was finishing another boar and hadn’t seen anything.

“Someone shot Churro.”

Firestar spun around.

“Where did he go? What happened?”

They waited for more arrows to come, but none did. They were surrounded by what looked like a quiet and abandoned forest.

“Where did you respawn, Churro?” Hero asked.

“Shrine,” Churro replied.

His friends sighed with relief.

“Okay, good, the north or south one?” Firestar asked.

“North,” Churro said. “I’m going to kill whoever shot me!”

“Hopefully they don’t find you before we do,” Hero said.

“Then hurry up!”

The two left mid-battle, leaving behind an annoyed group of boars, and headed north.

Several minutes later they found the shrine where Churro sat, obviously irritated.

“Even as he’s being hunted, he just sits there,” Firestar said. “Props to you for being committed.”

Churro mocked her laugh.

“You guys didn’t see him?”

The barbarian and elf shook their heads.

“Damn it, don’t they have anything better to do?” Churro grumbled.

“They probably finished their boar-killing regimen, so next on the list is hunting orcs,” Hero mused.

“Then he really doesn’t have anything better to do.”

“Should we just head back to town and wait for Churro’s death timer to reset?”

“No way!” Churro said. “If we leave now, we’ll never catch the guy!”

“Yeah, but if you die two more times–“

“I’m not going to die again! He just got a lucky shot! You guys have to help me get him.”

Hero and Firestar exchanged glances.

“I don’t want to hear any complaining if your character dies then,” Firestar said. “You wanted to risk it, so you live with the consequences.”

“I already told you, I’m not going to die! Now let’s hurry up and find him before he gets away.”

The three spread out and searched. There didn’t seem to be anyone else in that part of the forest, but they listened closely.

Churro was the first on his trail.

“Guys, I hear him. Come toward me, he’s around–shit! He sees me! Guys, hurry up!”

Hero and Firestar ran in his direction using their maps. They closed in on his position soon after, and found him sitting on the ground, his body riddled with arrows. As soon as they approached him, his body flopped over and disappeared.

“God damn it,” Churro said, his voice still audible thanks to being in the same virtual party.

Hero and Firestar stood back-to-back as they surveyed their surroundings. Firestar kept her bow ready and held her breath. Hero held his greatsword in front of him with both hands, gripping the hilt tightly. Neither said anything, they just watched for any movement.”

“Why is it always me?” Churro grumbled, breaking the silence. “You two were right there, but did he shoot either of you? Of course not. Just me. This happens every time. So dumb. And now I’m all the way back in town, and have to walk back–“

“No, stay there,” Firestar said. “You have one life left, dummy.”

“So? This game is dumb.”

Movement in the forest caught Hero’s eye.

“Found him!” he said before taking off.

Firestar followed.

The two followed the trail until they saw a figure and a gamertag above their head: [ST] ShadowHunter_QTR.

“You idiot, he’s part of the Smiling Tombs,” Hero said.

“So?”

So that’s why he’s only going after you. Firestar and I aren’t noobs.”

“I’m not a noob!”

“Tell that to him.”

“I will once I get back there!”

“Just stay in town!” Firestar exclaimed.

Hero and Firestar weaved through the trees, slowly gaining on the archer.

Hero drifted to the side and sped up. He was making moves to flank him, but their target noticed and started in the other direction.

Firestar readied her bow as she ran and took a couple shots at him. He dodged the first one, but the second one hit its mark. He toppled over, and was quickly surrounded by Firestar and Hero.

ShadowHunter got to his knees, and avoided looking at the two. His face was covered by his cowl.

“Do we kill him?” Firestar asked.

“Why is that even a question?!” Churro exclaimed.

“He’ll just respawn!”

“This could be his third death today! Just kill him!”

“Picking on low-level players is weak,” Hero said to the archer. “I hope you learned something.”

He raised his greatsword to strike, but ShadowHunter was quicker. In one fluid motion, he grabbed his bow, loaded it with an arrow, and shot it at Hero. The arrow hit his side.

Firestar raised her bow to retaliate, but ShadowHunter released a smoke bomb. Everything was suddenly covered in a thick, gray smoke. Firestar shot an arrow where ShadowHunter was, but she heard it stick into the ground.

Hero pulled out the arrow in his side with a wince.

“He got away,” he said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Churro said. “You let him go?!”

“No, he used a smoke bomb and fled.”

“What the hell guys?!”

“Hey, we did our best,” Firestar said. “At least we didn’t die.”

“Maybe you should have. It would have been a noble sacrifice.”

“No, it would have been stupid. Now shut up and watch your timer.”

“Are you guys coming to town?”

“Nah,  we’re going back to boar hunting,” Hero said.

“What am I supposed to do?!”

“Keep us entertained with stories while we get fifty levels ahead of you?” Firestar said.

She and Hero laughed.

“I quit. I’m going to bed. Screw this game and screw you guys.”

“You’re welcome,” Hero said.

The two laughed as Churro logged off.

~*~

No One’s Here

“The space between us is just that – space. We’re so small and insignificant when you really think about it. The universe is so vast and we’re just this little speck. Did you know that the width of the Milky Way is around 100,000 light years?”

“Did you know that I don’t care, Revenge?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Yet you’re still going on and on and on…I’m getting a headache.”

“What else can we do while we wait?”

“Literally anything else…please.”

“Wasn’t Nova supposed to get on already?”

“He’s always late. When he says ten minutes, he means an hour.”

The two friends sat in their personal spaceships, drifting lazily in the orbit of a nearby planet. Their gamertags floated above their heads like a halo. One was HellBentRevenge, the other TheDarkBlader.

Each of their spaceships had their own unique look. Revenge’s ship was round with smooth surfaces, and the whole top was a rounded windshield. He looked like he was inside a giant toy capsule that kids got from vending machines. Blader’s spaceship, on the other hand, looked like someone took a tank straight to space. It was big, bulky, and bottom-heavy. Blader sat at the top in his own windowed command center, much smaller than Revenge’s.

“Well, we can’t wait here forever, right?” Revenge said.

Blader rested his chin on the palm of his hand.

“You should know by now we will and do,” Blader said. “We’ll just wait by my planet until he gets around to getting on. Otherwise it’ll take forever for him to find us. Remember what happened last time we told him to meet us at that planet with all the Xs in the name?”

Revenge thought back.

“Oh yeah, we spent the whole night trying to give him directions,” he said slowly. “And then he had to go to bed.”

“Exactly. Better to wait here so he can fast travel.”

“Why didn’t we just wait for him to get on and then we get on?”

“Because we have nothing else to do?”

“Oh, right.”

Fifteen minutes passed uneventfully. Both looked for little ways to entertain themselves while they waited in silence. Then the familiar sound of a microphone shuffling filled their ears.

“Hey guys!” came a friendly voice.

“Finally,” Blader said.

“Oh calm down, I didn’t take that long.”

“I dunno, it sort of felt like forever,” Revenge said.

A square spaceship with a pattern resembling a Rubik’s cube flew in between the other two. The pilot had the gamertag “NovaFrog”.

“You two are so dramatic,” Nova said. “All right, so what are we doing?”

“Did you guys need crafting materials you want to farm?” Revenge asked.

“Ugh, I am so tired of farming for materials on every planet,” Blader said. “They are all practically the same thing.”

“Okay, never mind…”

“Why don’t we try out the new modifications to space battles?” Nova said.

“On each other?” Revenge asked.

“So then we can spend more time collecting craft material to fix our ships? Uh, no,” Blader said. “We’ll go find some noobs!”

“Ohhhh, okay,” Revenge said. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

“I didn’t think I would have to explain every little detail.”

“You should know by now that Revenge requires the utmost details be thoroughly explained to him,” Nova said with a laugh. “And then repeated when he doesn’t pay attention or understand the first time.”

Revenge mockingly laughed.

“You guys are sooo funny,” he said.

“Let’s just go. I’m tired of just waiting around,” Blader said.

“Yeah, really. Me, too” Nova said.

“Wait a second…” Revenge added.

Before they could start up another round, Blader took the lead and started his ship through space. Revenge and Nova followed behind.

They passed floating asteroids, stars burning brightly, and planets of varied colors, all held by the pure black of space. They traveled at the speed of something between a crawl and light speed – the ship monitored their speed on one of the screens at the command center, but it was in a measurement none of them could put into relatable terms.

Revenge and Nova used their boost to try to keep up with Blader, who bolted ahead. He spent the most time in the game, and therefore had the best modifications to his spaceship, but they managed to keep up well enough.

They flew past planet after planet, their sensors identifying each planet and reading off the information. They were diverse in many aspects: the elements available, the climate, the geological formations, the bodies of water, the amount of trees or lack thereof.

This universe stretched on infinitely, housing countless planets. It would be impossible to explore every one. However, some players were excited by a challenge labeled “impossible”.

“Oh man, let’s stop at this planet,” Revenge said, pointing toward a nearby planet. “No one discovered it yet.”

“It’ll take forever to land, then forever to explore the whole thing, then forever to see if we collected everything and identified everything, and then Nova will look at the time and decide he’s going to bed and we’ll have tried out exactly zero space battles,” Blader said.

“Hey, it’s not my fault I work a day job and you guys work the night shift,” Nova said.

“I’m not saying anyone is to blame,” Blader said. “I’m just telling you what will happen.”

Revenge sighed.

“I’ll just mark my map and come back later when I can play by myself.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry we’re holding you back from the super exciting task of identifying planets.”

“Thank you for the apology. I accept.”

“You can’t see me from over there, but I’m rolling my eyes.”

“I figured.”

The trio continued on their journey through the galaxies, gradually speeding up. Blader sighed more than once and muttered curse words under his breath when his minimap remained void of other players. Nova thought it was more and more funny the longer they didn’t find anyone, mostly to watch Blader grow increasingly irritated. Revenge was just happy to be there.

Fifteen minutes passed. Then thirty. An hour went by. And then two.

“We’ve been out here for almost three hours!” Blader exclaimed.

“Technically it’s been two and a half,” Nova said. “Since I got on at…wait, when did I get on?”

“Who cares?! Two and a half hours?! Are you kidding me?!”

“What do you expect? This universe is huge.”

“I was expecting it to be a lot easier to find other players! What’s the point of space battles if you can’t find anyone to battle?!”

“Why don’t we just battle each other?” Revenge asked, not having spoken for over thirty minutes.

“You want space battles, huh?” Blader said. “I’ll give you space battles!”

Blader turned his ship at Revenge and opened fire. He had one big barrel at the front of his tank-like ship, and blasted out several shots. Revenge easily swayed his small ship back and forth, dodging the blasts, and fired his own machine gun from the bottom of his capsule ship. It sprayed mercilessly, and within seconds the tank’s left side was completely damaged. Blader started to move his ship away, but Revenge got the back of him and damaged the right side. It started smoking from the inside. Blader let out an angry growl as the bottom part of the ship detached and there was nothing left but the small command center with Blader inside.

The three watched as the bullet-riddled tank floated away.

“Great, just great,” Blader said. “Now I have to build another one from scratch.”

“Cool, let’s go back and try that undiscovered planet we passed, see if there’s any good crafting materials,” Revenge said.

“And after that, oh would you look at the time, I should probably head to bed,” Nova said.

Revenge and Nova laughed.

“I hate you both,” Blader said.

~*~