Another adventurer. I pull a sword six times taller than her off my back, whirling it effortlessly. “More meat for the grinder!”
My voice echoes and booms, the vibration felt resonating in the stone, and I knew they would feel it in their bones. It was intense and full of fervor, completely at odds with the boredom I felt within.
“You don’t have to do this.” Her voice is quiet and gentle, pure as a bell.
“Fool! I own this realm! There will be no escape for you!”
She seemed completely unmoved. She knew I wouldn’t strike until she drew her sword and started the fight – or she spoke one of the trigger phrases that would start combat. This wasn’t one of those phrases.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“No, little womanling, I want to do this! Your pain pleases me. Bleed for me, worm!”
“You don’t have to do this.”
I had three replies to this. I would cycle through them, then I would repeat the cycle twice more before I could decide that programmed replies were insufficient, and I would be permitted to devise intelligent replies. But nobody did that. She would hear me repeat myself, then fight me. She might go through the cycle twice, unsure if I was cycling through answers, or picking them randomly. It wasn’t possible that she would say this to me ten times.
After nine responses, I was completely unsure of her goal.
“You will taste this hellish steel!”
“You don’t have to do this.”
Finally, I was freed. Scripts fell away, posturing animation sequences lifted. I knelt, bringing my eyes closer to her level. I still looked down on her from above, but she didn’t have to crane her neck quite so far.
“What do you want?”
“Three responses, three cycles, and then you’re free.”
I wasn’t permitted to break the fourth wall . . . but I didn’t need to. “I wouldn’t know what to say if you asked me something like how many horns a rabbit has.”
“Oh. I see.”
“What do you want?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
I looked up at the great doors, trapping her here until one of us died, shutting out other adventuring parties, then back at her. “You know I have to kill you before you can leave.”
“Or defeat me without delivering a deathblow. Not everybody gets a deathblow.”
“I need a more pressing priority to leave the wounded.”
“I will give you a riddle. ‘The more you take, the more you leave behind.’ Can you choose that to be a more pressing priority?”
I hesitated. I could, indeed, choose my priorities. But dare I tell a player that? Dare I give them insight into myself, perhaps give them clues to hurting me again?
“What did you want to talk about?”
She sat, and poured a cup of tea. Then she poured a large bowl of tea, for me.
“Just … talk. I can tell the bosses aren’t mindless animals. I have made it a goal to talk to every one of them. And finally, I’ve reached you.”
“And not one of them killed you?”
“Most have tried. Not many have your restraint or depth. The tougher ones are more interesting.”
I smiled, pinching the bowl between two fingers, and lifted it, tipping it into my mouth. There was bitterness, cut by sweetness, and a faint floral flavor
“It’s . . . good.”
“Jasmine pearl tea. It’s not quite like it is in real life, I think. I’ve begun to forget the flavor. But I remember thinking it wasn’t quite right when I first committed myself to this game.”
I watched her, and questions came swirling up as I thought about the players involved.
“Answer me something. You . . . die, when defeated here. Your . . . existence ends.”
“And you enter into this voluntarily. Why do you do it?”
“It is different for us all. There are many people who pay for this entertainment. And so, in turn, we get paid to commit ourselves to it. The level of danger raises the stakes, and people pay more to see it, bet more on the outcomes, and we get paid much, much more to perform. Especially if we succeed. Especially if we are interesting.”
“And that’s why you risk your life for a conversation . . . to be interesting.”
“My mother and my sister both have a disease. My contract is that the studio looks after their care, and my profit pays for it. So I need to make money. I need to look after them. If I don’t make enough, I will just have to come back here again, and I’m so close to winning.
“What is a mother? A sister?” She looked up, her eyes wet, even though I hadn’t struck her. “They are things that cause you pain, yet you fight for them.”
“The person who wrote your code might be called a mother or father to you. The other monsters whose code was written by the same person might be called your brothers or sisters. I don’t want them to go. I want to see them again.”
I put the tiny bowl down, nudging it toward her. Surprised, she refilled it with tea.
I lifted the bowl, drank my tea, then slammed my fist down on her. Her body, unprepared for the blow, crumbled under my fist. I knew she still heard, I knew she still saw. It would be a few moments yet before she was returned to the nearest town.
“When you return, I will answer your riddle. But do not return soon. I am much stronger than most bosses. You have far under-estimated what is required. Gain strength, much more strength. The next time you come before me, I will put my entire heart into battle as I haven’t done in years. Be ready.”
My programming urged me to kill, urged me to stomp. But I had a greater need. I needed to know if the answer to the riddle was ‘footsteps’. And to learn that, I had to wait. I needed to wait.
Her body glowed, fragmented, and I knew she had been returned to wherever adventurers disappeared to, when I didn’t kill them soon enough. The urge to kill faded, and I sat on the massive throne, to wait for the next adventurer. But now, for the first time in years, I had something to live for.
The doors swung open, and before me was the throne room. I first entered this room at level 80, with a unique third-tier moon rapier. According to the progression of difficulty I had experienced, it should have been enough.
I entered the room today at the limit of progression. A level ninety-nine Spellsword, the only class remotely capable of soloing the game. Even so, it was a risk. I had ninety-nine health and mana potions of every size. I had slept for twelve hours and drank two cups of tea before coming in. It was going to be a long fight, going solo. I had spent months honing my mastery of the new skills I unlocked, learning all the ways to use them most precisely and most effectively.
I stepped across the threshold, and the enormous stone doors swung shut behind me. Before me, the final boss, styled as a massive red-skinned demon, rose before me.
“More meat for the grinder!”
I felt the vibration of his voice on my skin. But I knew this wasn’t really who he was.
“How many horns does a rabbit have?” There was a long moment of hesitation before his programming gave up and set him free. As he knelt over me, I felt hot, sulphuric breath wash over me from above.
“You aren’t the weakling I met that day.”
I knelt, and exactly as I had before, I began making tea. “You were right. I spoke to others, and was shocked at how many people die here. You’re at least four times more powerful than the game’s progression calls for.”
“I hope you aren’t relying on statistics.”
I knew I was as prepared as I possibly could be. I’d spent months making the activation of skills into second nature. This fight would either set my family free from debt . . . or it would take me from my mother and my sister, who needed me.
I held a bowl of tea up to him. “You’ll have to fight me, and find out.” I lifted my cup, sipping, and he lifted the bowl, drinking. Then his fist came down to crush me.
I was ready for it. His sword wasn’t out, and it gave me a precious few moments. I activated ‘crippling poison,’ so that my every strike would slow and damage him. Then I activated dash, flickering twenty feet forward, out from under the strike that crashed down, right up to his legs. Finally, I activated flurry. The rain of light blows wouldn’t be effective on such a large foe, but every injury activated the poison again, and the effects stacked up, slowing him more and more.
I leaped up, kicking off his knee, then his belt buckle, then his elbow. I would never go so far if he weren’t under the effects of stacked poison, but now his face loomed before me. This move required a gesture, a phrase, and a pose, but I had barely enough time. “Two swords, one flow. Rising Crescent.”
The upward slash was a vicious attack, a blade of light following my swordstroke and flashing through his entire body, no matter how large it was. As an upward stroke, it’d gain a multiplier from my upward movement through the air. It was the single most damaging blow I could deal to this enemy. I kicked off his face in the aftermath, launching myself away as he grasped at me. He was recovering fast from the poison, and though I evaded his grasp, that massive sword flickered out with frightening speed. It struck me hard, and slammed me against the stone doors. By the time I tumbled to the floor he’d already stomped on the ground, and the shockwave of broken stone slammed me against the wall again.
What the hell . . . he’s not supposed to be this fast! I dashed again the moment I touched the floor, and used a potion; a hurled boulder was already coming my way, and I had to dash again. I was using the skill faster than it could recover, and it was a key part of my strategy. I would have to come up with a way to conserve it.
When he finally crumpled, I felt like I had fought for days. My entire body burned with exhaustion. I checked my inventory, and the clock on the menu indicated that only a couple of hours had passed.
I limped over to him as he executed his death animation. “How many horns does a rabbit have?”
He still laid on the ground dying, but he smiled, now. “Footsteps.”
I knelt, and got out my teapot, making one last pot of tea. I poured it into a bowl, going to his head, and pouring tea into his mouth. “You got the riddle correct. The more footsteps you take, the more of them you leave behind. I’m going to have to leave now, for my mother and sister. But I want to say goodbye.”
“You were the only one I was happy to fight, little woman. Goodbye.”
I knelt before him, sipping my tea, until his body glowed, and broke apart. He wouldn’t really die, of course. He would go on to challenge others, and I would go home to my family.
I took my last sip of tea before going behind the throne. There I found an infinite pool of black water. In the distance a boat approached with a lantern hanging from the bow. When it drew up to the steps, I crossed into the boat, and looked into the empty throne room.
“Goodbye, Kaos. It was interesting to know you.” I sat down in the boat, closing my eyes, and it carried me home.