It was an idyllic scene. The sun was hanging just above the horizon, the day almost done. A gentle breeze rocked the trees back and forth in a dance reflected on the lake's surface. The water was surrounded by a gorgeous prairie sprinkled with bushy hedges that served as dinner for the few Wargs which happened to be around. The creatures' peaceful hideout was miles from the nearest town. All was quiet.
Chase's interface startled him. Luckily, he didn't move a bit. His prey was still there, munching lazily on a Twinpetal flower.
"Show," he whispered.
Green pulsing letters appeared right in front of him.
CALL FROM BALIN.
He was lying still, his head stuck between his shoulder and the rifle's canon. Hiding in the high grass, he loosened his aim and allowed the Warg to enjoy life a wee bit longer.
"Go," he whispered, a little annoyed.
Balin's icon appeared with a pop and seemed to hover right before him. It showed his life points and magical energy were at maximum. His voice came from nowhere.
"Dude, where the hell are you?"
It was a bit rasp, as if he was speaking too close to the microphone. Then again it might just be lag, thought Chase.
"Away. Hunting. You need me?" Chase replied, barely trying to conceal his lack of enthusiasm.
"Nah, just wanted to see what you up to. We're probably going to hit something later though, you in?"
Chase's hand mechanically brushed through the tip of the grass blades. A beetle jumped off one of them and landed on his palm. It displayed its beautiful burgundy wings in a spinning maneuver and took off skywards, vanishing faster then Chase could follow. He had never noticed that creature before, and wondered if it had always been there. Must've been the new patch, he thought.
"Dunno. I'm questing right now," he replied.
"Oooh. Watcha doin'? Need help?"
Chase wondered if there was no one else that Balin could bother.
"I'm looking for an amulet. And no, but thanks."
"Boring," creaked Balin, "call me when you do arena and we might party. Anyway, let me know when you're done with your quest and I'll send you our coords. Supposed to gather you all up. I'll go now, later," he yelled and with a chirp he hung up.
Chase was all alone again, lying on his stomach, legs stretched apart, his eyes back on the Warg.
The beast finished its meal and dragged itself heavily to the shore of the lake. The sound of the creature gulping water spread through the prairie. Chase immobilized his shoulder and pressed the butt of the rifle hard against it. He took aim between the Warg's horns. Please let it drop from this one, he thought. He took a deep breath.
Three and two and ...
The beast was hit right where he aimed. His interface informed him of the kill and awarded him an experience point to be allotted by choice to his aiming, hiding or running skill. The Warg swayed a bit then fell straight in the water, disappearing under the shimmering surface.
Ignoring the pain in his shoulder from the rifle's recoil, he stood up fast and ran to the shore to see if he lost the corpse. He peered over the water and could see but a glimpse of the Warg, hurtling towards the bottom. Something was sucking it down.
I'm not losing a corpse again, he thought and began undressing.
Chase took off his chameleon jacket and shirt and rested his rifle against a rock. Without thinking anything through, his mind focused on the loot, top-half naked, he jumped right into the cold water head first.
The initial shock of the icy water was followed by the realization that the lake was far deeper then he thought. To Chase’s surprise, it didn't feel like an ordinary lake at all. He reached for his right pocket and pulled out a sack. He undid the ribbon fast, swirled his hand around it and pulled out a blue pill. He shoved it in his mouth and swallowed it whole.
A warm fuzzy feeling took over his chest and then moved to his whole body. Chase felt warm again. He could breathe water. More confident then before to explore, he swam deeper and deeper. As he was going down, the sunlight was beginning to fade. The cold was returning to his legs and he felt a stabbing self-awareness like if someone or something was eyeing him from behind. He shivered in the cold water. A fluorescent blue eel was circling a swarm of krill for a few seconds then paralyzed them with white shocks of electricity, gobbling them up one by one in peace.
Chase stopped for a moment to look for the Warg's corpse. Something about this kill made him feel confident that this would be his lucky drop. He looked around; his eyes turned to slits, but couldn't see anything. It was too dark. He decided to go further down, but held a tight grip on his jack knife, in case one of the freshwater eels tried to shock him into submission. He passed a few more of those on his way down, their eyes huge and menacing.
Just when he thought that he should break surface and leave that blurry, bluish world of obnoxious creatures behind, a dim green glitter caught his eye. He stopped wriggling and tried to remain in the same place by performing precise hand and leg micromovements, effectively maneuvering himself to face the source of the light. He tried to focus on the light emitted by squeezing his eyelids together for a few moments before deciding that he had found his loot. Chase pedaled full force downwards, in the direction of the muddy ground.
He was rushing down and paid no more attention to the eels or the horrid feeling of being watched.
The water was brushing his hair and face. Chase forced his legs to perform one last push and he touched the ground. A few feet away from him was the slain Warg, and right next to the beast, the desired drop, his most sought-after loot- the amulet of the Queen. Not able to hide his excitement he let out a muffled shout of joy. Bubbles hurtled for the surface as he swam to his prize and without waiting, he pocketed the amulet.
His interface chirped and flashed before him in green letters:
QUEST COMPLETE. AMULET OF THE QUEEN: 1/1.
All's well that ends well, he thought, and kicked off the ground eager to get out of the water. He was informed about the experience point in swimming, scanning or looting as he was swimming for the surface. Little by little, the dark was being replaced by lighter and lighter shades of blue, until Chase could almost make out the trees hanging over the lake's surface. The effects of the breathing pill were wearing off just in time. A few more feet and he'd be breathing real air again. Just as it started getting harder to breathe and pedal at the same time, with one last effort he kicked with his legs and broke surface. The sun was almost gone, its last few rays caressing Chase's cold skin. The sky felt like the perfect shade of blue. He treated himself to a big breath of warm and fragrant air, his lungs expanding joyfully.
He swam to the shore, grateful to be out of the lake, thinking of all the things he never knew about the World. He put on his clothes and enjoyed the final moments of the day, breathing in the air that smelled of Twinpetal flowers and Tymin trees.
"Call Balin," he whispered to himself.
His interface chirped and beeped and a few moments later Balin's icon appeared in thin air.
"Hey Chasey, you done?" He asked loudly.
Chase wondered what sort of creatures Balin would have woken in the lake with his clumsiness.
"Yeah, I'm all wet though. You guys got together?"
"Not yet. Lemme put you through." Balin creaked and suddenly pop by pop three more icons appeared before Chase.
"Heya Chasey," said the tauren warrior whose icon spelled Drunkmonkey in green letters.
"Hola m'boy," said the tauren shaman called Shamandur.
Chase smiled, warm feelings of comfort bubbling up inside. He had never been gladder to see his group of fellow adventurers. Their voices were scrambling his channel, but he laughed and greeted them all one by one. He didn't mind Balin's loudness anymore.
"What's going on guys?" He smiled.
"Well Balin's rounding us all up at the tavern, we're all heading that way right now," said a voice whose corresponding icon was flashing golden yellow. That was Carmichael, the elf paladin.
Now that their interfaces were all linked up in a party, Chase was able to follow his companions on the map. He saw a blue dot named Carmichael hurrying back from the Outworld, two more dots for the taurens coming out of a dungeon and yet another scarlet dot for Balin, who had already been waiting for the rest in the tavern, at the far end of the port in Scuttleville. Chase closed the map, the icons still shinning bright before him.
"Okay, meet you there in a sec," he said and with a flick of his hand brushed the icons away.
He was all alone again, standing right beside the shore, his short brown hair still very wet. Suddenly he became intensely aware of the sound of the waves breaking on the narrow sandy shore. He felt uncomfortable being there. Even the wind seemed to be hissing louder then before. The sky had already turned into a darker color, and the once idyllic prairie didn't seem welcoming anymore.
He packed his gear, scooped up his rifle, swung it over his shoulder and secured his backpack tightly. The amulet was safe in his left pocket but he kept rechecking it ever since he got out of the water. He took out a tiny khaki colored egg from his pocket sack and threw it three feet away from him. As the little sphere hit the ground it morphed into a gorgeous dark winged lion with a quiet puff.
Chase greeted him and stroked his fur. The feline grunted to greet his master, licked his hand, and started purring while nudging Chase playfully with his giant head.
Chase mounted the creature, threw one last look at his hunting ground and shivered at the cold and dark sight. He held the lion's fur tightly, hunched forward and whispered in the creature's ear.
"Scuttleville. Just outside the city walls."
The lion kicked his feet, spread his wings and took off before Chase could see his own reflection on the black watery surface one last time.
Twinkling stars were starting to dot the sky as Chase was flying above the World, his grip tight.
Wind rushing in his face, his eyes watering, he was already feeling more comfortable then moments before. The World was reduced to a mere planar carpet of green grassy patches, bluish lines and circles of rivers and lakes and the scattered faint lights of the villages. Orpheus' wings were whipping hard against the wind with determination one could only expect from a loyal companion. His eyes were staring straight ahead stubbornly. Chase stroked his soft fur in gratitude.
They were flying for a few more miles, until Chase could make out the fringes of Scuttleville. Orpheus started to make his descent gradually and gave a grunt as to inform Chase that they were nearing their destination. They found a clearing between the trees and carefully touched ground.
Chase dismounted and produced some snacks from his pocket which the feline greeted with fondness. When Orpheus finished nibbling, he gave his master a sad look and disappeared with another puff.
"See you soon, friend," said Chase, bending over to pick up the Orpheus sphere.
He returned it back to his sack and tightened the ribbon firmly. Rechecking his gear, he walked a few feet further north until a massive archway appeared before him.
SCUTTLEVILLE read the sign in cursive black letters etched on wood placed directly above the arch.
He walked through it, entering the massive city which served as a major hub for one of two rivaling fractions of the World.
His interface chirped twice, signaling the change in channels from FOREST to SCUTTLEVILLE and all of a sudden his ears were flooded with street chatter, merchants yelling prices, users trading items or weapons and the usual search for dungeon groups. Several pushcarts filled with fruits and veggies from the southern provinces were lined to the side of the cobbled road. One dark-skinned vendor was salting fish fillets, laying them on a wooden table. A mannequin dressed in fine eastern cloth was standing erect next to the tailor's shop. He walked further on in the town, passing the bank and the auction house. People were running all over, minding their own business. Passing the bag vendor, Chase neared the main square which was the busiest part of town. It was a marvelous sight: a big area of cobbled stone with an enormous Roman styled fountain in the middle, giant statues of gods decorating the four corners. Surrounding the square were the government building- a massive construction of brownish sandstone, the forum- a long hall whose roof was supported by a large number of pillars, the arena- where a battle was already taking place and the city bath. The square had over a thousand users running around, tending to their business, participating in events, or simply socializing with each other. Chase paused to absorb all the information.
"Lookin’ for group for a five user hit in Echilion," yelled someone whose tag read Elzbeth.
"That ain't worth jack. Come back when you got something of value mister." Some were quarreling over a trade. "Stupid 'lock."
"DANCE COMPETITION STARTING IN FIVE MINUTES. CALL ASHCROFT TO GET TICKET." A female dwarf in an emerald dress was flooding the channel.
"Don’t spam please," Udonnomme complained.
"Can't do a thing, server allows repeated messages five per minute at max."
"Still, she should post it on the bulletin board, no?"
"Stop being such smartasses and get yourselves a life," said a third user called Hutsun.
"Want me to find you a dance partner, loverboy?” asked a fourth tagged Threatmaniac, winking.
"Go to hell," Hutsun flashed in red.
"But you do seem like the dancing type." People laughed. "Anywhoo, gee-tee-gee fellas. School tomorrow," said Threatmaniac, sat on the ground and a few moments later was gone.
A naked elf went running by chased by Scuttleville guards who were firing arrows at him. He was pushing people around and climbed on the fountain wall. Then he yelled some obscenities and dove in the water, his hands wrapped around his legs.
Emitting laughter icons, he swam a few circles in the fountain.
The guards got to him and dragged him out of the water. Two of them, one on each side, were carrying him to the nearest detention house for public disturbance. The elf refused to cooperate so they had to drag him all the way, his legs trailing the ground.
People clapped as they passed and cheered for the elf whose tag seemed too difficult to pronounce. He smiled stupidly and bowed to every user he passed. One particular user set off fireworks in his honor which exploded right above the fountain in a purple flash and dissolved, producing green rain. Moments later, the offender and the guards disappeared behind a curve.
"My band is playing tomorrow at these coords." A nervous young man jumped out before Chase and stuffed a pamphlet in his hand. "We appreciate your support," he added hastily and moved on to another user.
Chase took a deep breath, slowly acclimatizing to Scuttleville’s populace, constituted mostly of high level brags, achievement flashers and pitied fame seekers. He enjoyed other users' company though. This night more then any other night, he thought. He smiled, and walked further on towards the port.
The smell of herring and shrimp were the first indicators that he was near the city port. Sailors, usually from the southern provinces, brought all sorts of merchandise to Scuttleville. On the busiest day of the week one could even find freshwater eel from the rivers of the Outworld or fine golden thread from the Far-East. But when Chase walked by, the port was home to two large wooden ships anchored on both sides with the intricate names of "The Venetian" and "The Big Bang Baby". Lights were out in the Venetian, but loud sailors were resolute on finishing the Big Bang Baby's wine supplies before dawn. Chase walked past them, heard the sound of glass breaking and laughter and crossed the port bridge to get to the other side of town. The northern side of the capital wasn't as rich or as populous as the southern end. Muggers and criminals weren't an unusual sight. Of particular worry to most users was the notorious criminal gang called "Pirate Life" known to have robbed several guild banks, including the banks of four top ten guilds.
Regardless of the posing dangers, Chase walked peacefully, crossing dark and empty streets. At the intersection of Dandum and Mittlewerk Street, he stopped and walked through a diagonal narrow crossing right next to a closed pet shop. The passage was several feet wide, just enough for two users to walk past each other. He quickened his pace, and near the end of the road saw light pouring out of two tiny windows on the cold stone.
He walked to the door which belonged to an old wooden house and glanced at the sign hanging on its right.
THE TAVERN, it spelled out in thick capitals etched on the plywood.
One interface bleep and channel change later, Chase found himself inside, his friends waving at him. Everyone was already there.
"Finally!" His eardrums recoiled from Balin's voice.
He walked over to their usual table at the far end of the tavern passing several empty ones on the way. The place was scarcely visited. Obby the bartender didn't seem to mind the slightest, his eyes barely rising to greet the new customer. Seeing Chase, he spit on a piece of washcloth and went back to scrubbing his beer mug.
Carmichael got up and bowed deeply before Chase.
"Let me get that for you," he said and drew a chair for him.
Chase sat down.
"Can I get our favorite hunter here something to drink?" he added mockingly.
"Shut up," Chase said, "what's with you?"
Carmichael dropped his act and sat back down.
"It's because you're late. You could've portaled, you still have scrolls," said Drunkmonkey, "We all did."
"I'm sorry," Chase said apologetically "I got preoccupied with this quest and felt like flying would do me some good".
"Bossman can do what bossman wanna do."
"Shut up," he repeated, "Anyway, Shammy, Dee-Em, you guys were hitting something?"
The shaman leaned forward. He tried hard to hide his excitement.
"Nope. Just scouting," he said trying to sound casual, "but you have no idea what we found!"
Drunkmonkey, who had taken off his shield and axe and let them rest against the tavern wall, started nodding enthusiastically.
"We've been waiting for this for so long," he said.
Shamandur unnecessarily looked around to check if anyone was listening even though the tavern was pretty much vacant. He leaned forward a bit more.
"As soon as we found out, we told Balin to gather you all up," he said.
Balin nodded meaningfully as if to congratulate himself on a job well done.
"And they didn't even tell me what's it about," he added.
"Well, we didn't want to risk talking 'bout it on a long-distance party interface," continued the shaman.
"Oooh, top secret eyes-only shit, huh?" Carmichael leaned back on his chair, his arms waving dramatically in mockery. The taurens were often known to exaggerate.
"What's this about guys?" asked Chase who was starting to show signs of fatigue. The day had been unusually long and rough thus far.
Drunkmonkey was emitting excitement emoticon tags in a three feet range.
"We found the AWESOMEST bug in Sheela's Lair," he said.
There was a tiny pause where everyone was waiting for someone to comment.
"We've hit that dungeon over ten times, never seen any bugs and the loot is crap too. No way," Balin spoke first.
Shamandur gave him the sign for silence.
"We were there all day, checked and rechecked it," he said, "There's a bug, and we're one hundred percent sure of it."
Drunkmonkey got up, went to his bag of supplies and took something out of it. He came back to the table and threw a ribbon-tied sack on it.
"Open it," he said gesturing at the sack.
Carmichael got to it first, undoing the ribbon. He glanced inside. The smirk he had was wiped from his face instantly.
"Where did you get this?" he asked in a serious tone he rarely used.
"What is it?" asked Balin, biting his nails.
Carmichael looked like he had seen a ghost. He held the sack by the end and emptied its contents on the wooden table. The familiar clatter of coins got Obby to stop his scrubbing and give his undivided attention to the only interesting table in the whole room. Before their eyes rested a pile of at least fifty golden Roubbles, shiny and beautiful.
"Not in here," said Chase hastily, covering the gold with his jacket and glancing sideways to see if anyone noticed them.
Balin stared at the pile and was only able to muster a few wow's and ooh's.
"Doesn't matter," said Drunkmonkey, "there's much more where that came from."
"Sheela's Lair?" Carmichael asked, still being dead serious.
Shamandur and Drunkmonkey smiled at each other, their faces bearing expressions of pure pride and satisfaction.
They both nodded their heads.
"But we need to be quick, and get as much as we can, there’s no time for beer and chit-chat," said Drunkmonkey, "We have no idea when the devs will discover the bug and patch it all up."
"Or other users. Then it'll be crowded as hell," added the other tauren.
Carmichael got to his feet, knocking his beer mug on the way.
"Then let's go now," he said quickly.
"Easy does it, dude," said Chase, moving slightly away from the table in case the spilled beer went his way. He got up too. Everyone else followed.
"That's what we think is best too. I've arranged scrolls for everyone," said Shamandur. "We'll be able to port from right outside."
Obby had abandoned tending bar or cleaning altogether and was trying inconspicuously to follow their discussion. When they got up he quickly got back to his cleaning, still keeping them in the corner of his eye.
Carmichael gathered all the coins back in the sack with one movement of his arm and handed it back to the taurens.
"I seriously hope you're not messing with us," he threatened, sheathing his sword.
Once outside the tavern and out of people's earshot, Shamandur produced from his bag five brownish paper scrolls tied by black ribbons. The night air had gotten colder and damper. Menacing clouds had gathered up over their heads and almost covered the entire sky. The gang formed a circle right in the middle of the spilling tavern light. Chase's interface showed that they were the only ones present in the area.
"We unravel them on three," said the shaman when everyone received a piece.
The shaman saying "Three" was the last thing Chase heard before he undid the ribbon off of his scroll, shutting his eyes. A feeling of nausea came over him as he was being sucked into a swirling vortex of purplish shapes, warm air wrapping around his whole body. He was cartwheeling through a tunnel that was getting narrower by the second, his head spinning wildly. He felt his lunch coming up but it was over as soon as it began.
The five of them were lying on the grass in a place far from Scuttleville.
"And you guys wondered why I flew," he said, getting up and dusting off his clothes.
He had never really gotten used to porting even though this was hardly his first time.
"I dunno, I kinda like it," Balin smiled showing teeth. He was already up and ready to go.
"You spend way to much time in-world, man," said Carmichael, pulling on Drunkmonkey's arm to get up.
Shamandur drank some water from his flask then gestured to the others to have some too. He put the lid back on and replaced the flask back on his hip.
"We're good to go then," he said, motioning to the rest to follow.
They were in the middle of a grassy clearing, right next to a dirt road. The road seemed to slither on down the horizon for several miles and end at the feet of a steep rocky hill. Through the mist, Chase could hardly make out the entrance of the dungeon which was situated exactly on the hilltop. They walked hastily down the road in silence, excited and eager to verify the taurens' find. This area of the World seemed much less cloudy, but the sky was starless. Its blackness mirrored the zone's general mood and atmosphere. They were adventuring through the famed Badlands, a zone known for its ruthless Firedragons and high-level Undead Munchers, a zombie clan of fallen elves who relied on unwise travelers for food. Sticking to the road was elementary in keeping the chances of meeting these creatures at minimum. They walked for another mile, Balin the only one speaking.
When they got to the bottom of the rocky hill, everyone reached for their pockets.
"We fly from here on gents," said Shamandur undoing his sack.
Five distinctly colored puffs were followed by the growls of five gorgeously looking winged lions.
"To the top Oprehus," whispered Chase in his mount's ear.
They kicked off the ground, the wind knocking Chase on his stomach. Through watery eyes he saw the others flying upwards beside him, gaining speed. Oprheus battered his wings harder, going further and further up, the top of the hill in sight. Looking down, he saw a massive forest spreading north wise. He shivered at the thought of the beasts lurking at nighttime throughout the zone. With one last flap of his wings, Orpheus and his four brothers brought the gang to the hilltop. It was a smooth surface, twenty feet wide, just enough to serve as their landing ground. They dismounted, stuffing their mountspheres back in their sacks. In the center rested an orb emitting ochre light in all directions.
"The bug's inside?" asked Carmichael, his hand shielding his eyes from the light. Icy winds whipped hard against them, forcing them to yell.
"Yeah, we need to go in." Shamandur stretched his hand in Carmichael's direction. "Let's party-up." His voice was carried away swiftly by the cold wind.
The clouds above began swirling in a dusty vortex of a menacing brown color.
Carmichael took the shaman’s hand and gave his own to Balin in turn. They formed a circle around the Orb, holding hands, eyes half-closed from the unbearable light. Their interfaces chirped, teaming them up and asking everyone respectively if they wanted to enter Sheela's Lair. They all nodded cueing the shiny light from the orb to expand outwards, swallowing them all in a bubble of ochre plasma and disappearing with a dull pop. The hilltop was deserted; the only sound heard were the vultures creaking in the distance, circling above the forest trees.
Pitch-black serpentine tunnels were carrying them off to the dungeon. Chase felt someone brush up against him who held the faint pulsing light of Balin's icon. The tunnel swerved to the left. Nausea crept up through his non-existent spine. Sommersaulting through the darkness, he felt the buzzing in his ears increase steadily. Hexagonal shapes of different shades of grey were plastered to the sides of the tunnel.
The buzzing in his ears was cut off sharply.
"I will never get used to that." Carmichael's voice was distant and muffled.
Chase opened his eyes to find himself lying face-up on a moist, mossy ground. Sharp and long icicles were hanging from the cave's ceiling above his head. Someone thrust a hand before his eyes.
He took it and pulled himself up, thanking Drunkmonkey.
Carmichael was leaning against a rock, his hands crossed.
"We're in Shiela's Lair. Now what?" he asked.
They checked their stats and gear and dusted off their clothes. Chase's map blinked SHIELA'S LAIR (5 MAN) in beige letters. They were currently situated in the randomly generated SHIELA dungeon, constructed from shuffled user data, plucked off of the database layers of the company's mainframe. He closed the map and tucked it in his pocket.
Shamandur and Drunkmonkey led them deeper in the cave, slashing quietly through thick spider webs with their swords.
"We're not going to Shiela," said Shamandur to everyone's relief. "Look for a giant heap of spider eggs," he said. "That's where it was last time."
They scourged through the cave looking for spider eggs, delicately avoiding the spiders themselves. All they had to do was keep quiet.
"Shit," cried Balin, putting both of his hands over his mouth.
His left leg was in thick black tar up to the knee.
"I stepped in a pond," he told the others and shrugged.
"That's from the spider," said Shamandur. "It's used to keep the eggs warm until they hatch."
Balin tried to shake it off his leg unsuccessfully. He muffled a sign of disgust while trying to wipe off the tar with his shirt. Balancing on one leg, he murmured a spell which appeared as white light flowing from his staff. It wrapped itself around his leg, pulsed three times in different colors and vanished with a puff. His leg was clean and dry. Tarless and smiling, he ran up to rejoin the others.
They were crossing narrow passages and had to keep their mouths closed if they didn't want to swallow any of the arachnid's web work.
"It should be somewhere through here," mumbled Drunkmonkey, pointing at a small crack in the cave's walls wide enough to fit just one person.
"You got to be kidding," said Carmichael, not trying to hide his discontentment. "You know I'm claustrophobic."
Chase took his rifle in his hands and went in first. One after the other, he could hear the rest of the group climbing in and crawling behind him. It was a very uncomfortable feeling, facing complete darkness ahead with no chance of going back. Carmichael's mutterings echoed through the tunnel, which felt more and more wet as they crawled further on. Chase found it difficult to crawl as the ground got muddier. He was taking shallow breaths of moist air and almost felt like giving up when finally he saw a small opening through which light dissipated in the dark tunnel. He cried out in joy.
They quickened their pace, their breathing echoing off of the damp walls. The light intensified.
Moments later, they were out.
"Good. This is the place," said Shamandur, his eyes carefully analyzing the room they were in.
Balin waved his staff at everyone, and their clothes were dried off by a bubble of yellow light.
They were standing in a large circular opening, walls covered in moss and black vines. Dark tar ponds were spread out unevenly around the room, spider eggs resting deep within each and every one of them. Some were the size of a fist, others were smaller, less developed. The place seemed more damp and moist then the rest of the cave but Balin's spell kept everyone warm and dry. The familiar feeling of being watched crept up on Chase again. He felt agitated, as if a pair of eyes was poking holes in his back.
"Where's the bug?" he asked.
In what seemed as the middle of the room stood a big pile of mud and rotting vines.
"Right over there," said Drunkmonkey, pointing at the mud. "Okay. Story time." Everyone pointed their eyes at him. "There's a quest in this dungeon that people rarely bother with. You know how it goes, slay the beast, get your xp and gear and get out." He was nodding his head. "Well, me and Shammy here, poked around a bit. To complete the quest, you need three mature Blackspider eggs. So, seen as how not that many people do this quest, we figured respawn time's a bitch, right? Well, surprise-surprise everyone, turns out- it's not. Not even by a bit. That's the glitch right there, before you. You pocket one, three more will pop up. Zero wait time." He was laughing. "And, vendors'll buy them for several Roubbles each; they're indispensable for some alchemy shit or whatever. They're really, really expensive. When we noticed the respawn bug, we checked the seller interface for their worth, figured we'd make a couple of coppers. Almost shit our pants when we found out. So, we gathered as many as we could carry, and informed Balin to get you all together. Sold 'em to the first vendor we crossed."
They formed a circle around the pile of mud.
"They're supposed to be inside," said Shamandur. "Balin, will you?"
Balin gripped his staff, murmured something under his breath and stomped it on the ground. The thud sent a wave of magick throughout the room, clearing away all obstacles including leaves and mud. The five of them stared at the clear ground before them.
"There's nothing," said Carmichael, blinking stupidly.
"I don't get it." Shamandur stepped up. "This is where they were."
"Well, they're not here now," said Carmichael, throwing his sword on the ground.
"Maybe they've spawned somewhere else, maybe we should check the other eggs," suggested Balin.
The five of them scurried along the room in different directions, checking the other egg stashes.
"They're all different types of eggs. I mean, same type, just different size," said Drunkmonkey as they reconvened. "They’re useless."
"But, all the guides online said that the Blackspider eggs required for the quest can only be found in this exact room," said Shamandur, emphasizing his last three words. "And the guides were right the last time we were here."
"Great," said Chase. "The devs must've found out."
"Or someone else," said Balin, leaning on his staff.
Carmichael bent over to pick up his sword.
"I really hope this wasn't just another prank," he said, waving his sword menacingly at the taurens. "Because if it is, then this has been the last-"
"Hello." A strange voice bounced off the walls.
It sounded scrambled, chord-like, neither male nor female.
"The devs must've found out," it repeated in a neutral tone. "I really hope this wasn't just another prank."
Beside the tunnel opening stood a figure of average height and size, but unlike any other user's avatar. The contour of its shape was distorted, fuzzy; its voice synthesized and genderless. Thousands of randomly generated images were screened on its translucent body, making identification effectively impossible.
"A hacker," said Carmichael to the others. "You messing with us, hacker?"
The hacker remained quiet and didn't move an inch.
"You caused this bug, hacker?" Carmichael started moving towards the shape, his sword in hand. "Show yourself, don't hide behind cheats."
The rest of them stood behind, afraid to say anything.
"You know that hacking is strictly forbidden," he continued, taking small steps in the hacker's direction. "You might be banned or even end up in real jail. Now, either give us back our loot and we'll let you go. Or, the five of us will hunt you down, figure out who you are, and report you to the devs. The choice is yours."
Carmichael almost reached the hacker when a strong quake shook the cave. Thrown off balance, he fell on the ground. The hacker seized the moment and ripped open a portal in mid-air.
"He's getting away," yelled Drunkmonkey, covering his head with both hands.
Chase, mustering the courage and strength, ran after their intruder.
"Chase," yelled Carmichael, still on the ground holding his right leg with both hands and gasping for air. It was trapped beneath a large chunk of rock. "Take this."
Chase caught Carmichael's sword and trying to avoid the falling rubble, threw himself hands-outstretched, right into the hacker's portal, split-second before it closed on itself.
His interface was emitting error messages while his head was swirling in the portal's whirlpool. No time to throw up, he told himself.
He fell face down into a pile of dead crops somewhere far. The interface was printing out messages at a mind-boggling speed, almost covering his entire field of view. He was breathing in cold and dry air.
Overcoming his dizziness, he pushed himself up and raised his head. A few feet away was the unscrambled shape of the hacker, running off to the horizon. The moonlight reflected perfectly in her long curly black hair. The dark skin on her bare hands was covered in tribal markings that shone in bright magenta. Unable to move as if nailed to the spot, he watched her run gracefully. The crops swayed sideways to avoid her beautiful body. Regardless of his confusion, the interface errors and the dark of the night, he managed to catch her icon's tag. NINA, it read in violet letters. He blinked and she was gone.
The farmer's field before him was covered in green error outputs spewed out by his interface. His whole field of view faded to black, as the world before his eyes was replaced by the two most despised words known to his kind, blazing apologetically in white letters.