When the loading screen receded and Roka once again opened his eyes, he found himself standing in a white room. He looked around, finding his guildmates standing around him, each looking to be just as bewildered and confused as he himself.
"Where are we?" asked Sycorax.
The dog wished he knew. The chamber seemed entirely white, interrupted only by thin black lines that crossed the floor, walls and ceiling in a uniformed grid. The brightness of the pale colour was not overpowering, and the cleric did not sense any glare from it. "Some kind of waiting area" he said, his voice a little uncertain.
"This is a holding area" said a voice. The guildmates turned, facing the speaker. The Game Master, who Roka was sure had not been standing there a moment earlier, stepped towards them. "Somewhere we can use to discuss what has just transpired" he said.
"A holding area?" asked the dog, "like a prison?"
"If you like" said another voice, this time from behind the group. Roka turned, seeing then a second Game Master as well. This one, though, wore the form of a tall female feline.
Gunnar glanced towards Roka. "Are we prisoners, then?" he asked, glancing to the second Game Master as he did so.
She did not move her head. Instead, almost coldly, she stated "Not at this moment. However, your teleportation spells are not available inside this area. Should you disconnect from the game, you will reappear inside this chamber indefinitely."
"It would be in your best interest" said the first, "to assist us in our investigation."
The buffalo glanced around. "Doesn't seem like we have much of a choice in the matter" he said.
Roka looked at the Games Masters. Dressed in sombre casts of blue and black, they did not immediately strike him as being especially threatening. The dog found it hard to imagine that each of these people were employed by the game's developers, equipped with the strongest of tools and set on the task of ensuring peace throughout the land of Valeron. Instead, he thought, they carried themselves no differently than any other avatar within the game, standing in the same predetermined animated poses and radiating very little in the way of obvious displays of power. The dog inhaled. "This is about the boss?" he asked.
"Correct" said the first. "This evening we became aware of the defeat of Abbadon. As it was the first such victory in the game, we checked the log of the battle immediately to verify its authenticity."
"We noticed an aberration in the amount of damage per second that was dealt to the boss" said the second. "This spiked in the last few seconds of the combat, leading to the boss dying so quickly that the cutscene did not trigger."
Exra looked up. "There was meant to be a cutscene?" she asked.
The second Games Master nodded. "When we checked, we determined that the damage was dealt by your guild's assassin."
Roka turned to face Aria. The woman looked at him, her eyes wide. "I didn't do anything" she said, "I swear."
"You must understand that, at this moment in time, your entire guild is under suspicion" explained the first.
Aria stepped forward, jabbing her finger out at the figure in black. "Suspicion of what, exactly?"
"Cheating" replied the Games Master.
The buffalo clambered over to stand next to Aria. "She wouldn't cheat" he said, "none of us would. There's got to be some other explanation."
Roka blinked. He stared at Gunnar, almost incredulously. "Gunnar, come on" he said, "It’s pretty clear what's happened here."
The buffalo turned, looking back towards the dog. "Roka" he said, warily, "Aria couldn't have got those daggers in any normal way."
The first Games Master moved, sliding gently over until he stood almost beside the group. "We have already determined that it was the daggers that caused the spike in damage which resulted in the boss's defeat" he explained. "Those daggers are GM only weapons."
"Maybe she got them from a quest?" offered Gunnar.
The Games Master shook his head, "Not possible. No quest in the game awards them; they are delivered only to us, and used only when it is necessary to deal damage in combat. They are not available to players."
Exra spoke up. "Maybe..." she started, before turning to face Aria. “Maybe she's a Games Master? Is that possible?"
"She is not" said the second. "If she were, we would be aware of it."
"Maybe Aria knows one in real life, then?" tried Exra again, starting to sound rather uncertain herself, "Maybe someone gave her the daggers? My point is, there are loads of possible ways she could have got them!"
Aria snorted. "Look," she faced the Games Masters, "stop speaking about me as if I'm not standing right here. I don't know where the knives came from; they just appeared in my hands halfway during the fight."
The Games Master nodded. "That is accurate. Our documentation indicates that you did not start the fight with the daggers equipped or in your inventory."
Giving an annoyed sigh, Gunnar held up his paws. "What are you trying to get at?"
A hush fell over the group. Moving in a large circle around the group, the first Games Master placed around the guild, before taking his place beside his colleague. They looked at one another, and then the canine one said "We believe that the daggers were given to your assassin by means of a hack into the game's code. And," he said, coldly, "We believe that one of you is responsible."
Roka glanced around. For a moment, he was certain that the room had grown smaller, tightened around them. The restricted feeling clenched into his chest. "So what happens now?" he asked.
"Now, I expect," replied Exra, "one of is confesses to the hack?"
The second figure in black nodded.
"Well screw that!" spat Aria. "I didn't do anything wrong, so I'm not confessing to anything."
The dog stared at her. This was wrong, he thought, all wrong. It shouldn't be happening. They were all going to suffer for this, he realised. Before he even realised it, he was speaking. "Aria" he said, "just admit it to them."
The assassin gave him a look that could have soured butter. For a moment, her mouth hung open, before she managed to say "I've nothing to admit."
Inhaling, Roka could swear that he could feel his paws shaking. Quietly, he said "You know that isn't true."
Gunnar shot Roka a warning look, "Enough" said the Buffalo.
Angrily, the dog motioned with his paw, sweeping it toward the assassin. "Come on, Gunnar. You know as well as I do that she's been hiding something from us. This has to be what it is all about!"
"Shut up!" snarled Aria, angrily. She glared at the cleric with a look of nothing less than fiery anger. "The only thing I've been hiding from you is my personal life, and that's because it has nothing to do with you!"
"You're lying!" snapped the dog. Roka was certain now that his paws were shaking.
It was Sycorax who spoke up next, his hushed voice breaking angrily. "Don't talk to her like that!" he shouted.
For a moment, Roka almost felt as if he were drowning. Did nobody else see it? He looked around, staring at the blank faces that surrounded him. "Why are you angry at me?" he demanded. "It's the only answer that makes sense. Who else here would have done it?"
"Roka, shut up" growled Gunnar.
Fire a moment; Roka genuinely couldn't believe what he had heard. He looked at the buffalo, the cleric's eyes wide. "But you know I'm right!" he insisted.
"What the hell is your problem?" yelled Aria, striding forward towards the dog.
Roka spun around to face her. "You!" he shouted. "You did this. You're the cause of all of this. You hacked the game, you cheated. You've betrayed us. Just like when you have Brakka all that gold."
"You're not making sense" she retorted.
The dog gave an exasperated sigh. She was right, he knew. His mind was rushing. Thoughts poured into him, running frantically. He could barely think straight. All he knew was that somehow, somehow, Aria was responsible. "Admit it!" he shouted again. "You hacked the game. You have Brakka the gold back. You betrayed us all!"
"Damn it Roka" growled the dog, his eyebrows curling into narrow, angry lines, "that's enough. We're a guild."
"Then we should act like it!" snapped the dog. "Instead of ignoring it when things go wrong, we should... Should..." The words failed him. The cleric struggled, desperately trying to find them again, but he couldn't find any. He could feel them sliding away from him. Looking around, he saw the faces of those around him. His guildmates. A sense of panic started to flood over him. Gaping, Roka turned from one of his colleagues to the other. "Why are you all looking at me?" he pleaded. "Don't you believe me? She stole our gold!"
Aria stormed over to him, her fingers clutching at her daggers. It was a futile gesture, Roka knew that. Even if the PvP settings were activated in this white chamber, which they did not appear to be, the thought of getting into a virtual reality scuffle with the assassin did not frighten him. But nevertheless the gravity of the motion, the importance of it, was not lost on him. "Is that why you're acting like such an asshole?" she hissed. "Because you think I stole some gold?"
"And gave it to someone who had been harassing us for months!" retorted the dog. Roka was breathing hard. He had wished that he had not gone down this path, had not said what he had just said in the last few minutes. But the words, he thought, had sat inside him for too long, festered there and turned bitter. "Why?"
"Screw you!" she spat back.
"BE QUIET!!" bellowed Biggie. Roka turned, looking at the rock golem. The towering figure had not spoken, he realised. He had not said a word until now. "NO SHE DIDN'T GIVE AWAY THE GOLD" said Biggie in a deep, rocky voice. "I DID."
A cold silence descended upon the group.
It was Exra that stepped forward first. "You did?" she asked, uncertainly.
Slowly, the large golem nodded his heavy head.
For a moment, Exra held her arms up, lifting them slightly from her sides. Quietly she asked "Why?"
"TO MAKE HIM LEAVE US ALONE" said the hunter, looking down at the ground. "I THOUGHT THAT IF I GIVE HIM THE GOLD BACK HE WOULD STOP ATTACKING US."
Silently, Gunnar buried his sad eyes beneath the palm of his paw.
Slowly, the rest of the guild exchanged glances. Nobody wanted to be the first to speak. It was Exra who spoke first, breaking the hush. "Why didn't you tell us?" she asked.
In a sober tone, Biggie said "I WAS AFRAID."
"Of what?" asked Exra, her voice filled with a tone of pleading. "We would have supported you. We'd have understood."
At that moment, Roka felt the eyes of Aria upon him. "I wouldn't bet on that" she said, her voice as sharp as her narrowed eyes.
The dog turned his face downwards. His paws started to shake. He didn't know what to say, what words to use. He didn't want to be there anymore. He eagerly searched for the icon to log out, but the words of the Games Master came back to him, echoing in his memory, reminding him that he would reappear here in this pale white chamber the very next time he rejoined the game. Frantically, he tried to think of something to say. Hopelessly, he said "I'm sorry."
"I bet you are" responded Aria, coldly. "Let me make this very clear. As soon as we are done with this, I've had it. I never want to see or hear from you again."
In a quaking, muffled tone, Gunnar said from behind his paws "Please. This isn't what I wanted for us."
"Life doesn't always give us what we want" said Sycorax. "I think we all know that well enough."
For a moment, the room fell silent. Then another voice rang out. "As sorry as we are for the incident with your gold" said the Games Master with the sharp canine features, "we do need to ask that we remain focused on this particular incident in question. It would save us considerable time and effort if one of you simply confessed to the hack that allowed you to slay Abbadon."
Exra inhaled. Slowly, she looked up at the figure in black. "What can we expect if one of us confesses?"
The canine figure looked at his female associate. It was herself who answered. "The daggers will be deleted" she explained. "And the guilty party will have their account banned."
Exra nodded, silently. The words carried with them the same tone and severity as a capital offence. "I suppose that there is no parole for good behaviour with that sentence?" she asked.
The Games Master shook her head.
"Are you certain it was even one of us?" asked the fire witch. "It couldn't have been Brakka, trying to get one last bit of revenge on us?"
"That would not be possible" explained the canine figure. "His account is currently suspended, so he could not have accessed the game in order to..."
"Brakka was banned?" asked Roka. "When?"
The second Games Master stepped forward. "My colleague has already said too much" she stated. "We are not permitted to discuss unrelated cases while handing disputes. Remain focused on the subject at hand."
"This is relevant!" insisted Roka. "If someone else has framed us..."
"Oh, shut up, Roka" said Gunnar. The buffalo removed his paws from his face. His expression was one of weary, forlorn emptiness. "After everything you've just done and all that hurt you've just caused... Just shut up."
Roka fell silent. The warrior was right, he realised. He'd screwed up. Screwed up badly. He closed his eyes, and looked away.
"It is possible" said Exra. "That is, it's certainly possible that the person who put the hack in place is not part of the guild, isn't it?" She seemed so calm, thought Exra, so level headed. He knew that she was older than the rest of them; he thought that maybe now he was glad of that.
"That is true" admitted the first Games Master. "It is possible that it could be anyone who put it in place, modifying your guildmates equipped weapons to change her daggers to one of our sets. But at the end of the day, the hack was done in order to directly benefit your group. It is therefore most probable that one of your members is, at the end of the day, the responsible individual."
Exra spoke eagerly, "But if we could prove that none of us were involved..."
"It doesn't matter" said Gunnar, rising to his full height. "None of it matters anymore." He stepped forward, looking from one Games Master to the other. "I did it" he said, with a tone of finality. "I hacked the game."
"Gunnar, no!" interjected the fire witch. He looked at her. His gaze was one of an old friend, one who had seen so much together and experienced so much of the world. He didn't need to say anything. The look in his eye was enough. Exra gave a sigh.
Sycorax moved forward, motioning with a skeletal hand. "Don't be stupid!" he snapped. "You barely knew how to set up your Facebook profile without my help. There's no way you hacked the game!"
The buffalo gave his undead companion a tender look. "They just want one of us to confess" he said. The words were clear, their meaning not lost on the youngster.
Roka found himself staring from one guild member to the next, and found himself feeling a deep, long sense of sadness. He hadn't wanted to say goodbye. Only an hour ago they had been on top form, charging their way through the secret hidden boss battle, confident as they stood arm in arm. Now, an hour later, all the dog could think is that their road together was coming to an end.
He turned to Gunnar and said "Why?"
With a trembling sigh, the buffalo replied, "It's just not as much fun as it used to be."
The Canine hung his head. "Please" he said, quietly.
Gunnar looked as if he wanted to speak, wanted to add something to what had already been said. But what could he say? Roka wished he knew. He wished he knew what he could do to put it all back together again.
The two figures in black glanced at each other. Finally, the canine one said "Very well. Your confession has been heard and we accept your guilt. Your account will be closed. As you are the leader of your guild, you have the option of naming one of your colleagues who may act as guild master in your place."
The chamber seemed to dim. Roka wanted to sit down, for a moment feeling as though the room was spinning around him. None of this seemed real to him, not even as if it were part of the nebulous virtual reality that surrounded him. He didn't want the guild to change hands; he didn't want Gunnar to leave. For a moment, he wondered just how badly his words on this night had hurt his friend.
Glancing over toward him, the buffalo blinked back the sadness in his eyes. "Exra" he said. "I want Exra to lead the guild."
The fire witch looked up. "Gunnar?" she asked. "Is it even worth continuing with it at all?"
As if to answer, Aria glared at the cleric. The assassin kept her gaze locked on him, rage bristling through her. "Not for me" she said. "Like I said, after what you did, I'm gone."
Roka looked around. For the first time, he genuinely felt that it was all his fault. The guild was breaking, and he was to blame for it all. Sharply, as if to drive the thought brutally to home, words appeared on the screen, deep and red and brutal. "Aria has left The Loser's Legion" they read. Roka felt tears start to burn at the corners of his eyes. He looked to the assassin, imploringly. He watched her, his desperation rising to a horrible boil as she disconnected from the game and faded from sight.
"If you are quite ready" said the Games Master, "we will carry out the ban now."
As Roka turned back towards Gunnar, the buffalo looked as if he was about to say something. For a moment, the Buffalo started to say "Don't worry. It's just a game."
All Roka could think was that no, no it was not. Not to him. It had become so much more.
And then Gunnar was gone too.
Looking around, Roka glanced at the Games Masters. Both dark figures stepped back, turning away from the guild. Roka blinked. Sycorax was still there with him, as was Biggie and Exra. But Roka didn't think that, after this night, any of them wanted to speak with him. One by one, they vanished as well, disconnecting from the game that had brought them all together.
Roka sat, alone and empty in the white chamber. This is a game, he thought to himself, a massive online game shared by millions. So why, he wondered, did he feel so alone?
Welcome to the next chapter of "Realms of Valeron". A new chapter twice each week!
It was the biggest MMORPG ever created, and took the world by storm. With billions of players from every corner of the planet, 'Realms of Valeron' allowed anybody to interact with one another within the gloriously realized online world.
But for Roka, a young healer, it was more than that. It was a gateway to make friends. Friends like Exra, the hyperactive rabbit rogue; Gunnar the loyal buffalo, Sycorax the maniacal warlock, and many more.
What adventures lurk within the game? In a world full of quests and dangers, the truest and greatest loot is yet to be discovered. Bound together by the oaths of their guild, they would face brutal trials, savage enemies, and more than a few bugs that the game's play-testers really should have caught before release... But this is no trite story of players trapped inside a video game! Our heroes can turn off the game and leave at any time. But why would they, or any of us, ever want to leave when you have friends like these?
Realms of Valeron is a comedy fantasy, part sit-com and part epic adventure, which explores the bonds of friendships in a digital age.
Look here if you would like a story commission of your very own! - https://www.furaffinity.net/view/30458500/