The pub was quiet. For seven in the evening, it should normally have been slightly more active, but the evening was still early and the bartender had only just started his shift. The lights were a dim, almost sickly yellow colour that the publican hoped would inspire a golden hue across the main room. Instead, it simply made the entire place feel very slightly jaundiced. The publican peered around the room through her thin-rimmed glasses, giving the bartender a sour no-nonsense look. The severity of her expression was accentuated by her sharp, thin eyebrows and short white hair, which gave the woman a look of youth far younger than her advancing years. She leaned closer to the bartender, and in a hushed tone said "Has he bought anything?"
The bartender glanced over at the customers. The entire range of them ran to a total of two. "Which one?" he asked.
The owner nudged her sharp head toward one who sat in a small alcove. "Him" she said. The customer was thin, wiry and bespectacled, and sat pouring over a well-thumbed copy of a paperback novel with little regard for the world around him.
"He had a coffee about half an hour ago" replied the bartender. "Been nursing it ever since." The owner nodded, and shuffled back into her office behind the bar.
A moment later, the young man glanced up, looking toward the bar. More accurately, he looked at the other customer, a man almost his exact opposite in every way. The masculine figure at the bar was thick, broad shouldered and heavy set, with short cropped hair that seemed almost to mock the other man's long locks. They rubbed a finger across their stubbled chin and ordered another pint of beer.
The door opened with a jangle of bells and a whirl of rain. A figure emerged through the open doorway, letting it slam shut behind him. For a moment, the large figure at the bar glanced over to the newcomer. The skinny man did not. The newcomer stepped in, shaking his hair. It was long, thick and struck through with splashes of dyed colour, and hung flat to his head in a greasy mop. The man, looking to be in his mid-twenties, was dressed in a pock-marked old leather jacket that was adorned with trailing rainwater. Beneath the folds of his coat, the bright hint of an especially colourful Dragonforce t-shirt peeked out. The man narrowed his pierced eyebrows, glancing back and forth between the two customers.
Eventually, the skinny man looked up, glancing at the figure through his glasses. The newcomer moved through the pub towards the bar, his movements echoed with a dirge-like rustle of his baggy jeans and clanging of his decorate key chains. The man stepped to the bar, ordered a pint, and said something to the large bearded person in a hushed tone. The large figure leaned back, shook their head, and motioned the man towards the cubicle opposite. The newcomer nodded his understanding, took his drink and walked over towards the skinny man.
Looking up at the man through his glasses, the skinny man set his book down. "Brakka?" asked the skinny man.
The man with the leather jacket nodded. "Didn't think you'd show up. Roka, right?"
The skinny man nodded. "It's Ben" he said. He closed his book. The other man sunk down into the chair opposite, setting his drink down beside him. "Must be honest" said Ben, "wasn't sure about coming."
The man took a drink. "We were just playing around, mate" he said, and Ben thought that he caught a hint of a throaty accent. "I know I got a bit carried away sometimes."
Ben shrugged. "How long have you been playing Brakka?" he asked.
"Since the beginning" said the man. Something in his tone seemed to Ben as if it radiated pride. "That's why I keep going. Need to stay the best, you know?"
Ben nodded. "I guess that's why I was a little unsure about coming along. Didn't want to wind up, urh..."
"Getting ganked?" asked the man. He smirked. "That was just games. Had to win, you know. Needed to get my point across."
Ben looked down. "It's not every day I do this. Meet someone from the internet, you know. I mean, most of us in the old guild never got the chance to."
The man who was Brakka drummed his fingers against his pint glass. "Yeah, that happens with small guilds. Some of the bigger ones, they meet up and have evenings out and stuff."
"No" he said. "Bugger that. Here, did you being it?"
Glancing down, Ben hesitantly nodded. "Full tactics for the final fight with the hidden boss. Yeah, we kept records of the whole battle. Complete how to win guide. Almost had it sorted until the stuff happened."
Behind the two, the large grim figure at the bar turned to glance their way.
"I'm not sorry" said the man. "About your guild."
"No?" asked Ben.
The man shrugged his leather-clad shoulders, and took another drink. "These things happen. It's a game."
Pursuing his lips, Ben said "But people get hurt. I mean, really upset."
"That's not my problem" said the man. "I never said you had to play fair. You see" he said, jabbing his finger to accentuate the point, "it is a game, right, and it has rules and all that, but I didn't pay for the subscription just to be any other regular player, you get me? I don't like losing."
Looking just a little nervous now, the skinny man nodded. "The guild leader, Gunnar, he got banned."
"Again, not my problem" said the man. "Look, I was serious when I said that I hope you don't take it too hard. People win and lose in games all the time."
"And what about you?" asked Ben, "you ever lose?"
The man shrank back in his seat. "Sometimes" he said. "Got a few friends who don't like playing board games with me anymore. But who cares about that?" He paused, taking another sip from his glass. "But hey, you know what I mean, right? I mean, did you guys ever really think it was worth it, with a name like your guild had? 'Loser's Legion'? I mean, come on, how seriously were you playing?"
For a moment, Ben stared at the man. He had a certain intensity to him, masked somewhere behind his dark clothing and aggressive appearance. At the same time, he looked curiously youthful, as if he was still little more than a boy himself. For a moment, Ben found himself thinking of the people in his guild. He wondered if, had things gone differently, this sullen metalhead with dyed hair and pierced eyebrows could ever have been a friend. Maybe even a member of their group?
He shook the thoughts from his head. "No" he said, quietly. "No, I guess not."
The man smiled. "See? That's why I'm glad you made it over here. You're smart, you get it. You understand that to play a game, you need stakes."
Ben nodded. "Sometimes those stakes are just stacked against you" he added.
Leaning back, the man made an accepting motion with his palm. "You don't need to tell me, man. I lost almost three grand on horses once."
Giving a short whistle, Ben replied "Steep."
"Paid it off, though" said the man. "Job at the post office. That's how I afford the subscription fees. Look, are we going to do this info on the tactics, then?"
With a gentle sigh, Ben said "Yes. Sorry. It's just that I came a long way to do this, thought I'd try to relax a bit first."
Canting his head to one side, the man replied "Yeah, of course. Sorry. How far did you travel?"
"About two hours by train" answered Ben. It was a lie, he knew, it had been almost double that.
Nodding, the other man said "Not too far, then. I live just down the road from here."
"Did you want to start on finding the dungeon?" asked Ben.
The man leaned closer. "It's random, right?"
Ben glanced over to the bar, as if checking that the conversation between the two men was still private. The large masculine figure at the bar paid them no heed, looking into the near-distance as if distracted with their own thoughts. Ben glanced back. "There's a few set places where the entrance to the dungeon will appear. I can list those, and you can camp them out."
The man who was Brakka shook his head, "Won't need to camp it. I know a guy."
Ben blinked. "Huh?"
"I know someone" said the man. "Korean, or Chinese or something. He'll get me into the dungeon."
"How's that?" asked Ben.
"He's good with exploits" said the man. "Making sure the right gear comes to me, that i get all the right enchantments on them, that l kind of thing. I spoke to him before coming out here; he said that as long as I know where on the map the entrance will spawn, he can find the code to it. Once he has that, he can teleport me right into the dungeon."
Slowly, Ben nodded. "Hang on. Wait, I'm confused here John."
"James" corrected the man.
"Yeah, sorry" said Ben. "James, right. So this guy, he can get you inside? Isn't that against the rules?"
The man shrugged. "More like tilting the odds in my favour. He's a good guy. I pay him a little and he makes things happen. Real wiz when it comes to that."
Nodding, Ben said "Was it him that set up the guild?"
For a moment, the man looked at Ben with a mix of annoyance and suspicion. "What is this?" he asked. "I thought you said that you were past all that?"
Looking down at his book for a moment, Ben bit his lip. He inhaled. "Hey man, I get it, you won. I think that's fair and square. I'm just curious about it, that was all."
"Yeah" said the man, "well let's keep it at that. Now, about those locations."
Ben nodded. "I've got a list. Here." He reached his fingers into his book, tugging a thinly folded piece of paper free from the pages. He slid it over across the table. "I'm going to get a drink."
As he stood, the man unfolded the sheet of paper and glanced over it. "Hey" he said. Ben turned, mid-step, looking back at him. "This all of them?"
Ben shrugged. "As many as we found. There might be more."
The man nodded, turning his attention to the paper. Ben walked across the room, stopping beside the bar. As he did so, the large figure slid free from his bar stool and took a few lumbering steps towards the door. As they swaying strides brought him past the cubicle, they glanced at the man with the long hair and said "Hey mate, you got a light?"
The man who was Brakka shook his head.
The large masculine form replied with a guttural grunt and ran a few thick fingers through their stubbled beard. "That guy there your friend?" they asked, flicking their head toward the bar.
"Nah" he replied, "just some guy."
The large form nodded. "Like your shirt" they said. James looked down, remembering the rock band t-shirt he wore. "You know Black Sabbath?" asked the large figure.
"Who?" asked the man with long hair.
"You know" said the large person, holding their hand out insistently. "Black Sabbath. Ozzy."
Glancing back at the paper, James shrugged. "Nah. Don't listen to that old man crap."
The large figure snorted, derisively. "No? Don't know what you've missed out on, man."
Lowering the paper, James looked at them. "I don't care" he said.
Looking almost upset at the reply, the large figure inhaled. Slowly, they shook his head. "Kids" they grumbled.
"Am I interrupting?" asked Ben. He slid back into the chair, setting a thin glass of cider onto the table before him.
The man with long hair shook his head. "No."
Leaning just a little closer towards the pair, the large stranger peered at the paper. "What is all that?" they asked. "'Under the great tree'? 'At the bay of the sands'? You were writing a story or something?"
Narrowing his eyes in annoyance, James tugged the paper against the table, shielding the writing from the stranger. "Piss off!" he snapped.
"Hey, don't be like that" said Ben. He turned to the newcomer. "Sorry. He's a bit stubborn."
The tall stranger shrugged their broad, muscular shoulders. "Is it something private?" they asked.
"Yes" snapped James.
"No" said Ben. "Sorry about my friend. Well, I say 'friend'. Let me explain. That list, it's a bunch of locations in a video game."
"That right?" asked the newcomer. "What games that, then?"
James sighed in clear annoyance. "It's called 'Realms of Valeron '. Can you go away now?"
The stranger gave James an almost diminishing glance, as if it were barely worth his time to address him. Speaking directly to Ben, they said "Hey yeah, I know that game!"
Ben nodded, with some enthusiasm. "You play?"
"A bit" said the stranger. "You too? Both of you?"
"Well" said Ben, "I did. Until recently. See, I had a guild. We were all real good friends. But this chap here" he said, nodding his head towards the man that was Brakka, "he framed our guildmates for hacking the game, got one of them banned."
Eyes widening a little, the stranger looked at James. "Really?" they asked.
Glancing from one man to the other, the man with long hair finally settled his gaze on Ben. "You really need to learn how to let go of the past" he said, finally, before turning back to the newcomer. "Yeah," he said, "I did that. Just one of those things, isn't it?"
With a light, playfully amused grin, the stranger said "Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is. Hey, if you guys play it, we should totally get each other's names and stuff."
Nodding eagerly, Ben smiled. "Sure. My character's a dog called Roka."
The stranger nodded, and turned towards James. With a curt tone, the long-haired man replied, "Brakka, and I'm a frost knight."
Taking a sip from his drink, Ben smiled. He smiled wide, like a cat that had just been served a bowl full of the world's finest cream. "And yours?" he asked to the newcomer.
Rubbing a strong, thick finger through their stubbled chin, the stranger replied. "Well, see, I have an assassin. She's really cool. You'd like her. Her name's Aria."
For a moment, James looked as if he were about to say something, but his mouth struggled to find the words and, in the end, simply hung open like its strings had been cut.
"Well" said Ben, "fancy that. What a coincidence."
Blinking a few times, the man with long hair glanced from one figure to the other. "What the hell is this?" he asked with an air of indignant.
"Bit of a surprise?" asked Ben. "I was surprised when we both met up earlier today. See, we wanted to plan this perfectly."
"It was his idea, really" said the newcomer. "I was really angry at him. Then a few days ago he came to me with this plan. How could I resist?"
"But..." stuttered James. "But... Wait, why?"
With a look of satisfaction, Ben answered "Mostly to have someone I could trust with me. After all, you shouldn't meet a stranger you barely know from the internet, don't you know that?"
"Yeah" echoed the large, bearded figure who was Aria. "I mean, yes, technically I was a stranger from the internet too. But let's not let that undermine the moral of the story, shall we?"
Ben nodded. "Exactly. What matters at the end of the day is that you were good enough to admit what you had done."
With an almost excessive cry, James snapped back "But I thought you both hated each other!"
For a moment, Ben looked at Aria. The muscular figure ran their fingers through their beard again and said "Don't be stupid. I was angry at him, sure. But don't forget, we're a guild."
Ben nodded, turning towards James, who continued to gape in bewilderment. "That means something. Haven't you learned that by now? It means that we stick together. It means that we stand together, no matter what."
"But..." bleated James, "it doesn't matter. So what if I've confessed to hacking the game? Neither of you can do a damn thing about it!"
"No, that's true" said Ben, glancing downwards, towards the table. "I can't. Dave here can't either. Neither of us are Games Masters. What about you, Harper?"
From behind the cubicle came a thin, light rattle of wheels. James looked up, his eyes staring into great wide circles as a third figure moved into view. She looked for all purposes to be a middle aged woman, older than either of the men in the pub, and James wondered for a moment how she could have remained hidden without him noticing. Then his eyes ran down to her wheelchair, and he understood, with a grim sense of finality, that she had been sitting there, just out of sight behind the cubicle, this entire time.
With a gentle grin, the woman said "You can call me Exra, hun."
James felt his mouth hang as if lead weights were tied to it. "What? What is this? A loser's convention?"
Smiling, Ben gave James a scolding tsk. Then he turned and gave a polite bow of his head to Harper. "Yes, of course, my apologies. Tell me, Exra, you wouldn't happen to be a Games Master, would you?"
With a few light tugs of her wrist against her wheels, Harper slid over to the table. "Well" she said, "not quite yet. I've only been in training since Tuesday."
James' body sat bolt upright. His wide eyes seemed to hover over the woman, his features taking on a look not dissimilar to a deer stuck in the headlights of a rampaging twelve-wheeled juggernaut. "What are you babbling about?" he cried, his expression doing their best impression of Munch 'The Scream '. "You are not a Games Master!"
"Not yet" she said. "But after the trial, I got talking to one of them. Turned out that they were very impressed with me. Something about how patient, impartially and unbiased I was throughout the entire affair. We got to talking, and it turned out that they were hiring." Harper smiled. "Of course, the training goes on for another six months. But I've got to admit, after the accident I never thought I'd be working again, much less find a decent job."
The man who was Brakka slammed the palm of his hand against the table. "You're lying" he snapped. "You're trying to stitch me up."
Ben held out his hands. "We don't have to do a thing. You've already confessed. Hadn't he?" he said, turning to Harper.
She gave what could only be described as a motherly smile. "I'll have to talk to my trainer, but this should be certainly enough to get Gunnar's ban overturned" she said, "and, I expect, a full investigation into your own guild and its history of illegal hacking. Now, young man, I'm going to tell you what I used to tell my own son when he was your age. It's time to turn off your video games and go to bed."
With a resounding snort, James rose from the table with a force that was hard enough to overturn his glass. It tumbled over into its side, spilling thick splashes of liquid as it did. By the time that the Aria had scooped the glass back up, the man who was Brakka was already marching out of the pub, his coat flailing behind him.
As he slammed the door behind him, hard enough to rattle the wood, a chorus of cheers started to rise behind him. Aria wrapped their mighty arms around Ben in a hefty bear hug, which left the small man gaping for a lungful of air. He hugged back, then there his arms around Harper, who was laughing uproariously. "Hang on" she said, "hang on; I'm going to phone Gunnar and let him know."
As she slid back and began to dig her phone from her pocket, Ben looked with relief at the large, bearded figure beside him. "I don't believe that worked" he said, breathlessly.
"I know" replied Aria. "Oh man, the look on his face!"
Chuckling, Ben smiled. "Hey, seriously though. Are we good?"
"Yeah" said David, clasping their hand around Ben's shoulder, "we're good. Sorry I got mad at you."
Ben shook his head, "No, I'm sorry. I should have respected your privacy more, not got suspicious. I just wrongly figured that you were hiding something."
"I was" they said, and tapped the side of their face, "the beard!"
A quick laugh broke from Ben's throat. "When is it that you're due to start hormone replacement therapy?"
"Four more months" they answered. "Once that's underway I can say good-bye to the beard."
Ben nodded. "Should I still call you Dave until then?"
They gave a light shrug. "I might change my name to Aria" they replied. "To be honest, I hadn't thought that far ahead. I'm not even out as transgender to anybody else apart from you guys. I just want to get to the point where I feel comfortable enough with my voice to be able to get onto our guild's voice chat, if that makes sense?"
"I wish the others could have seen this!" replied Ben.
Smirking, David replied "Are you kidding? No way would I let my kid brother travel this far by train on a school night. He'll have to wait until..."
"Hey, guys" interrupted Harper.
Both of them turned to her. She sat facing them, her phone held limply in her fingers.
"What's wrong?" asked Ben.
She shook her head, a sense of the joy starting to fade. "It's Gunnar" she said. "He's not coming back."
Blinking in confusion, Ben stared at her. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"He said..." she started, and then have a quiet sigh. "He said that the game just isn't any fun for him anymore. That he's had enough."
Quietly, David looked from Ben to Harper. "I guess that means we're on our own, then?" they asked.
Slowly, she nodded.
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/