“How many more pigs could you possibly need?” Jaerth exclaimed. He watched his master, a raven-haired woman named Bokta, slaughter a pen full of pigs and dump their innards into a boiling vat. The woman wasn’t preparing the pigs to be eaten, as evinced by the hexagonal star drawn in salt on the ground beneath the pot.
Bokta shot Jaerth a crooked glance. “Summoning requires great patience and great sacrifice,” she told him for the hundredth time.
“Yes, but have you ever been successful?” the insolent boy asked. He was only fifteen, and he didn’t quite know his place.
Bokta laughed, her youthful voice displaying all the arrogance her status as a blood witch afforded her. “It will work, little one,” she demeaned, though she was only seven years older than her assistant. “Just wait. In due time I will have the demon in my grasp, enslaved to my will, and he will obey my every command.”
“As long as I get paid,” Jaerth muttered. He herded another pair of small pigs into the room from their pen outside. He felt bad for them, but a job was a job, and he didn’t often complain. Needlessly killing a few pigs was pretty far from the worst act he had seen the self-proclaimed blood witch perform in her constant pursuit of some demon or other equally crazed machination.
“Bring my scrying mirror,” Bokta commanded, and the boy complied at once. The mirror was covered in many layers of filth and grime, with only the very center left clean enough to function.
Bokta sprinkled a few grains of powdered sulfur over the surface, bringing it to life. In the center of the crusted mirror, she watched her target - the demon she would summon into the world and bind. His name was Maxkrannar, and he was mighty indeed. Bokta had been watching the demons in their realm ever since she learned how to scry with her mirror, and they fascinated her day in and day out. She knew all their adventures, all of their heroic tales, and most of all, she knew which demons could command the others. Maxkrannar was one of the most highly respected beings she had ever cared to follow. His exploits were known through the demon realm, bringing reverence and obedience with it in droves.
“When will you be able to summon the demon?” Jaerth dared to ask.
Bokta brushed a strand of her black hair from her face. “You will know when I am ready,” she answered. “For now, we must continue to prepare for the demons coming. The components take a long time to make ready.”
“What does the demon eat?” the boy wondered aloud. “I bet he’ll be hungry when he gets here.”
Bokta put a thoughtful finger to her chin. “I have only seen him eat one thing, a dry biscuit,” she said curiously.
The image on her scrying mirror swirled and manifested before her eyes. Maxkrannar was at the center of a great battle, slaying strange lizards and massive hornets with impunity. He wielded a mighty war cleaver and wore what looked to be hundreds of pounds of gleaming, golden plate protecting his body. Sometimes, if Bokta was lucky, she would watch the demon use his own magic. Maxkrannar could throw great thunderbolts through the air to strike his foes, but she had only seen him do it on a few occasions.
The blood witch watched on with rapt intensity as Maxkrannar slaughtered wave after wave of vicious beasts. She tilted her mirror to get a look at where the demon was going, but she already knew the goal of his quest. There was a powerful queen at the top of a temple in the distance, a hideous being with six arms and two heads who could spit acid with less than a thought. Bokta had watched the demon kill the six-armed woman dozens of times. The method of the six-armed woman’s revival still eluded the witch, though she was confident her demonic champion would put an end to the wretched beast once and for all.
She watched as Maxkrannar ordered his four companions, heroic warrior demons in their own right, and the group gained a foothold into their adversary’s sacred temple. Beams of fire shot down on the group from towers holding enchanted lanterns, adding a warm red haze to the entire scene. As he had done many times before, Maxkrannar called out a command, and one member of his team began to glow with a pale blue aura that extinguished the flames.
Bokta’s heart caught in her throat when a new development, one she had not seen before, appeared in the scrying mirror. In the midst of combat, another group of demons charged in, and they seemed determined to bring Maxkrannar to his knees. The newcomers were similarly clothed, but they carried different banners attached to their armor. Bokta knew their sigil. She had seen it before, but only once, and never when her beloved Maxkrannar was on such an important mission.
The two groups fought and spells flew through the air, accenting the constant ring of metal on metal. After the briefest of moments, the clash was resolved. Two of Maxkrannar’s companions were dead, and the sudden attackers had all been routed. The three remaining demons stood still for a long time at the entrance to the temple. They stood often, sometimes not moving for hours, and Bokta had a theory about why. They must communicate without speech, she surmised, though if it was true, she would have a much more difficult time controlling the powerful demon when she finally summoned it.
Eventually, some half an hour later, the three remaining demons faded away into nothing. Bokta watched a moment longer before she tilted the mirror vertically and dumped the sulfur onto the ground. The image swirled away, leaving behind a sour smell in the air that matched Bokta’s ruined mood.
“More pigs!” the woman barked.
Jaerth brought three more into the small room and led them to side of the cauldron. “This is all that’s left,” the boy said.
“Fine,” Bokta spat. “It will be enough. Slit their throats and drop them into the mixture.”
Jaerth shivered in disgust, but he picked up the knife anyways. “What exactly does this accomplish?” he asked.
The blood witch whirled on him. “This is a demon I am summoning, not some basket full of kittens!” she yelled. “The demon will require lubricant to make it through the rift between our worlds! He will expect to be welcomed with a shower of blood and gore!”
“Fine, fine,” Jaerth relented. He slid the knife across another pig’s neck and threw it into the bubbling pot.
“Tomorrow,” Bokta said with a hiss. “I’ll summon the mighty demon tomorrow…”
“Fuck this. I’m gonna be late,” I mumbled. My keys were somehow never where I left them. In fact, nothing in my shitty apartment ever seemed to stay right where I left it. I pushed aside a few empty beer cans that had been building up on the only counter space in the room and heard my keys jingle on their way down to the floor. Apparently, one of the beer cans was still half full.
“I’m never getting the deposit back on this place,” I needlessly reminded myself. I flicked the switch to turn off the lights on my way out the door and nearly tripped over a package waiting in the hallway. It had probably been there since yesterday. I checked the label to make sure the box held my new gaming headphones, then tossed it through the door behind me.
My car, a beat up ‘08 Ford Taurus with dents in all four doors, was parked just slightly over the line in the parking garage next to my apartment. As it turned out, that was good enough to earn my seventh parking ticket in the past two months. Ratchet bitches always giving me fines… I crumpled the ticket and threw it in my cluttered back seat with all the others. My car doesn’t really ‘peel out’, but it certainly squeaks as I mashed on the gas to get to work.
As predicted, I arrive at Hefner, Deen, and Anderson Accounting, LLC exactly twenty one minutes after I was supposed to. And yes, I know my accounting firm is named after three porn stars. The old guys that founded the place had totally mundane names themselves, and they thought it was some huge joke to slap a risque name on the front of the business. Unfortunately, most of our clients are old ladies who inherited their money from their late husbands, so none of them ever get the raunchy joke.
“You’re late,” my boss droned, a short and portly man named Jim. He stood next to my cubicle like a little gnome, a sly grin on his face and an overly large coffee mug in his hand.
“Yeah, sorry, I’ll stay until six tonight,” I told him.
Jim let out a comically long sigh for effect. “This is your third time being late this week, Steven,” he chided.
“It’s just ‘Steve’,” I told him again. How many times will he refuse to use my name? Only my parents call me Steven, and they basically stopped calling altogether after I quit repaying the student loans I took out in their name back in undergrad. That’s reasonable I guess, but it still sucks.
“I’m not sure how much longer Mr. Barnes is going to want your kind here,” Jim said cryptically as he walked off, inexplicably humming some annoying tune into the rim of his coffee mug.
“Hey,” my only friend said, peeking his face around the corner of my little prison. His name is Brayden, a name I despise, but he’s actually a cool guy.
“You’re not staying until six tonight, right?” he asked.
“Fuck no,” I replied. “We’re raiding tonight.”
Brayden stuck out his fist for me to bump, just another of the wildly ‘bro-ish’ things he does to live up to his frat-boy name. “There’s my man!” he said with a laugh. “We can’t expect to stop the spectral invasion without our fearless raid leader!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Just help me get this audit report typed up so I don’t get fired. Realm of Crafted War isn’t free you know, and neither is my rent.”
“Dude, Realm is only thirty a month, you could make that begging for change on the street,” he said. I’m not sure if he’s serious or not. Brayden often concocted some of the world’s dumbest ideas.
“What about my rent?” I asked. To be honest, the prospect of never returning to this hell hole was somewhat intriguing. Maybe I’ll just keep buying lottery tickets.
Brayden’s face lit up like I’ve just suggested the best thing he has ever heard. “Dude, come live with me!” he basically shouted. “You can crash in my basement!”
“You mean your parents’ basement?” I clarified.
“Yeah man, Bill and Nancy would love you. You’re right up their alley,” he went on, completely uncaring that he’s a thirty year old with a full time job still living at home.
“Right up their alley?” I repeated. “What, am I joining their sex club?”
“Eww, man,” Brayden said with mock disgust. “Get outta here with that shit.”
I turn back to my work and press the power button on my monitor. “Just type half this report for me,” I told him. “If you get it done before lunch, I’ll give you an extra loot roll tonight.”
I could practically hear Brayden’s fist pump from his cubicle. “Yeah man, if those magic regen shoulders drop, I’m totally rolling on them,” he said.
“Yeah, get typing,” I commanded. I grabbed a manilla portfolio from a plastic tray on my desk and tossed it over the cheap barrier separating our computers.
Five O’clock didn’t roll around soon enough. It never does. The time just ticked slowly away, taking my will to live with it. Finally, after several coffee breaks, several bathroom breaks that took far longer than necessary, and a twenty minute foray to the vending machine that resulted in absolutely nothing since I had no cash, most of the office began to leave. I waited for Jim to appear fully engrossed in whatever graph was displayed on his massive monitor in his corner office, then ducked out a side door that lead down to an emergency exit.
Back at the Pineview Terrace Apartments, I threw some nasty pre-cooked meat pocket thing into my microwave and fired up my computer. My desktop computer was the only thing of value I owned in the world. I built it myself, and I was damn proud of it. My computer launched faster than most people would even be able to find the power button which was discretely hidden behind a white, unlabeled panel.
The microwave beeped, and I grabbed the hot paper plate from the little rotating tray inside and sat down to raid. The login screen took painfully long, but I used the time to open my new headphones. They weren’t the best, and the mic isn’t even fully posable, but they’ll work and they were cheap. Plus, they had a good bit more red LED lighting than my last pair, just in case an errant female happened to wander into my room and be impressed by a slightly overweight nerd with pretty lights over his ears. It hasn’t happened yet, but I never give up hope. I’m an optimistic kind of guy.
“Welcome to Realm,” a voice I know all too well chimed. For whatever reason, Snowstorm Entertainment had updated literally everything about the game over the last ten years, but the soft, female intro voice had never changed. I even made it my ringtone once, but that was back when I was in a rather dark place.
As always, I took a minute to admire my character on the selection screen. I had hundreds of different characters spread across multiple servers, but Maxkrannar was my pride and joy. He was my first character, the epicenter of my online addiction, and I’d probably die in real life if his data ever got somehow cleared from the server. He stood tall amidst a generic city of ruin, his two huge swords held easily in his muscled hands. He had horns that spiralled up from his forehead and marked him as an Oathbreaker, a class of fallen paladins that used to defend the Realm but now seek to destroy it. Oathbreakers were hard to play, and some said they’re overpowered, but I picked it for the lore. If I’m going to sink thousands of hours of my life into something, I want that something to be thoroughly badass. Some people had cars they work on every night, other people shoot heroin into their bodies until they die, I have Realm.
I clicked the enter button which starts another loading screen, this one displaying images of the great battle that has been raging ever since the last patch came out. The Oathbreakers have finally established a beachhead at Citadel Deathgaze, and enemies have been pouring out to meet us every day.
My voice-over interface ringed, and I clicked the little green phone icon that spliced me into the team chat. “Hey guys,” I said, accepting the party invite on screen as well.
“How’s it going?”
“We gonna finish tonight?”
“I finished your mom last night.”
“Guys,” I interjected, getting my four closest friends back on track. “Are you ready? We need more potions than last time. Hey Cro, did you get any more herbs? I’ll need like… six of those regeneration potions.”
“Yeah man,” Cro answered. He opened a trade window with me and handed over a stack of red potions. “Let’s just hope we don’t get ganked like yesterday. That was bullshit.”
“Yeah,” everyone agreed over top of each other.
“Did anyone check the message boards last night?” I asked. “I bet it was one of those lame guilds from New Zealand that’s always posting gank videos online.”
“Yeah, I checked,” Cro said. “If it was them, they haven’t posted anything yet.”
Our characters mounted up on various beasts of burden to head toward Citadel Deathgaze, and a strange smell in my apartment made me look around for its origin. “Ugh, it smells like ass in my place,” I said over chat. “Give me a minute guys, it smells like I left the stove on or something. It smells like sulfur.”
I sat my new headset down on the side of my desk. The stove wasn’t on, and nothing was backing up in the bathroom. I made sure my only window was shut and locked, but it always was. I thought it might actually be painted shut. I glanced up at the smoke detector in my small kitchen. A little red light slowly blinked on the front, and I guessed that was a good sign.
“What’s carbon monoxide smell like?” I asked once I had my headset back over my ears.
Brayden’s voice answered me. “It doesn’t have a smell, dipshit,” he graciously chimed in. His character, ‘strongwarrior43’, had a little speech bubble over its head. He emoted, making his character bend over in digital laughter.
“No, it smells like almonds. I saw it once in a movie,” Cro added.
“Then why would you need a detector for it in your house?” Brayden countered. He had a point.
“Because almonds smell good, you jackass!” Cro fired back. “Who’s gonna walk home, smell fresh almonds in their kitchen, and bail out? Everyone likes almonds. They’re gonna stay, and then they’re gonna die.”
I had to admit, Cro had a point as well. “I’ll look it up later,” I told them. “But if I suddenly disappear during the raid, you’ll know it was carbon monoxide. And Brayden, I’m leaving you nothing in my will. All I own goes to King Halfthor, the mighty leader of the Oathbreakers!”
“You’re so lame,” Brayden said. Again, he had a point.
We reached the base of Citadel Deathgaze, and then everything went quiet. A few low level Oathbreakers were fighting boars a ways behind us in the noob area, but other than them, no one was nearby. “Looks like its just us, boys,” I told my party.
“Woot!” Cro said. “More loot for me!”
“Alright, let’s get the buffs rolling. I can’t be late again to work tomorrow, so I need some sleep tonight. We need to be finished by two, two thirty at the latest,” I said.
The smell grew stronger in my apartment. I tried to wave it away, but it clung to the stagnant air. I didn’t have a ceiling fan or I’d turn it on. Maybe it was time to open the window.
“One second guys,” I said, my frustration starting to grow. “I’ve gotta figure out what the hell this smell is. Its driving me nuts.”
I checked the bathroom again and flicked on the fan, leaving the door open to hopefully vent the place. It took the efforts of two different kitchen knives, but I managed to get the old window near my couch to slide up a few inches before it abruptly stopped for no reason at all. The outside air was fresh and clean smelling, unlike every single object in my apartment. Sadly, there wasn’t enough airflow to get the wretched smell out of my raid space.
“Whatever,” I said, defeated. “I guess just call the cops if I die.”
My raid mates laughed, and it looked like we’re ready to begin our assault. Strongwarrior43 issued a magical shout, granting us each a power buff for the next eight minutes. It wasn’t enough time, but if we planned it correctly, the two minutes of downtime while the skill was on cooldown would come right during a lull in the fighting.
Something in my chest made me take my hands off the keyboard for a moment. “Guys, for real, I think I might be poisoned,” I said into the mic.
“Cleanse incoming,” Cro replied automatically. A blue haze washed over my character, clearing away any negative magical effects, of which there were none.
“I’m talking about real life,” I said, and the group chat got a little quiet. We cleared a wave of trash monsters in front of the citadel and stopped. “No seriously, I think there’s carbon monoxide in my apartment.”
“Dude, you alright?” Brayden asked.
“I—I don’t know.”
The crushing sensation increased on my ribcage. I tried to stand, but it was like a thousand pound weight had been strapped to my chest. I couldn’t move. “Guys, this is fucked up. Something’s wrong.” I could barely breathe.
“Uh, should we call the cops?” Cro asked, his voice ringing with concern, though I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or not.
“It fucking hurts!” I yelled through gritted teeth. The fake leather of my cheap office chair squealed in protest as I was pulled down toward the ground. The little pressure thing that kept the chair up to the desk height crumpled, and the whole seat dropped about ten inches.
“What the fuck is happening?” I yelled, thankful that my headset was still on. I couldn’t move my hands away from the armrests on the chair, and I couldn’t even stretch out my fingers. All the blood in my body was being sucked into my center. I felt like I was about to crash through the floor.
“Dude, Steve, come on man, what the hell are you doing?” Brayden shouted through the voice program.
“Come on, Steve, let’s just do the fight,” Cro added. That loser didn’t believe me.
“Guys…” I struggled to speak. “Call the cops. I’m gonna die.”
The invisible weight increased, and the rest of the chair beneath me shattered in a violent spray of cheap plastic. I had a few extra pounds around my waist to be sure, but I wasn’t even close to the ponderous size of some of my coworkers at the accounting firm, and I used the same chair here that we had at work! I knew it was exactly the same, mainly because I stole it from an empty cubicle a few months ago.
Lying on the floor, I could barely think. The headset had fallen from my ears when I had hit the floor, but I could still hear my party talking frantically through the speakers. It sounds like one of them was in the process of calling the police.
Good. I didn’t want to die in such a shitty, smelly apartment. Not before I finished my endgame build on Maxkrannar at least.
I tried to lift my head from the dirty floorboard, but my neck snapped back down painfully, holding me crippled in place. Then the floor began to crack as well. The wood splintered all around my body, and everything went black.