"I'm telling you, Kevin," David said, "don't let the fact it's a game get you down."
Kevin sulked. "I guess."
"This place is incredible," David said, gesturing around the hall. "Even if it's 'just a game,' look at it! I want to explore every square inch of it, meet everyone, save the world, fight all the optional bosses -- hell, I'll even volunteer for the letter sidequest if you want. If someone walked up to us on the street and handed us a copy of virtual-reality Dragon Legend 27 from the future, flat-out telling us it was a game, we'd think it was the best thing ever -- so why should you be disappointed just because we figured out it's a game for ourselves?"
"But ..." Kevin trailed off. "Let's not get into the discussion on meaningfulness again."
"Not until you explore the place, anyway. You'll change your mind about the game once you see more of it."
Kevin sat down, staring at the potted tree. "I'm really not sure I should. I'd just cause you more trouble."
"Like bringing magic into our lives and opening the door to the Shadowlands? Bring it on!"
"But I didn't actually do anything for those. Rosalind saved me and Diune gave me the pendant, sure, but all that took was being in the right place at the wrong time. Trent was the one who activated the pendant and killed Quinotauros, and you've explored the Shadowlands, learned magic and found a teammate and merchant. What have I done? I got Diune killed, got Trent hurt and dragged us into a boss battle beyond our abilities." Kevin looked at his sword. "I can't even use any special abilities. Maybe I wasn't ever meant to be here."
"Kevin!" David said, horrified. "This is all about you! It has been from the beginning. If it weren't for you we'd all still be stuck in Pitt Creek staring in envy at the TV."
"No, you wouldn't. I would. I'm always holding you guys back."
David pointed at Kevin. "You say that now. But look the computer games we play. Don't they always start out with a reluctant hero who doesn't recognize his own power? That means you're the perfect person to fit the role. We need you, buddy. You have to be here."
"C'mon, David," Kevin said. "That's only works in --"
"Game logic?" David interrupted. He grinned.
Kevin chuckled despite himself. "Touché."
"So please," David said. "Give yourself a chance."
Kevin examined the crossguard of his sword. "I guess I can't argue with that. Still, shouldn't we go back first? Fiddle with the pendant and find a way to bring Crissy in, or call Trent and try to smooth things out?"
"I -- I think we should give them both more time to calm down."
"Maybe, but now that we know it's a game, I feel guilty about coming in here. They're our friends, and they're real. We should patch things up with them before goofing off any more."
"Kevin --" David looked around, and lowered his voice -- "I want to fix things with them too. But that means showing them why I came back in, and I can't do that alone. Trent's pissed off at me and Crissy probably thinks it's my fault she can't come. I need you."
"Need me?" Kevin said uncertainly. "For what?"
"Let me take you down the stairs, and introduce you to Joix and maybe Emile. It's safe -- the two of us can handle random encounters. Once you meet them, you can back me up 100% on how much cooler the game is now." David's face brightened. "Hey, and I bet Emile will know more about activating the pendants."
"Are you sure it's safe?" Kevin asked. "You're talking about leaving the level. Couldn't we hit another boss somewhere beyond the stairs?"
"Naw," David said dismissively. "Downstairs is still the Hall of Heroes -- just the next floor with a little bit tougher enemies. Emile and I wandered it pretty thoroughly. We won't see anything at all threatening unless we go outside, and she said she's camped close by."
Kevin finally gave in. "Okay. Why not? It can't make Trent any more mad than he already is. And I am curious to meet Emile."
David led them down the ramps, again setting fire to a group of shadowlings as soon as they got close enough for the things' claws to extend.
"Those are the monsters that nearly slaughtered us all?" Kevin asked in amazement, staring at the melting corpses.
"Seriously," David said. "Granted, they're a joke right now because I was level-grinding all day, but even just killing Quinotauros must have boosted us all up a few levels by itself."
"Wouldn't you think that if we 'leveled up' in some way, we'd feel different?" Kevin asked. "Or there would be some ding, or victory music, or flash of light, or something."
David shrugged. "Maybe it's something abstract, like knowledge or self-confidence. Maybe it's subtle things, like how the time it's taking me to recover between spells is a fraction of what it was when I started this morning. Clearly I'm building up a larger Magic Point reserve. But keep in mind that characters inside the game aren't supposed to be able to quantify their own statistics. It's going to take a little ingenuity for me to rig up a system for that."
"Hmm. Alright." Kevin filed a mental note to make some observations of his own.
"Hey, Kev? Why don't you take out the next group or two with your sword? I haven't figured out yet whether the game we're in splits experience between everyone in the party, or whether everyone has to earn their own. I think we'll be better off if everyone gains levels evenly."
"You sure?" Kevin said. "I mean, yes, new armor --"
David cut him off. "Worst-case scenario, I've got like 10 spare healing potions. That's another thing Joix can craft shards into."
"Oh! Cool!" Kevin said. "You forgot to mention that earlier."
David shrugged sheepishly. "There was a lot to cover. Oh, and I asked him whether he's got anything like the Dragon Legend games' Phoenix Feathers."
"For character resurrection? Yeah, that would ease Trent's mind a lot. Did you buy any?"
"Er, no," David said. "Joix said he'd never heard of them and he'd have to ask around later. The game's mechanism for death must work some other way."
Kevin's face fell. "He's not going to like hearing that."
"True. But with how quickly healing potions work, we should be able to stay out of trouble."
Kevin took point and leapt into the next group of shadowlings as they descended. The three tiny creatures mobbed him, scrambling to do damage as he kicked them away and dispatched them one by one. At the end, he had a few rips in his clothing and scratches on his skin, but nothing at all like the injuries of the previous day.
"Wow," Kevin said, checking his wounds. "I could go for at least three or four fights like that before even thinking about a healing potion."
"See? You'll be fine," David said, scooping up the shards. "Let's go downstairs."
They stepped off the ramps onto the stone floor and toward the huge, ragged hole that Quinotauros had headbutted open. "Should I be worried about any of the new enemies down there?" Kevin asked, gazing through the broad hidden archway at the torchlit staircase.
David's reply was cut off by high, throaty laughter from above them.
"Not as much as you should worry about ze ones up here!" the newcomer announced, voice smooth and confident, with a thick nasal accent that sounded vaguely French.
Kevin and David whirled, weapons up. Behind them, a thin black humanoid figure was floating down on outstretched wings of feathered shadow to land at the edge of the pool. Unlike all the other shadows they had seen, this one was wearing garishly colored clothes and a bright red wide-brimmed feathered hat. He held a small metal box in his outstretched hand.
They heard a hollow click from near the stairway. Kevin glanced back over his shoulder just in time to see bars of metal slam down from the ceiling to block the arched entrance.
The visitor tucked the metal box into a breast pocket and swept his hat off, holding it to his chest as he stooped in an exaggerated bow. "Ze Shadow King sends his greetings," he said. "And unfortunately for you, it will also be an au revoir."
News: Happy International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day! April 23 is a day dedicated to posting free writing on the Internet ... I'm already doing so twice a week, but it's nice to have some sort of semi-official commemoration.
A little history behind the holiday is here, along with discussion of why giving your work away online can be a Good Thing.