I woke up.
It was an odd thing, at first. I hadn’t opened my eyes, so there was still the same bleak black nature of unconsciousness. But I knew I was awake because of my other senses. I felt the sickly grass under my body. Smelled something charred.
My breaths were slow and steady.
I was alive.
Opened my eyes and saw the yellowish sky above me.
Green, misty letters floated in my vision:
You defeated Earth Dragon!
Blinked a few times.
The letters had evaporated, and new ones had taken their place:
You’ve reached Level 2!
You’ve reached Level 3!
You’ve earned the Dragon Gauntlet!
It all felt unreal — perhaps because it was. The letters dissipated.
Dug my hands into the grass, into the dirt.
My body ached, but I stood up.
The archers were staring at me. I couldn’t have been out that long. Surely they wouldn’t have stuck around, just staring like that? I turned around, hoping they weren’t all just staring at me.
The Earth Dragon lay there, defeated. Dead, probably. It really was massive. Roughly the size of a one-story office building.
I reached out and touched its mossy lower back. My hand slipped through the green thicket, expecting to find hide underneath. But that wasn’t what happened.
My hand hit something craggier, something that felt like bark. I pressed my other hand on the dragon’s back, to get some leverage. Then I began ripping the moss off the dragon.
After a few clumps, it was easy to see. The dragon didn’t have a meaty hide. It had a wood one. I knocked on the dragon, just to make sure.
“Look at the head!” one of the archers behind me yelled.
I obliged, walking parallel to the dragon, my hand grazing the dragon’s mossy side. A whole bunch of arrows had pierced its side, which meant my hand took a somewhat drunken path across the dragon’s side.
Within a minute, I’d reached the dragon’s head. The eye holes were charred. The mouth, too. I stepped into the mouth, which would’ve been big enough to accommodate ten men. The floor was squishy. It was hard to tell in the dark chasm, but I was pretty sure it was the dragon’s tongue.
I scraped my hand against the side of its mouth. It was made of wood: burnt, black, ashy. My hand got covered in soot.
All sorts of thoughts raced through my mind: How was this dragon made of both Thorn and Electric Magicks? Where’d it come from? What was it doing here?
The real answer was simple, in all honesty: the dragon had been created because Alex had wanted it to be created. It came from nowhere, or maybe just somebody’s imagination. It’d been sent here simply so that players could destroy it.
It’d been sent here to die, for our amusement.
“Hey!” another voice from behind me. I saw that it wasn’t a Thorn Archer, but was instead a Stone Warrior. Two of his buddies walked behind him.
“Hey,” I said. This was all too weird — just wanted to log off, to level up some other day. I’d find Alex in here. I’d get her attention somehow.
“What the hell was that?” The Stone Warrior asked. He looked much like a gargoyle, but tended more towards humanity than towards the bestial nature of most gargoyle-kind.
“I beat the dragon. That’s the point, isn’t it?”
“We were on the dragon.” The gargoyle placed his heavy hands on my shoulder. “Luckily we all survived the fall, but it was close.”
“Relax.” I wanted to brush his hands off my shoulders, but wasn’t sure that was wise, with his two friends here.
“You don’t get it. This is a weird place, man. And dying… it’s just weird. You’ve gotta be more careful.”
“For Christ’s sake, it’s just a game.” A realization struck me, and so I focused on my hand. Balled it into a fist. Felt the energy flowing through it. You’re saying some of you guys have low HP right now?”
“Yeah, because you seriously hurt some of us,” the gargoyle said. “That’s exactly what I’m–”
My fist flew. Thorns had grown out of my knuckles. It surprised me how little it hurt.
The green letters floated above the gargoyle’s head as I pulled my hand back. His two other friends were coming for me, now. I threw my hand out again. Before the gargoyle had a chance to respond, he fell to the ground.
The green misty letters floated above his head as he began to dissipate.
One of his friends grabbed the arm of the fist that had grown thorns on it. I bit his arm, only for my teeth to hit stone.
Dumb move. My whole mouth hurt like hell.
The other gargoyle came towards me.
I jumped, running against his body. It was like running up against a wall, with the other gargoyle’s hold on me providing balance.
“Fuck!” The word came out not from thought but just out of sheer, pain-fueled instinct.
I’d made another dumb move that hurt like hell. The gargoyle holding onto me didn’t lose his grip, which meant that I fucked up my arm when I landed behind him, our backs to each other.
My hope had been to flip him over. But he was made of stone, so he just stood there.
“Enough!” came a voice from outside the dragon’s maw. It was one of the Thorn Archers, arrow drawn. “Let him go.”
“He killed one of our guys,” one of the gargoyles said.
“Your guy’ll respawn,” the archer said. “Let him go.”
“He endangered us, then killed one of our own. It wouldn’t be fair to let him go, and you know it.”
“He’ll respawn.” The archer let go of the arrow. “You, too.”
The arrow struck the gargoyle holding me. I felt his grip dissipate.
I whipped around and thorn punched the remaining gargoyle. My arm was hurting bad enough that I couldn’t get him in the jaw, but I still drove my thorny fist into his stomach. That was enough.
The green letters floated, spelling the gargoyle’s death.