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Pixel Courage 41

“C’mon, Chris. Try a sip.”

“I really don’t want to.”

“It’s good.”

“I…

“Just a sip.”

It was back in college when I tried alcohol for the first time. As with so many things, it was Alex who had to get me out of my comfort zone.

“It’s good.”

“Yeah, you see?”

“Yeah, it’s… I’ve had beer before, but–”

“Beer is different, Chris.”

“Yeah. This tastes good.”

“Haven’t I told you I’m always right?” It was a weird thing to say, but Alex said it with a big smile, so I couldn’t be so mad.

I sort of liked that she was always right. When I was around I didn’t have to worry so much about things. So long as she was happy, I could be happy.

The two of us started out the night just sitting in her room — chatting, chilling, having a good time. But time wore on and I drank more and more.

Without me really understanding what was happening, Alex took me to a party at some guy’s house. I didn’t know the guy, and I’m not sure Alex did either. Still, we weaved through the house: empty beer cartons strewn about, sticky floor, people I didn’t know.

Alex told everyone we were dating. We hadn’t talked about it, but I was so happy to feel like I belonged to someone.

We danced. We made out. I was so happy.

Nobody else mattered.

After a while, Alex took me into a corner of the room. There was loud music playing — something pop, no idea what. Alex took a plastic baggie out of her pocket. Handed it to me. She took another plastic baggie out, and opened it.

“Take it,” she said.

They were mushrooms.

“I don’t know.”

“You liked the Rum and Coke, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Then trust me, Chris. This’ll be fun.”

I opened the bag of mushrooms and began eating them. Leaned my back against the wall as I chewed.

At first, nothing was different. I don’t remember what we talked about. There was a sense that something was coming. I felt like things were different, but I knew it was a psychosomatic. When it hit, it hit hard.

“You feel it?”

“I… Yeah.”

The music was louder, almost overbearing. I thought about myself, about my relationship to the world. Wondered if I was doing the right thing. If I was living up to my potential.

Alex and I stumbled around. I told her I didn’t want to be around the loud music, so we walked through the frat house, eventually finding some guy’s bedroom. It was just him and a couple guys playing a video game.

“Hey, we’re gonna crash here for a bit,” Alex said. “My friend’s not feeling well.”

Head was throbbing. I thought hallucinogens were supposed to make you see weird shit, but that wasn’t the main thing. The mushrooms were making me feel weird. I would move my hand, and then only realize I’d moved it a second or two ago.

I was forgetting my past. Forgetting all the awful things my parents had done to each other, forgetting all the times I’d wondered if I was trans*.

I was forgetting everything.

The guys were playing a game. They were on the waiting screen, which meant a black screen with big letters scrawled across it. The screen said, Bullet’s Reign: Dead Harmony.

“Bullet’s Reign: Dead Harmony.” The words tumbled from my lips.

Alex grabbed my hand and shushed me.

The game took place in a futuristic dystopian New York. It looked a little film noir, honestly, with shadows and silhouettes drenching the place. There were alleyways you couldn’t trust and taxi cabs that would’ve belonged in the 20’s, if not for the fact that they could fly.

The screen was divided into four sections, each one following the perspective of one of the players.

There were four of them. Two were probably new at the game. They were running around the city, not able to find anybody worth shooting.

The other two, I could tell, had plans.

One was named Zed, the other MarkFucksYou.

While the two newbs were constantly changing direction, whirling their cameras around while attempting to get a bearing on their surroundings, Zed and MarkFucksYou both moved in a more assured fashion.

Zed found a dumpster in an alleyway. He opened it up.

MarkFucksYou, meanwhile, was leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Hard to tell whether he was running towards something or away from it.

I ignored the two newbs. Just trying to watch their screens made my head spin.

Inside the dumpster was a bazooka. Zed had a pistol in his hand, which went in his inventory so he could wield the bazooka. He aimed his bazooka towards the street. There was no activity going on there, and it was late at night.

MarkFucksYou jumped off a roof, but this time he didn’t seem to be trying to land on the next one. He turned his gaze down, gun in hand. Below him was a player, whom he shot at repeatedly. He landed on the player, killing him.

One of the newb’s screens lit up bright red.

On Zed’s screen, he wasn’t moving. For a moment, I wondered what was happening. What was his plan? What was the meaning of all this?

Then the other newb ran through the street, running in the direction of Zed’s aim. Zed shot the bazooka in the newb’s direction. One shot, one kill. The newb exploded.

Watching the guys at their controllers, killing virtual selves over and over, I had to wonder. Was this just what people did? Was the urge to kill so great that people couldn’t let it go? Maybe it was better to shuffle that impulse out of this world and into a fictional, virtual one.

These games weren’t games in the traditional sense. They weren’t like board games, or card games. They were about blood and conquest. You could link them back to riots and protests; to the French beheadings and Christian crusades and the fall of Rome and Julius Caesar’s stabbing and Cain and Abel. They all spoke to that same fundamental need, that need to say: I’m here, I exist, I matter. And perhaps, most frighteningly: I deserve life more than you.

After a couple hours the worst of my shroom trip passed. The guys turned off the game and Alex brought me back home. I had the worst nightmares and woke up still a little high. Still, even with my senses and thoughts feeling completely whacked out, Alex’s presence was calming.

“That was weird,” I muttered, staring up at the white ceiling, Alex laying next to me.

She wrapped an arm around my torso. “It was good though, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. I knew it was what she wanted to hear.

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Pixel Courage 40

The temple made me uncomfortable. A lot of things in this game made me uncomfortable, but the temple was a whole new level.

First you had the pillars of binary to pass by, which highlighted how self-aware so many of these NPCs were. They heard the PCs talking about the real world, talking about how this was all a game. That managed to affect both their psychology and their belief system.

The effect wasn’t lessened when I stepped through the doorway. There was so much searing light in there. No artificial light, I noticed. More like spiritual light. You had the light coming from the alcove that players respawned from. Then you had the light coming from the priestess’s sun heads.

It gave the place a spooky glow. And of course the walls were covered with binary. I watched the priestesses take a PC out of the light.

“Come to us.”

“Come to us.”

“Come to us.”

The priestesses pulled a respawned PC out of the light. She was an elf, with the diamond hard skin. Had a look of confusion, making it obvious this was her first time.

Funny how quickly I’d gone from being new at respawning to being able to spot a newb when I saw one.

The elf stumbled out the temple door.

Hadn’t noticed it at first, but there were four priestesses in the temple, now. There were the three I recognized from before: two with normal-sized sun heads, one with a sun head even bigger than I remembered. The fourth priestess had a smaller head than the others.

The priestess with the big head was named Diana. At least that’s what the bartender said.

When Diana noticed me, I can’t say she looked sad. She didn’t have a face to make the facial expression. But still, the energy of her sun bubbled up, spitting out. Bursts of energy flying in unpredictable directions.

She looked dangerous. She looked like she had to go.

She walked towards me and said, “I’m ready.”

I nodded my head and led her outside. Couldn’t see how the other priestesses felt. All I could do was imagine.

Were they all going to end up like she did?

We walked through Charon, moving to get out of the city and away from the innocent.

“You don’t have to look so sad,” the priestess said, voice deep. “I knew this was happening. It happens to all of us.”

“Why?”

“Circle of life, I guess.” The priestess stopped speaking for a moment, while we passed through the gatehouse and walked into Meltdown Jungle. “Ambition, too.”

“Ambition?” I moved in front of the priestess, unsheathing my sword so as to cut the kaleidoscopic foliage that lay in our way.

“I take it you don’t know how priestesses become priestesses.”

“I don’t.” My sword worked through a dense cluster of purple vines.

“We study,” she said, “attempting to contain all the wisdom the Four Sages have produced. Attempting to become a Sage by accumulating all their knowledge.”

“Someone new can become a Sage?”

“Yes, but only one,” she said. “It’s not easy, and it has yet to be done. But it is said that someone can become a Sage. Someone needs to, to replace The Rose Sage.”

“So you wanted to be the new Rose Sage.”

“Yes. I didn’t make it.”

I wondered if that explained her head.

She answered my question before I asked it.

“The knowledge is too much to handle. If you’re not supposed to be a Sage, the knowledge overpowers you. It leaks out of your ears, encircles your head, growing and growing, getting more unstable until eventually it’s too much. We have to explode.”

I nodded my head. That sucked.

“Like I said, don’t look sad. I knew what I was doing. Knew what was coming. This is the life I chose. It’s been a good life.”

There was another question I wanted to ask, but I wasn’t sure if I should.

What sort of knowledge could affect someone’s head like that? What sort of knowledge could leak out your ears, build and built until it exploded?

“You want to know what I learned, don’t you?”

Her ability to tell what I was thinking was uncanny. It wasn’t like telepathy — more like wisdom.

Either she’d had these sorts of conversations over and over again, or she just knew Heroes really well.

“Yeah,” I said.

Her head was getting more volatile, energy whipping around.

“There’s so much I could tell — the miracles of this world, its purpose, its madness. But there’s only so much your head could handle, and there’s only one thing you need to know: your friend is alive. You have to find her, because she needs you.”

I had to take a step away from the priestess, moving behind a tree. The energy of her head was lashing out, rays of light whipping through the air.

“My friend?” I asked.

“You know,” the priestess said. The rays of light began slashing through foliage, slicing orange leaves and yellow branches off trees.

Her head expanded rapidly. Her feet lifted off the ground. The star began rising, and the priestess went along with it.

“You know.” Her voice seemed so small, compared to the magnitude of the moment. The ball of energy got so big and so wild, lashing out against all the foliage of Meltdown Jungle, making it rain down on the ground.

When it seemed like it couldn’t get any bigger, it dislodged from the priestess. It flew into the sky, going higher and higher until I couldn’t see it anymore.

The priestess’s body fell to the ground.

Her corpse lay there. Her head was gone.

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Pixel Courage 39

There didn’t seem to be any trouble on the way to The Thorny Sword, but that wasn’t so much of a surprise. The point of the ‘mission’ seemed to be less about fighting and more about her talking to me. She was a good talker.

Her name was Raine.

“I like talking to Heroes,” Raine said. “You all say and do some of the craziest things. Then again, that’s part of your charm.”

As we walked, she held the hand of her boy, Joey. He was being pretty quiet, but he was smiling.

“You don’t believe it?”

“What, that this entire world is a virtual reality simulation, designed for your enjoyment?” Her smile was even bigger than her kid’s.

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, if someone told me that about my world, I’d be pretty upset.”

“Your world being the other world,” Raine said, “where the economy is terrible, everyone’s miserable, and you all have to come in here and kill things to feel better?”

A pause. “Yeah.”

“Honestly, I don’t care.” She let out a laugh. “Setting aside how self-centered that fantasy is, so what? So what if this world is a virtual simulation? I’m still here, Joey’s still here, and we still have to live our lives. Maybe it is a simulation, like the Heroes say. Maybe some of the NPCs who are terrified all the time have a point. But it doesn’t change anything. I’ve got stuff to do. Gotta live my life. We all do.”

Raine looked pretty nice, if I’m being honest. Gave me butterflies in my stomach. Then she started talking, and I just…

Wow.

“That makes sense,” I said.

We continued walking and talking. Joey talked about dragons for a while, telling me he’d liked the dragons before but now he thought they were terrible.

Throughout the walk I kept wondering how this worked. Did Joey respawn back at the opening to The Sewers? Did Raine just go straight back to The Soul Weaver, escaping from his grasp over and over again?

They were walking with me, though. As much as I enjoyed their company, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t going to be here for long. I tried relating to them — I wanted so badly to get to know them as people.

But they weren’t people, not really. They were NPCs.

Even worse, as much as I liked walking with them, I didn’t like our destination: The Thorny Sword. My last trip there hadn’t exactly been… pleasant.

I was worried what the bartender would do when she saw me again. Fight me?

Took a deep breath. It wasn’t a big deal if she tried fighting with me. In that case I could just kill her and take the XP. But that didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to fight the bartender.

She wasn’t wrong; I really had been a bit of a dick.

We walked, they talked, I listened, and I panicked.

After what seemed like a long, long time, we ended up in front of The Thorny Sword.

“Well,” I said, voice feeling hollow, “I guess my work here is done. I’m gonna take the XP and go now.”

“You don’t wanna sit down and talk some more?” she asked.

“Got a lot of…” I didn’t have a good excuse, not really, but I did my best. “Need to finish some other missions.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’ve at least got to take me into the building if you want to finish the mission.”

Damn it. With a gulp, I nodded my head.

“Alright,” I said. “Let’s go.”

Joey practically pulled his mother into The Thorny Sword. I followed the two of them.

The moment we got into the tavern, my heart started beating faster.

For a second, the bartender lit up. Her orcish features beamed to see Raine and Joey. Then she saw me; she wasn’t so happy to see me.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” she asked.

Good question.

I checked QUEST LOG and saw that I’d technically finished the mission by walking Raine and Joey into The Thorny Sword.

So I figured I just had to explain I was going. “I–”

Raine didn’t let me finish. “This Hero saved me.”

“He killed a troll.”

“Vinnie?” Raine asked.

“Yeah,” the bartender said.

“He was a drunk and an asshole. He respawned, right?”

“Yeah,” the bartender said.

“No harm, no foul,” Raine said. “Maybe after the respawn he’ll have a better personality. Joey was standing out in the city all by himself, and Chris made sure I could see my kid again.”

The bartender didn’t say anything.

“I think he’s cool,” Joey said.

The bartender shot me a dirty look, but she still didn’t say anything.

“Give him a mission.” Rained grabbed the bartender’s hand. “For me.”
The bartender’s look didn’t get any sweeter, but she did start talking. “I’ve got something for you. It involves death, so you should be good at it.”

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Pixel Courage 38

In the darkness of The Sewers, it was hard to tell where exactly the Blood Dragon was. But clearly, he was close.

Panic set in. Couldn’t let the dragon see me.

And so, as the dragon wailed on — roaring about something lost, something found, or maybe just the wickedness of a life created solely for the purpose of others destroying it — I let the water carry me forward.

I took a deep breath.

Plunged my head into the dark water.

There were a couple of things I thought about, as I swam through the grimy water.

One: the water was gross, but there wasn’t too much to be worried about. It’s not like germs could affect me here, right?

Two: the water pressure wasn’t quite right down here. My ears didn’t get that same popping sensation they had when I swam back in the real world.

And three: I shouldn’t technically have to breathe.

The water dulled the roars of the Blood Dragon. And so I continued swim, wondering if I could keep doing this until I found the Soul Weaver. But how to find him?

Able to see so little, hear so little, how would I find him?

I continued swimming, hoping something would help me figure out the answer.

The Blood Dragon’s roar got ear-splittingly loud, even under the water. He must’ve been right on top of me.

My lungs were starting to burn. You don’t need to breathe, I told myself. You don’t need to breathe.

As I moved through the water, the roars began to dull. Getting softer and softer.

Lungs burning.

It was safer down here in the water. And I should be able to stay down here. But my lungs felt like they were going to split open.

My head broke through the water. I took a breath, then went back in.

Time blurred down here, since there wasn’t any sun. No idea how long I spent in the water, drifting along with the current, nothing to accompany but the roars of the dragon and one singular question: how would I find The Soul Weaver?

Eventually, the environment gave me an answer. Or at least, I thought it was an answer. When I broke my head through the water to get another breath, I saw a weaving, shimmering light.

Dipped my head back into the water, allowing the water to guide me in the direction of the light.

Didn’t hear any Blood Dragon roaring, so I peeked my head out of the water to make sure I was going in the right direction. Things went on like that, the water pulling me along, me occasionally peeking my head out of the water to make sure I was going in the right direction.

The light went on and on. There wasn’t even a promise that the light would lead me to The Soul Weaver, but I didn’t have anything better to go on. So I swam.

When I reached something, I was almost surprised. I saw The Soul Weaver standing in a little concrete alcove, standing with a woman. The magic light allowed me to see them pretty clearly, though I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

The man had on a long, red robe. His mouth was just an inch away from a lady’s ear. He was talking to the brown-haired woman. Her features were a little reminiscent of the kid I’d come here for.

Bingo.

I swam to the concrete side of The Sewers, fighting against the current. Grabbed onto its edge and dragged myself out of the murky water. It pulled at me, since I was soaking wet. My armor felt cold and gross.

“Fuck you,” I yelled, struggling to be heard over the rushing water.

The Soul Weaver turned to look at me.

He moved his lips. Something like, “Who are you?” or “Why are you here?”

Didn’t have my sword, but I didn’t need to have my sword. Energy pulsed through the veins in my hand. Thorns broke through my knuckles.

The Soul Weaver raised his hand in the air. The light that illuminated us moved with the movement of his hands. It began encircling me.

“Son of a bitch,” I said. No way anyone would hear me, but in all honesty, I liked it that way. Punched at the light wrapped around my torso. My fist went through the light, but it still had a firm hold of me.

I wriggled, trying to get unwrapped from this thing. I saw that The Soul Weaver was struggling to manipulate the lights like this. Would it be possible to break the light if I made him struggle hard enough.

My fists kept punching through the light, but there wasn’t any HP indicators flashing before my eyes.

I pushed against the light, hit it, struggled with it.

The light picked me up off the ground.

Figured I was done for.

Then I saw the brown-haired lady he was with. She punched him in the face.

The second she did that, the light dissipated. I fell to the floor.

98% HP

I could take 2% damage. I got up off the concrete floor and saw the lady standing over The Soul Weaver.

Her knuckles were a bit bloodied, and The Soul Weaver wasn’t moving. She walked over to me and yelled, “Thanks for the help.” Then, with a smile, “Also, you’re welcome.”

She ran off, and I followed her. We ran through The Sewers, thankfully taking the dryer version.

When we got to the ladder that led back up to the city, she noticed the sword lying on the floor. I picked it up. She backed away from it and went up the ladder.

Once we’d both gotten to the top, the kid hugged his mother.

“Seriously, though,” she said. “Thanks. Sewers aren’t really my style.”

“Yeah, well… I was just doing the mission.”

“Were you?” she asked.

You’ve reached Level 7!

The green letters flashed before my eyes.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. What’d she want me to say?

“Well, I hope it feels good, being a hero.”

I nodded my head. “It does.”

“You know, if you’re looking for another mission, I’ve got one for you.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “My son and I need to go to The Thorny Sword so I can take care of some business. But after the way those dragons took me, I’m thinking I could use some protection.”

“I can do that.”

“Great,” she said. “Follow me.”

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Pixel Courage 37

Death felt like an old acquaintance I’d met once. One who I’d really hoped I wouldn’t have to meet again, despite knowing the situation would make that difficult. We’d said hi once, yeah. But I certainly didn’t want to be seeing her all that often.

Still, standing in the bright hot light of the temple, I knew death would start becoming a friend.

“Come to us,” a soft feminine voice said.

“Come to us.” A second.

“Come to us.” A third.

This time I knew the drill, so it wasn’t as disorienting to figure out how to get into the main room of the temple. I walked towards the voices. Reached my hand out, and let it get grabbed by one of the priestesses.

She pulled me away from the glaring hot light of The Source, and into the temple, where I could actually see things.

Just like before, the priestesses all had heads that looked remarkably like miniature suns. The one who had pulled me out had a bigger sun than the rest.

She spoke with a deep voice. “You smell of dragon blood.”

That caused two thoughts to rattle my head simultaneously, each of them competing for my attention.

The first was, How can she talk without a mouth? Where was the sound coming from?

And the second question, Does my smell stick with me even after I’ve died?

The second question won out when I realized it was the most interesting. So I asked it.

“You can smell it even after I’ve respawned?” I asked.

“Not usually, but I can smell the dragon’s blood.” Her sun head crackled with a white hot energy. “Blood Dragons are an unnatural thing. A perversion of the natural order. It clings to you for awhile.” Her voice was a whisper, as if she’d deigned me worthy of a terrible secret.

“What’s the best way to kill one?” Because let’s be honest: that’s the only thing I really gave a shit about.

“You can’t.” The whisper grew even a little softer, such that I had to lean in to hear what the priestess was saying. “Blood Dragons are already dead.”

I struggled to hide my frustration. Seriously, this priestess couldn’t have been a little more helpful?

“You’re saying I can’t defeat it?”

“You can’t kill it,” the priestess said. “What you can do is destroy it, but that won’t happen if you confront them directly.”

“How will it happen?”

“By killing The Soul Weaver.”

This priestess was driving me fucking nuts. All I wanted to do was complete this mission, but every answer she gave me seemed to prompt a new question.

“Who’s The Soul Weaver?”

“The Soul Weaver is the one who created the Blood Dragons. It is he who took the souls of dragons unborn and weaved them into these not-living creatures — these never-living creatures. Kill him, and you kill the magic that holds The Blood Dragons together. Kill that magic, and you destroy the Blood Dragons.”

“Where can I find him?”

“In the Sewers.”

So, in order to kill the dragons, all I had to do was traverse the area where I couldn’t see or hear much of anything, all while avoiding the creatures that could kill me super-easily.

Thank god for respawns.

I walked past the kid, who lay on the ground, looking through the opening to The Sewers. He looked up at me as I approached.

“I died.” The explanation as to how I had come out of The Sewers. “I came back. Your mom’s gonna be safe, kid. Alright?” The explanation. The promise. I meant it.

He looked up at me and said, “Okay.”

I went back into The Sewers, climbing down the ladder that allowed me into its dark abyss.

Heart pounding.

Knowing there was no way I could survive if one of these dragons came after me. Truth be told, the experience was thrilling.

First, I had to figure out how to avoid the dragons. I’d seen the one I confronted ahead of time because it roared, but there was no guarantee I’d see the next one.

Instead of sticking to the side of the sewer like I had last time, I decided to try a different strategy. Took my sword out of its hilt and lay it on the ground. Wouldn’t do me any good against a dragon, and it would drag me down while I swam

Then I took a deep breath.

Slipped into the filthy water. I kept my head above it, even though you probably couldn’t get any diseases in the game. Just the very concept of dipping my head in the filth seemed like a bad idea.

The rest of my body was submerged, though, and so the water pushed me along, down the dark corners where I couldn’t see a thing. It felt like being on an amusement park ride: you just followed the path you were supposed to. Spectacular danger seemed to lurk at every corner, and in the back of your head you wondered if something could go wrong.

Of course, the animatronics in amusement park rides weren’t actually going to kill you. The Blood Dragons might.

As the current of the dirty water pulled me along, I heard a Blood Dragon roar.

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Pixel Courage 36

Hard to see anything, in the darkness of The Sewers. I held my sword out. Didn’t want to waste time unsheathing it, if any danger came my way.

The place was damp but hot. Smelled like shit, which made all too much sense. I walked along the side, a small walkway which kept me out of the dirty water. The sound of it rushing by blocked out the sound of anything else. My hope was that that meant it merely blocked out the sound of silence.

At the same time, there was the knowledge that a monster could very much take me by surprise. My eyes couldn’t see much in the darkness. My ears couldn’t hear much, over the water. And even my sense of smell was weakened by the stench of The Sewers.

Walking in the path of dragons would’ve been bad enough. Walking in the path of dragons while blind was even worse. Walking in the path of dragons, while I was practically blind, deaf, and even unable to smell anything. Not a great position to be in.

Oh, yeah, and they weren’t just dragons, they were Blood Dragons. Whatever the fuck that meant. Whatever it meant, it couldn’t be good. It’s not exactly like you put “Blood” in front of things that were sweet and kind. Blood Grandma, Blood Teddy Bear, Blood Snuggles. That shit just didn’t make any sense.

I continued trekking next to the running dirty water.

Footsteps weren’t the way to do things. Instead, I shuffled along the edge of the sewer, making sure I didn’t take a wrong step and tumble right in.

In fact, I got pretty close to stumbling into the sewage at one point. Realizing it was a turn, I instead walked. This time I kept my hand on the wall to make sure I didn’t fall in.

Given the state I was in — which is to say, ‘unable to notice jack-shit’ — it was pretty easy for me to feel afraid. This feeling was exacerbated by a sound that managed to break over the rushing water.

At first I questioned why the sound reminded me of the Jurassic Park films. Then I realized it wasn’t dragons I was hearing.

It was Blood Dragons.

I reached an area where a bit of light was shining through from above. It was in front of me, off in the distance, but it at least made me vaguely aware of my surroundings.

In the light there was a sliver of red.

Sword drawn, I approached.

It didn’t look like a wing or a foot. No idea what the sliver of red was.

The dragon made another loud roaring sound, reminding me that it did of course belong to the Blood Dragon. In that dragon’s roar, there was something peculiar — something that hadn’t been heard from the Earth Dragon.

When the Earth Dragon roared, it’d sounded almost obligatory. Roaring was just the way it communicated. With the Blood Dragon, things were entirely different. It sounded more mournful. I heard in its roar a pang of anger and a pang of sorrow. It reminded me of a train whistling away in the dead of night. You know: it had that power, but also that sense of aching loneliness.

I continued the approach. It became clear to me that the sliver of red was a bone.

I approached the light. Got used to the confusing mix of light and darkness. Thought I could see the outline of the dragon. It was huge.

The bone sliced in my direction.

Thwacked it away with my sword.

79/80 HP

The red bone was connected to The Blood Dragon.

The red bone was The Blood Dragon. I saw that the bone was really just the edge of one of its wings. The whole dragon was a skeleton.

The dragon once again tried bringing the sharp bone of its wing down on my head. Once again, I blocked it, hacking my sword at the bone to bring it off course.

It hit against the concrete floor, missing me.

Still, a sharp pain ripped through my arm. The bone had been so powerful, the dragon’s size giving it an advantage when it came to strength.

93% HP

No way I could keep up this sort of attack, not with my HP dropping seven points just because of the force of the blow. Thorn Punch wasn’t likely to do much damage against bones, anyway.

The bone came down again. I used my sword to protect myself.

86% HP

Fuck.

78/80 HP

So far as I could tell, there was no way to fight this dragon with my current powerset, not unless I could figure out how Lightning Eyes actually worked.

The pain in my arm made it hard to think. I switched the sword into my non-dominant hand, backing slowly away from the dragon.

Would that make it charge forward? No idea how to tell what the dragon might do.

No choice, though. The dragon outclassed me big time.

As I backed up, the Blood Dragon moved forward. The red bony wing came more into view. I could see it was leaf-shaped, with a lattice-like collection of bones stretching across the empty space in the wing’s outline.

After that, the red bone foot came into view, its three sharp talons coming out the three toes.

The wing of the dragon became shrouded in darkness by the time the head came into view. It looked just like a dinosaur skull — the sort you might see in a museum. Except this skull was read instead of white. And the eye sockets weren’t empty. There was a cloudy whiteness in them, at the center of which lay a dot.

The Blood Dragon roared again, this time with much more anger suffusing the pain. To put it simply, I was clearly in some deep shit.

I turned around and ran.

No more subtlety, no more backing away slowly.

Sheer. Fucking. Terror. Racing through my veins and pulsing through my heart. It welled up inside me.

Arm hurt while I ran. My feet smacked against the hard floor, over and over.

The Blood Dragon’s roar drowned out even the sound of rushing water.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

For a moment, the rushing water once again overtook the sound of the dragon’s roar. I craned my neck to see what the dragon was doing.

Something flew out of its mouth. No way of telling what exactly, in the darkness. Fire? But it didn’t emit light the way fire was supposed to.

My foot ran out of floor to run across. I’d forgotten there was a turn here, and that running straight led me straight into the water.

Too late.

As I began falling towards the septic water, the dragon’s fire hit my back.

But it wasn’t fire. No, it was an acidic substance. Ate through my armor in half a second. Was eating through my skin before my foot even touched the water.

My HP Bar made its way to 0% before I had time to process what’d happened.

With everything burning — everything hurting — I died.

I died before I’d even touched the water.

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Pixel Courage 35

I walked down the cobblestone path of Charon, hoping to get out of the city so that I could just get away from the human-like NPCs.

It was easier out in Meltdown Jungle and The Weeping Plains, where I didn’t have to deal with these NPCs complaining about their feelings, their screaming. The NPCs out there were more recognizably inhuman — they were recognizably monstrous.

It made me think about the frontier. How we’d lost it so long before I was born. How it was impossible to be a cowboy, slinging your way through the plains, exploring new land and not being bound by so much civilization.

In a sense, that’s what video games offered: they gave you that sense of a frontier, where nobody knew who you were, where you could escape and do what people were meant to do. You could go out there and fight, survive, kill.

All these thoughts swirled through my head as I made my way toward the gatehouse. Walking down the cobblestone path, which merchants lined up on both my left and my right, I tried to avoid their gaze.

The ones who weren’t busy had a look of dead-eyed half-life, which bothered me. Standing in a corner, though, was a little boy. He was crying.

I walked up to him. Observed the fact that he wasn’t wearing armor — just a plain green tunic. Surely a PC would put on some sort of armor. And thinking about it, I’d never seen a PC cry.

Probably an NPC? Still, something about seeing him — a brown-haired youth, tears running down his face — made me feel compelled to stop. A part of me didn’t want to. A part of me thought, Fuck NPCs. They’re not worth the trouble, unless you’re trying to kill them. But still…

Something in me just wouldn’t let the little boy stay there crying like that.

“Hi,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

I stood there, feeling cold.

“I…” the little boy stammered. “I… I….”

“You can tell me.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s…” his voice was soft and unsure, such that I could barely make out the word.

“What?” I asked. “What is it?”

In so many ways, I hated talking to people. They would lie to you, manipulate you, use your for their own gain and drop you in a moment’s notice. But kids I was alright dealing with. They were people, and thus fundamentally flawed. But the lies were easy to see through, as were the manipulations.

As for using you for their own gain? Well, in a way, that’s what mentorship is all about. The older generation is supposed to give to the young. It’s supposed to make sure they’re safe. If the younger generation gives back? That’s great. But it’s not a requirement. Investing in the future is more important than investing in the past.

The moments were long before the little boy began to speak again. This seemed to be the start of a mission, but if it was, it was taking an oddly long time to get.

Seriously, what sort of game mechanic was this?

Finally, he said, “My Mom. She’s gone.”

“Where’d you lose her?” I asked. “Do you remember?”

“She… monsters… the dragons took her.”

“Dragons?” I didn’t like the sound of that. Fighting multiple dragons? Dealing with one dragon had been tough enough.

“The Blood Dragons,” the little boy said. “They took my Mom to The Sewers.”

“I’ve never been to The Sewers. Will you show me how to get there?”

“Yeah, I can… Please help me.”

“I will,” I said. More likely than not, the dragons were going to kill me. But I just couldn’t tell this kid no, not with his mom gone. “You just have to show me the way.”

Without another word, the kid ran off. I followed.

For a second, I got caught up in my head, in my own thoughts. It was weird to think that I was running here, along the buildings that were a weird mix of Greco-Roman and Medieval, with little bits of modernity thrown in.

Because really, I wasn’t running at all. My brain thought I was running. Everything in my body was telling me I was running.

But in truth? I was sitting alone in my room.

Watching this fake kid, I felt a pang of loneliness. What did it mean, that so much of my time was spent interacting with algorithms, instead of people?

The thought consumed me, until we reached an entryway to The Sewers. It was a metal grate. I looked and saw that under the metal grate, there lay a fast-moving stream of water.

“She’s down there,” the boy said. The grate had hinges, so that boy was able to pull on it and open up a whole I could enter through. He pointed for me to enter the dark Sewers, filled with fast-moving water and dragons.

“Fuck,” I said. Then, realizing I probably shouldn’t swear at a kid, I said, “Aw, shit.” That didn’t really help matters. So I said, “Hey, when I get your mom out of their, make sure not to mention that I said fuck and shit in front of you.”

“I promise,” the kid said. “Just get her out of there, please.”

I looked down at The Sewers. At the ladder that would take me into that dark hellhole. I took a deep breath.

I’m totally going to die, I thought, descending into The Sewers.

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