45. Sword Art Offline

Although there were still trees growing alongside the road, the forest itself had thinned out, so there were large open spaces around the river. We built a fire in one of these clearings.

Sonny pulled out a number of metal rods and fitted them together until they transformed into a rack and stand which he placed over the fire. He unrolled a piece of cloth to reveal a selection of meats. He threw them on the rack where they sizzled and spat as they cooked.

“Now,” said Sonny, “when you get to Fengarad, the first place you’ll want to go is the Municipal Directory. Ask anyone where it is, they’ll point you in the right direction. It’s a big old building in the middle of the city and they’ve got all the main institutions there—including registration for visitors. That’s what we’re called, visitors.”

He pushed the strips of meat around with the tip of his dagger, turning a couple of them over.

“They’ll be able to give you all sorts of advice and info there. Where you can find digs, how to make money, all that good stuff. Say, how many of you are there?”

We were all sat around the fire, staring at the sizzling meat. Even though we had a large lunch, the smell of charred flesh still got us all salivating.

“There were twenty of us when we arrived,” I said.

Sonny let out a low whistle. “Wow. We only had eight in our group.”

“What happened to them?” asked Claire.

“Aw well, there’s a story. We had four guys, four girls. We lost a couple early on to an ogre attack. We got a bit overconfident, to tell you the truth. We’d seen the soldiers take care of an ogre on our first day and thought we could handle it…” He shook his head.

“Wait,” I said, “are you saying when you first woke up in the clearing in the woods, your group was attacked by an ogre?

“That’s right, mate. Scared the shit out of us—but the soldiers who came to find us dealt with the bastard like it was nothing. Amazing, it was.”

The idea that both their group and ours were attacked by an ogre within moments of arriving in the clearing seemed an unlikely coincidence. On the other hand, as a way to put the fear of monsters into our heads, and encourage us to turn into killers, it was pretty effective. It made me think there was some manipulative bastard out there responsible for making sure we saw this world as a fight for survival.

“Shame really. Tim was a great bloke, top man. We tried to distract the ogre like we’d seen the soldiers do, but it went for Tim, no idea why. He didn’t stand a chance once it got hold of him. Nothing we could do. Abby, she was one of the girls, tried to save him, but only got herself killed too.”

Listening to Sonny tell his story, his eyes watering up and his voice faltering, I got the distinct impression I was getting played.

“What happened to the other two guys?” I had a strong suspicion they didn’t make it either.

“Well, I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but they were both right galahs. Got into a fight over one of the girls, ended up killing each other.”

Claire and Flossie both had hands over their mouths, like they couldn’t believe it.

“So it was just you and the three girls, then,” I said. “Must’ve been cosy.”

“Trust me, mate, it was a nightmare. No offence,” he said to the girls, “but it’s not easy fighting for your life and trying to keep three girls safe at the same time. Still, we managed somehow.”

“They must have been very grateful to you,” I said. “Where are they now?”

“The adventuring lifestyle wasn’t really their cup of tea, if you get my drift. Noleen got herself a job in one of the taverns. Dora took up with some rich bloke she met. Got married, doing very well for herself, last I heard. And Felicity went off by herself. Bit of a free spirit that one.”

Yeah, sure. This guy was so full of shit, I was surprised there weren’t bunnicorns jumping out of his mouth. The others, however, were hanging on his every word.

“The one who got a job in a tavern, which tavern was it?” I asked him. “We could use a contact in the city.”

“Yeah, good idea. Let me think… Was it The Poached Ferret? I think that was the one.”

I was betting if we went to that tavern, they would have never heard of any Noleen there.

“Where’s the best place to stay?” I asked him. “Can we rent a place? Or should we just get a room in a tavern?”

“Come stay with me! I’ve got a huge place, plenty of room for all of you, and my staff will take care of all your needs. You won’t have to lift a finger. Proper bath. Real home cooked food. You’ll love it.”

The others perked up at this news and I could tell they were warming up to Sonny, which was their absolute right. There’s no law against stupidity.

“You have servants?” I asked him.

“I wouldn’t call them that. They work for me, and I pay them. I pay them well.”

“But they’re all girls, right?” I just had a feeling they would be. “And you dress them in maid outfits.”

“Well...,” said Sonny, carefully choosing his words. “It’s not like I make them do anything they don’t want to do. We’re like a team. You’ve got to have support system in this world. Nobody does it all alone, am I right?” He leaned back and let out an excited yell. “Wa hooo! Looks like this meat is ready! Prepare your tastebuds for the time of their lives.”

I’d never seen anyone get so excited about barbecued meat, but he was Australian, so it didn’t seem so strange. Sonny picked up the meat from his barbecue and passed them to us. They all quickly disappeared down our throats.

“So, the general set up in this world is pretty straightforward. I mean, I can’t tell you why we’re here or how we got here in the first place, but I can tell you what you can expect to find in the city. There’s four main cities in all, each one has a royal family, and a ruler. These royals are all descended from the First Visitors who arrived over a hundred years ago.”

“Who were they,” said Maurice, “these First Visitors?”

Sonny shrugged. “Details are sketchy. Apparently they defeated some big bad, saved the world and got to be kings and queens. Nice work if you can get it. They’re the ones who named everything. Re-named it, actually. Decided the original names were too hard to pronounce, or something. That’s why this place is called Flatland, and the other place is called Monsterland.”

The existence of this ‘other place’ was news to us. We hadn’t been told about Monsterland.

“Where is Monsterland? We have a map, but there’s no place called that on it.”

“Let me have a look at this map,” said Sonny.

Maurice took out the map. He opened it up and placed it on the ground. It was getting quite dark, so we all huddled around the map as Sonny inspected it.

“Yeah, this is only the local area. What they call Monsterland is over here.” He tapped the ground about six inches away from the north west part of the map. Then he tapped down below the southern part. “Over here is the ocean. No idea what’s beyond it. And over here is a desert.” He indicated the area east of the map. “Rumour has it there’s another empire past the desert, but I don’t know how accurate that is.”

Sonny told us about the constant fighting on the frontier between Flatland and Monsterland. Apparently, war was constantly on the horizon.

“Once you’re settled in Fengarad, you should sign up for the army. They’re always looking for new recruits, and you get free bed and board—plus, they’ll teach you how to fight! That’s how I learned to handle this.”

He took out his sword which was very impressive. It had engravings all over the blade and the ornate hilt looked like it was made of gold.

“Here, let me show you a few moves.”

He showed us a few basic fencing stances. It was actually very useful stuff to know and I asked him a number of questions about how to use my sword correctly, which he was only too happy to answer.

After ten minutes, I already felt more confident swinging my sword around. I still didn’t have a clue how to fight, but at least I could start training myself in vaguely the right way.

“Wa hooo,” called out Sonny, stretching his arms and back. “Hmm, also a good idea to warm up before you do any fighting. Right! I have to visit the little boys’ room. Don’t get in any trouble while I’m gone.”

He sauntered off into the woods to take care of his business. I carried on swinging my sword the way he had shown me.

“See,” said Claire. “He isn’t so bad, even if he is Australian.”

“Ah think he’s nice,” agreed Flossie. “We should team up with him. Probably be a lot safer.” She nudged Dudley who was sitting next to her. “Don’t you think that’d be a good idea?”

Dudley mumbled, “I suppose so.” Both he and Maurice seemed a little uncomfortable with how the girls had suddenly become Sonny fangirls.

“You’re both idiots,” I said.

Claire instantly reverted to witch mode. “Why? Because we think he’s a nice guy? Maybe you’re just jealous because he’s not all bitter and twisted like you. Even when he goes out of his way to show you how to use your sword properly, you can’t even be grateful like a normal person.”

I had to stop myself smiling. ‘Angry Claire’ was so easy to bait. “Have you never had a guy be nice to you until he gets what he wants? You’d think after a person experiences that a few times, they’d learn their lesson, but I guess it’s never happened to you. How is your track record with guys, by the way? Good?”

Claire didn’t say anything, she just glared at me. Of course, I knew her history with men. She had opened up to the group about her shitty boyfriend and the pain it caused her. To use that information against her was both petty and cruel. Welcome to entry level Colin-Fu.

“You want to go with your gut on this one and follow ‘Bruce Almighty’ back to his mansion, join his harem and spend the rest of your days polishing his helmet, go right ahead, Claire. It’s not like your gut instincts have ever led you astray, right?”

Claire stared at the ground, fists clenched. Quietly, but bitterly, she said, “Not everyone is your enemy, Colin.”

“True,” I agreed. “There are still a lot of people I haven’t met yet.”

Sonny came strolling out of the woods, adjusting his trousers. “Wa hoo! Better out than in, eh?” He stopped and noticed the tension between us. “What’s up, guys? Nothing to do with me, I hope.”

There was a loud crash as the trees Sonny had just emerged from fell over and an ogre, far bigger than either of the ones we’d seen before, came staggering towards us.

The light from the stars and from our small fire made it hard to make out its features, but there was no doubting its size. Taller than a double decker bus and shaking the earth with every step, it slapped down its enormous hands and leaned forward to make a terrifying roar.

The ear-shattering sound washed over us in waves. I could feel my whole body shaking, but I wasn’t afraid. I should have been, but something else had caught my attention. Something about the roar felt familiar, like I’d heard it before somewhere. I don’t mean when we encountered the other ogres, I mean recently.

If you ignored the inhuman volume and the primal rage it transmitted, and tried to recreate the sound in words, I think the closest you’d get would be something similar to wa hoo.

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