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Chapter One: Leo
The terrain rose and fell in a series of hills, each one higher than the next. None of it looked familiar. Ankle high brown grass blew in the breeze. Every so often, a copse of trees popped up in the distance. I kept a steady pace, making sure to stay on the path. Veer too far in any direction and we were sure to encounter trouble.
Of course, we were out there looking for trouble. We just didn’t want to walk into any surprises.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“This is boring as shit,” Gigz said. “Why are we out here again?”
“Quit your whining,” I said. “It’ll get better up ahead.”
“I swear to god, if you lured me out here just to mess with me, I’m going to kick your ass.”
I laughed. “Right. I’d like to see you try.”
She stopped long enough to make a rude gesture, then kept running.
“You’re such an ass,” I said.
“Nice manners, dick,” she said. “You talk to all the ladies like that?”
“Just you, baby.”
I laughed again. God, that felt good. I didn’t laugh very often, but Gigz had a way of bringing it out in me. Even when we were running through the most lackluster terrain I’d ever seen.
She was right. It was boring as shit.
“Okay, maybe we should—”
The arrow came out of nowhere. I flinched as it whizzed by.
“Down,” Gigz yelled.
“Not so loud,” I said as I hit the dirt. “I can hear you just fine.”
“Sorry. What was that?”
I looked around from my terrible hiding place in the six-inch grass. “An arrow from up ahead.”
“Oh, you think?” she asked. “I saw the arrow, too, dork. I know where it came from. Who was it, and why just one?”
“A lone archer is a sitting duck out here.”
“He’s probably behind those trees over there.” I pointed ahead of us and to the left. “Ready for this? Cover me on three.”
“One. Two. Three.”
I jumped up, drawing my weapon, and ran. The archer revealed himself, stepping around the trunk of a tree to shoot at me. Gigz was faster. Her arrow shot past, sinking into the trunk. The archer disappeared just as another arrow flew by.
“There might be more of them up there,” Gigz said.
“I’m counting on it.”
I rounded the trunk and came face to face with a drawn bow, the arrow aimed at my chest. Archers were fast, but I was faster. My sword came down, knocking the weapon out of his hands before he could get off his shot.
It was then that I noticed the rest of them.
“Gigz, get your ass up here.” I ducked around the tree.
Knowing Gigz was just behind me, I jumped out, sword ready. I charged into the group, swinging for all I was worth. One went down on my right. A giant hammer raced toward my head but an arrow to the warrior’s neck stopped him short. I hacked and sliced, killing with abandon. Another foe went down. Then a third.
“Shit,” Gigz said. “That one almost hit me.”
“Careful back there.”
“You do your job, Badger, and let me do mine.”
I laughed again, slicing through a chest that already had two arrows sticking out of it. The warrior went down at my feet, but I was already on to the next one.
Adrenaline surged through me. My heart beat furiously as we cut through the group of outlaws. I watched them go down, feeling a rush of energy. Almost euphoria.
“Yeah, baby,” Gigz said. “You got the last one?”
“I got him.”
Three swings and he was down. I let out a long breath.
“Nice work,” she said. “You made that look easy.”
“That was just the beginning,” I said. “There’s a ton of random shit out here and it gets harder the closer you get to those mountains.”
“Good loot, though,” she said.
“Okay, I take it back. This isn’t boring as shit.” She paused, her end suddenly silent. “Damn it. Badger, I gotta go.”
“Yeah, now. Sorry.”
Gigz disappeared, winking out of existence as if she’d never been there at all.
A wave of emptiness washed over me so hard it almost knocked the breath from my lungs. I took off my headset and tossed it on my desk. I needed to log off—I’d get killed if I left my character standing there out in the open—but suddenly, it was very hard to care.
After all, it was just a game.
I scrubbed my hand through my hair and stretched my neck, wincing at the pull of scar tissue. It still hurt. Probably always would. I was twenty-nine, but sometimes I felt like I was ninety.
The loss of Gigz’s voice in my ear left me feeling hollow—almost numb. It happened every time she logged off, but it was worse when it was abrupt. Usually she’d let me know how long she’d be on and I could keep one eye on the clock. Be prepared for the sense of loss when she was gone.
I leaned back in my chair, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. That was a long list, but this struggle seemed particularly stupid. Gigz was just a gamer friend. I had lots of those, male and female. When I played with anyone else, it was just a game. When it was over, I logged off, took off my headset, went about my business.
But Gigz was different. When we were online together, I tended to forget. The weight I carried lifted, and it was just us. Just her voice in my ear, making me smile. Making me laugh.
I lived for those hours we spent online. And when they were over, it was hard to recover. Hard to bear the weight that once again sat so heavily on my shoulders.
Gigz—my cat, not my elusive online friend—jumped up onto my desk. I ran my hand down her white fur while she purred. “Hey, kitty.”
My cat wasn’t bad, as cats went. My mom had adopted her for me a few years ago. She liked to knock shit off my desk, but she was nice to have around.
Before I logged out, I checked to make sure Gigz was still offline, just in case. Of course, it was three in the morning. I should get some sleep, not spend another few hours gaming. Not that I slept a lot in general. But I needed some. I’d wind up as nuts as my brother Cooper if I didn’t fall into bed for at least a few hours every night.
Although all-nighters with Gigz were always worth it.
For now, I left the mess on my desk and shuffled into my bedroom to get some rest.