*DING!

Written by J. D. Wiley --- Art by J. D. Wiley

Nagaharu Nightsbane, Battlemage of the fifth Order, salivated at the thought of a bacon double with cheese. He could almost taste those two all beef patties, four sizzling strips of thick-cut bacon, and melted cheddar. Indeed, it was mouth-watering perfection on a Kaiser bun.

And above all, a hero had to keep up his strength.

Nagaharu licked his lips. Just one more block to Blade Burger, home of the best cheeseburgers this end of Three Hub.

His companions, Fudo Frostbreaker and Eiji Earthsplitter, flanked him as he strolled down the dusty streets. Hunks of rock and stone slotted into the ground beneath his feet, stretching out before him as a cobblestone road. Rusted-out junkers lining the block flew apart and snapped back together as horses tied to wooden posts. Pixelated tendrils engulfed an android meter maid writing a ticket, replacing it with a dwarven sellsword in boiled leather.

The latest graphical update masked reality better than ever.

Nagaharu’s eyes flickered to the corner of his HUD.

>498 XP to reach level 17

This was the very reason he got up in the morning. To make a difference. Nay. To be a hero.

But first, Blade Burger.

As his party approached the hole-in-the-wall burger joint, wooden slats spiraled in and layered over the cracked building. The boards slid neatly together as the structure rose up into a glorious, two-story tavern with a great swinging sign over the entrance.

Nagaharu grabbed hold of the iron ring on the massive oaken door and a man barged out, nearly bowling him over.

“Stop, thief!” a wheezy voice called from inside as the runner tore off down the street. Shep, the owner, stepped into the doorway. A short, fat, shabby man, Shep wiped his hands on a greasy apron. Tiny faerie wings budded from his back and he imploded into a smaller—though no less fat, or shabby—version of himself.

Shep wrung his apron as he bobbed in the air, wings fluttering like a hummingbird. “You Kabukimono bullies waltz in here with your threats and your muscle. You already get free food any time you want. I just paid you last week for ‘protection.’ ”

“Quite right, old boy.” Nagaharu flashed his winning grin. “Such is the cost of keeping a hero on retainer.”

“Are you even listening?” He wasn’t. The fat faerie folded his hairy arms. “What good is that if anyone can just bust in and rob me!?”

Eiji and Fudo exchanged glances. “You still owe—” Eiji began with a dark smile.

“—for this week,” Fudo finished, stepping forward.

“But I…” Shep shrank back.

A pop-up appeared in Nagaharu’s HUD, floating over the old cook.

>QUEST: To Catch A Thief

>REWARD: 500 XP

Could his luck be any better? He mentally accepted the quest and the box vanished.

Nagaharu put a hand on the greasy little faerie’s shoulder. “Not to fear, pixie. I will put this to rights.”

“Pixie?” Shep grated his teeth and grumbled something like, “Why, you pompous little shit…” But Nagaharu wasn’t listening. There was hero’s work to be done.

He secured the end of his scabbard and pounded down the alley after the bandit. Eiji and Fudo yelled something behind him. Telling him to stop, perhaps? But he’d have none of their drivel, either. Not today.

His heart raced. To think, a real live thief had run right in front of him. He could prove himself the champion of Three Hub he’d always known himself to be. He ducked under lines of hanging laundry that twisted into hanging vines as he ran beneath them. This could be the start of something big.

As he hoofed it down the alley, brick and mortar blurred into an impenetrable wall of trees and foliage on either side of him. Ahead, a tipped trashcan crunched in on itself and folded into a rocky outcropping as he hurtled over it. The trees open up, and when he emerged into the clearing he found the bandit grimacing behind a crooked nose and pointy ears.

His feed buzzed with new information.

>Level 15 Goblin Bandit

Several more of the green beasties stood around his quarry, warming their hands over a cookfire. The pouch of stolen gold sat at their feet.

Nagaharu scanned their grisly numbers. One was cooking a rat on a stick. Another wiped something runny on his pant leg. They didn’t look like much. But this could be the start of some new criminal empire.

His HUD confirmed they were all level 15.

“Today you face justice, ruffians!” Nagaharu drew his katana from its scabbard in his most heroic flourish.

The goblins responded in kind, drawing all manner of pointy implements. One in a sheepskin jacket squinted at him behind a loaded crossbow.

“Ward Blade!” Nagaharu roared, and glowing runes encircled his sword.

The crossbow fired with a metallic twang. But the bolt cracked and spun away as his ward deflected it. A goblin howled as the broken arrow shaft ricocheted into his knee. He doubled over, clutching his bloody leg. His days of adventure were at an end.

Nagaharu slashed a figure eight around his body, brandishing his sword the way he’d seen his brother do it countless times. The way a hero does. “Have at thee!”

The goblins backed away, eyes wide. They had him outnumbered and yet they tripped over themselves in their haste to escape, leaving the stolen gold unattended. Even the injured one hobbled away as best he could.

Such cowardice. It was a bit of a disappointment, really.

He turned to see a pair of Alexandrian Guardians standing behind him in full power armor. Their gorilla suits turned inside out until two hulking rock golems stood in their place. Nagaharu grinned. If they hadn’t arrived when they did they’d have never witnessed his heroics. “A little late, friends. I’ve already handled the situation.”

The Alexandrians shook their heads, chuckled at something, and turned to leave.

In all the excitement it took him a moment to realize his HUD had lit up.

>DING! You have reached level 17

>Gain + 14 HP

>Gain + 2 Strength

>Gain + 1 Perception

>Gain + 1 Charisma

Nagaharu flushed with pride. He picked up the stolen gold, grinning to himself, and let out a sigh of satisfaction.

Now, for that burger…

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