Sneako the Catman hid himself in shadows, hugging near the columns of the abandoned mine.
Not quite abandoned, actually. A pair of men, bandits more than likely, sat beside a fire near the door leading futher down the shaft. Their shadows jerked wildly in the light of the flame. Tapping their bottles of Redbramble Mead together, they shouted at one another in a way they wouldn’t have if they suspected the danger hidden in the gloom.
“What’s old Greta Macklinbooth have us guarding the entrance for, eh? If you ask me she’s hiding something down there and trying to pull a sly one on us.”
“Ah, you worry too much. We all take our turn on guard duty. You, me, Sven, Greta, everybody. And there’s no secrets here, either. In fact, Sven told me, well…”
The man took a deep, long swig from his bottle. “Well, he says we found it earlier today. Maybe nine, ten this morning.”
“It? The enchanted helm of King Hjarlvard?”
“The one and only, friend. And it’s true what they say, that it gives the wearer the strength of ten men!”
“By the gods, we’ll soon be the richest men in all Himmelrand!”
Sneako grinned in the night. So these fools had really managed to find the helm, and just today — he’d arrived at just the right moment, as usual.
Anyway, no time to dawdle. He’d heard enough.
Shivering from the Himmelrand chill — Sneako’s people were native to far warmer lands of the distant south — he pulled out an arrow and drew back his bow. After a moment’s calculation he took aim at the nearer man.
No point taking unnecessary risks.
Sneako suddenly wondered what he was doing with his life. All this daring and adventure, all these prophecies and epic battles, all this subterfuge and magical encounter… it just became routine in the end. All the loot, the glory, and the undying love of the people of Himmelrand. What did it all amount to after all?
Just the same old grind.
He could have been a normal Catman. Kept his tail trimmed and his whiskers fine. Could have been a farmer, a miller, or a lawyer. His parents had wanted him to take up the family business, selling kitty litter to the masses back home. Maybe that would have filled the void. Better than all this danger, excitement, and inexhaustible wealth, anyway…
Keep it together, Sneako. That’s reality, after all. Every decision costs you a little of what you might have been and makes you a little more into what you are.
Too late to turn back now.
So he let fly the arrow, which buried itself in the first man’s throat.
Before the second man could shout or draw his weapon, the second arrow found its mark in his chest. As he lie writhing in his death-agony, Sneako crept over and dispatched him with a dagger across the throat.
Sneako straightened up, sighed.
So depressingly easy.
Still daydreaming of the merchant’s life he could once have had, Sneako walked to the door to the depths of the mine and opened it.
The world faded to black and the loading screen popped up.
The loading screen with the game’s dragon logo in the upper right corner. A deer floated across the TV screen, along with minute text that read, “The creatures of Himmelrand often leave alchemy ingredients you can gather when you slaughter them in cold blood. So be sure to check!”
Dan, eight years old, set down the controller and looked around.
He thought it might be about time to start a new character in Himmelrand. Sneako was getting high enough level that it was taking all the challenge out of the game. They all get a little overpowered in the end.
The boy jumped at the shouts outside his bedroom door. Mother’s and Father’s. Shouting at each other, muffled enough that he couldn’t make out the words.
Father’s voice, mostly.
Mother’s, timid and tiny, only now and again.
Maybe tonight it will be only shouts.
Maybe nothing more.
The loading screen vanished and Sneako stood once again in the mine. Hands trembling, damp-eyed, the boy picked up the controller and put in his ear buds.
He had a feeling it was a night for ear buds.