Outside, the inky cloak of nightfall. A starless night cradled a city of muted steel, bathed in the glow of sterile streetlights and the whirr of infrequent cars. Inside, however, was a different realm entirely. Like the peak of dawn, the tavern was ardent with activity, alive with hearty cheer and the glow of warm firelight. Ale and lager flowed vivaciously on tap, the odd scent of scrumptious pub food and excited patrons dissipated into the high, crystal-crusted ceiling.
Bustling backpacks. Clinking coins. No matter what time of day, the Adventurer’s Guild found itself lighting the way. The commonplace of conversation, commotion, and chatter - adventurers kicking back for a job well done, lining up for their next glimmer of coin.
“Aha! What do we have here?”
Sword at his back and soot on his tunic, the ash-faced gladiator laid a stack of newly-minted Hunt Bills on the table.
A practice as old as the world itself - Hunt Bills were the Adventurer’s Guild way of detailing and distributing quests to those brave/foolish enough to risk their lives. Printed on thin slabs of wood and stamped with the Chamber of Commerce’s mark of guarantee, Hunt Bills were an efficient but archaic way of writing cheques for adventurers.
“An awful lot of monster quests.” The dark elf chuckled in a voice that had no ill intent but was just so stereotypically evil-sounding, “Is thy in a killing mood, Adam?”
Adam shrugged nervously.
With sharp eyes and nimble fingers, the half-human, half-cat trickster swept half the cards in a swift sleight. He shuffled them between his fingers like toys, scouting out the handsomest deal.
“No job is too daunting if the coin is good.”
“You’d sell thy mother if the coin was good.”
“And my father too.” He scoffed without a whiff of sarcasm. “Now shut up and help me pick something, F’rahim.”
For a brief flicker, the guild’s boisterous energy ebbed, surrendering to a poignant of silence. Eyes were torn from tankards and tales as a sweet-looking dwarf, swathed in an impractical white cloak and too many scarves and ribbons for the pungent summer air, stepped into the threshold. Her innocuous appearance belied her reputation; but a single glance of the dragon-shaped tattoo beneath her left eye and the immaculate staff of never-melting ice that idled at her harness, everyone knew that they were dealing with a top of the shelf, S-class mage.
As the knowledge rippled through the crowd, the usual cacophony of the guild resumed, but with a newfound respect in every glance thrown her way.
“F’rahim. Soju.” She saluted as she plopped herself unceremoniously on the shortest stool available. “Adam.”
Adam smiled gingerly.
“Always so late, Diane.”
“It’s not my fault I’m actually employed.” Diane said as she beckoned for an apple cider. “Actually, maybe it is. It’s not my fault I need money to pay rent.”
Diane glanced at Adam, letting her eyes linger just long enough for him to notice that she had caught him staring. Startled, he looked away, the floor suddenly looking so much more interesting than the Hunt Bills on the table and the incredibly powerful wizard who sat before him.
“How was your day, Adam?”
Adam offered a thumbs-up.
“Good to hear.”
“Hear?” Soju snickered, his pointed eyes peering above the cards like a cat on a window sill.
Diane shot the thief a piercing, icicle-imbued look. Soju muttered an unimpressed apology and returned to rummaging through the Hunt Bills, as if he were looking for the last chip in the Pringle jar.
Adam’s fingers grazed the Hunt Bills, the coarse parchment grounding him amidst the situation. He closed his eyes - not literally, that would be too obvious - hoping the knot in his stomach would dissipate into the summer wind.
Any onlooker observing this quartet might find themselves bewildered. Sure, Adam was undeniably a capable warrior. Disciplined. Calculated. Steady. His training evident in his battle stance and the callouses against his palms. He stood his own against the monsters that roamed the land. Yet, compared to his extraordinary comrades - F’rahim who brought down arcane magics and divine summons through his enigmatic tome; Soju who could deceive, disarm, and dismantle anyone with nothing more than a dagger and his natural dexterity - Adam couldn’t help but feel so strikingly pedestrian, so viciously uninteresting.
He didn’t bother comparing himself to Diane.
“What do you feel like running today, Adam? Treasure hunt? Gathering?” Diane took a swig of her cider, the mug looking cartoonishly large compared to her stubby, gnome-like body.
One card caught Adam’s eye, glimmering with the allure of danger and profit. A silver-ranked mission featuring a monster betrothed from a childrens’ horrior story. The crude sketch on the card hinted at an entity swathed in sinewy vines, its menacing silhouette decorated with rows of serrated teeth. Tendrils stretched outwards, a reign of terror over a tempest-ravaged swamp.
The journey itself would be no small feet, requiring at least a day and half via horse and carriage. Yet, the promise of reward was equally monumental. Success would not just cover their travel expenses, but leave the party with a hefty surplus. Adam could order himself a customised set of gleaming plate armour - perhaps even a glistening shield for his troubles.
“A boss raid.” Diane nodded, her voice curious but serious. “It plays to your strengths as Paladin.”
Adam’s smile was shaky. He wasn’t technically a Paladin yet. However, this mission provided an opportunity, steeped with challenge and brimming with potential. If he could triumph in a trial like this, he might just accrue enough commendations to qualify for the all-important examination.
He thought of himself, among the ranks of the royal guard, and gradually his nervous smile thinned into a line of determination.
F’rahim and Soju inspected the mission conditions - and by conditions, we meant the remuneration. They traded looks of silent communication, eyes glistening with greed - F’rahim who lusted over the prospect of forbidden knowledge and arcane learning, and Soju who simply wanted more cash to store under his bed.
“Guess it’s settled. Let’s take out the boss raid.”
As his companions jostled one another, disappearing to secure their mode of transport, Adam strode purposefully to the Adventurer’s Guild reception desk. With fierce resolution, he announced the team’s decision to confront the looming swamp monster - not by shouted words or written text, but with a thumbs-up and an assuring smile.
Adam’s gaze was drawn to the trio, their avatars flickering under the pixelated glow of the guild’s lanterns. Their ages, true faces, and real names were hidden behind the guise of their online personas. Yet, despite this digital divide, the camaraderie between them was as true as reality.
It was a lot more colourful than reality, too.
Crude. Gross. Musty. The air was thick with the raw odour of instant noodle seasoning, dried out and long forgotten. The room’s only sources of light were the pulsating RGB hues of her gaming keyboard and the bluish radiance from her monitors - casting an alien glow in the dim space.
Her body clung uncomfortably against her chair. She hadn’t showered in three days. She hadn’t logged off in seven - her physical existence blurring into the background as her virtual life took precedence. When her companions logged off. She meandered along the digital landscapes, eagerly awaiting their return.
The world of spellbound forests and mythical beasts was far more compelling, far more accepting than the concrete prison she was obligated to call her place of birth.
She found solace in Adam - in all his amateur gallantry. Under his guise, nobody would ask anything difficult of her. No probing questions. No unwelcome expectations. Her silence was respected here; well, most of the time. Her refusal to use voice chat was met with understanding, not suspicion. The assumption of her being a ‘he’ too was a welcome reprieve.
A mask she preferred, really. But that was a conversation for another day.
She wondered what they would think if they knew.
“Adam, are thee geared up?” F’rahim called from beneath his hood, anxious for a killing.
While the outside world hummed with its mundane realities - the relentless drone of academia, the unyielding grind of corporate work - in this online realm, she had found a second home. A virtual sanctuary, where she could break away from the expectations thrust upon her and instead become the authors of her own story, the hero of a never-ending regalia.
Adam nodded with a wide, face-splitting smile, taking his seat in the rickety carriage. More adventures were yet to unfold, tomorrow and forevermore - an intoxicating antidote to the ennui of the everyday.