Ride the Dragon
by Bojan Ratković
We were a band back then, in the bat-shit Wild West days of the game. We held our court at the Gentleman Boozer, the loudest pub on the big map. It was Haru, Flygirl, Black Boris, and me. And we had floaters, part-time comrades. Mostly kids who wanted to be like us, who did us favors. But Tony Rem was there too, the one that rode the dragon.
It’s hard to believe now just how big it was, when they launched True-Fantasy. It was the first MMORPG with MaTRiX immersion headgear―it jacked you in, made you really live it. Most of the players were funboys―kids who played for fun―and they paid the bills. But you could make RL coin if you were good enough―real life currency―and the rest of us wanted a cut.
Punchers punched the clock, putting in RL hours to work as barkeeps and innkeepers and helpdesk clerks. Gougers sold rare items for RL cash; there was a big black market and bigger gray area, and you could make a killing. We were glitchers―beta testers, top players. Exposing glitches in the game was our business, and admins paid top dollar to help them fix whatever bugs we could find. But it wasn’t about the money. All the top glitchers, the real cowboys, were after big scores. We proved ourselves by exposing the wildest glitches, the ones that got the map talking.
There was a group of mercenaries in the Boozer the day Tony came to us about the dragon. They sat across from us, up by the stain glass windows. They were the wrong kind of mercs, cutthroats. They helped the funboys on their quests, for a fee, but then they’d turn on them, cut their throats and take their items. And poof, back to beginner’s village. It wasn’t exactly legal, but they used proxies, rented avatars. Admins kicked them, they came back.
Tony strolled in like a breeze, letting the doors clap shut behind him. He walked over to the back and took the chair Haru wasn’t using, on account of his horse’s ass. Haru’s avatar was a centaur with a black leather jacket and shades, and his game was speed. He made his name by galloping vertically along the walls of the White Palace as the whole map watched. It took less than an hour for the admins to fix the glitch that allowed Haru to defy virtual gravity, but the stunt made him famous.
“I got the ticket, boys,” Tony spat out like he’d been holding it in for days. “The big one.” Tony was flashy. He wore a white long coat with golden chainmail underneath, and his hair was a custom job that made him look like a Japanese rocker. He had a lot of custom work, not all of it legal. I liked the guy.
“Fuck off, Tony,” Flygirl said, but he just laughed it off. Flygirl was the only femme in our group, a horned elf with pale skin and a golden horn poking out of her forehead. She was the best fighter in the group, ruthless and effective. Flygirl could fly, or she did for two hours straight, over the Sacred Forest at the western edge of the map. I was there; I saw it. It was the stuff of legend. Word was that she knew Tony back then, in RL.
The puncher brought ale in a wooden cup and Tony gulped it down, the smirk still on his lips. You could taste the booze even then, like the real stuff. It didn’t get you drunk, but shit, we didn’t mind. We were already jacked into the best hallucination in town.
“What’s the word?” I asked him. I was the guy with the red-robed night-mage avatar. They called me Nex, short for Nexus. My game was intel. If you needed something found or maybe someone, you came to me.
Tony looked around and saw the group of mercs eyeing us. Their leader was a spaz-show with a hobgoblin avatar, and he knew that we were the ones who leaked the intel that got their homestead raided a few days earlier. They were putting us on notice. Tony smiled and flipped them off.
“The Quest for Blue Castle,” he said. “Starts in two days.”
“The boss is Aringol, the snow dragon.”
Boris smiled. “You want do quest, Tony? Like funboy?” Black Boris was the final member of our group, a cave ogre whose skill was pure power. He spoke Russian and three words of English, but we all knew him as the glitcher who walked through walls. He once walked right out of his own jail cell after they took him in for beating down three mercs in a safe zone. No one fucked with Boris.
“Hell yeah, fun all around!” Tony was a floater, here one day and gone the next. But his scoops were always good, profitable. “I’m serious, I got the big one. Got an item off the black market―the blackest. No name, no description. But it’s top stuff, trust me.” Tony was the items guy. Some of the stuff he picked up was admin-class product, infinite health and instant portals. Players weren’t supposed to know about this stuff, let alone equip it.
“We don’t have all night,” Flygirl said, not looking at Tony, but she was listening. We all were.
“Now this item,” he said, “it can switch your player status. We’re talking mod status, admin maybe. It lasts a few minutes, but that’s enough. You all heard the story, ride the dragon?” Flygirl snorted and Haru laughed. That was bat-shit territory, crazy town. Rumors were going around since the beta days that Blue Castle was full of secret glitches, and that the biggest glitch of all was the dragon. If you could avoid fighting the dragon head-on and jump over it instead, you could land on its back and ride it right out of the castle. But it was all talk; no one came close to pulling it off.
“No, hear me out,” Tony said. “You can’t really jump over the damn thing if you’re a player, it’s impossible. It stands up to fight as soon you enter the dungeon.”
“But if you could change your status―switch from player to admin―you could enter the dungeon without triggering the attack response. There’s a secret passage―admin access only―that runs beneath the castle. If you could go through there, you’d enter the dragon’s lair from the back. You don’t open the big doors, so you don’t trigger the attack response.” Usually this type of talk came from newbie laggers, and when it did we laughed them out of the Boozer. But Tony wasn’t a lagger.
I knew more about Tony than most. He wasn’t just a glitcher, he was hacker, with illegally modified headgear and customized hardware. He wasn’t getting secret items on the black market, he was making them himself. I knew because I was hacking too. I exposed existing glitches, walls that let you hear the chatter on the other side like there was nothing in the way and rooftops that could be scaled even though they’re off limits. But I also knew that if you went to a certain part of the map at night and equipped an illegally modified camouflage item of my own making, you could become virtually invisible to other players. You could listen to their chatter and enter their homesteads unnoticed, and the intel you’d gather was priceless.
Boris leaned in towards Tony. “Can we really do?” he asked in his accent.
Tony smiled. “I wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t. We’ll have to work together, everyone playing their part. But we’ll do it, man. Ride the dragon!”
Boris nodded and there was a brief pause as we thought it over. A score like this―exposing a glitch that big―would bring our biggest paycheck yet. But the reaction, the attention that such a stunt would get from other players―from all players―was a far more appealing prospect. It would make Flygirl’s flight or Haru’s vertical gallop look like child’s play. We would be superstars, glitcher legends.
It was the glory that hooked us. We knew Tony’s items were wild, and we knew he was serious.
We all said yes.
The day of the quest was scenic simulation, the trees and sky glowing in hyperreal shades of green and blue and the birds singing pre-recorded melodies. The streets were full of anxious players talking in whispers and inspecting their gear before heading north for Blue Castle.
As I walked to the rendezvous point, I thought about the intel I received that morning. We knew that the band of mercs from the Boozer had been planning to move on us on the first day of the quest, hoping to use the excitement as cover. The plan was to ambush us at the edge of the safe zone with illegal weapons. The admins would be swarmed with quest-related inquiries and chances were good that they wouldn’t react. We made arrangements to take them on, but it never came down to that. Someone hit their homestead before dawn, cutting them down and sending them straight to beginner’s village. Some of the mercs were sliced into two and three parts. It would take days for their accounts to recover.
The others were waiting for me outside the blacksmith’s shop―Haru with his bow and arrows, Tony with a longsword, and Boris with the warhammer. Flygirl was there too, her two swords resting inside a pair of crossed scabbards fastened to her back. She was one the few dual wielders in the game, and she carried lightswords―the finest blades in T-F. I told them about the mercs and they just shrugged it off, but I could tell they were relieved.
We started on the road to Blue Castle. We all knew what roles we had to play and when to play them. I noticed that Tony’s coat sparkled in the sunlight as he walked―custom work, real flashy. He had planned the whole thing, triple-checking the maps of the castle and outlining potential obstacles. He led the way, with Haru and Boris behind him. I brought up the rear, along with Flygirl.
Flygirl wore dark armor and her long amber braid swayed down her back as she walked. “Hey,” I whispered. She turned and looked at me with bright copper eyes.
I looked to see if the others could hear us, and I figured they couldn’t. “You think Tony’s got his head on straight for this one?”
She shrugged. “Prolly not, but this thing… it’s worth a shot.” She didn’t talk much, Flygirl. She was all business. Everyone in the game knew her name and most players admired her, but they wouldn’t dream of crossing her path. She had this energy, this crazy aura about her that made you feel jazzed just to be there. Most of the time she was ice and you’d think she didn’t give a damn about a thing, but when it came down to it―when it was time to move and fight and fly―she was wildfire, a scourge of nature. She moved fast and hit faster, burning through opponents, and you could feed off that energy.
I liked her.
“Tony rides first.”
She nodded. “It’s Tony’s show. His plan, his item.” She smiled at me. “He talks a lot of shit, our Tony. Let’s see what he can do.”
“Let’s see,” I said.
Blue Castle crowned on the horizon, thick walls rising out of the ice and stone of the mountain. It was a cold place, a maze of stone and shadow. I played a quest there once, long ago. It was surreal, the look and feel and breadth of the place. Storybooks come to life. True fantasy.
The castle’s central turret poked into the sky like a finger, calling us. We stuck together as we climbed the mountain pass, watching the grass turn to ice and snow. Then, at the dark foot of the castle, we huddled together and went over the plan one last time. Bands with the highest cumulative skill levels had the right of way, so we got in quickly, stepping through the arched doorway and feeling the ground shake as the heavy doors slammed shut behind us.
It was a rush, being there. I was wired. The pawns came at us first, human-sized knights in light armor. I cast a quick shielding spell as the others went to work, Haru shooting his arrows, Boris smashing the pawns two at a time, and Flygirl and Tony chopping them to pieces. The red robe bellowed around me from the force of my spells, and I grinned like a little kid as I watched it all go down. The pawns fell and dissolved into glittering dust before fading away entirely. We cleared the first five floors with ease, climbing lower into the bowels of the castle, into the dungeons.
We beat down paladins, orcs, harpies, and long-winged lizards known as dragonspawn on our way to the bottom. I kept to the back, casting shielding and healing spells for the others, flinging a fireball here and there for good measure. We leveled up, won coin and items. We were funboys again. Then we came to the Hall, the final floor before the dungeons. An army of giants in golden armor was waiting for us, each three times the size of a player. We had to get past them, cross the chamber, and smash the steel doors on the other side. This was where the plan really started.
We looked at Haru and he nodded. Then he flew forward, galloping down the Hall and swerving around the golden giants as they swung at him with swords and spears and axes. Instead of facing them head-on, he ran circles around them, triggering their attack response and luring the bulk of them away from the Hall’s center. Speed was his game, skill levels off the charts, and he was killing it, setting records. He took some hits but I covered him, casting long-range healing spells to offset the damage.
We saw our chance and moved out in tight formation, cutting through the thinned out middle of the chamber. Haru had played his part, and the few giants that still stood in our way weren’t much trouble. One ran right at us, but Boris smashed his knee and as he dropped, Tony drove his sword through the visor of the golden helmet. The giant dissolved. Another came at us from the side, but Flygirl sliced through his legs with the lightswords. As he fell to his knees, she jumped up and took his head clean off. The head rolled away and then it was gone, along with the body.
We came to the big door. I turned and saw Haru at the far end of the Hall, shooting his arrows at the swarm of giants that formed a circle around him. They closed on him, moved in for the kill.
“Hurry up!” Flygirl said and Boris nodded. He equipped Heroic Strength to his avatar and began chopping at the door with the hammer. Normally the door opened on its own once all the giants were down, but a larger band was needed for the job, and more time. Sneaking past them with the minimal amount of fighting and getting Boris to break down the doors was our best bet, and Haru agreed to serve as bait.
Each smack of the hammer rang out through the Hall like a gong. Boris worked quickly, cursing in Russian, and big dents appeared in the steel of the door. The sound sent some of the giants back our way, and we hit them hard with swords and fireballs, buying Boris the time he needed. We soon lost sight of Haru in the crowd of giants, and then his status bar vanished. He was gone. Beginner’s village. The horde at the far end turned in unison and started back.
“Anytime now,” Tony said to Boris, grinning as he pierced through the armor of a dying giant.
“Hurry the fuck up, man!” Flygirl screamed. The horde was coming, steps away.
Boris cursed again―cursed in Cyrillic―and he brought the hammer down. The steel gave way, and the door screeched open. We rushed through.
Tony cheered and slapped Boris on the back as we climbed down the staircase and into the dungeons. Boris laughed, but Flygirl was stone serious as we reached the bottom floor, and I was honest-to-God nervous. But nerves were good; I liked the feeling.
The dungeons were cold and quiet, dark corridors framed by thick stone pillars. There was a stench down there, mold and rotting meat, but simulated smells were part of the fun. The floor popped and cracked as we stepped over bones of fallen players, moving deeper into darkness. Then, as we approached the torches that lit the way to the dragon’s lair, the ground beneath us moved. I looked down, saw the bones squirming, crawling. The bones fused together and became grinning skeletons. They grabbed for us, slashed at us with rusty blades.
We formed a protective circle and moved slowly for the torches. Tony and Flygirl slashed and Boris whacked through the enemy, bones flying up in heaps. I alternated between fireballs and shielding spells. But there were too many, and they came faster than we could repel them. My shield was giving way and our health was dropping, but we were close. Almost there.
“Okay, I got!” Boris shouted.
“I got! You go… go!”
“You sure?” I asked.
He nodded. “Go!”
We broke off and ran forward, leaving Boris to stall them. He picked up the pace of his swings and bashed the dead men, bones bursting to smoke. This too was part of the plan; quests called for martyrs. We saw the doors in the distance, illuminated by torchlight. The dragon would be there, waiting.
“The door,” Tony said, and I knew which door he meant. I counted the pillars, searching for the tenth one from the left. I heard bones smashing and Boris cursing.
“There,” I said, running to the spot. I equipped the White Key, an admin-only item that had been cracked for player use. It cost a fortune to get it, and even Tony couldn’t find one, but I managed to buy it off a crooked admin I knew. As I held the key up to the pillar, the stone shook and rumbled and then it slid backwards, revealing a staircase in the ground. As Boris fell to the dead men, we rushed down the staircase.
We emerged inside a narrow corridor, cold and dimly lit. As soon we got there I heard fluttering. “Brace yourselves,” Tony said. “The network picked us up as intruders. Here comes the firewall.” The fluttering became louder and then we saw them, a swarm of neon butterflies. They were bright blue and vast, each one the size of a player. They came from down the corridor, flying straight for us. Flygirl readied her swords, blades burning with white fire as she turned to face the swarm.
“This way,” Tony said, calling me to follow. The first butterflies attacked and Flygirl slashed at them, spinning the blades and cutting them into two and three pieces. I hesitated. Flygirl’s account was flawless, and a trip to beginner’s village would hurt her more than the rest of us. I formed a fireball in each hand and threw them past Flygirl, frying the butterflies
“Nex!” Tony screamed behind me. “This way, man. I need you with me―now!” I could see Flygirl moving, ripping through butterflies.
Tony screamed again and Flygirl turned. She looked at me. “Nex,” she said, “go with Tony, I’m all right!” Blue stars danced in her eyes, dust of the butterflies.
Tony grabbed my arm and pulled me deeper, into darkness. We ran, blue neon flashing behind us. We turned one corner, then another. There was a light up ahead―a single torchlight. Tony gunned for it, pulled me along.
We came to a stone wall―a dead end. But someone was there. Standing beneath the torchlight was a maiden in a white dress, a cold blank stare on her face. She had no status bar. Non-player character. “NPC,” I said, panting. “Dead end.”
Tony walked up to the maiden, walked around her. She didn’t move. “We need the key,” he said. “Equip the White Key. She’s an NPC guide for admins only. She won’t activate without the key.”
“So what? It’s a dead end, Tony. Damn!”
“No, man. It’s an admin trick. Equip the key and I’ll show you. It won’t work unless she’s active.”
I sighed. I wanted to smack his face with a fireball, but we’d come this far. I equipped the key and walked up to the maiden.
Suddenly she moved and looked at me. She gave me this dead smile and began to speak in monotone. “This is a restricted area. Administrators only. If you are an administrator, please input your username and password.” A menu appeared, floating in the air before me. She went on: “Once you have entered your username and password, you will be asked to answer three confirmation questions. The questions change hourly, so please make sure that you are up to date on the acceptable answers.”
“Questions?!” I snapped. “Tony, what is this? We don’t have login info, we don’t have answers.” The NPC repeated her commands.
Tony wasn’t looking at me. He had equipped his item―the custom one―and suddenly his avatar turned shaky, glitchy. Strange colors swirled around him, the pixels changed, and then a white flash. I turned away. When I looked back, Tony was gone. In his place a second maiden stood beside the first. They were identical, and neither had a status bar. Both were NPCs, but one of them was Tony.
The Tony maiden turned to me, gave a thumbs up, then walked around the original and stepped right through the wall. I ran up, tried to follow. But the wall was solid.
Tony was gone.
Blue lights behind me. I turned and saw the butterflies. Neon representations of the firewall, swarming to stop the intrusion. I cast a shielding spell and readied the fireballs.
I gave it a good go, fighting for ten minutes, maybe longer, before my shield gave out and I started to take damage. My health bled, the robe ripping apart as their wings tore at me. I burned them, burned them to blue dust, but they kept coming. There was no end to them, no limit. I conjured up a final fireball, my health deep in the red. It wouldn’t be long now.
Then, as I hurled it at the next attacker, he just vanished. Gone. More of the butterflies disappeared, blue lights switching off. Then they all turned off, just like that, and it was dark. My fireball ripped through empty space and scorched the wall on the other side.
I heard the alarm, a steady foghorn. A menu popped up in front of me, giving instructions. “The Quest for Blue Castle has been suspended due to unforeseen circumstances. Please follow the green arrows to the nearest exit.”
Green lights lit my way, down the corridor, up the secret staircase, up more stairs. I climbed, joined up with other players. They whispered amongst themselves and shook their heads. There were dozens of us by the time I emerged from the castle, hundreds more waiting in the clearing at the foot of the mountain. I turned my head up, looked to the sky. He must have done it, I thought. He stopped the whole quest―rode the dragon!
But there was no dragon. More menus appeared, a global announcement. We were asked to log out in an orderly fashion. Unexpected error, emergency maintenance needed. No danger to players, they said, but log off now.
We did. On the news they said it was an internal error brought on by a record number of players participating in the Quest for Blue Castle, overwhelming the servers. Developers were working to fix the problem. It would take a day, maybe two.
By evening I knew what really happened. I called my admin contact, paid for intel. Turns out you can access the core of T-F’s network through a secret passage beneath Blue Castle, a virtual nexus used by admins and developers to fix bugs inside the game. My guy couldn’t be sure, but it looked like a player used illegal items to sneak a virus past the firewall. This player then contacted T-F’s parent company and threatened to use the virus to crash the servers. He said he’d take T-F out of commission unless he received an exuberant amount of RL currency. A sudden server crash would force the involuntary logout of all players simultaneously, and many could suffer physical harm if their headgear overheated. T-F’s parent company had only minutes to decide, and the cost of a crash coupled with hundreds of potential lawsuits was too much to risk. They paid the money.
Later that night I heard a knock on my door. It was Flygirl. I met her in RL once before, when she needed work done on her hardware. Her RL hair was shorter and darker, and she had freckles on her cheeks and on the bridge of her nose. But she had the same pale skin and bright copper eyes, and the same crazy energy about her. She said she needed a place to stay. Tony vanished, and T-F’s parent company sent out enforcers―real life mercs―to hunt him down. She thought they might come after her, because she knew him. She said she didn’t know what happened, what he did.
There was a thunderstorm outside. My apartment was a wasteland and it stunk like deep-fried jizz, but I let her in. We talked about the game and we watched the news, but there was nothing on Tony. Just an error, they said. They’ll fix it. Soon. We drank the kind of booze that gets you drunk, and we laughed about how fucked up it all was. And I wondered how long she knew about the dragon, if she was in on it from the start. But she denied it, and that was all right. We drank the beer and wine and then she touched my face, and I touched her.
And it rained all night.
When I woke in the morning my sheets were on the floor and she was gone. There was a note on the nightstand. It was from Tony. Scribbled on a napkin was access info for a bank account in Caracas; he said it was my share. I checked it out when things cooled down. I’d never seen so much money.
Haru and Boris got their own notes, and we never saw Tony again. Tony Rem wasn’t a player like us. He was a legend, the one that rode the dragon. They banned glitchers after that, cracked down on proxy servers. If you saw a glitch you had to report it, and if you went out looking for them, you were gone. Headgear IP located, blacklisted. Banned for life.
The game is different now, more rules and more restrictions. Order. But they talk about it still, Tony Rem and the dragon. You can’t keep that kind of thing secret. I still see him in my mind, strolling through the Gentleman Boozer in his flashy coat, and smiling. “I got the ticket,” he says. “The big one.” And sometimes when I close my eyes, I can see Flygirl down there in the dungeons, wielding two lightswords and ripping through neon butterflies. But when I see her now, it’s always from behind. She’s always just ahead, slashing with her swords. Sometimes she turns, but she doesn’t stop. I see a glimpse of her face―and it’s her RL face, not the avatar―and she smiles.
And then she’s gone.
About the Author
Bojan Ratković is a writer from Serbia, now living in Ontario, Canada. His work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Great Lakes Review, Fiction Vortex, and on the World SF Blog. He is pursuing a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Western Ontario.
About the Narrator
Steve Anderson has been acting on stage for more years than he cares to admit, and has worked for 10 seasons at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire–most memorably, selling pickles. These days, his main acting job consists of performing one-man shows and storytelling programs with his touring series, Great Tales Live.
He’s fascinated by Civil War history, and has led almost a thousand walking tours in Gettysburg. He performs as a living history interpreter along the Civil War Trails. He lives in central Pennsylvania with his beloved wife Rhonda and a varying number of cats.