Tonight we take the Obsidian Gauntlet. It’s all I’ve been able to think about all day, throughout the eight depressing hours at the office and on the train ride home, all I’ve wanted to do is log on and get started with the raid. It’s been a long time, but finally, as a guild, we’re ready to complete this, the most challenging mission in our history. We’ve been through a lot together. We  fought through the mines of Angnorr, defeated the Goblin Hordes and reclaimed the Crystal Staff for the free people of the realm. But this, this is the big one. 

We’re ready, though. Everyone’s been a level 80 player for months now, but more than that, we’re good. When we play PvP, we work as one cohesive unit, with strategy and precision. The tanks go in to soften up the enemy, the archers and mages provide ranged attacks and I’m in the heart of everything, healing those who take damage. It’s a perfect system and we’ve become very good at it. Still, the Obsidian Gauntlet is like nothing we’ve ever faced. It’s supposed to be protected by a High Warlock and I can’t wait to see what sort of crazy spells he’s going to be firing at us. This is going to be good.

The plan is to get through the door, grab a sandwich and a bottle of water and then log on to discuss strategy with the other members of my party. Everyone else is champing at the bit to do this, but a few of the guys are in Europe and they won’t get home for another hour or so. That’s ok. The rest of us can share potions and make sure that we have proper balance in our spell books. The game works on an elemental system and we don’t want to make sure we’re only carrying fire spells, when the dark mage is only vulnerable to water magic. I’m mentally arranging my codex as I put my key in the front door. I’m met by the sound of Nick Drake and the wafting scent of Coq-Au-Vin.

The lights are low and the table’s already set with two places and a candlestick. The sight of it makes me freeze in my tracks and for a brief second I wonder if I can walk back out and go to an internet cafe, but before I get a chance to do it (or even ponder what this says about me as a person) Donna comes in from the kitchen, wearing something that’s either a very short dress or a quite-long negligee. Either way, it works on her.

“Hi,” she says softly, padding across the room on bare feet and slipping her arms inside my coat and around my waist.

“Hi yourself,” I say, trying not to sound suspicious. “What’s all this about?”

“I thought it had been a long time since we did anything like this, so…” She bites her lip and looks up at me. “It’s OK, isn’t it?”

And this is the moment when I could say “actually, I have things to do” or “not tonight” or even “oh my god, what’s that behind you?!”, but she stands on tip toes and kisses me and I forget about making excuses, because all I can think about is the taste of her lips. New lipstick? Maybe just lipstick. Usually, Donna just uses Vaseline as lipbalm, giving her lips the unpleasant taste of petroleum jelly. I’ve never told her how much I dislike it. This, though, I could get used to.

Finally, when the kiss ends, she touches my stomach gently and says: “Make yourself comfortable. Dinner’s nearly ready.”

“Smells great,” I say. “Can’t wait.”

“Can you open the wine?” she says, nodding at the bottle on the table. “I’ll be back in a mo.”

I watch her slink back into the kitchen. Has she always moved like that? At this moment, I honestly don’t remember. Still, orders are orders, so I make myself useful with the corkscrew and pour us each a generous glass of red.

“How was your day?” she asks from the kitchen.

It’s a simple enough question, but I have to stop and think about it. Having spent most of my time fantasising about tonight’s raid, the actual events that transpired are somewhat elusive.

“You know what?” I say, moving to the kitchen doorway and handing her a wineglass, “I can’t even remember. I’m sure something must have happened today, but I’m drawing a blank. It’s like I spend the whole day on autopilot. It’s only just hit me that I really don’t care what happens in that place. The job’s meaningless. They could get anyone to do what I do.”

“Come on, that’s not true.”

“It is, though. I’m not saying that in a depressed way, it’s just that there’s nothing to it. I’m basically getting bits of paper and typing them into a computer, printing them off and sending them somewhere else. If they ever get a scanner, I’m out of a job.”

Donna looks at me and wipes her hands on a tea towel in a way I find indescribably sexy. “Maybe it’s time to look for something else,” she says.

I feel like I just got that flash of light that surrounds your character when you level up. Health and vitality are suddenly fully restored as I take an XP bump that takes me over the threshold. Look for something else. It’s so simple and obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before.

“Maybe it is,” I say and smile.

“Can you take the potatoes through?” Donna asks. “I think we’re just about ready.”

Dinner is good. Better than good, in fact – it’s the best time Donna and I have had in a long time. When you live with someone, the business of cohabitation can take the joy out of things. You’re caught up in the cycle of work/after-work/sleep/morning that you forget that you love the other person and want to spend time with them. Being with Donna reminds me that I really do love her, not because I’m supposed to, but because she’s great. She’s funny and sexy and sharp and we talk in a way that we haven;t done in months, an intimate sharing process that I didn’t realise I’d missed. I suppose that’s how people in love are supposed to talk to each other, but I’m out of practice and I fumble around a lot. Donna doesn’t mind, however, and gently encourages me to go on.

In the corner of my eye, I can see the light on my Blackberry, presumably from other guild members. I spent £1.99 on an app that allows for custom alerts, so I could tell when I got messages in-game. At the time, I thought it was really badass, like I was a member of the Justice League or something, but now it just makes me cringe. When Donna goes out to get dessert, I grab the phone and see there are 12 messages my crew, but rather than send a group reply, I just switch the phone off. 

Donna comes in with a tub of ice cream and two spoons.

“Dessert,” she says with a smile, shrugging the straps of her dress off her shoulders and letting the garment fall to the floor.

Later, when we’re naked in bed and eating melted ice cream together, I see a recharge bar slowly accumulating in front of me. When it tops out, we’re definitely doing that again. The sex was better than it has been in ages, like the old days when we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Just the feel of her skin on mine is bumping up the progress bar and we find ourselves giggling at each other and nuzzling away.

“So, better than ‘Elf Realm’ or what?” she asks, licking Strawberry Temptation off her spoon.

It’s the first time I’ve ever heard her refer to the MMO by name. Usually it’s just “that thing” or “that bloody game”. I tried to get her into it in early days, but she didn’t see the point. 

“Much better,” I say.

“So, what’s the appeal?” she asks.

“Of this?” I say, sliding a hand across her body.

“No…” she says, laughing, “of the game. You spends hour on it. There’s got to be something in it.” The surprise on my face must be clear, because she adds: “I’m serious. I want to know.”

“I thought you didn’t like the game,” I say warily. “You’re always complaining that I spend too much time on it.”

“I know…” she concedes, “but it’s important to you, so I’m trying to make an effort. What do you like about it?”

I think about it for a moment. “I suppose the social aspect of it’s one thing,” I say. “I’ve got to know people in different countries through it. I know it seems antisocial, just being on the computer, but there’s a real sense of community and you get to know people in a way that you don’t get a chance to in real life.”

“What sort of people?”

“Ah… well… there’s a guy from Wales who builds sundials. And there’s a girl in Holland who’s in a wheelchair, but it’s not so much about who you are in the real world, but who you play in the game. For some people, it’s about questing and getting loot, but I’m really into roleplay.”

“Ooh, kinky!” Donna says, gently twisting my nipple.

“Not like that,” I grin. “It’s more about putting thought into who you’re playing as and trying to act in the way that you think they would play. You try and talk the way they would talk, fight the way they would fight.”

“Like acting?”

“Yeah. Kind of. Some people have alternate accounts, where they play as different types of character, but I’ve had the same character since I started. You grow attached to them, you know?”

“What’s your character’s name?”

I hesitated. I’d never said it out loud before. Somehow, it made me afraid.

“Ladriel,” I said. “It’s kind of a bad play on words, like ‘Galadriel’ from Lord of the Rings, but a bloke.”

“You’re a tranny?” Donna says, teasingly.

“No, I’m not a tranny. But elves don’t think about gender the same as humans.”

“You’re an elf? What does that mean?”

“Well, you’ve got four basic races in the game: Humans, Elves, Trolls and Orcs and each of them are aligned to a different element. Humans are water, Elves are air, Trolls are earth and Orcs are fire.”

“So, does that mean that they cancel each other out?”

“Kind of. The setup of the game is that the Orcs and the Trolls are trying to wage war, while the Humans and the Elves are trying to find balance in the elements. And each race has its own homeland, so the Human come from the Islands of the Coast, while the Elves live in Forest Hills, the Trolls in the Caves and the Orcs live in the Volcano range.”

“So… what would happen if your character, um…”

“Ladriel.”

“So what would happen if Ladriel was to go to the middle of the Volcano range?”

“Well, as a Air Elemental he’d be vulnerable to their magic, so you’d only do something like that as part of a group.”

“But what if he went there by himself, without anyone else there to back him up?”

I shake my head. “That wouldn’t happen.”

“But what if?”

I was confused. I didn’t know why she was insisting on an answer to a hypothetical question. When she looked at me, I realised that it wasn’t hypothetical at all.

I jump out of bed and run to the box room where the PC is. I shake the mouse to wake the computer from sleep and double click the icon on the desktop. Connection to the game servers takes agonising seconds and as the rousing intro music plays, I say a silent prayer. 

It does no good. When the game finally connects, the memorial is there to greet me.

LADRIEL – DECEASED. LAST LOCATION: VOLCANIA

DO YOU WANT TO CREATE A NEW CHARACTER? 

OK / CANCEL

A long, low, non-verbal groan comes from somewhere deep in my stomach. Four years of play time. Thousands of hours invested. Millions of Experience Points. Gone. I feel the loss physically, as if someone has stuck a knife in my guts and is slowly drawing it up to the centre of my chest. 

I turn to Donna who – unlike me – has bothered to put on a dressing gown. Her face shows sadness, but no remorse. 

“Why did you do that?” I whisper.

“Happy anniversary,” she says.

“It’s not our anniversary,” I say, struggling desperately not to add two words afterwards. ”…is it?”

“No,” she says. “Last week.”

I can’t remember much about last week. There had been a big battle taking place in Ranger Falls. Orcs had made an incursion into the human homelands and…

“Come back to bed,” Donna says softly.

I look at the PC.

DO YOU WANT TO CREATE A NEW CHARACTER?

OK / CANCEL

I say “OK”, click “Cancel” and follow Donna back into the bedroom.

Back to level one.

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