Billy was 12 years old, and his favorite place in the world was the Carousel Arcade. He’d go there every day as soon as school let out, and as early as he could get out of the house on weekends. Never did he leave before closing, when he was forced out. The security staff knew him by name.
The Arcade was a magical place to him, full of multitudinous musical sounds and a veritable kaleidoscopic galaxy of lights flashed throughout the room. Despite the brilliant beacons coming from each of the machines crowding the room, darkness still managed to enshroud the comings and goings of the throng of thrill-seekers, allowing for one to maintain a much blessed veil of anonymity, should one so choose.
Billy usually did. He loved disappearing into the labyrinth of lights and sound, weaving his way through wild wonderful world after world, each encapsulated in 2 meters of plastic, glass, and steel. They all called to him, inviting him to dive into their depths and lose himself, but none so much as one particular cabinet at which he found himself every day.
Towards the back of the Arcade, it was located with several different versions of itself, all with a medieval fantasy theme, he almost always found himself standing before his favorite – Knights of the Final Realm. In it, one played any of a staggering array of fantastic characters as one explored, fought, and quested in a vast land of mythic creatures and high adventure. The world inside the game was immense, and, as many hours and days and weeks of it he’d played, he was always discovering new delights and trials. When he played, he always lost himself in the fantasy, imagining himself to actually be in the game, seeing things from the eyes of his avatar.
This day fell on a weekend, and, like any other, he was once again glued to the joystick, his eyes never moving from the screen, his shoulders bobbing and weaving as he unconsciously aped his character’s motions as he attempted to will it to faster reactions. He’d decided to explore new parts of the game today, and he found himself walking through a deep, dark wood of dark blue fir trees. It became eerily silent the deeper into the wood he delved, and it was some time before he noticed the game’s musical accompaniment had ceased, and even the background sounds of woodland critters had stilled. Soon, though, the uncanny silence began to get to him, and he started to feel quite nervous.
This didn’t stop him, though, and he probed ever deeper into the darkening, quietening wood. The trees pressed ever closer, and the path became more and more overgrown until, soon, it seemed he strode no path at all. Pushing his way through the overgrowth, he swore he could feel the cuts and stings as the bramble cut his skin. But still he pushed on, his curiosity overcoming his apprehension.
Presently, he stopped abruptly, as he swore he heard the soft whisper of voices wafting to him upon the wind. He stood stark still, straining to descry what it might be. From where he was, all he could discern were bare murmurs, and so he slowly picked his way through the brush, doing his best to do so without a sound. As he painstakingly progressed, the words began to swell, and soon he could make out two low, hushed voices. One was deep and gruff, as though it issued from some great giant who’d cured his throat with years of scotch, and the other was small, sharp, and squeaky, and he imagined it issuing from some grovelling, sycophantic anthropomorphic rat. And as he began to determine just what it was they were saying, he also noticed a wavering amber light spilling through the gaps of the foliage, as it were emanating from some small fire just on the other side of the bushes before him. Carefully, he parted their leaves and peered through.
Beyond the branches, he spied two creatures of disparate varieties which he’d seen before in his travels in the game’s realm. One indeed did resemble a small, bipedal, anthropomorphic rat, and it was doing quite the job of sniveling before its larger companion, who towered over it (and indeed would have towered over Billy’s avatar, were he standing in the clearing with them). The giant had purple, warty flesh, and a broad, compressed snout with slits for a nose, which gave it the look of having run face-first into a broad pane of very strong glass. Its hair covered most of its head, and hands, and was a stiff bristly brown. Needless to say, it was not a very attractive creature. The rat was dressed in fanciful effeminate silk-satin doublet of royal blue, a feathered cap of similar material, and absolutely no pants whatsoever. The giant’s mode of dress seemed more practical and was comprised entirely of brown leather with a sparse layer of metal scales poorly sewn to it. He leaned upon a tree limb which had clearly been pruned and its narrow end worn from use.
Having caught them in mid-conversation, Billy clearly had missed something.
“…boss said no! You gotta do what boss says. Else boss hits me, and I don’t like being hits,” the rat whined.
“But less work my way. I dump ‘em by boss house, less carry,” replied the giant.
“Looks, I’s’ll lure ‘em to where you can bump ‘em on the head closer to the drop off, how’s that. Then’s you’s don’t have to carry ‘em too far,” the rat sniveled.
The big creature stroked its chin thoughtfully, then grunted and shrugged its massive shoulders, “Okay, have your way. Show where.” It hefted the great club onto its shoulder and looked expectantly down upon the ratkin, who skittered backwards in avoidance of the swinging log. Then, bowing and scraping, the manlike rodent scurried off out of the clearing followed by the lumbering ogre.
“What was that about, I wonder,” Billy said allowed, then, he thought to himself, “Clearly, this is the start of a new quest! I must follow them!” And he did exactly that, this time with less stealth as the giant wasn’t exactly moving through the woods in silence.
As the three travelled through the forest, the underbrush began to thin and the trees to spread, and soon they were following a broad avenue, forcing Billy to move off their path and into the brush on the side of the road. This did not make his going easy, especially trying to keep up with the rapidly scurrying ratman and the long-striding hulk. But he managed, and after none-too-long found that they’d headed into one of the nearby towns where players could meet to trade, join parties, and find non-player characters to initiate quests. The ratling led them down a dark alley, then turned abruptly to face the giant once more, necessitating that Billy rapidly dive into a pile of boxes in an attempt to avoid detection.
“’kay, you’s waits heres, ‘kay?” it nearly whimpered as it genuflected before the great monster before it.
“Right. Wait here,” the ogre boomed and then jammed the head of its club directly onto the cobblestones below, laid one hand upon the other atop the end, and rested its massive chin upon them. The ratkin backed away a few steps before spinning on heal and scampering off back towards the town square. Anxious to see what was going to happen next, Billy waited amongst the boxes.
But before the rat returned, he felt a rough hand fall upon his shoulder. Looking up, the spell was broken, and he found himself looking into the eyes of a security guard, and himself to be back amongst the arcade machines.
"Closing time, Billy. Time for you to go home.”
“Aw, man, it was just getting good, too!” Billy complained.
“No arguments, Billy. Go home,” the guard said sternly.
Pouting, Billy stepped away from the machine, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and sulked all the way home. After a sleepless night of anticipation, he gobbled down his breakfast as fast as he could, eager to return to the arcade.
“Billy, do you know James Morgan? He goes to that Carousel place you hang out at all the time, doesn’t he?” His mother asked.
“Um… maybe, I guess we might have played Mortal Kombat together a few times. Why?” he garbled between spoonfuls of cereal.
“Well, his mother rang earlier today. He never came home last night.”
“I dunno,” Billy shrugged and continued to rapidly stuff his mouth.
As soon as he was done, he pushed away from the table and ran out the door, practically sprinting back to the arcade. Once there, it was all he could do to keep himself from running as he hurried down the rows of machines to the back and the Knights of the Final Realm. The machine was open when he got to it, and he hurriedly shoved a quarter in the slot and then selected his save file, this being one of those rare games that actually kept such. Soon, he found himself back amongst the boxes.
But the ogre was no longer there. At first he was surprised, but then he remembered the game did maintain a persistent world, so the actions of last night must have been carried out already. Hoping they’d repeat today, he remained amongst the boxes and kept an anxious watch. After what seemed like hours, he was finally rewarded for his uncharacteristic patience as the giant returned to the end of the alley.
But the ratling wasn’t with him, and in fact, it was a while before anything of note occurred after the ogre’s appearance. Indeed, the giant creature even closed its eyes and snored rather loudly for some time, the rumbling echoing down the alley. But, eventually, the ratling’s simpering voice could be heard approaching. The ogre awoke with a start and shifted to put its back to a wall, attempting to hide its great bulk in the shadows.
“I’s telling you’s, great sirs, grand quest down heres. Speaks with giver yous has to. You’s’ll sees!” Around the corner came the manrat, with two adventurers in tow. Each looked rather young, their armor and clothing hanging off them as if it were hand-me-downs several sizes too big. Both had the beginnings of peach-fuzz on their chins and pimple-covered faces. Billy even though he recognized them as two older boys who frequented the Carousel.
“Huh,” he thought to himself, “how’d they get avatars that look like them?” Then he shrugged and continued to watch.
“This is going to be cool, man!” One of the boys said as they headed down the alley. Then, just as they passed the boxes, the giant stepped out of the shadows.
“Hey, man, you the quest-giver?” The other boy questioned.
Rather than responding, the ogre lifted the great club and brought it down upon the interrogative boy with a resounding *thunk*. The boys knees wobbled, then gave out, and he collapsed to the great like a sack of potatoes. The other boy’s eyes grew wide and he clumsily fumbled at the short sword in the sheath at his side. Before he could draw it he too experienced the mighty thump of solid oak atop his head and fell with a limp kerplop across his friend’s prone body. Unable to help himself, Billy let out a loud gasp. Towns were supposed to be safe zones! With a loud clatter, he fell backwards amongst the boxes in his surprise at the hulk’s actions.
The ratling spun in the direction of this unexpected noise, and Billy scrambled to his feet, waving his hands emptily in front of him to demonstrate his harmlessness.
“I ain’t seen nothin’, man, nothin’!” He said as the rat and ogre took ominous steps in his direction.
The ratkin put up a hand behind it, motioning the giant to stop his approach, “I likes yous styles,” it said with uncharacteristic confidence in its voice, “how’s about you’s listen to a proposition I gots for you’s?”
Figuring he didn’t have much choice, Billy mutely nodded his assent.
“Goods, goods, you’s a smart boy. “ It approached and did its best to put its arm around Billy’s shoulder, a feat only possible due Billy’s small stature. “So, here’s the deal. You’s can go find more adventurers and brings ‘em back here, just likes you just seen me’s do’s, or Mimsy here’s can bops you’s on the heads just like dem’s boys there’s. How’s abouts it?”
“And if I do, do I get anything?” Billy meekly inquired.
The manrat seemed to consider for a moment, then, nodding, it said “Sure, sure. You’s’ll get a great prize, I promises you’s.”
At this, Billy’s eyes lit up, and, his posture improving dramatically, he replied, “Okay, I’ll do it! Can I go now?”
Releasing him, the ratkin answered, “Sure, sure. See’s you’s soon’s, we will.” And off Billy ran towards the town market. By the time he got there, however, there was nary a soul there. He was already sulking and turning away from the machine and back into the real world as a security guard approached.
“I know, I know, closing time,” he pre-empted the guard as the man began to open his mouth.
The next day was a school day, and Billy squirmed with anxiousness in his seat all day, restless and unable to really pay attention to anything his teachers said. Over break, he overheard a conversation about how envious some of the older boys were that two of the older boys had skipped school today and were clearly off having some grand adventure that must have been better than being stuck in class. The bell at the end of the day couldn’t come soon enough, and Billy was out of his seat and through the classroom door before its ring ceased echoing in the halls. Out through the double glass doors of the school he burst, and down the streets, back to the Carousel Arcade as fast as his feet would take him.
Getting there long before anyone else, Billy had to wait a bit before the market in game began to fill with players. As soon as it did, he zeroed in on what he identified were clearly noobs, and made a beeline straight for them. The group of two boys and a girl looked like they were about his age – in fact, he recognized two of them from his math class.
“Hey, guys!” He greeted them, “How’d you like to find a game secret! I know where one is I can show you.”
They cast looks at each other, clearly in disbelief that a high level player would offer to take them to a secret area, then they all enthusiastically started nodding, and all at once responded, “Yes, yes, take us there!”
Trying not to let the grin show too much on his face, he turned and waved them along, “Come with me, I’ll show you. It’s super cool, you’ll see.”
It didn’t take long until he’d led them into the rat and the ogre’s trap, and soon the events of last evening were repeated three-fold and with a *thumplop* *whackflop* *thunkflump*, three bodies were soon piled one upon the other in the dark shadows of the alley.
Then, turning to the ratman, Billy put out his hand and demanded, “Where’s my reward?”
“Oh, you’s’ll gets it. Not loot, though, no’s. Better. You’s’ll gets it. Just go’s and find’s us more, but not today. Brings more’s tomorrow’s.”
A little disappointed, Billy retracted his hand, then slowly, with a bit of a pout, left the alley. As he did, he felt his gait getting somewhat awkard, and his legs began to itch and burn. Disconcerted, he paused and awkwardly lifted leg to get a look, pulling up his pants leg to try see just what the heck was happening. Much to his dismay, fur had begun to sprout from his skin, and his leg took on an awkward bend. Stumbling about to attempt to maintain, his balance, he found himself leaning back to compensate for the new forward-bend in his legs. Soon the burning stopped, but not the itching, and, it seemed, his legs had taken on a shape quite similar to a dog’s hindquarters, only with bigger paws. And it itched mightily!
Clawing at his pants in desperation to remove them, he tore and ripped them off in a fit of irrationality, and soon, all that was left was the tattered waistband with strips of torn blue denim dangling from it. Yup, dog legs. He had dog legs. His new-found fur was a solid black, so he really couldn’t tell if they were of a particular breed of dog. What kind of reward was this, he thought to himself.
Unsettled, and quite disgruntled, he pulled himself away from the game, for once, leaving early for the day. Unaware that he was drawing stares, he stomped angrily out of the arcade into the bright daylight outside.
It being early in the evening, there was quite a bit of pedestrian and motor traffic outside the arcade, all of which came to an abrupt halt the moment Billy set foot on the sidewalk. Everyone gawped and stared in his direction. Noticing this, Billy himself stopped in his tracks, and was just about to demand what everyone was looking at when he caught something in the bottom of his vision that made him look down.
He had dog legs.
Even here, in the real world, outside the game, he had black fur-covered dog legs. Mortified, he looked back up and around at all the staring people, and began to run. “What am I going to tell mom?” He thought to himself as he fled the public. But he did not flee towards home. Instead, he ran and ran and ran until he found himself just outside of town and in a small glen of apple trees, where he sat down and cried.
“I can’t go home like this, I just can’t,” he lamented aloud. And he didn’t. That night, Billy slept underneath the apple trees.
Figuring he certainly could not go to school looking like that, he instead returned the arcade, hoping he could find answers, and perhaps a way to return to normal, within the game.
He searched the town and the nearby woods until he finally found the little ratling, and found he could quickly outpace it with his new dog legs. Cornering it, he demand:
“What kind of reward is this?” He gestured down at his dog legs.
“A good one, no’s?” It sniveled in response, “you’s faster nows.”
“But, but, I can’t go home like this!”
“Not my problems, no’s. Tell’s you’s what. You’s go’s and gets us another adventurer, we give’s you’s another ree-ward, ‘k?”
“Better than this one?” Billy asked.
“Yeah, yeah. Much betters.” The ratling nodded emphatically.
“Okay, it better be!” Billy yelled as he turned around and sprinted away at an amazing speed for one his age. In a surprisingly short time, he returned with a semi-conscious older boy in tow.
“What’s you do’s to him?” The rat whined.
“Just a little knock. Didn’t want to come, so I had to do some convincing. What, that big guy was gonna hit him on the head, anyway! I just saved you time!”
“Okay, okay, let’s go take him to Mimsy, then,” ratman conceded.
And off to Mimsy they went, who promptly bopped the poor teenage boy upon the head once again, rendering him thoroughly unconscious. Over the ogre’s shoulder the limp form went, and the giant strode off. As he did, Billy turned to the rat.
“Just wait, just wait, you’s’ll gets it.”
Billy huffed and headed off to the market, to sell the loot he’d rummaged out of the older boy’s sack after waylaying him. On the way there, his chest, back, and arms began to exhibit the same itching and burning he’d endured the day before. Doing his best to not claw his shirt off, he toughed through it, and soon it was over. By then, his hands had morphed into a cross between paws and hands, and grown the same thick black hair his legs had, and pads on his palms and fingers. Opening his shirt, he found he’d grown more muscular, and the same black fur covered his torso entirely. Furious, he stormed back to where he’d left the ratkin, who happened to still be there.
“What. Is. THIS!” Billy demanded, opening his shirt to display his now very furry chest.
“You’s ree-wards, that’s what.”
“Reward! REWARD! What kind of reward is this! I want you to make it better!”
“Okay, okay. Look’s. One more, and we’s’ll make everything better’s,” it almost sounded like it was pleading with him.
“Well, you better!” He drew and waved his longsword in the creature’s face, which promply skipped away from the rather pointy blade. Then, Billy turned on his heel and bounded away.
As he reached the market, he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder. But, this time, rather than turning to face who he knew must be a security guard, he reach across with his other hand, gripped the guard’s wrist and pulled him up and over his shoulder in what would have been a judo throw, if Billy had ever studied judo. With a resounding THUMP, the guard crashed onto the cobblestone road, his flashlight falling out of its holster and clattering across the stones. Astonished at his sudden appearance amid a medieval marketplace, the guard crab walked backwards away from Billy, his eyes huge as dinner plates. Advancing, the dog-boy reached for the terrified man, grabbed him by his lapels, and hauled him up off the ground.
“You’re coming with me,” he growled, and began to pull him along. Struggle as he tried, the horrified guard couldn’t break the child’s grip, and soon found himself struggling to keep pace lest he be yanked off his feet and dragged. Presently they were standing before the little manrat, who, licking his lips in a display of delight, greeted them.
“Excellent, excellent. This one’s’ll do nicely. Let’s go’s see’s Mimsy again.”
“No, no, where are you taking me?” The watchman pleaded.
Ignoring him, Billy the dog-boy hauled him along, and for the fourth time in three days (okay really the seventh if you’ve been counting), Mimsy the ogre bashed a new victim upon the head and carried him away.
Facing down the rat, Billy made his best attempt to be intimidating, and growled, “Now make it better!”
“Right, right. Better’s. It’s’ll all be betters soons, you’s’ll see,” ratman conciliated. And no sooner had the words issued from the rodent’s mouth, then Billy’s head began to tingle and prickle, and his jaw began to ache mightily. He howled in pain, and that howl, which started as that of a boy, soon took on the tones and resonance of a dog’s. His paw-hands gripped his face, which began to stretch, and he felt the fur begin to bristle out of his cheeks. In minutes, his once-human head now had the distinct shape of a dog’s, all covered in black fur just like the rest of his body. Desperate to get away from it all, he tried to turn away from the arcade machine, but found himself staring at the back wall of one of the buildings in town. He spun around, and in all directions he found nothing but more of the world of the game, looked down at his hands and saw the half-hand half-paws he’d developed earlier.
He was completely incapable of removing himself from the game and returning to the real world. Falling upon his haunches, he howled to the sky a mournful howl, and begged, “Why, why?”
“Because you’s wanted it betters. It’s betters now’s. No worries ‘bouts you’s mom now’s. You’s one of us now’s.”