“Omg! You were serious when you said you were taking forever, weren’t you?” Keia asked as soon as I logged in.

I’m not gonna lie. I got a case of the warm and fuzzies. There was something about knowing she’d been sitting in the game waiting for me to show up that made me feel pretty good.

A party invitation appeared in front of me. I accepted it with a thought, and a couple of faces appeared in the top right corner of my screen. There was Keia smiling out at me, of course, but more interesting was Kristoph’s ugly mug sticking out for me to see.

“The two of you are hanging out together?” I asked, just a touch surprised at this development.

“What the hell else was I supposed to do?” Kristoph asked. “Besides. Your girlfriend here has been really helpful. Turns out having someone along to heal my ass makes killing shit a hell of a lot easier.”

I felt like there was a story there, but I figured it was a story that could wait until I got out to wherever they were. The minimap helpfully pointed out the direction I had to move if I was going to meet the rest of the party.

“Did you see any signs of Horizon Dawn while you were out and about?” I asked.

“Some,” Keia said. “But we managed to avoid them for the most part.”

“Avoid them?” Kristoph asked. “You shout one of them right between the eyes! Like one moment she was healing my ass while a wolf was trying to chow down on me, and the next she was whirling around and pulling out her bow and arrow and landing one between this asshole’s eyes before they had a chance to reach us. Talk about badass!”

I smiled as I made my way through the forest. Though I was careful not to make too much noise as I made my way through that forest. After all, if there were Horizon Dawn people patrolling out here then the last thing I wanted was to let them know I was out here too.

“Sounds like you’re having a good time out here,” I said.

“You know it,” Kristoph said.

“Do you want me to come and get you?” Keia asked. “There might be Horizon Dawn patrols out there. Wouldn’t want them to cause you any trouble.”

I thought about that for a moment. On the one hand it would be nice to have an escort. It’d be especially nice to see her in her tight leather sooner.

The only thing that stopped me was thinking about my near humiliation at Trent’s hands at school earlier. And the nervous walk home through the shanty town that was our level, worried that every scrape or sound off in the distance might be Trent instead of one of the many tweakers that called our level home.

I really didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of Keia in the game, even if that might put me at risk. Maybe it was a little stupid, but at the same time I had some gems on me that I could use to really ruin someone’s day if they decided to fuck with me.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

“Your funeral,” she said in a tone that said she fully expected to be doing a corpse run with me a little later because I was being all macho. I actually relished the idea of getting some skill points in Spellcraft:Combat. Even if the only attack I had so far was blowing up gems by activating the crafting fail state.

It was a hell of a starter attack, that was for sure.

Eventually I reached Kristoph and Keia. For a surprise she wasn’t in her tight leather. That might’ve been a disappointment, except she wore a casting ensemble that wasn’t much more than a glorified miniskirt down below and one hell of a revealing halter top up above.

I also didn’t mind when she threw her arms around me and pulled me into one hell of a thorough kiss. A kiss that went on until Kristoph finally got fed up with the face sucking and I pulled away.

“You changed your clothes,” I said.

Keia blushed. “Yeah, well I figured helping out a lowbie like Kristoph would be the perfect opportunity for me to work on my healing skills.”

“And I’m more than happy to have someone healing me who can turn into a badass stealth archer terminatrix if a pull gets hairy,” Kristoph said.

“So did you find anything useful?” Keia asked.

“I learned a few things about crafting,” I said. “And I didn’t learn a few things about Horizon. There’s nothing about them infiltrating the game on the official forums.”

Keia frowned. “Yup. Something is keeping that little tidbit under wraps.”

“Maybe all the people working for them are keeping quiet about it on the forums?” Kristoph said. “Horizon seems like the kind of asshole company that would force someone to sign an NDA or something.”

“You really think an asshole like Trent would be able to keep his mouth shut?” I asked.

“Fair point,” Kristoph said.

“More than a fair point,” Keia said. “Something weird is going on there. Like they want to keep it under wraps.”

I nodded. There was something weird going on there. Something weird could be good, though. If I could figure out the mystery then maybe there was something there I could use. Or maybe not. Either way I wasn’t going to figure it out tonight, but I could take advantage of some of the things I’d learned doing my deep dive into Lotus knowledge after school.

“Are the two of you at a stopping point?”

“Hell no!” Kristoph said. “We’ve got a good groove going here.”

“I could take a rest. What did you have in mind?” Keia asked.

“Well I’ve got all this goblinsteel, and I was thinking it might be useful to check out a forge in town. See if maybe I can do something there that I couldn’t at that forge in the goblin mine. They’ll have a vendor who can sell me the basic stuff that goes with recipes, at least.”

Keia grinned. “Sounds like a plan.”

Kristoph, for his part, groaned. “We’re doing more of this crafting shit?”

Keia shot him a glare. “Seriously? If he figures out how to make goblinsteel shit then you’re going to have some of the best gear you can get without paying Horizon Dawn to take you on one of their failed attempts to clear the Goblinsteel Mines.”

“Oh I know,” Kristoph said with a grin as he stretched with his hammer clutched in his hands behind his back. “I have to give him shit though. That’s sort of how things work with us.”

“You’ll get used to it,” I said. “Or you’ll put an arrow up his ass. Though he might like that a little too much for it to be a true punishment.”

Kristoph’s grin froze on his face. He looked like he was about to say something, but Keia interrupted.

“Come on. I can’t wait to see what you can make us at the forge! Not to mention that’s where I turn in the goblinsteel quest you helped me with yesterday.”

She reached out and offered her hand to me. I took it. It was a new experience holding hands like that. Like it was new both in the sense that I’d never been able to do something like this in a game before the Lotus hardware came along and in the sense that I’d never had a girl who wanted to hold hands with me like that, but I’d take it. 

It definitely improved the sour mood I’d gotten scouring the official Lotus forums for any mention of Horizon taking over their territory and finding jack and shit.

My good mood lasted until we reached the forge which was off the main circle. There waiting for us was none other than the three assholes: Torian, Gregor, and Kravos.

“Well hello there Keia,” Torian said. “Fancy finding you here.”

“Torian,” she said, holding her chin high. “What are you doing here?”

“You were out causing trouble by the mines yesterday,” he said. “I figured you’d eventually come here here to turn in the quest for a goblinsteel weapon.”

“What business is it of yours if I am?” she asked.

“It’s totally my business,” Torian snapped. “If you think you can do anything in this town without my permission…”

“Whoa there Ike Turner,” I said.

To be honest I didn’t have much of an idea of who Ike Turner was. Just that the guy’s name seemed to be shorthand for assholes who beat up on their women in old movies from the ‘90s and ‘00s, and I was a fan of watching movies from a time before the arcologies and the world going to shit.

“Oh look,” Torian said, his voice dripping with sarcasm and disdain. “The lowbie has decided to grace us with his presence. How wonderful. You didn’t learn your lesson earlier?”

“What, that you cry like a little bitch when a teacher comes along?” I shot back at him.

“You watch your mouth when you’re talking to him,” Gregor said, flashing his daggers.

“So nice to see you too,” I said. “How’re you recovering after your difficulties out at the mines.”

Gregor moved as though he was going to attack me, but Torian held a plate gauntleted hand out and stopped the leather-clad prick before he could take more than a step.

Torian’s mouth turned down. “You might think you’re clever killing my people like that, but I’m not afraid of whatever it was you did. You can’t pull that AoE magic bullshit here in town. Not if you ever want to be able to set foot in here again.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I’m a little fuzzy on a few things. Are you saying I can’t set foot in this place because I’d have to worry about the goblins getting mad at me, or I can’t set foot in this place because your guys would keep me out? Because if it’s the former with the goblins I’ll have to be careful, and if it’s the latter… Well I’m standing here despite your best efforts, right?”

“You’d better watch yourself,” Torian said. “Or else.”

“Would you stop with the macho bullshit and let me complete my quest?” Keia asked.

“Poor Keia,” Torian said. “Trying to complete the goblinsteel quest line. You must really want that goblinsteel bow and arrow if you’re risking making me angry.”

I frowned, but didn’t say anything. I didn’t know enough about the design of bows and arrows to tell whether or not a bow made out of some sort of steel would be practical or ridiculous. Not to mention this was a game, and sometimes practicality and real-world considerations didn’t matter if something was sufficiently cool.

“Get out of the way and let us get on with our business,” Keia said. “We don’t want any trouble here.”

I figured she could speak for herself on that count. She might not want to start any trouble, but I was feeling the urge to start some. Our treatment here coupled with what Trent pulled in the hallway earlier had me itching for revenge.

I didn’t say anything like that to Keia though. She was taking point, and I wasn’t going to go against her if she wanted to play nice.

At least not right at this moment. We were sort of surrounded, after all, if the number of heavily armed players in Horizon Dawn tabards stepping out of the crowd were anything to go by.

“You already caused plenty of trouble when you decided to kill members of Horizon Dawn out there in Horizon Dawn territory,” Torian said. 

“That’s not your territory,” Keia said, some heat coming to her voice.

“Oh but it is,” Torian said, though he didn’t seem to notice the angry looks he was getting from the armed goblins that’d also appeared out of the crowd as he casually claimed their territory as his own. “It belongs to us, and I won’t suffer asshole noobs coming in and trying to take over my territory. There will be consequences!”

I snorted. “Consequences? Like all your asshole friends getting blown to little bits? I really enjoyed taking all their weapons, too!”

“That is stolen property and you will return it,” Torian hissed. “How dare you sully Horizon Dawn Syndicate gear with your filthy noob hands!”

“Sully?” I said. “Anyone with enough money can buy that crap. You don’t get to act like something is super exclusive when it’s being sold to anyone with a few coins rubbing together in their inventory. The way you’re sucking corporate cock is kind of pathetic.”

“I’ll show you sucking corporate cock!” Torian said.

My eyebrows shot up. “Really? Like you’re going to show me your technique or something? Because I’m flattered and all, but that’s not really my thing. More power to you if it’s yours. I don’t judge.”

“You son of a bitch!” Torian shouted.

He stepped forward. Pulled a sword out and tried to bring it down on me. I guess the forbearance he expected from his lackeys didn’t extend to him when he got good and pissed off. Which jived with everything I knew about Trent from the real world. It was almost too easy to manipulate him into doing something stupid.

Though in this case I was taking a hell of a gamble. I was inches away from being well and truly fucked when a blade appeared between me and certain death.

I blinked a couple of times as I looked at Torian’s blade mere inches from my face. It’d been stopped by a much smaller blade. A blade that seemed like it shouldn’t be large enough to stop Torian’s, but then again it’s not like it would be the first time the rule of cool trumped practicality in a video game.

I breathed a small sigh of relief. The armed goblins had stepped in. I’d been hoping they’d do that considering the reputation I’d gained with them, but it was a gamble.

And boy was I glad rule of cool had allowed that small blade to stop Torian’s sword. Otherwise I would’ve been back at my spawn point and all the stuff in my inventory would probably be picked up by Torian who I imagined would be more than happy to get a bit of corpse robbing revenge.

I was going to have to start being a hell of a lot more careful about what stuff I carried on me when I was in dangerous territory. Unfortunately, considering my rocky relationship with Horizon Dawn, it seemed that just about any territory was going to be dangerous territory for the foreseeable future.

I looked down to see who was attached to that small sword and saw a rank insignia that said this wasn’t just any guard. No, this guard looked like he had some authority.

And I was pretty sure I’d seen this goblin before. The goblin smiled and gave me a wink before turning to Torian.

“What seems to be the problem here?” the goblin asked.

“Get out of the way goblin,” Torian said, pulling his sword away with a schwing and pointing it at the little guy.

Torian didn’t seem to realize the kind of trouble he was in. I looked around and saw diminutive figures armed to the teeth moving in. Diminutive figures who looked like they’d love nothing more than an opportunity to take out a little bit of their nonplayer character frustrations on any player character who gave them a convenient excuse.

“Come now,” the goblin captain said. “Are you sure you want to take that sort of attitude? It might be better for you to move along. You know combat is forbidden within the city limits.”

The goblin’s eyes glinted. The unspoken promise there was that combat was forbidden, but the goblin would be more than happy to engage in a bit of combat if Torian was stupid enough to give the goblin an excuse. Not to mention there was the little loophole in that rule that combat seemed to be forbidden only if someone was stupid enough to get caught fighting or attacked someone who had PVP immunity.

“You don’t tell me what to do, and this lowbie certainly doesn’t tell me what to do,” Torian sniffed.

Torian continued to make bad decisions. He brought his sword around, only this time he brought it down towards the guard captain as he yelled to his guildmates.

“Attack them! We’re not taking this from our servants!”

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