Trelor the Magnificent leaned back and eyed me. Like he was eyeing me long enough that the moment started to get a little uncomfortable. Finally he spoke.

“Y’know it’s frightfully convenient that you came to me rather than making me go out into the world to try and find you,” he said.

I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of a mysterious figure from within a video game going out into the world to find me. That sounded like the kind of thing a Horizon representative might say.

Two days ago the thought of someone representing Horizon showing up in Lotus Online of all places would’ve seemed ridiculous, but I’d learned a lot since then.

So I wasn’t going to give anything away until I knew more about this guy and what he wanted from me.

“Oh yeah?” I responded. “It would’ve helped if I had some idea you were looking for me in the first place, y’know.”

Trelor smiled. “Yeah, well I figure anyone clever enough to fulfill the requirements to access the Spellcrafting system would be the kind of person to eventually head to one of my shops in one of the many magic districts that populate the towns and cities of the Lotus world.”

“One of your shops?” I asked.

There was a lot to unpack there, but I figured I’d focus on the most obvious thing first. Especially when I didn’t know who or what this guy was. He sure as hell wasn’t a player. There was another option that was the obvious answer, but that seemed impossible.

I glanced around the shop. It was a one room deal, with bubbling and glowing potions and magical reagents, and a small bookshelf that seemed dedicated to magical tomes. Though it didn’t seem like much of a shop because of the massive wood desk that dominated the center. A desk with various crystal balls glowing.

Most of them glowed with various colored mists that made them look like props from The Wizard of Oz or the original Star Trek, but there was at least one crystal ball that looked like it held some sort of code in green text on a black backdrop.

“Yeah, my shop is the same no matter what town you’re in,” he said, then frowned. “Some of the people in the game design department got pissy with me that I was copying and pasting into areas where this look didn’t fit, but they shut up when I pulled seniority on them.”

I shivered. Yeah, that impossible answer was seeming more and more likely. This guy wasn’t NPC, player character, or a Horizon representative.

“Pulled seniority?” I asked, happy to let this guy keep right on talking as long as he wanted to.

“Yeah, well it helped that I was just as relentless at ignoring the city planning people as the city planning people were about bitching in emails,” he said. “Seniority didn’t hurt.”

“Right,” I said. I figured it was time to ask the obvious question. “So I’m assuming that means you work for Lotus?”

“Of course I work for Lotus!” he said, slamming his hand down on a desk and causing a crystal ball filled with a glowing green mist to go tumbling off the edge of his desk where it landed with a small mushroom cloud of that same green mist.

“Um, that’s not going to hurt me, is it?” I asked.

“Shouldn’t,” Trelor said, then waved a hand and the thing disappeared. “Better safe than sorry, though. I put some stuff in here because it looked pretty. Didn’t bother to check whether or not it could hurt someone without immunity.”

“Right,” I said. “So you work for Lotus and you’re telling me you work for Lotus. Are you a gamemaster?”

“Gamemasters,” he said with a snort. “Minimum wage keyboard jockeys who spend all their time doing low-level tech support for idiot gamers who can’t figure out how to play the game properly, chasing after bugs the developers haven’t bothered to stamp out because they’re putting out real fires, or babysitting players who can’t get along with each other without someone official laying the smack down.”

“So that’s a no?” I asked.

“I’m so beyond any of those tasks,” he said.

“If you’re beyond those tasks then what are you doing here? Have I done something wrong?”

It wouldn’t be the first time I’d had an up close and personal meeting with someone a little higher on the org chart than a gamemaster lately, after all. The encounter with that Horizon prick was still fresh in my mind. Plus there was that incident with blowing some people up with a gem.

“I don’t know,” Trelor said, leaning over his desk and winking. “Have you done something lately that might grab the attention of those knuckle draggers down in the babysitting department?”

It took me a moment to realize that when he referred to the “babysitting department” he was talking about the gamemasters. The people who were tasked with keeping an eye on things in the game and making sure people didn’t step out of line.

“You really aren’t a GM, are you?” I asked.

“What would make you think that, Conlan?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. “Aside from the fact that I just all but told you I’m not with my obvious disdain for the trained monkeys reciting from scripts because it’s cheaper to have humans do that than to develop an AI to replace them?”

I was liking this guy more and more. He was a smartass after my own heart, so I decided to respond in kind. “Well you don’t have a stick perpetually shoved up your ass like most gamemasters do.”

Trelor barked a laugh at that. “I think I’m gonna like you kid. And no, I’m not a gamemaster. Dealing with that shit is well below my paygrade, though some of’em might be getting close to what I make in a week this month with all the overtime they’re putting in trying to keep up with gamers exploiting this new world we’ve made for them.”

He stared at me as he mentioned exploiting the new world.

“So have you done anything lately to exploit the world we’ve made for you, Conlan?”

There was something about his tone that said this wasn’t a good time to lie. That he already knew everything I’d done, and was testing me to see if I’d tell him the truth.

“Um, well maybe I blew some people up,” I said. “But it was an accident the first time, and they had it coming the second time! Fucking Horizon pricks.”

I was letting my anger get the best of me. That wasn’t good. At least not in front of someone who worked for Lotus who could probably ban me if he really wanted to.

“And your little discovery in those mines is exactly why you’re here,” Trelor said.

My shoulders slumped and I looked down as a pit of ice formed in my stomach. Fuck. I was in trouble for blowing up those Horizon assholes, and it was so bad that they’d sent someone more powerful than a GM to swat me down. It probably wasn’t helping things that I’d also talked about how the fuckers deserved it.

They did deserve it, but in my experience official representatives of a game company usually didn’t care about the specifics of rules being broken so much as they cared about banning anyone who was breaking those rules.

“And I agree those assholes had it coming,” Trelor said, a grin splitting his face. “Fuck Horizon!”

I stared at him. Blinked a couple of times as my brain caught up to what he’d just said. I even rubbed my eyes to make sure I was seeing what I thought I saw. An official representative of Lotus who was about to ban me for exploiting their systems shouldn’t be sitting there leaning over his desk grinning. He should be glowering at me, royally pissed off that I was breaking the rules in his game, but there was none of that with Trelor.

It didn’t make sense. And I got that tingling along my scalp that told me there was something interesting going on here, because I figured things not making sense meant there was an opportunity here.

Especially when he was talking smack about fucking Horizon.

“So you don’t like Horizon either?” I asked.

“No one who built this game likes those assholes,” he said. “Sure it was nice that they gave us those licensing fees for their modules while we were working on Lotus Online. They provided a stopgap that had people wanting to buy the earbuds while we were working on this.”

He gestured all around him, and the meaning was clear enough. Most everyone had figured Lotus was doing something like that, but it was weird to hear someone from the company laying it out like that.

“But you still don’t like them even though they kept Lotus afloat?” I asked.

“Of course not!” he growled. “What self-respecting gamer likes those fuckers? Almost everyone who built Lotus are gamers, even if we haven’t had much time for games outside of Lotus since crunch time started to get this launched.”

My eyes narrowed. On the one hand it was interesting getting all this insider information, but on the other hand…

“Why are you telling me any of this?” I asked.

“Why not?” he asked with a shrug.

“I mean aren’t you worried about getting fired? What if I go out and show the world the playback from this?”

Trelor grinned and made an expansive gesture. “Go ahead. Show me the recording.”

I figured I knew where the hell this was going before I got there, but I thought about accessing my personal recordings anyway. Sure enough when I looked at my personal stream, something that saved the last twenty-four hours unless I went in and selected something to save more permanently, there was a big black screen with the glowing outline of a hand flipping the bird that started right around the time I went into Trelor’s Oddments.

“Okay, so you’ve got my attention,” I said. “Why did you bring me here? Is it because of the gem I used to blow up those Horizon fucks?”

“The gem you used to blow up Horizon fucks?” he asked, arching an eyebrow and showing something other than amusement for the first time since he’d introduced himself.

“You don’t know about that?” I asked, suddenly getting the feeling of a perp who’d given up too much to a cop who had no idea what the fuck was going on.

“Humor me and assume I don’t,” he said, still arching that eyebrow.

“If you don’t know then there’s no way I’m going to give anything away,” I said.

Trelor sighed. “Would you be willing to tell me something if I told you I had no interest in getting you in trouble?”

“Sounds like the kind of thing a cop would say to someone to convince them they aren’t about to get thrown in the slammer,” I said. “So no thanks.”

Trelor frowned for another long moment. He muttered to himself for a bit, then muttered something at one of those glowing orbs. It pulsed for a moment, and then everything around us went dead. All the glowing and the special effects that made the place look magical.

“I need your help, kid,” he said.

“My help?”

“You’re the first fruits of my labor. The first person capable of Spellcrafting who also fits some very specific requirements I’m looking for.”

My chest felt tight. He’d given a hell of a lot away there. There were other people out there who could Spellcraft. At least that bit about me being the first who also fit his requirements would seem to indicate there were others out there who could Spellcraft.

I wasn’t alone, but the others were keeping their mouths shut if what I’d read, or rather what I hadn’t read, on the official forums was anything to go by.

“Care to go into exactly what sort of ‘specific requirements’ you’re looking for?” I asked.

Trelor’s grin was positively rapacious. Like we’re talking it took the looks Keia gave when she was at her most bloodthirsty and turned them up to eleven. It helped that the smile was plastered on the face of a dude with a villainous Van Dyke, and not a hot elf chick.

I definitely didn’t want to make out with him as he grinned rapaciously, that was for sure.

“That’s simple enough,” he said. “I’m looking for someone capable of unlocking several crafting and gathering skills in rapid succession which showed the appropriate interest in crafting over killing.”

“That’s it?” I said. “But I’ve mostly been gathering. I haven’t actually crafted anything yet.”

“But you were pursuing it,” he replied. “Besides, that’s not the most important thing I’m looking for.”

“And that most important thing is?”

“I need someone with no allegiance to Horizon,” he said. “In fact, you might say I want someone who hates Horizon with such a deep and abiding passion that nothing will stop them from trying to get a little revenge on those bastards.”

I licked my lips. I was liking what this guy said more and more. Sure it was a little creepy that the game had somehow been rummaging around in my head to discover motivations like that, but I guess it’s the least I should’ve expected from a system that had direct access to my brain.

“Can Horizon access my thoughts to the degree you seem to be able to?” I asked.

“Fuck no!” Trelor said, and hearing that kind of potty mouth from a badass wizard was a touch disconcerting. “I’m not even supposed to be able to do that, no one in Lotus is, but I’ve had some help from Al.”

“Al?” I asked.

“We can talk about that later. If you decide to work with me,” he said.

“So you’re a wizard,” I said.

“Sort of,” Trelor said. “And you’re a crafter?”

“Is it that obvious?” I asked. “Crafting is way better than whacking monsters. Especially if you’re talking a crafting system that can break a game.”

“A man after my own heart,” Trelor said. “Hell. Some of my best memories from playing games are from crafting.”

“Mine too,” I said, then my eyes narrowed as I looked around the room.

“So you work for Lotus,” I said.

“Guilty as charged.”

“And you need my help for some reason.”

“More than you could imagine.”

“I suppose I have one question before I give you a yes or a no.”

“Shoot.”

“Why the fuck are you assholes letting Horizon take over the game and ruin it? The whole world was looking forward to a game where Horizon wasn’t calling the shots, and you let them send in an invading army? What the ever loving fuck are you thinking?”

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