The world reappeared around me, and boy was it a trippy experience. The gem going off had been a lights out sort of situation, but everything coming back was taking a moment.

I got flashes of the alley. I thought I might’ve been having an out of body experience or something that was induced by the trauma of dying for the first time in the game. I’d heard of people freaking out after their first in-game death because it felt so damn real.

Maybe it was a blessing that my first trip to the great beyond within the confines of virtual reality had been quick and painless. Well, the actual dying part had been quick and painless even if the circumstances leading to that quick and painless death had been anything but.

“Conlan?” Keia said, her voice clear in my head. “What the hell is going on? I heard an explosion.”

I shook my head to clear it, then looked down to see if I had my finger again, but there was nothing there. Panic seized me as I realized I was nothing, then there was another flash and the alley appeared all around me.

“I’m gonna need a minute,” I said. “Kinda sorta dealing with the death animation here.”

“Damn it,” Keia hissed. “We’re going to have a chat about this!”

I knew I probably should care that she sounded royally pissed off, but I was more interested in experiencing the moment. I was disembodied and floating in the alleyway watching a replay of my death animation.

It was pretty spectacular. That was something, at least. And I had to admit that I liked the idea of watching my torturers getting blown into tiny little bits. 

One moment I was on the ground with a blinding light appearing from behind me as Torian stood and tried to warn his asshole friends to get the hell out of there, and the next there was a spectacular explosion. It blew a hole in the sides of buildings on either side of the alley, and it did far worse against the flesh and blood people standing there looking like idiots staring at Torian as though he’d lost his mind.

They hadn’t learned the lesson about standing all bunched up. Even the assholes who’d been guarding the entrance went through the death animation as shrapnel took them out. Hell, the stealthers who’d been hiding out on the roofs were pulled out of stealth as the buildings they stood on collapsed into the alley or the explosion sent them flying.

Torian was the only one in that death animation who’d realized something was terribly wrong, and even he didn’t get farther than maybe a step before the explosion took him.

There wasn’t even any decomposing animation this time around. There wasn’t enough left of them after the close quarters explosion, it seemed to be magnified since it happened in an alley where there was nowhere for the force to go, for the decomposing animation to kick in.

No, there were just a bunch of small treasure chests on the ground or on top of piles of rubble where my torturers had met there end. I figured it was the least the fuckers deserved for what they’d done to me.

I only had that brief moment of satisfaction before I was ripped out of the death animation. It felt as though someone had taken a massive hook and pulled at me from my stomach. I wondered if this was what it felt like for a fish that suddenly found itself on the hook being dragged up out of the only world it’d ever known to its almost certain death.

If so it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, but then again I figured I was going back to the game world, so whatever.

I appeared at the edge of town in front of a giant black obelisk with glowing runes running up and down the thing. Runes that pulsed as I looked at them. All around me were graves, as though the designers hadn’t been able to decide if they wanted the respawn point to be a magical place or your traditional MMO graveyard.

I figured I should be glad I even got sent to this respawn point at the edge of town. After all, there was a chance I could’ve been sent back to the clearing where I’d originally started the game. There were some MMOs where you had to bind your respawn point, though it would appear that Lotus merely sent you to the nearest convenient graveyard.

The thing was still pulsing, and I realized what that meant. I’d died a few seconds before Torian and the others because I’d been the first one taken by the explosion, but they’d be appearing all around me any moment now.

They’d be disoriented, and they’d have the same equipment as me, which is to say none at all, but they’d be pissed off and they still might be able to beat the crap out of me. They’d have the numbers.

And since I’d gone on a suicide mission back there to teach them a lesson I didn’t have anything left in my inventory to save my ass if they did decide they were going to try and kick said ass all over again. My last water gem was in a little chest in the rubble I’d just created.

I was defenseless, and there was an alley full of shit that was mine for the taking if I got there ahead of my tormentors. So I turned and ran for town.

“Where are you?” Keia’s voice came into my head.

“Running from a bunch of Horizon assholes I just blew up,” I said.

A party invite appeared in front of me. I went ahead and accepted it. The danger from Horizon Dawn trying to ambush her and give her what they were giving me passed the moment all those stealthers were killed by the explosion, after all.

I didn’t doubt there’d be more Horizon Dawn people appearing around that explosion soon enough, but it wasn’t an ambush this time and I’d sure as shit need some help when I got there.

“So that explosion was you?” she asked.

“This thing has all the looks of Conlan,” Kristoph said.

“You’re by the explosion?” I asked.

“Down the street keeping an eye on things,” Kristoph said. “So far people are staying back, but I don’t know how long that’s gonna last.”

“Wanna tell me what the hell happened and why the hell you didn’t want us to know where you were?” Keia asked, the sound of her teeth grinding carrying through group chat.

“They pulled me into an alley and were beating the shit out of me,” I said. “And Torian positioned stealthers all around because he was trying to get you there too. It sounded like he was going to do some bad shit if they managed to catch you.”

“Bastards,” she said. “I could’ve done something.”

“You would’ve been caught and tortured the same as me,” I said.

“Still, I would’ve been there,” she said.

“I’m touched that you like me enough to get tortured with me, but I like you enough that I don’t want that happening to you,” I shot back.

A group of Horizon Dawn people appeared out of the crowd in front of me. Recognition dawned on their faces and their hands went to their weapons, but I ducked past them before they had a chance to do more than that.

This was going to get interesting if I got a trail of those assholes behind me. I could only hope I’d lose them in the crowd. They shouted behind me, but the frustration in their shouts would seem to indicate they’d gotten caught in the crowd.

“Why didn’t you just log out if they were torturing you?” Kristoph said. “This is just a game. You don’t have to deal with that shit.’

“Turns out I do,” I said, my breath coming in gasps. “The game sees getting the shit kicked out of you by other players as combat, and you can’t log out during combat.”

“Sounds like something you should maybe tell Trelor about,” Kristoph said.

“No shit.”

“Where are you going now?” Keia asked. “Should we head to the forest and lay low for awhile?”

“Not a chance. I’m doing a good old-fashioned corpse run,” I said.

“Were you carrying anything valuable?” she asked. 

“Not really, but it’s not about my stuff,” I said. “It’s about taking their stuff and making this really hurt.”

“You sneaky bastard,” she said. “Where did they hit you?”

“The alley across the way from Jonhurtz Wands near the entrance to the Magic District,” Kristoph said. “You’ve still got time. People are staring, but no one wants to go near an unexplained explosion.”

“Probably worried another unexplained explosion might happen,” I said.

“I’ll be there in a few,” Keia said.

I skidded around a corner and the arrow pointing me to my corpse became a dot on the minimap to go along with Kristoph’s. I walked up to him and patted him on the shoulder, then nodded towards the massive cloud of dust.

Kristoph had been right on. Players and NPCs alike were hanging back from the carnage. Which was just fine with me. I didn’t want anyone stepping in and trying to bogart the loot I’d gotten fair and square with my suicide attack.

“We doing this?” Kristoph asked.

“It’s the only way we’re getting their stuff,” I said, purposefully striding towards the alley.

“How far behind you are they?” he asked.

“Probably not far,” I said. “And there are Horizon Dawn people all over town. We need to assume any one of them could be the enemy even if they aren’t the head assholes.”

“So a Matrix sort of situation where anyone can turn into Elrond,” Kristoph said.

I missed a step trying to work through that, and smiled as my brain followed the same convoluted paths as the logic train that’d just pulled out of the station in Kristoph’s brain.

“Something like that.”

When I got back to the alley I was pleased to see that not only had I beaten Torian and company to their corpses, but there also weren’t any other Horizon people there running interference. Yet.

I figured it was only a matter of time before some of them showed up to help their buddies. And I planned on being out of here before they got here to render any of that assistance.

Treasure chests were scattered around the dark alley, so I did the same thing I did the last time I blew up a bunch of Horizon assholes.

“Tap as many chests as you can,” I said.

“On it,” Kristoph replied.

We didn’t have long. Me and Kristoph approaching the damage seemed to be enough to get other players to peer a little closer, but none of them were entering the alley yet.

I knew that was only a matter of time. Players were curious about the big explosion, but most people were staying back. It seemed that a lot of players were of the mind that if there was something obviously magical exploding and blowing people up then they weren’t going to go near it, but it also wouldn’t be long before the braver and stupider among them threw caution to the wind when they realized there were dozens of treasure chests dotting the alley floor.

For the moment, though, they were holding back which was fine by me. It gave me more time to gather chests and rob Horizon Dawn blind.

I tapped chests and took their contents. I’d discovered an option to take everything in someone’s inventory when a chest was tapped since the last time I was in this situation. Usually that was a combo button press in older MMOs, but all it took was a thought in Lotus. I took full advantage of that feature this time around. 

One of the advantages of having been blown up and relieved of what few things I still had in my inventory after my Auction House run was I didn’t have to worry about encumbrance this time around.

Just another moment and…

“Hey! What are you doing?”

I whirled around. Saw a goblin guard standing at the alley entrance eyeing the destruction. The guard finished by locking eyes with me.

“Uh-oh,” Kristoph said.

“What’s wrong?” Keia said. “I’m almost there.”

“Might be some trouble with the goblins, is all,” Kristoph said. “I don’t know that there’s much you can do there.”

“I can try, damn it,” she said.

I didn’t think Keia would be able to do much against the guards either. I’d seen what they did to people who crossed them. They were a powerful force in Nilbog that so far refused to exercise that power to throw out their tormentors for some reason.

Though that didn’t mean they liked Horizon Dawn. I decided I was going to take a chance. After all, so far the goblins had been pretty friendly to me, and I still had the feeling there was a reputation grind going on here even if I hadn’t been presented with any reputation bar that showed me, say, how close I was to an exalted reputation with the local goblins.

“These were a bunch of Horizon Dawn assholes who were torturing me,” I said. “Those assholes are going to be back here pretty soon. I intend to steal all their stuff before they can get back here and finish what they started.”

The goblin smiled and shook his head. He stared around the alley in obvious wonder. “How did you do this?”

I grinned. “Trade secret, but I might be able to share that secret with some local enterprising friends if they were willing to, say, keep their mouths shut about certain things.”

It was a shot in the dark. Sure I was relying on the general reputation goblins had for acquisitiveness in games, but I figured it was a safe bet. And I figured it was a good way to figure out exactly how good my reputation was getting with these guys.

The goblin guard put a finger to his nose. That grin never left his face, but it did seem a lot more rapacious now than it’d been a moment ago.

“There might be something to that,” he said. “I’ll try to hold them off. You should be able to go through that hole you made in the building behind you. There’s an exit in the building on the other side nobody’s watching for the moment. Saw it on my way over here.”

“Thanks,” I said, going back to the business of grabbing as many chests as I could. I figured that’d been a pretty good test of my reputation with the goblins.

“New plan,” I said. “Everything’s under control here. Meet me at the edge of town.”

“You sure about that?” Keia asked. “What if they find you while you’re trying to escape?”

“I’m going to stick to the main thoroughfares for a little bit,” I said. “Something tells me as long as I’m within sight of the guards I’m going to be safe. Besides. I have Kristoph here to protect me if things go bad again.”

Kristoph grinned. I’d meant it as a sarcastic comment, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him as much with him standing there puffing up with pride.

“Your funeral if you’re wrong,” Keia said.

I turned and looked to the alley entrance. Towards where I could already hear a goblin guard shouting at someone and a ruckus starting. Clearly that little guy had been serious about keeping me safe from Horizon Dawn. 

The more I learned about the goblins the more I thought there was definitely something I could exploit there. Something that would be even more exploitable than what I was doing with the Spellcrafting system.

“Time to go,” Kristoph said.

He disappeared through the hole into what looked like an abandoned shop, and I followed.

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