Spellcraft Chapter 34: Spellcraft Unlocked!

I lost track of time as I got into the zone. It was a place my mind went when I was on autopilot doing crafting and gathering stuff.

Usually I’d pull up a separate window in my heads up display and watch something in the background, but with Keia there chatting with me it was far more interesting to talk to the pretty elf girl.

“So then I fire the arrow, and wouldn’t you know it, the thing lands right between his ass cheeks!”

She threw her head back and laughed, and I laughed right along with her. Sure it was a painful story of one man’s unfortunate and very painful encounter with an arrow, but it’d happened to someone in Horizon Dawn, so my amusement outweighed the cringe factor.

“Did you mean to hit him there?” I asked.

She kept giggling. “That’s the thing. I wasn’t aiming for his ass, but you bet your ass once I hit there I took credit for it like I’d been intending to hit that brown bullseye!”

“I’d do the same thing!” I said. “That sounds like it’d be painful for the bullseye though.”

Keia leaned in closer. She glanced from side to side as though she was making sure there was no one around to overhear her even though we were in the middle of a mine where we were the only two living creatures. Even so, she used a stage whisper.

“I’m not one hundred percent sure on this, but Lotus must’ve put out a patch that caused diminishing returns on pain and the sensory slider that lets someone more or less turn pain off after that incident. I’m pretty sure it was the reports Lotus got after Torian took an arrow to the you know what that caused them to put that new update in place.”

I shook my head and wiped a tear from my eye as I tapped another ore vein. Through trial and error I’d discovered I didn’t need to slam my pickaxe against the walls. Tapping a vein was enough to put the goblinsteel ore in my inventory. It might take a couple of tries considering I didn’t think I was a high enough skill level to be mining here, but whatever.

We had time in abundance since Horizon Dawn had been obliging enough to clear out the dungeon for us.

If the game didn’t think I had the skill to get a particular ore vein it was simply a matter of tapping it over and over again until whatever underlying math made the game world go ‘round finally decided it was going to give up the goods even though my skill wasn’t high enough.

I’d also been getting some other interesting things while I was mining. Like gems. I had no idea what they were used for, but I suspected there was some sort of crafting use for them that went above and beyond looking pretty. 

Then again in a game like this I wouldn’t put it past the designers to simply put gems in for no other purpose than they looked pretty.

I hadn’t told Keia about those. Sure we were having a great time, but there was still a possibility she might try to double cross me. Especially if she thought she could get money by stealing the gems I’d been mining fair and square.

If what she’d said about Lotus gold being exchangeable for real world money then there was certainly incentive for someone to try and knock someone else over for potentially valuable items in the game.

I might share some of the goodies with her once we got back to town and I could rest assured she wasn’t going to try and kill my ass and take all of them rather than allowing me to give her some, but for now I was playing it safe. Better to tell her about the extra goodies when I was surrounded by goblin guards who took a dim view of players attacking other players within city limits.

I figured a lack of trust was a good policy while playing a game where world PVP seemed to not only be enabled, but a tool that more powerful players used to enforce their will on lowbies and people who sucked at combat.

I looked around our current room. We’d done a couple of circuits of the place, I was able to find more and more veins as I got higher and higher in my mining skill, but it looked like we’d finally tapped this room out. At least there was no more glow, and no more striated lines in the wall indicating a vein that didn’t glow because my skill was too low.

“Probably time to move on,” I said.

“Sure thing,” Keia said. “I think the forge is beyond this room.”

“You’ve been here before?” I asked.

“These ring mines all have the same basic layout,” she said. “Maybe I haven’t been to this one specifically, but they’re all more or less the same in terms of what rooms go where.”

I wondered what she’d done in these dungeons with Horizon Dawn. She seemed to have a pretty good idea of what had been done to the goblins in here, like maybe she’d been here for some of it, but I wasn’t going to dig too deep there. Not when there was still the risk she might give me a firsthand demonstration of what happened to those poor goblin bastards.

We stepped into the next room and sure enough there were crafting implements all around the edge, with a forge right in the middle. The place was amazing. I hadn’t seen actual crafting implements yet, and I felt like a kid in a playground. 

I walked over to the forge and looked it over, wondering if it was possible to use the thing to craft or if it was something that was only available to goblins. The thing was cold, which was a contrast to other games where forges seemed to be forever hot and ready to go.

There were no goblins in here to keep the forge going, so of course there was no heat coming off the thing.

I had enough ore on me that I figured I’d give the thing a try. After all, so far the game had struck a balance between game design and realism, and it didn’t seem likely the devs would put a forge in here purely for decoration.

“Any idea how these things work?” I asked.

“No idea,” Keia said with a shrug. “I already told you. The whole crafting thing was never really my bag.”

“Got it,” I said.

I reached out and touched the forge, and a menu popped up as the thing sprang to life with heat and flames. Okay then, so much for too much realism when it came to forge design. 

The crafting menu gave several options for creating things, but unfortunately the supplies I needed to create those things weren’t the kind of materials I was mining in this dungeon. There were options for iron, steel, all of that sort of low level stuff, but I’d been gathering goblinsteel.

I waved my hand and the menu scrolled down until I finally came to goblinsteel. Which was greyed out. Damn. I guess the ore I’d been gathering was way above my skill level when it came to crafting, even if I could fudge the whole skill level thing when it came to mining it.

I could mine something by tapping it over and over again and winning through shear stubborn persistence. I couldn’t craft something when I didn’t have the right ingredients.

“Damn,” I said.

“Something wrong?” Keia asked.

“I’m seeing goblinsteel stuff on the list of stuff I can craft,” I said. I totally intended to go on and tell her that it was greyed out even if it was on that list, but she totally misunderstood my meaning and talked right over me before I could clarify.

“Really?” she asked, her face lighting up. “Goblinsteel stuff from dungeon raids is pretty expensive. You could make bank if you could figure out a way to sell that stuff without going through the Goblinsteel Mines raid to get it.”

“You seem to know a lot about how goblinsteel was farmed,” I said, trying to sound casual and again not sure I was doing a good job of it.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“You seem to know an awful lot about that guild and how they operate. How much did you have to do with those terrible things they did?”

Keia stared at me. I was painfully aware of just how many ways she could poke numerous holes in my body which would turn this into a very bad day.

Finally she sighed.

“I suppose I deserved that.”

“You did?” I asked.

“I did,” she said. “I know Torian and some of the other guys who started that guild in real life,” she said. “They’re the reason I got into the game ahead of the launch date, they got me in with Horizon, but that was before I realized what we were doing.”

“So you never really hated Horizon?” I asked.

“Before I realized what they were doing in this game I didn’t think anything of them,” she said. “I’d seen the news reports the same as everyone else about them maybe killing people, but that didn’t have anything to do with me.”

“No one ever thinks it has anything to do with them until they’re the ones getting their brains fried,” I said. “And they definitely did it. My sister is proof of that.”

“Like I said, I figured that was all rumor or people making stuff up so they could sue Horizon and get a payday.”

I glared at her and she held a hand up to stop me before I could really lay into her. As though she was suddenly afraid that I was the one who was going to hurt her and not vice versa.

“I know that was wrong. You don’t have to look at me like that. Some of the things I saw them do… The way Torian moved in and took over and started acting like king asshole… I had enough, so I disappeared into the forest and I’ve been spending most of my time trying to do whatever quests I can without getting involved with them, and killing those assholes whenever I can.”

“Did you have anything to do with clearing out the goblins?” I asked.

Another deep breath. “I did, at first, but that was back when the game was new. That was back before I realized how real everything was. How terrible it was to treat the goblins like they were trash mobs in an old MMO.”

“And so you’ve been spending your time trying your best to do to Horizon what they were doing to the goblins?” I asked.

“That’s the idea,” Keia said.

“I suppose that’s good enough for now,” I said.

She laughed. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant laugh, but it also wasn’t exactly an unpleasant laugh.

“That’s an awfully big attitude from a lowbie I could kill over and over again if I wanted,” she said.

“Maybe,” I said. “But if you were the kind of person who’d do that to me then that means you’re not who you say you are. I guess that’d be a lesson well learned even if it did involve my messy painful death. And losing all  the shit I’ve been gathering. That’d hurt more than the messy painful death. I think. I turned my pain sliders down.”

She nodded and grinned.

“That’s a good idea. And I guess you’re right. I’m not that kind of person. Not for you, at least.”

“That’s a relief,” I said, grinning back at her.

“So tell me more about all the goblinsteel stuff you’re going to be making for me when you get the right ingredients,” she said. “That stuff seriously goes for a lot! Horizon controls the supply by killing goblins for it and regulating the supply from the Goblinsteel Mines raid dungeon.”

Right. She misunderstood me and totally thought I could craft goblinsteel stuff because I hadn’t had a chance to clarify my admittedly ambiguous statement on the subject. Well it was time to nip that little misunderstanding in the bud.

I looked at the greyed out stuff on screen again. I felt a twitch. There was something to what she was saying. Something I could use against those Horizon Dawn assholes. Assuming I could figure out how to craft something at a damned forge, and find lesser metals that I could use to level my Smithing skill to the point that I could do goblinsteel stuff.

“I can’t make anything right now,” I said with a sigh. “That’s the problem. Goblinsteel looks like it’s beyond my skill level right now as far as crafting is concerned. I probably have to start working on lower-level stuff like iron and work my way up. I’m honestly surprised the game even let me mine the stuff.”

“That’s how the game works,” Keia said. “If you try to do something that’s above your skill level it’s not impossible. It just might take a little longer. Think about all those failures you had when you tried mining.”

“You mean failures where you insinuated you were going to kill me if I didn’t succeed?” I said. “Either way, it looks like it doesn’t work that way with crafting. Goblinsteel stuff is greyed out. So’s the lower level stuff, for that matter. Maybe this forge is busted, but I think it’s beyond my skill level. I bet if I had some iron I’d be able to make something. It wouldn’t be worth anything, but I could make it.”

“Hey, those death threats were only motivation! Also that’s totally weird that crafting works like that. Literally no other skill in the game works like that. Lotus doesn’t put invisible walls in front of players.”

“Maybe,” I said, glancing at the crafting menu again and wondering if I was missing something. “Whatever. I’ll figure it out. In the meantime what else do we have in this room?”

“More crafting stuff,” Keia said with a shrug. “Like I keep reminding you…”

“…That’s not really your thing,” I finished. “I know. You keep coming back to that.”

“You came back to it last time, and it’s the truth,” she said.

I looked around the room. Most of the stuff I could figure out based on what it looked like. There was a universal language in games like this when it came to crafting. The forge was pretty obvious. There was something that looked like a fletcher’s table in one corner based on the arrows above the thing. There was a leather working station if the animal hides over the thing were anything to go on.

Something caught my eye as I assessed the room and all the possibilities this workshop offered: a table with jewels spread across it that glowed faintly. Jewels like what I’d been getting as I mined goblinsteel. That table called to me.

“What’s that table there?”

She looked at the glowing table and then back to me. She shrugged as though to remind me what she’d already told me repeatedly.

“Right,” I said. “You have no idea what any of this stuff does.”

Only I figured I had a pretty good idea what to do to figure out what that table was for. I walked over and grabbed a gem to inspect it.

“Those gems are useless,” Keia said. “Don’t even bother.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Trust me,” she said. “There are plenty of people who raided those tables thinking they’d found a fortune, but none of the merchants won’t take anything for them. They’re worth less than the scrap you loot off of trash mobs.”

“Interesting,” I said.

When I inspected the gem it was the same as the gems I’d picked up mining. I grabbed them and tossed them in my inventory, ignoring the noises Keia made. I couldn’t shake the strange tingly feeling running through me. A feeling I only got when I had a sneaking suspicion I was on to something.

“Here goes nothing,” I said as I placed my hand on the table.

A menu popped up letting me know I’d discovered a crafting table of some sort. I had high hopes based on the gems I’d picked up that I was onto something interesting here. Something everyone else playing the game had apparently either overlooked, or if they had discovered it they were keeping it to themselves.

I figured I was golden either way. If it was something no one else had discovered, unlikely considering the game had been going for a month now and there were plenty of people exploring, then being the first to find something like this would be unlikely but amazing.

And if it was something someone had discovered, but they were keeping it to themselves? Well then I still had an advantage because if somebody was keeping something to themselves there was usually a good fucking reason for it.

I felt another tingle as I saw the title up at the top of the interface. My breath caught. This was everything I’d hoped for and then some.

Spellcraft Table

“What is it?” Keia asked.

“Something wonderful,” I breathed.

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<<Chapter 33Chapter 35>>

Spellcraft Chapter 33: Mining

We moved deeper and deeper into the mine. It was pretty typical. Twisting and turning rock passages with dank walls dripping with moisture that seemed to come from nowhere in particular other than the unwritten universal law that quest mines in MMOs and RPGs had to be moist.

I also caught occasional scrawling on the wall which jived with goblins working down here, though I couldn’t understand the language. If it was anything like human graffiti then it was probably the goblin equivalent of bragging about who had the biggest dick or who got laid last night.

Supposedly graffiti like that went back to ancient times if the stuff on the walls of Pompeii were anything to go on, and something told me the English majors who’d been lucky enough to write scenarios for this game hadn’t held back on the vulgarity.

“So was it just the goblins in here before Horizon Dawn came in and cleared them out?” I asked.

“Yup. Just the goblins,” she said. “They used to run everything in this territory. Mines and otherwise.”

“But they never ran anything in this territory really,” I said.

“Of course they did,” she said.

“That’s just the backstory in the game though. Horizon Dawn came in and started running things the day this world went live, so from a certain point of view the goblins were never in control. Even if they think they were,” I said.

Keia rolled her eyes. “Bet you’re a lot of fun at parties.”

“Actually I don’t get invited to a lot of parties,” I said.

“Can’t imagine why,” she said. “So in the game’s backstory the goblins had a whole commerce empire that stretched off to the big mountains you can see in the distance.”

“What big mountains?” I asked.

“The ones you can see if you get on one of the airships?” she said.

“Never been on an airship,” I said.

“Well there are mountains off in the distance. There’s another Horizon guild working that outlying territory, though.”

“Huh, so there are more assholes out there?” I asked.

“They’re all over,” she said. “Horizon Dawn is one head of the hydra.”

“Fucking great,” I muttered.

“Yup. Trying to take over the world by buying off players. Genius in a twisted sort of way,” she said. “And I hate the fuckers for it.”

“You and me and the goblins,” I said, thinking about that Writ of Nobility and wondering if reputation had something to do with Horizon not officially controlling everything in this territory.

“I imagine they don’t considering the way they got slaughtered,” Keia said.

“Was it really that bad?” I asked.

On the one hand I felt just a touch ridiculous even asking the question. After all, I was talking about creatures in a game. When you got down to it, weren’t they just a bunch of ones and zeros strung together in a slightly more convincing manner than any other program I’d ever seen before?

At their root the goblins in this game were no different from the colored aliens moving across the screen in an ancient game of Space Invaders. They were the same when you got down to their nuts and bolts, even if one was far more complicated than the other.

And yet wasn’t the definition of sapient life something whose nuts and bolts came together in something so ridiculously complicated that it became self aware?

I thought back to the terror I’d seen on that goblin’s face when I first logged in. How it’d been scrambling for its life. How it’d jumped on me and held on as though I was the only thing standing between it and certain death. 

Was that goblin’s terror real, or was it another illusion so sufficiently advanced that it wasn’t any different from the real thing? Was that goblin’s behavior any different from the various other hyperrealistic stimuli assaulting my senses constantly? For that matter, was it really all that different from the curve of Keia’s ass I’d been admiring the entire way out here even though it was a digital representation of something that probably didn’t exist in the real world? 

After all, there was still a chance she was an overweight guy named Chuck living in the her parents’ basement in Detroit, to quote an ancient movie about fictional teenagers who supposedly lived in what was now the past having adventures in a digital world that was similar to this one.

Though in this case it would be someone living on the lowest level of their parents’ quarters in one of the many Detroit Arcologies.

It was all confusing. I wasn’t sure how to even begin thinking of the ethics of killing digital creatures that might be thinking creatures, and so I decided I wasn’t going to think about it too much.

That goblin had felt real. The thing’s terror had certainly been real. And if there were assholes out there who were doing that to living creatures, even if that living creature was a string of ones and zeros that was thinking for itself, then I was going to stand between those ones and zeros and anyone trying to hurt them.

After all, I figured that when you got down to it I was just an expression of biological rather than technological code. Sure my code had been perfected over billions of years rather than being designed over a couple of years of hellacious crunch time by an overworked software dev who hadn’t seen his family in months, but the end result was the same.

So what if my code used for base pairs instead of the ones and zeroes favored by computer programmers? Was there really any difference if the end result was a thinking creature that could feel love, fear, pain, and all that stuff that made life worth living?

“Hey there,” Keia said, waving a hand in front of me. “Is all this dungeon exploring stuff boring you? Because we could always go back to the entrance and I could introduce you to the Horizon Dawn guard if you’d like.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Just distracted by the game.”

“Totally understand,” she said. “I had the same problem when I first got started. Everything here is so realistic that it’s hard to get used to.”

“You’ve got that right,” I said.

“Right,” she said. “So here we are.”

I looked at my surroundings. If I was supposed to be seeing something I had no idea what it was. There was a rock wall in front of us, and as I looked at it…

No. Come to think of it, as I looked at the wall I came to realize there was something there. It wasn’t just my mind playing tricks on me. There was a glow. Very faint, but it was there.

I reached out and ran a hand along the ore vein. I was pretty sure that’s what I was looking at from the way the glow ran through the wall in striations that made an almost hypnotic pattern.

“Impressive,” Keia said. “Most people can’t pick that stuff out, and nobody ever bothers to actually try and go for it. They just know there’ll be goblins holding goblinsteel if they find them near these veins.”

I shook my head and made a disgusted noise in the back of my throat. “That’s such a fucking waste.”

“How do you figure?” Keia asked. “I mean yeah slaughtering goblins for their goblinsteel is terrible and all, but I always thought using the ore veins to point towards goblins who are likely to have the stuff was pretty clever, if brutal.”

“They’re playing the game all wrong and being assholes while they’re at it,” I said.

“Horizon Dawn in a nutshell,” Keia muttered.

“It really is such a waste though,” I went on. “The people seeing that faint glow have the ability to gather ore, and they thought it was a way to point them towards goblins to kill? Seriously?”

Keia shrugged. “What did I tell you? Horizon Dawn is a mix of stupid and savvy, and you never know which one is going to come out on top at a given moment.”

“Talk about a bunch of fucking idiots!” I growled.

“As I’ve mentioned many times before, we’re in total agreement on that point. So can you do something with this?” she asked. “Because it looks like they’ve cleared out this dungeon recently. That means the only way we’re getting at any of that ore is if you figure out a way to mine the stuff yourself.”

I hit her with a sharp look. “You almost sound like you’re sad there are no goblins to kill,” I said.

“I mean they are just mobs in a game,” she said.

I held her gaze long enough that she finally looked away with a blush.

“I know,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t like it either, but how else are we supposed to complete the quest?”

“Like this,” I said, pulling my pickaxe out of my inventory and slamming it against the ore vein.

Honestly I had no idea if that would work. I figured that was the way it worked in most video games. You saw some ore you wanted to mine, and so you swung a pickaxe against the stuff until you got the ore.

Well, in most games up to the launch of Lotus you clicked on the ore you wanted to mine and then the pickaxe came out and an animation ran until the stuff appeared in your inventory, or not, but I figured the basic idea was more or less the same here.

The only problem was I slammed my pickaxe against that ore vein and nothing happened.

“This is not putting the quest ore in my inventory like I was hoping for lowbie,” Keia said.

“Just give me a minute here,” I said. “It can take a couple of tries to get this stuff to work when you’ve never done it before.”

“If you say so,” she said, but she didn’t sound very convinced.

I slammed my pickaxe against the ore vein again. This time there was a spark which was promising. At least it seemed promising until nothing happened. Again. Which made me nervous since Keia was right there looking at me like things weren’t going to go well for me if nothing happening continued to be the status quo.

Sure we’d had a flirtatious thing going. At least I thought we did. I didn’t think for a moment that would save me if she thought I was screwing with her though.

“Damn it,” I said.

But then I noticed something in my heads up display. I’d gained a skill point in Gathering:Mining. I hadn’t gotten any ore, but that skill point meant this was working.

“We’re getting somewhere now,” I said.

“I certainly hope you are,” Keia said.

She held her hand out, and a dagger appeared. She rolled it between her fingers as she hit me with a too sweet smile that promised terrible things if I didn’t figure out how to mine that ore as soon as possible. As far as motivations went it was a pretty good one.

That didn’t stop a few choice unpleasant phrases from running through my mind as I thought about the situation. Mostly I thought about how ridiculous it was that I’d focused on gathering rather than combat.

Though I could at least comfort myself with the knowledge that even if I did have skill points in combat, it’s not like they’d do me a damn bit of good against a stealth archer who was obviously higher in any combat skills that’d matter in a one-on-one fight. Sure I might be able to get in a lucky cheap shot, but I didn’t think even that would do me much good.

I sighed and poured all my frustration into the next swing. My pickaxe slammed against the ore vein, and this time a little inventory window popped up showing a nugget of goblinsteel ore that deposited itself in my inventory.

That’s a bingo!

I also gained a couple of points in mining. Apparently the stuff I was going for was high enough that a successful hit gave me a few points at once. It was a good thing for me the people who’d designed this game didn’t seem to be all about setting limitations for players.

At least so far the game didn’t feel like the cheap game design in a Horizon VR module where any materials that were out of my level would’ve been impossible to gather, full stop, instead of taking longer which is how it would’ve worked in the real world.

“Booyah!” I said. “And that’s how you do it!”

“You got it?” Keia asked, leaning forward as though she expected to see my inventory window or something. “That seriously worked?”

“You don’t have to sound like you don’t believe me,” I said.

“Sorry,” she said. “The whole gathering and crafting thing has never been my deal. This is all kind of new to me.”

I plucked the ore out of my inventory and tossed it. Keia grabbed it and examined the hunk of metal.

“Damn. You really were telling the truth,” she said.

“Of course I was!” I said. “Now how many more of those things do you need to finish your quest?”

Keia’s eyes glassed over as she was no doubt checking a heads up display with quest text. “About twenty.”

She looked at me as though she expected me to balk at that number. Instead I grinned and twirled my trusty pickaxe. That pickaxe suddenly felt way better than a nice enchanted sword, for all that I’d been getting pissy about my lack of combat abilities moments ago.

Which got me to thinking. I wondered if it’d be possible to enchant a pickaxe. It seemed like the developers had thought of and allowed so many other things, so why not enchanted gathering tools? Or whatever the hell they called enchanting in this game. It was something to tuck away in the “ways to break the game later” mental folder.

“Twenty should be easy enough,” I said.

“Really?” she asked, sounding seriously surprised. 

“Is that so hard to believe?” I asked.

“What’s hard to believe is you sound like you’re actually looking forward to a boring gather quest.”

“Spending time in a dark and creepy mine working on my mining ability?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t I have fun doing that?”

Keia grinned and shook her head. Her hair fell from side to side and it caused her ears to poke out just a little. The way she smiled really completed the whole cute elf ensemble. Like we’re talking distractingly cute.

Part of the reason I didn’t mind spending a bunch of time in a dark and creepy dungeon doing a boring gather quest, aside from the fact that I was getting some insane skill boosts I wouldn’t otherwise get, was I got to spend a little more time with Keia. Not that I planned on telling her that and potentially ruining the mood.

“Well let’s get this show on the road!” she said.

I grinned and followed her deeper into the mine.

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<<Chapter 32Chapter 34>>

Spellcraft Chapter 32: Mine Entrance

I was having a hard time not enjoying the view as we approached the ring mine. Whatever the fuck that was. She was a hot blonde elf, after all, and the leather armor she wore was skintight and left very little to the imagination.

It turns out a lady didn’t have to be in the traditional fantasy chainmail bikini to be a distraction when the game allowed her to wear leather that was way more formfitting than would ever be practical outside of a superhero movie.

There were more than a couple times when I was pretty sure she caught me looking from the way she turned around and smiled a little half smile that reminded me of the way she’d smiled while I was enjoying that soak in the hot spring.

At least she didn’t seem to mind me looking. Assuming she’d caught me looking, which was a big assumption, and that she even liked that I was looking, which felt like a bigger but safe assumption considering some of that admiration back at the hot springs.

I tried to remind myself that there was a very good possibility this hot elf girl could be an overweight dude living in his parents’ basement.

Kristoph was right on that point. Gender fluidity in player characters, something that’d been a thing ever since the very first MMOs, was an issue that was about to get a hell of a lot more complicated thanks to the level of realism in Lotus Online. 

I shook my head and wondered why I was even thinking like that. Keia was a girl. That was all there was to it. And I figured the model in front of me in those tight leather pants was all woman, too, so I would enjoy looking.

I was so preoccupied by those thoughts, and the hypnotic sight of her butt moving in those tight leather pants, that I almost ran into her when she came to a stop and put a hand on my chest.

I tried to ignore the way the game had once again taken my natural biological reaction to being touched by a pretty girl and mirrored it faithfully in the game world. I also regretted, again, that I didn’t have the kind of armor that included a codpiece that wouldn’t make that reaction quite so obvious.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is there something else that might kill us?”

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

She went into stealth mode again. I could see her plain as day right in front of me as she moved through the forest. The branches and leaves seemed to meld around her as she moved. A neat effect, that, and also mildly terrifying since it meant I wouldn’t be able to track any cloaked characters coming for me by the path they made through the trees while they were hunting me.

I looked around for plants I might be able to gather, but there was nothing nearby and I didn’t want to risk making noise if she thought there was something dangerous enough that she needed to scout.

“Okay,” she said from behind me.

I jumped and yelled, but thankfully that yell went into party chat.

“Sorry,” she giggled. “I couldn’t resist.”

“So is there something scary and dangerous out there?” I asked.

“Maybe. More potentially dangerous than scary. This is going to take a little finesse,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“We’re going to have to do something sneaky to I get into this ring mine,” she said. “Look.”

“I know what finesse means,” I muttered. “I just wondered what it meant in context.”

“Well there’s your context right there big boy,” Keia said, pushing me forward to where the trees thinned out and an open spot began.

I could make out a lone guard in a Horizon Dawn tabard standing in front of what looked like a classic mine entrance from any MMO ever.

I always thought it was a little funny how mines seemed to inexplicably dot the landscape in MMOs. I was pretty sure mines weren’t nearly as frequent in the real world as they were in digital fantasy worlds, but I guess they were too convenient for game designers to resist.

“They only have one guard?” I asked. “After those big patrols?”

“Looks like it,” Keia said. “Like I said, they’re getting lazy. That guard is probably a lowbie.”

“So you put an arrow through his head and we rush in there to get what we can before he respawns?” I asked.

“I like the bloodthirsty plan, but a lowbie is more than capable of raising the alarm even if someone offs them. We might get in there, but there’s no guarantee we’re getting out once he raises the alarm. There’s guaranteed to be a patrol close enough to give us some grief.”

“Right. A smash and grab is out. So what’s the plan?” I asked.

“The plan is I’m going to do something to distract him, and then you’re going to get into the mine.”

“How are you going to get in there after you distract him?” I asked.

I also wondered what kind of distractions she was thinking. I could think of a couple of ways I wouldn’t mind her distracting me, but somehow I didn’t think she was going to pull that with the guard.

She looked at me. Cocked an eyebrow. “What part of stealth archer is so hard to understand?”

“Oh. Right.”

“Stay right here,” she said. “As soon as that asshole gets distracted I want you to get in there, and I want you to go deep enough into that mine that he won’t see you when he comes back. Got it?”

“Is there anything in there that could kill me?” I asked.

“Maybe. You’d better hope they’ve cleared it recently,” she said with a manic grin and a pat on my shoulder. “You’re going to have to hit the sweet spot of going deep enough into the mine that the guard can’t see you, but not so deep that you risk stirring up any hostile goblins who might be lurking. Easy, right?”

“Yeah, easy,” I said. “Super easy. Why would the goblins be hostile anyway? The ones I’ve met have been nice enough to me.”

“Probably because Horizon Dawn is clearing them out on the regular if they find any sneaking their way back into the mine. They let them go back in the ring mines to mine the goblinsteel, then they kill them and take whatever they’ve gathered,” she said.

“So a brutal way of gathering ore that doesn’t involve any of them doing any mining,” I said. “Okay then. I can understand why the goblins out here would be more annoyed than the ones in Nilbog.”

“Horizon Dawn is brutal, but effective,” she said. “Which means any goblins in there will slaughter us if there’s enough of them to take us out. Keep that in mind.”

“Oh believe me,” I said. “It’ll never be too far from my mind at all.”

“Good,” she said.

Not for the first time since venturing out into the dark and foreboding forest, I found myself wishing I’d invested in some combat abilities. Why had I spent all my time picking flowers instead of killing stuff?

Keia disappeared. One moment she was next to me, and the next she was stealthed and moving off through the woods.

“That’d be a useful ability,” I muttered.

“Not as useful as you might think,” Keia saidin party chat.

Again I was left with more waiting. I was sick of waiting. Of traipsing through the woods. Sure it had taken a lot less time to get here than I figured it would’ve taken to cover the equivalent distance in the real world. Either the devs were doing something with how fast time passed in the game or they’d condensed the map just a little, but all the walking and waiting was still irritating.

It reminded me of old gamers who always complained about how games built character when they were young. How if they wanted to travel across the game world and discover everything then they had to do it the old-fashioned way by walking and killing any monsters that got in the way, and that’s the way they liked it. I’d always been more of a fan of modern conveniences in games, including fast travel, and…

A noise on the other side of the small clearing drew my attention. It also drew the guard’s attention. He looked around, clearly searching for the source of that noise as he fingered the sword at his side.

I didn’t think that sword would do the guy much good if it came to fighting Keia, but the name of the game was stealth. That sword might not do him any good, but killing him wouldn’t stop him from sending a private message to his Horizon Dawn buddies about the bad guys moving in on their territory.

I held my breath. Wondered if this was really going to work. Wondered if this asshole was going to fall for the obvious trick.

There was more rustling, this time followed by a screech that might’ve been an animal of some sort. I grinned as I realized someone out there was doing an impression of crazy old Ben Kenobi doing an impression of a krayt dragon. And despite that noise still the guard didn’t move. I sighed into party chat.

“You and me both,” Keia growled back at me.

“You could try to distract him with bubble wrap,” I said.

“What?” she replied.

“I mean it worked in the old Naked Gun movies, so it might work with this guy,” I said.

“Except I don’t have bubble wrap,” she replied. “And something tells me you’re not going to be able to craft some of that out of all those flowers you picked.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I said. “I haven’t actually crafted anything yet. I’ve mostly been gathering stuff.”

“Right, well let me try something new since that krayt dragon didn’t work,” Keia said.

“Kudos to you for being so accurate on that,” I said.

“Thank you!” she said. “I still think it’s a damn shame that got pulled out of Star Wars canon though. Thrawn is my sequel trilogy.”

“Thank you!” I said, falling even more for this girl.

“So you want to try and take this guy on?” she asked.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

That guard might not be any match for Keia, but I held no illusions that I’d be any match for the guard. Even if we were talking a lowbie whose only real utility was the ability to phone the dorkish horde after his death.

“Kidding,” she said. “Don’t do something stupid like try to attack that dude. I need you alive if you’re going to mine my shit for me.”

“Glad I’m so valuable to you outside my mining utility,” I said.

“I’ve had relationships that started on less,” she said, which seemed like a maddeningly enigmatic response to my unspoken question.

There was more noise, and finally someone spoke in a voice that obviously sounded like a girl trying to disguise her voice as a guy.

I couldn’t make out what she was saying. It sounded like she was talking about the rising dawn or something. It sounded like a code phrase, and I wondered what she was doing talking in code phrases. I mean given how much she seemed to know about Horizon Dawn and all she’d said about them forcing her to be a stealth archer I had a pretty good idea where she’d learned those code phrases, but there was still part of me that had a hard time thinking of my bad girl crush being a reformed bad girl who worked for Horizon once upon a time.

Whatever she said, it finally got the guard’s attention. He ran off into the forest like whatever ginormous predatory creature had created the petrified shit was hot on his trail.

I took the opportunity. I ran into the mine and tried not to think about how I’d be good and trapped if that guard came back and Keia left me for dead. I’d have no way of getting out that didn’t involve going through that guard. 

I sighed. “I really hope you know what you’re doing Keia.”

“Of course I know what I’m doing,” she said, causing me to jump nearly six feet in the air.

Of course I didn’t actually jump six feet in the air. The mine’s ceiling was low enough that jumping six feet in the air would be enough for me to clonk my head against some rock and potentially cause some serious damage. Or make enough noise that someone out there might hear it.

Bonking my head against a solid rock wall wasn’t the kind of thing that would be isolated to party chat, after all.

I wheeled around and Keia came out of her stealth mode as she stood from behind a pile of rocks and busted mining equipment. Her grin told me she enjoyed the shit out of scaring me.

“What the hell?” I hissed.

“I couldn’t resist having a little fun with you,” she replied. “Can you blame a girl?”

I looked her up and down and thought of a few ways I wouldn’t mind having a little fun with her, but none of those methods seemed appropriate when we were deep in enemy territory and the enemy might come along at any moment and fuck us over in the non-fun way.

“You’re hilarious,” I said.

“Come on,” Keia said. “You need to hang back just a little. The goblins in here will eat you alive if there are any hanging around.”

“How comforting,” I said.

“It should be comforting,” Keia said, patting me on the cheek. “You have a nice strong woman to keep you all safe and secure, lowbie. And you’d better hope you can pull off what you say you can pull off if you want to keep being all safe and secure.”

I didn’t like the implication there. A mine like this would be a great place for her to do more of the messy killing she’d done to her former friend Sereh earlier. Not exactly the kind of thing I wanted done to myself if I could avoid it.

“Right,” I said. “You’re sure there’s that goblinsteel ore in these ring mines? And you never did tell me why they call them ring mines.”

“Pretty sure,” she said. “At least all the quests talk about how you can get stuff from the local mines, but nobody bothers since they can get stuff from killing goblins in the raid instance or leaving one of these mines open long enough for them to repopulate and mine it out. One of the services Horizon Dawn offers is running people through the goblin slaughters or outright selling the goblinsteel ore on the auction house. And you’ll see why they’re called ring mines soon enough. Don’t worry your cute ass off.

“Great,” I said, though I did blush just a touch at the cute ass comment. “Hopefully the lack of goblins in here doesn’t mean the place has been mined out recently and we’re stuck waiting on the respawn.”

“That would be a big problem for you, wouldn’t it,” she said with an unpleasantly predatory grin.

I pulled my pickaxe out of my inventory and gave it a little twirl. Grinned.

“Well if you need some ore then let’s get you some ore. Lead the way, my badass lady protector.”

She grinned right back at me and flashed a dagger. “Consider yourself protected, my precious little ore freighter.”

I wasn’t sure how much I liked being compared to an ore freighter, but I figured there was probably something to that comparison. Even if this was a fantasy themed game and not science fiction where ore freighters were more likely to be found.

Besides, as long as I got to spend more time with this girl I was willing to put up with a little gentle ribbing.

Especially if it meant I got to level up my gathering. I grinned and followed her, not even trying to be surreptitious about catching glimpses of her backside in that tight leather.

Hey, if she was going to comment on my cute ass then I wasn’t going to feel too guilty about staring at hers.

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<<Chapter 31Chapter 33>>

Spellcraft Chapter 31: Scouting

“Hold on,” Keia said.

She paused and stared through the trees. She also put a hand right smack dab on my chest to keep me from moving even though I’d stopped.

I tried to ignore the shiver that ran through me as she put that hand on my chest. Maybe if I’d been wearing some thick leather starting armor like Kristoph it wouldn’t have been a big issue since I wouldn’t be able to feel that touch, but as it was I felt every one of her fingers pressing against me through my cloth starter gear, and I liked it. Really liked it.

I looked at her and realized she was hitting me with an odd look. I worried she could somehow sense what I was thinking, and blushed. Which was the same as letting her know exactly what I’d been thinking.

Damnation. Why had I ever agreed to come along with her in the first place? But the stirring between my legs, an involuntary reaction to that touch and an embarrassment at the same time, told me everything I needed to know about why I was out here with this pretty girl.

Not that I needed reminders that it didn’t have anything to do with my desire to level up my gathering skill.

“What’s up?” I asked.

I hoped the question would take her mind off of some of the embarrassing things that were running through my mind that I was sure she could read even though that should be impossible. Because like all young men who found themselves in the company of a pretty girl, I was convinced she could somehow reach into my head and understand every lascivious thought running through my head as I looked at her.

And honestly it wasn’t all that farfetched a concept. Wasn’t this whole world the result of a computer using some technologically advanced earbuds to read my mind and pump information into it?

It seemed like only a hop, skip, and a jump from the computer reading my mind to the computer being able to give other people access that let them read my mind. A chilling thought, though I didn’t think Keia was doing that here.

No, her method of mind reading was far older and more primal. She grinned and rolled her eyes, then glanced down which made it clear she knew about the embarrassing situation down there.

“Not the time or place big boy,” she said with a wink.

I took a deep breath and decided to change the subject to something that wasn’t threatening to make me the first person to die from embarrassment in the game.

“Why did we stop?”

“Patrol route,” she whispered. “They like to come through here and keep an eye out for troublemakers like us. It’s never pleasant for the troublemakers when they find them, and something tells me they’re going to be even more active now that you stirred them up.”

“I stirred them up?” I said. “You’re the one who gutted that Sereh girl.”

“Yeah, and you’re the reason she was out there to be gutted in the first place,” she said. “Now be quiet. We need to figure out the patrol pattern for the day.”

“Consider me holding on,” I said.

Though it turns out holding on and waiting to figure out the patrol pattern for the day was really boring. My mind wandered, followed shortly by my eyes.

She might be concerned with Horizon Dawn patrols, but I was more concerned with a bright red flower with streaks of orange running through it that I saw on the forest floor right next to us. It didn’t glow when I looked at it, the game’s way of telling me I could gather something, but when I reached down to touch the thing sure enough it popped into my inventory.

The flower was a far higher level than anything I’d gathered before. Like it was solid purple. I was surprised that I was even able to gather it, but I guess the game’s design philosophy of letting lower skilled people do blindingly obvious things like picking a flower that was right there on the forest floor was still working in my favor.

There were still some tradeoffs. I only got one petal in my inventory as opposed to the multiple I got when I was gathering Nhewb’s Blessing. Still, my gathering skill went up five points when I plucked the thing which I wasn’t going to sneeze at. That higher level might also explain why the thing didn’t glow when I looked at it. Maybe things only glowed if they were within my gather skill.

I could pick it if I could see it, but the trick was being able to see it.

That was something to keep in mind as I moved through this world. I didn’t want to miss opportunities just because the game thought my skill was too low. The fact that I was able to grab this one and get a lot of skill points was proof enough that it was worth keeping an eye out for things beyond my skill level.

“Damn,” I whispered.

“Is something wrong?” Keia asked, turning to face me and any potential danger that might’ve snuck up on us while she was looking at that path. She also pulled out a couple of daggers and held them at the ready.

“Nothing,” I said, feeling a touch embarrassed that the “danger” she was turning to face was nothing more than a pretty flower. “Just a high-level flower I can use for potions. We must be getting close to that raid dungeon you were talking about.”

Honestly the idea that I could even get this close to a raid dungeon as part of a duo, even a duo where one of the players was a much higher skill level, felt odd. I was so used to MMOs seen through a 2-D screen where approaching a raid instance meant going through a high-level zone where designers expected a raid to pick off trash mobs that were nothing to a raid but certain death for anything less than a raid.

Yet another of many examples of why this game was so completely and totally different from any other MMO experience I’d ever had.

“Try to keep your eye on the prize,” she said.

“Right,” I grumbled.

I didn’t bother to explain to her that by keeping my eye on the reagents I was gathering I was, in fact, leveling a skill that would hopefully prove to be useful when it came time to gather some ore.

I glanced at the in-game clock. We’d been standing here for about ten minutes of game time now, and so far the only thing I’d seen was that flower. There were no signs of the patrols she seemed so worried about. There were also no signs of those aforementioned trash monsters that were so adept at bending unwary solo players over and taking them on a one way trip to the respawn point via stops at pound town in between.

“This is so weird,” I said.

“Why’s that?” Keia asked.

“Nothing is attacking us,” I said. “I’d expect a big raid dungeon to be surrounded by monsters that want to tear us to pieces, but there’s nothing around here.”

“Duh,” Keia said. “That’s another reason they have patrols running around this place. They keep this dungeon locked down and running like a well oiled machine, and that means killing any goblins or hostile monsters.”

“So they patrol around and kill anything that might get in the way so they don’t have to worry about it when their raid groups come through even though those raid groups can handle those monsters no trouble?” I asked. “That’s insane.”

“Like I said,” she said. “Well oiled killing machine. A killing machine that would roll us up without breaking a sweat, so best not to get caught.”

“Assuming they’re willing to get close enough to the petrified shit piles to find us and avoid breaking a sweat,” I muttered.

Keia snorted, but after that silence stretched between us as we went into another ten minutes of waiting.

“Are you sure we can’t go ahead and cross the path?” I said.

“Your funeral,” she said.

I opened my mouth to tell her that I didn’t think it was going to be my funeral considering how empty that trail I could barely see was, but there was something about the way she was looking at me that gave me the feeling there was more going on here than I thought.

“They’re coming, aren’t they?” I asked.

“Maybe?” she said, trying hard not to smile.

“Were you going to warn me before I stepped out there and risked getting my ass killed?”

“Maybe?” she said, that smile finally breaking through.

“How many are there?” I asked.

“Hard to tell,” she said. “But you might want to get back behind some trees. I can go into stealth mode, but we don’t have any petrified mystery monster shit for you to hide under here, and we really don’t have time for another trip to the hot springs.”

“Right,” I said, deciding to ignore the mention of petrified mystery monster shit. “Hiding now.”

I picked a nice thick tree to hid behind and got down low. I wasn’t in the mood to take any chances when my digital life was on the line. Especially with all the cool stuff I’d gathered being on the line if I died and my stuff got snapped up by some Horizon Dawn prick who wouldn’t even know what they had.

Eventually I heard something moving through the forest in the distance, though it wasn’t all that far in the distance considering my hearing ability wasn’t all that great. 

I lowered myself even further into the underbrush as a patrol appeared. They moved through the forest as though they didn’t have a care in the world. They didn’t look like they thought they’d run into anything dangerous. At least nothing that was a danger to them.

They were all decked out in Horizon Dawn Syndicate gear. They all wore that tabard with the Horizon H on it that made my stomach turn and my lip curl up in a snarl.

I resisted the urge to launch himself at them. Mostly because the only weapon I had was that starter sword, or I guess Kristoph’s sword which would be as useless as the starter sword with my low skill level. The point is neither one would do me a damn bit of good against these guys.

Even if I did manage to get a hit off, it would be the only hit I got before I was stuck like a pincushion from all the other guys surrounding me and sticking me with their swords.

Not my idea of a good time. I’m sure there was someone somewhere on some dark corner of the Internet who’d pay extra for that kind of thing, but not yours truly.

Keia waited, stealthed, until well after the patrol had disappeared before finally moving. I would’ve preferred to get moving right away. Time was wasting, but I deferred to the pretty elf girl who seemed to have a good idea of how things worked in this part of the game world.

Finally she tapped my arm and motioned for me to cross the path.

I hesitated. “What happened to waiting to see what the pattern was?”

“If it took that long for the first patrol to come along I’m not interested in waiting around for a second to see what the pattern is,” she said. “They must’ve gotten lazy since they first took over the raid dungeon.”

I looked at the path. I was well aware that if this girl wanted to double cross me, wanted to get me killed without getting her own hands dirty, then all she’d have to do was tell me to cross that path at the wrong moment. All it would take was a new patrol showing up at the wrong moment and that’d be the end.

What ultimately decided me was the simple fact that if she wanted to kill me she could’ve done it at any point in the trip through the forest. She could’ve betrayed me while I was stuck under mystery monster shit if she really wanted to give me an unpleasant end.

She obviously had a hell of a lot more skill points in combat, and it wouldn’t take much for her to put an arrow in me that would send me back to my respawn point. So I moved across the path with Keia following behind, and no patrol appeared to fuck our shit up.

No, the patrol appeared about thirty seconds after we’d made our way across the path. Like we’re talking if I’d hesitated for a moment longer, or if our conversation had run a little longer, we would’ve been fucked.

Keia stared after them as they disappeared along the path. “Or maybe they didn’t get lazy,” she muttered, glancing at me with a look that was somewhere between embarrassed and apologetic.

“You didn’t want to wait around to see what the pattern was, huh?” I said in party chat as I watched another group in Horizon gear moving past making the kind of racket that would wake the dead.

If this was an undead forest where there were dead who could be woken up, which it wasn’t.

Keia gave a little shiver as she looked at the patrol.

“The patrol schedule has to be fucked up because they’re looking for us,” she said. “You think you’re in the free and clear, and then boom. You get hit by the second follow-up patrol you never even knew was there.”

“How raptor of them,” I said with a grin. I could grin now that we hadn’t been killed by the second patrol, though my pulse was threatening to send my heart shooting out of my ribcage and I figured it’d be a few hours before I came down from the adrenaline high.

“Something like that,” she said. “Fucking Horizon Dawn. They’re idiots most of the time, but they can be crafty idiots. The problem is you never know when they’re being stupid or when they’re being crafty until they’ve stuck their swords in you.”

There was something about the far-off look in her eyes that said she was reliving a painful memory of a time when they’d done exactly that to her. She shook her head and motioned for me to follow.

“Whatever. We need to get a move on and get the hell out of here before one of those patrols looking for us accomplishes its goal. One of the ring mines should be up ahead,” she said.

“So the ring mines aren’t the raid entrance?” I asked.

“Yes and no. It’s easier to just show you,” she replied. “Now come on.”

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<<Chapter 30Chapter 32>>

Spellcraft Chapter 30: New Plan

“Are you sure it’s safe to step into this thing?” I asked.

“Totally sure,” she said.

I turned and eyed Keia from a distance. She had a half smirk on her face that didn’t have me all that inclined to believe that she truly had my best interests at heart here.

“Okay so maybe the hot springs flare up every once in awhile for no reason anyone can determine and kill whoever’s in them, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe right now,” she said.

I sighed. There were a lot of boiling pools around here. If I didn’t know any better I’d say this area was geologically active. I did know better, though, and figured it was far more likely that some game designer had been inspired by video of Yellowstone from back before the last major eruption.

I dipped a toe into the pool and let out a sigh. For all that the thing was potentially deadly, it was also very comfy.

Also? I was presented with a situation that was potentially a hell of a lot more worrying than any of the danger I’d faced so far. If I was going to clean off I was going to have to get out of this starter gear, and given how realistic this game was that’d involve getting a little more undressed than I’d prefer around Keia.

I mean it’s not that I wouldn’t mind getting undressed around her. It’s just that under the circumstances where I wasn’t sure whether or not she was interested in doing that sort of thing with me it was a touch embarrassing.

“Um, could you turn around please?” I asked.

“And miss the show?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

I sighed. It’s not like I was a shrinking violet or anything. I wasn’t going to go all blushes and everything because a girl wanted to not “miss the show,” as she’d put it. I was more frustrated than anything because I knew she wasn’t going to reciprocate.

Whatever. I pulled my starting clothes off and tossed it into the pool, idly wondering why I got cloth crap when Kristoph got leather armor when there wasn’t a class selection at character creation. Then I forgot all about that as I stepped in.

I forced myself not to turn and see Keia’s reaction.

If she wanted a show then I was going to give her a show. What I wasn’t going to give her was the upper hand because I was embarrassed at her checking me out.

“That’s the stuff,” I said, sighing contentedly.

“Hell yeah that’s the stuff,” Keia said. “And the good news is the sulfur smell around here masks your stink!”

I hit her with a bit of the old stinkeye to go along with the stink that was wafting off of me. I also scooted lower in the hot spring so she wouldn’t be able to see anything without getting closer.

There was a part of me that very much wanted her to get closer.

“So what the hell was up with that merry band?” I said. “That Lorel girl said something about a patrol, but I thought they were coming out specifically to get us?”

Keia walked over and sat on a big rock near the edge of the hot spring. It was a perch that gave her an unobstructed view of everything that was going on under the surface given how clear the water was. I forced myself to continue washing like she wasn’t checking me out.

I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction, damn it, even if her smile did seem pretty satisfied. The last thing I needed was for her to see that this was bothering me, or exciting me, so I turned around.

“I imagine Gregor and some of his friends came out special to help Sereh,” Keia said. “And then they met up with a patrol that was already out and about making sure nobody gets to the Goblinsteel Mines without paying the price.”

“Great,” I said. “Even more Horizon Dawn people out here looking for us. I’m getting the feeling it’s going to be a huge pain in the ass trying to make a living in a town they control.”

“But they don’t have complete control of Nilbog,” Keia said.

“You sure about that?” I asked. “Because they sure as hell seem to be in control of things from where I’m standing!”

“Well yeah, but they’re just bullying people around with PVP,” Keia said.

“As opposed to other methods of control?”

“Well yeah. The goblin guards hate them, and Torian is constantly having to pay fines to keep his people out of jail,” she said.

I leaned forward, suddenly interested in this conversation. “You’re saying someone could control the guards?”

“Well yeah. They have to get a Writ of Nobility though.”

“What’s that?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I knew exactly what it was from context.

“Exactly what it sounds like,” she said. “Local royals rule the game world, but players can take that power from them. The game sort of goes from an RPG to a strategy game with RPG elements at that point, at least that’s what everyone’s guessing right now since no one’s actually done it. Actually seizing control of territory isn’t something anyone has figured out.”

“What does someone have to do to get a Writ of Nobility?” I asked, scrubbing off my armor.

“They have to spend a shitload of money, I think,” she said. “No one’s really clear on how it’s done. I know Torian has been trying for awhile though, and considering the amount of money he has to throw around via Horizon I figure it must cost a hell of a lot to get a Writ. The devs obviously didn’t want it to be easy.”

“So basically players taking territory isn’t something anyone will see for the first few weeks after launch,” I said.

“Or during early access,” she said.

“That’s odd,” I said.

“How do you figure?” she asked.

“I mean if these Horizon Dawn people really have a corporation like Horizon backing them you’d think they’d be able to throw enough money at the problem to take control, right? Like whatever the amount is, I’m sure it’s a drop in the bucket for those assholes. If they’re that intent on controlling territory in Lotus you’d think buying a Writ would be a no brainer considering they’re going for the whole game world domination thing.”

“Maybe,” she said. “It doesn’t help that the only noble around here disappeared before the game went live,  from a story point of view, and no one even knows who to go to now.”

“Weird,” I said, my mind racing. There was a problem here, and I loved a good problem. “What if there’s some other requirements they have to fulfill, and they’re not figuring them out?”

“I suppose it’s a possibility,” Keia said. “Honestly it’s not something I ever thought about since I’m never going to have enough money to afford a Writ.”

She got a far off look in her eyes and sighed. “It’d be wonderful to be able to turn the town guards and other administrative stuff against them though. Can you imagine the looks on their faces as they get cut down by the guards they’re bribing to make it look like they’re running the place?”

I could imagine, actually. It was a pretty vivid vision I was conjuring up. Almost as vivid as some of the visions I’d been having of Keia joining me in this hot spring.

Taking control of territory sounded like the exact sort of “breaking the game within the confines of the game’s rules” sort of thing I loved pulling off. The wheels were already turning as I tried to think of ways I could make it happen, but I was coming up with a blank. 

Still, there was a mechanism there I could use to cause some mischief. I just had to figure out how.

“So if they don’t have the Writ how are they bossing the guards around?” I asked.

“Like I said before. Bribes,” she said. “The bribe system is completely separate from the Writ, and it has to be costing them a shitload to be using that system instead of installing a new noble to run things considering how many times they get on the wrong side of the local law.”

“Which lends credence to my theory that they haven’t figured out how to get a Writ,” I said. “If it was just money then Horizon would own this world by now. There’s something else going on here.”

“Like I said, maybe,” she said with a shrug. “Again, it’s not something I ever worried about.”

Her eyes went distant as she glanced at something on her heads up display. “I should probably get going. It’s been fun, but I’ve got stuff to do. The ganking patrol has moved on, and you should have a clear path back to Nilbog.”

I wasn’t ready for her to go. Sure she’d killed my friend and sure she’d been sort of responsible for me getting a dagger to my arm, but she’d also saved my ass a couple of times now.

I figured I owed her, and the fact that she looked so good standing there with her striking green eyes and that easy smile, not to mention that leather armor that formed to her body in all the right places, had me wanting to get to know her better. The way she kept stealing glances down into the clear bubbling water made me think she was interested in getting to know me better too.

In short, I was suffering from the same affliction that happens to so many teenage boys. I was being led around by the brain between the legs, and once that brain started calling the shots there was no getting around it.

I knew I was doing something stupid because I was interested in a girl, and I didn’t care. I wanted to spend more time with her. I wouldn’t be the first guy who did something stupid while under the influence of a hottie in a tight outfit that showed off everything.

“What are you doing out here that’s so important?” I asked.

She smiled. It was one of those knowing smiles that said she knew I was trying to get her to spend more time with me. Even if it was only a couple of minutes. She also went for the bait, so I figured a transparent tactic that worked was better than nothing.

“I’m on a fetch quest,” she said. “One that’s probably impossible now because of Horizon Dawn. Especially now that Gregor and the asshole patrol are on heightened alert.”

My eyes went wide. “Really? What kind of fetch quest are we talking about?”

“The kind that involves finding some stupid goblinsteel ore that’s only found around the goblin mines,” she said.

“And the problem with that is…”

“The problem with that is the goblin mines are controlled by Horizon Dawn. That’s the place they’re shutting down so that they can control the means of production and all that.”

“Oh,” I said. “That sucks. So because they’re keeping control of the mines, and because they hate you, you can’t get out there and do what needs to be done?”

“Pretty much,” she said. “Sucks, doesn’t it?”

I looked down at my inventory screen. Particularly at the pickaxe I’d picked up in town while Kristoph was being led on his own merry chase courtesy of all the assholes in Horizon Dawn. And an idea occurred to me that might help out the pretty girl while also allowing me some more time with her.

“Does that ore only show up in the goblin mines, or can you find it in the ground around the mines too?” I asked.

“There are smaller mines near the main raid instance where the big supplies are,” she said. “But that involves killing goblins, and I don’t like that. They’re too real. It feels wrong.”

I frowned. “They let goblins exist around the raid instance they’re keeping on lockdown?”

“Well sort of,” she said with a grimace and a thousand yard stare that left me with the feeling she was reliving some unpleasant memories. “The ring mines around the raid entrance don’t always have goblins in them, but if there are no goblins there’s no way to get the ore since they’re the ones who mine it.”

I grinned. This was sounding more and more promising, and I wasn’t only excited at the prospect of spending more time with this girl.

“So there are spots where you can mine the ore?” I asked.

“I mean the goblinsteel is there, sure, but I don’t know of any way to get at it without killing goblins to get it. The goblins always had to mine it first,” she said.

“Did anyone ever try to mine it themselves?” I asked.

“Well… No? I mean why would they? Clearly the quest was meant for players to go in and kill goblins to get the stuff,” she said.

“And who said that?”

“Well Torian is the one who came up with the… Point taken,” she said with a grimace.

“I have a pretty good idea of how to get at the ore you need without killing goblins,” I said.

“The beginnings of an idea were starting to form in my head. An idea that would allow me to go right on gathering stuff while also helping the pretty girl and spending more time with her. It seemed like a win win scenario to me.

“Do you know what this ore looks like when it’s in the ground?” I asked. “Like could you point it out if you saw it?”

“Well yeah,” she said. “I’ve seen it on the walls in the raid dungeon and some of the ring mines.”

“I think if you get me a little closer to the mines I might be able to help you out,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Horizon Dawn pretty well entrenched over there. They’ll find us and…”

“And what? Try to kill us? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but those dicks are already trying to kill us. We might as well try and get you what you need while they’re trying to kill us, right?”

She shrugged and nodded. “I suppose you have a point.” She grinned. “Yeah, the more I think about it the more that sounds like an idea. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, but it’s an idea! We should head to the ring mines and have a look. If you’re sure you can actually get at the ore if we can find it in the ground.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Totally.”

My mouth was writing checks that I was fully aware my gathering skills might not be able to cash. But I was saying stupid things to get the attention of the pretty girl, and in the grand tradition of horny teenage boys throughout history pesky things like what I said I could do versus what I could actually do weren’t going to stop me.

“Let’s go then,” Keia said. “If you like mining then you’re going to love the area around the raid dungeon. Assuming we can go around their patrols and get close enough for you to actually mine something.”

“And if we don’t get close then at the very least we’ll be able to kill some Horizon Dawn pricks along the way,” I said. “Sounds like a win to me!”

She gave me a peculiar look. A half smile that made me shiver. But I liked that look.

“Bloodthirsty,” she said. “I think I like that. Though I also have a feeling I’m the one who’s going to be doing most of the killing.”

I grinned right back at her. I wasn’t sure why I was acting this way, but I knew I liked it. I’d found something in this game that was even more interesting than sticking it to Horizon.

I just hoped that feeling wasn’t about to lead me to my certain, messy, and painful demise at the hands of the Horizon people I was so casually dismissing to try and impress a girl.

“Right,” I said, then realized what I was going to have to do to head out with Keia. “I don’t suppose you’re going to turn around while I get changed back into my gear?”

She smiled and bit her lip. I figured that was a big fat no, but I honestly didn’t mind.

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<<Chapter 29Chapter 31>>

Spellcraft Chapter 29: Stinky Salvation

I forced myself to hold that gaze while I prayed that the little adventure we’d just had with Sereh was enough to cement some sort of bond that would keep her from following through on ramming one of her daggers into my chin.

Because it was clear that’s what she was thinking about right about now if the way her hand twitched over her dagger and her eyes darted between my neck and my eyes was anything to go on.

Finally she sighed. Deflated.

“We need to move,” she said. “Sereh definitely told them we’re here, and we need to be anywhere but here when their ganking patrol comes along to ruin our day.”

I glanced around at the trees, suddenly worried about daggers and arrows coming from a completely different source.

“You’ve got a good point,” I said.

As though on cue, Keia cocked her head to the side and seemed to be listening to something in the distance. Something I couldn’t hear.

“Please don’t tell me one of your skills is hearing things better than me,” I said.

“Totally is,” she said, her mouth thinning to a grim line. “And there’s totally a group heading towards us.”

“What direction?” I asked.

“From Nilbog. I think,” she said. “Come on.”

She turned in the opposite direction, but I grabbed her. I was rewarded by her whirling around with a dagger at the ready. I eyed the thing warily as it stopped just short of my nose.

“What?” she asked.

“Um, I was thinking maybe it isn’t a good idea to go in the exact opposite direction of where they’re coming from?” I said, my eyes crossing as I stared down at the dagger and thought about how much I didn’t want that cold steel introduced to my brain. “If it were me I’d try to flush someone out and right into a group waiting in the other direction.”

She held my gaze for a long and awkward moment. Mostly the awkwardness came from the juxtaposition of my terror at that dagger and how turned on I was getting. I guess I had a thing for badass women who didn’t take shit. Who knew?

“I think you’re giving Horizon Dawn too much credit,” she finally said, blessedly lowering her dagger. “But you also make a good point. Come on.”

She turned and set off in different direction.

“Um, do you think maybe we should party up too?” I said. “Might make it easier to chat without people listening in.”

She looked over her shoulder and smiled a secretive little smile. “And who says I want to talk with you? For all you know I’m taking you deeper into the woods so I can kill you where no one will see.”

I swallowed. That thought hadn’t occurred to me. She threw her head back and laughed, then covered her mouth and cocked her head to the side as she listened to whatever was going on in the distance.

“Good idea,” she said, then frowned.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It says you’re in a party already,” she said.

“Oh, sorry about that,” I said.

With a thought I dropped the party I’d been in with Kristoph. The party status screen told me he’d logged off. He probably figured there was no point hanging around a village where people were hunting his ass. At least not without me around to save his ass.

“Try now.”

I got a party invite and accepted with a thought. Keia’s face appeared on my party status screen, a look of grim determination there.

“Now come on,” she said, speaking loud enough that I figured she was talking in party chat.

I double checked my own settings before I spoke. I also followed her, because I really didn’t want to be around when Horizon Dawn got here. Not when my PVP immunity was gone and they could have their way with me. That wasn’t my idea of a good time.

“So you were going to tell me about your hatred of Horizon Dawn?” I prompted after we’d been walking for a little while and she hadn’t said anything.

“Was I?” she asked. “I don’t remember saying anything like that.”

“Well it was sort of assumed and all, but…”

“There aren’t words that can begin to describe how much I hate those assholes,” she spat. “The pricks forced me to do this stupid stealth archer build, and they act like they run that town.”

“Well to be fair it sort of seems like they do run that town,” I said.

Keia shook her head. “They might have the local raid dungeon on lockdown so they can force people to pay more for a dungeon run than it costs to buy Horizon Dawn Syndicate gear on the auction house, but…”

“Wait, what?” I said.

“They control access to the local raid dungeon,” she said. “People have to pay for the privilege of getting into the Goblinsteel Mines without getting ganked, and the cost is more than it costs to just buy slightly lower quality Horizon Dawn Syndicate stuff on the auction house.”

“They’re selling that stuff though?” I said. “Like they’re making money from it? Real money?”

“Why wouldn’t they?” she asked. “And they are making real money. I mean people pay in-game gold, but it’s easy enough to convert Lotus gold to real world money. Horizon is making a pretty penny by creating that crap out of nothing and selling it to players.”

“But why the hell would Lotus let Horizon do something like that?” I asked. “They’re the competition!”

She shrugged as she expertly ducked out of the way of a vine that went whipping through the air over her head. The thing almost hit me, but she snatched it with her other hand and slammed a dagger into the thing. It squealed, and I realized I was actually looking at something that sort of looked like a cross between a snake and a vine.

“I don’t know what Horizon is doing in Lotus,” she said. “I just know they paid to get people in the early access and take shit over. Not that any of their local chapters are doing a great job of it.”

I eyed the snake creature. It’d dropped to the ground. It looked good and dead. I also thought about the skinning knife sitting in my inventory gathering digital dust. This thing looked like it’d be a good candidate for seeing how well that worked.

Keia took a few steps before she realized I wasn’t following. She stopped. Turned to eye me with a look that was pretty damn close to some of the looks Kristoph had given me over the years when I was doing my gathering and crafting thing.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her face going from curious to disgusted as I used my skinning knife on the snake thing.

I was a little disgusted myself. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. And really, that’s all I cared about. It worked and my inventory filled with weird vine snake skins.

“That’s disgusting,” she said.

“If I had a penny for every time I heard that from someone adventuring with me,” I said. “Got some nifty animal skins though. I’ll probably be able to do something useful with that.”

“I’m so happy for you,” she said.

The thing that was surprising was she actually did look like she was happy for me. Like she was smiling and not saying that sarcastically at all, which is what I would’ve expected from Kristoph.

A snapping twig somewhere in the distance brought me back to the unfortunate reality of our situation.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.

“You bet your ass it is,” she said. “I don’t suppose you have any stealth abilities you’re hiding away somewhere?”

“Not really,” I said. “You got anything?”

“I mean duh,” she said. “Stealth archer. That’s not gonna help you much, though.”

She had a point. I hated that she had a point. Also? I hated that I’d gone into the forest loaded down with all the stuff I’d been gathering since I first logged into the game.

“If they off me then I’m going to lose a lot of shit,” I growled.

“What could you possibly have that’s so important?”

“Reagents,” I said.


“Stuff you use to make things in the game?”

“I know what reagents are,” she said, her eyes scanning through the trees as though she was expecting an attack to come from somewhere at any moment. “I’m just wondering what the hell you’re doing with so many.”

“I’ve been gathering stuff since we first arrived in the game,” I said. “It’s sort of a thing I do.”

“Whatever,” she said. “Right now a thing you’re going to do is get your ass under those logs over there and hold your breath.”

“What?” I asked. “Why would I…”

I didn’t have a chance to protest or ask any more questions before she shoved me towards a bunch of fallen trees. I didn’t have much time to think of the indignity of getting pushed around before I heard voices calling to one another in the distance.

That was good for getting my balls to shrivel up into my body nice and good. I didn’t want to think about what those voices would do if they found me, so I dove under the trees and tried to get as far under them as I could.

It wasn’t until I got under them that I noticed the smell. And it must’ve been a hell of a smell, because it was assaulting my nostrils and refusing to go away even though I’d already turned that particular sensory slider down as far as it would go.

“What the fuck did you just push me into?” I hissed, even though there was no need to hiss since I was talking into party chat.

I looked up at the trees, and as I looked at them I realized they weren’t quite as treelike as I’d first thought. No, they were definitely long and they were definitely hard, but the illusion of felled trees was only because they had moss and other stuff growing on them.

At least I thought that was moss, though it was unlike any moss I’d ever seen.

Also? There was something small and white sticking out of them. I peered closer, and realized I was looking at bones. Bones that looked like they’d belonged to humans once upon a time. Or other large creatures that should’ve been too big for something to eat whole. Like I’m pretty sure there were a few goblins in there too.

And that’s when I realized what I was looking at.

“You had me hide under petrified shit?” I hissed, making sure it stayed in party chat. “What the fuck?”

“Quiet,” Keia said, though it was clear she was trying to suppress a giggle. “Do you want them to find you or not?”

The voices were getting louder. I looked out from under the petrified crap Keia had shoved me under. I felt sort of like Schwarzenegger when he was covered in mud to avoid the Predator. Though in this case it wasn’t mud that was hiding me.

I tried to hold my breath, but it didn’t help. The smell had already gotten into my nostrils and my mouth. That’s how strong it was. I was fucking tasting it even though I was holding my breath.

I was about to give Keia a piece of my mind when some people burst through the trees. Sereh was with them, and there were a few other people wearing Horizon Dawn tabards.

And they were all stealthers.

I could even see Keia, for all that she’d gone into stealth mode. I guess being in a party with a stealther revealed them to you when they were in stealth mode, which was a neat trick.

Now if only I could figure out a way to see the stealthers who were sneaking up on me to kill my ass as easily.

“Are you sure they went this way?” someone asked.

“I’m telling you they went off in this direction,” Sereh said.

“Shit,” one of the stealthers said.

Fuck. I knew that voice. I might not be able to see his face, they were all wearing masks of some sort that made them look like rent-a-ninjas, but that was clearly Gregor. 

“If they’d run towards the little surprise I had waiting for them this would’ve all been over!” he hissed

I hit Keia with a look. She rolled her eyes. It was too bad I was too terrified to say anything, because I sure felt like a good old fashioned “I told you so” right about now.

“Keep moving!” Gregor said.

“What about those trees over there?” one of the stealthers asked.

My blood froze in my veins. Damn it. If they came over here it’d all be over. Sure Keia and I had shared a couple of moments, but I didn’t see her as the type who’d come to my rescue while I was getting gang ganked by a bunch of Horizon Dawn pricks who’d be more than happy to add her to the menu.

“Are you kidding me?” Gregor asked. “There’s no way someone would be stupid enough to hide under something that shit.”

The girl who’d made the suggestion eyed my shitty hiding place for another long moment. Like she was thinking a place no rational person would ever hide was actually the perfect spot for someone to disappear.

She even took a step towards me. Then wheeled around as Gregor stared daggers at her.

“What are you doing Lorel?” he growled.

Lorel held Gregor’s gaze, then sighed. “You have the patrol, of course.”

“You’re damn right I have the patrol.”

They moved off through the forest, making a hell of a racket as they went. Lorel paused for another moment, staring at my hiding spot like she was seriously considering coming over and checking the giant semi-petrified dung pile I was hiding under, then sighed and moved on. But not before hitting Gregor’s back with the kind of look that said she’d much rather be planting a dagger in Gregor’s back than her eyes.

Then they were gone.

“Whew, that was close,” Keia said, moving towards me. She stopped a good fifteen feet short though. Her eyes were watering. “Holy shit that stuff is nasty!”

“Yeah, thanks for letting me hide under literal shit,” I said.

“What can I say?” she said with a shrug. “It seemed like the best place for you to go where they wouldn’t go looking for you, and it turns out I was right.”

“Only because Gregor’s a fucking idiot,” I said, pulling myself out from under the giant shit logs.

“You can always count on Gregor, Kravos, and Torian to act like fucking idiots,” she said. Then she surprised me by pulling out a dagger and holding it in my general direction. “Don’t you dare come a step closer either. I don’t want to get any of that stink on me.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, turning around to look at the petrified shit logs that still retained oh so much of their fragrance.

“Deadly serious,” she said.

“What the hell made those giant logs, anyway?” I asked.

“No one’s sure,” she said. “But it’s not the kind of thing I’d like to meet in person. So far the only thing anyone’s found are the remains. That or anyone who’s discovered whatever’s leaving behind those epic shits hasn’t lived to tell about it.”

“But this is a game,” I said. “Anyone who got eaten by something would respawn and have a hell of a story.”

“Which tells you nobody’s run into whatever’s leaving those little presents all over the forest,” Keia said. “Now come on. I know a hot spring nearby we can hit to get you cleaned off.”

“Thank the maker,” I said.

“Whatever, Threepio,” she said with a wink, further solidifying my opinion that this was a girl I wanted to get to know better, for all that she’d just saved my ass by shoving me under a literal pile of shit that clearly hadn’t left me smelling all that great to anyone who hadn’t turned down their smell slider.

It was an odd way to fall for a girl, but I’d heard of weirder meet cutes.

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<<Chapter 28Chapter 30>>

Spellcraft Chapter 28: Toxic Gear

“Oh,” Keia said. “Sorry about that. Let me help you.”

I shied away. She took another step towards me, and I scrambled back as I thought about the way she’d “helped” Kristoph. She got a bemused look as she took another step, her hands glowing with that fitful glow that hadn’t been quite enough to save Kristoph’s ass.

Finally she made an irritated noise in the back of her throat.

“What the hell’s the problem?” she asked.

“I’m thinking about how you helped Kristoph,” I said.

“Seriously?” she said, the glow disappearing from her hands. “I pulled the dagger out. It’s not like your wound is going to heal around it or anything.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling like an idiot. “I guess you do have a point there.”

“Of course I have a point,” she said. “Also I’m the only person in the area who has any healing ability so I’m your only hope unless you want to wait for that to heal on its own.”

I glanced down at the wound. It seemed a little smaller, but I wasn’t sure if that was wishful thinking on my part, or if the thing really was smaller.

“How long would it take for the wound to heal on its own?” I asked.

“Faster than in the real world, but way slower than you’d think for a video game,” Keia said.

“Shit,” I said. “I guess I’ll take my chances with the healing in that case.”

She rolled her eyes. “Thank you for being so magnanimous in letting me help you.”

“Well to be fair it’s sort of your fault the dagger is there in the first place,” I said as she leaned over me. That was good for another glare.

“How the hell is this my fault?” she asked.

“Well if you hadn’t stopped us then that Sereh chick wouldn’t have been able to catch up with us,” I said.

“Did you ever stop to think that she was stalking you this whole time, and if you’d gone deeper in the woods that would’ve meant no one around to hear you scream?”

“Not true,” I said.

“How the hell is that not true?” Keia said. “She was clearly following you. She even said I was a bonus.”

“Yeah, but I’m sure there are some woodland critters or something that would’ve heard our screams,” I said.

Keia blinked. Then a smile cracked her face. Then she was giggling, and very shortly after that both of us were laughing our asses off.

“You’ve got a point there, I guess,” she said. “Now come here. I’ll heal that thing.”

“Are you sure you have enough mana to do it this time?” I asked.

“Spoken like a man who doesn’t want to get his ass healed,” she said. “Besides, if I run out of mana I can always kiss it and make it better.”

I shivered at that. There was something intriguing about the thought of this hottie kissing my wound to make it better, for all that I was pretty sure she was joking around since kissing a gaping wound wasn’t my idea of a good time.

Maybe it was hers. I didn’t judge, much. Or maybe she was clumsily flirting. Which also felt odd. I thought guys were the ones who were supposed to be clumsy with their flirting while the ladies stood there and tolerated it.

“Uncle,” I said. “But please. Do your worst.”

“On it,” she replied.

Her hands sparkled. Sparks danced up and down over the wound in my arm, and a moment later I felt better. My arm was still a little pink where the dagger landed, and there was a scabbed over spot there, but I could move it around without triggering what the game considered new stabs of pain which had the unfortunate side effect of hitting me with that pain at full blast.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Don’t mention it,” she said. “I figure it’s the least I owe you for killing your friend.”

“Hello? Conlan?” Kristoph said.

I jumped. I looked around for Kristoph, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The treasure chest and some bones where he’d recently expired remained in place.

“What’s wrong?” Keia asked, her eyes casting around for the threat that’d made me jump.

Of course she wasn’t going to see the threat. I’d been so caught up in the realism of all of this that I’d forgotten for a moment that we were in a video game where party chat was a thing and my friend’s disembodied voice could appear in my head.

“Sorry,” I said. “Kristoph is sending me a private message, but it’s a voice in my head and it’s a little freaky.”

“Oh yeah,” Keia said. “That takes some getting used to.”

“What’s up?” I asked the air.

“I’m back in the graveyard just outside town and these assholes are chasing me again!” Kristoph said. “What about you? Did the crazy lady kill you?”

“Actually no,” I said. “She just saved me from some Horizon Dawn bitch. The same one who was hunting you earlier.”

“Great,” Kristoph said. “You have all the fucking luck. Meanwhile if you killed that bitch it means she’s going to respawn near town and come after my ass.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it all the luck,” I said, looking down at my arm that had been until recently so painfully occupied by cold steel. “And you know all the ladies can’t resist your ass.”

“Whatever,” Kristoph said. “I assume from your tone and your smartass remarks that you’re going to be spending your time making googly eyes at the new hotness out there and not coming back into town to save my ass?”

“Honestly I’m not sure what I’d be able to do to save your ass even if I could go in there and do some saving,” I said. “My PVP immunity just wore off, so I’d only be an extra body for them to kill.”

“Damn. You’re right,” Kristoph said with a sigh.

I blinked. “Wait. You’re not going to tell me I owe it to you to go out there and save you?”

“No,” he replied. “I totally own that this is a situation I got myself in. I mean it is your fault that I was out there where the crazy lady shot me, but it’s not entirely your fault that these assholes are chasing me. That was on me waving my two hander without thinking first.”

“A problem men have been having since the species began,” I said. “Though that’s optimistic on the two hander.”

“Fuck you,” Kristoph said with a laugh.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

“I think I’m going to lay low for a little bit. See if I can lose them, or at the very least introduce some of their lowbies to my two hander.”

“Be careful,” I said.

“Oh, and can you please grab my stuff?” Kristoph asked.

I looked down at the treasure chest. “Sure thing buddy.”

“I knew I could count on you,” Kristoph said. “Have fun out there playing kissy face.”

“Shut up,” I said.

“No, really man,” Kristoph said, talking in a tone that had me picturing the lascivious grin and the raised eyebrows he was no doubt showing off on the other end of this line. “Think of all the perverts who’ve been doing that kind of stuff in games like this using text and creepy asterisks over the years in places like the Deeprun Tram. You’ll be part of a brave new generation who’s the first to be able to do that kind of thing for real in a simulation that lets you see and feel everything man! Talk about hot!”

“It disturbs me how interested you are in my virtual…”

I stopped. Looked at Keia who was looking right back at me with a bemused expression. I didn’t want to say anything out loud about my virtual sex life in front of her.

Not when the wide smile on her face made it pretty clear she already had a pretty good idea of what was going on on the other side of this conversation, for all that she couldn’t hear it. I blushed. 

Damn. I must’ve been broadcasting to local without realizing it because I’d spoken to her after I opened the line to Kristoph. I was going to have to learn to be more careful about that stuff.

“I’ll talk to you later man,” I said.

“I bet you will,” Kristoph said, making kissing noises as I waved to try and get the voice to go away.

“How do I make his voice stop?” I asked.

“Just think about muting your friend and the game will deliver,” Keia said.

I did just that, and for a miracle Kristoph went silent.

“Dang,” I said. “I’m going to have to try that more often.”

“It works on everyone,” Keia said. “Try it on me.”

I thought about muting her. She started talking, her mouth was clearly moving, but nothing reached my ears. Then I decided to get more interesting and thought about her speaking in Spanish. It took a moment, but a dubbed voice started talking, and it was pretty fucking funny since the dub was a deep male voice which didn’t jive with the cute blonde elf in front of me moving her lips.

“What’s so funny?” she asked as I switched her back to English and unmuted her with a thought.

“Switch me to Spanish,” I said. “You’re not going to believe what…”

I knew the moment she’d switched me because she started giggling.

“Pretty funny, right?” I asked.

“Yeah, it is,” she said. “I didn’t know they could do translations on the fly like that. That’s the kind of thing that could make them more money than the video game!”

I shrugged. “Who’s to say that’s not the kind of thing they’re working on releasing to make a shit load of money? Just because you have one shitload of money from a game doesn’t mean you can’t make other shitloads in different markets. Maybe they need people trying that stuff out before they can release it commercially or something. Like they’re experimenting on us and gathering data for the day they get to release it on the world and put translators out of a job or something.”

“That makes sense,” she said. “Poor translators.”

“Yeah, there’s gonna be an awful lot of dudes who don’t get to make their spirit quest to Japan to find a waifu teaching ESL anymore,” I said.

I’d known one guy who did that on our level. More power to him for getting out of the level, honestly.

Keia giggled again. “I knew of a guy like that. Always walked around with cat ears on. More power to him though. Whatever makes someone happy.”

“They must have one like that at every school,” I said.

“Yeah, guess so,” she said.

Huh. Well that was one bit of information at least. She went to school. Of course that could be anything from elementary school to college, though I thought there was a minimum age for using the Lotus hardware so she was probably at least sixteen unless she was running the risk of damage to her brain to play a game.

Honestly considering some of the brain damage I’d seen tweakers risking for the chance of riding a high that wouldn’t surprise me.

I glanced down at the ground beside her. Oddly the girl who’d just been so messily killed was still there. Weird.

“Why hasn’t she done the whole creepy decomposing thing yet?” I asked.

Keia looked down and frowned. She leaned in closer, inspecting Sereh. Then she hissed. Pulled out the dagger that’d been lodged in me moments ago and lodged it into Sereh a couple of times. Which resulted in even more blood and guts exploding out. It was like something from the worst nightmares of those old stuffed shirts who thought pixelated blood was the beginning of the end of Western civilization back in the early ‘90s rather than the bullshit policies they were putting in place.

That repeated stabbing seemed a touch excessive, but I figured Keia knew what she was doing. Also, for some reason seeing her acting all bloodthirsty like this was kind of hot. Then again I got the feeling just about anything she did would strike me as kinda hot.

“Sorry about that,” she said when she came up. I noted she’d left the dagger lodged in Sereh’s now rapidly decomposing body.

She flipped some of her hair back, and the hotness of that hair flip was only slightly ruined by the blood in her otherwise pristine golden light blonde hair. “Sometimes they get down to a sliver on the old HP bar but don’t quite expire. Helps to help them along just a little when that happens. Especially since she was probably spying on us from her mostly dead body.”

“Got it,” I said, wondering why it had to be so messy helping a character take a trip back to their respawn point. Not that I felt all that bad for the girl. Not after the trouble she’d caused me so far.

There was nothing but a little treasure chest where Sereh’s body had been. Which reminded me that I needed to grab Kristoph’s stuff. I leaned down and tapped the treasure chest and an inventory screen popped up showing me all the starter junk Kristoph had on him when he was forcibly moved to the graveyard outside Nilbog.

Kristoph didn’t have much. Just the armor he’d gotten in the starting area. And there was a Horizon Dawn sword right next to his starter hammer. I guess the noob he killed hadn’t been carrying any of his preferred two-handed hammers.

I held the sword out and Keia let out a hiss.

“Why are you even holding that thing?” she asked.

“Because Kristoph is my best friend,” I said.

“Your best friend who nearly got you killed because of those things,” she said. 

Keia glared at me, and she looked almost as murdery as I did when it came to Horizon shit. I worried there was a good chance holding this weapon for too long would result in me getting caught dead either by Keia, by someone else who hated Horizon, or by someone from Horizon Dawn who didn’t take too kindly to me using their gear given all the difficulties we’d been having with one another.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “And I fucking hate Horizon, but he also won this in PVP and he was so proud of himself for bringing us better weapons.”

Keia sighed as well. “Fine. Just put it in your inventory so I don’t have to see it.”

“Believe me, I don’t want to see it either,” I said as the thing dematerialized and whooshed down into my inventory.

I glanced at Keia. Her reaction to that sword, and to Sereh and Kristoph for that matter, had me thinking there might be a story about Horizon. I could use all the information I could gather about the bastards.

“You really hate them, don’t you?” I asked. “Care to share why?”

If anything her glare deepened, and I really hoped my curiosity wasn’t about to get me ganked.

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<<Chapter 27Chapter 29>>

Spellcraft Chapter 27: New Friends?

I clutched at my arm and fell to my knees. The pain was so blinding that I couldn’t even keep my balance. I pulled up my inventory and looked for something, anything, I could use to heal or fight, I wasn’t sure which I was going for in my blind panic.

I had a weapon that’d be useless in a fight against this girl, and there was nothing else in my inventory but the mushrooms and flowers I’d been picking.

Sure some of those could be dangerous, and some of them probably had healing properties, but I figured they’d have to be refined and put into a potion or something if I wanted to take advantage of the healing properties. Not to mention if there was something deadly in my inventory I’d probably have to apply it to my sword and try to land a hit against this girl, not happening, or convince her to eat it which also seemed pretty low on the probability list in the middle of combat.

The healing properties of an unrefined item wouldn’t be enough to save me if this crazy girl decided to introduce me to the unpleasant sensation of in-game death, either. Motherfucker. I really needed to figure out how to turn some of these reagents into useful shit.

Though I was on the verge of losing everything I’d gathered. Including the Nhewb’s Blessing flowers that’d seemed so promising. If this chick killed me then it was light’s out for everything in my inventory, and that almost hurt more than the dagger embedded in my arm.

Almost, but not quite.

“Fuck that hurts!” I growled.

As I said it Kristoph’s body started to go through the whole “decomposition in a matter of seconds” animation that told me he’d released to the nearest convenient graveyard. One moment Kristoph was whole, albeit a whole corpse, then his skin started to peel off and fade away along with all his major organs until only a skeleton was left. Even that quickly disappeared as it turned to dust that blew away on an invisible wind, leaving behind a small treasure chest that only served to remind me that all of my worldly possessions in the game were about to be up for grabs too.

“He’s going to be pissed off that he lost his stuff,” I said. “We’ve never played a game where you could lose your shit like that before.”

I knew shock was setting in. That was the only rational explanation for how I could be talking about Kristoph’s stuff when there was a dagger rammed into my arm. Having a dagger rammed into my arm wasn’t the kind of thing that was a normal occurrence in my world, for all that a surprise shanking was an ever present possibility on our level of the arcology.

The girl was immediately on guard. Which struck me as odd considering I was pretty sure she was the one who’d put the dagger in my arm in the first place, yet she stared at the surrounding forest as though she expected an attack to come from there rather than from her hands.

Weird, but then again I wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders right now.

“We’ll be able to get that stuff for your friend if we manage to survive this encounter,” the girl said.

“We survive? I mean aren’t you going to survive a ganking you’re…”

She glared at me and put a finger to her lips, so I shut the fuck up.

It was around that time that I started to put two and two together. I’d assumed this girl was the one who’d stabbed me, but the way she was looking at the surrounding trees as though they held danger for both of us told a different story. She seemed genuinely worried that she was about to get it as well. 

She pulled her bow up and stared at those trees with an intensity typically reserved for enthusiastic arborists and dendrophiliacs who were about to reenact their favorite scene from Evil Dead.

“I don’t suppose you have any abilities that’d be useful in a fight?” she asked.

I opened my mouth, but she rode right over me.

“Of course you don’t,” she said. “What would I expect from a noob?”

I considered giving her a piece of my mind, but she let loose with an arrow that flew into the trees. That seemed a touch ridiculous. I wasn’t sure how likely it was that she’d hit anything considering all the trees in the way.

That turned out to be a pretty noobish thought, for all that I kept insisting I wasn’t a noob. That loosed arrow was followed very shortly by a cry as someone wearing a Horizon Dawn tabard crashed out of stealth into the clearing.

Right. She didn’t have to worry about hitting any of the trees if there was someone in stealth mode standing between the arrow and those trees.

“I knew it!” she said. “Those bastards are out to get us!”

“Fuck this hurts,” I said, looking down at the dagger sticking out of my arm. 

That dagger had the added bonus of rendering my arm pretty much useless. It was just sort of flopping there, and the only way I could move it was by cradling it in my good arm. Not that I’d be much use in a fight to begin with considering I hadn’t leveled any combat skills, which was starting to feel like more and more of an issue considering the number of times I’d been utterly useless in combat since creating this character.

“Keia you bitch!” the figure at the other end of the clearing screamed. No doubt she was trying to be intimidating, but the intimidation factor was knocked down just a touch by the arrow sticking out of her stomach.

Keia glared at the girl and smiled a little half smile. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant little half smile either. No, it looked downright predatory.

“Well, well,” she said. “Sereh? Is that you?”

I was more and more worried as Keia walked over to the girl rather than running away. Sure there was just the one girl there right now, but if there was one Horizon Dawn person hunting us then there could be more out there in the trees ready to move in for a little gang gank.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“It’s okay,” Keia said. “You can come over here. Sereh’s not going to hurt you.”

“I’m not worried about her,” I said. “I’m worried about her friends who might be sneaking around out there moving in for the kill.”

I half expected that raiding party to appear and kill us painfully and slowly at any moment. I’d suddenly become very pain averse after my first experience with the sensation in the game.

Which reminded me. I needed to turn down that pain slider. So I thought of it and dialed it down as far as it would go. I knew from Kristoph’s example that it wouldn’t get rid of the pain entirely, but I figured it was a hell of a lot better than getting the full blast.

“Don’t worry about her friends,” Keia said. “Sereh likes to work alone, don’t you Sereh?”

She reached down and twisted the arrow in Sereh’s stomach. Which caused her to scream out in pain. I guess she hadn’t discovered the slider, and I had no intention of telling someone who’d lodged a dagger in my arm about that particular secret.

“Come on,” Keia said. “I’ll keep you safe from her.”

I bristled just a little at the thought that I needed anyone to keep me safe, but she had a point. So I stood and cradled my injured arm. The injury wasn’t as bad as when I’d had that slider turned up and it was more of a dull ache now, but I was still painfully aware of it.

Even knowing on an abstract level that I hadn’t actually been stabbed with a dagger, that this was the game’s representation of a dagger being lodged in my arm that was stimulating the pain centers of my brain, wasn’t enough to completely separate me from the dulled world of hurt currently being visited on those pain centers.

“So. Sereh,” Keia said, getting down on her knees in front of the girl I was fairly certain was the source of my current pain. “So nice to see you  out here.”

“I’ve already told the others where you are,” the girl spat. “I might work alone, but Nilbog isn’t that far from here! You’re going to regret this. You and your noob boyfriend here are going down! I owe both of you!”

Keia turned to me. Smiled a thin smile.

“You know each other?”

Now that I was close enough to get a good look, and incidentally now that my brain was sort of getting used to the pain, I realized that yes. I did know this girl. 

“I’ve had a brief encounter with her,” I said. “Though the last time we met I was watching her getting carted off by goblin guards after she tried hitting me in a dark alley while I still had my PVP protection,” I said.

“You tried hitting someone with PVP protection in town?” Keia asked. “I thought you were smarter than that, Sereh.”

“He tricked me!” she spat.

“So you managed to break free?” I asked. “Nice trick, that, or did you have your buddies pay your way out?”

“Shut up noob,” she spat. “When we get our hands on you…”

“Oh I know all about what your guild leader wants to do when he gets his hands on me. Tell me, does he do that with all the young males who come through his territory, or am I special?”

“Fuck you,” Sereh said.

“Oh my,” I said trying my best to sound scandalized. I put my hand to my chest and fanned it just a little. “First your guild master, and now you want to get in on the action? Your guild really is a little naughty, aren’t they?”

Her eyes bulged out. I’d scored a hit. Honestly if I’d met this girl under circumstances that didn’t involve her trying to kill me I might’ve been interested. Unfortunately that whole trying to kill me thing as part of a collaboration with Horizon knocked her down a couple of notches on the old hotness scale.

“So what were you really doing out here Sereh?” Keia asked. “Were you following me around, or are you following this one?”

“You can go fuck yourself too,” Sereh said.

Keia shook her head. “That’s not very nice.”

I was hit with another wave of blinding pain. Why was I getting hit with blinding pain? I turned that damn slider all the way down, but white stars danced in front of my vision. I looked down to see the dagger was gone from my arm, leaving a gaping bleeding hole where it’d been. Keia held it in her hand and gave it a little whirl.

Huh. I guess that answered the question of whether or not the lowered pain slider took all pain in the game down a notch or only meant that pain you experienced went down faster than it would normally. And I’d been totally right about the physical trial to figure that out sucking big time.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “You’re not the only one who can pull the distraction play. Mind if I borrow your dagger?”

“Sure thing,” I managed to choke out, wobbling just a little.

“Thanks so much,” Keia said, looking down at the glowing Horizon Dawn Syndicate dagger with clear distaste.

She bent over Sereh who glared up at her.

“So I figure this can go one of two ways,” Keia said. “You and I both know the pain simulation in this game has diminishing returns after awhile.”

She glanced at me, and the meaning was clear. I was to shut the fuck up about turning that slider down. Not that I’d had any intention of telling her and making this any easier on the bitch.

“I think we also both know those diminishing returns don’t matter a damn bit if someone keeps creating new pain,” she said, which dovetailed nicely with my own experience. That’d also be a good way for someone to continue hurting someone who knew about the pain slider, for that matter. This girl really was a devious woman after my own heart. “So do you want me to make this quick? Or do you want me to make it hurt?”

Keia punctuated her words by stabbing Sereh in parts of her body that weren’t critical to her continuing consciousness. At least not in the game. If she’d been stabbed like that in the real world then it would’ve been lights out from the shock alone.

“What are you doing out here Sereh?” Keia asked. “Are you following me, or were you following the noobs? And if you were following the noobs around, what the hell did they do to you to warrant being followed?”

“Torian put a contract out on them,” she said. “Finding you hanging out with them was icing on the cake considering the contract he has on you.”

Keia seemed to think about that for a moment.

“Thanks for being truthful,” Keia said. “At least I’m pretty sure you were being truthful, so I’ll make this quick.”

She plunged the dagger into Sereh’s neck. The girl stared at us with pure hatred for the moment it took for her to expire, gurgling as she tried to say something and completely and utterly failed at getting it out.

The fact that her voicebox and throat and other major things she needed to talk had just been messily severed probably had a lot to do with that gurgling. Talk about realistic simulation!

Keia leaned down and wiped the bloody dagger off on the girl’s clothes. Then she grimaced and shook her head.

“This game makes player versus player combat a lot messier than I care for,” she said.

“A lot more painful too,” I grunted, still pressing my hand on the hole in my arm.

I wondered if it would heal on its own, or if the injury was severe enough that I’d have to have someone fix it. Though with the way my day had been going it seemed more likely that I’d die and get a trip to the graveyard before either of those options happened.

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<<Chapter 26Chapter 28>>

Spellcraft Chapter 26: Ineffective Healing

It struck me how ridiculous it was that I was asking her to help Kristoph before she killed me, but this girl didn’t seem all bad. She definitely didn’t seem like the kind of crazy cruel that Gregor and Kravos showed off.

“Not much,” the girl said with a fatalistic shrug. “I sort of have the whole stealth archer thing going for me.”

“You and just about everyone else who’s played a game since Skyrim,” I muttered.

The girl giggled. Which was odd for a girl who was going for the whole “gravelly badass who didn’t give a fuck about the world” look. Then her face lit up as her eyes took a far off look that said she was looking through her menu. When she came back her hands glowed slightly.

“I played around with this ability when I started the game thinking it’d be useful. Fat lot of good it ended up doing me, but maybe it’ll help your friend.”

When she talked about whatever she was about to do her voice sounded almost normal. When it sounded almost normal there was something even more familiar pinging at the back of my mind.

Those thoughts were interrupted as Kristoph gurgled and used his free hand to reach for the hammer still strapped to his back. For all the good that hammer had done him against this girl so far.

She paused with her hands glowing and eyed me warily.

“Um, could you tell your friend to cool it? He’s not going to hurt me if he hits me with that thing, and he’ll interrupt the cast which means he doesn’t get any healing.”

And suddenly I knew where I’d heard her voice before. My eyes went wide.

“You’re that girl from the clearing. The one who saved the goblin and shot those assholes from Horizon Dawn who were trying to gank us!”

Her eyes went wide. She looked at me and then to Kristoph.

I followed her gaze to Kristoph, and it suddenly hit me exactly what’d happened to get a girl who’d been saving our asses the first time we met in a dark and scary forest to switch to killing us the second time we met in a dark and scary forest. Kristoph had been carrying weapons that glowed with the Horizon Dawn mojo.

“You thought we were them,” I said. “From a distance all you saw were a couple of noobs carrying that stupid Horizon Dawn Syndicate gear.”

“I didn’t get a good look at you the last time we met,” she said. “If I’d seen you and realized you were those guys…”

Kristoph gurgled some more. He obviously wasn’t doing so hot. And this time around it’s not like he even deserved it. I mean sure he’d been a little stupid grabbing some Horizon Dawn gear, but that didn’t rise to the level of taking an arrow to the neck in terms of karmic retribution.

“I think my friend is trying to tell me to shut the fuck up and let you heal him,” I said. “I mean I can’t be too sure, but…”

Kristoph nodded vigorously and then moaned as the nodding caused the arrow lodged in his neck to move around in a way that couldn’t be pleasant. The blood that shot out of what looked like a major artery that caused his health bar to tick down a good chunk seemed to back that up.

“Lose the hammer Kristoph,” I said. “I think this whole thing was a big mistake.”

Kristoph frowned, he wasn’t a man of many words with an arrow shoved through his neck which was actually kind of a blessing, but finally he rolled his eyes and pulled his hand away from the hammer.

I wasn’t sure how much of that business about Kristoph not being able to hurt the girl was the truth and how much of it was her bluffing to keep us from doing something stupid, but if she did have a healing spell and she really was out here looking for Horizon people to off then I was more inclined to trust her than I’d been moments ago.

I thought back to the combat in the town circle where Kristoph got in a hit on that Gregor asshole. Sure the hit had ultimately ended in Kristoph’s untimely demise, but still.

If he could hit a character who was obviously higher on the skill trees than us then it was possible he could also get a lucky hit in on this girl. He wouldn’t have a prayer of killing her, even with a sneak attack, but that would mean no healing magic to fix up the gaping wound in his neck.

The girl’s hands glowed and a white light surrounded her. It sputtered like a candle that was guttering and about to go out, but it was something.

The light transferred from the girl to Kristoph, but nothing seemed to happen. He was still knocked on his ass with an arrow in his neck, and he didn’t look too happy about it.

“What the fuck?” he croaked out in a whisper that sounded like he’d had a pack a day habit for a couple of decades that’d finally caught up with him.

“Huh. Well I guess that’s better than not being able to say anything at all,” the girl said.

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “Listen to him bitching around you all the time then tell me whether or not you think it’s a good thing he can talk again.”

I inspected the arrow still lodged in Kristoph’s neck. Then I did a closer inspection that brought up Kristoph’s character sheet and saw that his hit points had gone up. Sort of. They weren’t ticking down steadily towards an untimely death, at least.

“Yeah, definitely an improvement over how he was,” I said.

“I still have a fucking arrow stuck in my neck!” Kristoph croaked.

The words were probably meant to come out as a shout, but the arrow blocking Kristoph’s wind tunnel or damaging his voice box meant everything was still coming out as a rasping whisper, which wasn’t the greatest for being understood.

“He has a point,” I said. “Was that supposed to heal him?”

“It was,” the girl said with a sigh. “But it’s a low level healing spell. Like really low level. I took it when I thought I was going to be a healer, but the people I played with…”

She paused and sighed. Looked away.

“They all wanted to be a bunch of badass stealth players?” I asked. “And they figured a healer was going to cramp their stealthy style?”

I’d always liked healing classes back before I went on my vengeance quest for Diana, and I was very familiar with all the headaches and frustrations that came along with being the resident HP regen in a group.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Idiots,” I said. “No one ever appreciates a good healing class until they need someone to heal their ass, and then it’s always a bunch of griping about why you aren’t healing them fast enough.”

“Right?” the girl said, the frustration clear in her voice. “And it’s like if you don’t want to lose your hit points faster than someone can heal them maybe don’t stand so close to something that takes your fucking hit points away faster than I can replenish them. Ever think of that?”

“Yup,” I said. No one appreciates a good healer even when they need one. It’s nothing but bitching about how they need a heal now, and never mind the tank who isn’t standing directly in the fire you stupid fucking DPS!”

I took a couple of breaths. The girl smiled a little half smile at me. She knew the pain I felt. It was something only a fellow former healer could understand.

“Excuse me, but could the two of you cut the bullshit and help me the fuck out?” Kristoph rasped. “I’m getting sick and tired of getting stuck by people. First those Horizon Dawn assholes and now this bitch.”

The girl eyed him like she was thinking about finishing what she’d started with that arrow. I thought we might be on the verge of having more blood spilled, but she surprised me.

“You were having trouble with Horizon Dawn?” she asked. “Was it because of what I did with the goblin earlier?”

“I wish,” I snorted, then reached out and nudged Kristoph with my toe which earned me an annoyed grunt from my prone friend. “The guys recognized us, but Kristoph sort of mouthed off to some guy named Torian and dropped his PVP immunity without realizing what he was doing.”

The girl let out a low whistle. “Couple of noobs like you are going to have a bad time of it around here if Horizon Dawn has a problem with you. Especially if Torian is the one with the problem.”

“We’re not noobs,” I said. “And they’re going to pay for what they did.”

“Right. If I had a gold piece for every time I heard someone say that after Horizon Dawn fucked with them I’d be rich,” she said.

“My fucking neck!” Kristoph spat. “Can we do the info dump conversation fucking later please?”

“Right,” I said, leaning down and inspecting Kristoph’s wound. It looked bad, but… I wiped away some of the blood and let out a low whistle. This wasn’t good. 

“What?” the girl asked.

“Um. It looks like that healing spell did heal things,” I said.

“That’s what it’s supposed to do,” the girl said. “I mean it’s low level, but you’re new to the game so I figured maybe it’d work on you or something since your stats aren’t that high and…”

I held up a hand to quiet her. For a wonder it worked.

“Yeah. The problem with that is it healed that arrow right into the middle of his neck. Like the skin is fused to the arrow now.”

“And it fucking hurts,” Kristoph rasped.

“I imagine it does,” I said. “How realistic is the pain anyway? Does it feel like you really have an arrow stuck in your neck?”

“I’ve never had an arrow in my neck so I can’t tell you how it stacks up to the real thing,” Kristoph snapped.

“Right,” I said. “Guess I deserved that.”

“It probably hurts like a motherfucker,” the girl said. “I’ve been stuck a couple of times and it’s never fun. Dying in this game is really freaky. Makes me not want to ever do it for real.”

“You and everyone else,” I said.

Kristoph stared at us with his eyes wide. Clearly he didn’t care for us continuing our chit chat when still had an arrow stuck in his neck. I sighed and rolled my eyes.

“It’s just a little arrow in your neck,” I said. “Honestly. You’re acting like it’s killing you or something.”

Another glare.

“Well it isn’t killing you,” I said. “Your HP has stabilized and the wound has healed, and that’s the problem because…”

Kristoph let out a wailing howl that was louder than the howl I heard from the goblin that came at us in the starter area. 

I held the bit of the arrow I’d broken off behind Kristoph up so my friend could inspect it. I can’t imagine that felt good, but it sort of had to be done. This game was math underlying realism, with a heavy emphasis on the realism. And in the real world if you had something stuck in you then it needed to come out before the wound could be healed.

“Come on. You’re being a huge baby about this,” I said. “Besides. I had to distract you so you wouldn’t stop me. I know how much of a baby you are even putting alcohol on a cut.”

“I’m being a big baby about you ripping a fucking arrow out of my fucking neck?” Kristoph gargled. “There should be a fucking way to turn pain off!”

I blinked. “Kristoph, you’re a fucking genius!”

He glared at me.

“No, seriously,” I said. “I didn’t tell you about this earlier because it was funny watching you getting all pissy about smelling lizard shit, but there are sliders for your senses.”

“There are?” the girl said, sounding genuinely surprised.

“Think about adjusting the pain settings,” I told Kristoph.

His eyes went blank for a moment as he stared off into the nothing of a menu that was hovering over his face from his point of view but invisible to my point of view. Then he smiled and sighed in relief.

“Fuck that’s better,” he said, his voice still rattling from the blood being reintroduced to his trachea, then glared at me again. “Nice of you to tell me about that after you broke that arrow off.”

“Sorry,” I said, sheepish. “I forgot.”

Kristoph rolled his eyes and tried to say something, but it came out as a bubbling gurgle. Both from his mouth and from little air bubbles appearing around the arrow. Not good.

Apparently having part of the shaft snapped off in his neck was enough to reopen the healed bits. An inspect showed that his health was ticking down again, but I figured a quick heal would stabilize him to the point he’d start regaining hit points instead of staying flatlined in the HP department.

Kristoph didn’t say anything else, at least. Probably because he was busy trying not to drown on the blood making its way down his windpipe. I grimaced. That seemed like a hell of a way to go.

“If you hated that part then you’re going to really hate this,” I said.

I nodded to the girl. She nodded right back. She got what we were doing even if Kristoph wasn’t going to like it. I found myself drawn to this girl all over again. She was willing to do what had to be done and she was smart enough not to say anything that’d tip Kristohph off as to what we were about to do.

Which was a plan after my own heart. If I had a gold piece for every time I did something Kristoph didn’t like without telling him about it until we were in the middle of it I’d be rich.

“What are you…”

The gargle was cut off by another piercing shriek. A shriek that had its own fair share of gargling. The rest of the arrow came out of his neck with a spray of blood as I yanked it, and he started twitching. That definitely wasn’t what I was going for when I pulled that shaft out.

Also, that had to hurt like a motherfucker if he was shrieking like that with his pain bar turned down. Or maybe turning the pain bar down only made the pain dull faster. Honestly there’d be physical trials involved in figuring that out that I didn’t really want to undertake myself.

“That’s disgusting,” the girl said.

“Um, so are you going to do something about it?”

“Oh, right,” the girl said.

She knelt over Kristoph and did the whole flickering light thing again. The only problem being this time around the flicker guttered and died.

“Damn it,” she growled. “This is not happening!”

“Um, if you’re going to heal him then now would be a good time,” I said, watching Kristoph’s HP with growing alarm as it plummeted towards zero.

“I can’t!” she said. “I told you I went with the whole stealth archer thing. My mana regen isn’t that fast. I don’t have anything to heal him with yet!”

Okay. This was a new wrinkle I hadn’t anticipated. Also? Totally something I should’ve anticipated and thought of before I critically wounded my best friend.

“But that’s like a low level spell! How could you not have enough mana?”

“Stealth archer,” she said. “Not much use for healing spells or mana when you’re hiding in the shadows killing stuff with arrows and daggers.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter anymore anyway,” I said as Kristoph gasped one final time and then he was gone as his health bar reached zero.

“Shit,” the girl said. “I’m sorry about that.”

“Which part?” I asked. “The part where you shot an arrow through his neck or the part where you couldn’t heal him?”

The girl stood and pulled a dagger out. So much for the friendly conversation we’d been enjoying. “Y’know I’m about sick of the mouth on you.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot.”

That’s when something struck me. Well two things struck me. One quite literally and the other more figuratively. The literal thing that struck me was the knife that was suddenly embedded in my arm. The thing that struck me figuratively speaking was that apparently my PVP immunity had finally worn off, and I’d wasted it mouthing off to this girl while she killed my best friend.

“Huh,” I said. “That’s gonna hurt.”

Then the blinding pain hit me and I realized that yup, the pain simulation in this game was as top notch as I’d feared it would be.

I really should’ve turned down that pain sensitivity bar when I had the chance.

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<<Chapter 25Chapter 27>>

Spellcraft Chapter 25: Into the Woods

“Are you serious?” Kristoph asked.

I looked up from the base of a tree where I’d been digging into the dirt and grime with the trowel I’d bought special for this occasion. There were some mushrooms under here I needed to get at.

It’d been a surprise that I even knew there were mushrooms here. I shouldn’t have known they were there considering how well hidden they were, but I’d started looking around the forest and a faint glow appeared letting me know where there were herbs I could find.

That’d been a pleasant surprise, and I’d leveled up my Gathering:Herbs skill a couple of times in the time it took Kristoph to get out here.

“Took you long enough,” I said.

“Yeah, well you’ll excuse me if I wanted to make my way out of town nice and quiet like,” Kristoph said. “The last thing I needed was more of those Horizon Dawn assholes coming after me.”

He tapped his temple. “I’m thinking things through now. Like you.”

“Fair enough,” I said with a shrug. “Gave me plenty of time to do some gathering without having to listen to your constant bitching.”

“Yeah, well wait until you see what I got for you,” Kristoph said.

I pulled myself up and dusted the dirt off my fingers. This being a video game the dust crumbled off in an obvious animation and then it disappeared entirely.

Clearly the art department hadn’t put that much thought into the animation for dirt dusting. Not that I could blame them. It was a big game and I figured not everything could be hyper realistic. Gregor and his daggers came to mind.

“Okay, so what do you have for me?” I asked.

“Well that depends,” Kristoph said, pausing to look around as though he was afraid more assholes from Horizon Dawn were going to appear and give us trouble.

I sincerely hoped they didn’t. I didn’t have any plans to get rid of those assholes here in the forest, and I wasn’t about to flag myself for PVP so I could die alongside my friend. I also wasn’t sure how long my PVP immunity was going to last, for that matter.

I could be ticking down to an ignominious end. I should’ve logged out to look it up, but I’d been too preoccupied with digging up herbs.

“Honestly I don’t know if I want to give you this present now,” Kristoph said, the hint of an annoyed pout playing around the edge of his face.

“Come on man,” I said, standing and double checking my inventory to make sure the mushrooms I’d been digging for had made it in there. The inventory screen appeared as a translucent overlay of my world, and a moment later sure enough I saw the stack of mushrooms.

Though I’d have to wait just a little bit before I figured out what I could do with them. Right now I needed to manage Kristoph’s bruised ego.

Not that I could blame Kristoph for having a few bruises. I hadn’t asked him what it felt like to die in the game, and it wasn’t an experience I was eager to learn about firsthand. I could understand someone being pissed off after getting killed and hunted for a good chunk of the evening.

Not exactly a relaxing evening of gaming right there.

“Well let’s think about this,” Kristoph said. “I have this awesome new item for you, but so far you haven’t acted like it’s an item you’d want to use.”

“Will you just tell me what it is?” I asked. “Because if you don’t get around to telling me then I’m going to go look at that glowing thing in that small hill over there that I’m pretty sure is an ore vein of some sort.”

At least I hoped it was an ore vein. Picking plants was all well and good, but the real money and game breaking usually was in the armor and enchanting side of things. I was happy to level up my Gatherer skill with some herbs, maybe even make some money selling potions, but what I really wanted to get into was manufacturing weapons and armor and putting bonuses on them that made them irresistible to buyers on the auction house.

Maybe I’d even come up with something that would rival the junk Horizon was outfitting their people with. Maybe something better. I didn’t know if that was even possible, but a guy could dream.

“What are you talking about?” Kristoph asked. “I don’t see anything glowing through the trees.”

“Of course you don’t,” I said. “You didn’t bother to level up the skill so you don’t see anything.”

“Whatever man,” Kristoph said. “Take a look at this!”

He held his hand out and a sword materialized. A sword that glowed with red runes. A sword that had that disgusting stylized Horizon “H” from their video games on it.

I inspected it and saw that it was a very low level version of some of the more impressive stuff the other Horizon assholes had been wielding. Disgust and a strong desire to puke welled up in me as I looked at the thing.

“Ugh,” I said. “Where the hell did you get that?”

“Off that girl who tried to attack me,” Kristoph said. “Duh. And you’re supposed to be the brains of our operation.”

“I am the brains of our operation,” I said. “And there’s not a…”

I trailed off. The hurt look on Kristoph’s face told me it was going to be more trouble than it was worth to turn down this offer of a nice new sword. Even if it did have the Horizon logo and their taint all over it.

“Fine,” I said. “Hand it over and I promise I’ll use it.”

Once. Maybe. Honestly I felt dirty even thinking of having it in my inventory, but he’d had a bad enough day as it was. I’d toss the thing as soon as I could and try not to feel too disgusting for having a Horizon sword.

Kristoph’s face split into a wide grin. That grin lasted for the space of the breath it took for an arrow to appear through his neck. He dropped the sword and it fell to the ground with a dull thud rather than disappearing back into his inventory.

I wondered if that was because items were designed to fall like that if they were dropped in combat, or if items dropped after a player kicked the bucket stayed where they dropped. Or maybe it fell like that because he’d been in the process of giving it to me and the game knew by reading our minds that it was no longer his property which was freaky.

I’d heard of old school MMOs where people lost their stuff when they kicked the bucket, and those little treasure chests Gregor and Kravos left behind, not to mention the fact that Kristoph was able to loot the chick who’d been trying to kill him, made me think this game worked under similar rules. 

Which meant it was probably a good thing I wasn’t carrying many valuables since it looked like there was a good chance I was about to bite the big one.

I looked around the forest for the source of the arrow. That it was from a player there was no doubt. There was something about that shot that seemed too precise, too refined, for a random monster. I felt like a monster wouldn’t hit in such a singularly deadly spot considering the stuff around the town should’ve been low enough that we could take it on.

Then again what did I know? It was entirely possible there were goblin fletchers somewhere out there in the game world. Given how pissed off those goblins seemed about how they were treated in town I could understand why some of them might get annoyed and go off the reservation, as it were, to inflict a little harm on their player character tormentors.

I pulled my sword just to be safe. My ordinary starter sword that didn’t have any impressive runes on it, but that was just fine by me as long as it also didn’t have the Horizon logo on it.

Not that I thought it was going to do me a damn bit of good. Not if the thing targeting my ass was able to shoot with the kind of accuracy that let whatever it was put an arrow through Kristoph’s throat.

“Drop it,” a decidedly feminine and non-goblin voice said. At least if there were goblins in this game that sounded like that I figured I wouldn’t mind being caught.

“Who are you?” I asked.

There was something familiar about that voice. Something that tickled the back of my mind. Whoever was talking was trying to sound gruff, but there was no hiding that it was a girl. Woman. What the fuck ever. If it was a player character then I imagined she would be a pretty good looking girl, at that, considering everyone tooling around in here looked like an idealized model version of themselves.

“None of your business,” she said. “Now drop the sword or I’m putting an arrow through your neck too.”

I grinned and leaned on my sword like it was a walking stick. It’s not like the thing was going to be good for anything else. Not in this fight. This chick had to be a player. That or the AI for the NPCs in this game was a hell of a lot better than anything I’d given Lotus credit for.

“You can forget about trying to kill me,” I said. “I’m still new so I’m not flagged for PVP.”

An arrow came streaking out of the trees. It hit the same invisible barrier that the girl from Horizon Dawn had run into, then bounced into the grass. 

I shrugged and reached down to grab the arrow. As I did several more flew at me. One went over my head, but the followup was right on target on the top of my head. It tickled a little where it bounced off the invisible shield.

“Damn it,” I said. “Could you please stop doing that? It’s really annoying!”

The girl finally stepped out from the tree she’d been hiding behind, though I suspected there was probably a little bit of game assist going on with her hiding. Like there was no way this girl would be able to hide behind that tree, even if it was technically after dark in the game world.

“That’s an impressive trick,” I said. “Did you learn that all by yourself?”

“Shut up Horizon scum,” she said. “If you don’t shut your mouth then…”

“Um. Then what?” I asked. “You can’t hurt me, remember? We seem to be at an impasse here.”

“Clever,” she muttered. “Sending someone out here who can’t be PKed. Are you supposed to be scouting or something? How much did they pay you to come out here? I might not be able to hit you, but there are things walking these woods that would kill you without breaking a sweat or feeling any regret.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I said. “The bit about being a spy, I mean. The bit about monsters out there that can kill me is pretty clear.”

“That’s exactly the kind of thing someone working for Horizon would say,” she said.

My face grew serious. “Say I work for Horizon one more time and I’m going to pick up that fucking sword and do my best to kill you. I don’t give a fuck if it’s a monumentally bad idea.”

The girl stepped forward and the shadows that seemed to surround her lessened to the point that I could get a good look at her. The first thought that ran through my head was “damn.”

Lotus didn’t seem like the kind of game that stuck women in ridiculous chain mail or plate bikinis, but clearly the art department wasn’t above having armor sets that showed off some of the assets on the ladies playing the game.

The girl was beautiful. She had hair that shimmered somewhere between gold and blonde and seemed to have a slight glow to it. Her ears were slightly upturned to a point. She also looked just as pissed off as I felt.

“Talk fast,” she said, hefting her bow and arrow. “Because if you don’t do some pretty good convincing I’m going to kill you.”

“Um. Haven’t we already covered that I’m not flagged for PVP?” I asked.

I wasn’t sure how she did it, but one moment she was standing a good ten feet away from me with her bow drawn and the next she was right next to me with her hand wrapped around my arm. A hand that held my arm in a surprisingly strong grip, for a chick.

Then again I had to remind myself that this was all a game, and clearly she’d been doing some leveling with skills that affected her strength. That or I was such a monumentally low skilled noob that she had no trouble manhandling me like a cat batting around its frantically squeaking and squirming lunch.

“Do you think you have a monopoly on being clever or something?” she asked, still gravelly and growling like she was doing an impression of one of the many Batman actors who’d been doing impressions of Kevin Conroy over the past few decades. “Because I can grab you as long as I’m not trying to hurt you. I don’t think the game will care if I drag you deep enough in the forest while I wait for your PVP immunity to wear off. I have the time. Do you?”

“Fuck. It wears off?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes and muttered something about “fucking noobs,” and the disgust plain there told me she wasn’t lying more than any words might.

“Fuck,” I said.

“That’s right,” she said. “You’re gonna be in a world of hurt very soon noob. Even if I don’t feel like waiting for your PVP immunity to wear off I could just drag you to a monster den, toss you in, and listen to your screams.”

I stared into her deep purple eyes, again it seemed that she’d taken the opportunity to go for some colors that couldn’t be seen in nature when she created her character, and I thought I was in love.

Not only was she pretty, not only did she look good in that armor, but on top of that she’d figured out a way to kill me that circumvented the game’s mechanics. That was almost more of a turn on than the hotness.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

“I didn’t know the PVP flag was a time based thing,” I said, shaking my head to clear the little crush that’d just hit me.

“Afraid it totally is for now,” she said. “They’ll probably change that when they realize gamers are doing things like what I just described, but that’s not going to save your cute ass if they patch it out next week or next month.”

I was so surprised that she referred to me as cute that I couldn’t think of a response. There was a part of me that wondered if she was manipulating me because she saw the way I was looking at her, but her half smile said otherwise.

Or maybe that was wishful thinking on my part.

“Great,” I finally managed to choke out.

“So talk fast,” she said. “Or slow. I guess we have until your PVP immunity wears off, whenever that is. Or we have until I get bored with your lies and find a monster den to throw you in.”

A gurgling caught my attention and I turned to Kristoph who was staring at the two of us with his eyes bugging out. He had a hand over the arrow that was still lodged in his neck, and he didn’t look happy that I was in the middle of a meet cute while his hit points were rapidly ticking away on the game mechanics side of things even as his blood ran down his neck and messed up his armor on the art direction side of things.

“Oh, um, I appreciate that you’re about to torture me for information I don’t have and all, but do you maybe have something you could use to help my friend before you kill me?” I asked.

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<<Chapter 24Chapter 26>>