Spellcraft

Spellcraft Chapter 14: Expeditious Retreat

“So we’re heading into town then?” Kristoph asked.

“Seems like as good an idea as any,” I said.

“Yeah, until we run into those assholes and more of their friends,” Kristoph grumbled.

“But we’ll be in a town where presumably there’ll be guards to keep them from fucking with us too much,” I said.

“Oh yeah?” Kristoph asked. “So will a bunch of goblin guards save our asses? Because it seems to me that place is under new management.”

I frowned. He had a point. I hated that he had a point. This town might not be as helpful as I thought.

“Well at the very least we need to check the place out so we can figure out how to get to another town where these assholes aren’t running things,” I said. “We’ve got a whole world to explore, after all. There can’t be assholes everywhere.”

“Right,” Kristoph said, turning and heading for the edge of the clearing.

I almost followed him, then turned and eyed the wolf those assholes had tossed into the clearing. For some reason it’d persisted while those guys did that weird decomposing thing. I looked at the spot where they’d fallen and wondered how long it’d be before they got back to their bodies.

Assuming they came for their bodies instead of resurrecting at the graveyard, or however the hell that mechanic was done here in Lotus. Pretty much every game had a way for players to resurrect that didn’t involve a corpse run, and it had been awhile since they released…

“Dude,” Kristoph said. “What happened to the whole getting the fuck out of here plan?”

“Yeah, I think we should get out of here,” I said. “But first let’s check that wolf and see what it’s got on it.”

“Come on man,” Kristoph said. “Weren’t you the one who was just telling me we need to get the fuck out of here before those guys come back?”

I eyed the spot where they’d died again. Those chests were still there, but that Keia girl had talked like it wouldn’t take all that long to get to this Nilbog place. Which meant there’d been more than enough time for them to release and come back here.

And they hadn’t.

“I don’t think they’re coming back,” I said.

“Seriously?” Kristoph said. “You’re going to bet our lives on one of your hunches?”

“I mean it’s not like it’s the first time I’ve done something like that,” I said. “And my hunches usually turn out to be pretty good.”

“Y’know there’s gonna come a day when one of your hunches gets our asses killed,” Kristoph said.

“Maybe, but that day isn’t today,” I said.

“So far,” Kristoph countered.

Again he was doing that thing where he was making a point I really didn’t care for. Still, there was that hunch.

“Come on man,” Kristoph continued. “It’s not like a wolf is going to carry anything interesting. Trash mobs in starter zones never have anything good. They really don’t have anything that’s worth risking our lives over!”

“You never know,” I said. “Rare world drops are a thing in every MMO ever. Why would this one be any different?”

“Well hurry the fuck up if you’re going to do this,” Kristoph said. “I don’t want to be here when those assholes get back.”

“Me either,” I said. “But I think they’re so afraid of that Keia chick that they’re not coming back.”

“They’re certainly not hanging back because they’re afraid of us,” Kristoph said, eyeing the forest like he thought those assholes might step out of the trees at any moment.

“Yeah, well maybe the memory of that badass girl might keep them away for a little while longer,” I said.

I’m not sure why I suddenly wanted to hang around. It certainly wasn’t because I wanted to loot the corpse of a wolf in a starting zone that, when you got down to it, probably wasn’t worth the risk.

No, I think there was a part of me that wanted to show that I wasn’t afraid of those assholes. That I wasn’t going to let the thought of them returning be enough to send me running scared, for all that running scared was the reasonable course of action.

“Come on man,” Kristoph said.

I looked at the wolf and thought about the ancient videogame trope of random wolves and other creatures carrying money and diamonds and other things like that. Sure it wasn’t likely, but there was always the chance this low level wolf was carrying something good, so I figured we should check. It’s not like it’d take long.

Just long enough to prove I wasn’t afraid of those assholes.

Assuming I could even loot something killed by another player. That wasn’t always the case in an MMO. I kicked the wolf and it made a wet squelching noise as my toe made contact. Also? An inventory menu popped up showing me the items the wolf “carried.”

“Huh,” I said. “Brushing against dead things brings up their inventory screen. I guess that makes sense. Kinda gross, but it makes sense.”

“It’s a lot better than digging through wolf guts considering how realistic this is,” Kristoph said, then his frown deepened. “Or some of the nastier shit that’s no doubt lurking in this game.”

“Amen to that,” I said.

“Anything good from the starter zone gods to make it worth risking life and limb?”

I checked the inventory. As I looked at the inventory screen it went from transparent to more solid. When my eyes moved across an item a little tooltip popped up telling me what it was and providing vital statistics. Neat trick, that.

Unfortunately it was giving me the vital statistics for a wolf hide and some wolf guts. The text on the wolf guts were grey, so I figured that meant they were useless, but the text on the pelt was yellow. Yellow meant an item that was on par with our skill level. Which wasn’t much, but it was worth something.

I doubted it was worth that risk to life and limb that Kristoph was griping about, but it was something.

“Nothing too impressive here,” I said.

“Damn,” Kristoph said. “So much for getting an epic drop on our first hour in the game.”

“I’m not sure if random world epic loot drops are even a thing in this game,” I said. “I didn’t come across anything like that looking through the loot tables, at least.”

Kristoph rolled his eyes. “You would go through random loot tables for fun while avoiding the forums and spoilers.”

“Whatever,” I grunted. “There’s a nice wolf hide if you want it. That could be useful for crafting.”

“You take it,” Kristoph said. “You were always about the crafting and gathering. I’m more about hitting stuff over the head until it’s good and dead.”

“Whatever,” I said, adding the wolf pelt to my inventory. I figured it couldn’t hurt. At the very least I could sell it for some coin and we could split it once we got to this oh-so-originally named Nilbog place. “We could sell it for a little money or something.”

“Fuck. That’s gnarly,” Kristoph said.

“Gnarly? What are you talking about?”

I dropped the inventory window and looked down at the wolf. The sight that greeted me wasn’t pleasant. The smell that greeted me was even less pleasant. In fact one might go so far as to describe it as “gnarly.”

I had to tip my hat to the smell people. I figured some poor bastard working in that department had to go through some pretty shitty situations to make sure the smells in the game matched up with whatever terrible smell the devs pulled from real life to create these sensations currently running through my nose.

“That’s fucking disgusting,” I said.

The wolf’s skin had been removed. Literally. I stared down at the blood and guts of a skinned wolf. Apparently the devs had gone for a touch of realism when someone removed a wolf pelt from the wolf’s inventory. It was a disgusting touch of realism that made me want to puke.

That made another unpleasant thought occur to me.

“I really hope puking in this game doesn’t mean I lose the contents of my stomach in the real world,” I said.

“I doubt it,” Kristoph said. “That’d be a hell of a health risk. The last thing they want is people drowning in their own puke while they’re playing the game.”

“Yeah, just like they thought about the health risk of tossing someone into the game world a few hundred feet above the ground,” I said. “Or giving Horizon access to systems that let them literally fry people’s brains.”

“Huh. Good point,” Kristoph said.

“Eh, I’m not gonna worry about it,” I said. “If the game is smart enough to paralyze us while we’re in the game world then it should also be smart enough to keep us from drowning in our own puke.”

“That or you’ll be the first official fatality from Lotus,” Kristoph said. “Then I can go on a revenge quest against Lotus Systems.”

I frowned. The first official fatality from the Lotus hardware. There’d already been a few deaths. It’s just that Horizon wasn’t admitting responsibility and Lotus’s lawyers were doing legal jiu jitsu to push any and all responsibility onto Horizon for using their systems in an unsafe manner.

Bastards. If they didn’t make such great games I might hate them too.

“I think my continued consciousness is proof enough that I’m not currently drowning in my own vomit in the real world,” I said.

“You sure?” Kristoph asked. “You didn’t actually vomit in the game, y’know. Besides, what if you’re the first person to have their consciousness uploaded to a game because you died in the real world! Lotus is already tricking your brain into thinking this is real. Maybe it’s so good it’s tricking your brain into continuing to live as a ghost in the machine after your body kicked the bucket!”

Kristoph held his hands out in front of him and changed his voice so it sounded like he was telling a scary story around a campfire.

I flipped Kristoph the bird. “Very funny.”

“Right. Well the disembodied hottie’s voice said we need to go west and we’ll hit the town, so I vote we go west before these guys get back and kick our ass,” Kristoph said. He held a hand up when I opened my mouth to protest. “And I know you don’t think they’re coming back because they’re afraid of the disembodied hottie, but I’m getting all twitchy here waiting for them to plant an arrow in my ass so I’d prefer to get the hell out of here if you don’t mind.”

“Fine,” I said.

“You sure you don’t want to see what’s in those treasure boxes?”

My lips compressed to a thin line. I thought about the Horizon name all over that gear. I didn’t want to touch anything that had the Horizon name on it.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said. “They didn’t have anything we want to touch.”

“Whatever,” Kristoph said, rolling his eyes for good measure. “Fucking figures you’d go for the wolf guts and skip over the gear that’s actually maybe worth something.”

“Did you really just call that girl a hottie?” I asked, hoping to change the subject as we headed for the trees.

Kristoph shrugged. “I figure it’s a good chance she’s a hottie. At least in the game. Everyone in games like this is hot. Ideal self-image projection and all that crap. Besides, did you see any ugly options in character creation?”

I shook my head, though he did have a point about the character creation screen not offering the option to go ugly. “You’re ridiculous sometimes, you know it? That hottie could be a dude for all we know.”

“Yeah, but when you think about it does it really matter when we’re in a game world where everything happening seems way more realistic than anything you’re ever going to see in the real world?”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“What I’m talking about is if you’re in hyperreality then it doesn’t matter if the chick you’re getting with is a dude who lives on the other side of the world if the game world says she’s a chick and she feels like a chick and she…”

I held up a hand and blessedly Kristoph shut the fuck up. It was usually even money as to whether or not he actually shut the fuck up when I encouraged him to shut the fuck up.

“Gonna stop you right there,” I said.

Kristoph wiggled his eyebrows. “Oh yeah? Because when you think about it…”

Movement at the other end of the clearing drew my attention. More particularly it was movement from the general vicinity of those two assholes who’d been on the verge of killing our asses. We’d wasted too much fucking time standing around talking, and that movement was enough to shatter any confidence I had that they were staying away from this area.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get the hell out of this clearing.”

“Right with you man,” Kristoph said.

So we turned and made our way west, and presumably to the town those two assholes hailed from.

I wasn’t sure whether getting to that town was a good idea since it sounded like those assholes and whatever group they represented were in control there, but whatever. We needed to do something other than sitting around with our thumbs up our asses waiting for those guys to come back and grief us.

So into the dark and scary forest we went to see what there was to see.

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<<Chapter 13Chapter 15>>

Spellcraft Chapter 13: Good Relations With the Goblins, Have I

“Thank you for saving my life!” the goblin said.

Yeah, the goblin definitely seemed less terrified than he’d been. I probably should’ve been insulted that he didn’t see me and Kristoph as a threat, but it was hard to be insulted when that assessment was totally true.

We weren’t in danger of killing anything more threatening than a little bunny rabbit any time soon. Or maybe that starter wolf that’d been offed by Gregor and Kravos before we got a chance to kill it.

“Damn,” Kristoph said. “This little bugger is a hell of a lot more articulate than I would’ve figured.”

The goblin turned and regarded Kristoph with a look that was less than pleasant. It stopped short of spitting on the ground in emulation of Gregor, but it seemed to be pretty close to it. Like we’re talking it was probably a good thing the goblin’s only attacks seemed to be physical and not magical, because that was a look that could kill!

“Why should you be surprised that a goblin can talk?” the goblin asked, sounding even more insulted than he looked if that’s possible.

“Um, no reason,” Kristoph said. “At least no reason you’d understand.”

That last bit was muttered under his breath, and I could totally understand the sentiment. We didn’t have time to explain to the goblin that the world it lived in was actually an artificial construct put together by technologically advanced humans who wanted to get away from the dreariness of their day to day life to play in the goblin’s world.

I figured if we tried explaining it to the goblin the thing would think we were crazy at best, and have an existential crisis that its whole existence was to die at the hands of player characters in the name of them having fun at worst.

Assuming the AI NPCs in this game were even advanced enough for existential crises. Though from what I’d seen so far I’d believe it was possible. Either way this didn’t feel like the time to get into the long and storied history of human player characters killing goblins in video games and even in pen and paper games back before computers could push the kind of graphics that made killing digital goblins possible.

“So, um, do you want to tell us why those guys were chasing you?” I asked.

This time the goblin did spit. Then it walked over to where Gregor and Kravos had met their untimely ends at the hands of that strange disembodied voice who was so good with a bow and arrow. The only thing left of them were those two chests Keia our disembodied savior warned us off of.

Honestly I felt the same way. The last thing I wanted was to loot anything that had the Horizon name on it, for all that I didn’t have proof that the Horizon name on that loot had anything to do with the assholes who’d killed Diana.

Those thoughts left my mind as the goblin did something that had me trying very hard not to laugh. He pulled down his undersized trousers and let loose with a stream of piss that landed on the treasure chests indicating where the mighty Gregor and Kravos had fallen.

When the goblin was done it spit on both their resting places one more time for good measure, then walked back to me and Kristoph.

“Bastards moved in on our town about a month back,” the goblin said. “They took over the place and pushed any goblins who didn’t like it out. They’ve been slaughtering the ones who refuse to fall in line ever since. I was the latest they were going to off, been running messages between Nilbog and… Well never you mind. Point is they were trying to kill me when I ran into the two of you.”

The goblin laughed. It was a mirthless laugh.

“Honestly when I saw two more human travelers in front of me I figured I was dead,” he said, looking us up and down. “Never been more glad to be wrong about someone before in my life.”

A jumble of thoughts tumbled through my mind as the goblin talked about the current predicament of his people vis a vis the “travelers” who’d mysteriously appeared in his world a month back.

It would appear that not everyone stepping into the game world was being a model citizen to the NPCs who inhabited that world.

My first thought was to look at Kristoph who looked just as embarrassed as I felt. No doubt he was also thinking of all the times we’d indiscriminately slaughtered goblins similar to this one in various other games.

Sure those were older games that didn’t have the kind of AI that a game like Lotus Online boasted, but I still suddenly felt somewhere between awkward and bad about the wholesale digital slaughter of goblinkind I’d committed over my gaming career now that I was talking to the closest thing I was ever going to find to a real living and breathing goblin.

Damn. If this game could make me feel bad about things I’d done in previous games then it really was every bit as good as Lotus bragged over the years it took them to put the damn thing together.

The next thing I wondered was what the hell a bunch of humans were doing chasing goblins out of their territory. Shouldn’t they be getting quests from the goblins or something? It made no sense that they’d fuck with the local NPCs instead of pestering them for XP and loot.

“So the town nearby used to belong to the goblins?” I asked. “As in it doesn’t belong to them anymore?”

“Damn straight,” the goblin said. “Sure we had a human regent until a couple of months ago when the old one died off, he worked with the king and he was good for trade, but it’s been worse ever since these new pricks moved in and started acting like they own the place, which they don’t. They hunt us even though they don’t have the king’s writ. Not that they need a king’s writ since they have him holed up in the Goblinsteel Mines.”

The goblin looked dejected and I felt bad for the little guy. I was surprised that I was feeling such strong emotion for a thing that, at its heart, was code thrown together in a manner to make this thing seem like a living creature and not an actual living creature.

Then again, when I really thought about it, didn’t that describe all living creatures? The only difference between me and sufficiently advanced NPC AI was my coding took billions of years for nature to perfect and it used a base four coding system rather than taking decades for generations of introverted dudes with Mountain Dew addictions to perfect using a base two coding system.

“Um, so what happens now?” I asked. “I think we sort of have to head towards that town, and it sounds like you’re not exactly going to be wanted there. I mean it sounds like you’re wanted there since they were trying to get you, but I don’t think you want to be near them, right?”

I wondered if we’d be wanted there considering everything that’d just happened. If those assholes were running a dystopian society in the middle of the game then something told me they weren’t going to be happy to see a couple of smartass noobs who’d been there when they had their asses handed to them showing up in town to tell all their friends about the ass handing they’d just suffered.

“I must continue on to my people,” the goblin said. “I was supposed to warn them if the new travelers launched another raid from Nilbog, and I fear I may already be too late.”

“Um, right,” I said. I got the distinct feeling there was more going on here and I didn’t know enough about local game politics to know what I didn’t know.

I just hoped that all of this might make sense when we eventually got to this Nilbog place and got an idea of what the fuck was going on with local politics. I was definitely intrigued now that I knew it was a goblin village. And that it’d been taken over by damned dirty humans. Talk about an inversion of your typical fantasy tropes.

“One more thing before you go,” I said. “What’s Horizon Dawn?”

The goblin frowned and shivered, then did a little handwave in front of its chest that had all the hallmarks of some sort of ward against evil. It reminded me of a babysitter I’d had when I was very young who was constantly making the sign of the cross when one of the children she was babysitting stepped out of line.

Not that invoking a deity who’d probably never existed had ever done her much good against misbehaving kids. Busting out la chancla had always been way more effective.

“That’s the name of the group of travelers destroying my people,” the goblin said. “They have weapons that are beyond any I’ve seen before. It’s how they maintain their control. By killing my people with those weapons, and by keeping the other travelers dependent on them by selling those weapons to them.”

“Right,” I said. “That’s not helpful at all.”

The goblin turned to make for the forest and stopped. He reached into his pocket and pulled out two coins that flashed in the sunlight, but they weren’t gold. They were some sort of dull burnished metal that didn’t look quite like anything I’d ever seen.

The art department had clearly earned their quatloos when they put this texture together.

The goblin held the coins out to me and Kristoph. “Take these, please.”

I grabbed mine and looked it over. The coin had a goblin on the face instead of a human. Which  made sense if we were in goblin lands. Though the goblin on the coin had one hell of a weird hairstyle that barely fit on the coin. We’re talking it looked like the kind of hair usually only found on ancient hair metal bands from the 1980s who could’ve singlehandedly caused the hole in the ozone layer that was such a problem back then with all the hairspray they used before their gigs.

“You don’t have to pay us for what we did,” I said. “We would’ve helped you regardless. Not that we were much help to begin with.”

“Speak for yourself,” Kristoph said, snatching his own coin out of the goblin’s hand. “I don’t have anything in this game.”

I shot my friend a sharp look. Kristoph shrugged but didn’t apologize. The man had a point. We didn’t have any money to our names, and time was wasting. Every moment we spent here was a moment those two player killer wannabe assholes could return, and I had a feeling our meeting wouldn’t be nearly as friendly the second time around with no mysterious arrow shooting chick to save our asses.

“Not money,” the goblin said. “Those are worthless since Horizon Dawn took over. They’re tokens. Markers. You’re friends of the goblins now. Carry those as a mark of that friendship, but don’t let Horizon Dawn see you with them.”

A notification flashed telling me my reputation with the Goblinsteel Syndicate had gone from Neutral to Friendly. It looked like I’d skipped a couple of levels of reputation grinding by saving the goblin. Or rather by being there when the goblin was saved and letting it use me as a climbing tree while someone else did the saving.

Whatever. I’d take it.

“Thank you,” I said, holding up the coin. “I’ll remember this.”

“Good, but remember to be careful who you show that to in Nilbog,” the goblin said. “My name is Rezzik. Perhaps we will meet again, if the spirits of fortune and prosperity will it.”

“Perhaps we will,” I said.

I put the coin into a bag at my side. The coin disappeared when it touched the bag, and I saw a little bag icon at the corner of my vision that hadn’t been there a moment ago blink as though it was trying to get my attention.

I focused on that icon and an inventory screen popped up. Because what else was I expecting when I concentrated on a bag icon? It showed the coin in my inventory along with some food and water, a short sword, and that was about it.

Hardly an auspicious start to our time in the game, but I couldn’t help but feel that we’d done a small good deed by helping out our new goblin friend.

The goblin, Rezzik, waved one final time and disappeared into the trees. I turned back to Kristoph and shrugged. It didn’t seem like there was much else to say. That’d been a weird experience, not at all the intro I’d expected, but it was something.

And now that Rezzik had made his exit it was time for us to get the hell out of here too. My back was itching between my shoulder blades in anticipation of the knife or arrow Gregor or Kravos would no doubt put there if they resurrected while we were still hanging around, and I had no intention of sticking around long enough for them to do that.

“Let’s get the hell out of here before those assholes come back and kill our asses,” I said.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Kristoph said, though he did pause to give one last longing look at the small treasure chests that contained those asshole’s worldly possessions.

“Not a chance,” I said. “We’ve wasted enough time, and I’m not taking any gear that has the Horizon name on it.”

“Hey, we don’t know that it’s the same Horizon,” Kristoph said.

I rolled my eyes. We didn’t know that it was the same Horizon, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d somehow followed us into Lotus.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s find some shit for you to kill with that hammer of yours and get the fuck away from these pricks.”

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<<Chapter 12Chapter 14>>

Spellcraft Chapter 12: Griefing the Griefers

“Who are you calling a noob, gold buyer?” Kristoph asked.

Kravos eyed Kristoph with open disdain. Then again I got the feeling that looking down his nose at the world was just a thing he did and not necessarily something reserved for us alone. He held out a hand and made a production of sending flames dancing over his fingers. It was only slightly ruined when he didn’t notice in his concentration that his robe sleeves were falling forward and the cuffs started to smolder.

Apparently friendly fire wasn’t something that was turned off in this game. I snickered as I watched his sleeve start to catch fire. It took him another moment for the pain receptors to tell him what his eyes couldn’t because he was so busy looking at us to make sure we were reacting appropriately to his badass display.

He quickly pulled back and the spell winked out of existence. He yelped and tried to pat it out, then started slamming his sleeve against Gregor who shifted slightly and hit his mage buddy with an annoyed glare. Any level of impressive intimidation these assholes might’ve projected was thoroughly ruined.

“Who are you calling a gold buyer?” Gregor asked with a sneer.

I’d heard stories of people hating someone immediately, and I’d always thought they were ridiculous. I wasn’t sure how ridiculous they were now though.

Because the moment I heard that guy’s voice I knew that I hated him. This Gregor prick was arrogant. Full of himself. The kind of gamer who thought he was better than everyone else and probably didn’t have the skills to back up his boasting.

Which pretty much described nearly every competitive online gamer in the history of competitive online gaming, but there was something about the way this asshole stared at us that had my hackles rising. He was exactly the kind of condescending prick I’d expect to buy his way into a game like this.

And I wasn’t going to let this asshole talk to my friend like that. I scrambled to my feet and the goblin took up refuge behind me, his claws digging into my knees as he hid from these pricks.

The thought of a thinking creature, even a bit of code running on a server somewhere meant to look like a thinking creature, being so terrified of these assholes only pissed me off more.

“Clearly the two of you are buying gold if you’re able to afford that twink gear on top of getting early access,” I said. “It wouldn’t be the first time someone with more money than skill decided to make a trade. Is that how you lost your virginity too? I bet you didn’t hesitate to pay the thirty percent neckbeard price hike the nice prostitute charged to touch you.”

Yeah, my mouth was running ahead of my mind, but this guy pissed me off that much. I think everyone’s known someone who made them irrationally angry at some point in their life, and this guy was pushing all my buttons without trying.

Gregor’s response was smooth and immediate. One moment his bow was at his back, the next his bow was out with an arrow nocked and pointed at me.

“Say that again noob,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Better yet, give us the goblin and then say that again. I don’t want to hit our payday.”

I looked to the goblin. The thing sat there attached to me trembling in obvious terror. I wondered how the hell a pathetic creature like this could possibly be a threat or a payday for these assholes, and I also knew that if these pricks wanted this goblin then I was going to do my best to stop them from getting it.

Even if I had no fucking clue how I was going to stop them. They had more skill points than me considering anything over one was more than I had currently. Plus they had that twink gear that was unlike anything I’d seen in any of the databases I’d been poring through when I wasn’t doing homework.

Was that player crafted gear? Could players craft stuff that nice? If they could then it opened up some very interesting possibilities in the game. Assuming I survived long enough to take some of those possibilities and turn them into a fully formed plan.

“I tell you what,” Kravos said. “Why don’t you hand over the goblin and we’ll forget this ever happened.”

“Oh, so you’re going to be the good cop now or something? Here’s an idea. How about you guys get the hell out of here and we keep the goblin?” I said. “I don’t think he wants to go with you.”

“How about I let this arrow go, we see what your insides look like, and then I take the goblin over your dead bodies?” Gregor asked.

I was relieved when Kristoph moved to stand next to me. Sure we were probably about to die, but at least we were about to die standing up for what was right.

Even if “what was right” was an NPC that was nothing more than a few lines of code in some database somewhere. I felt like an idiot for doing this, but I’d always had a soft spot for people who were being bullied, and this goblin fit the bill even if it wasn’t, strictly speaking, real.

Gregor rolled his eyes, but oddly enough he lowered his bow and didn’t fire on me or Kristoph. Or the goblin, for that matter, which was a lesser but almost as important goal I was shooting for.

“Forget this shit,” Gregor muttered. “I’m just taking the goddamn goblin. I’d like to see you stop me.”

I tensed and waited for the guy to come at me. I might not be worth much in a fight against this prick, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try. This was a game where a noob could get in a hit against a player with higher skills, after all, even if longterm that fight wasn’t going to end well for said noob if they didn’t finish the fight with that first hit.

“Are you sure you want to do that Gregor?” a decidedly feminine voice called out from the forest.

My head whipped towards the new voice. I thought I detected some rustling in the trees, but it was difficult to tell for sure. That might’ve been the wind moving in the leaves.

“Who’s out there?” Gregor shouted. “Show yourself!”

Laughter spilled from the trees.

“You and I both know it doesn’t work like that Gregor,” she said. “I’ve got a bead drawn on your ballsack, stealth on my side, and a Sneak Attack that’s going to make sure you won’t be able to use those things at one of the NPC brothels until you suicide and resurrect. Do you really want to try me?”

I blinked at that. NPC brothels? I’d been trying to avoid spoilers, and that was definitely something that hadn’t made it into any of the public facing information about the game.

Then again considering the puritanical assholes out there who still railed against any perceived impropriety in video games I couldn’t blame Lotus for staying mum on that. Assuming it was even something they’d put into the game and not something players had come up with on their own.

Come up with a new form of media and it wouldn’t take long for people to figure out how to turn that media to the business of fucking.

“Wait, did she just say brothels?” Kristoph asked. “Is that seriously a thing? Because if it is this game just got way more awesome!”

I rolled my eyes. It was one thing to be intrigued by the idea. It was another thing entirely to act like a creep about it. Leave it to Kristoph to cross that line.

“Shut up noob,” the girl said.

“Who are you calling a noob?” Kristoph asked.

“If you know what’s good for you you’re going to shut the fuck up,” the girl shouted.

I kept searching, and a notification popped up that said I’d gained a point in the Scout ability. Not that gaining that point was doing me a damn bit of good actually tracking down the girl attached to that voice, but I’d take any skills I could get at this point.

“Let’s think about this,” Kristoph said. “You already admitted you’re staring at this asshole’s ballsack, which must be like the most amazing thing ever for you. It’s not like you can shoot both of us at once.”

“Tell your friend to shut up before he really annoys me,” the girl said.

“Wait, are you talking to me now?” I asked.

“Yes I’m talking to you!” the girl growled. “Now Gregor, Kravos, I want you guys to get the hell out of here and I want you to leave the goblin and the noobs alone. Got it?”

“Who the hell are you to tell me what to… Fucking bitch!”

Kravos shouted as an arrow sprouted between his legs and his robes bloomed with a red color that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“You said you were targeting Gregor’s balls!” Kravos screamed.

“Yeah, and it doesn’t take all that long to retarget,” she said.

Okay then. This girl was ice cold, and apparently she hadn’t been joking when she said she’d been targeting that particularly sensitive bit of anatomy. From the way he sank to his knees with his hands over the arrow screaming at the top of his lungs Kravos didn’t care for that arrow being there.

I winced. Sure I knew this was all a game and the guy hadn’t actually taken a shot to the nuts, but it was still difficult looking at someone taking it in the family jewels. Especially when I knew how realistic the pain simulation was in this game. I turned away because the sight was too horrifying.

“Want to try me and see if that leather keeps out my arrows Gregor?” the girl asked. “Because I can guarantee you my archery skill is way better than your armor. Even if you are walking around in that Horizon shit.”

Horizon shit. Even the mention of Horizon was enough to make my blood boil. Well, make it boil more than it already was, that is. What the fuck was that name doing in Lotus?

Gregor looked around the forest, though it looked like he had no way of being able to tell where the voice was coming from. He looked to me and the goblin, and I felt all the hate in the world radiating from the prick.

Gregor spat on the ground. Right where his friend Kravos had been, but apparently that wound to the nuts had been too much or Kravos’s hit points weren’t all that high to begin with considering he was a squishy glass cannon mage. Whatever the reason, he’d dissolved in front of us, his body going through all the various stages of decomposition in a couple of seconds.

“Wow. That was pretty cool,” I said.

“You’re telling me,” Kristoph said. “But I really don’t want that to happen to me.”

“Join the club,” I said.

“Decision time Gregor,” the girl said. “You want to die like your friend? I don’t have to aim for the nuts on you, but I can still make it hurt.”

“Fuck you bitch,” Gregor said.

“You wish,” the girl said. “And by the way, I have a message for Torian. You tell him nothing’s making me come back. Not you or any of the other Horizon Dawn assholes.”

Gregor grinned a slimy half grin at that.

“That you out there Keia?” he said. “I wondered where you’d disappeared to. If you were smart you wouldn’t stay anywhere near Horizon Dawn territory.”

An arrow appeared in Gregor’s thigh. Gregor looked down and blinked a couple of times. Like he was getting used to the idea of an arrow in his thigh, or maybe the pain receptors were taking a moment to catch up to the visual cue of a fucking arrow embedded in his body, but after a beat he screamed at the top of his lungs.

“What the fuck Keia?” he shouted, spittle flying from his mouth.

He flipped off the forest half a second before his body jerked in several different directions as more arrows landed. Sure enough that Keia chick had been right. His armor was no match for her arrows.

Still, he was standing. Not good. Anyone who could take that many hits and keep ticking wasn’t someone I wanted to be messing with.

Only he only stayed standing for maybe the space of a breath before he fell to the ground convulsing. Then he turned into a rapidly decomposing body that left behind a little treasure chest where he’d gone down.

“Poison arrows asshole!” the girl, Keia, shouted.

“Damn,” I breathed. 

This was a devious girl after my own heart!

“Did you see what they were wearing?” Kristoph asked. “I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on some of that stuff!”

“You’re not a mage or a stealth character Kristoph,” I said. “And neither am I.”

“Sticking around would be a bad idea noobs,” Keia said. “We’re not far from Nilbog. You wait around too long and they’ll show up and fuck you up.”

“Are you going to show yourself?” I asked. “I feel like we owe you something for saving us.”

“Not a chance noob,” the girl said, though when she called us noobs it didn’t have the same sting as when that asshole Gregor used the term.

With her it sounded like a statement of fact. With Gregor he was making a value judgment on what he thought of us based on how long we’d been playing a fucking video game.

“How do we get to this Nilbog place?” Kristoph asked.

“Fucking noobs,” the girl muttered loud enough that I was pretty sure we were meant to hear her. Then she spoke loud enough that we were definitely meant to hear her. “Head to the west and you’ll hit the town in no time, but you might not find the welcome you’re expecting there. Especially after this.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “Can you tell us anything about the town?”

“I can tell you to get going, and not to get involved with Horizon Dawn. Best of luck to you, noobs!”

I listened for more, but there was nothing but the sounds of small woodland critters moving through the forest around us. Which meant there probably weren’t any more scary things out there that could kill us, so the girl was likely gone.

That or her stealth ability was good enough that the small woodland critters couldn’t find her.

“Well that was interesting,” I said, looking at the goblin who was looking around with something other than terror for the first time since we’d met. Though given the circumstances of our meeting I could hardly blame him for being terrified. “Now to figure out what the hell to do with you, little friend.”

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<<Chapter 11Chapter 13>>

Spellcraft Chapter 11: Player Killers

The first arrow that whizzed past my head didn’t register in the parts of my brain that knew we were in danger and it was time to hit the fucking deck lest the next arrow land in my soft noob armor wearing flesh. Mostly because I’d never lived in a world where I had to worry about people firing arrows at me.

As far as I could tell no human had lived in a world like that for hundreds of years. Unless they took an ill-advised trip to some of the more unexplored areas of the world back when there were still indigenous tribes hiding out in those spots willing to kill idiots from the modern world who came knocking on their doors trying to spread the good news about capitalism or Jesus or whatever the fuck else they thought gave them special armor right up to the point they started doing their best impression of a human pincushion.

“Someone’s shooting at us!” Kristoph shouted.

I rolled my eyes. My brain caught up with the danger of the moment and my legs went all rubbery. “Any other astute observations there Captain Obvious?”

Another arrow landed in the ground next to me. I stared at it dumbly, though to my credit it was difficult to think of much of anything with a goblin trying its best to climb me.

Which didn’t seem like the best survival strategy with arrows flying through the air. It seemed like moving closer to the ground would be better than moving higher.

I figured it was better to be on the ground if someone was firing at us even if our goblin friend was hellbent on using me as a climbing wall. So I hit the ground and rolled, but again it was difficult because the goblin clung to me in desperation even after I hit the deck.

“You’re going to get us both killed!” I shouted.

“Save me!” the goblin shouted right back at me.

Hoo boy. That yell was up close and personal, and let me tell you the goblin’s breath felt almost as threatening as the arrows flying through the air all around us.

I did take a moment amidst all the panicked terror to appreciate the way the developers had gone all out in putting together the goblin. I was still in that stage of trying out a new game on new hardware where I was so impressed by everything happening around me that it almost didn’t register that I was in potentially mortal danger.

Almost, but not quite.

I noticed things other than the goblin’s unpleasant breath. Like the jewels attached to the thing’s large teeth. The way its skin felt leathery but warm to the touch. How real its claws felt digging into my skin, or how realistic the pain was as its knees slammed into my ribs.

That felt unpleasantly like some of the times I hadn’t been fast enough to get away from some junkie in the narrow streets on the way to school and got a couple of punches for wasting their time when they realized I wasn’t carrying anything worth stealing and fencing.

Welp. That proved pain was definitely a feature in this game, and I figured that wasn’t a good thing considering there was some asshole out there shooting at me. The goblins claws and knees hurt, but I didn’t want to know what it would feel like if one of those arrows managed to hit.

“We need to get the fuck out of here!” I said.

“But this has to be a starter cutscene!” Kristoph said. “You said it yourself. The game wouldn’t throw anything at us we can’t handle!”

I had a sinking feeling that was wishful thinking on Kristoph’s part. Something very bad was going down here, and it didn’t have anything to do with introducing new players to the game with something exciting to mix shit up and hook them before sending us off on the same old boring fetch and kill quests that’d been the bread and butter of MMO starter zones since Richard Garriott popularized the genre.

There was a loud screech in the trees and a thump. A moment later something flew into the clearing. A wolf that looked pretty fearsome, but when I inspected it a stat sheet came up that showed it was pretty standard stuff for a starter area.

Still, wolves weren’t supposed to fly like that regardless of their stats. They also weren’t supposed to arrive dead and filled with a bunch of bloody holes that’d obviously caused that deceased state. Which meant there was something out there doing the throwing and poking, and I really didn’t want to meet whatever the hell that was.

“What the fuck is that supposed to be?” Kristoph asked.

I had even more of a sinking feeling as I looked at the creature.

“I have a feeling that’s the animal we were supposed to meet as part of the starter event,” I said. “And I think there’s something even nastier in that forest that just killed it and tossed it at us.”

“Oh. Fuck.”

“Yup.”

The trees rustled. I got the sense there was something massive lurking in there. Something massive lurking in there wasn’t good. That meant something massive was about to come out and make our day worse than it already was.

I’d heard stories from old MMOs back when they were brand new and not the on-rails linear streamlined digital theme parks most MMOs had become these days. More specifically I recalled tales of asshole higher level players pulling dangerous monsters into starter areas to fuck with newbies.

I wondered if we were about to be the victims of one of those pranks brought kicking and screaming into the modern VRMMO gaming era. We were in the early days of a new MMO, after all. The first new MMO with a major population to come along in decades and the first MMO in a good long while that hadn’t had all the good exploitable bugs hammered down and wiped out decades before I was born.

Which meant there’d be plenty of griefers out there looking to make a name for themselves. Asshole player killer griefers, that is. Not the good kind of griefer that I filed my anti-Horizon behavior under.

“We’re not going to like what comes out of those trees, are we?” Kristoph asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“We’re about to die, aren’t we?” Kristoph asked.

“It’s possible.”

“Do you think it’ll hurt much?”

I thought to the pain I felt as the goblin, still in my arms, tried to use me as a climbing tree. Then decided to lie. Kristoph would find out about the game’s realistic pain simulation soon enough. There was no point in making him worry too much in the time between now and when he found out how well the game’s pain simulation worked.

“I don’t think it’ll hurt at all man,” I said.

“That’s a relief,” Kristoph said.

The trees swayed, and then the things making them sway stepped out into the clearing. My mouth fell open.

So much for seeing a bunch of giant monsters that’d been kited to the starting zone by some asshole players. Those were players stepping out of the trees, all right, but as far as I could tell they weren’t dragging any oversized monsters along with. They certainly weren’t big enough to make the trees sway like that, but then I saw a glow around one of them that, coupled with the robes he wore, made it clear he was a mage of some sort.

Sure enough the mage made a little motion with his hands and the whole tree swaying thing stopped like he’d flipped a switch. The prick was using magic to make it seem like there was something pants-shittingly terrifying moving through the forest.

“That’s a neat trick,” Kristoph said.

“I guess,” I said, more annoyed at the trick than anything.

I wondered what the fuck these assholes were doing in a starter area. I looked them up and down. They definitely seemed like the type who’d been playing this game for awhile. Which meant they were the kind of assholes who’d paid their way into early access.

The one on the right wore leather armor that screamed he was a stealth character of some sort. He had flowing brown hair that went down to his shoulders and looked like something that belonged on a male model and not someone in a digital fantasy recreation of the middle ages. His face was almost too handsome, if you were into that sort of thing which I definitely wasn’t, and he wore the disdainful look of someone who thought he owned the world around him.

That disdain extended to me and Kristoph when he realized there was more than the goblin in the clearing. He seemed surprised, at least he started and blinked when he got a good look at us, but he recovered quickly and that smug asshole look was back.

I concentrated on the guy and his character summary popped up. His name was Gregor. The game helpfully informed me that Gregor’s skill specialties were Thief and Ranger, which meant the guy had spent a lot of time skulking around since the game assigned classes based on skills pursued rather than defining skill trees by class choice.

I looked at Gregor’s equipment and noticed some oddities that seemed out of place for a character who was presumably still on the lower end of the game’s skill progression for all that he’d had a month’s head start.

At least he was ahead as far as leveling progression was defined in this game where there were no levels in the classical sense. The game was all skill based, and a person leveled skills from one skill point to whatever limit Lotus had set. 

They hadn’t disclosed those limits. I’d read all about the game systems they were willing to divulge, devouring everything I could about the game’s mechanics without going to the official forums where I might have something about the actual gameplay or story spoiled by one of the early access people.

The beauty of the game was the math underlying the game had been built so it was as close to the real world as possible. So while in some games it’d be impossible for someone with a a skill of 1 in daggers to take on someone with, say, a 100 in daggers, in this game it was conceivable for a noob to get the drop on a “more skilled” player and come out on top because that sort of thing was possible in the real world.

Highly unlikely, but possible if the lower skilled player worked at it. Lotus was a blend of RPG mechanics, real world rules, and twitch mechanics that made it unlike any MMO that’d come before. And that was before you got into the realistic VR immersion achieved with the earbuds.

I turned my attention to the other guy. The mage, whose name was Kravos according to his character sheet. This asshole was in your typical mage robes coupled with a van dyke on his face that made him look like an off brand Doctor Strange or Ming the Merciless, and there was the same problem with his equipment that I noticed with the other asshole.

It seemed way too good for the single month they’d had in the game. I’d been poring over loot tables in Lotus Online databases to get an idea of the kind of gear I could expect at lower levels. The stuff these guys wore had all sorts of fancy percentage bonuses to spellcasting and archery. Gregor’s boots had Move Silent on them, and Kravos was sporting a robe that gave him a ridiculous amount of magic regen that didn’t belong on a player at high levels, let alone what I assumed were the couple of mid-tier assholes standing before us.

Basically they were decked out like a couple of twinks. The problem with that was no one was even close to the maximum skill level in anything at this point in the game’s short life. At least I hadn’t heard of anyone, though I guess it was possible that’d happened and I’d missed it since I was doing a dangerous spoiler avoidance dance every time I tried to learn something about the game.

There certainly hadn’t been time for someone to sit on their high skill combo of choice throne long enough that they got bored with their skill build and decided to deck out a lower skilled character for shits and giggles.

There was one final thing that had my suspicions pinging. The items they wore that seemed slightly overpowered were all labeled as Horizon Dawn Syndicate items. 

I told myself the name similarity was just a coincidence. It had to be. There was no way those assholes could be here in a Lotus game.

Still, that name had my stomach twisting, and my unease wasn’t helped when Gregor the Stealth Asshole opened his mouth and confirmed my suspicions that he was a raging asshole with a big throbbing hemorrhoid cherry on top.

“Oh look,” Gregor said. “More noob rabble come to ruin our sport.”

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<<Chapter 10Chapter 12>>

Spellcraft Chapter 10: Under Attack?

“Um, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” I said.

“Excuse me?” Kristoph asked.

“What?” I asked right back at him.

He made a production of putting his big old two-handed hammer back on his back and then twirling his big old fighter fingers first in one ear, and then in the other. When he was done he shook his head as though he was trying to get some water out after he’d been in the pool or something.

Though in this case, and considering the fall he just took, it’d be more like he was trying to get more dirt and worms out of his head.

“What are you doing?” I asked, my voice flat and hopefully communicating just how unamused I was with his antics.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just thought I heard you say you didn’t have a plan for what we’re going to do next here, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t have anything stuck in my ear that might have me hearing things wrong.”

“Very funny asshole,” I said, flipping him a one fingered salute to let him know what I thought of his antics.

“But seriously,” he said. “What the fuck is wrong with you man? You always have a plan for what we’re going to do next in a game!”

“Yeah, well I’ve been avoiding spoilers on this one so I have no idea what’s been going on in the game in the past month,” I said. “Not to mention we don’t have Horizon in here to fuck with, and that kind of has me off my groove.”

“I never thought I’d live to see the day,” Kristoph said.

“Shut up,” I shot back.

“No, seriously,” he said. “This is freaking me out just a little. You’ve had a plan for every game we’ve ever played all the way back to the first time we played Super Mario Bros and you had a detailed map of every warp zone you were going to hit along with a detour to that turtle that gives you infinite lives in World 3-1.”

I grinned. “That was pretty fun.”

“Yeah, those were good times,” Kristoph said.

I clapped my hands together and rubbed them back and forth a bit. It’s not like I needed to warm them up or anything, but it gave me something to do while I thought about what we were going to do.

“I guess if we don’t have a plan we should just get out there and explore,” I said. “It might be a good idea to find the nearest town and get a quest hub. Hopefully we won’t run into any more glitches like that nasty one you discovered.”

Kristoph grunted, but his eyes got a thousand yard stare that told me he was reliving the terror of going from character creation to the stratosphere. I clapped him on the back, and he jumped out of his little terrified reverie.

“I’m glad you’re okay, at least. You also might want to report that fall. That’s a doozy of a bug you found, and something tells me you’re not the only one who’s gonna experience it.”

“You’re telling me,” Kristoph said. “It’s a good thing these leather starter pants are brown, if you catch my drift. That fall was too fucking realistic.”

I tried not to laugh, but it was difficult. Instead I turned away and eyed the tree line until I had my smile under control. “Enough about your soiled virtual pants. Let’s have a look around.”

Idly I wondered if there was a map or something I could consult to figure out where the hell we were. And of course thinking about it was enough to make a map of the nearby area appear in my field of vision. 

It was going to take some time to get used to the idea of having an interface that was wired directly into my brain that could read my mind and give me what I wanted. Horizon’s interfaces had been a lot more varied, kludgey, and inelegant than what Lotus had put together, but I could get used to this.

The good news was I’d figured out how to access my map. The bad news was when I looked at the map there wasn’t anything on it.

“Is this thing broken or something?” I asked.

I reached out and waved my hand at the window. It turned to mist as my hand went through it and then reformed around it. Which was a nifty special effect, but it didn’t bring me any closer to figuring out why the hell it wasn’t showing me anything.

“What do you mean?” Kristoph asked.

“Pull up your map and have a look,” I said, pointing to my own map.

“Couldn’t I just look at the one in front of you?” Kristoph asked. “It just appeared when you pointed at it.”

I stared between the map and my friend. Odd that Kristoph could see it, but I wasn’t going to knock it. Maybe pointing to the thing was the invitation the game needed for sharing.

I was really going to have to have a look at all the mental controls available in this game, and soon. I got the feeling I was missing out on a hell of a lot by stumbling through the game’s UI blindfolded without a fucking clue what I was even looking for until the game helpfully read my mind and provided it.

“I must’ve shared it with you when I pointed at it or something,” I muttered. “Well have a look since you can see it. The thing is empty. A lot of fucking use there, giving us an empty fucking map!”

“Duh,” Kristoph said.

“Duh?” I asked.

Kristoph stared at me and his eyebrows shot up. Then they wiggled ever so slightly in a move he pulled when he was pulling one over on me.

“You seriously don’t know what’s going on here?” he asked.

“No?” I said. “The thing is busted. I guess this is another bug or something.”

“But it’s not a bug,” Kristoph said, barely avoiding letting out a gleeful little giggle.

I put my hands on my hips and turned to face him. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Maybe just a little,” he said. “I mean usually I’m on the other end of this. Might as well take my fun where I can get it.”

“So are you going to tell me what the hell is going on here?” I asked.

Kristoph tapped a finger against his temple. “The fog of war has been a thing since the original Warcraft back in the mid ‘90s. What makes you think it’d be any different here?”

“Oh,” I said, feeling a touch embarrassed at my idiocy. Of course they weren’t going to throw the whole game world map at me without forcing me to go out there and discover it first. “I guess that means we really do need to do some exploring.”

I looked around the small clearing we’d landed in. Well, Kristoph had landed in it. I’d stepped through a portal into the place. No other players appeared around us, which was a little odd. Your starter area was assigned by region. I’m not sure why they did it that way, but that’s how they did it. I would’ve figured there’d be a lot of people getting their start. 

Only there was no one. Weird. Maybe the game distributed people to different starting areas or something to avoid crowding. After all, this would feel like just another lame MMO if everyone starting out was fighting over the same ten rabbit corpses, or whatever the fuck starting quests they’d put together that claimed to be revolutionary but ended up being variations on the same old boring MMO quest themes.

At least they’d be the same old boring MMO quest themes in a world that looked fucking amazing. I wondered if the rest of the game world would be as visually sumptuous as what was on display in front of us now. 

It wouldn’t be the first time a developer had focused all their resources on making the very beginning of a game look impressive, only to offload a bunch of shit on the backend where they knew it didn’t matter because the players would already be hooked.

I thought back to some of the stuff I’d read in History of Video Gaming class last year about games like World of Warcraft that’d focused so much on making a good leveling experience when the game launched that there wasn’t much for players to do when they inevitably hit the level cap way faster than any of the game designers had anticipated.

Sure Lotus had history to learn from, but they were also under the same crunch time that other AAA developers had been under since game companies first discovered they could chew up and spit out idealistic young coders who were willing to kill themselves, literally sometimes, for the chance to work in the gaming industry. Even if that chance was working eighty hour weeks to make sure the cell shading on an obscure bit of background art no one would ever look at was on point.

“Yeah, exploring sounds good,” Kristoph said. “There are bound to be some noob quests around here somewhere to get us started and…”

Kristoph cut off as screams filled the small clearing. I looked around in confusion and tried to figure out where the hell that sound was coming from, but there was nothing in the clearing. The trees muffled the screams and echoed them in strange ways that made it difficult to figure out where the hell it was coming from.

“What the hell is that?” Kristoph asked.

“Adding some more brown to your pants there?” I asked with a wink.

“Shut the fuck up,” he said. “But seriously. What the fuck is that?”

“I was asking myself the same thing a minute ago when I heard you screaming like a little bitch as you did your best impression of Superman minus the power of flight,” I said.

“Do you think it’s someone else running into the same bug that tossed me into the world at a few thousand feet?” Kristoph asked.

I looked up and shook my head. There was no dot up there getting larger as it approached us vertically. “Screams are coming from the wrong direction. Whatever the fuck that is, it sounds like it’s coming from inside the forest.”

“Spooky,” Kristoph said, waving his arms and doing what was probably supposed to pass for a spooky voice. “And fucking weird.”

“Yeah, whatever it is, it doesn’t sound like anything good for us,” I said.

“Maybe it’s part of the intro to the game or something?” Kristoph said. “Like the cutscene was delayed or something?”

I rolled my eyes. “I was really hoping they wouldn’t have cutscenes in this game.”

“Yeah, well it sounds like one is coming right for us,” Kristoph said.

He pulled his hammer out from its spot on his back and held it at the ready again. I thought about pulling out my own weapon, I hadn’t even looked in my inventory to see what they’d started me with, but decided not to.

“I’m not too worried,” I said. “It’s not like the people who made this game are going to toss us into a scenario where we’re in any real danger. Not when we’re just starting out.”

“You sure about that?” Kristoph asked. “Because their buggy code just tossed me into this game world with one hell of a fall.”

“Good point,” I said. “But you survived that fall. Of course that might be that their code for falling damage is just as wonky as the code for depositing people into the game world.”

“Not comforting,” Kristoph growled, his eyes scanning the trees for whatever the fuck was coming at us. Assuming it was coming for us, and not a completely unrelated thing screaming through the forest that just happened to be passing through at the exact moment we were.

Kristoph looked like he was about to say something else when a goblin burst out of the trees on the other side of the clearing. At least I was pretty sure it was a goblin, though it was hard to tell considering how damn fast the thing was moving. Whatever the thing was, it was small and green and moving fast enough that it was a motion blur.

The thing looked surprisingly real and surprisingly sapient, with real terror in its eyes as it fled something in those trees. It was also moving fast enough that I worried we might be running into another bug that was putting us up against something we weren’t ready for.

“What the fuck?” Kristoph shouted.

The goblin took one look at Kristoph with his armor and the massive two-handed hammer out and ready for business and ran right past him. Its eyes were wide with terror. I briefly wondered if the thing was terrified of us considering how it’d reacted to Kristoph, but then it jumped with surprising accuracy and landed in my arms.

“Help me! Please! You can’t let them take me!”

Okay then. The thing spoke English. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The game would’ve been annoying if everyone had to learn a made up foreign language to converse with the creatures living in it, but there was still a part of me that was just a little shocked to hear English coming from a nonhuman creature.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked.

If this was the game’s idea of a cutscene to introduce us to the game world then it was one hell of a weird introduction. Weren’t we supposed to kill goblins in this sort of game?

Yet the little green creature was holding onto me for dear life. As though I was quite literally the only thing that was standing between life and death. The thing’s breath came in ragged gasps, and it looked and sounded truly terrified.

Whatever was going on here, it couldn’t be anything good. No sooner had that thought run through my mind than the arrows started flying all around us.

Son of a bitch!

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<<Chapter 9Chapter 11>>

Spellcraft Chapter 9: Launch Day

I dug my hands into soft dirt and grass. I inhaled and let it out in a long sigh.

One month. One whole entire fucking month where the only people who could get into Lotus Online were rich bastards who could pay for early access. And Trent and his asshole friends. They’d been having a grand time lording it over everyone that they were in Lotus, and it annoyed me that I still hadn’t figured out how they pulled that off.

It’d been a month of torture not being able to use the hardware for its intended purpose because of that Horizon ban.

That month of torture was over though. Lotus was finally open to the public, and that meant all the peasants could finally play. I didn’t even care that I was one of the peasants.

All I cared about was we were in. A stupid grin split my face.

Being back in the game world felt damn good. Like I was the real me again. It’d been torture waiting for Lotus Online to be opened to the general public, but I was finally here.

I needed to make up for lost time.

It’s not like those early access jerks could’ve gotten too far ahead of me or changed the game world all that much in the month they’d been roaming around, though the tantalizing glimpses of the game I’d gotten from those early access rich folks who lorded it over everyone else by livestreaming their exploits had been pure torture.

To the point that after the first few days I decided to go on a spoiler blackout for anything related to Lotus Online.  I didn’t do any of my usual obsessive prep work because I wanted to come into this with fresh eyes. Avoiding those spoilers was no small feat considering it’s all anyone wanted to talk about, but I’d mostly done it.

I took in my surroundings. A clearing in the middle of a generic looking old growth fantasy forest wasn’t exactly the rousing introduction to the game I’d been expecting. I’d figured they’d have some amazing cutscene, or maybe a quicktime event that had me fighting off a goblin or an orc or some other generic fantasy nasty to get a feel for the game, but instead I stood in a field with birds chirping and butterflies fluttering around minding their own business.

They weren’t even oversized death butterflies with sleeping powder attacks or antenna whips or mandibles of death or any of a number of ridiculously improbable attacks game designers had come up with for the order lepidoptera over the years.

Though even seeing butterflies felt odd. Butterflies weren’t something I’d ever really seen. Insects weren’t really a thing on our level of the arcology, it was mostly humans and their pets packed in as tightly as possible in shanty houses, but I hadn’t even seen them on field trips to some of the agricultural levels over the years.

There were always people going on about how it was some sign of a slow motion ecological disaster, one of many that were constantly threatening humanity who continued to gleefully bulldoze the natural world and exist despite numerous predictions of civilization’s impending collapse, but a lack of butterflies had been the least of my worries growing up so I hadn’t thought about them all that much.

Besides, things like taking down Horizon were far more pressing on my mind these days.

Though now that I was in Lotus Online I figured Horizon could wait for just a little while. It’s not like they could bother me in this game. No, I was finally safe from those assholes.

I looked around for some sign of movement that didn’t involve VR butterflies or insects. Kristoph should’ve been here by now, but there was no sign of him.

I did see something interesting that drew my attention though. Small yellow flowers that dotted the clearing. Those yellow flowers were bright enough compared to their surroundings that I’d bet good money they were supposed to draw a player’s attention.

This was an artificial world, after all, for all that it looked very real. That meant that everything in here had been deliberately placed by someone. I needed to remember that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and everything happened for a reason. At least in the environment.

Though come to think of it even the old inhabitants of Kansas weren’t in Kansas anymore. Not since the supercell outbreak that’d leveled the arcologies on those plains a few decades back and turned the place into a no man’s land where the only people who could live were crazy survivalists in decommissioned Minuteman silos who preferred the global warming fueled supertornadoes to the government intervening in their lives in any way, shape or form.

I leaned down and brushed my hand against the flower, which caused a notification to pop up in front of me.

Nhewb’s Blessing. A beautiful yellow flower said to be placed on this world by the goddess Nhewb who looks down fondly on those beginning a journey. Try putting it in your mouth. See how it feels. You know you want to.

I blinked at the tooltip. If I didn’t know any better I’d say the game was coming onto me. Then again if the tooltip was coded by a bunch of neckbeards who only emerged from their parents’ basement to gather new supplies of sacred Mountain Dew and Doritos for the trash altar to the coding gods growing in their nest then I wasn’t surprised.

I shook my head. I was about to collect the flower and see what was what, I’d always liked gathering, when an odd sound stopped me. 

It was a whine that started low, but it was getting steadily louder. Like there was some sort of giant insect that was about to burst through the trees and attack me or something. 

Okay then. Maybe the butterflies in the game were going to get revenge for what humanity had done to them in the real world, though as far as I knew butterflies didn’t buzz like that. Maybe there was some other variety of insect of doom coming for me.

Giant insects would be a weird choice for your typical fantasy forest, but it was a new game and they still had some bugs to work out. Maybe one of those bugs would have me literally running into a giant bug in which case it would be a simple matter of…

I didn’t think to look up until it was too late. By that point the object screaming through the sky was coming at me too fast. Had I been one step to the left the thing, whatever the hell it was, would’ve flattened me on its way to creating a hole in the ground that looked roughly human shaped.

It was as though an ancient cartoon coyote had decided to use some comically outdated technology to catch his favorite food and suffered the typical consequences.

I peered over the edge of the hole and saw none other than Kristoph. I even saw the name appear over Kristoph’s head when I thought about it. That was a neat little trick. All I had to do was think about inspecting someone and…

A translucent window popped up that showed Kristoph’s key stats and gear slots as well as a bored looking avatar standin for Kristoph standing in the middle of said window scratching his ass. That bored avatar was a far cry from the spluttering but very much alive Kristoph covered in dirt down in that hole.

Not that there was much point in inspecting him. Kristoph’s gear wasn’t impressive. It was the kind of stuff you’d expect to find in a starter zone, but it was still neat the way the information popped up like that.

I wondered if I could do the same for myself, and like magic my own abbreviated character sheet popped up along with a live view of my character also looking very bored.

At least he wasn’t in the middle of scratching his ass.

My gear wasn’t anything to write home about either. I wouldn’t be in very good shape if I was attacked by a big scary monster. Not that I was all that worried since we were in a starter area where it wasn’t likely we’d run into anything too terrifying.

No, I was more worried about Kristoph after that nasty fall. Giant monsters might be in short supply around these here parts, but falling damage was universal no matter what your level. Not to mention the lower your level and the lower your hit points the more likely it was a fall would be able to take out all of those hit points in one hit.

“Have a nice fall?” I asked, half expecting my friend to fall dead at any moment as his avatar caught up to the damage that’d been done.

Though, oddly enough, he seemed to be at full hit points. At least when I started thinking about his hit points a bar popped up that was full.

“Something like that,” Kristoph said, reaching up with a beefy hand to pull himself out of the Kristoph shaped hole he’d made. He coughed a couple of times and some dirt flew out of his mouth.

“I see you decided to mix things up this time around and go with a healer priest,” I said.

“Go fuck yourself,” Kristoph said with a laugh and a middle finger thrust in my general direction.

Kristoph looked like anything but a healer with his leather armor and a massive two-handed hammer attached to his back. A hammer that looked pretty nasty, for all that inspecting it showed me stats that made it clear Kristoph would be lucky to land a hit on a tree with the thing, let alone an actual monster.

The healer thing wasn’t a very good joke, but repeating it every time we created characters in a game had made it go from kinda funny to unfunny until it came around to funny again. 

Kristoph and healing didn’t go together unless it was someone else healing him as he waded into the center of a group of monsters swinging his weapons. Usually it took a couple of healers to keep him topped off with the way he loved wading into crowds of monsters that were usually way bigger than his armor and skills could handle at a given level.

“Um. So do you maybe want to tell me what the hell you were doing falling from the sky like that?” I asked.

Kristoph reached up and stuck a finger in his ear. When he pulled it out it was coated in dirt that’d gotten lodged in there, presumably during his landing, and the wriggling end of a worm. He winced as he realized he’d just reenacted a scene straight out of Wrath of Khan with the local worm population.

“Gross,” I muttered.

“As best I can tell I ran into a launch bug,” Kristoph said. “Like I was floating in the character creation screen getting ready to enter the world, and next thing I know I’m being shoved out of a portal but I’m like a hundred feet above ground.”

I frowned. That definitely sounded like a bug. I’d gone from character creation, mostly cosmetic without much in the way of stats, straight through a portal to this clearing in the forest. No fall necessary, thank you very much.

“Definitely sounds like a bug, but at least no one was hurt, right?” I said.

“Speak for yourself,” Kristoph said. “That fucking hurt when I landed, but I guess I didn’t die so whatever.”

“Right. We should probably figure out where the local town is and get some quests or something,” I said, looking around the clearing again. “It’s a good thing your starter zone is tied to your physical location in the real world at least.”

“Why is that a good thing?” Kristoph asked. “As far as I can tell that means we’re gonna be stuck playing with all the assholes I already can’t stand in the real world.”

“Maybe,” I said, thinking about all the drug addicts we had to run from on a daily basis. Something told me they weren’t going to spend much time in a VRMMO.

Getting the earbuds was expensive enough without adding in the cost of early access that Trent and his buddies were somehow able to pull. Or even the cost to get into the game once it was live for everyone.

“The arcology is a big place with millions of people,” I said. “I doubt we run into too many people we know. Besides, if they didn’t have that localized start we’d have to worry about randomly generating on opposite sides of the game world from each other and hoofing it through some nasty areas way above our skill level to play together.”

Kristoph laughed. “Remember that time you had to go all the way across both continents on Azeroth on that Vanilla WoW pirate server so you could start your precious Night Elf in Elwynn with me?”

“Shut up,” I muttered.

“That Night Elf was uuuuugly too. I can’t believe that game was considered revolutionary,” he continued.

“You should see what it was going up against at the time. Remember that Everquest server we played on? Or Dark Age of Camelot?”

“Yeah, they were nothing like this,” Kristoph said, letting out a low whistle as he looked at our surroundings. “I’m not gonna lie. I was hoping for more than your typical starter zone bullshit.”

“Come on,” I said. “It’s not like they’re going to throw us into the fires of Orodruin on the first day.”

“Yeah, but it’d be interesting if someone designed a game that did something like that,” Kristoph said.

“People have. They’re called cutscenes with quick time events, and they suck and delay the inevitable deposit of your ass in the lame starter zone after they show you the awesome stuff,” I said. “No thanks. Now let’s get out of here.”

“Right,” Kristoph said.

He hefted his two-handed hammer and giving it a twirl that nearly took both our heads off. It was only years of experience playing games with Kristoph and an instinct to duck when he started wielding his weapon in a VRMMO that saved me.

“Would you watch that?” I growled. “I’d rather not get killed by friendly fire on my first hour in the game!”

“Sorry,” Kristoph said, hitting me with a grin that said he wasn’t sorry at all. “So what’s the plan?”

I opened my mouth, then realized that I didn’t have a plan. For the first time since we started using the Lotus earbuds I didn’t have a plan. There was just a game before us ready to be played.

It was kind of a nice feeling not having to think about the next step in my grand plan to fuck over Horizon. Even if it also left me feeling kind of empty.

Talk about a fucking weird sensation!

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<<Chapter 8Chapter 10>>

Spellcraft Chapter 8: Stupid Hot

“What the hell are you doing?” Chris shouted.

“I don’t know!” I shouted back at him, my feet running ahead of my mind and critical thinking skills.

The tweaker with his arms around Kara had a moment to look surprised before I slammed into both of them and we went tumbling to the ground. 

The wind was knocked out of me as we hit the ground. It was weird. I’d had the wind knocked out of me before, but my most recent experience with that sort of thing was in a VR game where there was usually a bar that popped up to let me know my breath had been knocked out of commission.

It felt weird having the same thing happening in the real world without a heads up display to helpfully inform me how fucked up I was. Though from the crunch and yell the tweaker let out as we rolled he was getting more fucked up.

At least I hoped that crunch was from the tweaker and not Kara. Or me. Adrenaline was a hell of a drug, after all.

We tumbled around and around and then I landed on top of something. I balled my hand in a fist and held it up, knowing that fist wouldn’t do any good if all the other assholes lurking in the shadows came at us but knowing I had to do something to save…

“Kara?”

“It’d be great if you didn’t punch me,” she said, staring up at me and cocking an eyebrow. 

“Sorry,” I said, then I realized I was right on top of her.

I looked down. I was pressing against her in all the right places. Talk about a situation I’d been dreaming about for years and now that it was happening it turns out I should’ve been way more specific about how my fantasy scenario came true.

“Sorry,” I said again, rolling off of her.

“You’re crazy,” she said. “But thanks for helping me out.”

She looked down the narrow street Trent and company had disappeared down. I’m sure she was thinking a few uncharitable thoughts about that asshole, but she kept them to herself.

“No problem,” I said. “But we’re not out of it yet.”

I got up on my knees and took a look at our situation. It wasn’t good.

We were still stuck in a narrow street surrounded on all sides by narrow alleys that could bring more tweakers down on us as more of them got word there were people ripe for the robbing here.

“Shit,” Kara hissed, staring at the same shadows I was. “Not good.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered, low enough that they wouldn’t be able to hear us.

Hey, we might be fucked, but I didn’t want to let on how fucked we were. That was the kind of talk that would only hasten the fucking, and this was one instance where I wasn’t really looking forward to getting fucked over thank you very much.

A moan drew my attention away from the shadows. Shadows that, for some reason, weren’t moving in like the world’s druggiest zombie movie. Which was a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.

The moan came from the tweaker I’d slammed into while I was under the influence of a pair of pretty eyes and a body that wouldn’t quit. I was going to have to be careful around this girl if she had that effect on me.

She stared at the guy I’d tackled to the ground. “Looks like you really did a number on this guy.”

“I didn’t mean to,” I said, though I couldn’t bring myself to feel too sorry for the asshole. He was rolling on the ground clutching his arm like he’d suffered some serious damage in the fall.

The jerk might’ve just broken his arm, but the thing probably broke because he was so weak from all the shit he was constantly putting in his body. Not to mention he was the one who made the choice to attack us, at which point he was getting everything he deserved as far as I was concerned.

“Bastard,” Kara said, scrambling to her feet and spitting on the guy.

I stared in astonishment. I had a few classes with her and I’d chatted with her, it’s not like I was the kind of person who was terrified by a pretty girl even if I didn’t think I had a chance with her in any of the ways I’d like to have a chance, but she was always a bubbly and happy person in school.

It was weird seeing this other side of her. For all that I agreed with this side of her. For all that I found this side of her… intriguing.

“Yeah, bastard,” I said, though I didn’t spit on the guy.

“Um, guys, spitting on the scary drug addict might be fun for you and everything,” Chris said. “But I think it’d be a good idea for us to get the fuck out of here before the rest of the scary drug addicts decide to dogpile us.”

I looked out at those lurking shadows threatening us. Only they hadn’t attacked. Then I looked down at the one with the broken arm and started to put two and two together as a half baked plan started forming. 

I stepped over the addict who seemed a hell of a lot less threatening rolling around on the ground moaning in pain, and threw my arms out.

“Who else wants some?” I shouted. “Come on!”

“What the hell are you doing?” Kara said.

“Probably something stupid to try and impress you,” Chris said.

“What?” she hissed at him. “I’d be impressed if we were getting the hell out of here!”

I beat my hands against my chest. Chris was sort of right. It was a damn good thing it was still pretty dark and I was facing away from them. Otherwise the blush that hit my cheeks would be obvious.

If I was being perfectly honest there was a part of me that was doing this because I wanted to show off in front of the pretty girl, but mostly I was doing it because there were a lot of druggies out there who wouldn’t bat an eyelash at rushing us and stealing anything they could, and maybe worse with Kara, or maybe worse with me and Chris depending on which team they played for, and I wanted them all to think it wouldn’t be worth it if they did attack.

“Come get some!” I shouted, pointing at the asshole cradling his broken arm. “See if I don’t do the same to you!”

There was some muttering from the shadows. Shadows that were getting more and more humanlike as the lights overhead turned everything from pitch black to the twilight that passed for daytime around here with all the busted light panels overhead providing their fitful, flickering light.

“That’s what I thought,” I said.

I forced myself to turn my back to them. I wanted them to think I wasn’t afraid, for all that my bowels were on the verge of turning to liquid and all it would take was the sound of a couple of those tweakers coming at me to get all that liquid to come spilling out in an embarrassing display.

Only none of them made a move. I guess the sight of one of their number rolling on the ground in pain was enough to get them all to think twice.

It was one of the oldest rules in war, for all that this was a bunch of druggies threatening to rob us and not exactly a war. So many people thought the point of a war or a fight was to mess up the other guy. Sure that was part of it, but the real point of messing up the other guy was to make the enemy think it’d be way too costly to continue fucking with you.

“Are they moving any closer?” I asked.

“Nope,” Chris said. “I don’t know what the fuck you did there, but it’s working.”

“Their friend got fucked up on accident in that tackle,” I said. “With a little luck they’re worried I’m going to do the same to them right now.”

Chris snorted, but he was smart enough to keep it low. “You? Fucking up one of them?”

“Not so loud,” I said. “What they don’t know might keep them from hurting us.”

I tapped Kara’s arm. She jumped like she was just realizing we were still standing beside her, then looked between me and the assholes gathered behind us like I was a madman. It was a look I was used to getting from Chris. Typically in the game and not in the real world, but still.

“Walk this way if you want to make it out of this in one piece,” I said through my teeth.

“They’re not coming after you,” she said.

“That’s the idea,” I replied.

“Why aren’t they coming after you?” she asked.

“I’ve learned it’s usually better to go along with whatever plan Colin’s running and ask questions later when you’re out of danger,” Chris said.

“You sound like you’ve done this a lot,” she said, but she fell into step next to us.

“Mostly in games, but yeah,” Chris said.

“Speaking of,” I said. “Do you know what the hell Trent was talking about when he said he was getting into Lotus early?”

Kara stared at me for a long moment. Then shook her head.

“He’s telling the truth,” she said. “He got into the game somehow, and he’s bringing some of his friends along with.”

There was something to her tone that said there was more to the telling than what she was saying. She had the look of someone who was only telling part of the truth. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what that would be unless…

I nearly tripped over my feet when it hit me.

“You’re in Lotus with him,” I said. “Aren’t you?”

Now it was her turn to look away. Meanwhile Chris chuckled as he looked at me, then to Kara, and shook his head. It was the sort of knowing look he gave me when he thought he knew something I didn’t.

Which didn’t happen all that often. Which made it all the more annoying when it did happen.

“She’s dating the dude,” Chris said. “If that asshole figured out a way into Lotus then it makes sense he’d bring his girlfriend along with, right?”

“I’m not his girlfriend,” Kara spat.

I blinked at that. I mean it was surprising that she was saying she wasn’t his girlfriend, sure, but it was also surprising that she was practically hissing at us that she wasn’t his girlfriend. Like she really didn’t want us to make that mistake.

“Oh yeah?” Chris said. “So just a good enough friend that he’s using money he doesn’t have to get you a ridiculously expensive early access key?”

Chris wiggled his eyebrows as he said it. The implication was clear. He wasn’t buying the “not dating” line.

“I’d just as soon date that tweaker back there as date Trent,” Kara said. “And if you’re going to act like this then I don’t want to be around you either.”

“Wait,” I said. “Chris can be an asshole sometimes, but he’s not trying to be an asshole.”

“Hey!” Chris said.

“Come on,” I said. “Maybe you could be nicer to the lady? She just had a bad experience.”

“Yeah, and maybe you’re just thinking with the wrong head man,” Chris said.

“I don’t need this,” Kara said. “Thanks for tackling that guy back there. And thanks for… whatever the fuck that was you were doing with that posturing.”

“I was trying to intimidate them,” I said.

“You what?” she asked.

“I was trying to intimidate them,” I said. “Didn’t you see how they weren’t attacking us? Usually you get mobbed if you’re unlucky enough to get a crowd around you like that, but they weren’t doing anything.”

“So?” Kara asked.

“So they weren’t attacking because that one I tackled broke his arm. That was an accident, but they didn’t know that,” I said.

“Totally an accident,” Chris said.

I rolled my eyes. He wasn’t helping things. “I was trying to act big and bad because they didn’t know I didn’t break that guy’s arm on purpose. I was hoping I could get them to stay away from us long enough to get the hell out of there, and I guess it worked.”

Kara stared at me. Finally the ghost of a thin smile hit her face, and she shook her head as she laughed.

“You’re fucking crazy,” she said, then reached out and touched my shoulder. It was an electric touch, for all that it was probably just a touch for her. “But thanks. I appreciate it.”

I wanted to tell her it was nothing, but I also didn’t want her to think that I thought saving her was nothing. Not to mention tackling a tweaker who could’ve been armed while he was surrounded by a bunch of other tweakers who could’ve attacked at any moment hardly felt like it rose to the level of nothing.

“Glad I could help,” I finally said.

Kara turned to Chris, and that thin smile turned to a thin frown. Then she shook her head, laughed again and turned and disappeared into the darkness.

It was one of those situations where I hated to see her go, but watching her leave wasn’t a bad experience at all. Once she’d disappeared I turned and punched Chris in the shoulder.

It wasn’t a gentle friendly punch either.

“Ow! What the fuck man?” he said, rubbing his shoulder.

“You know what you did,” I said.

“What, prevented you from embarrassing yourself trying to make kissyface with the pretty girl who wasn’t interested in you?” Chris asked.

His words stung, but mostly because I knew they were true. A girl like Kara wouldn’t be interested in me, for all that it felt like we’d shared a moment there.

Only a moment, but thinking about that shoulder touch was enough to make me feel better about not being able to pay my way into the Lotus early release. Until thinking about the early release naturally led to Trent and his asshole friends getting to run around the game thanks to however the fuck they’d come up with the money to pay the ridiculous fee.

How did those assholes do it? That was going to bother me more than not being able to get into Lotus, damn it.

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<<Chapter 7Chapter 9>>

Spellcraft Chapter 7: IRL Danger

“That shit is gonna kill you if you’re not careful,” I said.

“Yeah?” Chris asked, taking another pull from his vape stick. “Supposed to be a hell of a lot safer than what they used to smoke. Besides. No one’s proven the link between these and anything nasty.”

I waved the cloud of fruit flavored nicotine away from my face as he blew it at me. At least it wasn’t that nasty old shit. Smoking wasn’t allowed on any level of the tower, though of course how much those rules applied depended on how much money someone had.

“That’s exactly what people said about smoking for years y’know,” I said. “Didn’t do shit for all the people who died thinking it was safe.”

“Whatever,” Chris said. “You ready to do this?”

I looked out across our level and up towards the school up in the distance. This early in the morning, before the lights that still worked turned on up above to create the twilight that was daytime, those lights were the only thing twinkling around here.

Everyone else would be logged into their Lotus hardware or sleeping. Or riding high on whatever the fuck old fashioned non-VR drug of choice they were chasing as they came down from their overnight high.

“Yeah, I guess we should do this,” I said. “Not like the trip’s gonna get any easier when the lights come on.”

I sighed. At least at this time of day most of the tweakers were probably still high enough on whatever they managed to score overnight that they wouldn’t be coming at us.

Maybe. If we were lucky. If we were quiet enough as we made our way through the rat’s nest of alleys we had to navigate every day to get to the school elevator.

I looked out to the massive grimy window running along one length of our level. Supposedly the thing had let in real sunlight once upon a time. A supplement to the artificial light back when that artificial light had provided more than a dusky twilight even when it was going full tilt. At least it’d provided light during the times of day when the sun shone at the right angle to get in here.

Not anymore, though. Sunlight was something for people who could afford to live near the top or the bottom. Or for people who could afford to live on a level where people still maintained shit.

I dropped down to the street beside my house. It was safer to be on the roofs for hanging out, but running across the roofs was a good way to get shot by someone with a contraband weapon firing through the roof thinking you were a thief.

Chris did the same. I double checked that the back door to my place was locked. The last thing I wanted was to come home to a security team trying to confiscate my earbuds because some asshole tried breaking in. Then Chris and I moved into the darkness.

“I checked the views on our video this morning,” I said. “That thing is doing pretty well considering the Lotus announcement hit like a half hour after it was uploaded.”

“Don’t remind me about Lotus,” Chris growled.

I sighed. “Sorry. I’m just as pissed off as you are man.”

“I mean who the fuck gouges people like that for the privilege of playing their game a month ahead of everyone else? They’re no better than Horizon,” he groused.

“Don’t say that,” I said. “Lotus was up front with investigators about how their hardware could be abused while Horizon stonewalled. No one is as bad as those murdering motherfuckers.”

“The early access thing still sucks,” Chris said.

“Preaching to the choir, man,” I said.

“I guess they waited two fucking years to get the game out in the first place,” Chris muttered. “They could delay the actual launch another couple of years and it’s not like it would be any different from where we were before.”

I took a deep breath. I knew what was coming.

“Oh, that’s right,” Chris said. “Except it is different this time around because somebody pissed off Horizon and got us banned from their modules so now all I can do is sit in my tower redecorating in between browsing porn!”

“It was worth it,” I said, my voice level.

Chris rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything else. There was nothing else to say. He knew getting them to admit what they had in such a public way was totally worth getting banned from Horizon modules too, even if he got pissy about it.

I opened my mouth to tell him to stop bitching and paused. There was something pinging in the back of my mind. That feeling on the back of my scalp that said there was something wrong. Something off.

It was an instinct I’d come to rely on both in the real world and in the digital world where things could be just as deadly.

The big difference being that in the game world you came back from having the shit kicked out of you with maybe the loss of some gear. In the real world things could get a hell of a lot more nasty.

“What is it?” Chris asked, his hands instinctively flexing for his two-handed hammer that didn’t exist in the real world.

“I really wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “It’ll just make them think you have a weapon.”

“Yeah?” he said. “Did you ever think maybe if we run into a couple of tweakers they’ll think twice about fucking with us if they think we have a weapon?”

“I don’t think that’ll work out as well in the real world as it’s working in your imagination,” I muttered, listening intently for any other noises that might indicate some of the skeevier denizens of our level were starting to wake up enough from their drug-induced haze to go looking for someone they could rob to get the next hit.

A sound off in one of the nearby alleys told me there definitely was someone out there. I heard the distinct crunch of feet on a grimy alley floor. 

I glanced up to the school up and in the distance. It was closer, but still too far to do us a damn bit of good. There was no way we’d be able to get to the elevator before whoever was out there got to us.

“Motherfucker,” Chris growled.

Four shadows resolved out of the darkness, but they didn’t step out of the darkness. No, they stayed back in that twilight caused by the gently rising lights overhead.

“What do you want?” I asked.

There was laughter from the four. One of them snapped, and the two to either side of him stepped forward revealing a couple of familiar faces.

“Man, you assholes should’ve seen the looks on your faces!” the one who’d snapped said from the shadows, laughing all the while.

Motherfucking Trent. Think your typical sports big man on campus and that’s your guy, minus any sort of talent to actually win at the football games that gave him that big man status.

“Greg? Kyle?” Chris said to the two who stepped forward. “And does that mean that’s Trent back there acting like the big bad calling the shots?”

“Shut the fuck up Chris,” Trent growled as he stepped forward.

Fucking great. It was bad enough to cross his path at school. It was worse luck to run into them out here where we didn’t have teachers keeping them in line. 

Also? I was wondering who the fuck was still hanging back in the alley, but that wondering didn’t extend to wanting to spend any more time around these pricks than I had to.

“Nice meeting you out here,” I said. It wasn’t. “But you guys had your fun, really funny how you made us think you were going to rob us and kill us there, and we’ll be on our way to school now. Don’t want to be late or anything.”

“Whatever Colin,” Trent said. “Not like you have anything worth stealing.”

“Fuck off,” I said without really thinking about my words or their potential consequences. “You’re just as poor as the rest of us.”

“Am I?” he asked.

“Yeah, you are,” Chris said.

“Oh yeah? Then how did me and my boys get early access to Lotus?” he asked.

His words landed like a punch to the gut. I guess that was better than the literal punch to the gut he could be hitting me with, but not by much.

“What are you talking about?”

“Shut up Trent,” the fourth figure said. I recognized that voice, and my cheeks colored.

Kara was the last person in the world I wanted to witness Trent pushing me around. She stepped out of the shadows and, as always, she looked stunning. The head cheerleader and most beautiful girl in our school all wrapped up in one tight package, so of course she’d be with Trent.

For all that he was terrible at football, and she was actually pretty good at the whole stunting and tumbling thing that went along with being a cheerleader.

“Shut up Kara,” Trent said. “Or do you want out of the deal?”

She opened her mouth like she wanted to say something, then snapped shut. Trent nodded in satisfaction, but I glanced between the two of them. She wasn’t happy with him. She’d never seemed all that happy with him, at that, for all that they seemed to run in the same social circles.

“How did you get into Lotus?” Chris asked.

“He’s lying,” I said, holding Trent’s gaze. “He’s just as poor as the rest of us, and no one on ZZ-Alfa level can afford to get into Lotus.”

“Yeah? Well things might be changing,” Trent said. “I rule this school, and soon enough I’m gonna rule in Lotus too!”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “You think because you’re in sports at our shit school that makes you better than me?”

“Prick like him can’t be that high and mighty considering the football team hasn’t had a winning record against any of the other levels since he joined the team,” Chris said.

“You shut the fuck up,” Trent growled.

“Whatever,” I said. “You’re not worth it.”

I turned and motioned for Chris to go. It pained me to retreat, especially since the more caveman parts of me were screaming that we shouldn’t retreat with Kara standing right there watching us turning tail, but that’s what I did.

Only something spun me around before I could walk too far. Trent stood right there glaring down at me, and he looked pissed.

“Did I tell you you could leave?”

“Fuck you Trent,” I said, that caveman part of me writing checks my ass couldn’t cash, to quote an ancient movie. “And your stupid team that couldn’t win if the other team sat down on the field and let you.”

“Fuck you Colin!” he shouted, loud enough that his voice echoed all around us.

I looked at those alley walls as a plan started forming in the back of my mind for getting away from these fuckers without them beating the shit out of me and Chris. It would have to come together fast. Trent seemed more unhinged than usual this morning.

Unfortunately getting away involved getting him more riled up. Which meant I was risking a punch to the gut before this was all over.

“Why should I shut the fuck up?” I asked. “You’re a fucking loser who can’t win!”

I raised my voice too. It echoed off the alleys. Greg and Kyle were looking around like they didn’t like all the noise, but Trent was fuming. I couldn’t tell what Kara was thinking. She was a surprisingly cool customer for a pretty young girl walking through the alleys.

“And what the fuck about you?” he growled. “Spending all your time crying about your dead sister? Please. You’re a fucking loser out here, and you’re a loser in those games.”

I threw myself at him. Luckily Chris was there to hold me back from doing something stupid. Trent was way bigger than me, after all.

“He’s not worth it man,” Chris said. “We need to get going.”

I heard something shuffling in the distance. Usually that wasn’t a good sound, but it was exactly what I was hoping for.

“Your friend’s right,” Trent growled. “Run off and cry little loser.”

That shuffling was getting louder. A calm came over me. It was the kind of feeling I got whenever a plan started to come together.

“Go fuck yourself Trent!” I shouted loud enough that it could be heard all through the alleys. Loud enough that all the tweakers and other unsavory types who haunted the alleys would hear.

“Come on man,” Chris said.

Shadows appeared behind Trent and company. I was about to go with Chris, but one of those shadows stepped forward revealing a dude with way too much wild hair and way too few teeth. He wrapped his arms around Kara whose eyes went wide just before she started kicking and screaming.

Trent turned and stared, astonished, then seemed to realize for the first time that we had company. The wannabe tough guy stared at the legitimate danger all around us for the space of a breath, then turned and ran. Kyle and Greg waited for a beat before they ran screaming like the little bitches they were.

Leaving Kara all alone to deal with the assholes I’d called down on her in the hopes they’d distract Trent so we could make an escape.

Talk about a plan working way better than I ever could’ve hoped for.

“What are you waiting for?” Chris asked.

I looked at Chris. Then to Kara who was still struggling. And I knew that I wasn’t leaving while she was in trouble, for all that she’d been palling around with Trent and the asshole brigade.

“We can’t leave her,” I said, determination filling my voice.

“Son of a bitch,” Chris said, reading the tone and knowing it meant we were about to leap headfirst into the shit.

The big difference being this was happening in the real world where there was a good chance one or all of us might get shanked for our trouble instead of getting sent to a respawn point.

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<<Chapter 6Chapter 8>>

Spellcraft Chapter 6: Big Announcement

“What the hell is happening to my White Tower?” Kristoph bellowed.

That was weird. I could hear Kristoph even though we were swirling light. Though at the same time I almost thought I could see the tower in that swirl. Like there were two realities and I was having one hell of a disconnect.

Was the tower crumbling under us? No, the world swirled around us and melted away. Right. That had to be one hell of a glitch to cause the game world to melt away like that.

I wondered if this had something to do with the shock we’d gotten from HOE kicking us out of that module. Maybe this was some sort of delayed damage they invented so it wasn’t as obvious they were at fault when someone’s brain melted because they weren’t jacked into a Horizon module?

Devious, if that was the case. I could only hope that if they were killing me with a delayed bomb dropped in my brain then I could come back as a ghost in the machine to haunt those bastards.

Not likely, but it was a pleasant thought in an otherwise terrifying moment.

The world continued melting around me, oblivious to the terror that melting swirl was causing, until it resolved into a starscape that started to turn. Sort of like the beginning of Final Fantasy VII, both the original and the multiple remakes Square shoveled out as they got more and more desperate in their later years before their various divisions were auctioned off to the highest bidder. 

Only this starscape was way more realistic than anything that’d ever been generated on the many pieces of Sony hardware that gave the various iterations of FFVII life.

The view shifted until I stared down at a world hovering in inky darkness. Inky darkness was better than the swirling bad trip I’d been on a moment ago. Distant double stars burned in the background, and several multicolored moons hovered like jewels over this strange new world.

I looked over to Kristoph who floated next to me looking giddy. Like a kid who’d just come down the stairs on Christmas morning to see a present that was wrapped in just the right shape to be what he’d been hoping for.

I opened my mouth to ask him what the hell was going on here, he’d clearly seen something on one of his news feeds before we were brought to wherever the hell this place was, but the stars started shifting around us again. I figured that meant we were moving again, for all that in real interstellar travel stars were so far apart that the kind of moving starscape that was so popular in so many science fiction properties wasn’t all that realistic.

Especially on a local level. I turned, and yup. We were definitely moving.

That strange new world and its moons moved closer. Or maybe we were the ones moving as it hung suspended. I had the sickening feeling that I was falling towards that world. I imagined this was what it felt like to be an astronaut floating in space who’d suddenly found themselves disengaged and floating closer to the nearest gravity well which meant they were very shortly going to get singed then pancaked if they survived the atmospheric barbecue.

It also brought to mind some of Horizon’s orbital skydiving modules that I’d tried out with my Lotus hardware. Back in better days when I’d been able to play those modules and enjoy them and then step out of the virtual world and have dinner with my sister and family. Though in those simulations I had orbital skydiving gear, and a glance down showed that I was just in the T-shirt and shorts that were part of my out-of-game avatar clothes set.

“Welcome to a whole new world of online entertainment. An experience unlike anything ever seen before!”

“Fuck yeah!” Kristoph said, pumping his fist the entire way and finally giving me an inkling of what was going on here.

He wasn’t terrified. He was ecstatic. He had a crazed manic look in his eyes that usually only happened right before he started laying into bad guys with his two-handed weapon of choice, and that manic look on his face now could only mean this was something good.

I couldn’t be entirely sure, but I got the feeling the developers at Lotus, they were the only people who could pull us out of whatever we were doing in the simulation and put us here like this, were throwing some shade on their competitors at Horizon Online Entertainment. If they were throwing shade then they were doing it in a clever way, too. Getting in a dig without actually coming out and naming names. 

I could understand why they wouldn’t want to outright piss off a company that was probably paying them a crap ton of money in licensing fees to use their technology.

The falling sensation continued. The world kept rotating below us, and I started to really get a feel for how quickly it was spinning as we moved closer. Entire continents, oceans, seas, and mountains flew past. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were going to slam right into that world and it was going to be very painful when we did.

I glanced over to Kristoph again. And blinked. He was staring at me, and he actually looked worried for all that he’d been pumping his fist a moment ago. Maybe our continued fall towards the planet without any braking had him double guessing why we were here.

“What did you see before we got pulled in here?” I asked.

“Lotus Online!” he said. “Rumors of an announcement were flooding the place and…”

I grinned. So my inkling had been right. Though there was still the problem of that planet rushing up to meet us awfully fast.

Oddly enough I could hear Kristoph’s voice just fine even though we were flying through the air with wind whipping around us.

Though the more I thought about it, the more odd it seemed that we’d hear anything at all since we hadn’t entered the planet’s atmosphere yet. In space no one could hear wind. I figured it was the devs taking some dramatic license with their game intro that, to be fair, was totally kicking ass so far.

“A world unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” the booming voice continued, oblivious to the minor panic this situation was causing among the gamers who were supposed to be enjoying it.

We entered the atmosphere, though thankfully the only indication that we were in that atmosphere was a slight uptick in wind noise. I was really glad the realism in this announcement didn’t extend to having us catch fire as we hit the atmosphere.

We swept over mountains and seas. Over lava fields and volcanoes that erupted, looking for all the world like pictures I’d seen of Io from some of the manned expeditions to Jupiter’s moon when I was a kid. Though there hadn’t been lava creatures and dragons moving around in those pictures from the distant parts of the solar system, and those elemental monsters were definitely in abundance on the Lotuscape below.

I wasn’t sure if we were getting a highlight reel from a world that was sparsely populated, something that wasn’t entirely unheard of in the gaming industry when they were trying to entice gamers with bullshit previews, or if the world Lotus had created truly was this vast and this relentlessly interesting and filled with cool shit to see. 

I looked around and blinked in surprise. There were other streaks moving through the sky. So many that they almost formed solid bars streaking over the landscape. So many that the sky was alive with streaks of light swirling and dancing in amazing patterns.

“Are those…”

Kristoph was also looking at the streaks. They filled the air around us with a web of bright light, and I figured every one of those streaks was getting the same introduction we were. Presumably that meant there were just as many interesting things where those people were flying as there were on the path we were taking. It’s not like Lotus would take those players on a tour of nothing while we were getting the grand tour.

If that was the case, and this wasn’t so much bullshot, then this game was going to be fucking amazing. My mind boggled to think of the sheer size of this strange new world.

“I can’t believe this!” I shouted. “It’s finally here! It’s finally fucking here!”

The enormity of what we were seeing boggled my mind. Lotus must’ve pulled everybody who was logged into their hardware into this new world. 

Forget spending money on press releases. Those clever bastards merely let their hardware get popular and then stole everyone’s attention while they were playing games made by other devs who gave the platform content to make it popular in the first place.

I shook my head and let out a triumphant laugh. I threw my head back as I looked to Kristoph who stared at me as though I was going crazy.

“What are you laughing about?” Kristoph asked.

“If this is what Lotus has come up with then Horizon is going out of business!”

I couldn’t help but let out another laugh even as I felt just a little guilty for that laugh. 

On the one hand I probably shouldn’t have been happy at the thought of Horizon going out of business. After all, if they went out of business then there’d be no money for families with loved ones who’d been killed. Insolvency would mean a bunch of other creditors lined up ahead of those families.

At the same time the hatred and loathing I felt for the bastards at Horizon was so great that I couldn’t help but be overjoyed at the thought that their company might not be long for this world.

I looked up. We were hurtling towards a shining wall made of a shimmering material. And as I stared it formed into words hovering over the virgin world beneath us.

A shiver of anticipation ran through me. This would be the first major MMO that had been created within my lifetime. Most of the market had been dominated by players who’d been in control of that market for decades, not counting the MMOs that rose and fell regularly without being much remarked over in the Asian markets, but I could already tell this was going to be a game changer that put all those dinosaurs out of business with all the force of a miles-wide asteroid slamming into the Yucatan.

The massive sparkling letters finally coalesced.

“WELCOME TO LOTUS ONLINE.”

I slammed into those letters and a bright sparkling buzz surrounded me. Engulfed me. Covered every inch of my body with a strange and not entirely unpleasant tingling sensation that was sort of like when my arms fell asleep, but not as annoying.

The world went black. I grinned even though I’d become a disembodied consciousness floating in a black void.

Horizon Online Entertainment was in so much fucking trouble. The masters were back on the scene, ready to reclaim their throne.

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<<Chapter 5Chapter 7>>

Spellcraft Chapter 5: After Action

I sat up and took in a shuddering breath. Little sparks of pain danced up and down the length of my spine as my nerve endings got used to being back in the real world.

I was used to a little tingle running up and down my body’s information superhighway when I logged out of the Lotus hardware, but this was the first time there’d been pain to go along with it.

Not that I felt like I had much to complain about. I knew someone who never woke up to feel that pain dancing up and down her spine, after all.

I ripped the earbuds out and stared at the things with a nervous shiver running down my spine as though it was chasing away the pain. The sort of nervous shiver that hits everyone when they’ve had a near death experience. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d just had a hell of a near death experience.

Whatever had happened to Diana had just happened to me. I was sure of it. Only I was also pretty sure the safeguards Lotus claimed they didn’t need to put into place after the last incident had just kicked in to save my ass.

Whatever HOE was doing to people to kill them or turn them into vegetables, they’d just tried it on me. They’d tried to kill me, and it only added to the seething hatred I already felt for the sons of bitches.

One thing was for sure. Those gamemaster assholes deserved every kind of punishment they were probably getting right now from their middle management overlords if their response to a little innocent game breaking and international public humiliation was to try and kill me!

“Motherfucking bastard sons of bitches,” I growled.

I took a couple of deep breaths before I stood and did a couple of stretches. The hardware kept my muscles twitching while I was logged in so they wouldn’t atrophy or anything, and there were supposed to be regular logouts for health reasons, but I couldn’t shake the habit of doing my own stretches to chase away some of the cobwebs that always threatened when I first came back to the real world.

It didn’t help that this time it felt like some of the cobwebs were laced with fire. Whatever the fuck they’d done to me had hurt, and that had me thinking about how much pain Diana must’ve been in just before the end if they’d been successful attacking her.

Those corporate cocksucking motherfuckers were going to pay.

As soon as I’d worked out some of the kinks I sat down in front of my laptop. I pulled up some of the usual Lotus news sites, and of course right there on the front page were a bunch of stories featuring the third person live feed I’d put out.

I paused on one of them that showed me getting down on my knees and grabbing at my ears in clear pain. Then it moved to some “gaming journalist” streamer trying to get some bankshot views by jumping on my publicity.

“And there you have the final still before the mysterious streamers disappeared from the game module and it was cut off,” the girl said, leaning forward and causing some of her low cut tanktop to fall open which both distracted me and drew my attention in exactly the way she was probably hoping for when she decided to practice “legitimate journalism” in an outfit like that.

“We have yet to hear anything from the streamers, though many are claiming responsibility on various Lotus forums and social media, and…”

I swiped away from the feed. The girl was pretty, but I needed to see what other people were saying. Only it was mostly variations on the same themes. There were a lot of wannabes crawling out of the woodwork to claim responsibility. No one had come forward with a first person view of the attack. Some worried that Horizon might’ve done something to seriously hurt me and Kristoph given how we’d been acting there at the end.

And there were a lot of them who were talking about the gamemaster’s admission of guilt. I grinned at that. Oh fuck yes. It was going to be tough for them to wiggle their way out of that one. Though I’m sure they were going to throw plenty of lawyers and money at the problem to try and make it disappear.

I sighed. Thought about getting a snack, then decided against it. That’d mean dealing with my parents. I didn’t want to see my mom staring listlessly at the TV like she had since Diana’s accident, or listen to my dad talking about how I was out of there when graduation came around.

No, time to do what I did best when thoughts of an unwelcome future threatened. I put the earbuds in, not even feeling much hesitation when I did it.

There’d been a time, right after Diana went into her coma, when I’d been terrified of using the things. The terror had returned when she eventually slipped away into that unknowable nothingness that awaited everyone in the end.

Only as with all dangerous things, sort of like what driving had been like before the computers took over, using something often enough and not experiencing the supposed dangers firsthand was enough to trick my brain, that really wasn’t all that far from the primates humanity had come from evolutionarily speaking, into thinking the risk wasn’t all that great.

I hit a button and felt the always strange sensation of the game taking over. My body went limp and I laid down on the bed, though I wasn’t controlling the process. My eyes closed, and when I opened them I was at the top of a tower that had a view of an impressive fantasyscape.

I recognized the massive fantasy city out the window. Buildings seemed to be sculpted of stone rather than built. It was on an island that split a massive river to either side, and off in the distance a mountain speared the sky with smoke rising from the top as it always did.

I smiled. Kristoph always had been a big fan of the works of Robert Jordan, and later Brandon Sanderson after he’d inherited that mantle and ran with it writing like a fiend that had some scholars speculating to this day that he was actually an early test case of a storytelling AI being perfected and released to the world.

“I wondered how long it was going to take you to get here,” Kristoph groused.

I wheeled around and grinned. Kristoph sat in a chair that looked more like the best modern equipment gaming could offer than something I’d expect out of one of the greatest high fantasy epics to come out of the latter half of the twentieth century. I moved over to sit and one of those chairs appeared under me as well.

“Sorry,” I said. “I was checking some of the feeds.”

“In the real world?” he asked.

Kristoph looked at me from around a translucent screen hanging in the air in front of him that was far more impressive than my small laptop screen in the real world. He’d muted the sound, but it was obvious he was watching videos of our incident with the Horizon Online Entertainment gamemasters. 

Not that there was much of anything else on all the usual gamer feeds right about now. Even the most successful streamers were busy filming reaction videos to get in on our action.

I grinned and waggled my eyebrows. 

“Are we making the news?” I asked.

“You bet your ass we’re making news,” Kristoph said. “But you knew it’s all over the usual feeds. People can’t shut up about what we just got those Horizon assholes to admit to.”

“Good,” I said, my voice harsh. “They deserve it for what they did to Diana.”

Kristoph flinched, and a quiet rage boiled behind his eyes. He’d been close to Diana too, after all.

“I get it,” I said. “They’re the soulless evil corporation that all our favorite scifi authors warned us about, but is poking at them really a good idea even if they deserve it? I’m pretty sure they just tried to kill us.”

“They did try to kill us,” I said. “And they would’ve covered it up just like they did the last time it happened.”

Kristoph looked down. There wasn’t much of a response to that, after all. Killing us wouldn’t be anything to Horizon after what they’d already done. The empty room down the hall from mine was proof of that.

“I’m going to keep giving them shit until those assholes come out and admit to everything they’ve done,” I said. “They keep hiding behind their lawyers and their money and I think we all know where that’s going to get us.”

“Nowhere,” Kristoph growled.

“Exactly,” I growled right back at him.

I knew there wasn’t much chance me or my family would ever see any sort of justice for my sister through the usual justice channels. Not when the courts could be bought by the highest bidder. Even with what they’d just admitted to.

“Right. We need to start working on the next job,” I said. “That one was good. We actually got one of their assholes to admit something, and we got it on a livestream. That’s gonna be everywhere.”

That was another trend that kept right on going from the late twentieth and early twenty-first. Maybe the courts had been bought and paid for, but there was still one court that could influence things: the court of public opinion. I felt like I’d gotten a pretty good handle on pulling those levers even if there wasn’t a chance I was going to do anything in a real court room.

The formula was simple, even if creating that formula could be tricky at times: do something audacious enough that it got people’s attention, then put a message behind it or get the asshole you were targeting to admit something they shouldn’t while the world was paying attention.

“You’re crazy,” Kristoph said. “Did you forget that they just tried to kill us? Besides, we’re not going to be able to do anything now. You heard the guy. They got our brain patterns. We’re banned.”

“There are ways we can spoof that,” I said.

“Yeah, and we’d have to disable some of the safeties that probably saved our asses just now,” Kristoph said. “Do you really want to risk having our brains fried to prove to the world they’re frying people’s brains?”

“You have a point,” I muttered. “I fucking hate that you have a point.”

We’d probably die unremarked, too. Sure some people might wonder what happened to that livestreamer who griefed the Horizon gamemaster from time to time, but no one would care if a couple of teenagers living out in the middle of the rust belt in the unfashionable middle of an arcology suddenly wound up dead on their Lotus earbuds.

They’d probably blame it on kids overdosing while using the Lotus earbuds like they had with the first wave of deaths and comas. That infuriated me. I knew Diana had never touched anything harder than alcohol and pot in her life, but it’s not like anyone batted an eyelash these days at someone in one of the numerous towers dotting the rotting grain belt of America keeling over from an overdose.

“Well we have to…”

“Conlan,” Kristoph said.

“Not right now Kristoph,” I said. “I need to figure out some way to…”

“Seriously,” he said. “You need to see this.”

“Is it another cat video?” I said. “Because this isn’t the time or the place. We’re planning revenge here man!”

It was a measure of just how urgent Kristoph thought whatever he was talking about was that he didn’t shoot back a moderately witty response. Usually a comment like that would be enough to get the two of us sniping at each other for the next twenty minutes, but he was obviously preoccupied by something he thought was important.

“What’s going on?” I asked with a sigh. There was something on that translucent screen hovering in the air that had Kristoph’s attention, and if it was enough to interrupt one of our back and forths then it was worth finding out what it was.

That’s when the trumpets sounded.

“What the fuck is going on?” I asked as our surroundings, Kristoph and me included, melted away in a swirling maelstrom of light.

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<<Chapter 4Chapter 6>>