Spellcraft Chapter 44: Forged in Stupidity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know it,” Kristoph said.

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“You changed your clothes,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair point,” Kristoph said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keia grinned. “Sounds like a plan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa there Ike Turner,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You son of a bitch!” Torian shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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<<Chapter 43Chapter 45>>

Spellcraft Chapter 43: Fight!

Armstrong settled into some lecture about a mushroom cloud going up over some city a couple of decades back. Not the kind of thing I liked to think about since it was still the kind of thing that could very much happen these days. 

Sure the people who ran the arcologies said they weren’t supposed to fall down unless they got hit by a direct blast, but that was hardly comforting considering the shoddy maintenance I saw on my level every day.

Still, I was more concerned with Lotus Online. My fingers twitched as I thought about it. A nuke hitting my arcology was a distant, if possible, issue. Lotus was a problem facing me right now.

A giggle from the side pulled me away from Armstrong’s lecture. I glanced over to see Kara looking at me. She smiled and did a hand wiggle of her own that matched the way my hands had been twitching.

My tablet pinged. I looked down and frowned. We weren’t supposed to be able to use tablets for messaging in the middle of class, but sure enough there was a message down there from a new name. Someone who’d never shown up on my contacts before.

“Nice job kicking Trent’s ass there,” the message said. “Now are you going to live up to your reputation and kick some ass in the game tonight?”

I looked to Kara. She hit me with a thin smile, and then her eyes darted to the front. As though she was making sure Armstrong wasn’t paying attention. 

“How are you doing this?” I sent back.

“I have surprises,” she messaged back. “No one ever suspects the cheerleader. I’ve learned to use that.”

I thought about that and nodded. Only ever so slightly though. I didn’t want to give Armstrong a hint that there was something going on in his classroom.

Armstrong was the kind of teacher who loved enforcing the rules. The old battleaxe took a special perverse pleasure in it. I didn’t want to draw that kind of attention.

“Believe me,” I tapped back. “When I log back in tomorrow we’re going to kick his ass so hard he’s gonna feel it even more than when you stuck that arrow up his ass.”

Kara snorted. A snort wasn’t good. A snort was the kind of thing that might alert a particularly alert teacher that something was going on in the back of his classroom.

My eyes darted to the front of the room to make sure Armstrong hadn’t noticed that snort. It’s not like we were passing notes in class like the old days when it was a lot more obvious to teachers that kids were screwing around, but I’d have to be more careful about making Kara giggle.

Only Armstrong wasn’t looking at us. No, he was still droning on as though he’d fallen in love and his voice was the object of his affection.

“Wait a sec,” she sent back. “What do you mean tomorrow? You’re not logging in tonight?”

“I might if I have time,” I said. “But I need to do some research first.”

“Oh no you don’t,” she sent back. “I’m not running around that game alone. Besides, you have all that shit you need to sell.”

“And I need a plan for how to properly craft it to make the most money,” I said. “I got caught with my pants down last night because I was trying to avoid spoilers, and I’m not letting that happen again.”

“Maybe you could get caught with your pants down again if you play your cards right and log in tonight like a good boy. ;)”

I blushed as I realized what she was getting at. I also looked around the room to make sure there was no one else watching. It was ridiculous to think they could all read this conversation, but that’s what it felt like.

But of course no one was looking at me or reading our conversation. They were all trying to pretend they were paying attention to Armstrong’s lecture, and not doing a very good job of it.

“You tease ;)”

“You never know unless you get your cute ass into Lotus tonight,” she sent back.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I sent.

Oh yeah. I was almost annoyed that she was distracting me with the sexy, again, but then the hormones took over and threatened to throttle the more rational parts of my brain focused on Horizon revenge and reminded my brain that this was an insanely attractive, intelligent, and bloodthirsty girl flirting so don’t fuck it up.

“You do that,” she replied.

I risked a glance in her direction. Sure I was running the risk of Armstrong seeing that glance and bringing the hurt down, but I figured it was totally worth it. Kara winked at me and smiled.

Yeah, so totally worth the risk.

There was no more conversation after that. Armstrong slammed a hand down on his desk and when we both looked up front he was staring right at us. He didn’t need any software telling him students were screwing around in his classroom when he had instincts that’d been honed by decades of fighting wars and teaching high school students in one of the rougher levels of our arcology.

I had plenty to think about even if I wasn’t carrying on a clandestine chat in the back of the classroom. There was no way I was paying attention to the depressing history lesson now. 

It was odd. It was like for the first time since I’d seen Diana go into that coma there was something stirring inside me other than a burning desire for revenge against Horizon.

Sure that burning desire was still there, but there was something else there as well. Something I couldn’t quite describe. Something that almost approached excitement, and it wasn’t the excitement of knowing Lotus Online was out.

The rest of the lesson went on in that silence. People were paying attention a little more than usual in this class though. I figured the thought of mushroom clouds going up over some city somewhere was a little more exciting than your usual history stuff.

Not least because there was always a chance some asshole with an axe to grind because of politics or religion or climate change or any other number of reasons might be able to smuggle one of those nukes into a tower and send the whole thing back into the stone age.

When class was over with the ding of a tone we filtered out. I wasn’t even thinking about watching myself when arms grabbed me and pressed me against a locker which made a loud metallic thud as my head slammed against it.

I blinked a couple of times to try and clear my vision, but it was difficult because it didn’t seem like my vision was particularly interested in clearing.

“You think you’re all smart tripping me like that,” Trent said, his breath hot on my face as he leaned in close. “You think you’re all smart getting my people to attack you and blowing them up with whatever the fuck magic you used too.”

I blinked a few times at that. Shit. He knew who I was in the game. Or at the very least he suspected who I was in the game, and there must’ve been something about the look I gave him that gave away how right on the money he was.

“Yeah, that’s right. You’re not the only clever one out there asshole,” he said, pulling me towards him and banging me against the locker again. “But I know what the fuck you did in the game and I know what the fuck you did in that classroom with your little purse and I’m not putting up with you disrespecting me like that. You’re gonna learn there are consequences.”

I probably should’ve played this all contrite. Acted like he was big and bad and I was so sorry for whatever it was I did to irritate the asshole. Only a glance to the side revealed Kara standing right there next to Kristoph, and my fate was sealed for better or worse.

There was no way I was letting him push me around like that when Kara was watching. So in the grand tradition of teenage guys doing stupid things to impress a girl that went back to before the dawn of human history, I fought back with the only weapon I had against this prick.

“Oh yeah?” I said, my mouth moving faster than my survival instinct. “Well if you want to make out with me the least you could do is take me to a party and get a couple of drinks in me. This isn’t really doing it for me.”

Trent looked down and seemed to realize for the first time exactly what it looked like that he was holding me so close. It was sorta intimate, for all that it was an intimate beatdown. People all around us started to laugh as what I’d said filtered back through the gathering crowd, but those laughs cut off as Trent glared at each of them in turn.

Trent might not be the biggest guy in the school, but he was unpredictable. It was well known that he might turn on anyone at any time, and that he was just unhinged enough that he didn’t worry about things like consequences until after he’d done whatever it was that hit him with those consequences.

Rules weren’t enough to stop him from doing terrible things to other people.

Like now, for example. He pulled his fist back. Clearly he’d decided it was worth whatever trouble he was about to get into to deck me nice and good.

“Stop it Trent!” Kara said.

Great. Not only was I going to get punched, but my new kinda-sorta-maybe girlfriend was going to watch my humiliation.

Then a massive hand wrapped around Trent’s hand. The prick looked up in surprise, then let out a noise that was somewhere between a whimper and the sound I imagined someone probably made when they were in the process of soiling themselves.

Armstrong towered over Trent looking down through his bushy facial hair. All of him was covered in hair, for that matter, which always gave him the appearance of a beefy gorilla. Assuming we lived in a world where gorillas hadn’t been hunted to extinction, that is. Or that those gorillas had the ability to teach history.

Or wrap their massive hands around those belonging to unruly students. There was something wild in Armstrong’s eyes as he looked down at Trent. Something that said there was a thin line between Armstrong the gruff but fair teacher who regularly lectured on the death and destruction of the early twenty-first and Armstrong the madman who’d been on the borders of a lot of those conflicts to see and be the cause of a lot of that death and destruction up close and personal.

“Give me an excuse,” Armstrong growled.

“You can’t touch me!” Trent said, a note of fear coming to his voice. “I’m a student! You can’t touch students!”

He cried out at the end of that and went down, the hand he’d been using to hold me against the locker disappearing along with. He fell to his knees and Armstrong stared down at him. Clearly the thin line between reasonable and crazy had disappeared.

“Try me,” Armstrong said.

A cracking noise came from inside Armstrong’s fist. It took me a moment to realize it was the cracking of Trent’s bones as Armstrong squeezed with all the strength he had, and there was a whole fucking lot of strength there.

“Fine!” Trent cried out, his eyes returning to me. “But you better watch yourself you little prick.”

That didn’t sound like the most sincere apology in the world, but apparently it was enough for Armstrong. At least it seemed to put the problem on hold long enough that it would cease to be his problem, so he let Trent go.

Trent collapsed back, glaring at me the entire time. As though it was somehow my fault this whole thing had happened and not his for starting it in the first place.

Then he was gone, melting into the crowd.

“Thanks for the save,” I said, turning to Armstrong.

Armstrong looked to me and the phrase “if looks could kill” immediately came to mind. It wasn’t a pleasant look. It was the look of an educator who’d been battle hardened in the real battlefields of the world before he’d returned to one of the towers in the Midwest where he was tempered once more in the forge fires that were the modern education system in a crumbling arcology.

“Don’t think for a moment that I did that for you,” he said. “You think you’re clever, but that’s going to get you in trouble if you don’t have something to back it up. Think about that.”

I opened my mouth to tell Armstrong exactly where he could stuff his advice, but the more I thought about it the more I realized there was something to what the old man said.

I prided himself on always having a plan. I liked to think I was constantly in control of my surroundings, but my little tiff with Trent just now, not to mention my constant flailing in Lotus last night, was proof that I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I liked to think I was.

Either way I’d just been embarrassed in front of Kara which I didn’t care for. I looked to her and she blushed, then stepped forward and took my hand as the rest of the crowd dispersed.

“There was nothing you could’ve done,” she said. “He snuck up on you.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But I do know I’m going to do my best to make sure he doesn’t ever have the upper hand again.”

She gave my hand a squeeze. It was good to know she still had my back even after I’d been sort of humiliated in front of her.

“Well that went well,” Chris said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

“I didn’t see you raising a hand to help me out there,” I said.

Chris arched an eyebrow. “Any reason why I should’ve raised a hand to help you? You seemed like you were doing a good enough job of handling Trent.”

I stared at him with my eyes wide. “If that was your idea of me doing a good enough job then we need to have a serious conversation man.”

Chris chuckled. “I could see Armstrong coming out here with death in his eyes and I figured that wasn’t something I wanted to get involved in. Trust me, if it looked like Trent was actually on the verge of punching you out I would’ve done something. Besides, it’s kinda fun to see you sweating a little while you’re in danger and wondering if something is going to come along and save your ass.”

“Thanks a lot,” I muttered. “Now let’s get going. We all have earbuds waiting for us at home, and I have some research to do before I log in tonight.”

“So you are logging in?” Kara asked, hitting me with a knowing grin.

“You bet your cute ass I am,” I said with a wink.

Chris, for his part, rolled his eyes. “Is this flirting going to become a thing with you two? Because I’m not cool with that.”

I slapped him on the back. “Weren’t you the one who was talking about how we should figure out just how immersive the game world was?”

“Yeah, but I meant I should figure it out. Thinking about you figuring it out is just gross.”

I grinned. “And you living with that mental image is payback enough for letting me sweat while Armstrong was coming to the rescue, my good man. Now let’s get a move on. We have a long night of gaming ahead of us!”

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<<Chapter 42Chapter 44>>

Spellcraft Chapter 42: Bully the Bullies

Trent was, as usual, lording it up at the front of the classroom to anyone who would listen. Though I did note, with no small amount of satisfaction, that the number of people hanging on his every word was a hell of a lot smaller now that the game was actually live.

The number of people in our classroom was a hell of a lot smaller now that the game was actually live, for that matter. I almost skipped this morning too, but I had at least one really good reason to come to school.

Though that good reason hadn’t arrived in class yet.

“I can’t believe those bastards,” Chris said.

“What can’t you believe?” I asked, turning to him. “That they have two neurons to rub together?”

“Lording it over everybody because they had early access,” he said.

“I mean that is sort of a big deal around here,” I said. “Those fuckers shouldn’t be able to afford it, so of course everyone is going to be sucking their dicks.”

“Might not if they knew Trent was sucking some Horizon dick to get that early access,” Chris grunted.

“Did I hear my ears burning?”

I winced. The last thing I needed was more attention from the asshole attached to that voice. I wasn’t worried about him trying something in class, but I didn’t need him waiting for us after school let out.

“What do you want Trent?” Chris asked.

“I wanted to come over and see how y’all have been doing in Lotus Online,” he said, staring at me with a particular intensity that suddenly had me wondering if Kara was the only one who might’ve figured out my secret identity.

Exactly how the start mechanism worked had been one of the first things I looked into after logging out. Honestly I wasn’t working at one hundred percent even now because I’d been up way too late reading everything I could about Lotus.

It was a battleground with Horizon, after all, and not a game I wanted to play for fun. Which meant all bets were off when it came to spoilers. Fucking over Horizon was more important than spoiling the game.

“What makes you think I was in the game?” I asked, deciding to play innocent.

Though it didn’t help that Chris was right there hitting me with a look that said he thought I’d gone crazy. Trent didn’t miss that look either.

“Come on Colin,” Trent said. “You’re supposed to be clever. More clever than smart the way you run your mouth, but you’re still clever. You know everyone on our level gets shunted into the same starter area.”

“They do?” Chris asked, sounding genuinely surprised.

“They do,” I said. “There’s a region that encompasses our whole arcology, but Nilbog is the starter zone for our level.”

“And there aren’t many people who can afford to play Lotus on our level,” Trent said, an evil grin splitting his face. “Which means anyone we meet around Nilbog is bound to be someone we know, right?”

“I had no fucking clue that’s how it worked last night,” I said, thinking about my surprise at discovering Kara’s secret identity.

My “no spoilers” policy regarding Lotus was biting me in the ass in more ways than one. Even if yesterday had come to a more than pleasant ending, at least.

“So you were playing,” Trent said, a menace to his tone. “So interesting. What exactly were you two numb nuts doing in my town?”

My mind raced trying to come up with a plausible lie before Chris stepped in and stepped all over anything I could come up with, but a voice from behind Trent saved me from having to come up with an answer that wouldn’t reveal who we were. Even though I was pretty sure that ship had already sailed.

Trent might be an asshole, but he wasn’t a stupid asshole. More’s the pity.

“Kara,” Trent said, turning and grinning at her as he gave her a once over that had her rolling her eyes. “Since when do you sit back here?”

“Since I can do whatever I want,” she said. “I didn’t remember ever having to ask you permission to do anything before.”

“Not outside the game, at least,” he said, that grin developing even more of a leer.

He glanced back at me, and blinked when he realized I was staring at Kara with a goofy grin. I couldn’t help it. I kept thinking about all the fun we’d had the night before, and that was enough to fill me with a happiness that’d been missing from my life since Diana’s death.

“Stop looking at my girl,” Trent snapped.

Kara’s eyes narrowed and she hit him with one hell of a deadly disgusted look when he referred to her as ‘his girl.’

“I’m not your girl you prick,” she hissed. “And I never was.”

Now she was looking at me with a worried look. Which was good for a laugh. I couldn’t believe she’d actually think I’d believe that gorilla for even a minute, but the worry was there.

“Come on Kara,” Trent said, his eyes hitting her with the kind of eyefucking that should’ve had security coming for him. “You know you want this.”

She rolled her eyes and shoved past him. Though even when she was obviously trying to get away from him he wiggled his eyebrows and looked like he was enjoying the hell out of her brushing against him.

Which had me wanting to stand and do something. For all that I knew I wasn’t going to win in a fair fight with Trent. Not that not being able to win in a fair fight had ever stopped me from taking someone on before.

No, it just meant I’d have to be crafty. I wasn’t in Lotus where I had no idea what was going on anymore. This was school. Familiar territory. I glanced around looking for something I could use against him.

Kara took a seat right next to me and hit me with a smile that was good for a choked noise from Chris. Kara pointedly ignored the way Trent stared down at us.

“Seriously?” he asked. “You’re sitting with these losers?”

“I’d much rather sit with them than with you,” she said. “None of them have ever taken an arrow to the ass.”

“Oh yeah? This is how you’re treating me after I got you into Lotus?” Trent asked.

“What are you talking about?” Chris asked. “She was in early too? How the hell is this prick coming up with that kind of money?”

“He’s taking payments from Horizon,” I growled.

A simple statement, but it seemed to suck the air out of the room. A few people had been watching our confrontation, and they started chattering at that.

Trent glared at me like he didn’t want that revealed, but what the fuck ever. His fists flexed like he was seriously considering using them.

I wasn’t all that worried about getting in a fight with the prick, but at the same time it was something to be mindful of. Trent had been known to take matters into his own hands when he got pissed off at someone.

I figured that was mostly because the walking asshole lacked the charisma to take care of things using his words. Though I had to admit that fists were an unreasonable but effective alternative for getting shit done when words failed.

“You talk about working for Horizon like it’s a bad thing,” Trent said. “I’ve got way more money than you losers could ever dream of.”

“That you got by getting down on your knees and sucking corporate cock,” I pointed out, the words escaping my mouth before I really thought about it.

That was a problem I had. Usually it wasn’t much of a problem in the game world since people couldn’t hurt someone in there. At least not permanently. It could very much be a problem here in the real world though.

“What was that fucker?” Trent asked, leaning down over my desk as though that was supposed to intimidate me or something.

I stared up at Trent with unblinking eyes. I supposed there were some who’d be intimidated. Trent was well known for solving problems with his fists, after all. He was the kind of asshole who enjoyed hurting people.

The problem for Trent, and maybe for me, was it didn’t intimidate me in the least. Not now. I’d gone into the zone, something that’d been sorely lacking in my time in Lotus last night, and while that could be a good thing it could also be bad. 

I didn’t care about things while I was in the zone. Ever since Diana’s death I’d had trouble feeling much of anything. Which included difficulty being intimidated by anything.

Including, apparently, the threat of getting the shit kicked out of me in the real world.

Finally Trent blinked and turned away. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

I didn’t even bother to sigh in relief. There was no point in sighing in relief when I wasn’t relieved to begin with. Sure it’d be nice to not have to fight Trent, or not to have to fight him fair at least, but at the same time it’s not like I’d have a problem with that fight. Not with how pissed off I was at how he’d just been treating Kara.

“That’s right rich boy,” Chris said, adding a twist of mockery to the “rich boy” part of that phrase. “Walk away.”

Trent wheeled on Chris. Apparently he wasn’t up to taking me on with my deadeye stare, but he looked more than willing to cause some trouble with Chris. Where “some trouble” manifested as Trent taking a couple of steps towards Chris with his fist raised. 

Which gave me the opportunity I’d been waiting for, and the casus belli for that matter, to set the plan I’d been working on into motion. 

I stuck my foot out. It brushed against my bag which pushed out into the aisle between my desk and Chris’s. Which was enough to catch Trent’s feet as he rushed at Chris. That set in motion a chain reaction where instead of punching Chris, Trent went cartwheeling forward, his arms flailing, and slammed his forehead against Chris’s desk before he went down.

“Holy shit,” Chris said, looking to me. “Did you…”

I shrugged. “My foot slipped.”

I looked down at Trent who was rubbing at one hell of an egg growing on his head. Trent stared up at me with daggers in his eyes. It was the sort of look that said he was ready to commit murder.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Trent tried something, but as he scrambled to his feet he wavered. That was enough time for a bark from the front of the room to distract us all.

“What the hell is going on here?”

Mr. Armstrong had arrived. The man was pure muscle. A holdover from his time fighting in the various never-ending wars in the Middle East and a couple of border skirmishes on territory that belonged to either Russia or one of several countries that were part of the former Soviet Union depending on the day and time.

“I know there’s not going to be any fighting in my room Trent,” Mr. Armstrong said.

He didn’t exactly threaten Trent, but his voice was a low growl. As he growled the old battle-hardened teacher moved his arms back behind his head. It was a motion that showed off his muscles and made it clear that his time spent running the weight room after school was more hands on than most teachers got.

Trent hit me with a final glare and shook his head.

“No trouble at all Mr. Armstrong,” he said, reaching up and wiping a trickle of blood from the giant egg on his forehead.

Though as he walked past he hissed at me. “There’s going to be plenty of trouble for you later though. Just you wait asshole.”

I stared up at him with that impassive stare again. Intimidating Trent wasn’t exactly what I was going for. That was simply how I looked at the world since my sister had her fatal brush with Horizon Online Entertainment. Only if it was going to intimidate him then I’d use it.

“Thanks man,” Chris muttered.

“No problem,” I said, smiling for the first time since the whole thing had started. “We have to stick together when the assholes try to bully the little guy. You know?”

Chris was hardly a little guy, but he knew what I meant.

“What did you do?” Kara asked, also speaking low enough to hopefully avoid arousing Mr. Armstrong’s ire.

I turned and shrugged, but I did return her grin.

“My bag got in my way when Trent tried to punch Chris. I really should’ve watched where I put the thing,” I said. “I guess it was just karma coming to bite him where it counts.”

Kara rolled her eyes. “And I’m supposed to buy that from the big schemer?”

“How does she know you’re the big schemer?” Chris asked, sounding even more out to sea.

“You can buy it or not,” I said. “I happen to know you have some good techniques for getting information out of people.”

“What techniques?” Chris asked. “Why the hell are you talking like you know each other?”

“Because we do,” I said. “You know her too.”

“I do?”

Kara made a motion that involved her finger pressing against her neck. It didn’t take Chris long to figure out exactly what she meant by that. He actually started to lunge for her, then stopped with a nervous glance to the front where Mr. Armstrong was trying to get an ancient 3D Holoprojector to sputter to life.

“That was fucking you?” Chris hissed.

“Turns out there are a lot of people we know lurking around Nilbog,” I said. “Which makes sense if you know how the starter areas are assigned and take available player population on our level into account. Which I totally didn’t last night because I was an idiot avoiding spoilers.”

“So you’re saying Trent and his asshole buddies are in the game?” Chris asked.

“And they’re the ones running Horizon Dawn,” I said, glaring daggers into the back of Trent’s skull as I thought about jamming other things into the digital equivalent.

“Holy shit,” Chris breathed.

“It’s a lot to take in,” Kara said.

“Not that. I mean not exactly,” Chris said. “I just never figured a girl like you would be the gaming type.”

She must’ve thought there was a challenge in what Chris said. There wasn’t, really. Nothing beyond the surprise he felt finding out that she was a gamer at all.

It was a stereotype, I knew it was a stereotype, and I tried not to fall into the trap of stereotypes where I could avoid it. Chris, clearly, was having a little more trouble with the thought of a pretty girl gaming.

“Pretty much everyone is a gamer these days,” she said simply. “I don’t see why it’s such a surprise I game too.”

“Good point,” Chris muttered. “But did you have to work with those assholes at Horizon? You’re not still with them, are you?”

“She isn’t,” I said, thinking back to our adventures last night. 

“I’m not,” Kara said. “And I’d like to see you turn that down. I thought all the rumors about what Horizon did to those poor gamers were Internet rumors, and it was an opportunity to play Lotus a month before anyone else! I didn’t even know Horizon was involved until I was in the game and already had the account. That’s how secretive they kept things.”

“Yeah, I think I’d have trouble turning that down for sure,” Chris said. “I’d have to burn my account when I found out Horizon was involved, but I wouldn’t turn it down at the get go.” 

“Definitely,” I replied, surprised to realize that I’d probably fall victim the same way Kara had, assuming it’d all gone down the way she said.

Yeah, it’d be difficult to turn down a crack at the best gaming experience that’d come along in years. The first revolution in gaming hardware since Pong. Or Super Mario Bros. Or Super Mario 64. Or Mario VR, and I’m talking about the later actual Mario VR and not the red and black Wario game that still made gamers’ eyes bleed to this day when they tried it out in emulators.

Now that I thought about it I realized this was the first revolutionary shift in gaming technology that didn’t involve an Italian plumber leading the charge. 

Armstrong clapped his hands together. With the muscle he was pushing around it sounded like a thunderclap.

“Okay then,” he said. “I know I have all of you for at least today, but the longer that damned game is out the more likely it is everyone starts getting mysteriously sick at the same time, so let’s get started.”

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<<Chapter 41Chapter 43>>

Spellcraft Chapter 41: Sucking Face

Yup. Definitely something that’d put me in danger.

It took a moment for me to realize what had happened there. I was about to answer as though she’d used my in game name. That was the problem with using a game handle that was so close to my real-world name. It meant when someone called me by my real name I didn’t notice at first. Then I blinked a couple of times in surprise as the full magnitude of the words coming out of her mouth hit me like a ton of bricks. 

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it hit me like a ton of goblinsteel ore, to use a metaphor that was more in line with the game setting. Though it felt like I was already carrying the equivalent of a ton of goblinsteel ore. 

My mind was wandering though. I needed to focus now more than ever. All of my fuckups so far today had been of the game life endangering variety that might’ve ended in me losing my inventory and getting a one way ticket to a respawn point, but this was the kind of danger that could fuck me over in the real world. The consequences could be potentially deadly in a more permanent fashion.

“Um… Who is this Colin guy?”

She cocked her head to the side and hit me with the bow-familiar look that said she was neither buying nor putting up with my bullshit. So much for playing ignorant. 

Are you from Horizon or something?” I asked. I looked around, half worried that scifi looking Horizon shock troops were going to descend down into the alley and beat me up or something.

Which was a ridiculous thought. Not that Horizon might show up. The fact that they were financing guilds in this game was proof enough they were very actively interested in what happened in Lotus. 

No, this was a fantasy setting. If any Horizon troops came along they’d be from Horizon Dawn or something, but I didn’t for a moment think it’d be any less painful if they were using magic spells and swords than if they were using plasma pulse rifles or something.

She shook her head. Blushed. Seemed to realize she’d just given something away too.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” she said. “I was just so surprised, and you mentioned a dead sister and hating Horizon and I didn’t put two and two together until… But it’s really you?”

“That really depends on who’s asking,” I said.

“Would you believe Kara?” she asked.

And then suddenly a whole lot of things about her story started to fall into place in my head and make sense. Not to mention I felt like a fucking idiot. People were assigned to their start based on region, so of course I should expect to see people I knew. It’s just that there were so many people living in the arcology that I guess the thought of running into someone from my school seemed like finding a needle in a pile of millions of needles, for all that it made sense that people in school would have more free time to muck about in a game like this. 

This was yet another example of me not working at my best because of how much finding fucking Horizon in this game had thrown me off. I really needed to get back on that game, or people were going to think of the “famous Horizon hunter” as a one hit wonder who got lucky.

Still, given how many people were in our local region, we’re talking millions in my arcology alone, I just hadn’t thought to look for Kara in the hot elf chick who’d been my companion for the past few hours.

Though on some level it made sense. Now that I looked at her I could see that her in game persona resembled her out of the game. My resemblance to my real world self was probably part of the tip off for her once she put my story together with my hatred of Horizon. 

Sure her features were a little different to fit the whole hot elf motif, but when I looked at her it was clearly Kara. Now that I knew what I was looking at, at least. It was kinda creepy how the game’s characterization could come so close and yet be so different. I also wondered if the difference would be more pronounced with someone who was, shall we say, a little farther from their idealized self image than Kara was. 

“Damn,” I breathed. “The hottest girl I know out of the game and the hottest girl I know in the game were the same girl?”

She giggled. “Thanks for the compliment. You’re not so bad yourself.”

I blushed as I realized what I’d just admitted in my moment of surprise, but at the same time she seemed to enjoy the compliment so I figured why ruin the moment by doing something stupid like apologizing? Considering all the adventures we’d had today, not to mention all the flirting we’d been doing while having those adventures, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing I should have to apologize for anyway.

Then another disturbing development that naturally followed from Keia being Kara occurred to me. If she played with Horizon Dawn to start then…

“Wait, so does that mean that Torian…”

“Is Trent,” she said, spitting on the grimy alley ground for emphasis. “The prick.”

“Damn.”

“Tell me about it,” she said. “They’re such jokes too. I can’t stand it. Torian was always going on about how I owed him or something for introducing me to the slimy Horizon fixer who got me into the game early. I mean yeah, I kind of figured the reason he was asking me to join him was because he had the hots for me, but I didn’t expect him to constantly try to get me to test out how realistic some of the stuff in this game can be.”

She blushed, and her normally happy face turned down into a glower. I had a pretty good idea of exactly what kinds of things Torian had been interested in testing out. The kind of things Kristoph had been mentioning as well, much to my annoyance.

“I can’t believe Torian is Trent,” I said.

“None other than,” Keia said. “I’m surprised you didn’t recognize his assholeishness oozing out of his character.”

“I should’ve,” I said.

Though to be honest my disbelief had less to do with the fact that Trent was in the game, which I already knew, and more to do with disbelief at my luck. I hated Trent. I hated Horizon. Trent was in this brave new game world and he was working for Horizon. Which meant that my hatred of Trent and my hatred of Horizon had now become two hobbies that dovetailed quite nicely, thank you very much.

“I can’t believe you’re you,” she said. “I mean you’re famous. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised with the way you kicked their asses without raising a sword. I thought you were crazy for not getting fighting abilities but…”

“Honestly? I’ve sort of been winging it since I got here,” I said. “And I haven’t been doing a very good job of it flailing around. I’d like to act like some badass mastermind, but I haven’t had any idea what I’m doing since logging into this game. I wasn’t expecting to find Horizon here, and it’s kinda thrown me off my usual game.”

“So you have no idea what you’re doing?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“You were just making all that up when you blew them up with that gem?” she asked. “When you used those goblin NPCs to mug one of their guards?”

“Unfortunately,” I said. “Though I guess it was fortunately from our point of view considering they would’ve totally…”

Then she really surprised me by leaning forward and pressing her lips against mine. Which was a lot nicer and a lot more fun than when she’d been pressing her fist against the wall with enough force to turn brick into rubble.

Well then. I’d been thinking we might have a long drawn out courtship in the game. Maybe a little bit of flirting as we planned how we were going to right the wrongs from Horizon Dawn calling the shots around here. Maybe even a little bit of back and forth IRL now that I knew Keia was Kara. But it would seem Keia was more interested in breaking through all that tension that’d been building between us and getting right to the fun.

Not that I was complaining, mind you. The kiss was pretty intense. And as our lips pressed together I realized that yeah, the simulation in this game was spot on at a lot more than replicating combat and pain.

Torian, aka Trent the biggest asshole I’d ever had the displeasure of knowing, could eat his heart out. I wrapped my arms around Keia, getting into the moment and enjoyed myself, truly enjoying myself, for maybe the first time since they lost Diana.

Keia finally pulled away and grinned. Blushed. Looked down and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. I’d never seen a girl who looked more beautiful than she did in that moment, and that was only partially because she’d been making out with me pretty hot and heavy just moments ago.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what came over me. I was wondering what that would feel like and…”

“No,” I said. “You don’t have to apologize at all. In fact…”

I pulled her close again. This time I was the one taking charge as I pressed my lips against hers. It felt good to be taking charge again after spending so much of my time today reacting to things instead of taking the initiative.

She tensed for a moment, a long worrying moment where an irrational part of me screamed that I’d read this situation wrong for all that she’d just kissed me, then she melted into me and all was right with the world. I held her against me and enjoyed the single greatest video gaming experience I’d ever had in my life.

We’re talking even better than the time I managed to solo Neonyxia in NuWoW through means that were quickly patched out of the game once the video of that livestream hit the Internet.

Eventually, frustratingly, we had to come up for air. Even though what we were breathing was technically a digital representation of a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and everything else and not the real stuff we were breathing back in whatever room we sat in paralyzed by the Lotus hardware.

This was one moment where I didn’t want to think about the disintermediation that came with the Lotus hardware. I had a beautiful woman in my arms, and it was real to me. That’s all that mattered.

“Holy shit,” I breathed. “I suppose that answers one question about how realistic this game can be.”

“You’ve got that right!” Keia said.

We took a moment to regain our composure. Keia smoothed her armor even though it was rigid leather which meant there was no need to smooth anything. Finally she took a deep breath and tried to hit me with a semi-serious look, but even then she couldn’t help but break into a goofy grin that warmed my heart.

And other regions of my body. Lotus had been extremely thorough with mapping natural biological responses to situations like this, and I found myself turning to the side so it wouldn’t be too obvious, which was good for a giggle from Keia as she clearly realized what I was doing.

And I immediately stopped doing it once I realized what I was doing. She had to have felt the damn thing pressing into her while we were making out, so what was the point in trying to hide it now?

“So what what now?” she asked once she’d stopped giggling at my odd dance.

“Right now I’d love nothing more than to go look at some of the crafting tools that are no doubt all over this town, avoid some Horizon people, figure out a little bit more about this Spellcrafting thing, meet up with Kristoph, come up with a plan to…”

Keia grinned and shook her head.

“What?” I asked.

“You,” she said. “Still planning, even after that.”

I shrugged. “I figure the thing that got you interested in me in the first place was my scheming, not my stellar fighting ability, so why not keep at it? If I manage to kick Horizon out maybe I’ll get more than a kiss!”

Keia rolled her eyes. “Men. You’re all pigs.”

“Says the girl who just made out with a pig in a back alley in a videogame,” I retorted.

“A fair point,” she said. “And who knows? You might get more than that kiss even if you don’t kick Horizon out of here. It’ll help your chances, of course, but it’s not like you have to defeat the dragon to get the maiden fair.”

“Oh?” I said, even more intrigued.

“Totally,” she said, her bow and arrow materializing in her hands. “This maiden is interested in coming along for the dragonslaying.”

Holy fuck was this girl more amazing the more time I spent around her.

“So we’re heading to the local forge or something?” she asked.

I glanced at the time. Realized that it was very late. On a school night. As much as I didn’t think school was doing all that much to prepare me for the crapsack world waiting for me after graduation, I could also get in shit if I missed too much.

“I think we’re both going to have to dodge the alleys in a few hours and pretend to not be sleeping in class,” I said.

Her eyes went distant, then wide. “Fuck. I didn’t realize it was this late!”

“You and me both,” I said.

I reached out and touched her hand. She wrapped her fingers in mine and met me goofy smile for goofy smile.

“See you tomorrow at school?” I asked, holding my breath.

There was still a part of me that couldn’t believe all this was happening. That she might be totally willing to suck face with me in the game, but not acknowledge me at school or something. Which was a ridiculous thought, but stranger things had happened.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she said.

I figured that was a good high point to log out on. I’d been flailing around and reacting to what other people were doing to me all day long, but reacting to what just happened with Keia was just fine with me.

It was crazy, but in the best possible way. That goofy grin stayed plastered on my face as I thought of logging down and the timer ticked down to pull me back into a real world that was suddenly a hell of a lot more interesting than it’d been before I logged into Lotus earlier this evening.

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<<Chapter 40Chapter 42>>

Spellcraft Chapter 40: Discovered

Keia put her hands on her hips and shook her head. I knew I probably should keep my big mouth shut, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt the overwhelming urge to taunt this asshole at least one more time, and so I did.

I’d never been very good at impulse control when it came to keeping my mouth shut around Horizon or one of their representatives. Especially when that representative was some snot nosed punk who took their money in exchange for early access. 

“You know that’s funny,” I said. “I keep getting Horizon Dawn people telling me I’m going to regret doing things to them, and so far I’ve come out on top every time while you guys end up getting killed or carted off by the guards. So I don’t really have much incentive to stop, now do I?”

Then I thought about it. Pulled his sword out and held it up. Moved it around a couple of times. “Especially when I get cool stuff like this every time you guys fuck up and get yourselves killed!”

The guy managed to take a couple of steps beyond the goblin guards before one of them tripped him and sent him clanking to the ground in a spectacular crash. Which made a god-awful racket that sounded exactly like a bunch of pots and pans being thrown down the stairs. Someone in the foley department clearly couldn’t find a real suit of armor to throw down. That or someone got lazy working under crunch time deadlines. 

“See what I mean?” I asked, flipping the guy the bird.

The guy tried to scramble to his feet, but it wasn’t happening what with a bunch of goblins gathered around him holding him down. It took a lot to keep him in one spot, but there were goblin guards to spare. 

“Have fun bribing the guards,” I said, sketching a mock salute at the guy. Which only seemed to anger him even more. Then he was whirled around and led on the world’s most ridiculous perp walk through town what with the way his walk was being perped by a goblin that barely came up past his waist.

“You know…” Keia started.

I sighed. “I know.”

“You do?” she asked, smiling.

“This is the part where you tell me it’s not a good idea to antagonize Horizon Dawn,” I said. “That my mouth is writing checks my ass can’t cash and all that good stuff.”

“Actually I was going to say that was pretty awesome the way to you taunted him into getting the guards pulled on him. It’s like you’re an expert tank, but for pissing people off instead of pulling monsters in a dungeon.”

“Really?” I said. I was genuinely surprised. It was rare to find someone who appreciated my antics while they were being dragged into them. “You weren’t, like, upset that I didn’t take them down in single combat or something?”

“I think we both know there’s not a chance you’re going to be able to take anything but maybe a fluffy bunny rabbit down in single combat,” she said. “And besides. You’re using your brain to take these guys out. That’s actually kind of cool.”

“Well then,” I said. “Just you wait, because I’m only getting started with these guys.”

“Oh really?” she asked.

“Totally,” I said. “These guys aren’t going to know what hit them. I totally hate Horizon, and this is just getting started compared to some of the stuff I’ve done before.”

Keia arched an eyebrow. “Really? And what kind of stuff have you done to Horizon before?”

I shut my mouth. I’d just gotten a little too close for comfort to a subject I didn’t want to talk about with anyone other than Kristoph. Sure I was proud of the work I’d done screwing over Horizon, but at the same time I didn’t exactly want it known who I was. Not when I was pretty sure Horizon was still good and pissed off at me for some of the stuff I’d done in their modules.

Not to mention with the way I’d been holding the idiot ball and dropping the ball left and right today I wasn’t sure I wanted my past as the heroic Horizon provocateur associated with my bumbling performance on my first day in Lotus. Even though it was only my first day on a game where I’d been avoiding spoilers because who would’ve thought Horizon was in here, so I figured I could be forgiven a bit. 

Besides, it’s not like Horizon could hurt me now even if Keia did go blabbing. They’d already banned me from their modules, after all, and they couldn’t exactly fry my brain remotely if I wasn’t in one of those modules.

At least I didn’t think they could zap my brain remotely if I wasn’t in one of their modules. I hoped they couldn’t do that, otherwise I’d be in serious trouble if they ever found out who I was.

There was a chance that revealing my identity could literally be life or death, was the point, and so I’d been reluctant to advertise to the world about my antics.

“You were about to tell me something,” Keia said, her eyes narrowing.

“It’s nothing important,” I said.

Keia surprised me by grabbing me and pulling me into a side alley. It’s not like there was much I could do to stop her. As we’d already covered multiple times in our journey through my first day in this game world, she could pretty much do whatever the hell she wanted with me since she had all the combat abilities and I had nothing but some skill picking flowers and digging metal out of the ground.

Which was a thought that was surprisingly intriguing. I never thought I’d be into something like that, but…

But I needed to get this under control before this crazy girl killed me. It’d be a heck of a way to go, but that didn’t mean I was in any mood to go just yet. Not when I was still carrying so much good shit from the day’s misadventures. 

“What’s the big idea?” I asked.

“You looked like you were about to confess a big dark secret,” she said. “And what better place to confess a big dark secret than in a dark alley?”

Okay then. That wasn’t exactly what I’d been hoping to do with her in the dark alleyway, but at the same time it was about what I should’ve expected. The only problem was I had no intention of telling her anything.

“Um, party chat?”

“What?”

“Party chat. The private chat where only we can hear each other. Seems like that’d be the perfect place to discuss dark secrets.”

That earned me an eye roll. It’d take more than pretty eyes rolling to get me to sing though. 

“I already told you, I’m not…”

“Bullshit,” she said, punching her fist into the wall next to my head. A punch that went straight through the stone wall. Which was an unwelcome reminder of how much strength she was packing. I looked at that fist wide eyed.

“Bullshit?” I asked, stalling for time and knowing, deep down, that it wasn’t going to do me a damn bit of good.

“Complete and total bullshit,” she said, looking at her fist and blushing.

“Sorry about that,” she said, withdrawing her fist from the wall. Surprisingly it wasn’t even bloodied. Then again I wasn’t sure why I was surprised since this was a video game. “I have a little bit of a temper sometimes, and I let it get the best of me.”

“I’ll say!” I said. “You could’ve punched right through my head!”

“But I didn’t,” she said with a sweet smile. “Now you’re going to tell me your big dark secret, and I’m not going to threaten you. You’re going to do it because we’re friends and friends tell each other stuff like that.”

“But…”

“And I already told you my big dark secret about my time with Horizon, so it seems only fair that you tell me a little bit about yourself. You know. You show me yours, I show you mine? Ever played that game before?”

As a matter of fact that wasn’t a game I’d ever played before, but I wouldn’t mind playing with Keia. Though I wasn’t going to go so far as to tell her that. Not when she was in a mood that had her punching through stone walls, at least.

I sighed. I had all those good intentions of keeping my big fucking mouth shut, and they were melting away because of a pair of pretty eyes. A pair of pretty eyes and a fist that could punch through my head like it was a ripe melon. The second part probably had as much to do with my sudden urge to sing like a canary as the pretty eyes.

“Fine,” I said. “I suppose I do owe you one. Even if I did get you that ore you needed…”

“Not going to be able to use that one forever,” she said. “Besides. You got a bunch of skill ups from that. We’re even on that as far as I’m concerned. Especially considering I’ve saved your ass multiple times on the way there and back.”

“Right,” I said. “I was afraid you were going to say something like that.”

Her sweet smile only got wider. It reminded me of a friendly Great White shark grinning at a seal just before that smile opened up just a little wider to reveal the sharp and pointy oblivion waiting beyond.

Great.

“Do you remember that video that got popular about a month back when they first announced Lotus? The Horizon module that supposedly got hacked and the Game Master who was killed?” I asked.

“Well duh,” she said. “That’s been everywhere. I mean everyone’s talking about it, even if the whole Lotus announcement kinda took some of its…”

Her eyes narrowed. She looked me up and down, and then her eyes returned to my face as she searched my eyes.

“You’ve been talking about how much you hate Horizon,” she said.

“Yup,” I said.

“Enough that you would… No. There’s been lots of people coming forward claiming to be that guy. Surely…”

“Guilty as charged,” I said. “I sort of specialize in figuring out ways to break games, my dismal opening moves today being an unfortunate low point in that specialty, and I figured using that ability to fuck over Horizon, even in some small way, was the least I owed them for what they did to my sister.”

“I… Don’t believe you?”

I figured it was a good thing she was phrasing her statement in the form of a question. There was a part of her that believed me, even if she was having trouble admitting it.

“What if I could prove it?” I asked.

“Fine,” she said. “Prove it.”

She crossed her arms under her breasts, and I tried not to look. I got the feeling she wasn’t trying to draw my attention to her chest, but then again with the way she was looking at me maybe she was trying to scramble my brain with the sexy.

Besides, I was a teenage guy. I was going to be distracted by the sexy no matter what.

I pulled up my heads up display. Looked for an option to get to my personal video library stored outside the game. Horizon modules had the ability to access that and so I figured…

An icon helpfully started to glow in the corner and I thought of activating it. It opened up my personal library which included all the videos I’d taken while I was doing the GM raid on that Horizon module with Kristoph.

“Everyone saw the livestream that was released from a third person point of view, right?” I asked.

“Well duh,” Keia said. “What’s your point?”

“I’m willing to bet there’s no one out there who has this view,” I said.

I accessed the first person video I took from the encounter. A video I’d held back for myself just in case I ever needed to prove I was who I said I was and not one of the many Internet assholes who’d stepped forward to claim responsibility for my current magnum opus. 

The livestream I’d sent out was all third person POV. The first person video was my insurance policy for proving I was who I said I was.

Not that I had any intention of letting the world know I was who I said I was. At least not until I was good and ready, but I figured I could trust Keia. Sort of. At the very least the two not necessarily mutually exclusive goals of impressing a pretty girl and not getting my head punched in like a ripe melon we’re combining to make me more trusting. 

Besides, if I was going to have to trust someone then I figured starting with the insanely hot elf chick who’d helped me escape from Horizon a couple of times already was a safer bet than most.

The video popped up and played over my shoulder. An interesting conceit. I was surprised they allowed something like that in the game. It was a tad immersion breaking to give players the ability to play videos from outside the game within the game, but then again it was probably just another of the many sacrifices between verisimilitude and crafting a game that a modern person with modern expectations could actually play.

My granddad had told me about the good old days of gaming where if they wanted to do anything in a game they practically had to memorize it. Or, even worse, they had to write down maps and stuff in a paper notebook like caveman savages or something.

And if he wanted to watch a video or listen to something while he was tooling around in old school WoW? He’d had to set up an ancient 3D TV, like we’re talking 3D in the sense of it being a massive heavy box and not being 3D capable, and plug in an ancient DVD player that only gave him access to whatever he had on DVD to play in the background beside his monitor instead of using picture-in-picture.

Savage and primitive. Granddad might’ve liked playing games like that, but it sounded like an old school nightmare to me.

“Damn,” Keia said, her attention on the video as I reminisced about ancient gaming. “That really was you. You’re the famous Horizon hunter!”

“None other than,” I said with a small bow.

Keia took a step back. Looked at me with wide eyes. As though a sudden understanding had dawned on her, which had me nervous.

“Colin?” she asked.

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<<Chapter 39Chapter 41>>

Spellcraft Chapter 39: Back to Town

We tore through the forest. I crashed through the underbrush as twigs and branches whipped at me. There were a couple of times when a particularly nasty hit was enough to take my hit points down by a few notches, but I ignored the pain.

There were people pursuing us who’d do a lot more damage to my hit point counter. That was enough to make me push away any worry over minor hits.

Finally, after a run that felt like it’d gone on forever, but it couldn’t have been more than a minute or so, I felt exhaustion creeping in. That damned stamina bar appeared, and it blinked yellow and then red.

“Seriously?” I gasped.

“Quiet,” Keia said.

Shit. I hadn’t said that in party chat. Talk about a rookie fucking move.

“I’m not going to be able to go much longer,” I said, my breath coming in gasps.

“What?” Keia hissed. “You’ve never been for a run before?”

“The game thinks I haven’t,” I said.

We came to a stop when my bar stopped flashing yellow and turned solid red as I discovered yet another area where the intersection of real life and game mechanics were working against me.

Keia looked around. Paused and cocked her head to the side as though she was listening for something.

“I think we’re going to be okay,” she said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I’m not sure about anything,” she said. “But I don’t hear them crashing through the forest in our direction and I know I’m the only one with any ability to hear them.”

“Point taken,” I said.

I leaned against a tree to catch my breath and let the old stamina bar recuperate. I glanced down and saw another one of those bright red flowers with the orange streaks running through it. I reached down and tapped the thing. The flower popped into my inventory.

I paused to inspect my gathering skill. I was surprised to realize my mining skill had pretty much caught up with my other gathering skills during that trip to the mine. My overall gathering was getting close to 100.

I didn’t think anything special or groundbreaking happened when I hit that, but it was a nice round number. Triple digits seemed like something worth celebrating, at least.

“You look happy for someone who just almost got killed,” Keia said.

“Well I should be happy,” I said. “I’m almost to triple digits in my Gathering skill.”

“So you’ve seriously been spending all of your time on gathering and not on useful stuff like killing things?” Keia asked.

I shrugged. “My gathering skill was sure useful to you today,” I said.

“You have a point,” Keia said, though her tone said she didn’t like that I had a point.

Though there was something else in my skill screen that caught my attention. A new tab that was glowing ever so slightly. Like it wanted to get my attention.

At least I was pretty sure it was new. It was under the Spellcraft skill, and that was certainly brand new to me as of about a half hour ago.

With a thought I pulled up my Spellcraft skills, and a shiver ran through me as I got a good look at my new notification that must’ve stayed buried in this window because I’d been running for my life this entire time.

You’ve unlocked Spellcraft:Combat!

Most rational people would only use gems to enchant stuff they use to kill people. You’ve decided to eliminate the middle man and kill people more directly with your gems!

Go forth and kill more people with weaponized Spellcrafting for bonuses to your offensive and defensive skills!

I grinned. So much for not having any offensive abilities. Sure the one that I had involved turning a gem into an explosive that could just as easily kill my ass as it could kill my enemies, but this was an interesting new wrinkle.

“Huh. How ‘bout that,” I muttered.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“The game just unlocked a skill line for using Spellcrafting directly in combat,” I said.

“Seriously?” she said. “Like that whole grenade thing you pulled paid off?”

“I mean it’s not like I’m going to be soloing any raid instances any time soon with this, but it’s a start. Besides, I’m stuck with you for now.”

“How do you figure?”

“I’m squishy and I have no way of fighting anything because I’ve been putting all my points into Gathering, as you pointed out. If I’m going to get out of here with all my shit I’m going to have to be stuck to your ass for a little while longer.”

“Sounds like a good time,” she said with a wink.

I stared at her with an open mouth. I hadn’t had many girls hitting on me in the real world, but that was mostly because I’d been so busy with my single-minded quest for vengeance for Diana that I hadn’t had all that much time for dating.

There was no missing what she was hinting at though. She reached out and grabbed my chin. Pulled my mouth closed.

“You have to watch yourself out here,” she said. “There are a couple of parasitic flies you can catch with your mouth. They take over your brain and walk you off the nearest cliff or highest convenient geographical feature. A little surprise the devs put into the game that’s not all that fun when you’re the one being surprised.”

“Right,” I said. “Nice safety tip.”

“But you’re cute when you get all surprised like that,” she said, holding her finger firmly in place over my lips so my mouth wouldn’t fall open again.

“Um, thanks?”

“Now let’s get going,” she said. “It’s a bit of a walk back into town from here, and there’s going to be lots of dangerous shit along the way. Not to mention I have a feeling Horizon Dawn patrols are going to be a little more intense now than they would’ve been on a day when one of those patrols wasn’t blown up.”

“So basically what you’re saying is you’re on an escort mission?” I asked. “And I’m the boring character you have to continually save because I’m constantly getting my ass in trouble by never walking at a pace that matches the player character’s walk or run speeds?”

She put a finger to her chin. Scratched it for a minute as she thought about it.

“I suppose you’re right. The hot and maneuverable fighter is forced to escort the completely defenseless and loaded down freighter with a giant ass. Though this is far from a sci-fi game.”

“And I object to you referring to my ass as huge, thank you very much,” I said.

“Oh don’t worry,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s a cute ass. Even if it is a loaded down ass.”

I decided to get a little bold. I figured that wasn’t a sign so much as it was a signal fire being lit off from the top of a mountain where the whole kingdom could see it.

“Says the girl in leather armor so tight it’s been distracting me all afternoon,” I said with a wink of my own.

“Tell me about it,” she said with a grin. “I’ve been watching you watching me all day. I wondered if you were going to sack up and say something.”

I didn’t have much to say to that, and decided I’d stop while I was ahead.

“Right,” she said. “You’re cute when you’re flummoxed, but we should probably head back now. This place is going to be crawling with Horizon Dawn patrols in no time, and I don’t want to be around when they get here.”

We reached the edge of town without much incident. There were a couple of times when things got a little dodgy as obvious Horizon Dawn patrols came up on us, but it was easy enough to avoid those patrols since they were yelling loud enough that even I could hear them with no trouble.

Almost as though the people on those patrols weren’t too keen on getting caught by two players who’d already blown a big hole in the raid instance and blown up one of their patrols as a second act.

Still, I didn’t sigh in relief and give up my constant search for people trying to kill or maim me until we stood at the edge of town where we were surrounded by the comforting sight of town guards who eyed us suspiciously with their clawed goblin hands on their weapons.

“You don’t think Horizon Dawn got that Writ of Nobility between when we left and came back, do you?” I asked.

“I seriously doubt it,” Keia said. “If they did then we’d be dead now. The guards would be doing a hell of a lot more than eyeing us suspiciously.”

“Good to know,” I said.

Though there was non-goblin trouble waiting for us. Someone from Horizon Dawn appeared as though by magic. I didn’t recognize the asshole, but the idiot certainly seemed to know us from the way he glared. Though if they were posting people at all the entrances in an effort to find me then it would make sense for them to pass around descriptions.

“The two of you aren’t allowed in town,” the guy, a weaselly looking prick who looked entirely too skinny for the plate armor he wore, said.

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “And what do you plan on doing to stop us?”

“Ballsy for someone with no useful combat abilities,” Keia muttered in party chat.

“Hey, I have one combat ability,” I said.

“And if you use it you stand a good chance of taking out that goblin which is going to bring down a world of hurt,” she said.

“Whatever,” I said. “It’s not like he knows I can’t hurt him, or could do anything even if I did. Not without bringing down that world of hurt on his head, at least.”

“Take another step and you’re gonna regret it,” the guy said.

“Go ahead,” I said, gesturing to the guards. “Make my day. I’d really like to see the town guards give you the whole can opener treatment and kick your ass.”

The guy’s eyes fell on the goblin guards who were eyeing us with suspicion. He didn’t draw his sword, but clearly he wanted to.

He spat at the ground instead. The ground couldn’t fight back the same way those goblin guards could.

“You’re not going to last very long in there. Don’t take another step if you know what’s good for you,” the guy said.

“Thanks,” I said. “But I’d prefer to be the judge of what is and isn’t good for me.”

Keia giggled. Meanwhile the skinny dude in the way too big armor was looking between the two of us and frowning.

“Come on,” Keia said. “This guy isn’t going to do anything to stop us.”

“I will!” he said.

“Then do it,” I said, flipping the guy the bird.

It would appear the guy had decided he was going to make my day after all. His sword came out of his scabbard and he raised it. Swiped it through the air.

I was no idiot though. I might not have any points in traditional combat, but it didn’t take points in a traditional combat skill to know that when there was a weapon being swung at me it was time to hit the deck. So that’s exactly what I did, throwing myself to the ground.

It hurt just a little, but getting a few scrapes from hitting the deck didn’t seem like such a big deal when the alternative was getting sliced open by a digital sword that looked frighteningly realistic when it was coming at me.

“Where did you… Hey!”

“Stop right there criminal scum!” one of the guards who’d been giving us the stink eye shouted.

I grinned as I came out of my roll. I’d just experimented with the system and learned something valuable. The guards were activated if somebody even took a swing at a person they felt didn’t deserve having that swing taken at them. It didn’t take actual physical contact or engaging in combat, and it didn’t matter that I no longer had PVP immunity. 

Which meant I could have even more fun with these jerks. Provided I had that fun in front of a guard. I still hadn’t tested whether or not an unprovoked attack within city limits summoned the guards when PVP immunity wasn’t involved, for example, and that wasn’t something I was all that interested in testing.

“Drop it,” one of the goblins barked.

Goblins surrounded the guy, weapons drawn. He dropped his sword, a Horizon sword, and held his hands up.

I reached down and grabbed that dropped sword. Inspected it. The thing had a nice little stamina enhancement spell infusion that I figured would be useful. I held the thing up and winked at the guy as it disappeared into my inventory.

“Thanks!”

“Hey!” the guy shouted. “You can’t do that!”

“Watch me,” I said, eliciting a giggle from Keia. “Consider it your fee for trying to kill me.”

“He’s stealing my stuff!” the guy shouted to the guards. “Aren’t you going to do anything about that?”

“That sword was lying on the ground,” one of the goblins said. “What do you say, Captain?”

“I agree,” a goblin with a rank insignia said with a grin. “It was on the ground, so I figure it’s fair game. Obviously you didn’t want it or you wouldn’t have dropped it out of your inventory!”

“But you told me to…”

At first I wondered if this was just a bit of incorrect programming on the part of the goblin guards. But the more I looked at the goblins, particularly at the smug and satisfied smiles on their faces, the more I realized there had to be more to it than that. 

This wasn’t a glitch. This was a group of goblin guards having a little bit of fun at this guy’s expense because they didn’t like Horizon Dawn.

Given everything I’d heard about how Horizon Dawn treated the local goblin population I couldn’t blame them for being pissed off to the point that they looked for a little revenge wherever they could get it.

“Thank you Captain,” I said.

The goblin captain turned to me and gave a salute. “No problem. Thank you for giving us an excuse!”

I grinned and returned the salute. Meanwhile the Horizon Dawn guy stared in open mouthed astonishment. Clearly he hadn’t expected the goblin NPCs to start retaliating against him. Well, that was what he got for associating with a bunch of dickheads like Horizon Dawn.

“You’re not going to get away with this!” he shouted. “We’re going to fix you good!”

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<<Chapter 38Chapter 40>>

Spellcraft Chapter 38: Encumbrance

“Hey!” Keia said. “We’re going to share this loot, right?”

“Of course we are,” I said. “But I’m taking all the Horizon gear. At least I’m taking all the stuff with stat bonuses on it.”

“Going to do that little nifty disenchanting thing on them?” she asked.

“That’s the idea,” I said with a grin.

There were all kinds of nifty spell infusions on these weapons and armor. I held up a sword and concentrated until I felt the same warmth I got earlier doing the disenchant on Kristoph’s sword. 

No tooltip popped up this time. I knew how to do this, after all, so there was no need for the game to hold my hand. A moment later the blade glowed, that spell mist appeared around it, and then I was the proud owner of a spell infusion that added a chance to do some ice damage every time the owner landed a hit.

“This is going to be fun,” I said. 

I tapped any and every miniature chest I could find. It was pretty easy because, despite the fact that the Horizon Dawn people had been blown to bits, it seemed the game had decided their treasure chests would appear in the spot where they’d expired and not where the various bits of their bodies had landed which would’ve made for a much longer search.

Weapons weren’t the only thing I found. There was plenty of of gold which went to Keia as thanks for her being nice enough to let me have all the weapons bearing enchants.

There was also the occasional bit of goblinsteel ore. I held onto that after promising Keia I’d make her something nice out of the stuff when I finally figured out how to do that. 

All I really cared about were all the weapons and armor though. I was going to have a field day disenchanting all of this. I’d just discovered Spellcrafting and now I’d been given a buffet of enchants to choose from. Talk about dumb luck!

Literally dumb luck, considering all those Horizon people had been dumb enough to stand in a nice cluster long enough for me to blow them to tiny meaty bits.

Not that there was much else we could do with Horizon weapons aside from disenchanting them. I wasn’t going to use them, and considering all I knew about Keia I figured she wasn’t going to use them either. I also assumed Horizon Dawn would take a dim view of anyone who tried selling their stuff to other players.

Actually that was an idea to consider. If selling their shit would really piss them off then that was something I was really interested in.

I was in the middle of disenchanting something and enjoying pleasant thoughts of pissing off Horizon Dawn when Keia looked up and cocked her head to the side in a now familiar gesture.

“What is it?” I asked. “Is little Timmy stuck in a well?”

She flipped me off. “I hear something coming this way. Though I should’ve let whoever it is come and kill you if you’re going to be a sarcastic ass.”

I listened, but I couldn’t hear anything. Well I could hear the typical forest sounds all around us, but I didn’t hear anything in that forest that sounded particularly dangerous.

“I got nothing,” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “Of course you’ve got nothing,” she said. “You don’t have the listening abilities I do.”

“I figured you’d say something like that,” I said. “If there’s something out there looking for us then I figure it’s time to get the hell out of here.”

There was just one problem with that idea. I tried to burst into a run, that seemed like the right kind of pace to get the fuck away from some assholes hellbent on killing my ass, but my movement was slow. Ridiculously slow. As though I was trying to walk through thick molasses or something.

I’d heard a story about a molasses tank exploding in a city once upon a time and people drowning in the slow moving death. I wondered if this was what it’d felt like as those poor old timey bastards suffered one of the most unpleasant and ridiculous deaths humanity had ever accidentally devised.

“What the fuck?”

“What’s wrong?” Keia asked.

“I can’t move!” I said. “I mean I could move from chest to chest in the little cluster of dead Horizon fucks here no problem, but when I try to break into a run it’s like running through invisible quicksand!”

She rolled her eyes, and she was obviously having trouble keeping it together from the way she grinned and covered her mouth.

“What?” I asked.

“Duh. You’re encumbered!”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked. “Encumbered? They put encumbrance in this game?”

“You should’ve figured that one out on your own,” she said.

“I thought they were better than that,” I said. “And encumbrance isn’t a very realistic mechanic, thank you very much.

“Of course it is when you really think about it,” Keia said. “Everything in this game is realistic. Is the idea of you being able to carry unlimited amounts of loot all that realistic?”

I sighed. “I guess being able to carry infinite stuff in some magic bag of holding isn’t realistic, but the idea that there’s some arbitrary point after which you suddenly can’t move always annoyed me.”

“Doesn’t work like that,” Keia said. “There’s a sliding scale of encumbrance. The more stuff you carry past your ability to carry the slower you move. It’s not a line you cross or anything.”

“Great. So what do I do about it?”

“Drop some stuff?” she asked.

“But if I do that we’re going to lose a lot of the ore we just found!” I said.

“Are you kidding?” she asked. “You’re not dropping that ore we found. That stuff is too fucking valuable to leave lying around for those pricks to get for nothing. Drop that stupid Horizon Dawn Syndicate stuff.”

“But I’ll lose the spell infusions,” I said, a note of panic coming to my voice.

I wouldn’t have cared a whit thirty minutes ago if I had to leave a bunch of Horizon Dawn Syndicate crap behind. Now, though, that stuff was a valuable source of potential money and skill gains for this new ability I’d discovered. It could very well be as valuable as the goblinsteel ore. Maybe more valuable. 

This was the ultimate crafting ability in this game, if I didn’t miss my guess. That meant that something intangible like a spell infusion could easily be worth way more than more tangible stuff.

Just like I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get back to a high level mine any time soon to get more goblinsteel ore, I also didn’t know when I’d find a treasure trove of stuff to disenchant like this again. Maybe not in a good long while considering all the help it’d taken to get out here in the first place and the clever improvising it took to make the big boom that converted these assholes from players to loot.

“Come on. I can hear them getting closer,” Keia said. “They know exactly where we are, and if we’re stupid enough to stick around they’re gonna make us seriously regret it!”

“I have a feeling enchanted items like this are going to be a real pain in the ass to find without going through dungeons or something.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” Keia asked. “You wanna get away with some of it or try and take it all and get your ass killed?”

“I’m going to disenchant them, damn it!”

“We don’t have time,” she said. “Why don’t you hand me some stuff?”

“You’ve been loaded down with ore and that stuff is pretty heavy,” I said. “Do you have space to carry anything and still be able to skedaddle?”

She went glassy eyed. I figured that meant she was looking at her encumbrance. I thought of my own, and a number appeared in front of me. It looked like I was currently using 150% of my 100% encumbrance with all the weapons I was carrying. 

Great. I hated it when games foisted realistic stuff like this on players. It was even more annoying seeing something realistic being translated into math by a game that’d otherwise been so hyperrealistic that the math felt like it was hidden so far.

I disenchanted another sword. I got a nice little strength enhancement spell infusion from the thing. I figured I could make some good money from something like that. Assuming I survived to use any of these infusions. 

At least I could rest assured that any spell infusions I learned here would survive my death, unlike the ore and flower petals. I decided not to mention anything like that to Keia though. I figured she’d take a dim view of me willingly sacrificing us and our loot because I could get something out of this that’d survive a good old fashioned player killing.

Also? Disenchanting that damned sword only took down my encumbrance by about two percent. Motherfucker!

“Toss some stuff on the ground,” she said. “I’ll see how much I can carry.”

I tossed a couple of pieces of armor to the ground with one hand as I disenchanted another sword with the other. I only had to hold the things in one hand to disenchant which was useful. That left my other hand free for tossing stuff to the forest floor.

It made a hell of a racket as it landed, too, but I figured I didn’t have to worry about that drawing the wrong kind of attention. Not when the wrong kind of attention already knew exactly where we were hiding.

This sword yielded a lightning infusion. That’d be interesting. I found another one that was just another fire infusion and tossed it to the side. I didn’t need to waste time on spell infusions I already had.

That brought me down to 144% encumbrance. Not enough. Even I could hear someone crashing through the forest around us now. They were close. Close enough that I could almost feel the swords poking into me.

“This is going to be close,” Keia said.

“I don’t think it’s going to be close,” I said. “We’re not going to make it.”

Another sword disappeared in a puff of digital magic. This one added a percentage to attack. Another thing that seemed like it would be frightfully useful. For other players. It’s not like I could get much use out of it considering I didn’t have much in the way of offensive ability at the moment.

“This is all I can carry,” Keia said, staring down at a pile of loot she hadn’t picked up.

There must’ve been something in the look I gave her. She rolled her eyes and made a disgusted noise.

“You need these stupid spell infusions more than you need to live with all your stuff?” she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “If they kill your ass then you’re not going to have anything. Everything in your inventory will be in a little glowing chest on the forest floor next to those items.”

Again I decided it wouldn’t be prudent to mention I’d get away with the spell infusions at least. She looked frustrated enough to commit murder as it was, and I was the only convenient victim. Like she seriously seemed like she was in a mood where if she thought she was about to die then she’d have no problem taking me with her.

“Motherfucker,” I growled. “This shit would’ve been valuable, too.”

“Damn it,” Keia said.

She held her hands out and a bow and arrow appeared with a little transporter effect like from an ancient Star Trek movie or something. No sooner had it appeared in that outstretched hand than she pulled the string back and let loose with an arrow that flew into the forest with a loud hiss.

The hiss was very quickly followed by a thunk and a loud scream.

“What are you doing?” I asked as another weapon, this time a bow and arrow, disappeared in a white puff of magical energy.

“That was me conceding the point that you need to get as many of these things disenchanted as possible,” she said. “And that sound was one of my former guild mates getting an arrow to the knee.”

She grinned. “Though hopefully I hit a far more critical piece of anatomy than the asshole’s knee. Hard to tell when I’m firing based on sound and not on what I can see.”

“Keep it up,” I said. “But let me know when you can’t hold them off any longer.”

“Will do,” she said, loosing another arrow that was shortly followed by another thunk and another pained scream.

I pulled out weapons and disenchanted them as fast as I could, but it was still a race I knew we were going to lose. I could hear more and more people crashing through the underbrush, and I knew if I could hear them then they were too close by far. It sounded like they had a whole raiding party coming at us.

“We might have tonight’s raid coming for our asses,” Keia muttered.

I held up an armored chest piece that was a lot heavier than anything else in my inventory. It was time to be strategic about the stuff I was getting rid of.

The piece gave the wearer a bonus to defense. I concentrated. It glowed, but there wasn’t the usual puff of magic that made the thing disappear. 

I bit back a couple of curses. Of all the times for the disenchant ability to suddenly get pissy because something I was trying to disenchant was beyond my ability, this was the worst. I didn’t even know how the damn game determined whether or not something was beyond my ability to disenchant.

I did know this thing was a big motherfucker. It’d probably been attached to a big motherfucker before that motherfucker turned into little bits and pieces of motherfucker. If I got rid of the thing it’d go a long way towards getting rid of my encumbrance.

I closed my eyes. I tried to push out all the distractions from the surrounding world. Which was difficult  considering those distractions from the outside world coming to bring a world of hurt down on me with lots of sharp pointy painful things, but I had to do it. I pushed everything away. Felt for the soul of the item.

I couldn’t see the chestpiece disappearing because my eyes were closed, but I could feel the weight in my hands turn to nothing, then my hands closed together because there was nothing there. The magic moved into my body.

I grinned and pulled out a few more bigger items. I should’ve done this from the get go, but it hadn’t occurred to me in my panic. 

I felt like I’d been operating on panic and making shit up as I went along for far too long. I needed to get back to methodical. Do research. Come up with a plan. Kick ass. 

I turned a few more heavier items into puffs of magic, and I could finally move again.

I sprinted for the pile of crap. There was no more encumbrance to hold me down. I grabbed a few swords with spell infusions I didn’t have yet and tossed them back into my inventory. I had plenty of extra room now that I’d rid myself of the heaviest crap.

“Let’s go!” I shouted.

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<<Chapter 37Chapter 39>>

Spellcraft Chapter 37: Improvised Explosive Gem

Gregor stepped forward and eyed both of us. His nose was raised high with his arms behind his back. He reminded me of a classic scene from the scifi masterpiece Spaceballs where a stuck up officer gloated over catching a bunch of stunt doubles.

“Well, well, well…” Gregor said. “I have to say that when I got reports of an irregularity at one of the ring mines I figured it would be you two.”

“And I’m going to fucking kill you for what you did to me back there!” Sereh said.

Her hand moved up to her neck, and I got the feeling she was thinking about the way Keia had casually gutted her. That was the kind of thing that stayed with you. Especially if she hadn’t discovered her pain slider.

She was glaring at us like she wouldn’t mind using her own daggers to give as good as she got.

“Not right now, Sereh,” Gregor said, glaring at her in turn.

“Sorry,” she muttered, though that didn’t stop her from looking at the two of us and making a throat cutting motion where Gregor couldn’t see.

“And what was that magic spell you used to take a pot shot at some of our members?” Gregor asked. “That wasn’t very sporting of you, but if you tell me what spell you used I can promise you I’ll make Sereh kill you quickly instead of doing all the things she’s been droning on about while we were looking for you.”

I wasn’t about to tell them that what I’d used didn’t have much to do with magic. At least not directly. Or not as they conceived of magic. 

I was no conjurer of cheap tricks, to quote the pop culture ur wizard. No, my tricks were pretty expensive considering what those gems were probably worth now that I’d figured out how to turn them into enchantments.

“Seriously Gregor?” Keia asked. “Why don’t you go back to sucking Torian’s dick? You’ll probably have a much better time with that than what I’m about to do to you. Because I promise when I spear you in the ass with my sword it’s not going to feel nearly as great as when Torian gives it to you.”

Gregor’s eyes narrowed. “How dare you talk to us like that, you traitorous bitch!”

“Think about what happened to poor Torian and that arrow to his ass,” she said, pulling her sword out and, incidentally, showing off the flame glow I’d added to it.

Every eye in the group was immediately on her. More specifically on her sword, which was saying something considering she was looking pretty good as she stood there in her tight leather doing the whole “badass fighter chick” thing. 

I guess staring at the sword made sense though. Hot chicks in tight leather distributing swordplay were a dime a dozen around these here parts. No doubt they knew Horizon weaponry, and this sword clearly wasn’t Horizon weaponry.

“I’d give a great deal of gold to figure out how you managed to find a weapon with an enchantment like that,” Gregor said barely above a whisper, eyeing it with greed clear in his eyes. “The good news is I’m going to have plenty of time to torture the both of you to get that information.”

“I know the pain goes down after a short amount of time,” Sereh called out in a singsong voice. “So that just means we’re going to have to keep creating new wounds so you keep getting fresh pain! How does that sound?”

Well shit. Maybe they did know a thing or two about the pain slider and how to keep making it hurt so bad even when someone had that mofo dialed down to a big fat zero.

“I’ll die before I let that happen,” she said, holding her sword out in front of her like she was ready to make a last stand that resulted in her dying before they could capture her.

My mind raced. On the one hand dying would be preferable to being tortured for information. On the other hand if I died then all that goblinsteel ore I’d gathered would be lost. Along with the gems. And everything else I’d gathered since starting the game since this had been one long uninterrupted run of the game world crapping on me for all that it felt like watching Kristoph land in that massive Kristoph shaped hole had happened a lifetime ago.

The low level stuff I could get again, but something told me it wouldn’t be as easy to get those gems and goblinsteel in the future as it’d been this afternoon. After all, I’d had to go into a recently cleared high level mine on the outskirts of a high level raid dungeon with a highly skilled player along for the ride to even get at the gems in the first place.

The point being I really didn’t want to lose my shit now.

I needed to figure something out, and fast. We could run back into the ring mine, but that wouldn’t help for long. That was just prolonging the inevitable. There had to be something else. 

The Horizon people stood grouped together. It was the kind of grouping that would be very bad if, say, this was a more modern game where things like artillery or high explosives were a thing. Or maybe a game where someone could create a reasonable simulation of high explosives that could take out a bunch of assholes who were obligingly standing clumped up.

I didn’t grin as that thought occurred to me hot on the heels of the realization that I’d just totally inadvertently invented an improvised high explosive device using the game’s crafting fail state.

I didn’t want to tip anyone off, but boy was the temptation there. I pulled up my inventory to see if there was another one of those blue elemental stones that didn’t like having elemental fire infused.

Sure enough I found one. Nice and blue. When I looked at it the thing it said it was elemental water. Blowing up the last one must’ve been sufficient to figure out what element it worked with. Unimaginative what with the blue color and all, but then again this was a mass-produced game that was supposed to be understandable to a casual audience.

Which was a nice way of saying the system had to be idiot proof since nature’s capacity for building better idiots was always running far ahead of humanity’s capacity to build better systems.

So why not make things nice and simple and color coded? I was far from an idiot though. I planned on doing terrible things to the Spellcraft system. To abuse it and twist it to my will and come up with scenarios the devs had never imagined.

Starting with using this gem as an improvised hand grenade.

I pulled the blue water elemental gem out of my inventory and quietly infused it with my flame spell. The infusion was like second nature to me now. A good thing, too. It would’ve been really awkward if I had to navigate tooltips and a tutorial while I was trying to create a secret weapon without letting all the Horizon assholes know what I was doing.

Thankfully they were all focused on Keia. She was still talking smack and waving her sword around in front of Gregor who looked like he wasn’t all that eager to get within striking distance of said sword, for all that he was boasting about all the nasty things he was going to do to us.

I felt the fire infuse into the elemental water stone. I kept the thing behind me and prayed none of them would notice the trees behind me lighting up with a second light source that wasn’t the sun filtering down through the trees into the clearing in front of the mine.

Not until that bright light was right in the middle of them ready to blow them to smithereens.

The gem got warmer and warmer. It pulsed and the heat was almost too intense for me to maintain my hold, but my timing had to be perfect. If I was off, if they realized what I was up to and had a chance to disperse…

Finally the heat got to be too much. I judged it was about the same as the pulsing had been when I was in the mine trying to find a way to get rid of the first gem I’d accidentally set to self-destruct. Either way I wasn’t going to be able to keep holding the damn thing. Not without burning my hand.

So I tossed it into the Horizon crowd. Right smack dab in the middle where it would do the most damage.

“Get down Keia!” I shouted.

Keia didn’t react quite how I’d hoped. No, instead of hitting the deck she whipped her sword around. Right for Gregor’s neck. Right where he didn’t have any nice leather armor protecting his smug ass with that smug smile that froze in place as the sword made contact.

Flames erupted from her sword and engulfed Gregor. Maybe she got a critical hit bonus because she’d hit old Gregor in a critically unprotected area. He had no one to blame but himself for letting someone get close enough to pull something like that off.

Though to be fair he probably thought he was safe. That no one would dare attack him when their attack would clearly be followed by everyone in his group doing their best to hack his attacker down for daring to take on their fearless leader. I’m sure he’d never imagined a scenario where someone would use a crafting fail state to eliminate all his friends before they could exact any pesky vengeance.

Not that he’d be around either way. Not with his body busy erupting in a column of flame as his head flew off, that mixture of surprise and smug confidence frozen in place. If there was any justice in the world the game would keep Gregor conscious in his flying head so he could see the full extent of his fuck up.

Some of Gregor’s toadies recoiled in horror at what Keia had done, while the other more pragmatic members of his merry band were in the process of pulling out their glowing Horizon Dawn Syndicate weapons in anticipation of getting some revenge.

I wasn’t interested in any of them, though. Not the ones pulling out their weapons or the ones looking on in horror. No, the only one I was interested in was the lone Horizon Dawn member near the middle who leaned down and picked up the brightly glowing gem that’d landed in their midst with a plate armored hand that must’ve protected her from the heat. 

She regarded the glowing gem curiously. Meanwhile I grabbed Keia, still standing there with her shoulders heaving as she stared down at Gregor, and pulled her back and down to the ground.

“What the…”

I pointed to the gem. Keia’s eyes went wide and she buried her face in the ground even as some of the Horizon people started towards us, laughing and talking about all the unpleasant things they were going to do to us even though we were submitting.

I held my breath. If that idiot holding my gem tossed it the thing wouldn’t do nearly as much damage. The girl didn’t try to toss it though. No, she merely regarded it with curiosity, and that curious look was still on her face when the thing exploded in a massive concussion that created a crater and sent little bits of Horizon Dawn assholes flying everywhere.

“Submit that fuckers!” I shouted, knowing they’d hear me since none of them had released and left little chests full of whatever they were carrying behind.

A bit of gunk that’d until so recently been a member of Horizon Dawn splatted on my head. A wave of nausea and disgust washed over me as I wiped it off. Sure I knew it wasn’t actually a bit of someone else’s body, but it felt pretty close to the real thing.

Yet at the same time I was also impressed. After all, the devs had taken the time to figure out what it would look like when someone was blown to tiny little bits, even though it didn’t seem like that was the kind of thing that would happen in a medieval game.

Or maybe it was. Maybe they’d worked out the whole Spellcraft thing and the explosion animation was meant for the poor bastards who came to an unfortunate end as a result of daring to mess with forces that shouldn’t be.

I stared at the damage I’d wrought. Damage that was rendered in stomach-churning detail.

The crater I’d created seemed just as big as the one that’d been created in the quarry. Maybe larger because this one had been created in the soft forest floor and not in solid rock.

“Damn,” Keia breathed.

I looked at the disgusting blood and guts surrounding us. “That was the single most revolting thing I think I’ve ever seen happen in a video game, and I’ve been to a few starter zones in MMOs where people acted out their depraved fantasies with creepy asterisks in public chat where anyone can read their amateur erotica.”

“Clearly you haven’t been playing this game long enough,” she said. “Besides, it’s not like they’re going to be around for long.”

Sure enough, the guts started to decompose, though it was a little different from the skeletons that appeared and turned to dust as the whole body decomposed. The bits and pieces slowly rotted away until there was nothing but little treasure chests in the forest floor where our wannabe attackers had been standing when they met their grisly but much deserved demise.

I was thankful the chests appeared where they’d been standing when they met their untimely end considering how far some of the Horizon Dawn bits had been flung in that explosion.

“That’s one way to clean up the mess after you’ve killed someone,” I said.

“Convenient, isn’t it?” Keia asked.

I hit her with a sharp stare. She held her hands up. “Not that I know anything about disposing of a body in the real world.”

I grinned and shook my head. I decided I really didn’t want to cross this girl if we ever met in the real world. Though she might be useful to have around while dodging tweakers and addicts on the way to school in the morning.

“Lots of chests,” Keia said.

“A shitload of loot,” I agreed.

I got the feeling it wouldn’t be long before those assholes were respawned and back here, so I started tapping treasure chests and emptying them as fast as I could go.

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<<Chapter 36Chapter 38>>

Spellcraft Chapter 36:

“Um, is it is supposed to be glowing like that?” Keia asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve never done this before, but I don’t think that’s a good sign…”

“Maybe you should get rid of the gem,” Keia said. “I don’t like the look of that glow!”

“And I don’t like how hot this is getting,” I said. “But where am I going to toss it that’s not going to bring down the whole damn mine on us? We’re surrounded by solid rock that’s gonna become chunks of falling rock coming down on our heads if this blows!”

“Here!” she shouted, pointing to the exit on the opposite end of the room. “Follow me!”

She practically dragged me through a tunnel on the other side of the crafting room. I wasn’t sure where the hell we were going, but I didn’t like the idea of going into another enclosed tunnel where there was even more rock that could potentially fall down around us if there was an unfortunate magic reaction as a result of this spell infusion thing going wrong.

Then again I guess if it blew up in my hands I was going to the respawn point one way or another.

“I don’t think…”

“Here!” she said. “Toss it through there!”

A hole big enough to walk through appeared in front of us. I caught a glimpse of light. I had no idea where the hell I was, I’d gotten good and turned around in the maze that was the ring mine, but the gem was getting really hot. So hot that I could barely touch it even with the old pain slider turned down. So I chucked the thing towards the light and prayed that whatever fail state it was going for didn’t happen before it got to wherever Keia was having me throw the thing.

I thought I could almost hear the sound of metal clanking somewhere on the other side of that big hole, but wasn’t sure why I would hear that considering so far the mine had been entirely uninhabited. Not to mention that hole looked a lot like daylight.

“Where did I just toss that potentially dangerous spell infused gem?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” Keia said. “That’s an overlook that looks down on the massive quarry that serves as the entrance to the Goblinsteel Mine raid instance. There’s probably not anyone down there at this time of day.”

“Probably not?” I asked. “What if it hits someone and hurts them?”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that,” Keia said. “Whatever was happening with that thing, it obviously wasn’t dangerous or it would’ve…”

A loud whump was followed by a shudder in the rock that felt like the next best thing to an earthquake, complete with dust falling down around us. Then there was a muted echo, presumably as the sound from the explosion hit the other side of the quarry and bounced back in an impressive piece of sound design, followed by shouting and screaming where there’d been clanking metal moments ago.

“You were saying?” I asked, glaring at Keia.

She shrugged and smiled. “Okay, so maybe it did do something dangerous, but it’s like I keep telling you…”

“You don’t know anything about crafting,” I said.

“Exactly!” she said. “You’re learning! So I don’t know why you’re getting mad at me.”

“We should at least have a look at what just happened,” I said. “That blast sounded pretty big. If I can create explosions like that by infusing the wrong crystal I want to know.”

“Why?” she asked. “Gonna create gem grenades?”

“The thought had occurred to me,” I said. “But mostly if these things have the potential to blow up in my face then you bet your ass I want to know how far I have to run to get clear of the blast if I fuck up.”

She shrugged. “I suppose taking a quick look would be safe enough.”

“Safe enough?” I asked.

“Well yeah,” she said. “It’s not like anyone can hurt us all the way up here, right?”

“I’m trusting you on this considering you’ve played this game longer than me,” I said.

Keia stepped out into the light first, and I followed. I looked down, and was astonished at what I saw down below.

We were well above a vast quarry cut into the earth with sheer rock walls in a ring all around. To our right was a massive hole in the ground with the remains of what’d once been ornate doors twisted off of that hole and tossed to the side like they’d pissed off a giant who’d gone to town on them.

I would’ve liked to know the story on that one. I also totally didn’t want to meet whatever the hell was powerful enough to do that in a dark alley.

At the other end the ground sloped up until the sheer rock wall became less sheer on both sides as it reached an entrance that opened onto the forest beyond, but it was far enough away that I couldn’t make out anything happening over there.

Basically the whole place looked like the kind of place where they’d film an alien world for an old episode of Doctor Who nearly a century back.

Goblins and players alike milled about down below like angry ants whose nest had been disturbed, and most of them were scrambling to get away from a smaller smoldering crater that had presumably been created by my impromptu grenade I’d inadvertently created by infusing the wrong kind of elemental spell into the wrong kind of gem.

Though that crater was only smaller when compared to the rest of the mine. If the goblins were any scale to go by, and assuming they were the same size as the goblin guards in town or the goblin that’d nearly knocked me over during my first few minutes in the game, then the gem had created a hell of a hole down there.

Not the kind of hole I wanted to be in the middle of while it was being created. When the devs created a fail state they played for keeps!

“Damn,” I whispered.

“Damn is right,” Keia said. “Look. You managed to take out someone from Horizon Dawn with your magic grenade. You don’t have to feel bad after all!”

I felt a moment of satisfaction followed by a moment of panic. After all, if I’d managed to take out someone from Horizon Dawn then there was also a chance I could’ve taken out one of the goblins. I didn’t want that. I was trying to help them, not blow them to smithereens. Not to mention that player would go to the nearest convenient graveyard, while that goblin’s code would go to the great garbage collector in the sky.

Only as I looked down I only saw a couple of rapidly decomposing bodies. No remains that would indicate an NPC had met their untimely end down there. Phew.

“You’re sure the only people who’d be down there are Horizon Dawn people?” I asked. “Like I didn’t accidentally kill someone who was minding their own business trying to level or something?”

“I’m sure,” she said. “The assholes make people pay to go into the instance, remember? They’re not running a raid right now, so if you killed someone down there they were in Horizon Dawn.”

“I’m still surprised those idiots aren’t mining the place,” I said. Even from up here I could see the clear glow of goblinsteel ore all through the walls. “There’s a fortune hidden in these walls alone. If somebody were to set up an actual mass production mining and crafting operation…”

I shook my head. Not exploiting the resources here was a waste, but if my enemies were going to be idiots about using in game systems and waste a bunch of money that was literally sitting right under their noses I wasn’t going to reveal to them how to make that money.

Not when I planned on stealing it out from under them if I could get away with it. Or maybe even killing them and taking over. Yeah, that was a much better plan.

An odd noise moved past my ear and interrupted my contemplation of all the new ways I might exact my vengeance on Horizon from within Lotus. The noise was like a tiny puff of wind. Not that there were many puffs of wind on our level of the arcology. Not unless the ventilation system was screwing up rather than merely not working at all which was its typical state.

“That’s odd,” I said.

A moment later the pain hit. It was very slight. Like when I stubbed my toe. Which is to say it was one of those minor pains that was very annoying because of how minor it was. Then the pain mitigation kicked in, but that didn’t stop me from worrying about the source of that pain.

“What the…”

“You’re bleeding,” Keia said.

There was another noise. Something hit the rock wall behind us. I turned and looked, unblinking and not quite understanding, at an arrow shaft sticking out of the rock above my head.

“Shit!” Keia shouted.

She pulled me down just as another arrow shot through the space where my chest had been. I couldn’t be sure that arrow would’ve killed me, but I was sure it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience getting it lodged in my person.

“I thought you said they couldn’t reach us from down there!” I said.

“I said they probably couldn’t,” she said. “There’s a little wiggle room in that statement.”

“Great,” I said. “We need to get the hell out of here. Now!”

“Totally agree with you.”

Arrows flew through the air making it impossible to stand. So we crawled back into the ring mine. Meanwhile arrows hit the rock and landed on us, but those arrows couldn’t do any damage once they’d expended most of their kinetic energy by slamming against the rock wall instead of burying into our flesh.

“Remind me to never listen to you again when it comes to in game safety,” I said once we were safely back in the mine brushing away dust that’d rained down from arrows hitting the rock.

“Hey,” she said. “That one wasn’t on me. They usually don’t watch those overlooks.”

“Yeah, well they also usually don’t see magic grenades flying out of those overlooks to kill their people,” I said.

Keia sighed. “I also didn’t think they’d be able to shoot us. Like before they couldn’t hit that high, but their archer types must’ve leveled their skills up a bit. The bastards.”

“I thought you hated archery?” I said.

“I do,” she said. “Which is probably why the Horizon Dawn people down there were able to skill up until they could hit us at that range and meanwhile I’m fucking around in the forest shooting people at close range and underestimating their ability because I haven’t been working on my distance shooting with a bunch of trees between me and any far off target.”

“We really need to find you a new class you can get into,” I said. “Because being a half-assed stealth archer doesn’t suit you.”

“I always wanted to be a healer,” she said as we made our way back through the mine. “But those bastards didn’t understand how useful it could be having a good healer in their group. They all wanted to be assassins, and Torian said I was harshing their buzz by being visible when they were trying to sneak around.”

“How on earth did they manage to conquer the local raid dungeon if all they had were a bunch of stealth players?” I asked.

“The ringleaders, people like Torian and Gregor, were the stealth players. Though even that asshole Torian switched it up when he got bored and went to that sword and plate monstrosity. I wasn’t allowed to though, the fucker,” she said, spitting on the mine floor.

“You met Kravos, of course. That asshole was allowed to choose his path too and become their pet magic DPS. They have other players who did tank roles, but the inner circle, the ones who really run things in that Guild, are all a bunch of assholes who liked sneaking around and ganking people. Even Torian still does it from time to time for funsies, for all that he walks around in that plate armor all the time now for show.”

“So all the ringleaders in Horizon Dawn were stealth archers.”

“Well yeah. That’s what I was just saying.”

“And you’re a stealth archer…”

Keia stopped. Turned to stare at me. For a surprise it wasn’t a glare, though. No, she looked genuinely worried.

“Look, I didn’t know what they were going to do,” she said. “All I knew was this guy who had a thing for me in the real world said he could get me into the greatest new video game the world has ever seen and I wouldn’t have to pay. What would you do?”

I frowned. “I’d probably be a little conflicted since I’m not into the dudes, to be honest.”

I managed to keep from smiling for a couple of beats. Then we both devolved into giggles.

“Point is I left their stupid guild and started killing the bastards from the shadows after one run through the ring mines with them. You were the one who was just talking about trust.”

“Yeah?”

“Well now it’s your turn to trust me on this one.”

She had a point. Not to mention I was still suffering from a bit of “teenage dude under the influence of hormones really wants to believe the pretty eyes telling him a pleasing justification for her potentially sordid past.”

“Any group that plays exclusively stealth archers has to be a bunch of flavor of the month chasing assholes,” I said.

“You have no idea,” she said, the tension draining out of her as the conversation shifted away from her time in Horizon Dawn. “You think it’s bad when you’re talking to them out in public. Now imagine the personal hell I had to go through listening to them constantly in guild chat. Always in my head, and always being pricks. When they weren’t hitting on me, which happened way more than I preferred.”

“What amount of hitting on you would you prefer?” I asked, wondering about the answer to that question for personal as well as business reasons.

She hit me with a look that said she knew exactly where I was going with that question.

“From them? Zero. From someone else? Well, I guess that depends on who the someone else is, doesn’t it? Now come on, we need to get out of here before one of their patrols traps us in this mine.”

“Good idea.”

I kept an eye out on our way back through the mine for any sign that new ore veins had popped up. We didn’t have the time to mine them, but knowing the respawn timer would be useful. Unfortunately I came up with a big fat zero.

“Any idea what the respawn timer is on these ore veins?” I asked.

“They’d go through and clear out the ring mines every week or so,” she said.

“I thought you said you left after the first run?” I asked.

“I did, but that didn’t stop me from figuring out their schedule from my hiding spot. I’m not sure if they cleared them weekly because that’s how long it took the ore to respawn, or because it took a week or so for enough goblins to sneak back into the mines to make it worth raiding.”

“Interesting,” I said. “You know it’s odd, too, when you think about it.”

“What’s odd?” she asked.

“Well in the real world steel is an alloy.”

“A what?” Keia asked.

“They take two different kinds of metal, iron and something else I think, and use it to make steel.”

“Okay, so is there a point to this?” she asked.

“The point is why would goblinsteel be something you could mine directly out of the ground? Steel doesn’t come out of the ground. It’s made.”

“You’re asking me questions about real world metallurgy that you’re trying to apply to the in-game crafting system that I’ve admitted, multiple times, I don’t give a shit about?” Keia asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Point taken,” I said. “Still…”

The words died on my lips as we reached the entrance. I’d stepped out into the light without thinking about what I was doing. I’d been so caught up in our conversation that I hadn’t thought about what might be waiting for us at the mine entrance.

Sure there’d been the lone guard Keia distracted earlier, but while we’d been down in the mines I’d thrown an exploding gem that’d obviously stirred up the asshole hornet’s nest if all the Horizon Dawn people standing just outside the mine entrance with nasty pointy weapons drawn were anything to go on.

“Shit. Looks like we didn’t get out of there fast enough,” Keia muttered.

Gregor stood at the front of that group with a smug look of self-satisfaction. Sereh was close behind. The only person missing to make this a who’s who of Horizon Dawn people I really didn’t want to see was Torian, but the people in front of us right now were bad enough.

“Shit is right,” I said.

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<<Chapter 35Chapter 37>>

Spellcraft Chapter 35: Spellcrafting

“I always fucking hated it when people said stuff like that in the movies,” she said. “Like does it really take all that much extra breath to actually say what’s going on rather than hitting me with a cryptic but grammatically appropriate line?”

I held up a finger. For a wonder she went quiet. She made a good point, I loathed that trope too, but I needed to concentrate. There was something going on here, and I was fairly certain it truly was something wonderful.

I just wasn’t sure how wonderful. That would take some experimentation. Was this the sort of Spellcrafting that would let me break the game, or had the devs gone with something lame that was only there to provide minor bonuses and raid enhancement rather than limitless game breaking potential?

If it was raid assistance then it’d be next to useless. If it was potentially limitless gamebreaking potential then I could think of a certain guild funded by a certain soulless heartless multinational entertainment conglomerate that was in line for a good ass kicking.

At least it looked like this time around I had what I needed to get started: those supposedly useless gems rattling around in my inventory.

Something else popped up on my heads up display. Something that made me want to whoop with joy.

You have unlocked Spellcrafting! 

Sub-skills:

Spell Infusion: Add spell abilities to items.

Disenchant: Destroy items for a chance to learn their Spell Infusions.

Spell Insight: Learn spell abilities from creatures, players, or the environment and apply to your Spell Infusion.

Congratulations! Go forth and make awesome shit. Try not to blow yourself up along the way.

That tingling that told me I’d found something wonderful was threatening to overwhelm me now. Like I was on the verge of a really bitching case of the shakes.

“So do you want to tell me what’s going on?” Keia asked.

“Did you throw away all of your Horizon gear?” I asked. “Like do you have anything that has stats on it you wouldn’t mind parting with? It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it has stats of some sort.”

“I threw it all away,” she said. “Why?”

“Never mind,” I said. “Kristoph is going to be pissed off about this, but this will have to do.”

I pulled up my inventory and pulled out Kristoph’s Horizon blade he got off that noob he’d killed. It made my skin crawl to even have the thing in my inventory in the first place, it was a reminder of those assholes who killed Diana, and honestly I was sort of glad to be rid of it.

Especially if getting rid of it helped me figure out a new game breaking toy.

Assuming this even worked.

I looked at the blade. Looked at the red faintly glowing runes running up and down the thing. Only now there was something different about it. Their glow pulsed in time with my hand running up and down the sword’s length, and I felt a pulsing coming from deep within the sword as well.

“What are you doing?” Keia asked. “Do you and the sword need some alone time?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “I was hoping that…”

A new tooltip popped up.

Disenchant?

“Yes,” I said, licking my lips.

“Yes what?” Keia asked. “Yes you want some alone time with the sword? Because that’s a little… What the ever loving fuck?”

That pulsing grew more intense. It seemed to pulse in time with my own pulse. That strange resonance moved up my hand as it was surrounded by a red mist the same color as the runes that sparkled and crackled with the pure raw energy of the spell infusion I was pulling from the sword.

A moment later a notification popped up that my Disenchanting skill had gone up by one, and my overall Spellcraft skill had also raised by one. Which meant that both of them had gone from zero to one.

I’d take it.

A tooltip also popped up. This time I really did get a small case of the shakes as my eyes darted across the text.

You have learned the Spell Infusion Lesser Fire. 

Adds the potential to deal a small amount of fire damage with every swing.

Hey, you! Watch where you’re swinging that magic!

Requirements: A weapon with an Elemental: Fire slot. A gem that can accept an Elemental:Fire Spell Infusion.

“Can I see your sword please?” I asked.

Only there was no response from Keia. I turned to look at her. Her eyes were wide and her mouth hung open.

“What?” I asked.

“How did you do that?” she asked.

“It’s the Spellcraft ability,” I said. 

“The what?” she asked.

“Spellcrafting,” I said. “It’s usually called something like enchanting in other games?”

“Never heard of it,” she said.

“You seriously mean to tell me no one has bothered to learn this in all the time you’ve been playing? This sort of thing is a game changer!”

“I mean a lot of people have grabbed those gems and touched that table before, but I haven’t heard of anyone discovering some special crafting ability,” she said. “No one figured out how to suck the magic out of swords after feeling them up. That’s for damn sure!”

“Are you sure it’s not because someone just hasn’t bothered to pay attention to their tooltips when they touched the crafting table?” I asked.

“No way,” she said. “Watch.”

She walked over. Put her hand down on the table. Looked at me blankly.

“Am I supposed to be seeing something here?” she asked. “Because I’m coming up with a big fat blank.”

“There should be a tooltip that pops up,” I said. “A menu that gives you the Spellcraft option? You’re not getting anything like that?”

“Nada,” she said.

“Weird,” I said. “It popped up for me the moment I touched the thing.”

“Yeah well I got nothing here,” she said. “I’m not doubting you since I saw that light show you just pulled, but it’s not working for me.”

Outwardly I was trying to play it cool, but inside I was ecstatic. Not only was this an ability nobody else had discovered, but there was a possibility I might be the only person who was able to use the ability. Assuming the reason no one had discovered this was because that Spellcraft table didn’t activate for them.

Maybe it was like that Writ of Nobility. There were requirements that had to be fulfilled in order to use the Spellcraft ability, and somehow I’d done it. Somehow I’d unlocked it when no one else had. Or anyone who had unlocked it was keeping their fucking mouth shut.

“So you’re like, seeing a menu to add stats to my sword or something?” Keia asked.

“I have no idea what I can do yet,” I said. “I need to see your sword to see if it even has the slots I need to add a Spell Infusion.”

“You mean an enchantment?”

“The game’s calling it a Spell Infusion,” I said. “I guess they wanted to have their own impressive name for the same old same old.”

“Sounds like it,” Keia said. Her eyes went glassy as she read something in her heads up display. “I’m not seeing anything about Spell Infusions or slots on my sword.”

“Yeah, that’s why I need to take a look at it,” I said. “I’m the one who has the ability, so it might not show up for you. Same as the Spellcrafting ability didn’t show up when you touched the table.”

“Well far be it for me to stop you from figuring this out,” she said. “This could be fucking amazing.”

She grinned, and for the first time since we’d started our little sometimes flirtatious and sometimes snarky back and forth the shield of sarcasm and snark she wore so close seemed to drop as she lit up.

I couldn’t help but smile right back at her. It was nice seeing the real her, even if it was only for a moment.

“You and me both,” I said. “You and me both.”

She pulled out her sword and held it up. It looked like a pretty nice sword, but nothing fancy. Nothing special like some of the Horizon Dawn Syndicate gear, that was for sure. There were no stats, for example.

Though I couldn’t look too far down my nose at the thing. It was a hell of a lot better than the starter sword I still carried. A starter sword I still hadn’t even used in combat. Though a quick glance at the thing sitting in my inventory didn’t show any Spellcraft slots.

Either starter gear wasn’t meant for Spellcrafting, or I hadn’t unlocked something I needed to do spell infusions. I held out my hand for Keia’s sword. It was nice enough that it should have slots.

Only Keia stopped just before my fingers brushed the hilt. Her eyes narrowed.

“What?” I asked.

“How do I know this isn’t some plot to get my sword from me so you can kill me while I’m defenseless?” she asked.

“Seriously?” I asked. “You know I don’t have crap for combat abilities.”

“Do I know that?” she asked. “All I know is you showed up in my forest acting like a complete and total noob, but what if that was all an act? What if you’re one of Torian’s agents in noob clothing sent out there to lull me into a false sense of security so you can kill me when I let my guard down?”

I shrugged. “You’re going to have to trust me at some point. The same as I trusted you not to kill me when we got out here.”

“Trust is hard won in this game,” she said.

I grinned. “Maybe so, but you gotta start somewhere. Or do you want to spend all your game time slinking around in the woods picking off Horizon Dawn people here and there until they finally get tired of it and hunt your cute ass down?”

Her eyes narrowed as she looked into that dark future, but it must’ve worked because she handed over her sword. I took it hilt first, but she held onto it for a moment. Her grip was surprisingly strong.

“Don’t make me regret this,” she said. “It’s kinda hard for me to trust anyone considering what Horizon Dawn put me through, and I’d hate for you to give me a reason to never trust again.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, suddenly not wanting to know what might happen if I did have it in my mind to double cross her.

I got a hint of what might happen when I took her sword. Immediately another one appeared and she put the tip down on the ground and leaned against it as though it was the most casual pose in the world.

Though, of course, as with all things she did there was the underlying promise of violence waiting to be unleashed. I got the feeling that violence would only be unleashed if I did something bad to her sword, and I suddenly hoped I didn’t screw this up.

“That’s my favorite sword,” she said. “So you’d better make this good.”

“But it looks exactly the same as the one you have there,” I said.

“This is my favorite sword too,” she said with a shrug. “Now get to it!”

I looked down at the sword and ran my hands over it. The tooltip said something about slots, which was a pretty typical crafting arrangement for adding stats to an item. Find the slot. Add a Spell Infusion. 

Unless, of course, this sword didn’t have any of those critical slots that were needed to infuse a spell. 

Which might almost be a relief, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally blowing up her sword and maybe killing myself in the process. Or accidentally blowing her sword up and surviving only to get killed after the fact when she killed my ass for blowing up her sword.

I fully intended to follow the tooltip’s advice against blowing shit up, thank you very much.

A new window popped up as I felt along the sword, and I didn’t know if I should be relieved or excited. More the latter than the former. 

The window showed me a diagram of the sword, and there were two slots where I could drop Spell Infused gems in. I grinned even as I felt my stomach twist, because I now had the opportunity to screw this up.

“I think I’ve got something,” I said.

I took one of the gems I’d grabbed off of the Spellcrafting table. It was nice and orange which reminded me of flames, and that seemed appropriate for a fire infusion.

I wasn’t quite sure why I chose one of those table gems. Maybe I was feeling a little contrarian after Keia told me they were useless. I wanted to show her that they could be used if someone with the proper skill came along. 

I selected the Lesser Fire infusion. At least it wasn’t all that difficult to decide what spell infusion I was going to use considering I only had one spell to infuse at the moment.

As soon as I started the infusion a new bar popped up at one hundred percent, but it rapidly went down. It was the familiar blue of a mana bar, even though I hadn’t shown any interest in spellcasting up to this point.

It would appear that infusing a spell into a gem used up mana rather than reagents. That was interesting. The gem started to glow in my hand, and Keia gasped.

I stared at the thing for a moment. Then a tooltip popped up telling me the spell infusion was successful.

“Hold onto your butts,” I muttered as I dropped the infused gem into one of the slots on Keia’s sword.

Glowing runes appeared running up and down the sword, but they weren’t quite the same color as the runes on the Horizon sword. They were reminiscent of flames and slightly orange, and the glow faded until they seemed to be a part of the metal. Not etched on. Just part of the metal.

I held the sword up and it glowed with a faint orange hue.

“Damn,” I said.

“Forget damn,” Keia breathed. “That’s worth a holy shit!”

“Okay then,” I said. “Holy shit!”

“Can I have a look?” she asked, almost hesitant now where she’d been aggressive and potentially dangerous before.

“The sword is yours,” I said.

I held it out and she took it reverently by the hilt. Her mouth hung open as she stared at it.

“This thing will do a few points of fire damage every time I hit someone? That’s amazing! I’ve only ever seen Horizon blades do that.”

“Well I can do it now,” I said. “And that means you can do it too!”

“Can you do another one?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I suppose I could try. That sword has two slots on it that can take spell infused gems. I only have a Lesser Fire infusion, but maybe it doubles the fire damage you do or something.”

“Worth a shot, at least,” Keia said, handing the sword back over.

I pulled out another stone. This one was blue, but I saw other orange gems in my inventory that were listed as flame stones that could be used for elemental flame infusions. It would seem that I only had to figure out what a gem’s use was through trial and error once. 

I had no idea if this new one could be used for a similar elemental ability, but experimenting and seeing what happened was the first step to figuring out how to exploit a system. I only had the one infusion, and didn’t know what would happen if I got the wrong infusion with the wrong gem. Or if it was even possible to put an infusion in the wrong sort of gem.

All I had to go on was past experience in other games when crafting went wrong, and the results usually weren’t good for the person doing the crafting. And there was still that warning about blowing shit up to keep in mind.

Not that it was going to stop me from experimenting.

I sighed. Trial and error could be a bitch, but it was all I had right now.

I did the same process all over again, only this time tooltips didn’t show up. Not that it mattered. I knew what I was doing this time. It was almost as though the game only held my hand until I got the hang of doing something and it knew I didn’t need the help.

Which was a little unsettling for a game that was plugged directly into my head.

I held up the gem I’d chosen. I channeled mana into it for the Lesser Fire spell infusion.

Only this time something different happened. Different wasn’t necessarily good. The thing started to glow with a fitful light from inside. Not at all like the strong light that’d come from the first infusion. On top of that the gem started to get hot in my hands. Really hot.

Dangerously hot.

Fuck.

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