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Mark...Mark...Mark! Get up!”

“Um, Tay? What’s wrong?” My eyes blinked open as I managed a sort of fuzzy consciousness.

As I sat up I heard a deep-throated roar reverberating through the walls of the cabin. Suddenly I was completely awake. Bolting upright, I practically threw on my clothes while Tayla explained. 

“Mom’s wards were breached by an Earth Dragon, we’ve got to run!”

The panicked expression on my sister’s face, combined with another echoing roar told me this wasn’t a joke. I instinctively grabbed my backpack and followed her out of the house.

“What about Mom and Terra?” I asked, looking in the direction of the roaring.

I froze. Even this far away I could see the enormous body partially within the clearing. Layer after layer of glowing runic circles were blocking the creature’s advance, and silver chains of light were pinning its limbs. Even in the moment I watched, the chain wrapping its right foreleg shattered into motes of light. A tiny figure stood in front of the creature, lifting a staff, while another appeared to be appearing and disappearing all around the gigantic reptile, striking sparks on the surface wherever she hit.

“No...” I muttered, eyes wide in dismay. By the Gods...it's enormous!

My sister tugged my arm, tears in her eyes as she yelled,

“We have to go! Mom said she can only hold it back for a few minutes at most.”

For the first time, I truly noticed Tayla’s appearance. Her leather armor was scuffed and torn, and spatters of blood covered its surface. Her long blond hair was in disarray, and her face smeared with dirt. I glanced back at the tiny figure of my mother at the far end of the clearing, and as if she knew I was looking, she turned her head and lifted a hand in a shooing motion. I swallowed. For the first time in my life I felt truly helpless. Against such a creature I instinctively knew the handful of spells I’d mastered were useless. If I went, I’d only be able to offer a second’s distraction, if that. Even then, as if it were in slow motion, I could see the creature’s free limb swipe forward. At the same spot the dragon swept, a figure briefly appeared before being swatted like an insect, slamming into a tree and bursting into a cloud of blood. I didn’t need to feel the thrall-bond go silent to realize Terra had just died. Taking a shuddering breath I grabbed my sister’s hand and ran.

“Let’s go.”

I couldn’t say for how long we ran, but even a forest filled with monsters was a safer place to be than near that...thing. Perhaps all of the monsters felt that way as well, as neither Tayla nor myself encountered a single creature during our flight. It wasn’t until sometime after dawn we stopped, holed up in a tiny, musty rock cave I’d masked with an illusion. Both of us were laying on the dirt floor, desperately trying to catch our breaths. Usually, Tayla would have been the first to recover, but she was still laying on the floor when I managed to sit up. Now that I could see better, I realized a portion of her armor was deformed and she was still making shallow gasps.

“Crap.” I cursed. “You’re wounded. Let’s get that armor off so I can take a look.”

I eased Tayla into a sitting position and carefully worked the leather armor over her head. A portion of her blouse was torn and bloody, and when I unbuttoned it, I inhaled sharply. I could tell that her bottom two left ribs were likely broken and muttered to myself.

“At least I grabbed my pack.”  I said quietly, dismayed at sight of the deformed portion of Tayla’s rib-cage.

I set her armor down in a bundle behind her, letting her rest in a slightly elevated position. Then I started to rummag through my backpack. The moment I saw the padded leather box containing my potions I breathed a sigh of relief and unsnapped the cover. I only had a handful of potions I’d set aside for emergencies. Packed inside were 5 potions: Three health tonics, a stamina tonic and a mana tonic. They were all minor potions, but far better than nothing. Withdrawing a glass phial filled with red fluid, I looked at my sister and warned her.

“Sorry Tayla, this is going to hurt like hell.”

She nodded and braced herself. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to feed her a health potion, but both of us knew the accelerated healing wasn’t exactly a...pleasant experience. With one hand, I popped the cork, then paused, suddenly thinking of something. I stared deeply into her blue eyes and reached for my mana-pool. Exhaling a light mist of mana, I focused my gaze. A moment later, the pink mist only I could see formed, blended with my mana. I maintained my lock on her sky-blue eyes with my own as I spoke.

My voice echoed oddly as I said, “You are safe now. You can relax. Nothing can hurt you. Any pain you feel will be distant, separated from yourself. Follow my directions.”

Keeping eye contact, I deliberately pushed my will on her via the mind magic I’d spent the last decade or so practicing. As her eyes drooped, I could see her body relax. Not wanting to waste any more time, I reached my free hand into the taut flesh of her abdomen and manipulated the broken ribs into their approximate locations. Other than a soft gasp of pain, Tayla didn’t react. Placing the phial at her lips, I tilted it up, instructing her to drink. As she did, her body grew hot and I could hear a faint creaking sound from inside her. Looking down, I could tell her ribs had set and breathed a sigh of relief. A minor healing tonic wasn’t a miraculous potion, but it was about as good as a week or two of natural healing. Even the various scrapes and cuts on her torso had closed.

While Tayla was still in a hypnotic state, I took out the remainder of my first-aid supplies and carefully examined her. Wetting a clean cloth with a small amount of water from my canteen, I gently wiped away the blood on her chest, trying to see if there were any other injuries. The gash above her ribs seemed to be the worst of it and it was closed up now, reddish skin covering the wound. I put together a healing poultice anyway, applying it over top the area. The health potion would leave her feeling weak and hungry for a few hours and the poultice would speed further recovery. If I had the herbs, I’d have mixed some boneset tea but that would have to wait for later. Sometime during the process, I realized Tayla looked lucid again.

“How are you?” I asked.

She smiled faintly. “Better. Really tired and kinda sore, but definitely better.” Sounding curious, she asked, “What did you do earlier anyway? That didn’t hurt nearly as much as I thought it would.”

“I tried to keep you relaxed with a bit of magic. Guess it worked.” I took a relieved breath and smirked. “I can see my cute “little” sister’s grown up a bit too.”

Deliberately calling on my Lilin heritage always had a certain effect on me. Regardless of the person or circumstance a corner of my mind spoke up. Female, attractive, vulnerable, feed. I’d learned to largely block out the unwelcome intrusion to my thought processes, but the faint whisper was always there. The deliberate smirk and comment were an attempt to mask the fact I couldn’t help but notice a partially nude woman inches away. I’d expected her to cover herself in embarrassment, but was a bit bemused when she just pouted and attempted to cup her tiny breasts.

“I’m twenty one and they’re not even an A-cup. Even Terra’s breasts were bigger. It’s not fair that elves grow so slowly. I wanna be sexy, not ‘cute’.” Tayla retorted.

I coughed and folded her blouse over her exposed chest. Taking a deep breath I gave my ‘little’ sister a serious look. Since she didn’t seem to be in shock and was calmer than I expected, I took a deep breath before asking the most important question.

“So, what happened?”

Tayla attempted to sit up, but I pushed her back down.

“Just stay there. You were hurt, how did it happen?” I left unsaid the rest of the question.

Tayla looked up at me, then away as she spoke. “Terra and I were hunting. We went further past the wards than usual while we were following an injured stag. When we finally tracked it down, it was standing still in front of a large cave buried in a hillside. Terra gave me the go-ahead to make the shot, but when I fired the stag jumped out of the way and the arrow shot into the cave. There was a roar then...it came out. Terra and I started running, but the earth just rolled up like a wave and I was sent flying. I smacked into a tree and felt something break but I was so terrified I just got up and kept running...Oh Goddess it was all my fault!”

Tayla wailed and started crying. Without a word I just took her in my arms and started to think. I knew I should be sad, or angry or...something. Instead, my mind was racing. I felt Terra die, and I was certain Alyssa...no, mom had died too. I just couldn’t imagine a single person surviving against that monster.

Tayla still has her bow and a quiver, and she never goes out hunting without a knife. I grabbed my backpack on instinct and there should be two or three days worth of dried food, my medicinal supplies and some miscellaneous stuff I thought might be useful. Glancing at the back of my hand, I saw the eye tattoo. I have my grimoire and my magic, but I don’t really have any way to attack. If we run into any monsters, Tayla’s the only one that could kill them. I know she’s been practicing Aura techniques with Terra lately, but we’re really not prepared to survive in the forest own our own.

After I’d finished cataloging our assets I gave Tayla a gentle hug and pulled back so that I could look at her in the eyes.

“It’s not your fault Tayla. It was just a stupid trick of fate. There’s no way you could have known what would happen, and it’s not like you meant to piss off an Earth Dragon.”

“But Mom and Terra...” She started to say, tears running down her cheeks.

“Terra’s dead, and I don’t think Alyssa expected to survive either.” I spoke in a flat tone. “They gave their lives to buy us some time, so right now we need to figure out how to not waste their sacrifices. I’m...hurting too, but right now neither of us have time to grieve. For now, you need to rest and heal. I’ll try to figure out what we should do next alright?” The last was said in a softer tone as I released and looked her in the eyes.

Tayla sniffled, but nodded and laid back down. As she did, I sat down, facing the entrance to the cave. Taking a couple of swallows of water from my canteen, I set it down then focused on the tattoo on the back of my palm. After a moment, it shimmered and a book appeared in mid-air. With a practiced motion, I turned my wrist and the tome landed on my palm. It had been a while since the last time I called on him, but now I needed something.

Fidelus, wake up. I need to know if you can teach me any offensive magics. I thought towards the grimoire.

After a moment, the familiar masculine voice replied.

{What happened?}

Thinking towards the tome, I mentally replied. Lil’ sis accidentally pissed off an Earth Dragon. It got Terra, and probably Alyssa too. We’re in a cave resting at the moment and need to get out of the forest and towards some kind of town. I need a way to kill, not just confuse and misdirect. 

A moment of silence.

{Well. That’s certainly...interesting. Hmm, here’s something you should be able to pull of with your level of skill, take a look.}

The grimoire opened, and several pages flickered past before opening to a specific entry.

[Mind Blast: An offensive magic that falls within the domain of mental magics. Mind Blast functions by overwhelming the brain of the target with various concentrated stimuli. The effect may be achieved by using emotional and sensory information and attempts to convince the target that they have suffered catastrophic damage to their body, soul or astral form. More effective on targets with a weaker mentality. Especially effective against spiritual constructs, while completely ineffective against anything without a mind. A minor success will leave the target stunned and disoriented, while a greater success can cause the target to die outright. Repeated casts can damage the mind of the target.

Incantation: Fus Ro Dah Et Kroh Sa (Foose Row Daah-et Krowhe Tsah) The first three Words of Power are to be spoken at a rapid pace, with a slight stutter between “Dah” and “Et”. Pause briefly before “Kroh”, then use a harsh tone for the final Word of the incantation.

Process: Gather one’s mana into a solid mass, (Fus Ro) and imagine it full of negative thoughts, emotions and sensations (Dah Et) coinciding with the destruction of the target’s mind (Kroh). Compress the mana into a sharp spike shape, and launch at the conclusion of the incantation (Sah).

Advanced Casting: To perform the spell in a chantless fashion, the caster must condense the effects of the mind magics: [Confusion], [Rage], [Fear], [Pain], and [Sleep] into several “seeds”. These seeds should then be impressed within an illusory matrix consisting of an image of target’s demise, utilizing each of the aforementioned spells during an appropriate moment of the desired mental projection. Create a mana spike "containing" the illusion with each “seed” at a the appropriate stage of the illusion’s temporal component. Once the order of the seeds is fixed into the mana-form of the spike, solidify. Contact of this “spike” with the target’s brain should be set as the release condition for the amalgamated matrix.]

I frowned slightly. I knew how to cast [Confusion], [Rage] and [Fear], and I could probably manage [Sleep], but I’d never learned [Pain]. How was I supposed to cast the spell without having mastered the pre-requisites?

I heard a mental chuckle, then Fidelus "spoke". {You completely ignored the incantation and skipped directly to the advanced casting portion didn’t you? While I admire your determination, there are times you can use a crutch. You don’t need a perfect weapon right now, just a effective one right?}

I felt like slapping myself upside the head. Fidelus was right. I was so used to casting spells the “hard” way, I completely forgot there was an easy way. Now I just needed a target to practice...Figures. As if to answer my thought, a familiar, boar-like creature snuffled its way in front of the cave.

Probably the thing that calls this place home. Well, might as well test it.

Raising up a hand at the creature trying to figure out why it’s "home" disappeared, I followed the visualization outlined and quietly chanted the spell.

Fus Ro Dah-Et Kroh Sa!

Immediately, a black spike formed in thin air and shot directly at the boar’s head. It let out a single pained squeal, then collapsed onto its side, blood leaking out its nose, eyes and ears. I heard Tayla get up and the creak of her bow drawing before she whispered.

“What in the hells just happened?”

I kept my eye on the boar, hand raised. When I was sure it was dead I sighed and looked back. Tayla’s shirt was half-open, somewhat baring her breasts and she was slowly releasing the tension on her bowstring.

“I ah, just tested a new spell.” I said somewhat sheepishly. Truthfully I hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

Tayla gave me a skeptical look. “And exactly what sort of spell makes an Iron-Bristle squeal once, bleed out its eyeballs and drop dead?”

“Don’t forget bleeding from its ears and nose too.” I flippantly replied. I was extremely satisfied to note that the spell barely took 5% of my total mana-pool to cast.

Tayla rolled her eyes. “Just answer the question.”

“Ah, basically it makes the target think it’s dying so much that it actually does.”

“O~kay.” Tayla gave me a long look. “That’s...kinda terrifying actually.”

I shrugged. “Probably won’t work so well against things with a higher resistance to mental effects, but it should work for a stun at least. We’re going to need to get out of the forest somehow and I didn’t want you to be the only one who can fight.”

Tayla laughed, then winced, putting a hand on her ribs. “Well, if you drag that thing in here I can probably at least butcher it for breakfast. I'm hungry enough to eat a toad, boar sounds delicious.”

Glancing up out of the cave I commented. “I think we're closer to lunch actually.”

Nevertheless, I did what Tayla asked. While she carved up the Iron-Bristle, I gathered some wood for a fire. Tayla was moving slowly due to her injury, but it gave us sufficient time to discuss what to do next. We didn’t really have the supplies to properly process the hide, but Tayla scraped it and rubbed it with some antiseptic herbs and fat. While we talked, she used the needle and gut from my first-aid kit to put together a crude, yet functional water-bag. We both agreed our first priority was to find water, and I was hoping to find some medicinal herbs while we looked for a water-source. Fortunately, Terra and Talya had been to a small village in the area, so we had a rough destination. Unfortunately, it would take us at least a couple of days to get there. We could make do with the little bit of rations I had stowed in my pack, provided we stuffed ourselves with the roasted meat today. Neither of us wanted to carry cooked meat with us, as the smell would only attract predators.

On that note, we decided to leave the cave immediately. While Tayla wasn’t fully recovered, she was well enough to move by this point. It was the first time I’d traveled with my sister when she was trying to stay stealthy, and I was shocked at how effectively she masked her presence. Even when I watched her, my eyes wanted to slide away, and once they did I had to “look” for her, despite her being right in front of me. We talked quietly as we walked in the general direction of the village she knew of, and she revealed that Terra had been training her in the Rogue skill: [Mask Presence]. It was an aura technique that when combined with [Silent Steps], made her extremely hard to notice. By comparison, I was far too noisy. If Tayla had been on her own, I figured the small pack of wolves we encountered would have ignored her completely.

The growl was the first and only notice I got that something was wrong before a Direwolf leaped at me from behind. Fortunately, Terra and I had discussed what to do beforehand. I jumped out of the way, while hitting it with an almost instinctive [Confusion] spell. Tayla had already fired an arrow at another Direwolf, and I discovered that she had become terrifyingly good with her bow when she killed it with a single shot though the eye. I used [Fear] on the one I had previously confused, then chanted my new spell as I caught sight of a third trying to take Talya from the side. I distracted the wolves with my illusions, creating false images of Tayla and myself while I used [Confusion] to ruin their coordination. Tayla easily picked off the distracted Direwolves while I mostly just tried to keep them off her. In the end, I killed two with [Mind Blast] while Tayla took out the other three.

Surprisingly, to me at least, neither of us were even wounded in the brief fight. Tayla just seemed to take it for granted that if she was teamed up with her “big brother” of course we could flawlessly take down a group of Direwolves. The fight seemed to bolster her spirits, but I was much less optimistic. Iron-Bristles and Direwolves were small fry in the Shadewood, even if they were considered dangerous predators elsewhere, and we’d only run into five. Direwolves were fast, and their fangs could tear through leather armor like paper, but more importantly tended to hunt in larger groups. Iron-Bristles on the other hand, had a hide the was nearly impervious to normal weapons, and their namesake bristles acted to cushion impacts. I was most concerned about Dark Vipers and Acid Toads actually. Both of them blended into the background and the snake’s venom could kill a normal person in a matter of seconds. The toads weren’t fun either. They had a nasty tendency to accurately target their enemy's eyes with their acid spit. Most of the other monsters in the area were large enough that we could see them in advance, even if we didn’t dare fight them. With Tayla scouting ahead, hopefully we could avoid the nastier creatures.

Towards the latter part of the day we found a stream, and Tayla filled up the water-bag she’d sewn. It leaked a little, but it was good enough. There wasn’t a handy cave to squat in this time, and making a fire would only serve to draw attention, so we spent a miserable night taking turns on the watch. The next day both of us were tired, cranky and sore from sleeping on the ground. We didn’t really argue, but neither of us wanted to talk much. The only real good that came of the day’s travel was that I found a number of useful herbs, which I carefully stowed in my backpack. We were attacked again later in the day, by another pack of Direwolves. This time we weren’t quite so lucky, and I got a nasty slash in my leg. Fortunately, Tayla and I had worked out a system so she knew which targets were the most dangerous. When I confused or feared a wolf, I tagged them with an illusory glow so she knew what was going on. I got four wolves this time, while Tayla got a truly ridiculous seven.

While I applied an antiseptic and a healing poultice to the gash on my leg, Tayla skinned a couple of the better-looking Direwolves. With any luck, we’d reach the village tomorrow and Direwolf pelts were at least a decent trade item. We could have taken more, but we both agreed that neither of us could carry too much and still make decent time. Neither of us wanted to be encumbered if we were attacked again. With any luck, the musk glands I'd harvested from the larger wolves would deter other predators a bit. Somehow neither of us had remembered that trick during our first encounter. I handed Tayla my backpack, and took the water-bag and Direwolf pelts, tying them to my back with some strips cut from the other wolves. It was awkward, but we agreed that it was better for me to be encumbered than Tayla. Her fighting style relied on rapid movement and re-positioning, and she needed to be able to use her bow. Conversely, I only moved to dodge attacks, and being weighed down in no way affected my ability to cast spells. 

The forest was thinning somewhat, and I think both of us we happy to be out of the deep gloom we’d been traveling through for the last couple of days. We still weren’t willing to risk a fire, but we hoped that being within a day’s travel of a settlement meant that the monster population would be slightly thinner. I took first watch that night, and practiced a technique I’d been mentally working out during the day. It was basically the same thing as my [Camouflage] illusion, but spread in a hemisphere surrounding the area we chose to stop at. I found that it actually wasn’t that hard, but the higher drain on my mana reserves made it impractical to maintain for hours at a time. Instead, I chose to process the herbs I’d gathered. Many herbs only had small portions that contained medicinal value, such Lilyworts: where I carefully extracted the pollen, or Lionsbane: where only the inner portion of the stem held medicinal value. Most of these still needed to be dried or infused with mana, but it turned a couple of pounds worth of herbs into mere ounce or so of usable raw materials.

While I worked, I couldn’t help but think of my mother, Alyssa. She’d been the one to teach me all of this. After a while I had to stop. My hands were shaking and I needed to take several long, slow breaths to calm myself. It was strange really. While I was growing up I’d never felt that attached to her. For some reason I’d rarely called her mom or mother, instead addressing her by her name. Now that she was gone though...I couldn’t help but remember the little details that never seemed that important before. The sound of her laughing, the taste of her terribly dry roasts, the way she patiently guided me though sensing and controlling my mana...

She’d raised me and my sister, all on her own. She’d had to flee from her home and family into the depths of a monster-infested forest. I knew I didn’t really understand what she’d lost. After all, the only people I’d ever known were her, my sister, and later Terra. I could vaguely imagine it from the wistful expression she sometime revealed when telling my sister and I the stories of her family and the people of Falewood; of kings and countries encompassing thousands of other people. All of that was just that though. Stories. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be part of a community, let alone a nation. Even the idea of “friends” seemed foreign to me. Now...knowing Terra was dead and realizing my mother had probably died too, it was the first time I really understood the concept of loss. I’d never see them again. Never taste Alyssa’s cooking again, or hear her scold me, or laugh at Tayla’s jokes. I’d never see Terra’s smirk when my "hunger" rose up, nor her feverish expression when her addiction to me caused her to to drag me off to fill her own needs.

Impulsively I raised a palm in front of me. Slowly, strands of light flowed together filling in a vague outline of a bird. Fraction by fraction I filled in the details. The outline of feathers, the shape of a beak, dots for eyes. Bit by bit it became more lifelike, the feathers gaining definition, the eyes brightening, small rustles of movement, until eventually a small, rainbow-hued bird rested on my palm, shifting from foot to foot and tilting its head at me. I could have made the illusory Paradise Feather in an instant, but it just didn’t seem...right. It had been the first time I’d tried to make an illusory animal without the crutch of a chant, and I vividly remembered the scene. My mother and Tayla were practicing archery, and I’d asked her to conjure a small creature I could study. It had taken hours, and given me a horrible headache, but it all seemed to vanish when I ran up to my mother and proudly showed her my creation.

Focusing intently, I willed it to last, to show the same liveliness my mother’s had displayed and tossed it into the air. It flapped its wings, briefly hovering before shooting skyward. I just watched as it grew smaller, fading into the moonlit sky before I closed my eyes.

“Thanks mom.”

It was all I could really think of to say. A sharp ache gripped my chest, and my eyes burned for a moment. I swallowed, then bit back the tears that threatened to fall before opening my eyes again. I needed to finish what I started, and couldn’t afford to be distracted right now. It was just me and Tayla now, and I’d never forgive myself if I let a monster sneak up on us just because I felt like crying.

The rest of the night passed quickly. Some time later, I woke Tayla for her watch, then dropped off like a rock. The following morning, Tayla woke me, and we shared the last of the rations from my pack before setting out. Before the sun had hit its high point, we managed to find a road cleared though the trees. Tayla assured me that if we followed it, we’d reach the village that she and Terra had visited on occasion. While we walked, I couldn’t help but ask,

“So what’s a village like anyway?”

Tayla seemed to be considering her answer before she replied. “Hmm. Smelly, noisy and confusing. There were lots of people like Terra there, and she always made me wear a hooded robe when we were getting supplies.”

“So there were a lot of Laquine-Tribe people there? Why did she make you wear robes?”

“I meant people wearing collars.” Was the reply to my first question. “And I don’t know, she just said that we’d get in trouble if I took it off.” 

I suddenly felt a sense of misgiving. Tayla and I may have both been in our early twenties, but mom had always treated her more like a child than me. To this day I wasn’t sure whether Tayla understood what Terra being a slave really meant. Alyssa had explained it to me, but I understood it in more more profound way. The morning my mother had returned with Terra in tow, she’d had my sister leave the house while she stood outside my door and explained. She had said that she remembered what she experienced when she summoned my father, and put two and two together when I collapsed and both her and my sister had started to experience a feeling of sexual arousal when they moved me inside. Parts of that conversation were doomed to remain in my head forever.

“Listen honey, from what I’ve read, when an Incubus reaches adolescence they start feeling...urges.”

“Mom, I alread..”

She cut me off. “And part of their innate ability is to make girls around them feel the same urges, do you know what I’m talking about?”

I sighed. I’d already had a discussion with Fidelus about this exact topic. “Yes Alyssa. Incubi are also known as lust demons, and they feed off the sexual arousal, pleasure, and climax of their partners. As such, they have a high libido and emit pheromones to attract potential said partners.”

“...” Alyssa was silent for a moment. “Did you and your sister...?”

“No. I did not have sex with my sister, mom. If I had, I wouldn’t be lying here on the verge of unconsciousness, and this conversation would be a hell of a lot more awkward than it already is. Tayla said you went to get something to help, did you get some sort of medicine?”

“Not...exactly. Sorry Terra, you understand the situation now right?”

An unfamiliar voice replied in a resigned voice. “I guess it’s better than being a brothel whore I guess.”

“Then I’ll leave my son to you. Tayla and I will...do some fishing I guess. Let me know when the two of you are done.”

“Yes mistress.”

I heard one set of footsteps fading away, then a sigh from the other side of the door. 

“Might as well get it over with.” 

When the door opened, I was greeted by the sight of a woman I’d never seen before. She was only about 4 feet tall, five if you counted the pair of perky rabbit ears on top of her head. Well, one was perky, the other was partially folded in a droopy fashion. Despite her petite height, she was clearly an adult, as her attractive form and figure attested. It took me a moment to place her as a Laquine, one of the beast-kin races. She was dressed in a plain fashion, wearing a white shirt and poorly-fitted leather pants. Perhaps the most distinctive thing she wore was the once-inch wide metal band around her neck. I could sense the presence of mana in it, and the arcane makings along its surface were unfamiliar, but I could tell it used certain principles of mind-magic.

While I was examining her, she was doing the same to me. Not there was that much to see, considering I was under a blanket and only my head was visible.

“Who are you?” I asked, puzzled and struggling to maintain control of my [Eyes of Lust] racial trait.

She gave me a somewhat annoyed look and replied. “My name’s Terra, young master. Your mother purchased me to help with your...condition.”

I raised an eyebrow. “As far as I know, the only way to help even a half-Lilin with their “condition” is by having regular sex with them.”

Terra nodded. “Pretty much what your mother said my job was.” She paused. “Strange, I always heard that Incubi could make women practically cream themselves with a look. I mean you’re cute and all, but you don’t seem much like an Incubus to me.”

Wryly I responded, “I’ve been practicing restraining that particular gift the last few days, if you want I could stop. Just don’t blame me for whatever happens if I do.”

“It might make things easier for me.” Terra commented.

“Right then.” At this point I couldn’t be bothered to ask about what she meant by being “bought” or it being her “job”. I’d been having a hard enough time restraining my instincts around Tayla. The slight and smell of a woman near me was enough to practically drive me insane with need, and Terra’s comment was the last straw. Not only did I release control, I used my [Eyes of Lust] to focus the pink cloud of pheromones on Terra. Nearly the instant I did, her pupils dilated and she began panting.

“Holy shit.” She cursed, involuntarily stepping forwards. “Guess you are an Incubus. I’ve never felt this horny in my life.”

I was amused to note she didn’t even seem to notice she slipped a hand into her pants and seemed to be rubbing herself. Interestingly, I could feel a faint thread of energy entering me from her actions. Instinctively I knew that the more pleasure she felt in my presence, the more energy I would gain and that if she completely surrendered herself to me, I’d grow stronger than before. At this point, I only had a thin thread of restraint remaining and I smiled as I spoke.

“Well, you’re going to have to take the lead there. For one thing, I’ve never done this before, for another I’m somewhat incapacitated at the moment. Feel like showing a horny teenager the ropes?”

A little to my surprise, the brown-haired bunny-girl blushed. “Okay.”

 

What followed was several of the most satisfying hours of my life to date. At first I could barely move, but as she rode me and came, repeatedly, my strength rapidly returned. By the end of it, she was a drooling, cum-covered wreck and I felt immensely satisfied as I stood over her twitching form. Sometime during the process I’d reached out with my mind and concentrated my pheromones within her body, forming some sort of link between us. It wasn’t until later I understood that I’d turned her into a thrall. While in practically every way she remained the same, she was physiologically addicted to me. Well, specifically my semen. If she went longer than a week without having sex with me, she started acting irrationally. By that I mean she’d follow me around naked and beg for me to fuck her.

I also discovered that there were a few quirks to the thrall-bond. I could sense her location and distance in a vague fashion, and could mentally tell her to find me. I could also control her desires and inhibitions to a certain degree. At first, being a teenage male, this was nothing less than a dream come true. It wasn’t until I gained a better comprehension of the mental bindings the slave collar inflicted on her, and what that meant, that I started becoming disturbed by all of it. A slave collar’s magic made it so that the orders issued by the owner were inviolable. Although it couldn’t directly affect what a slave thought, the total control could, over time shape their mind. This contrasted with the effect of a thrall-bond, which allowed me to affect Terra’s wants and desires, if not her actions.

One day I had a sudden moment of clarity and realized that between the two, Terra no longer belonged to herself in any sense. Not that my mother treated her poorly, or that she ever seemed particularly adverse to being my lover, but I realized it could have been completely different. In another circumstance, she could have been constantly ordered to do things she hated, while her mind was influenced to believe she desired to do those things. Over time, her mind would be altered and she would come to do what she hated as though she had always wanted to do just that. I think it was then that I started to realize the implications of the path of magic I followed, and the effects of my own Lilin heritage. Given time, if I mastered all that Fidelus taught, I would be able to, quite literally turn one person into a completely different individual. Perhaps not instantly, but via careful nudges to their thoughts, impressions and emotions.

Disturbed by the thought, my progress in magic slowed. I stopped learning new spells and merely honed the ones I already knew. It wasn’t until Tayla and I had fled from the Earth Dragon that I actively sought out Fidelus’s advice in learning a new magic. I think it was probably the first time I'd asked him to teach me something in years. Now, Tayla told me the place we were headed had a large number of slaves, and that Terra had had her hide her appearance, I had a new worry. If this place was full of slaves, then it also meant those slaves had masters. I could understand the concept of a “crime slave” as a form of punishment, but I had learned from Terra that many people simply liked the idea of owning another person. My own experience had taught me what a heady experience that could be, and now I had another worry aside from simple survival.

Tayla was, objectively speaking, beautiful. She also looked like a rather young, and therefore vulnerable. I wasn’t sure how her being an elf would factor in, but figured if someone wanted to own a beautiful girl that would maintain her appearance for years, if not decades, she was a definite target. As such, if I wanted to keep my sister safe, I needed to take some precautions. Despite being taught self defense and how to recognize people with hostile intent by Terra; Terra, Alyssa and myself had agreed that Tayla fundamentally believed all people were good. It was likely one of the reasons that my mother had looked at me as more...mature than my sister. As my own nature had taught me, I firmly believed that all people had desires and that the greater that desire, the less they would care whether that desire brought harm to other people. After all, I’d lost myself in my desire for Terra, and subtly shaped her own wants and needs to match my own satisfaction. It wasn’t until later I even realized what a violation of her own free-will that had been. It wasn’t something I could fix either, and I while I had explained to Terra and apologized for what I had done, I knew it was something unforgivable. Particularly since between her thrall-bond and the way I’d shaped her personality, she didn’t even see anything wrong with what I’d done.

If I could so something so wrong without even realizing it, others could do the same. Worse, some of them might know what they were doing, and see no reason to apologize. The sort of people that wanted to own other thinking beings struck me as exactly the sort of person that I should be most cautious of. Now, we had no choice but to head some place that contained precisely that sort of person. While I continued questioning Tayla about the types of places and people she’d encountered within thisvillage, I began thinking of ways to make her a less appealing target to unscrupulous sorts.

While Mark started pondering how to use illusion magic to make Tayla seemed scarred and unattractive, he felt strange. There was a sort of disconnect in his thoughts, as if he was experiencing things from a third party’s perspective. As the disassociation grew, his view became obscured, as if he were walking into a bank of fog. As the fog slowly surrounded him, cutting off all his perceptions, he stopped. He knew he should have felt worried or alarmed by the situation, but instead was filled with a strange calm. An interminable amount of time passed before his mind cleared again.


My name is Marcus Van Doren, I just recently purchased a third-generation Mind-Link console and gained early access to the game Real Fantasy Online. Mark Allbright is the character I created, an illusion-focused mage with the character class Willbender. Everything I remember about his life was outlined by the backstory I created as part of the pre-order bonus. Holy. Fuck. I can’t believe I couldn’t even remember who I really was.

When Mark heard the voice coming from around him, he couldn’t help but jump.

“So, how do you feel about your...character?”

He placed the voice as that of the so-called “Goddess of Reincarnation” that had been guiding him through setting up his backstory and determining his initial skills, stats and allies.

“All right. I admit it. I thought that the whole “Total Immersion” spiel was just advertising, but what the hell was that!?” He exclaimed. “I didn’t even know I was playing a game! For all intents and purposes, I was Marcus Allbright.”

There was a faint chuckle as the Goddess replied. “Now that you’ve had your first real experience playing the game, it’s time for the tutorial.”

Mark scowled for a moment, then popped down and grinned. He had to admit, this was the most...interesting game he’d ever played. Forget about the incredible AI and realism, it might as well be called a second life. Best of all, he remembered all 21 years of his character’s life as though he’d experienced it personally.

“Isn’t the tutorial supposed to come before playing the game?” Mark commented wryly.

The Goddess replied simply, “Until you’ve experienced it, it’s impossible to really grasp what make Real Fantasy Online so different than any other VRMMORPG. There’s an order to everything. Now that you’ve experienced the game, it’s time to teach you how to play it. But first, now that your backstory has been played out, I should show you your final character stats and skills.”

As the omnipresent voice finished, a series of windows appeared in front of Mark’s field of vision. The first few were notifications.

  

Multiple Spells Gained:

Spell Learned: Mind/Illusion: Mind Blast. One of the few purely mental forms of offensive magic, this spell can cause a weak-minded target to suffer an illusion of their own demise. Effects range from instant death to briefly stunning the target. Limited mastery. (Requires mastery of [Mind: Sleep] and [Mind: Pain] prior to acquiring partial mastery)

Spell Learned: Illusion: Area Camouflage. An area-of-effect version of the Spell: [Camouflage], it allows for targets within the spell’s area of influence to remain unseen from without. Range varies with mana expenditure. Requires study of area to be hidden for effective usage.

Spell Enhanced: Illusion: Creature. Caster can now create lasting, independent illusory creatures that behave as though they were a living being. Requires knowledge of the behavioral patterns of the creature to create an independent illusion.

 

Racials Gained:

Racial Trait Awakened: Addictive. Your bodily fluids can create a progressive, physiological addiction in the target. Symptoms include: Increased libido, increased sensitivity, increased suggestibility and decreased inhibitions. Withdrawal can lead to irritation, paranoia, depression, mental instability and seizures.

Racial Ability Leaned: Make Thrall. By causing a target to become addicted to your bodily fluids and focusing your Incubi pheromones within their body, you can create a dedicated servant. Thralls share their Lifespan and Vitality with their master. Their master may alter their emotions, desires and inhibitions at will. Current Limit: 1 Thrall.

Racial Ability Learned: Hypnotic Suggestion. By combining an Incubi’s innate traits with mana manipulation, you have gained the ability to put a non-resisting target into a suggestible state. This allows the user to cause the target to listen to the user’s voice and follow their commands. Dependent on the target’s Focus, Wisdom, and Affinity with the player, the degree of available commands vary.

 

Mark carefully read through each notice and nodded to himself. Basically they were just formalized definitions of the things he’d either accomplished in the last few days, or somehowremembereddoing in his character’s past. Next was a screen that interested him greatly, the detailed overview of his character.

 

Name: Marcus Allbright
Race:  Half-Elf Incubus
Age: 21
Sex: Male
Class:  Willbender
Job: Herbalist
Title/s: Fidelus's Acolyte

 

Strength: 6
Endurance: 6
Vitality: 10
Agility: 12
Dexterity: 12
Reflexes: 14
Intelligence: 19
Wisdom: 14
Focus: 20
Attunement: 4
Aura: 1
Charisma: 15
Influence: 0
Lifespan: 500
Luck: 17

 

Racial Traits: [Pheromonal Attraction], [Addictive]
Racial Abilities: [Eyes of Lust],  [Make Thrall], [Hypnotic Suggestion]
   
Special Abilities: [Chantless Casting], [Holographic Memory]
   
Spells, Illusion: [Object], [Animal], [Camouflage], [Area Camouflage]
Spells, Mind: [Confusion], [Rage], [Fear]
Spells, Mixed: [Aspect of the Demonic Tiger], [Mind Blast]
   
Hebalist Recipes Known: [Healing Poultice], [Boneset Tea], [Feverdrop Tea],[Emetic], [Minor Health Tonic], [Minor Stamina Tonic], [Minor Mana Tonic], [Bell-blossom Poison], [Hycanthia Poison]

   

Mark reviewed the information of his character and nodded to himself. Considering that this game skipped the concepts of level, HP, MP and SP, he was fairly satisfied with what his stats and ablities implied. He realized that while this sort of character build wouldn’t fit a Tank or DPS role, in this sort of game that might not be such a bad thing. For one thing, when he was playing, he didn’t even realize it was a game, so traditional archetypes were...less useful than usual. For another, the skills and abilities he had were extremely helpful from a sheer survival standpoint. He somewhat regretted not having healing magic, considering that potions seemed to merely accelerate natural healing. At least the Herbalist job would let him make potions, something that seemed increasingly important when healing wasn’t a matter of simply recovering lost hit points.

After Mark finished his musings he looked up only to feel a sense of annoyance at addressing a formless, omnipresent mist. While the surround-sound effect had been neat at first, he still preferred to talk face to face.

“So you said something about a tutorial.” Mark spoke.

Almost as if responding to his earlier thoughts, a white ball of light with a pair of wings popped into being in front of him. Instead of echoing from all over, the voice that spoke came from the hovering...thing.

“Hey, listen!”

Mark blinked. “I’m listening.”

The ball shifted to a depressed blue color and commented. “No one gets the joke.” *Sigh* “Right, tutorial. So you may be thinking that if you can’t remember you’re a player, what’s the point in calling it a game, right?”

Mark nodded slowly. “I’d call it more of an experience than a game.” After a brief moment’s thought he asked. “So what’s your name anyway? Now that I’ve experienced RFO, I kinda get why you’re the ‘Goddess of Reincarnation’, but if we’re going to keep talking like this I’d rather not just say ‘Hey you’ or ‘Goddess’.”

The winged ball of light bobbed for a moment, turning yellow before replying.

“Call me Navia. Moving on, there is in fact a way to influence the actions of your character. At the end of each session you’ll see me, as long as your character hasn’t sworn allegiance to another deity at least, and we’ll review what you’ve gained from your last session. After that we’ll go over your goals for your next session.”

Mark noted an interesting piece of information. “What’s this about other deities? Are they anything like you?”

The ball bobbed up and down briefly. “Right. When a player first starts their second life in Real Fantasy Online, I’ll act as their default guide. Once a player has incarnated into their character however, their region, origin and race will influence who their later guide may be. For example: If you had chosen to become a pure elf, Gaia would have become your default guide. Each deity manages a certain sphere of influence, has certain goals, and can convey specific wishes to the people within their realm. As you never specified anything in your backstory about adhering to a certain set of beliefs or morals, and being a mix between demonic and elven blood, your alignment is still undetermined.”

“Alignment?” Mark asked, curious. So far this Goddess, Navia, had seemed to have assumed a helpful role. If Mark had learned one thing from decades of virtual gaming, understanding lore like this was the road to finding interesting quests. Though how that worked when he couldn’t even control his character...

“Right. I represent the cycle, a progression that is neither good nor, evil, yet inevitable. My sphere of influence is that of rebirth and transformation. As such, those that take me as their chosen deity are led on paths that lead to the conversion of one thing to another. The deity opposing me would be Solidat. He represents stagnation, the resistance to changes. Those aligned with him seek to maintain the status-quo, for better or worse. Others represent such spheres as creation and destruction, chaos and order, time, death, fate and chance among others. Once you’ve chosen a deity to follow, you’ll meet with them instead of me.”

The ball bobbed as it briefly paused before continuing. “The heart of the matter though is this: Between sessions, you can shape and influence the nature of your character’s thoughts and goals using your outside knowledge of the situation. For example, your character has never known anyone besides Alyssa, Taya, Terra and the spirit imprint of Fidelus. While Marcus Allbright has an extremely limited conception of interpersonal relationships, and has never left the clearing his mother sequestered from the world; you are familiar with the concepts of cities, guilds and alliances.”

Mark paused. “So, hypothetically, if I understood the value of traveling with a group of experienced adventurers, could I set a goal of searching out trustworthy-seeming individuals to gain experience and knowledge from?”

Navia assented. “Exactly. If you thought that investigating Tayla’s comments about there being a large number of slaves in the village was worth pursuing, your character might have an urge to explore the slave market. On the other hand, if remaining inconspicuous and finding your way elsewhere was more important; you could state that as your objective. How a scenario actually plays out depends on your character, but their overall goals and perspective is shaped by your choices here.”

Mark nodded slowly. He could somewhat understand what RFO intended by setting things up this way. In practically all games, you could look up a guide and know exactly what you needed to do to win. By separating the player and the character in this fashion, they limited that kind of “cheating” to vague courses of action. Essentially, the player acted as the character’s subconscious. They then consciously experienced the consequences of their guidance, as influenced by their character’s skills and personal knowledge.

“So how exactly do the gods play into this?” Mark asked.

“Well, when you have a patron deity, they may offer advice and quests related to their sphere of influence.” Navia explained. “Let’s say you worshipped Nox in the game. Between sessions, instead of appearing in the Mists of Change, you’d appear before the Alter of Night. As the Goddess of Destruction, she might suggest that your character further investigate a rumor they overheard. If you chose to follow that advice it might lead to uncovering something that leads to the downfall of a kingdom. Each player also gains a unique perk for being aligned with a particular deity. As you perform actions on their behalf and gain their favor, the more they are allowed to intervene on your behalf. An Adherent of the Deity is given occasional guidance, while an Agent might receive quests. Each deity is also permitted to have one player Oracle, Hero and Avatar.”

“Alright," Mark mused, "so in addition to their own personal goals, a player’s patron deity gives them other things to accomplish. I suppose my next question is whether this is just part of the game’s setting or do you guys get anything out of it? I assume all you deities are higher order AIs than the usual NPCs?” Mark asked, trying to squeeze out some more useful information.

The winged ball of light representing Navia dipped briefly. “A fair assumption, and yes. Each of us is classed as a Turing-Grade AI. In order to keep things interesting, we’re each allowed to try to shape the world in theme with our assigned sphere of influence. The catch is we can’t take direct action, but have to use the actions of the characters that worship us, and their players.”

Mark laughed, a little stunned at the casual mention of being Turing-Grade AIs. He was also somewhat horrified at the notion that three of these incredibly advanced electronic life-forms were in charge of Death, Chaos, and Destruction. It didn’t matter that this was in a game. It hadn’t been that long ago that a Turing-Grade AI in charge of a medical research facility had indirectly caused Greenland to become an absolute quarantine zone. Accidents could happen all too easily when a being with hundreds of times the processing capability of a human being has a different set of values than a mere "biological". Given the open-ended task of "curing all diseases", that AI had created a synthetic molecule that acted as a near-universal ‘off’ switch for viruses and bacteria. The problem was that it was completely indiscriminate. A portion of Greenland had become a dead-zone within a week, and it had been the only occasion that nuclear weaponry had been deployed simply as a method of sanitization.

Trying to ignore that bombshell, Mark continued. “So did you have any hints of quests for me them?”

Navia turned green and made a raspberry sound. “Nope. Your character hasn’t chosen an affiliation yet. The only reason we’re talking is it’s part of my role as the Goddess of Reincarnation. So, I think that’s probably enough for now. Your body is about to wet itself and you still haven’t made a goal for Mark. You could always let things happen as they may but...”

Mark paused, then thinking aloud he replied. “Well, from what I see my character is completely ignorant of the world outside his books. He’s got the right idea about making Tayla less of a target, so there’s that. On the other hand, they’re both broke. Finding out about how to earn some money should take priority. If there’s a guild or something they can join up with it might not be a bad idea. Since he’s an herbalist, maybe looking for some work in that line would be good, but that would leave Tayla sidelined. Hmm, maybe he could act as though he’s her uncle, letting her get some experience in the outside world?”

Navia interrupted. “30 seconds before I have to log you out.”

His thoughts interrupted by that announcement, Mark cursed. “Shit. Um...Keep Tayla safe, try not to stand out, learn how to earn money, figure out if I should report the Earth Dragon...”

 

Forced log-out in 3...2...1

 

Mark wanted to curse as he was forcibly booted out of the system, then actually cursed at feeling the urgent demand of his bladder. Tearing off his headset, Mark dashed for the bathroom. He breathed a sigh of relief as he leaned one hand against the wall and urinated for nearly a minute. He was hungry, thirsty, and the flashes of “memory” from his life in RFO told him he needed to sleep to let his head square things away. When he’d signed up for the early-access program, he had barely paid attention to the disclaimers and waiver of liability he’d had to to sign. After all, any sort of tech that directly interfaced with a person’s brain to affect one’s perceptual awareness had to carry some risks, right? Now that he was sorting out twenty-some years of memories from his character, he was seriously considering whether this was worth it.

It wasn’t the first time he encountered a unique scenario with neural-interface technology. One predecessor to the Mind-Link headset, D.I.V.E., had an infamous reputation for the lax safety protocols in its design. During the initial launch of what was supposed to be its signature game, one of the designers had hard-coded the game system to prevent 12,000 people from logging out. Worse, he’d set it up so that if the headset was tampered with, it would essentially fry the wearer’s nervous system. The crazy bastard had turned what was supposed to be a fun, fantasy experience into a death-game. If you died in the game, you’d be left a twitching invalid in real life. Mark had been one of the 1183 survivors from that particular nightmare. He’d actually come out of the experience in fairly decent condition compared to many.

The “game” had went on for nearly two years objective, and five subjective before Mark, along with a group of other players had undermined the system and “won” the game. The magic system in the game acted, in many ways, like a programming language. Mark, along with the rest of his guild figured that in any code, there was bound to be glitches. To simplify years of painstaking experimentation, epic battles and the deaths of thousands of people: They figured out the appropriate broken pieces of code that could be used to kill God; also known as the bastard overseeing the system that kept them trapped. Of course, spending several years physically paralyzed while your mind’s been operating at over double its usual rate of activity is bound to have certain repercussions.

Never mind the physical therapy, some people’s minds simply snapped from extreme cases of what was later called Synch-Sickness. It turned out that the time-dilation effect used to make gameplay feel longer than it actually was could end up with real-world consequences. About one third of the people that survived the game would up experiencing 2-3 seconds for every actual elapsed second. Mark was one of the few that could actually control the effect at will. This, combined with surviving the experience and playing an instrumental part in gaining his own freedom was likely why he wasn’t horribly traumatized by the experience. In a way, he felt like he actually owed the asshole “god” a favor. Sure, the physical therapy sucked. On the other hand, he’d gotten something that almost felt like a super-power, albeit a shitty one, some solid compensation money, and a number of people he could truly consider friends.

Now that he was back out of RFO, he had a feeling this was another one of those...unique situations. While he heated up some food to fill the void in his stomach, he mulled over what he knew so far. Glancing at the clock, he figured his second session had lasted for about 9 hours.

RFO’s system can directly affect my memories. Not only can it block out knowledge that I have an identity outside my character, it can give me memories I shouldn’t have. It’s a little fuzzy, but I can remember enough of “Allbright’s” life experiences that I can compare it favorably with my own. This alone is ridiculously dangerous in its own way. I have, more or less, 80 years worth of memories if you add game years to real years. As such, dumping 20 years more on top of that isn’t enough to brainwash me. Get some kid who makes a character who’s lived more years than their own and they might start confusing which was their real life.

Next there’s my character’s class and race. If  I’m understanding things right, Allbright’s basically made to brainwash people and rewrite their “in-game” memories. Fucked up as that is, when you consider how that might affect a person in the real world it's even more screwed up. I mean, while you’re playing, you might as well be that person. It’s definitely more than just a character with the way things are set up.

Then there’s the “Goddesses”. Fuck me, if what Navia claimed was true, there’s at least 9 Turning-Grade AIs in play within the system. It’s entirely possible this entire “game” was made to keep them amused. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a super-intelligent artificial intelligence was kept from causing trouble by giving them something interesting to do. On the other hand, that could just be a bunch of bullshit. There’s only about 20 publicly known TAIs in existence after all. What are the odds that there’s 9 in a single game, no matter how advanced?

Last, but not least, the degree of time-dilation. It’s hard to tell, but from how which memories of the last session were particularly, I figure half was actual experience, half implanted memories. After all, there’s no way in hell Allbright and Talia could have beaten 11 Direwolves with barely any injury. That was probably the system taking over to prevent me from dying “too early” in the game. The memories immediately before and during feel a little more, I don’t know...foggy? So, the real question is do I want to keep playing?

It wasn’t much of a question, as anyone could have figured from seeing the grin on Mark’s face. Ever since the death-game incident, this was practically the sort of thing he lived for. After he finished eating, he made a couple of posts on his weblog with his impressions from his second session. He revisited the forum he’d posted on before, noting his speculations, then waved away the virtual display. He needed some sleep before “Allbright” got to town. Mark had a feeling things were going to be interesting.

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A note from pyrowind

So there's Mark's second session. It'll be a while before I have the third chapter ready, so here's some questions for the readers:

How do you think Mark and Tayla's relationship should play out?

Should Mark join a party, or buy a replacement for Terra?

Which God/Goddess should Mark Allbright choose to follow?

 

P.S. If anyone out there is skilled in the art of Table-Fu, I'd love some help in creating a unified character sheet. I have no idea how to create a single table with varying numbers/sizes of rows without affecting the whole thing. What I'd like to do is have something with the character's vital data on the left, stats to the right, and skills beneath.


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pyrowind

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