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A note from pyrowind

Thanks for all the comments and feedback! Here's another 12k+ words to digest.

The following morning Mark woke up to a familiar tune being played. He never wanted to forget the experiences he’d had playing World Arte, and chosen his alarm to play the music he heard during the final battle. It also happened to serve as a handy method to cope with his condition. As he concentrated, the music slowly returned to its regular rapid-paced strains of guitar riffs and rythmic precussion.

“I’m up.” He announced.

After a minute the music slowly faded away and Mark made his way out from under the covers. He felt more tired than usual, but the random fragments of “Allbright’s” memories weren’t flashing though his mind like they had the previous day. Mark yawned, scratching his chest while he ambled towards the bathroom. Following his morning ablutions, he shook a couple of pills out of a plain, unmarked bottled and swallowed them down dry. From experience, he knew it would take twenty or so minutes for the drug to take effect. Keeping his concentration up, he fixed himself some eggs, bacon and a glass of grapefruit juice. While he ate, he called up a terminal and started searching through the RFO official channel. He was somewhat curious how other Early Access players were reacting to the game.

 

<DarkMagius126> How the hell is this a “game”!? My character’s life seems more real than myactuallife! 

<Phullfy> IKR?> I canrememberspending years learning how to train monsters. 

<Trololo> It aint funny man, I picked a monster race. When I’m playing my character all I think about is hunting weaker monsters and eating people. 

<For_The_Lulz> F#ck&ng. Awesome. Dude, I just spent 30 years building a merchant empire. I OWN YOU ALL!

<Makromore> Anyone else worried about dying? It’s too real.

<Jack_O_Nine> Pussy.

<Makromore>Yo, fuck you! 

<Admin> Banned: Jack_O_Nine, Makromore

<DarkMagius126> @For_The_Lulz, just wait till the invasion, you’ll see. You’ll all see...

 

The rest of the comments were the usual mix of inanity, boasting and general bullshit, so Mark didn’t bother to read further. Closing the channel, he logged into the forum he and his friends frequented. There was a couple of replies to his comment about Synch-Sickness.

 

[Elite Member: Eddie_the_Reaper (Offline)]>

Yo boss, you serious? That sounds pretty dangerous. You sure you want to be a lab rat again?

[Elite Member: Master_Of_Chaos(Offline)]>

Make sure you keep us up to date, I've been hearing some odd rumors lately. Been trying to reverse engineer the headset, but the damn thing might as well be a black box. All I can say so far is the tech's definately an order of degree more sophisticated than the last gen, haven't seen anything like it. 

[Elite Member: Aurora_Field(Offline)]>

Well, guess it’s a good thing we decided only one of us should try it out. Anything you can tell us about the system that won’t trigger the NDA nanos?

 

Mark smiled briefly. His old group had had some bad experiences with neuro-tech and virtual worlds in the past. Because of that, they had a standard policy of only having a single person participate in the beta-testing of VR worlds or trying out new hardware. After probing his mind to see what he could and couldn’t write, he replied. 

 

[Elite Member: Godslayer(Online)]>

The NDA enforcement’s fairly strict. What I can say is the game’s taglines are dead-on. What is, by definition, “The Best AI”? Isn’t our own perception of reality “Total Immersion”? I wonder if we would be immersed in our world if we “remembered” living in another...From what I can see this one’s dangerous in a variety of ways. Fucking amazing, but dangerous. I’m not really sure what this game really is at this point, but I’m going to stick with it. It’ll be harder to meet up than usual, but if anyone wants in I could use a solid crew. I’m running a Control Caster with affiliated racials, need: Melee Tank, Magic Healer, DPS, Crafters (Weapon/Armor/Enchanting/Alchemy). Have an AI Ranger/Rogue ally, could use a specialist. If you’re in, the “backstory” isn’t bullshit, could offer some unique perks since it’s total free-form. Just watch out for balancing benefits with detriments, the gods are watching.

 

Mark posted his reply on the thread he’d created earlier. He had no idea how the hell his teammates would meet up if anyone decided to take the plunge, but figured the more allies the better. Hopefully if anyone else could get an Early Access pass, he’d be able to discuss things with them in more detail. Artificial contract enforcement could be a real pain in the ass at times like this. He had really wanted to write up his experiences and conjectures in detail, but whenever he skirted too close to the non-disclosure clauses, he literally froze up. Just typing out his reply had taken nearly an hour of careful wording to avoid triggering the NDA nanos.

One good thing was the drugs he’d take earlier had had a chance to take effect. Now he didn’t need to focus to keep his time perception on track. Before he logged back in, Mark made a point of spending the next hour doing various exercises to keep his body in shape. Mostly Tai-Chi and Yoga. He didn’t really care about being some muscle-head, as most of his time was spent in VR. Actually, in a way it was so he could spend more time in VR. Most systems had various fail-safes to keep the user from physically damaging themselves and one of the prime factors measured was whether there was any form of atrophy in the body’s nervous system. People that weren’t physically fit could generally only remain “logged-on” for four or five hours before being kicked out. By maintaining his body’s condition, Mark could usually spend a good twelve hours online. 

Mark ate a quick snack, drank some water and set an alarm for 3 hours. Taking a moment to make sure he hadn’t forgot anything, he laid on his Dive-Bed, slipped on the headset and spoke. 

“Mind-Link, engage.”

 


 

Tayla wasn’t exactly thrilled when she heard my idea.

“You want to make me look horribly disfigured?” She stated in a flat tone.

“Pretty much. Look, it’s not like it's actually real. I just want to avoid drawing the wrong sort of attention.”

It was the third time I’d tried to explain it to her, and Tayla just wasn’t getting it.

I sighed. “Look. You know Terra was a slave right?” 

Tayla rolled her eyes at me. “So what?” 

“Do you really get what that means?” I asked in a serious tone. “She literally had to do anything our mother ordered to do. If Alyssa told her to set herself on fire, she’d do it. She wouldn’t have a choice.”

“Mom wouldn’t do something like that though, so it doesn’t matter.” Tayla said, pointing at me like she’d proven something. 

I just rubbed my eyes. We’d stepped a little ways off the road so we could have our talk. When I first saw the...what’s the word? Right, palisade. When I saw the thirty-foot tall palisade surrounding the village we were headed towards I was more than a little surprised. The largest structure I’d ever seen was the cabin we all lived in, and the first few feet of the wall completely dwarfed that. I wasn’t shocked at the size of the wall. What made me freeze for a moment was the implications. The wall of sharpened tree trunks extended in a large circle, hundreds of feet in diameter and it suddenly struck me that there were people here. Lots of people. More people than I had ever imagined seeing before. Intellectually, I knew that this was a small village. There probably wasn’t even 300 people living inside it. Towns might have thousands, and cities, tens of thousands. The thing was, those were just numbers. This...represented something I’d never come into contact with before. 

Suddenly, my earlier worries about the nature of the people inside hit me. 

Tayla said that she saw lots of people wearing collars. If there’s slaves, there’s slavers, and I can’t expect everyone to be friendly. What if someone captures Tayla and makes her into a slave? I might not get her back. Maybe I could handle it if it were four or five people, but what if it’s ten, or twenty? I can’t fight that. I wouldn’t have a chance.

In my brief fit of panic, I drew Tayla off the side of the road and tried to explain my worries. She...didn’t get it.

“Besides,” She continued. “Why would someone try to make me a slave anyway?”

I shut my eyes for a moment. “Look, you know you’re beautiful right?”

Tayla blushed shyly and looked away. “Aw, thanks Mark.”

I rolled my eyes and rapped her on the head. 

“Ouch! What was that for?” She complained, rubbing the spot I hit.

“You just don’t get it do you? Here’s the thing...” I took a deep breath before continuing. “You know that as an Incubus I need to have sex right?”

“Yeah...” Tayla looked at me warily, not sure where I was going with this. 

“Well most also guys want to have sex. In general, they want to do it with a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, not all beautiful women would want to have sex with them. A slave can’t disobey their owner. If a man wants to have sex with their slave, they can’t refuse. Since you’re beautiful, and might not want to have sex with a guy that wants to do it with you, they might want to make you a slave instead. That way, you wouldn’t be able to refuse them.”

Tayla paused for a long moment after I broke this approach down step by step. “Oh. I get it now! Since you want to have sex with me, you don’t want someone else to make me their slave and force me to have sex with them instead.”

I slapped myself in the face. “*&%@! Seriously Tayla!?”

Tayla snorted, then burst out laughing. “You should have seen your face! And what the hell was that gibberish you spouted?” A minute later, Tayla’s laughter faded and she spoke in a more serious tone. 

“Really, I understand what you’re worried about now. You think that someone will see a young, pretty elf-girl and think that she’d make for a good slave. You’re just worried that someone will try to take me from you and you won’t be able to stop them, right?” 

Despite Tayla’s tendency to look at the brighter sides of things, she had a pretty good head on her shoulders. She just liked to mess with me. 

I breathed a sigh of relief, then nodded. “Yeah, more or less.” Looking to the side I continued, “I’ve never been in this sort of situation before and you’re the only person I’ve got left. If I lost you...” I shuddered, then looked back at her. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to protect you on my own, so the only thing I can do is make it less likely that someone stronger than me will take an interest in you.”

Tayla smiled sadly and gave me a brief hug. “You’re plenty strong, you just don’t know it yet. If it makes you feel better though, I’ll go along with your plan.” She scowled. “Don’t think I’m happy about it though.”

I chuckled. “All right, here goes then.” 

I stared at Tayla, fixing my sister’s appearance in my mind. There were a couple other spells I knew that worked in a similar fashion as to what I wanted to accomplish. [Camouflage] and [Aspect] both overlaid an appearance on top of an existing area or object. Mentally, I started to analyze how the two spells worked when I was interrupted by a familiar voice.

{You know, rather than try to make things up from scratch, I could just show you the [Disguise] spell.

I blinked, glancing at the tattoo on the back of my hand.

“Seriously?”

Tayla looked confused. “What? Talking to yourself again?”

I’d never explained that my grimoire housed the remnant spirit of an archmage to my sister; one of the reasons I’d learned to keep my conversations with Fidelus secret. I wasn’t sure why, but I had the feeling I shouldn’t reveal too much about my father’s “inheritance” to anyone, even Tayla. Instead I dissembled. 

“I just remembered that my spell-book had something about disguise magic inside it.” 

Without further explanation I focused. My tattoo glowed briefly, then shattered into motes of light; transforming into the grimoire in mid-air. Tilting my wrist slightly, the golden-lettered, black book dropped into my palm. It flipped open, pages flipping past until it reached a specific section.

“No matter how many times I see that it’s always fascinating.” Tayla commented.

I looked up at her briefly and grinned. “Still jealous?”

Tayla pouted. “A little. It’s not fair that you can do all that cool magic stuff.” 

Rolling my eyes, I replied. “Yet you’re the one who can kill Direwolves at a hundred paces and blow holes through trees with aura-infused arrows.”

Tayla scratched the point of one of her ears. “Ok, I guess that’s pretty cool too.”

“Mind keeping an eye out? I need to sit down and study for a couple minutes.”

“Sure.”

After she spoke, I sat back against a tree-trunk while Tayla prowled around the area. We were far enough off the road that it wasn’t quite in sight, but I didn’t want us to be caught by any unpleasant surprises. I looked at the page Fidelus had revealed and nodded. This was exactly what I had in mind.

 

[Disguise: A magic in the school of Illusion, [Disguise] allows the caster to alter the appearance of themselves or their target. Most factors can be adjusted, be it height, weight, race, gender or other physical characteristics. This spell can be reinforced with various mind-magic spells for an enhanced effect. The caster should be aware that since the effect is purely visual, others may discern the illusion if they come into contact with the [Disguise]. It is recommended that the caster base the illusion on existing characteristics of the target to avoid premature detection. The duration of the spell varies, dependent on the amount of mana used; lasting for a minimum of 1 hour unless forcefully canceled.

Incantation: “Elesva Du Troe Nict Va Somos Krah Recto” (Ellesvah Doo Tro Nikt Vah Soemos Kraa Rektoe) The first four Words of Power should be spoken in rapid succession with a brief pause before “Va” and “Somos”, another brief pause should be taken before the final two words. These should be spoken in a tone of authority. 

Process: Lightly cover the target with a mist of mana beginning from the first word. While visualizing the final appearance, continue to provide a steady flow of mana until the final two words are spoken. A larger amount of mana may be injected at the moment of solidification to extended the duration of the illusion. The amount of mana needed varies depending on the degree of change, while the verisimilitude of the illusion relies upon the imagination of the caster.

Advanced Casting: One of the easier spells to cast in a chantless fashion (Provided the caster can silently cast the illusion spell [Creature] ), the caster must have a perfect image of the illusion they wish to place upon the target. If the caster does not have a perfect image, using the chant is more effective. Using the same process as the illusion spell [Creature], condense an outline of the desired changes. While maintaining the outline, emplace the desired image on the target. To enhance the effects, many supplemental magics may be used on those viewing the target under the influence of [Disguise]. These include, but are not limited to: [Trust], [Fear], [Rage], [Lust], [Envy], and [Confusion]. Appropriate supplemental spells vary by situation.]

 

I smiled when I read the entry. Perfect, that’s just what I wanted. I thought.

Fidelus chuckled. {The way you were going to go about it likely would have worked, but it would have been much more mana-intensive.

I didn’t bother to reply, simply nodding and dismissing the grimoire. As I did, it vanished into motes of light, only to reform as the eye tattoo on the back of my hand. After reviewing the process, I stood up and called out to Tayla. 

“Hey sis, come here for a minute. I think I’m ready to try this out.”

A minute later I jumped when Tayla tapped me on the shoulder.

“Gah!” When I say the smirk on Tayla’s face I scowled. “Dammit, you scared the hell out of me.” 

Tayla grinned. “Preemptive payback.”

I just looked up towards the heavens for a moment before I spoke. “Right. Just stand there for a moment, alright? This should only take a minute.”

I concentrated on Tayla’s features, pulling up a mental image of her in my head. Ever since I’d been young I’d had a remarkable memory, capable of perfectly recalling practically anything I’d previously studied. Since my magic required both memory and imagination, this was an incredibly useful trait. Now, I took the mental image I had of Tayla and warped it. I imagined the left side of her face covered in a purplish scar pattern, as if she had been badly burnt. Instead of a sky-blue, I pictured her left eye as an almost milky color. I left her nose untouched, but warped the side of her lip slightly. I knew I couldn’t imagine it perfectly. After all, I’d never really seen injuries like what I was imagining before. Once I had the rough imagery in my head I nodded.

Following the directions I’d read, I chanted, “Elesva Du Troe Nict Va Somos Krah Recto!” 

I didn’t bother adding any more mana than what the spell demanded. First I needed to see how well it worked. As the changes to her face took place I couldn’t help but wince. She looked...bad. Whether it was due to the chant’s guidance or my own imagination, Tayla looked like she had been horrifically marred by fire at some point in her life. The crinkled flesh wasn’t even the worst of it. For some reason, seeing the milky white eye, devoid of any of its usual sparkle hit me the hardest. If I hadn’t known it was only an illusion, I probably would have been traumatized at seeing my sister like this.

Seeing my reaction, Tayla hesitantly asked, “Did it work?”

I nodded. “Yeah, to be honest...you look like you’ve been through the hells.”

Tayla scowled, a particularly unpleasant expression considering her current appearance. “That’s not something a girl wants to hear you know?” 

“It’s for a good cause.” I retorted. “Besides, it’s just an illusion anyway.” 

“Still.” She pouted. While usually cute, the twist of her lip changed the expression.

Alright, next step. I thought to myself. Seeing as the spell worked, I had a devious idea how I could perform the spell without the chant. I just needed Tayla to cooperate for a bit. Tayla, on hearing my request sighed, then complied. Over the course of the next few minutes she contorted her face into various expressions. Anger, sadness, happiness, laughter; I had her imitate any sort of emotion and facial expression I could think of. When she finished, I dismissed the spell. Concentrating, I tried to cast it again, this time without the chant. Aided by the expressions I’d seen her make, I now had a perfectly clear mental image of what her [Disguise] should look like. Surely enough, after a moment the spell coalesced. Pumping a third of my mana pool into the illusion, I nodded.

“There, that should do the trick.”

About the same time, I heard Fidelus “speak” in consternation. {Are you kidding me? That’s cheating! You shouldn’t be able to use a chant to master the chantless version of the spell.}

A little pleased with myself, I thought in retort, Really? Seemed pretty obvious to me. If the only issue was having a “perfect” mental image, then why shouldn’t I use the chant to give me the image to memorize?

{Bah. I suppose you’re right. I guess I’m just annoyed that you figured out that trick so quickly. It took me a good year before I realized it could be done like that.}

My mental conversation with Fidelus was interrupted by my sister.

“Well, if you’re done, can we get going already? I kinda want to get inside before it starts getting late.”

I nodded. “You’re right, let’s go.”

Once we got back out of the woods towards the road, I once again saw the palisade that surrounded the village. As we got closer, I noted watchtowers rising slightly above the walls, stationed every fifty feet or so. Probably so they can shoot monster from a distance. I thought, evaluationg their purpose. There was a small gap in the palisade, with a wooden gate that looked like it could be dropped into place. On either side I saw a pair of tall, muscular figures. They weren’t elves, nor the Half-Laquine variant of beast-kin I was familiar with. Instead, the two figures actually bore a remarkable resemblance to the Direwolves Tayla and myself had fought. Obviously they weren’t, but it took me a moment to place the species.

They were Lupines, a species of beast-kin that more closely resembled a creature than an elf. Standing nearly 7 feet in height, they had furred legs whose knees bent in the opposite direction of most humanoids. They were barefooted, but from the bestial traits they possessed, it was clear that they didn’t need them. From what I could tell, they largely posessed the features a wolf might have. The same went for their faces, as they bore a similarly elongated muzzle. It was clear they were sentients though, as could be evidenced by the leather armor and large weapons they bore. 

As Tayla and myself approached, one of the two stepped forwards. 

“State your business in Halvine, Elf.”

The tone wasn’t hostile, more indifferent than anything, so I figured it to be a routine query of sorts. I couldn’t be sure, but when he glanced at Tayla I thought I saw a flicker of distaste.

In a voice calmer than I actually felt I replied. “Trading and resupply.”

The guard nodded, stepping back. “Go ahead.”

Taking a chance, I asked, “Got a couple of Direwolf pelts, know anyone that would want them?” 

The guard tilted his head slightly. “If you aren’t an Adventurer, you could try Jay. Might give you a better price. His place is near the east wall, if you head that way just follow the smell.”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

Knowing that tanning usually involved a variety of unpleasant substances, I wasn’t confused by his comment about the smell. At the same time, as me and my sister passed the walls, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to tell the difference. There were three things that hit me as soon as I saw the settlement inside. One: There were more houses and buildings packed within than I had expected. Two: There was, to me at least, a terrifying number of people walking around. Three: It reeked. Seriously, the scent of sewage and unwashed bodies was almost palpable. While I had never really thought taking a bath every day was important, now I had an immense appreciation of why Alyssa had insisted on it.

When I briefly froze, Tayla took my hand and tugged. 

“Come on, Terra showed me where the Adventure’s Guild was the last time we came here, I’ll show you the way.” 

I didn’t want to stand out, but to some degree I’m sure I did. Everywhere I looked there were people of various races talking, arguing, or shopping at the various stalls set up along the road that ran through the center of the village. I didn’t see any other elves, but there were several more Lupine men and women, a few Felin, a couple of Humans and I think I even saw a Dwarf haggling over the price of something. Really, it might not have been more than thirty people I saw, but this was still several times more people than I’d seen in my entire life previous to this. A couple of people gave me and my sister curious looks, and from how they quickly looked away, I figured the illusion I’d placed on her was doing what I hoped.

Since Tayla seemed to know where we were headed, I was content to follow her lead. While we walked, I noted that the “village” was actually organized more along the lines of a town. Not that I’d ever seen one, but somehow I’d thought of a village as a more...sprawled-out affair. Here, I could see signs of clear structure. The main road cut directly from one side of the palisade to the other. The area we’d first entered from seemed like a trade square of sorts, with a handful of stands manned by hawkers peddling their wares. They seemed to be temporary, easily removed structures. Somewhat further down the road was a building from which the scent of food overpowered the otherwise unpleasant smells I’d been engulfed in. If Tayla and I had any money, I think we probably would have stopped right there. Beside it was a larger, three floor building from which a sign emblazoned with a crescent moon hung. I wasn’t certain, but thought it might be an inn. There was another road running perpendicular to that building, and I could hear the sounds of metal being stuck. A blacksmith maybe? I thought to myself.

When we turned to walk down that same road, my suspicions were confirmed. A little ways down the way I could see an open-air smelter being attended by a pair of humans wearing collars. Seeing that, my eyes narrowed slightly. The building we headed towards however, was near the western wall of the palisade. It didn’t look like much, but the sign proudly standing over top its door was one that Alyssa had described in vivid detail. It was roughly done, but I still felt my heart speed up a bit when I saw it: A large kite shield, with a winged Red Dragon painted upon it. Beneath were four figures. A Mage raising his staff, an Archer drawing his bow, a Rogue with daggers drawn and a Warrior raising his shield against the dragon’s flame.

Ever since we were little Tayla and I had talked about one day going on adventure and becoming famous heroes. Of course, as I got older it seemed a little silly, but the stories Alyssa used to tell us still had a place in my heart. In fact, the reason for the Adventure’s Guild emblem was one such story: A tale of four friends who took on a dragon and actually won. Supposedly these four were the original founders of the guild. They created the first formal organization specifically meant to tackle monsters that would otherwise remain unchecked. It had an official presence in nearly every dangerous region of the world, and its members often received special privileges. For one thing, the identification card it issued was considered valid in practically every kingdom in the world. For another, famous adventurers were often granted a Writ of Nobility, allowing them to command common soldiers or legally act as judges in disputes. 

Before I knew it, the two of us were standing outside the door. But before we had a chance to enter, the door crashed open and a body came flying towards us. For a brief moment, everything seemed to slow down and I instinctively grabbed Tayla and moved to the side. As everything went back to normal, a feminine voice yelled out from inside.

“Next time you try to pull that kind of shit I’ll do more than just throw you, I'll cut off that damned hand!” 

As the door swung back shut I glanced at Tayla, then back to the figure that was just standing up. The black haired man sported a pair of Felin ears, and I noted a tailed flicking behind him. Interestingly, his features seemed largely human or elven, so I deduced he must be a half-breed of some sort. As he brushed off his leather armor he glared at the door.

“Stuck up bitch.” He muttered. Looking over at Tayla and myself he scowled. “What?” 

I just raised an eyebrow. “Don’t see people flying too often, rough day?”

Surprisingly, the man just chuckled at my response then grinned. 

“Nah, got some silver from completing a request, can’t be that bad. You new? Haven’t seen you two around here before.” 

Despite the circumstances of our introduction I actually felt a positive impression of the Half-Felin. As such I nodded and introduced myself.

“Yeah. I’m Mark, and this is my s..niece, Tayla.”

The man nodded and offered his hand. “Name’s Effram.”

I shook the proffered hand and Effram turned to Tayla.

“Looks like that must have hurt.” He commented, gesturing at the “burns” that marred half her face. At the same time he offered his hand to Tayla.

She shook his hand as well, looking a bit confused. As a way to dispel her confusion and answer his comment at the same time I spoke. 

“Yeah, got caught in a house fire when she was just a kid. Still a better archer with one eye than a lot of people with two though.” 

Tayla suddenly seemed to realize what Effram must have been referring to and scowled at me. Effram just nodded.

“Don’t see too many elves around these parts. You two here to put in a request?”

This time Tayla answered. “Actually, we were hoping to register as adventurers.” 

“Hmm.” Suddenly Effram began to scrutinize the both of us. “Alright, I can see the young miss has some training. Ranger or Rogue most likely. From the stability of her aura she at least knows how to use it a bit. You though...” He examined me again. I was a little uncomfortable at the intensity of his expression. “What’s your specialty? You don’t look like much of a fighter but from the way the girl’s standing she looks like she trusts you to protect her if something comes up.” 

I paused. A few pieces had started to come together in my head. I’d just seen this man get thrown out a door then stand and brush himself off as though it were nothing. His armor, though only made of leather, was clearly of a fairly high quality. Despite the dirt he’d just brushed off, he was clean. Well, cleaner than many of the people I’d noticed. More importantly, he had accurately assessed Tayla’s training at a glance. Somehow I had the distinct impression that this Effram character was anything but simple.

My eyes narrowed slightly. Ally or threat? 

Almost immediately Effram backed up a step and put up a hand. “Woah there, calm down. I’m the lead of a small team and we can always use a couple people. If you’re registering as an adventurer I just thought I could get a head start in scouting out the new talent.”

I noted that while he’d backed up and put up a conciliatory gesture, his other hand was never far from the hilt of his sword. After a second I nodded. 

“I’m a mage.”

Hearing my reply Effram’s eyes widened slightly. “Really now. What’s your best spell?” 

I frowned. “That’s actually a rather difficult question, define ‘best’.”

Effram chuckled. “Fair point. How about this, if you were on your own and suddenly three Direwolves popped up 10 feet in front of you, how would you handle the situation. Quickly now!”

When he barked the last of it, I almost involuntarily replied. “Tag all three with [Confusion], use [Aspect] on myself, charge, hit one with a [Mind Blast], then [Fear] the other two. From there it depends.”

Effram blinked. “Now that’s uncommon, not a lot of people that can use mind magic. What’s [Aspect]? Never heard of that spell before.”

I grinned. “This.”

An instant later it seemed like I had transformed into a ferocious-looking striped monster. Effram’s eyes shot open wide and he jumped back with a yelp, half drawing his sword. 

“What in the hells is that!?”

Letting the illusion lapse I laughed. “Damned if I know, came up with it when I was a kid. Guess I thought it was scary.”

Effram suddenly noticed he’d partially drawn his sword and sheathed it with a somewhat sheepish expression.

“Definitely. Shit, if I saw that thing charging at me I’d run like demons were after me. Couple that with a [Fear] spell...yeah, that’d do the trick. Still,” he said in a more considering tone, “Ten feet isn’t far, you’d only have a few seconds. Could you really cast all those spells that quickly? Wait...you didn’t even chant just then, did you seriously break a cantrip charm just to scare me like that?”

I just grinned. “Don’t have to chant for a lot of my illusions, and I can omit parts of the chant for some of my mind magic. [Mind Blast] might take me about three seconds but the rest would only take a fraction of the time. [Confusion] would probably buy me at least enough time for the rest.”

Tayla suddenly spoke up. “He actually saved my life doing almost the exact same thing when I was still a kid.”

 Effram looked at Tayla, seeming startled for a moment. “Right, always forget you elves are a lot older than you look. Listen, me and the rest of my party are staying at the Silver Moon Inn. If you’re a good a ranger as your...uncle is a mage, I’m sure you’d be a great help. If the two of you are interested in teaming up sometime, look me up.”

I smiled. “I might take you up on that Effram.”

Effram nodded back the started to walk away. Just as I was about to turn around, Effram called out. 

“By the way, if you see a tall brown-haired Felin woman wearing chainmail in there, I strongly advise against copping a feel.”

 As Effram walked off, Tayla and I glanced at each other. In a silent consensus we turned back towards the doors and pulled them open. As soon as we did, a rush of noise washed over us. The whole first floor was visible, and for a second I wondered if we were in the right place. About half the area was filled with various table, filled with people drinking and loudly chattering. The whole left side of the room looked more like a bar than anything else. The scent of alcohol and pipesmoke filled the air and there was easily twenty people seemingly lounging about. The main difference from the rest of the people I’d seen was that most of them wore some sort of armor, and everyone seemed to have some sort of weapon nearby. A few people glanced over as the door opened, but after a moment or two looked away. 

Towards the back of the building I saw a giant wooden board, with easily a dozen slates hanging from pegs upon it. As my eyes scrolled over the area I noticed the right side was a bit different than the left. Instead of a bar, there was a long counter manned by a man and a woman. The man was Human and the woman was a moderately attractive Half-Laquine, much like Terra had been. There were a couple of people waiting in line in front of the woman, while the man was standing around, looking bored. My eyes caught a sign on the counter in front of the man.

 

[Information and Registration]

 

The sign caught my eye because it had to be written in a half-dozen languages at least. Since both the elvish and common said the same thing, I figured it must be the same words for the other languages as well. I looked at Terra, nodded, then we both headed towards the man at the information desk. The bare-scalped, burly man looked up as we approached, casually assessing us. He paused slightly longer when he saw Tayla, then looked back at me.

“Something you need?”

I nodded. “Some information. My niece and I were looking to register, but I’d like an overview of how everything works here.”

“Hmm.” He narrowed his eyes slightly. “I ain’t one to judge, but we don't see too many elves registering as adventurers. Putting in requests for rare ingredients on occasion, but not often looking for work.”

I shrugged. “Thought it might make for a good way to make some money while we travel.” 

“Fair enough.” The man paused. “What do you know about the guild already?”

I smiled wryly. “Not much. I know that people can put in requests to have certain tasks performed, and that adventures complete those tasks for a reward. I know there’s a ranking system of sorts to indicate how reputable a given member of the Guild is, but other than that...?” 

“Right. As far as that goes you’re correct. People come here to do one of two things, make work, or do work. Requests can range from needing someone to do day labor, to clearing out a den of monsters. What the staff here does is collect those requests, evaluate what’s needed to complete them, then give them a ranking. Green requests don’t involve any sort of danger. Usually that’s stuff like building a fence, hauling stone or cleaning out a stable. Scut work, and generally pays like crap. Blue requests are similar to Green, but require some specific skill. Say a smith needs an assistant for a few days, or someone needs a translator. Yellow requests are usually some sort of resource gathering. Might be some danger, might not. Someone needs a bunch of Lillywort, or a specific sort of wood, that’s a Yellow request. Pay can anything from copper to gold depending on what the person needs. Orange is a lot like Yellow, but the items requested are specifically from one monster or another.”

He gestured at the Direwolf pelts rolled up on my back. “Like those pelts you got there. If a tanner wants some monster hides, or a mage needs some pixie dust, we’ll mark the request as Orange. Next up is Red. Now when people hear about the Adventurer’s Guild, they usually think of people going out to kill monsters. Let’s say a village has a problem with an excessive number of monsters in the area. The village as a whole or maybe the local lord will put in a request to thin out their numbers a bit. Depending on the monster, the guild will assess a bounty and put in a standing subjugation request. We’ll require that anyone who takes on the request bring back something to prove the monster’s been killed. Pelt, fangs, ears, wings, anything that shows the monster was killed.”

 “Of course,” He added, “Some forms of proof are more useful than others. Obviously you ran into a couple of Direwolves and took the time to skin them. The pelt shows you killed them, and would get you credit for the Red request. Since the tanner has a standing Orange request with the guild, you can turn them and get points and coin for both. Next up is Black, Silver and Gold requests. Silver and Gold are same thing as Red, but they’re ways to indicate especially dangerous monsters. Usually, you see one of them it’s because a village or town got wiped out by something nasty. Lots of money, dangerous as hell. Black's a little different, usually bounties on a group of bandits or the like. Generally use that one to indicate the target's a criminal.” 

I nodded. “Makes sense so far. You mentioned something about points?”

“Yeah, points are how we measure a particular adventurer’s reliability. You get points for completed requests, and lose them for failing to meet the client’s requirements. If someone’s looking for a reliable worker, they might ask that the guild send them someone who’s got more than 5 Green points. Means they’ve completed at least five other jobs to their client's satisfaction. Merchant’s looking an escort, they might want a good mix of Green, Yellow and Red points. It ain’t perfect, but if someone’s completed a dozen scut jobs, an handful of requests and killed a bunch of monsters, they’ve got a rough assurance that they can do the job. Same goes in reverse. Regular clients get points for sticking with their end of the bargain and not being an ass. We'll prioritize regular clients and sometimes we'll waive the usual cut or let them set their own rewards.”

The man took out a water-bottle from under the counter and took a swig.

“As far as taking jobs is concerned, different branches and employers have different requirements. Round here, you mainly gotta prove your combat skills. Not much in the way of scut work. Get some oddball requests from time to time though. You go someplace else there might be a shitload of resource and escort jobs, but little in the way of monster-killing. All depends on where you are.”

I looked at Tayla for a moment. “Makes sense. So how do we go about signing up?”

For the first time, the bald man smiled faintly. “No fee here, but ya gotta pass a practical exam. Like I said, our branch is more combat-focused. What sort of skills you two have?”

 Tayla spoke up. “I’m an archer and I’ve had some aura training.”

“She’s sneaky as hell too.” I added. “I’m a mage, primarily illusion and mental magic. I also have some basic skill as an Herbalist.” 

“Alright.” Suddenly the man yelled. “George, Jackie! Got a couple of newbies for you to test out.”

When I turned around, I noticed a few people looking our way. A Felin woman and a Human male stood up from a nearby table and walked over to the counter.

“What’s up Sam? These two?” The man asked.

 Almost immediately I realized the man was a mage. I could vaguely sense the mana imbued in the loose-fitting gray robe he wore. The Felin woman was dressed similarly to Tayla. She was tall, and seemed fairly muscular beneath the chain and leather armor she wore.

“Yeah, the boy says he’s a mage, so he’s yours.” He nodded at Tayla. “The girl’s supposed to be an archer. You mind Jackie?”

The Felin woman gave Tayla a sort of lazy, carnivorous grin, her sharp teeth on full display.

“Why not? I was getting bored anyway.”

Sam, the bald-headed man we’d been listening to, looked at us and gestured. “Follow these two, they’ll let me know if it’s worth letting you register.”

“Let’s see if that bow of yours is just for show, come on.” The Felin woman walked towards the back of the building, clearly expecting Tayla to follow.

“Go ahead.” I said. “I’ll meet up with you in a bit.” 

Tayla grinned at me, then trotted after the woman. As she did I turned to the man, presumably George.

When I met his eyes he raised an eyebrow. “What school?” 

“Illusion and Mind.” I replied. 

“Huh." The old man grunted. "Alright, if you were an Evoker I’d take you out to the range. Maybe we should go upstairs instead.” 

“Lead the way.” I replied.

I followed George towards the back of the room, just now noticing that there was a set of stairs nearby the request board. He was silent as he led me upstairs into a small study just a short distance down the hall. From the looks of things, it was an office, probably his. Bookshelves lined the right side of the room, while the left had shelves full of various arcane items. There was a desk against the back wall, with a glass window that had been curtained off.

Lumos en cadra” He chanted, and a ball of magelight floated towards the ceiling to light up the room. 

Walking over towards the shelves, he took a crystalline orb down and set it on the desk, then walked around it to sit down. 

“Have a seat” He said in a genial tone.

I pulled out the chair in front of the desk and unstrapped the rolled up hides on my back, setting them to the side. As I sat I looked at him warily. He chuckled, apparently amused by my caution. 

“Don’t worry, I’m not about to try to steal your secrets.” He gestured at the back of my hand. “A mage Legacy I take it?”

I blinked. “How did you know?” 

George shrugged. “Not the first time I’ve seen a soulbound item. So. Illusion and Mind magic?” 

I nodded.

 He sighed. “That’s a pain in the ass to assess. Mostly it’s how you use it more than what spells you know.” He pointed at the crystal and continued. “That’s enchanted to measure the amplitude of the mental magic cast against it. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to target it with one spell from the Mind school.”

“Alright.” I looked at the crystal and paused. Screw it, I’ll go with my staple.

 “Dalos Vet!” 

The mage’s eyebrows rose as the crystal changed from being rather clear, to a deep yellow color.

“Impressive. That’s rather potent considering you skipped about 80% of the chant. [Confusion], I presume?”

It was my turn to be surprised. The two Words of Power I’d used roughly translated to “To thine mind” and were a common component of most of the spells in the Mind school. Yet somehow he’d identified the spell accurately.

Seeing my reaction George smiled. “I cheated.” He gestured at the orb. “It changes color and opacity depending on the spell. Yellow indicates disarray and I took the liberty of assuming you didn’t cast [Madness]. May I ask approximately how much of your mana pool that required?”

I didn’t see any reason not to answer. The older man in front of me had been nothing but polite, and I figured anyone who had their own office in the guild could probably be trusted not to blab about it.

“Maybe two percent?”

“Really, that’s all?” He seemed surprised.

I explained. “I’ve practiced that spell quite a bit over the years.”

 George just shook his head. “Honestly I don’t really see any need for further tests. If you’re that good with an abbreviated chant, your mastery of that spell alone is sufficient proof of your skill. I have to admit though, I’m curious. Do you focus primarily on the Mind school?”

 I shook my head. “I’m better with illusions actually.”

George’s eyes widened. “Could you demonstrate?”

 I shrugged, the put out a palm. After a moment’s concentration an illusion of a perfectly formed Lilywort appeared floating above it. As it slowly rotated George just shook his head.

“I never would have believed it if you hadn’t just done that. Did you really completely omit the chant for [Object]?”

“Yep.”

George sighed. “And you’re only what, 70, 80 years old? I can’t imagine how skilled you’ll be in a few centuries.”

I was taken aback until I realized he was thinking that I was a full-blooded elf. Given that I looked like a human in their teens, it was a reasonable estimation.

“Something like that. So, do I pass?” I asked, letting the illusion lapse.

George nodded. “Yes. After we’ve filled out the appropriate paperwork you can start taking requests. Here.”

George pulled open a drawer on his desk and slid a couple of sheets of paper towards me, clearly forms of some sort. At the same time he placed a cylindrical object on top of it. Seeing my puzzled look he explained. 

“A dwarven creation, they call them auto-scribes. Bit of a silly name if you ask me, but it works just like a quill and ink.” 

I picked up the device and examined it for a moment. The whole thing was perhaps four inches in length, and a nearly seamless bronze. One end of it had a shaped metal tip, while the other seemed to be capped in some fashion. Turning my attention back to the papers, I noted that the first page basically was an explanation of the Guild rules and responsibilities. It also noted a list of fees for things such as replacing an identification card, failure to complete a request, and damaging Guild property. About the only thing that made me raise an eyebrow was a note that in times of emergency, qualified adventurers could be drafted by local powers. At the bottom was a place for me to make my mark, acknowledging I head understood the above terms. After a moment of fiddling with the auto-scribe I signed my name in elvish.

The next page was a bit more interesting. It seemed like a survey of my personal information.

 

Name:

Race:

Sex:

Height:

Weight:

Eye Color:

Hair/Fur Color:

Place of Origin:

Next of Kin:

 

Class:

Specialty:

Professional Skills:

Demonstrable Talent:

 

Referral Branch:

Tester:

Evaluation:

 

When George saw me looking over it he commented, “The first portion is mandatory, but you can be a little vague for the second section. I'll fill in the last of it later. This is all information that will be engraved on your identification plate.”

“Got it. I understand the rest, but what’s this about a 'Demonstrable Talent'?” 

George sighed, “Some border guards will insist you prove your identity in some way beyond your listed description. If you can do something particularly unique it can serve as secondary evidence that you are the real owner of the ID.”

 “Hmm. Would chantless casting count?”

George chuckled. “Considering I’d only ever heard of such a thing before today, most definitely. It’s not actually a required field though so if you want to leave it blank, feel free.”

While I filled in the form I decided to ask a couple of questions.

“Out of curiosity, what sort of magic is your specialty George?”

He leaned back. “A little of everything really. I handle enchanting the Guild IDs, but I’ve dabbled in most schools over the years. I suppose my strongest field is Evocation, but I’m moderately skilled with wards as well. As far as affinity is concerned, I’m strongest with fire.”

Pylo Et Vas” He chanted, and a ball of fire hovered over his palm, radiating intense heat.

I paused in my writing to focus on the almost perfectly spherical orb glowing a deep amber-red. I thought for a moment then asked, “Was a shortened chant for [Lava Orb]?”

George grinned then dismissed the spell. His green eye twinkled with pride as he answered. “Not quite as impressive as your chantless casting, but I’ve got a few tricks of my own.” 

I lifted my free hand and concentrated for a moment. After a second an identical copy of the orb he just created hovered over my palm. I couldn’t help it. The look of utter shock on his face made me burst into laughter. After a second George gave me a wry look.

“You bastard. For a moment there I thought you’d actually omitted the chant for [Lava Orb] too.”

I let the illusion vanish then shook my head. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

“Still,” he said in a considering tone, “did you just come up with that on the spot?” 

I nodded. “Generally as long as I pay enough attention I can make an illusion of whatever I’ve seen before.”

He shook his head. “You know, I never did catch your name.”

“I’m Marcus Allbright, you can just call me Mark.”

“George Whitehouse. Please just call me George, I loathe being called 'Mr. Whitehouse'.” 

As we shook hands he carefully set the papers aside for the ink to dry.

“So Mark, since you’re part of the Guild now, there a couple of things you might find interesting as a mage.”

“Oh?” I asked, curious.

He nodded. “For one thing, I don’t know if you’ve ever had your affinities tested before, but for a small fee we can perform a test for that. Further, once you’ve performed a few requests there’s a number of resources you can purchase through the Guild. Namely some introductory spellbooks, assorted scrolls and access to materials for magical experiments. While we don’t have anything near what the Mage Guild can offer, many young mages hone their basics with us before taking their examination.” He continued in an amiable tone, “Another thing you will undoubtedly discover is that mages tend to be able to join most parties fairly easily. We aren’t exactly common, and many of the better adventurers understand the value of having a magic-user in their group.” 

“Makes sense.” I nodded. “Even though I’m lacking in destructive abilities, I can disrupt enemies effectively enough. What’s this you said about a test for affinities though?”

He seemed a little surprised that I asked. “You’ve never heard of it before?”

I shrugged. “Aside from the Legacy I inherited, the only person that gave me instruction in magic was my mother. She focused almost exclusively on Wards and Conjurations and I could never manage any of the things she tried to show me.”

George’s eyes widened. “So you’re essentially a self-taught mage?” 

“More or less. The only reason I knew your spell was from stories I’d heard.” 

George and I chatted for a while longer before I suddenly remembered my sister. Heading back downstairs, pelts under an arm, I was relieved when I saw her. She was talking to the bald-headed man at the information counter, but when I approached she scowled at me.

“What took you so long?”

 “Sorry Tayla, George and I got to talking and I lost track of time. How’d you do?”

 “I passed of course. Jackie even gave me a couple of pointers. You?”

“Looks like I passed too.”

While we were talking, the Felin woman Tayla had gone off with came up to the counter.

“Guess you can’t be too bad if Old Georgie gave you the okay. Gotta say, your niece is looks like she’ll shape up into a solid Scout with some practice.”

I turned to the woman and smiled. “Glad to hear it. Frankly she kills more monsters than I do. I just baffle them with bullshit so she can pick them off.”

The muscular woman laughed. “Now I’ve seen everything, a modest elven mage? I’m Jackie, nice to meet you.”

“Mark, likewise.” 

When we shook hands I refrained from wincing at the strength of her grip.

“Listen, if you’re going to be in town for a while, I run training classes a couple of times a week. Probably wouldn’t do much for a mage, but I usually take a small group of newbies out to go hunting for Direwolves and Iron-Bristles. I try to teach people the basics of tracking and scouting, then go over how to properly harvest monster materials. I offered to bring your niece along next time we went out, but she said she’d have to talk to you.” 

I looked over at Tayla. “If she’s interested, I don’t have any reason to object. I’d actually feel reassured if she had a mentor. Frankly, my training goes in a completely different direction, so I can’t help her much with that. I’d probably hurt more than help if I went with her anyway.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” She asked.

“The only reason I can work well with Tayla is we understand each other well. In an group full of unknown people my magic would probably just confuse the situation.”

Now she seemed a little interested. “Tayla mentioned you’re a mage. What’s your specialty?”

 I laughed. “I wasn’t kidding when I spoke earlier. I use illusions and mental magic. My usual strategy is basically to incite chaos. Having enemies attack each other, run away, making illusory obstacles and people, that sort of thing.”

“Baffle them with bullshit eh? Guess you weren’t kidding. Yeah, I can see where that requires teamwork to pull off well. Still, I’d imagine it's effective when you use it right.”

“Well enough to the two of us to handle a couple packs of Direwolves on our own.” Tayla interjected. 

When Jackie raised a skeptical eyebrow Tayla continued. “It’s true! Yesterday we killed eleven of them, and the day before that, five.”

When she turned to me I nodded. “The five weren’t too bad, but I got a nasty gash on the leg when we were dealing with the bigger pack.”I gestured at the torn and bloodied portion of my leggings. “Honestly I just think we got lucky there.”

Jackie stared at the barely visible wound for a moment. “Healing potion?” She asked.

“Yeah, actually I was meaning to ask someone. Do you know anyone in town that sells compounding supplies? I need to get a new portable kit.”

Jackie gave me an interested look. “You’re an herbalist as well?”

I replied wryly. “Good enough to make basic healing potions and the like, but I don’t know how to make anything too impressive.”

“Huh.” Jackie paused for a moment. “You know, I think I saw a request you might be interested in then. Hold on a moment.”

While Jackie stalked towards the request board, Tayla spoke.

“You really think I should go then?”

“Can’t hurt.” I replied. “I’ll be counting on you for scouting and the like, so getting some formal training is probably a good idea.” 

Tayla smiled when she heard me say I’d be relying on her. “Alright then, I’ll see if can learn a few things from Jackie.”

A moment later Jackie returned, holding one of the slates from the request board. 

“Take a look at this.”

As she handed it to me, I noticed the slate was gentle blue color with white chalk writing.

 

Client: Myra (1122 Pts, Reputable, Stringent Completion Requirements)

 

I need a mage to infuse herbs with mana for potion-crafting. Previous experience preferred.

Requirements: No minimum.

Pay: Varies on quality of work.

Length of Job: Continuous Request.

Penalties: Replacement of any damaged herbs/Cost of replacement x 2]

 

“Myra’s a bit snappy, but she’s a damn good Herbalist. She’s usually got a request or two on the board.” Jackie spoke as I read over the details. 

“What’s this about the pay being variable?” I asked.

Jackie chuckled. “Yeah, most of the time that’s code for ‘As little as I can get away with’, but Myra’s honest. If you’re any good she’ll give you a fair price for the work. Just don’t piss her off or try to con her with inferior herbs and you’ll be fine.”

Tayla examined the slate out of curiousity. “That looks like it’s right up your alley Mark.”

“Yeah, can I even take the request yet though? Neither Tayla or I have our IDs yet.”

Jackie smiled. “I’ll let Priscilla know. Oh, right, come here for a minute.” 

Tayla and I followed the Felin woman towards part of the counter staffed by the Half-Laquine woman I’d noted earlier.

“Hey Pris, got a couple of newbies for ya. The drool-worthy guy’s Mark, the shorty’s Tayla.”

“Shorty?” 

“Drool-worthy?” 

Tayla and I turned to each other. She looked indignant, while I was a little taken aback. The receptionist just rolled her eyes at the Felin woman, barely noting the two of us.

“What’s up Jackie?”

“Mind giving Mark here a job chit? Their IDs should be ready in a day or so, also...” She turned to me. “You got any plans for those pelts you’ve been carrying around?” 

When I shook my head, she just grabbed them out from under my arms and rolled them out on the counter.

“What you think? A silver ten, twenty?”

The short Laquine-girl bent over the hides and examined them carefully. “Good condition, no holes in the hide...yeah, I can probably do a silver twenty each. Can’t award points without the ID card but the longer they go without processing the more the price will drop.”

Jackie turned towards me. “You might get a little more dealing with the tanner directly, but he’ll try to low-ball ya. You want to turn them in or try your luck?” 

I smiled at Priscilla. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

 The twenty-something year-old woman blushed. “L...likewise.” She stammered, staring at me for a moment.

Jackie coughed. “Job chit and money Pris?” 

“Oh. Oh! Right.” She rolled up the hides and took them through a door I hadn’t noticed before. After a minute she came back with a small bag and a gray metallic disc.

“Here you go.” She slid the bag and disc over.

I opened the bag and eyeballed it for a second. Looks about right. I was actually tempted to count out the coins, but figured that might be taken as rude or distrustful. The disc confused me though. I picked it up and glanced between Jackie and Priscilla for a moment.

“Right, you probably don’t know about these." Jackie noted my confusion. "When we take a request from a client, we give them a stamp. When the job’s done, they’ll mark your chit with it. Now most times you’d come back here and Pris or one of the other receptionists will verify the request was completed, then give you your pay and points. Generally we take the fee upfront and deduct a percentage for the Guild. In Myra’s case, we’d all be screwed if she weren’t here making potions so we waive the fee and let her set the rewards. She’ll also handle paying your when you’re done. We know she’s good for it, so no problem there. In this case you’ll just be coming back here to have the points added to your card.”

“Ah.” I understood now. “Got it. Oh, right. Either of you able to recommend an inn?” 

“What’s your budget?” Jackie asked. 

With a somewhat wry expression, I lifted the bag. “About two silvers and fourty copper.”

Jackie snorted. “First time meeting a broke mage. Hmm, you could try The Black Ladle. What you’ve got should be enough for a couple days plus meals. Not exactly fancy, but at least the food won’t give you the runs.”

After Tayla and I got some directions, thanking the pair, we left the Guild and headed down the road. It was starting to get late, and neither Tayla or I had eaten since morning, so the idea of a bed to sleep in and something to eat sounded wonderful. The Black Ladle was located on the opposite end of the village, and I could see why the prices might be lower. The houses here were of a distinctly lower quality than the west side we’d just came from and if the smell was any indication, somewhere near the tanner’s place. We found the build in short order, a wooden ,two story structure much larger than the houses crowded around it.

When we walked in, there was a counter immediately next to a flight of stairs, and the whole right side of the building seemed to filled with tables. The smell of roasted meat overpowered the scent from outside and we were greeted by the sight of a scarred man drinking from a flagon. I took the lead again, approaching the man. 

“Excuse me, do you have any free rooms?” 

The man eyeballed Tayla and I for a moment before gruffly replying. “Yeah. Silver a night for two beds and dinner comes with the room. You stayin?” 

“Two nights.” I replied, taking the silvers we’d just gotten from the bag I’d tied to my waist.

The man examined the coins, grunted, then took a key hanging from a pegboard on the wall behind him.

“Head up the stairs, second room on the right. If you want food just pick a table and show the slave your key when she gets to you.”

I nodded. Tayla and I glanced at each other, then walked into the smokey table-filled room. There wasn’t a lot of people around, but I figured it was still a little early for people to be gathering for dinner. After we sat, a couple of minutes passed before a teenage girl wearing a plain brown dress walked up. She wasn’t particularly attractive, merely plain, but the dead look in her eyes was somewhat off-putting. I also noticed that around her neck was an iron collar, inscribed with the same sort of magical runes Terra’s had had. 

“How can I help Master and Mistress?” The girl asked.

I held up the key and replied. “The man behind the counter said dinner came with the room?”

“Yes Master. Dinner is a bowl of stew and black bread. If the Master and Mistress want ale, it costs 5 coppers. Wine or mead is 9 coppers, and I cost 15 coppers for 15 minutes.” 

Talya looked confused and asked. “What do you mean that you cost 15 coppers?”

The girl lowered her head and replied. “This slave’s body is available for use should the Master or Mistress desire it.”

Tayla suddenly realized what the girl meant and looked horrified. Quickly I interjected.

“Just the food and two mugs of ale.” 

I placed the 10 fingernail-sized discs of copper on the table and for a brief moment a flash of relief crossed the girl’s face. She took the money and left quickly, while Tayla gave me a conflicted look. Before Tayla could say anything, I shook my head.

“We’ll talk when we get back to the room.”

I didn’t want to talk about anything out in the open like this. While there weren’t many, there was still a handful of people scattered around the room. A couple Lupine men were obviously busy getting drunk, but there were a few that had given our table a lingering gaze. The girl returned with a pair of tankards after a minute. Tayla took a sip and grimaced.

“Gods that’s just foul.”

I took a swallow as well, curious. I’d never had ale before and wasn’t sure what to expect from the brown, foamy liquid. I think I might have froze for a moment before swallowing. It was bitter, sour and almost spicy at the same time. While it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever tasted, it ranked up there with Grindel Root as being fairly unpleasant. From how Terra had pined over it, I somehow expected something...less terrible.

“It’s probably an acquired taste.” I replied, carefully taking another sip. Yep, still nasty.

I set the mug down and stared at it. After a moments consideration I took another swallow. I’d paid for it, I’d be damned it I wasn’t going to at least try to finish it. While I continued my battle with the beverage, Tayla just pushed hers aside. Slowly, but steadily the level of the brown fluid in my mug diminished. By that time, the slave had come out with the food. She almost seemed started when Tayla and I thanked her. Fortunately, the stew was pretty good, and suddenly I had an epiphany. I took a bite of the chewy bread, then a spoon of the soup, then a swallow of the ale. Somehow, the succession of flavors was actually satisfying in some strange fashion. I couldn’t explain it, but the flavor of the rye bread blended with the meat and vegetables, and the ale somehow enhanced the flavor. I couldn’t say the ale itself was good, but with the rest it was surprisingly palatable.

When Tayla and Mark had finished, they left the dining room and headed straight to the adjacent stairs. Mark knew she’d want some sort of explanation about what she’d seen with the slave and he wasn’t particularly looking forward to the conversation. As they ascended, Mark began feeling a strange sense of disconnect. The view began to be filled with streamers of mist, slowly solidifying. Despite the strange phenomena, Mark wasn’t scared or anxious. In a way, it seemed oddly familiar. The mist continued to thicken until his entire surroundings were obscured. He couldn’t hear the sounds of the patrons downstairs, nor see the stairs themselves. Slowly he stopped.

 

 After a minute or two, memories began resurfacing. He wasn’t Marcus Allbright. Allbright was a character he had created in a game. His real name was Marcus Van Doren, 31 years old, and he was currently playing a game called Real Fantasy Online. After a minute or so, his confusion cleared up completely and he looked around the foggy landscape.

“You there Navia?”

 A winged ball of light popped into existence in front of him, and the Goddess of Reincarnation spoke.

“Wow, that was about thirty percent faster than last time. Sorry, I thought you’d be a while yet.”

“What’s up? Is my alarm about to go off or something? That wasn’t as long as I thought it would be.”

“It’s actually only been about two hours, but I need to tell you something.”

Mark frowned. “What’s that?”

Navia bobbed and Mark heard a chiming sound echo through the region. “You’ve reached a tutorial milestone!" She announced. "Another player is now active in the Shadewood region! As such, I need to give you some additional information. When multiple players are active in the same region, the system protections are invalid for player/player interactions. In other words, a player can kill, maim or otherwise incapacitate another player or their companions during direct interactions. Usually, players are given a period of three in-game months of protection from excessively dangerous scenarios. For example: The larger pack of Direwolves you encountered would likely have resulted in you and your companion dying. Since the encounter wasn’t a result of you, the player, guiding your character in a willfully stupid fashion, the system applied a correction to the encounter to insure you were minimally injured.”

Mark nodded. “I thought that was a little suspicious. Given what I...what my character knows of Direwolves, a pack that size should have shredded Tayla and him. So you’re saying that if I and this other player somehow come into conflict we could end up killing each other.”

“Right.” The winged orb turned a slight yellow hue. “In addition, any player killed by another player will be notified of fact that their killer was a player. The killer however, will not be made aware that the person they killed was. If the character was affiliated with any deity, this will also generate hostility with that faction. Agents, Oracles and Heroes may receive information or missions related to that character. Conversely, that character will gain favor with the opposing faction and their respective Agents, Oracles and Heroes may receive missions that benefit that character in some fashion. This mechanic was put into place by request of Dis, God of Chaos.” 

Mark couldn’t help it, he laughed. “So you’re saying there’s some sort of giant game of blind-man’s bluff where both players and deities might end up with a grudge against an unsuspecting player? That’s just fucking wrong.”

“Well,” Navia commented, “It’s not like we’ll get involved over a single death. On the other hand, if someone persistently kills worshipers of Gaia, she might direct her Agents to go after the offender. Other than that, Azreal will offer blessings and other aid to people who kill large numbers of players, you know, being the God of death and all; while Lachesis, the Goddess of Fate, offers her protection to certain players for her own reasons.”

She paused for a moment before continuing. “In any case, your character did manage to come up with a new spell, so I might as well give you the information on it while you’re here.”

 

Spell Learned: Illusion: Magic. Given a demonstration of a particular spell, you are now able to mimic its appearance via illusion.

 

“Oh! When I...Allbright copied George’s [Lava Orb] I guess. Now that has a lot of potential. Hey, since I’m here and I’m not about to piss myself...I’m not about to piss myself, right?”

Navia giggled. “No, your body should be fine for quite a while longer.”

“Good. So, can I set some directives for my character? I think I might as well log off anyway, I’ve got some things to check up on IRL.”

“Sure, what did you have in mind?”

“Cool.” I replied. “There’s a few things. For one, Allbright needs to see exactly how long his [Disguise] spell lasts for a given amount of mana. I don’t want Tayla to suddenly lose her Deadpool vibe while she’s off training. For another, I think it’s a good idea to learn some more illusory spells. George seems friendly enough, maybe try talking him into demonstrating a few to copy. On the same lines, just the appearance is a dead give-away. In the description for [Mind-Blast] it mentioned the [Pain] spell; Allbright should consult with Fidelus about whether there’s something like making a person imagine they’re feeling heat or cold too. If he can throw a fireball and the person actually feels like they're on fire, I’d image it’d be a hell of a lot more effective. Pair that with [Fear] or [Confusion] and you’ve got a viable way to freak the hell out of someone.”

Mark paused. “Another thing, Allbright and Tayla need to find out about is how the whole slaver institution functions. Are there laws governing it, or is it some bullshit like once you’re collared, you’re fucked? Let’s see, anything else...Right, the guild request. Allbright should definitely work on creating a positive relationship with this Myra person. If she’s responsible for most of the potion-crafting in the area, she probably has a lot of connections. Since his Herbalist recipes are limited to what he learned from his mother, it might be an opportunity to learn a few things. If nothing else she might be a source of information about the local politics. Last of all...That Effram guy could either be an ally or a threat. I’d try to find out more about him before taking him up on his offer.”

The flying orb that represented Navia strobed a series of colors before settling. “Anything else?” She asked in a wry tone, seeming amused at the list of goals and objectives Mark had supplied.

“Nah, that should be good for now. With any luck I’ll be back in time to catch the following morning game-time.”

“Alright then, until next time.” 

“Mind-Link, disconnect.” Mark stated. Immediately after, a window appeared.

 

Logging out in 3...2...1

 

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Please rate, comment or leave a review! I can't get better as a writer unless I know what the reader's thinking, and I'd like improve. So if you see grammar errors, poor phrasing, or just sections that need more/less detail, let me know. 


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