“Hey, Thorn, how was your day?”
Oblivious to the two guards talking about him, Thorn looked down at the slim figure of Oberlin Danihoff, III, the self-proclaimed master swiper he had caught trying to lift his goods back in Berum.
“It was about the same as every day, Oberlin.” Thorn’s deep voice echoed through the quarry. Even without projecting, his voice was almost as big as he was. “After all, we do the same thing every day.”
“But each day is a fresh new chance, isn’t it? At least, that is what people tell me.” Oberlin flashed his trademark smile as he poked Thorn’s large bag of ore. “How’d you do? Looks like quite the haul today.”
“It was not too bad. I hit a pocket before lunch and managed to clear most of it out before the bell.” Seeing the guard motion him forward, Thorn upended his bag onto the table to be sorted. The guard gave each piece a cursory look before tossing it onto a scale where a clerk recorded the weight. Never once in the four weeks that Thorn had been mining here had he tried to sneak a piece of slag into his pile of rocks, so the guard focused more on speed than on rigorous checking. After all, the pile of ore Thorn had brought over was massive and the guard was just as excited to get to dinner as the convicts.
After the clerk recorded the total weight, Thorn and Oberlin joined the rest of the convicts queued at the cafeteria. Like most of the buildings in the quarry prison, the cafeteria was largely comprised of open air seating and two small buildings where the food was cooked and served. As always, when Thorn arrived, the hum of conversation quieted, and everyone busied themselves with eating.
“You certainly make an impression.” Still smiling, Oberlin looked around at the convicts eating quietly.
“So you’ve told me.”
“Well, it never fails to astound me. This is one of the roughest crowds in Nova Terra, and they act like lambs around you.” Oberlin paused for a moment, looking at Thorn sideways. “Then again, one can imagine why they would behave like that.”
Dinner consisted of a big bowl of porridge, bread, a piece of fruit, and strips of meat. Because of the intense heat, the prisoners all drank massive quantities of water, and the cooks provided a sweet lemonade at each of the meals.
“Evening, Thorn.” One of the cooks pulled out an extra large bowl from below the counter when it was Thorn’s turn. Next to him, his assistant put two loaves of bread on a tray, along with four apples, and a small mountain of meat strips. Thorn’s hands were large enough that he could balance the bowl and tray with one hand while he used the other to take a pitcher of lemonade from another assistant. “Come back if you need more. We have plenty.”
Like most of the guards, the cooks loved Thorn. The gentle giant solved their problems with difficult prisoners simply by being around, and any convicts that tried to make trouble in line were quickly quelled when they felt his burning gaze. There was something about Thorn’s hungry face that seemed to terrify the prisoners into submission, and for that reason alone, Thorn had quickly made himself a favorite of the staff in the prison.
“Thanks.” With a smile, Thorn accepted the huge quantity of food and walked to his customary spot. Despite the outdoor eating area consisting of benches and tables, Thorn had learned very quickly that they were not made for someone his size. His first attempt to sit at one of the tables had tragic consequences for its bench.
Instead, he sat at the far end of the cafeteria on a large stone that marked the boundary of the eating area. At least a stone would not collapse when he sat on it. Over time, the table closest to him had magically moved to a convenient spot within reach, so Thorn put his food down and waited for Oberlin to sit.
“Thank you for waiting.” Oberlin joined Thorn, and they dug in. Wiping his mouth, Oberlin glanced around and then spoke in a low voice. “Have you given any thought to what I talked to you about yesterday?”
“Stealing is wrong, Oberlin.” Thorn did not even look up from his meal.
“Look, I am not asking you to steal anything. I just need someone I trust to cover me when I go talk to the merchants. You don’t understand how dangerous it can be. I’m telling you, Nova Terra has a dark side.”
“I’m well aware of Nova Terra’s dark side. But stealing is wrong, and so is selling stolen goods. Why don’t you listen to what I told you before? You are a talented guy. Why waste your talents on stealing?”
“Ha. Easy for you to say.” Defeated by Thorn’s calm but final tone, Oberlin’s shoulders slumped. He had been trying for almost two weeks to convince Thorn to team up with him once they were both out. However, every time he broached the subject, he always got the same answer. “What could I possibly do? My only skills are going unseen and opening locks. The only people I know are other crooks and fences. My class is locked and all my abilities only work for one thing. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’m on my last class, so there is no more changing.”
“I don’t think you ever mentioned what class you have.” Thorn looked at the small thief with interest. “I’ve been thinking about what class I want to get, but I haven’t decided.”
“What do you have now?”
“I don’t have a class.”
“You don’t have a class?!” Oberlin nearly spat out his porridge as he turned to stare at Thorn. “How did you get so big without a class? I thought you were a Mountain Barbarian or something?”
“Nah, I’m just naturally tall.”
“Somehow, I don’t think eight feet, nine inches counts as ‘naturally tall’, Thorn. You must be a giant in real life as well. Why don’t you have a class, though? You should be able to get one almost as soon as you come into the game. You can get them almost anywhere you can get training. There are general class quests practically littering the starter cities.”
“I’m not sure. No one told me about them, so I don’t think I ever found one.”
“What do you mean, you never found them? You told me you trained at the Training Hall, right? Didn’t you see the giant stone pillar with the warrior on it? You just have to go up and touch it.”
“Oh, I thought that was a sign for the training hall.” Thorn, blushed slightly. Thankfully, his face was dirty enough that Oberlin did not notice.
“The fact that you totally missed all the class change stones is almost impressive. At least it would be if it was not so ridiculous.” Oberlin shook his head and licked his spoon clean before pointing toward himself. “I have a special utility class called Master Locksmith. It gives me an ability that lets me bypass almost any lock and lets me know the best route for sneaking. It is useful for one thing and one thing only, which is why I ended up here.”
“Interesting. I noticed that, when I got here, you were not chained up.”
“Yup. There is not much of a point, so the guards don’t worry about it. I’ve been in and out of this place so many times, you wouldn’t believe it. Honestly, I’m not sure why they even bother bringing me in. It’s not like they can stop me from getting out.”
“Can you open magic locks? I saw someone break a magic lock once. Looked quite complicated.”
“Any lock means any lock. Arcane, mechanical, puzzle, doesn’t matter what it is. If someone has seen it and wants to get through it, I can open it. Some might take more time, but they all crack eventually.”
“Classes are so interesting. Is Master Locksmith an Ancient Inheritance?”
“No.” Oberlin frowned and changed the subject. “Look, Thorn, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but at this point, my options are set. I’m in a hole, and there is no way to get out, even if I wanted to.”
“That isn’t true. There are plenty of things you could do. You could be an explorer. With your stealth, you could map places no one has ever been before. You could be a security consultant. You know, get people to pay you to break into their place, and then tell them how it was done.”
About to continue listing ideas for the depressed thief, Thorn saw a clerk making his way. A few weeks ago, the clerks would not have dared to walk through the crowd of convicts without a full armed escort, but after Thorn had tossed a few of the convicts into the large pots of porridge in the cookhouse, they were able to walk about unmolested. Ignoring the dark looks he was getting, the clerk walked up to Thorn and handed him a form.
“You’re out tomorrow, Thorn.”
Confused, Thorn looked at the paper. It had the warden’s signature and looked very official.
“What do you mean he is out? Doesn’t he still have three weeks?” Oberlin cut in. “How can he get out early?”
“What does it matter to you?” the clerk asked, annoyed at Oberlin sticking his nose in Thorn’s business. Turning back to Thorn, he said, “The warden would like to see you in thirty minutes. He’ll be waiting for you in his office. No, no, you can finish your meal.” Seeing that Thorn was about to get up, the clerk hurried to stop him. “He is in no rush.”
As he ate, Thorn wracked his brain for possible reasons that the warden would let him out early. Officially, his crime was assault. Attacking another player in a town was considered taboo, and if the guards caught you, the penalty was seven real days in prison, which meant seven weeks in jail, if you spent that time logged, in due to the game’s time dilation. A first-time offense would have let Thorn sit in a relatively comfortable cell, but he had volunteered to come out and work for the experience.
As an alternate reality, Nova Terra mimicked the real world in many ways, including there being a list of crimes that, if you were caught, could get you tossed in jail. Surprisingly, the sentence for killing another player was actually one of the lighter ones, at least for the first few times. Still, it was curious that he was being let out early. Maybe he was being let go for good behavior?
After Thorn finished his food, he patted Oberlin on the shoulder, taking care to be extra gentle, and followed a guard toward the warden’s office. The prison camp was situated in the bottom of the quarry and consisted of four sections. The cafeteria and the bathhouses were large outdoor areas, while the prisoners’ bunks were under large pole buildings without walls. The last area was a compound set aside for the guards, clerks, and the warden.
When they arrived at the compound, Thorn had to stifle the urge to chuckle. A seven and a half foot wall surrounded the compound, more than enough to keep out the convict’s prying eyes. All but Thorn’s, of course. The first day he had come here, the sight of his head appearing above the wall had given the guard watching the gate into the compound quite the fright.
Once the guard opened up the thick log gate, Thorn followed the clerk into the compound, down a paved sidewalk, up two flights of stairs, and into the elevated office of the warden. Large glass windows on each side gave the office a 360-degree view of the quarry, and four guards stationed around the office kept a constant lookout for prisoners making trouble.
Ducking and turning slightly sideways to squeeze his bulk into the room, Thorn was glad that he could straighten up. Many of the other buildings in the quarry had regular eight-foot ceilings, forcing him to duck. Thankfully, the warden’s office had a full ten-foot ceiling. Smiling at the guards who were all watching him come in, Thorn settled himself in the middle of the room, ignoring the creak of the floor as he shifted his weight.
“Ah. Good evening, Thorn.” The warden turned around, placing his drink on the large desk.
“Good evening, sir,” Thorn replied politely, dipping his head slightly.
“I’m sure the clerk informed you that you’ll be getting out soon, so I wanted to take an opportunity to have a bit of a chat with you before that.”
“Yes, sir. He said I was getting out tomorrow.”
“A welcome surprise, I am sure.” The warden smiled, adjusting his glasses. “Though, all of the staff here will miss you. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that it has been a pleasure having such a peaceful and hard working resident over the last month. You have been a model inmate, and we will miss your good example.” The warden paused for a moment to take a drink before continuing. “You were assigned your prison term due to the assault of another player in a city, is that right?”
“Yes, sir.” Thorn nodded.
“Your sentence was originally extended, if I understand these things correctly, because the player you attacked died as the result of your attack. Normally, attacking another player would get you a week in jail, but it was extended because your attack was lethal. Quite surprising that you could actually kill him before the guards got to you.”
“That is correct, sir. I threw him against a wall. Sometimes I have trouble controlling my strength.”
“Well, despite the nature of your crime, the powers that be have decided to reduce your sentence due to your good behavior over the last month. However, all of this is contingent on you being willing to accept a parole task.”
“Yes. Rather than have you stay in prison, I have a task for you to do outside of the quarry. Do you think you are up for it?”
“Do you mean a quest?”
“That is exactly what I mean. If you are willing to accept this quest, you are free to leave tomorrow. The rest of your sentence will be waived and, so long as you complete the quest, your criminal title will be removed. Don’t break any other laws, and it will be as if none of this ever happened.”
Taking a deep breath, Thorn nodded.
“What do you need me to do?”
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Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. I post a chapter every Friday around 12 pm EST. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.