Seeing Thorn’s charge, the handsome man growled and muttered under his breath, the same thick red mist seeping from his lips to surround him in a swirling red shield. At the same time, he pulled a scepter from his waist and pointed its barbed tip toward Thorn. Another muttered command sent a scarlet bolt of energy shooting toward Thorn!
As soon as the sceptre appeared, Thorn instinctively knew he could not face it head on. Angling his body, he dashed diagonally, putting the carriage between them. Undeterred, the bolt of energy punched through the wall of the carriage, searing a deep line across Thorn’s arm. Hissing in pain, Thorn braced himself and grabbed the carriage. With a heave, he lifted it from the ground and tossed it at the players charging from behind him.
The carriage trembled as it flew through the air, the sheer unexpectedness of the situation causing a number of the chasing players to forget to dodge. With a tremendous crash, the carriage came back down to earth, crushing four of them. Amid the splintered debris, anguished screams sounded from those under the carriage’s broken bulk.
Not even bothering to look at his handiwork, Thorn resumed his dash toward the handsome man, whose face was white as a sheet. As he charged, Thorn felt the bite of an arrow in his shoulder. Gritting his teeth to ignore the sting, Thorn focused all of his attention on getting to the handsome man. Another scarlet bolt lanced forward, this time hitting Thorn in his side, cutting through his armor and leaving a massive smoldering wound along his ribs.
“Two more steps,” Thorn thought, narrowing his focus even further. Readying his weapon, Thorn crossed the last twenty feet in two of his massive strides. Smashing down with all the force he could muster, Thorn brought his iron-bound tetsubo down on the shifting red magical shield that surrounded the handsome man.
Horrified, his target broke into a hurried mumble. A deep stream of red mist poured from his mouth, reinforcing the shield. With a crack that shook the ground, the tetsubo landed on the shield, instantly causing a massive amount of the mist to dissipate but not managing to get through. Seeing the thin layer of mist still swirling in front of him, Thorn tossed his weapon into his inventory and reached out his massive clawed hands, forcefully grabbing the bubble of mist and squeezing it with all his might.
With an ominous groan, the shield warped as Thorn’s claws pushed into it. The shield thinned at a visible rate, the stream of mist pouring from the handsome man’s mouth unable to reinforce it quickly enough. Just as the silver claws were about to pierce through, Thorn felt a stinging pain. The other players had caught up, burying their blades in Thorn’s broad back. Ignoring his dimming world, Thorn gritted his teeth and redoubled his efforts, pouring all of his strength into breaking the shield.
With an ear-rending crack, the mist shield shattered into nothingness, causing the handsome man to stagger in pain as the feedback hit him. Thorn lashed out wildly, his claws connecting with the handsome man’s chest. Yet, just as he made contact, the red-armored woman landed a strike to his neck, causing the strength to drain from his hands. Still, the weight of the blow could not be stopped and, as Thorn fell to the ground, he could feel his claws ripping a furrow through the front of the handsome man’s red-armor.
Still trying to fight off the encroaching darkness, Thorn grinned. This was the first time he had used any of his new abilities and, despite not managing to get his main target, he was quite pleased.
“We’ll try this again another time.” Thorn’s deep voice sent chills down the handsome man’s spine.
Hearing Thorn’s defiant statement, Telis readied her scimitar for another strike, only for Thorn to turn into motes of light, drifting off to the aether.
Scrambling to his feet, white faced and shaking, the handsome man looked around and let out a string of obscenities. Seven of his eleven subordinates were dead and he was badly wounded. The carriage lay in shambles, the wheels and walls splintered beyond repair. In the distance, he could hear the shouts of the town guards on their way to the mine.
“Koral, get the ore, we’re leaving,” he snarled. Who was that monster? And why had he shown up tonight?
“Um, Boss?” The red-armored warrior looked up from where he had been searching through the wreckage of the carriage. “It’s gone.”
“What?!” the handsome man screamed, the veins on his neck popping out.
A hundred feet away, Oberlin smiled at the sound, patting his belt.
As the world faded to black, Thorn found himself standing in the now familiar login area. As before, Myst stood in front of him, holding her tablet.
“Hello, Myst,” Thorn greeted her warmly. “It is nice to see you again.”
“Hello, traveler. You seem quite cheerful for having just experienced your first death. Would you like to talk about it?”
“Haha, I guess I am. I knew pretty much right away that I would not be making it out of that situation alive. There were twelve of them, after all. But I think I did pretty well.”
“You seem to have adapted to Nova Terra’s light-hearted treatment of death quickly. Why do you think that is?” Myst asked, jotting something down on her device.
“That is a great question, Myst.” Thorn paused and watched for a reaction. Faced with Myst’s impassive countenance, he sighed and continued. “I had a good, long think about it. And, ultimately, it seemed a bit silly to care too much about it. Since death is impermanent, why not use it to your advantage?”
“What do you mean by ‘use it to your advantage’?”
“Think about it. If the worst that is going to happen is that I’ll have to spend twenty-four hours in Fantasia, then it is easy to weigh death against my objective. In this case, it was worth it to try my hand at killing the leader of my opponents. While I wasn’t successful, I learned about my abilities, and I think that next time I will do better. Trading that knowledge for a day of rest seems like a pretty good deal to me.”
“So you traded your death for understanding?”
“It would be more accurate to say I traded a time-out for understanding. After all, I’m not dead, am I?” Thorn smiled.
“Thank you for answering my questions, traveler. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, you will no longer meet me upon death. You will find the entrance to Fantasia behind you. Please enjoy your stay,” Myst finished writing on her pad, giving Thorn an appraising look. With a small nod her figure faded into the air, leaving Thorn alone.
The door to Fantasia was an oversized affair, just right for Thorn. “Nice of them to take my height into consideration,” Thorn thought as he walked through. As soon as his foot crossed the threshold, Thorn found himself in a futuristic city. He was currently joining a large crowd of others in exiting what looked, at first glance, to be a railway station.
Overhead levitating cars and buses zipped by, stopping on platforms to let their occupants head into the floating bullet trains. Around him people rushed about their lives, not even sparing him a glance. At first, Thorn found it strange, until a dragon-headed individual brushed past him, jabbering away on his communications device while he tried to sip a scalding beverage.
A closer look showed that the people around him were of all races and shapes and sizes, having brought their in-game race with them into Fantasia. Walking to the side of the road, Thorn gingerly sat down on a wall. After being sure that it would hold his weight, Thorn opened his menu and called his aunt. Rather than wander around Fantasia as he had when he first entered Nova Terra, he was looking forward to saying hi.
“Xavier. How are you, hun?” Julia’s excited face popped up on the screen.
“I’m well. Have I called at a bad time?” Thorn asked, noticing the sheen of sweat on her face.
“No, no, this is great. I just finished my morning practice. Hold on one second.” Taking a towel, Julia wiped her face and her neck. “Ah, much better. So, what’s new? Did you complete your quest?”
“No, not yet.” Thorn shook his head. “I ran into some more people from Ragnarok and ended up dying. I’m in Fantasia now.”
“Oh, again? Are you sure you don’t want me to get the girls to pay them a visit?”
“Yeah, really. I want to take care of it myself.” Thorn’s heart burst with warmth at his aunt’s concern. “I was hoping to meet up with you, if you are free.”
“Of course. Why don’t you meet me at our offices? I can show you around.”
Agreeing to meet up, Thorn pulled up the address that Julia sent him and walked over while looking around at the city. All of the traffic on the ground was either foot traffic or small scooter-like devices while the levitating cars flitted around between the tall buildings above everyone. Since he had entered the city, Thorn had seen almost nothing but skyscrapers, each uniquely designed.
After twenty minutes of walking, Thorn reached the center of the business district. Despite housing almost half of the world’s 11 billion people, Fantasia did not seem overly crowded. Where the five and a half billion people who used the city were, Thorn was not quite sure. According to what he had read, the city of Fantasia was almost another game in and of itself.
Stopping, Thorn looked up. Rising over six hundred stories, the building in front of him was truly massive. At its base, it took up four city blocks, dwarfing all of the nearby buildings. A wide open walkway lead up to the huge glass entrance, exotic plants hanging from levitating planters. At the door stood uniformed greeters, welcoming the people streaming in off the street. As soon as Thorn stepped inside, a familiar figure made its way over.
“Welcome to Fantasia, Master Xavier.” Henry, the head of Atlas’ security team bowed his head slightly to Thorn.
“Hello, Henry. It is nice to see you again.”
“Thank you, sir. If you’d come this way, we will take the private elevator up to see your aunt.”
Following Henry, Thorn could not stop looking around. The building was truly magnificent. A masterful neomodern structure, the smooth curves and quirky edges blended peace and energy. Thorn had seen pictures and even video walkthroughs of the Atlas headquarters, but he had to admit that being here in person was completely different.
Standing comfortably in the elevator as it rapidly rose, Thorn could feel the care that his aunt gave him. One of the features of the massive buildings that sparked much attention when it had first been built was its scale. ‘Scaled for a giant’ some of the articles had said, unaware of how right they were.
“Xavier!” As soon as the doors to the elevator opened, Thorn’s aunt rushed in and gave him a big hug. “I’ve missed you.”
“Hi, Aunt Julia, I’ve missed you too.”
“Come on in, I want to introduce you to some of the girls.” Taking Thorn’s large hand, she pulled him out of the elevator. “We practice here when we are not in game. The facilities are better. Our practice room is state of the art. Oh, that reminds me. Before you go, set your home to this location. This floor and the two above it are the private residence. I hope you don’t mind, but I have been letting the girls use it, since there are so many rooms.”
“Of course I don’t mind, you can use it however you want. It is your home, too.”
“I know, I just feel bad because it is your building, and here I am making all the decisions about it.” Walking through a wide doorway, Julia let go of Thorn and pointed to a large staircase on the right. “Up that way is the living space. You’ll find your room in there. You can set that as your login point for Fantasia and use it to get back to the game when your lockout is up. Come this way though, I want to introduce you.”
Julia led Thorn into a spacious lounge with comfortable-looking sofas spaced around a round fireplace in the center of the room. Three women in their late twenties or early thirties were sprawled out on the couches chatting quietly. As soon as they spotted Julia coming in, they rose and came to greet her.
“Xavier, let me introduce you to Esmire, Bluefire, and Odele. They are the Society of Roses’ management staff. Esmire is our COO, Odele handles our PR, and Bluefire is in charge of combat and training. Girls, this is my nephew, Xavier. He just started playing a little while ago.”
A few hours later, Thorn lay comfortably on his bed for the first time since he entered Nova Terra. Relaxing on the mattress that could easily fit a family of five, he put his hands behind his head and stared up at the aquarium overhead. Countless exotic fish swam through the water above him, yet they failed to catch his attention as Thorn’s mind was drawn back to Nova Terra.
After spending less than a month of real time in the game, Thorn could easily see why this alternate world had become so important. He could hardly wait for the 24-hour lockout period to be over so he could dive back in.
But before he went back in, Thorn had something to do. With a deep breath, Thorn opened up his panel and stared at his messages. About to open the message from Mina, Thorn paused and looked around. His room was quiet and empty. “Hmm, must just be my imagination,” thought Thorn. The last few times he had been about to open up the message, something had interrupted him, making Thorn wonder if the game did not want him to open it.
As Thorn had played Nova Terra, everything seemed to fall into place, allowing him to progress from one adventure to the next. Yet, despite the apparent randomness of everything that had happened to him, Thorn wondered if there was a guiding hand behind it. Fortifying himself, Thorn pressed the button.
First, and most importantly, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for betraying you. I am sorry for trying to kill you. I am sorry for lying to you. I was pressured into doing it by someone else, but at the end of the day, I did it. I am so sorry.
Ever since that day, our party has broken up. Jorge was really scared after he died in town and has not been playing. Ouroboros has gone back to set up his faction in Ragnarok, but Velin and I did not go with him. Something about him has changed. I haven’t been able to sleep well because I feel so bad about that day.
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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.