A wretched hive of scum and villainy, at least, that is how the forums described the town of Vermin. A decaying slum or cramped, dirty, squatter’s camp would undoubtedly be the terms most would use to categorize the sight in front of Thorn. The town was a tangled mess of buildings, linked together with no semblance of order. The lack of unified planning had led to a rotting maze of streets, many simply ending where someone decided to put up a building.
The closer Thorn and Oberlin got to Vermin, the more visibly agitated Oberlin became. Seeing Thorn’s concerned look, the thief smiled wanly as they stood on a ridge overlooking the town.
“See that one story building? The one on the edge of town there?” Oberlin pointed at a small shack on the western side of the town. “That is the entrance to the shrine. For this plan to work, I need to get in there. But there is no way to get passed, the guards so I need you to create a distraction.”
“Your plan is to have me create a ruckus in the middle of town, and then you will go in to steal the statue?”
“Pretty much. It is simple, but it should work. You’re big enough to create a ruckus, and I’m good enough to get in and out quickly.”
“That seems a lot like stealing.”
“Are you serious? Why are you so worried about this? It is the same as looting a mob!” Oberlin half yelled at Thorn.
“Hey, calm down. It’s not like I won’t help, I just think your plan is silly.” Thorn remained unperturbed in the face of Oberlin’s outburst. “First, if I make a scene in the middle of town, I’ll attract way too many people’s attention, which is a good way for me to get killed. Plus, what are the chances that the guards in the shrine will leave? Pretty much zero.
“Second, if you could have snuck in, you would have done it already. That tells me that you are not nearly as confident as you are letting on. I’m guessing that is because they have some means of detecting your stealth or determining your location. Chances are, whatever is letting you identify where the statue is acts as a two-way tether. This means it is almost impossible that they are not expecting you, making it even more unlikely that the guards will leave the shrine.
“Third, from what you said, the statue is not going to be easily accessible, which means your plan is probably to destroy it on location, since you can’t steal it away. But doing that will alert the guards, making it unlikely for you to escape. Yeah, you could just die, but you have not embarked on a suicide mission previously, which means there is something keeping you from doing it. Do I need to keep going?”
“No.” Sighing, and shaking his head, Oberlin shared a quest screen with Thorn.
Master Locksmith: The Pinnacle of the Craft
You have gained mastery of your dual category class, [Master Locksmith]. To take the next step, you must complete the impossible, stealing your soul back from the Ordo Serpentes. Having given up your soul for safety at the beginning of your journey to mastery, it is finally time to take it back.
Reward: [Infinite Key Master] class upgrade
“You know, you are way smarter than you look. I mean, it isn’t like you look stupid per se, but no one expects critical thinking out of someone with the constitution of an elephant. The reason I am so concerned about this is that I cannot die before completing the quest.”
“See,” Thorn smiled widely, “you should have just started from here. This is a class upgrade quest? Interesting, I’ve never seen one before. Okay, why don’t you start at the beginning?”
“Fine. You might want to sit down.” Oberlin crouched, his eyes never leaving the town. “When I first entered the game, I thought I would get a clean break from my real life. I had money, nothing drastic, but enough to live comfortably while I played Nova Terra full time. I was hoping for a change of pace, something different. Unfortunately, life had other plans, and the first four classes I picked did not work out. I dabbled as a caster for a while and then switched to an agility-based fighter. I even tried being a chef after I realized I was unsuited for combat, and when that was too boring, I fell back on my old real-life profession, thi...er...Locksmith.
“I had no desire to ever get into that again. I mean, I started playing Nova Terra to get away from my past. But it is the only thing I know, and I am good at it, really good at it. Good to the point that it took me less than a month to master the class and upgrade to Master Locksmith. I scraped out a living in the capital city opening locks for other players. All legal stuff. You know, chests and dungeons and stuff like that.
“Everything was fine, if a bit boring, when one day, one of my customers brought in a box for me to open. That was pretty normal, but the box ended up being cursed. To make a long, complicated story short, in order to remove the curse, I pledged myself to serve the Ordo Serpentes. That is the group we are about to go up against. I thought they were a group that dealt in intelligence, like the Children of Avalon, but it turned out that they are an offshoot of the Demonkin Empire’s intelligence bureau.
“The bit of my soul they extracted was the part that carried the curse, but they soon started giving me outrageous requests, so I have been on the run from them for almost a year now. You were right about the statue though. As long as we are within a certain distance, the statue can sense my general location, and vice-versa. I am sick and tired of being chased around, and even though my combat strength is zero, I have to try this.”
“But it is not all bad, right?” Thorn patted the downcast thief on the shoulder lightly. “You have a quest for a triple class upgrade, right? And it is a natural upgrade, so it is even stronger than an
Ancient Inheritance, right?”
“Sure, but I have to live to enjoy it.”
“No problem. Come on, let’s go.” Standing and brushing his pants off, Thorn set off down the hill, his long strides carrying him down quickly.
“Wait, what about our plan?” Oberlin scrambled to his feet and ran after him.
“First, we’ll go talk to them. Then we’ll break the statue. Last, we’ll leave. I’ve got to get to Berum to meet someone and then find this castle.”
“Are you crazy? We are just walking right in? Does that even work? Don’t I have to sneak in for the quest?”
“Why would you have to sneak in?”
“The quest says I have to steal my soul back.”
“There are lots of ways to steal stuff.” Thorn stopped and looked at Oberlin squarely. “Every lock has a key, and all the keys are different. You wouldn’t try and open every lock with the same approach, why would you assume that your quest has one approach? Genghis Khan stole lots of stuff, and he never snuck anywhere.”
“So we’re going to burn the place to the ground, after murdering everyone in the town?”
“Okay, so it was a bad comparison.” Thorn rolled his eyes and continued walking. “My point is that you are too caught up in your identity as a thief. I’m assuming that has something to do with your past, but you do not have to live your life that way. Just because you did that in the past, doesn’t mean you have to do that now. Right now, in this moment, you are a locksmith, a great locksmith. And it just so happens that you found the right key for this situation. Me.”
Stunned, Oberlin could only stare at Thorn’s back as he walked confidently into town.
Vermin was occupied by players and natives who lived on the wrong side of the law. Murder and theft were common here, and the law of the jungle was in full effect. When Thorn and Oberlin first appeared on the edge of town, many eyes turned toward them. After all, fresh meat was rare in Vermin.
Yet, those same eyes quickly went back to their own business after seeing Thorn’s size and massive weapon. Most of the players here made their living preying on their fellow man, but as cruel as they were, few of them were stupid. Thorn’s confident stride, his shining armor, the large tetsubo resting on his shoulder, and the glinting claws on his fingers all combined with his excessive height to intimidate the fight right out of the townsfolk.
Parting like water in front of him, the crowds hurried to the side, allowing Thorn to walk through the maze of streets to the building that Oberlin had pointed out. While it did not look like much on the surface, Oberlin had explained that it was only the entrance to an underground temple compound. Seeing no guards, Thorn pushed open the door and ducked inside.
The whole building was a single room, empty except for a small shrine and a priest in a shimmering green, scaled robe, who was meditating to the side, his eyes closed. Thorn looked at Oberlin, who stepped into the building behind him.
“Entrance is under the shrine,” Oberlin whispered. “If we are really negotiating, we need to talk to the High Priest.”
“Excuse me. I’d like to talk to the High Priest.” Thorn walked confidently up to the priest and looked down at him.
“The High Priest doesn’t see...Uh...okay.” Halfway through his refusal, the priest opened his eyes and immediately thought better of it. “Let me ask if he is available.”
“Thanks.” Thorn smiled widely, turning to Oberlin. “See, sometimes you just need to ask.”
“And be twice their height.”
“Sure, that can help.”
“Um, sir? The High Priest will see you. Please wait while I open the passage. You’ll want to head down the hall and take your first right.” The priest was very respectful as he pushed a button, and the altar slid to the side, revealing a large passage down into the earth.
“Thank you. Come on, Oberlin.” Thorn began walking down the passage, pulling Oberlin along with him.
“Are you sure about this, Thorn? This seems like a really bad idea.”
“Relax, it will be fine. All we are doing is asking for a bit of your soul back.”
The passage they traveled down was smooth, reminding Thorn of the skin of a snake. After winding through the earth for a while, a passage opened up on the right, so Thorn and Oberlin turned and found themselves facing a large door. Without a sound, the door slid open, hiding itself in the wall.
Passed the door was a vast hall lit by flickering candlelight. At one end there was a large altar, covered in small statues of a half-human, half-snake Naga. Each statue held a flickering pearl in outstretched hands. To the left and right were larger statues of snake people, armed with a variety of weapons, creating a sinister atmosphere. A robed figure stood waiting in the center of the hall, leaning on a snake head cane.
“Come in. I’ve been expecting you.” The robed figure had a bizarre voice, it's cold tones seeming to slither uncomfortably around the room. “No doubt you are here in a futile attempt to reclaim yourself.”
Curious, Thorn opened the notification he had just received, a wide grin stretching across his face as he read it.
You have found yourself in a Temple of Salliish, the Shadow Serpent. Disgusted by the snake’s sly sliminess, Hati has commanded that you, the Avatar of the Moon Wolf, show said serpent who is boss by destroying the temple. Destroy all of the statues of Salliish and the main altar.
This quest is your first [Avatar Challenge]. As you adventure around Nova Terra, it is your responsibility as the Avatar of Hati to represent Hati in challenging other Avatars to contests of strength and feats of valor. And occasionally, petty acts of vandalism. A challenge will be generated when you come within a certain distance of another Avatar. For a challenge to be recognized as legitimate, it must be openly announced to the Avatars involved.
Reward: Increase Hati’s Favor
Failure: Decrease Hati’s Favor
Agitated at being ignored, the robed figure stepped forward aggressively, lifting its staff.
“Whoa, hold up.” Thorn raised a hand to stop the High Priest as he dismissed the notification. Stepping forward, he came to a stop in front of the robed figure, unaffected by the creepiness of the room. “Why don’t we drop the good guy, bad guy act and talk this through? I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement. My name is Thorn, and I will be representing Oberlin. Our goal today is to retrieve the statue that contains a piece of his soul. How should I address you?”
The High Priest froze. After a moment had passed, the hood flipped down with a deep sigh, revealing long chestnut hair and a stunning face.
“My name is Josephine, High Priestess of the Ordo Serpentes. Please have a seat.” With a brilliant smile, she gestured to the side, where a couple of carved stone seats were placed along the wall.
“Thank you, but I don’t think that would go well for your chairs.” Thorn smirked. Following Josephine over to the seats, Thorn squatted down as Oberlin took a seat.
“Now, you said that you want to negotiate for a soul piece? What makes you so confident that we will consider your offer?” Crossing one shapely leg over the other, Josephine propped her chin in her palm and stared intently at Thorn.
“You would not have met us without a guard, otherwise.” Thorn’s advanced sense of smell had failed to pick up any other people in the room when he walked in.
“Hah. I don’t know if it is a pleasure to talk to an intelligent person or if it is annoying. Since we are being straight-forward, why don’t you lay your cards on the table? What can you offer for the statue?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure. I haven’t really thought that far ahead.”
“You are trying to tell me you walked in here expecting us to just give you the statue? Don’t insult me.”
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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. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.