Grim-faced, Thorn watched the growing shadows as they solidified into the form of a massive snake. Even larger than the snake that Josephine had summoned previously, this snake was black as night, it's dark scales seeming to absorb the last remaining light in the room.
[FOOLISH MORTAL] boomed a voice, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere. [CROSSING ME WAS THE WORS…].
The voice cut off abruptly as Thorn stepped forward and slammed a fist into the altar, sending a massive vibration through the room. With a tremendous cracking sound, the altar split straight down the middle. Josephine froze, shock painted on her features. She watched in growing horror as Thorn kicked one of the halves of the altar away, grabbing the other and hoisting it over his head with a grunt. She flinched as Thorn smashed it into the ground, sending shards of black stone flying across the floor.
As the echo reverberated around the chamber, Thorn stood for a moment, his breathing calming. After a moment, he turned, all signs of anger gone from his face. Ignoring Josephine, Thorn looked toward the side of the room where a figure detached itself from the shadows and gave him a grin, patting the belt pouch at its waist.
“Big enough distraction for you?” Thorn asked Oberlin, while brushing shards of black stone from his greaves.
“Yes, sir.” Oberlin’s grin widened. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better one. Seriously though, how freakishly strong are you? Those snakes were huge!"
Thorn ignored the question, turning to look at Josephine, who was still in shock. He gave her a slight bow.
“It was very nice to meet you, Josephine. Thank you for explaining how the Avatar challenges work and for entertaining us all this time. We have to get going now and cannot help to clean up, but I’m sure we’ll run across each other again.”
“Yeah, I’m sure we will,” Josephine said, her bright eyes fixed on Thorn.
Slightly uncomfortable being stared at like that, Thorn waved to Oberlin, and they quickly left the underground temple. As they made their way up to the surface, Thorn heard a notification.
Friend Request: Josephine - High Shadow Priestess - Avatar of Salliish
Taken aback, Thorn hesitated for a moment before he hit the accept button. At his side, Oberlin chatted away, obviously in a good mood. Pushing the door to the outside open, the thief froze. Standing in front of the building was a half circle of rough looking players, all staring at the door. Thorn, seeing Oberlin stop, frowned slightly and moved him aside, stepping past him to face the other players.
“Excuse me, do you mind moving? We are headed out of town.”
“Oh, are you?” At Thorn’s words, a tough looking human with a scar running across his lips stepped forward. “You haven’t paid the tax though. How are you going to come into our town and not pay the tax?”
“Tax? For coming into town? Are you serious?”
“Do I look like I am joking?” Despite facing Thorn’s imposing bulk, the scarred man spat on the ground in front of his feet. “It doesn’t matter how big you are, if you don’t want to die, you better pay up.”
“And how much is the tax?”
“Haha, that is a better attitude,” growled the scarred man. “Five gold for the thief, ten gold for you since you are oversized.”
“And if I don’t pay?”
“Then you can enjoy some time in Fantasia. And when you come back, we can have this conversation again.”
Feeling a tug on his arm, Thorn looked down at Oberlin.
“We’ll respawn here, since this is the last town we’ve visited.”
“Oh,” realization dawned on Thorn’s face. “So if we don’t pay the tax, they’ll kill us and then keep killing us when we respawn.”
“Yup. That is why most people don’t visit red towns.” Oberlin nodded, not seeming worried.
“Huh, I can see why.”
Annoyed that he was being ignored, the scarred thug stepped forward threateningly. Unfortunately, that brought him closer to Thorn, making the difference in their size more pronounced. He quickly took a step back.
“Fork over the gold or face the consequences!”
“Oberlin, you said that there are no town guards?”
“No, there are guards, but they don’t really come out. And if they do, it's only to extort people. They are always absent when a player breaks a rule that would get them locked up in another town. But the benefit is that they will not stop you, so long as you don’t mess with the native in charge of the town.”
“Good.” His voice turning flat, Thorn’s eyes locked onto the scarred thug. Stepping forward, his hand shot out like lightning, swatting away a vain attempt to block and grabbing him firmly by his chest armor. Lifting the thug, whose face had paled, Thorn turned slightly and launched him with all of his strength.
A nearby building, unable to withstand the force of a human smashing through its walls, collapsed in a storm of splinters and plaster.
The rest of the thugs, who were in the middle of drawing their weapons, paused. As one, their eyes fixed on the now collapsed building that Thorn had just thrown their leader through. They looked at Thorn, then at the building, then back at Thorn. With a clang, they put their weapons back in their sheaths and turned to walk away.
“Hey!” Thorn had barely gotten a single word out when the bandits broke into a mad dash, disappearing before he could get his second word out. “Aren’t… Okay, I guess not.” Thorn looked at Oberlin, who shrugged. Shaking his head, Thorn walked out of Vermin.
“You know, Thorn, you could make a pretty awesome warlord,” Oberlin suddenly announced as they walked.
“Sorry, not interested.” Thorn shook his head, changing the subject. “Did you get your soul back?”
“Yes, thanks to you keeping the High Priestess busy.” Oberlin pulled a glowing orb out of his inventory.
“Wow. I have to say, that is really impressive. I did not see you take it, and I was staring at the table pretty much the whole time.”
“There is a reason my class has ‘Master’ attached.”
“Did you get your new class?”
“Yup, [Infinite Key Master]. Makes me even better at opening locks. There are a couple other bonuses, but it is pretty focused on getting into things other people want to keep you out of.”
“Well, I know who to call if I lose my keys. Does this make you the only person in the game to have mastered a dual category class?”
“Possibly.” Oberlin was not as excited as Thorn imagined. “Honestly, it is pretty much impossible to know. There are a lot of players that don’t talk about their game time. Unless you are getting the information from Eve herself, I would take everything you hear with a grain of salt. For example, I have no idea what that business about avatars was about. I thought all the gods fell to the dragons. Everyone has their own secrets.”
“What are your plans now that you have gotten your soul back? You’re free to go anywhere now, right?”
“Helping you, of course. I only got the orb back because you helped me. There is no way I would have managed to sneak it out otherwise. For now, you’re stuck with me.” Oberlin grinned, looking happier than he ever had. “I am still working on the chests; it seems like the locks require specific quest items to open. As soon as I figure out what we need to find, I’ll let you know. Until then, I am going to walk around behind you, since you make just about the best shield there is. You threw that guy through a building. Isn’t that cheating or something?”
Continuing to chat, they made their way toward Berum. Nova Terra had no fast travel system, so Thorn fully expected it to take a couple days to make the trek. If he had been by himself, he could have run, shortening the distance considerably, but Oberlin lacked Thorn’s stamina, so he set the pace.
As they camped that night, Thorn spent some time looking through his messages, replying to his aunt and a note sent by his sifu. Mina had gotten back to him as well, setting up a time and place to meet, her excitement and nervousness obvious by the tangled tone of the message. Thorn was still not sure what he was going to do when he met with Mina and Velin, but he felt that he should at least try to restore the relationship.
As he stared up at the stars, Thorn knew that they were fake and yet, he could not help but marvel at their grandeur. There was a feeling of freedom in his heart as he lay under the stars that Thorn had never experienced before. Beneath the dark expanse of space, how small he felt, and how wonderful that was. As his appreciation of the beauty of the night sky grew, the problems in his heart melted away.
It took two days for Thorn and Oberlin to arrive at Berum. Oberlin was so happy that they were done walking that he nearly cried. Ignoring him, Thorn nodded to the city guards, who were looking at him with suspicion. Though completing the [Trouble at Embersplit Mine] quest had cleared the [Criminal] title, the last memory the guards in Berum had of him was trying to find chains that would fit around his massive wrists.
Much like regular people, the natives of Nova Terra had long memories. Just because he had been cleared of his crime, they did not forget that they had thrown him in jail not too long ago. Already nervous when they had to arrest Thorn, they were even more nervous now that he had gotten out and returned to Berum. Thorn, on the other hand, barely thought about it at all. He walked past them into the city, leaving Oberlin sitting on the ground where he had collapsed dramatically.
“Hey, wait up.” Oberlin dragged himself off the ground and chased after Thorn’s massive back. “You are meeting up with some of your old party members, right? When do you meet them?”
“Tonight. We are meeting at a bar near the courthouse at six. Still a couple hours, so I am going to get something to eat.”
“Sheesh, do you ever stop eating? You were eating almost all morning as we walked.”
“There is a lot of me to keep up with.”
The last time he had been in Berum, Thorn had been a regular at an inn called the Speckled Hen. As he walked in that familiar direction, Thorn began to realize that the townsfolk were staring at him. Every time he turned down a street, the players would move out of his way, but otherwise ignore him. On the other hand, the natives were much more concerned about him, pointing and whispering to each other.
“You are pretty popular.” The attention was so obvious that even Oberlin noticed.
“I’m not sure why. Last time I was here, no one paid any attention to me.”
“Sure, but you also were not a violent criminal. Killing someone in town is not common. And who knows when you’ll snap and kill someone else. Haha,” Oberlin laughed at his own joke. “But seriously, the last thing the townsfolk remember about you is that you were arrested. Your size makes you easy to remember. Don’t be surprised if your reception is less than friendly.”
Arriving at the Speckled Hen, Thorn ducked through the door, Oberlin following him. Thorn had originally picked this inn because of the tall ceilings that let him stand freely. As they entered, the innkeeper hurried up, a big smile on his face.
“Thorn! It is great to see you! It has been a long time. Were your charges cleared? There were some terrible rumors going around about you, but I know you. There is no way that could have been true.”
“Hello, Gerald.” Thorn smirked at Oberlin, who was standing next to him, his mouth hanging open in shock. “Yeah, I was able to get the confusion cleared up. Is Elsie still cooking lunch? I know I’m a bit late, but I’m starving.”
“Of course, of course. You go get a seat, and I’ll let her know you are here!” Gerald pointed them to an open table in the corner that had a large tree stump instead of a chair and bustled off toward the kitchen.
“What was that?” Oberlin was still confused as he pulled up a chair to the table. “Are you related to him? He treated you like his long lost son.”
“Haha. No, this is where I ate when I stayed in Berum last time.” Thorn, waved at one of the waitresses who recognized him.
“So? I eat at lots of place...oh.” Realization dawned on Oberlin’s face. “You mean this is the only place you ate? And they are still in business? Your appetite must have been smaller back then.”
“Yeah, my meals generally cost me about a gold a day. Half a gold on days I am getting food to go.”
“Sheesh. No wonder he likes you. Just shows the power of gold.”
Soon steaming plates of food arrived, filling up the table and half of another table that Gerald pulled up. Watching the food rapidly disappear into the bottomless pit that was Thorn’s stomach, Oberlin could only shake his head and do his best to snatch some food before it was gone.
Once the food was gone, Oberlin leaned back and looked at Thorn.
“What next? You said you need to do some research to try to find the location of a castle, right?”
“Yes. Greymane Keep. I need to meet someone tonight who, depending on how the meeting goes, may be able to give us a hand figuring out the right location. If not, I was planning on digging through the library to see if I can find any references.”
“Library is good. There are some groups that specialize in game knowledge, but that can get expensive fast.”
“Money won’t be an issue,” Thorn stated with certainty.
“In that case, we’ll want to talk to Avalon. They have the deepest understanding of Nova Terra. Most expensive, of course, but if you have the coin, there is almost nothing they can’t find.”
“How do we get in contact with them?”
“You’ll need a referral.” Oberlin fished around in his pouch for a minute, pulling out a silver bordered card with a large embossed A. “They have people all over. Look for a shop with this symbol on the sign, and then have a former customer introduce you. I’ve picked up info from them before, so I can make the introduction.”
“Yeah, The Children of Avalon are one of the biggest merchant guilds in Nova Terra, though their primary business is information.”
“Alright. Then I’ll rely on you if this meeting doesn’t work out.” Thorn nodded and rose to his feet, dropping a gold coin on the table.
A few hours later, he found himself standing in front of the bar where he was going to meet Mina and Velin. All day he had been able to remain calm, but now, faced with the reality of having to see them again, his stomach was in knots. Oberlin had noticed how tense Thorn was getting as the time for the meeting approached and had slipped away, leaving Thorn alone. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open.
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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.