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As the early morning light broke over the horizon, the forest awoke. A curious wren landed on a branch, its head cocking as it looked down at Thorn’s prone figure. Stretched out along a hill, Thorn peeked over the top, looking down at the entrance to the canyon leading to Davyos’ Fall. Even in the early morning hours, two red-armored players stood guard, watching for anyone who might disrupt their guild’s operations.

“Do they really just stand there? What a strange way to play a game.” Thorn spoke quietly to avoid alerting the guards.

“To them it isn’t a game. It is a job. They play Nova Terra for a living, so it is the same as another job. They get benefits, get paid by the hour, it really is just like any other job. So, if their employer tells them to spend some time standing guard, they stand guard.” Velin lay next to Thorn, looking down toward the canyon. “They might be elite players, but they are on the low end of the totem pole.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“When you two are finished chatting, can we get started?” Oberlin’s voice drifted over from somewhere nearby. Thorn could not, for the life of him, tell where Oberlin actually was, but he knew he was in the vicinity.

“Yeah, let’s get going.” Thorn scooted back down the hill far enough that his head would not be visible over the top when he stood up. “Everyone remember the plan? We don’t have much room for error here. Once they are alerted, it will be much harder for us to get through, so no messing around, okay?”

“What? Why are you looking at me?” Mina complained, adjusting her pointy hat. “I’m an elite player, I know what to do.”

“Great.” Thorn ignored Mina’s pouting. “Velin, when you are ready.”

Nodding, the elven War Priestess pulled her staff out and walked over the hill toward the Crimson Snake guards, Mina by her side. As they came down the hill, the two guards perked up, lifting their swords and shields. After a moment of staring at the approaching girls, the guard on the left, a middle-aged man with a mustache, motioned for the other guard to put down his weapons when the two girls got closer.

“Miss Velin.” Mustache bowed respectfully as they got closer.

“Morning. Do you know me?” Velin greeted him, her face impassive.

“Yes, Miss. I worked a shift at headquarters last year and saw you with Lord Ouroboros. Congratulations on his advancement.”

“Mmhm. Why are you on duty here?”

“Lord Angdrin ordered that we guard this location to prevent anyone from other guilds from exploring beyond this point. There is an abandoned city and a dungeon in the canyon!” The younger guard chimed in, excited to be talking to someone as famous as Velin. He lapsed into silence as he caught a glare from mustache.

“My apologies, miss, but you can’t go beyond this point,” Mustache said, tightening his grip on his sword and shield. “The order is that the location is completely locked down. So no one can get in.”

“Even if I’m just doing research in the tunnel? There is a magic door that I wanted to examine in more detail.” Velin’s cold face did not change expression at the guard’s refusal.

“I’m sorry, orders are orders.” Mustache shook his head, suppressing a shiver. He had always heard that Velin was cold, but he could swear that the actual temperature had dropped.

“Hmm. Shame.” Velin shook her head and stepped to the side, revealing Mina with a silly smile on her face and a fully charged wand in her hands.

“[Avalanche]!” Mina shouted, causing a massive flurry of snow to appear, burying the two guards before they could move. Stunned for a moment, they could not respond as a giant crossbow bolt flew down the hill, instantly sending the younger guard out of the game. Before the stunned state had worn off, Velin channeled a beam of pure energy into her staff, shooting it through Mustache’s chest. He did not even have time for his expression to register his shock before he turned into motes of light.

With both guards gone, Thorn hurried down the hill to the canyon entrance, meeting Oberlin, Velin, and Mina outside the tunnel that led to Davyos’ Fall.

“Okay, that could have gone better, but we did account for the possibility of having to kill the guards. This means we are on a clock. We probably have less than an hour before we start seeing reinforcements. So we cannot waste time if we meet other guards inside,” Velin said. The War Priestess was all business, hurrying them into the tunnel.

Not worrying about stealth, the group burst into the room with the magical door just in time to see it click shut. Someone from the other side must have been alerted by the players that died and closed the door. At the sight of the closed door and active runes, Mina paled.

“It took us an hour and forty-five minutes to open it last time.” Mina shook her head. “There is no way we’ll be able to get through.”

“Hah, are you serious? For this thing?” Oberlin materialized in front of the large bronze doors.

“What? You think you can do better?”

Oberlin just smirked as his hands began flying, tapping here and there on the runic lock. Seeing his actions, Velin’s eyebrows rose. She looked at Thorn for confirmation and, seeing him readying his arbalest, she gave a small smile.

“Mina, get ready for another Avalanche. We need to make sure anyone on the other side of the door doesn’t have a chance to run.”

“Got it.” Still slightly doubtful, Mina charged her wand.

For a moment, the only sound in the tunnel was Oberlin’s tapping hands. Everyone else stood silently as they got ready for whatever was on the other side of the door. In just three minutes the runic lock began to warp, finally dispersing with Oberlin’s last tap.

“There you go,” said the thief with a flourish.

“Thank you.” Thorn stepped past him and pushed the door open violently, his arbalest leveled.

On the other side of the door stood three more guards in the red armor of the Crimson Snakes. Two held swords and shields while one had a bow on his back. With a start, they scrambled to get into position, but it was too little too late. Almost by reflex, Thorn sent his bolt at the archer, who instantly exploded into motes of light, while Mina dropped her icy stun on the two shield-bearing warriors.

Whether by luck or simply chance, the flurry of snow only caught one of them, the other managing to dive to the side. Yelling a war cry, the warrior who escaped the snow rolled forward, his shield in front of him as he attacked. Sadly for him, it did not go well. As he rose from the ground to approach Thorn, a massive foot lashed out, kicking the center of his shield.

[CRACK]

With a tremendous sound, the shield snapped in half, and the dumbfounded warrior was launched backwards, tumbling head over heels until he came to a stop almost twenty feet away. For a brief moment his body lay still and then peacefully faded. The stunned warrior fared no better and soon joined his companions in Fantasia.

“It will take us ten minutes to get to the city if we run, so let’s get going.” Velin did not dwell on the fight, instead moving the party along.

To her surprise, Thorn put his arbalest away and scooped her and Mina up, one in each hand. Telling Oberlin to climb onto his back and hold on, Thorn began running, his strides growing longer as he sped up. Perched up on Thorn’s broad shoulder, Mina giggled with glee at the landscape flying past.

“Who said this game doesn’t have fast travel?” she joked. Velin ignored her, holding on tightly.

Each pounding footstep sent Thorn almost a dozen feet forward. Within less than a minute, the city came into clear view and, within three, they were at its edge. With a smile, Thorn let the ladies down as Oberlin jumped down from where he had been holding on to Thorn’s armor.

“That works, too.” Velin took a moment to fix her hair that had blown out of place during the mad dash. “Let’s look for the library. We are aiming for speed over stealth. Oberlin, you are in charge of keeping an eye out. Thorn, you’ll be in charge of blocking anyone we come across with Mina. I’ll find the library and look for our information.”

Sure enough, three blocks in Oberlin sent a message saying that there was a group of five red-armored players heading for them. Nodding to Velin, Thorn and Mina split off from the War Priestess and went to meet them head on. At first Mina wanted to try and ambush them, but after remembering the way Thorn manhandled the previous group, she just shrugged and followed behind him.

The two groups met at a crossroads and immediately closed for combat. One of the Crimson Snakes had bows and one was wielding a staff. The other three held the familiar scimitar and round shield that Thorn had seen on the others. Charging forward, Thorn lifted his gauntlets to protect his head and neck.

Seeing a giant thundering toward them, the shield-wielding Crimson Snakes paled. The message they had gotten only said that someone had breached the large doors to the valley; it said nothing about a giant.

Two of the shield bearers braced for impact. The third, wanting no part of Thorn’s charge, jumped aside. Lowering his body, Thorn sent two palm strikes into the center of the shields, blasting both players back. Not slowing at all, he continued to close on the archer who had just started shooting arrows. Lifting his hands, Thorn knocked the first out of the air but missed the second, grunting slightly as it punched through his paldron.

Next to the archer, the staff-wielding caster was chanting, crimson mist spilling from her lips. Just as she started to raise her staff toward Thorn, a long, eerie howl rang out, echoing off of the surrounding buildings.

[Wolf Lord's Howl]

Taking advantage of the caster’s momentary pause, Thorn suddenly accelerated, crossing the last few steps and ramming into her with his shoulder. With a sharp crack, her staff broke as she tumbled backwards. As he charged, Thorn had pulled out his tetsubo which he smashed sideways into the archer. Both of the ranged fighters dealt with, Thorn turned to the remaining Crimson Snakes.

The warrior who had dodged Thorn’s charge quickly found himself on the wrong end of a cold, sharp ice spike, leaving the two that Thorn had knocked aside scrambling to their feet, their pale faces a testament to how hard the palm strikes had been. Seeing that they were the last of their group alive, one of the warriors gritted his teeth and, holding his shield up to stop the icy spikes raining down on him, charged forward.

“Get backup!” The warrior yelled over his shoulder as he swung his sword, trying to claim Thorn’s attention.

“Nice try.” Thorn grinned, appreciating his opponent’s bravery. But appreciation did not stop him from backhanding him into a nearby wall. Dashing forward, Thorn was about to crush the last warrior with a strike from his tetsubo when the temperature suddenly plummeted. Shifting his weight to the side, Thorn threw himself forward in a roll, tumbling across the ground and smashing into some rotting barrels.

“[Sub Zero]!” Mina shouted

Behind him, the Crimson Snake warrior who had been fleeing froze solid and a flurry of ice spikes quickly ended the fight. Getting to his feet, Thorn glared at the short witch.

“Careful where you throw your spells!”

“It’s area of effect, it's not my fault you are so big that pretty much everything hits you.” Mina rolled her eyes as she moved to loot the bodies.

“I thought you were supposed to be an elite player. Friendly fire is not elite player behavior.”

“It didn’t hit you, did it?”

“Yeah, but only because I jumped out of the way.”

“Oh, stop complaining. You sound like a big baby. A really, really, really huge baby. Like, ginormous baby.”

“Alright, I get it.” Thorn shook his head, opening a message from Oberlin. “What’s up?”

“More enemies incoming. Looks like the main force. Twenty-three Crimson Snakes, a mix of all sorts of classes. Angdrin is with them, along with the other two you nearly killed last time. We should probably leave soon.”

“Alright, sit tight. Let me check in with Velin.” Switching the message to hold, Thorn added Velin to the call. “Hey, Velin, I have Oberlin on the line. He says we have the main group of Crimson Snakes, including Angdrin, on the way. What is your time frame?”

“I’m not sure. I have not found anything yet.” Velin’s voice was laden with frustration. “I’m trying a different building next to the library, and then I will be back.”

Surprised at the rare emotion, Thorn’s brow furrowed.

“What is wrong? It sounds like you ran into a problem.”

“Problem? I’d say. I went to the library, but it is gone. Completely gone. The books, I mean, the building is still here. It looks like a group recently moved the entire library. All of the shelves are completely cleared out. They did not leave a single book. Even the scroll racks have been cleared. Which means we probably have no chance of finding out what we need to know.”

“Wait. All the books are missing?” Thorn asked, his voice slow.

“Yeah. Who would waste their time moving so many books? Most of them are probably useless anyway, so it is just a ton of dead weight hanging out in their inventory. But whoever did it ruined any chance we have of getting a clue from here. I’m doing one last check to see if I can scrounge up anything of value.” Velin paused, hearing only deep silence from the other side. “Thorn? Thorn? Is everything okay?”

“Hahahaha!” Mina’s laughter came over the call. “Velin, you have got to see this!”

Standing in the middle of the street, a mortified giant was standing next to a large stack of books that he had just pulled from his inventory.

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If you've enjoyed what you read and are interested in reading more, please consider supporting me on Patreon where you can read Book #1 and Book #2 and advanced chapters from Book #3. Come explore the world of Nova Terra and help me determine where the story goes.

You can find out more about me at sethring.com


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WildCard

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.

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