With a long sigh, Thorn stared at the massive piles of random loot heaped on the floor of the room he was renting. Over in the corner, Velin was poring over a stack of books that Thorn had pulled out of his inventory. While retrieving the books that he had picked from the library in Davyos’ Fall, Thorn realized that he had never dealt with the various things he had picked up in the dungeon where he had met Hati.
He continued to pull books, skins, gems, weapons, and other random loot that he had stored when he was a porter from his inventory, causing both Oberlin and Mina to stare in utter astonishment. Mina knew that his inventory was large, but the endless stream of loot was almost too much.
“Alright, let's sort all of this stuff,” Thorn said, looking around at the haphazard piles, “and then we’ll see what we can sell.”
“What are we doing with the books?” Oberlin asked, gingerly running his hand across the top of a stack of books almost as tall as he was.”
“Keeping them. We can store them in the bank,” Velin called out from the desk, her eyes never leaving the page she was translating. “But the rest of the stuff can go.”
After a few hours of sorting, the floor had reappeared, and Thorn’s inventory was organized into neat sections. A trip to the bank and a couple different merchants’ shops made a massive dent in his pile of junk and added a nice weight to his wallet.
On the way back to the inn where Mina and Velin were waiting, Thorn was lost in thought. Following him, Oberlin stuck to Thorn’s shadow. The crowded city streets were normally hard to push through, but Thorn’s massive figure seemed to have a magical effect on the crowds who naturally made a path for him.
A couple blocks from the inn, Thorn slowed to a stop and crouched in the shade of a building. Seeing him stop, Oberlin stood close, waiting as Thorn continued to think quietly.
“How would you feel about helping me out with something?” Thorn’s deep voice rumbled like thunder, even when he was trying to speak softly.
“You name it. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your help with the Ordo Serpentes.”
“Don’t worry about that. It turned out to be something good for me too. I want to hire you to do something. The job will be for at least a year, maybe longer.”
“You want to hire me?”
“Yeah, formal employment. I’m thinking about building a team, and I could use someone who understands how to find information.”
“Well, I can certainly help with that. But I don’t know if you realize the extent of what is required for building an official team. You have to pay the members of the team. And not just with in-game stuff, but with real money. And you have to provide health care and pay taxes and all sorts of other things.”
“Yeah, I read a guide.”
“It is a cool idea, but unless you have a sponsor, you’ll go broke trying to get the funds together. I don’t mean to be a downer, but putting together an official team is very costly and a lot of work.” Oberlin shook his head. “I’d be happy to put together an informal team with you, but I don’t know how realistic it is to expect anything of it.”
“We have a sponsor.” Thorn watched the crowded street as he waited for his words to register.
“Getting a sponsor is the hardest… What?!”
“We have a sponsor.” Thorn repeated his words dully, pretending that he wasn’t thoroughly enjoying Oberlin’s shock.
“How did you find a sponsor? How big a team are they willing to finance? Are they willing to build a full guild? How much are they offering?” Excited, Oberlin blurted out a whole string of questions before his expression turned puzzled. “Who are they?”
“Atlas? Atlas Energy?!”
Opening his interface, Thorn sent Oberlin a message with a document attached.
“That is the employment contract. If you are interested, you’ll be hired for a term of one year. While there are no specific roles in the contract, I currently envision your role being something similar to an intelligence officer. I am looking for someone who can assist me in collecting, sorting, and ranking intelligence while also helping me make contacts.
“I’m realizing that Nova Terra is way larger and more complex than I originally understood. This world is not a game, at least in the normal sense, and I think it is time to stop treating it as such. I have a quest that could potentially lead to controlling a region, and I want to capitalize on it by putting a team together that will eventually transition into a guild that will use that region as a base. I don’t know the specifics of where I am going to end up, but I can guarantee that I’m going to leave my mark on this world, and I would love to have you join me.”
For a moment, Oberlin was silent, his eyes growing wider and wider as he read the document that Thorn had sent over to him. Seeing the official letterhead of Atlas, the thief’s heart nearly stopped. As soon as he finished reading it, he signed it and sent it back to Thorn.
“Sounds good, boss. You got yourself an employee.”
“Thanks. I know all of this is sudden, but we’ve got a lot to do. For your first task, I’d like you to head south to make some specific connections. I’ll send you the exact details when you are on the road.”
Saying goodbye, Thorn watched Oberlin vanish into the crowd. He sat in the shade of the wall for a few more minutes, watching people pass by. His whole life he had been an observer, and it was finally time that he stood up and began to take control of his life for himself. Rising, Thorn smiled. He had a feeling that the next few years of his life in-game were going to be eventful. Laughing happily to himself, Thorn joined the crowds.
The girls were sitting together in the room when Thorn got back. Velin had finished examining the books and maps that Thorn had looted from the library and compiled all of the new information into notes.
“Did you find out where the keep is located?” Thorn sat on the floor by the table.
“I did. It looks to be about three days east of here. The history of the region is quite complicated. We will need to tread carefully, as the enemies will most likely be quite dangerous. May I ask how you got the quest?”
“It triggered after I got a title. Is that important?”
“ Absolutely. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that it is highly likely that it is important. Almost everything in this game is important. I’ll try to do a bit more research to see if it will influence our approach. If all you have to do is clear the keep, we should be okay, but complicated areas like this one tend to generate a lot of quests, which could put us into conflict with other players. High density quest areas like this will be fiercely contested if there are any teams or guilds involved.”
“I’m sure we’ll be able to handle it.” Hearing a knock on the door, Thorn paused. “That will be the food. Let’s eat and chat about all this after dinner.”
Opening the door revealed four waiters straining under massive trays of food. On his way up to the room, Thorn had ordered enough food to feed an army. Or just himself.
After the four servers carried the gargantuan trays of food into the room, Thorn, Mina, and Velin ate their fill. As the girls chatted quietly, Thorn carried the mound of plates and bowls down to the kitchen. As he returned, he heard the conversation die down. Ever since his transformation into the Avatar of the Moon Wolf, his senses had gotten much sharper, and while he could not tell exactly what the girls had been talking about, he knew that it wasn’t a happy conversation.
Ducking through the door, Thorn saw Mina looking glumly at the floor. Velin’s expression was neutral, but that did not mean anything since she almost always looked like that. Sitting down on the floor, Thorn organized his thoughts for a moment before he began to speak.
“I think it is time we had a serious talk.”
“A...about what?” Mina looked up, the frustration on her face replaced with nervousness.
“About what we are going to do next.” Thorn tried to smile reassuringly. “You can’t just follow me around while I do quests. I think that we need to define our working relationship. No, wait, hear me out before you say anything.” Holding up his hand to prevent Mina from speaking, Thorn took a deep breath.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Nova Terra and what I am hoping to achieve in this world. I won’t pretend that I have everything figured out, but recent events have started making my path clearer. I want to lay out my thoughts and then hear yours. No matter what conclusion we come to, I want to remain friends, but that does not necessarily mean that we have to quest together. That said, I’d love to stay together. Sorry, I’m getting scattered.
“My eventual goal is to carve out a piece of Nova Terra for myself. I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since we faced off against the Crimson Snakes. The way they play is very intriguing to me. Building up a territory, leading other people, growing influence. All of these parts of the game really appeal to me, but I am not naive enough to think that I can do all this by myself.
“I want to start a team. An official team like Ouroboros had before. Actually, I’ve already started a team, and Oberlin has joined it. I’d love to have you two join the team as well. I have a sponsor already, and I’m working out the details for it, but I think it would be really awesome for both of you to join.”
“We’d lo…” Before Mina could finish her statement, Velin quickly covered her mouth.
“Thank you for your offer, Thorn. We would love to hear more details about this.” Velin kept her hand over her short friend’s mouth.
“Haha, sure. I’ve just sent you the employment contracts. The team sponsor is Atlas Energy, and the budget is generous. I’m not one hundred percent set on what the team’s primary goal is at this point. Why don’t you take a moment to read through the contract, and I can try to answer any questions you have?”
For a few moments, silence reigned as Mina and Velin read through the file that Thorn sent them. At first, Mina looked over it casually, but the contents soon left her mouth hanging open in shock. Velin had brought out her notebook to write down her questions, but it lay forgotten at her side as her eyes widened in surprise. Neither girl said a word until they had finished reading over the document. Even after they finished, they simply stared at each other for a moment.
“Is this real?” Velin’s voice was quiet.
“Yeah.” Thorn frowned. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“You expect me to believe that Atlas is offering us a contract on their official team?!” Mina shouted.
“Ah, yeah. I know someone in the company.” Thorn’s face broke into a smile. “I mean, I think the conditions are pretty good.”
“Pretty good is not even close. Generous pay, paid relocation, a ridiculous benefits package that includes housing and a state-of-the-art pod for long term immersion? Team share options and living space in Fantasia? All attached to a self-defined contract period and a severance package? This is an offer straight out of a fantasy for a professional player.” Velin’s voice was flat.
“Ah,” Thorn scratched his head. He had asked his aunt for a standard elite player’s contract and had polished up a few of the areas he felt were not quite up to scratch to try and make it more attractive. On further reflection, maybe he had made it a bit too attractive.
“Honestly, this looks outstanding.” Velin looked squarely at Thorn. “But it is only fair to tell you that we don’t come without issue.” Glancing at Mina, whose frown had returned, Velin smiled bleakly. “Ever since we got out of Hati’s Ascent, things have gone terribly for us. At first it was just strained relationships inside the group, but over the last couple weeks, it has gotten worse. A lot worse.
“When you met us, Mina and I were professional players registered to Ragnarok’s third team, led by Ouroboros. That team was disbanded and our contracts, along with Jorge’s, were terminated. On top of that, our housing contract was terminated, as well, and all of our accounts were frozen, citing a criminal investigation.”
“They said the building was being used for trafficking illegal substances.” Mina’s tone was hollow.
“Who said that?”
“The city inspectors who came to notify us that our building was being condemned. We've been living in an Internet Cafe for the last two days, but I think we are about to get kicked out.” Velin sighed again. “So much has happened all in a row that it is pretty obvious that someone has it out for us. Someone with a lot of pull. I don't know if they are targeting us because of Ragnarok or just because we were close to Ouroboros, but I don't want to bring trouble to you.”
“This all started two weeks ago?”
“Two weeks in game, two days real time.”
“Ah, right.” Thorn nodded. Since he spent all his time in game, it was easy to forget that time in the real world passed differently. “You don't need to worry about it, I am not afraid of trouble.”
“This is serious, Thorn. Whoever it is has serious connections in our city government. I don't want to drag you into our mess. We have already ruined your life enough.”
“I'm serious as well. Atlas is not afraid of anyone, no matter how many connections they have. You can have confidence that Atlas will have your back. I’m happy to add a protection clause, if it will help.”
There was something magnetic about Thorn’s deep, calm voice that caused Mina to believe him completely. Without waiting for Velin, she signed the contract and sent it back to Thorn. Velin only took a couple more quiet moments before she signed it as well.
“Welcome to the party.” Grinning, Thorn stood up. “I’ve got to make a call, but I’ll be right back. Our first order of business will be to come up with a concrete plan for our current quest. Excuse me one second.”
Leaving the room, Thorn’s grin changed to a frown. Mina and Velin’s rapidly escalating situation was too coincidental. He walked down the stairs and asked one of the waiters for a private room. Though the furniture was too small for him to sit down, it was quiet and, most importantly, sound-proofed.
“Hey, kid!” Julia popped up on his messenger app almost as soon as he hit the call button.
“Aunt, did you do something to that party I was with?”
“Uh, um. No?” Julia’s eyes shifted for a moment until, unable to stand Thorn’s stare, she threw up her hands in defeat. “Okay, maybe. I might have dropped a couple hints here and there. But they deserved it. As far as I am concerned, they are getting off easy!”
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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.