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  She danced on the edge of the cliff overlooking the ravine, a hair's breadth away from the gleaming blade that desired her death. The hulk of a man drew back, sword close to his chest, his tattered shirt split clean in half. He didn't dare approach the cliff where she waited. Her own blades shook in her hands, mismatched hilts slick with sweat. The last slice had been too close to striking true—for both of them. She'd felt the cold steel brush her skin, just along the top of her arm. Any closer and he'd have drawn blood.

  Lily Quinn had never felt more alive.

  "Lily, I need help!" came a shout from down the path.

  "Kinda busy!"

  Lily set her feet, waiting for the man to make a move. If she charged in again like that, he'd probably cut her down. She lifted up her sword, a old ornamented thing with notches all along the blade, and readied it to parry. Her right hand stayed low, waiting patiently for its moment.

  She just had to hope the guy was as dumb as he looked. Who wants to look like that? Jeez.

  At least he looked better now that she'd cut off half of his shirt. Lily had to hand it to them; the guy was still really attractive outside of the face area. Not an exaggerated action-movie hero, but a real human being. Pushed to the limits, she assumed, but they'd put some pretty sane limits on how far you could get.

  Oh, crap. He was moving. Lily had been distracted by the outline of his chest. He cut across with his sword to her right side, trying to slice at her off-hand, where he assumed she was weak. He was right handed, like most people, and took the advantage where he saw it.

  Gotcha. Lily didn't even try to block. She danced away again, straight out of his clumsy slash. Momentum carried him forward, and her dagger was ready. Unlike the sword, it was sharp and clean, if a bit plain and unassuming. She didn't care, just so long as it cut things—and oh man, did it cut things.

  The man grunted in pain. Lily was rewarded with a bright line of blood. Her dagger sliced straight through his skin. As she pulled back even further, withdrawing her blade and letting him swing wide, the huge man stumbled.

  His foot caught on an exposed rock.

  An angry howl was the last Lily heard of the huge man as he tumbled over the cliff's edge, dozens of meters between him and the floor of the huge ravine. Even the river couldn't save him, thanks to the rocky slopes on each side.

  Lily held up her dagger to her forehead in a salute to the falling man, smirking.

  "Lily!"

  Oh, crap!

  She bolted down the beaten dirt path, as fast as she could run. The trees grew thick and massive as she hurtled away from the cliff, toward the sounds of battle in the clearing ahead. She emerged into the wide open space, and immediately had to duck a huge bolt of energy—white tinged in sparkling purple—that shot over her skull and smacked into the face of another bandit with a sickening thud.

  He spun off his feet and tumbled to the ground. Lily didn't hesitate for a second. She fell atop him, and her dagger sliced straight into his exposed neck, just below the scarf covering his face. The bandit quivered for a few moments, then lay still.

  Lily got up, weapons at the ready. Another two bandits remained, both advancing on her brother. Michael looked like he might trip over his robe as he backed away. He held a wooden staff cross-ways in front of him, a glowing purple crystal set into the top. It's just two guys? Come on, Michael. You know this place way better than I do.

  He glanced over at her. "Lily?"

  "You got this," she said, grinning. She leaned against a tree, flipping her dagger over in her palm and sheathing it in one smooth motion.

  Michael shook his head in consternation. "Come on."

  "Oh, all right." She started forward, though she still left the dagger sheathed in its little scabbard.

  "What are you doing?"

  "I wanna try something."

  The bandits had finally cornered Michael at the trees. "Give us your silver," one growled.

  "I don't have any," said Michael.

  "Then you die."

  "Not the best at conversation, are they?" asked Lily, walking straight up behind the two of them. They didn't react in the slightest. "And even dumber than the last guy!"

  "This is cutting edge interaction A.I," said Michael, raising his staff again. "It's just bugged or something."

  "Uh huh." Lily leaned forward and tapped one of the bandits on the shoulder. He didn't even notice. "Stick to what you're good at, bro."

  "Could you just get them off—" Michael cut off as one of the bandits swung for his hip. He threw himself out of the way of the oncoming blade, and as she'd expected, tripped on the hem of his robe. A small cloud of dust kicked up as he slipped and fell.

  Lily rolled her eyes. "I dunno, they seem like really nice guys."

  "Lily!"

  "Fine!" Lily drew her dagger, and without another word, slid her sword and her dagger each into the back of a bandit. They spun around, but with blades sticking out of their chests, they were already done for. Lily just stood back and waited, as they gurgled and fell to the ground. It took them minutes to expire, and—she had to admit—their death rattles were really unsettling.

  "Ugh," she said, holding out a hand to her brother.

  "What?"

  "That sounds awful."

  Michael shrugged, brushing dust off his robes. "We got really good feedback on it. They said it sounded realistic."

  "Who wants to hear realistic death sounds?" she asked, grimacing.

  "Our best customers." Michael glanced down at her. "Huh."

  "...What?" she asked, in much the same tone as he had.

  "I dunno, I just expected you to change more than that."

  "What's wrong with how I look? Should I have turned into an elf like you?"

  He shook his head. "Nothing. But, I mean, when you can look like anything—"

  "I look like me." Lily rolled her eyes. So she hadn't really changed anything about her appearance. What did it matter? "You look silly with blond hair, by the way. And what's up with your eyes? They're like… four colors." In fact, while Michael's natural hazel was still visible around the edges of the iris, the center was a mix of purple and sickly green, with an eerie center of a far deeper black than normal.

  "Corruption," he replied. "Magic users have to handle corruption as a consequence. Too much and they get overwhelmed. Too little and magic isn't very strong. It's for balance."

  "Ooh." Now Lily was interested. Choices and payoffs, that's what really made things exciting. "So is there like a perfect ratio, or do you gotta max one direction or the other?"

  Michael glanced around at the trees. He seemed to be a bit lost. "Shouldn't you learn how to actually play first, before we get into that?"

  "I think I caught on pretty quick," she pointed out, with a thumb over her shoulder at the bandits strewn about the clearing.

  "It gets harder." He glanced back at the bodies. "You should probably grab their gold before they get reclaimed."

  "Before they get what now?"

  "Reclaimed by Selaverreth, Mother of the World." Michael nodded at the corpses. "After we leave, or as soon as the zone unloads, they'll get swallowed up by the ground."

  "Oookay then." Lily hurried over and started digging through their pockets. She found a few embossed pieces of silver and some food, plus a nice-looking grey ring with an entwined design that turned into the branches of a tree. She slipped it onto her finger, where it instantly moulded to the size of her finger. "Not bad."

  Without warning, twisting white letters appeared in mid-air in front of her, billowing into existence like smoke from a snuffed-out candle.

Melchagar has invited you to travel with him.

  

Accept

Ignore

Decline

   

  "...Is that like a party system or something?"

  Michael nodded. "Yeah. Makes it easier to target some spells and other things like that."

  "How do I accept?" Lily put her hand through the word 'Accept', but the smoke simply curled around her fingers without disappearing.

  "Squeeze your thumb between your index and middle finger. Each gap picks a menu option. The first gap means 'yes', the middle brings up the menu or goes back, and the last one means 'no'."

  "That's not a whole lot of buttons," she said dubiously.

  "We don't have a whole lot of menus."

  Lily shrugged, and pressed her thumb underneath her index finger. Nothing happened. She tried harder, practically cutting off circulation to her thumb, and still nothing. "Uhh, bro? It's not working."

  He glanced over. Lily held up her hand and squeezed a few times, as hard as she could. "Your right hand."

  "...Oh come on. Your own sister's a lefty and you didn't think to set that up?"

  "We use the left hand for the other three options."

  "Typical," Lily teased. She shook his head in exaggerated dismay, but accepted the invite. Nothing seemed particularly different — but then again, she had no idea how this game worked yet. It could be important. She began to ask, but Michael had already started to walk away.

  "Come on, we gotta meet the others at the Spring."

  "I'm coming." She glanced over her shoulder as they left the clearing, and sure enough, the bodies of the bandits crumbled into dust as they walked away. Not a scrap remained. "That's a really cool looking effect."

  "Thanks. I actually did that one myself." He grinned. "Who says garbage collection can't be sexy?"

  "That's the garbage collection?"

  "Well, I'd love to just keep every single body on the server forever, but we had to make some sacrifices for the sake of lag." He sighed. "Especially after this year."

  "...Yeah," she said. "But this is gonna bring people back, right?"

  "Well, you tell me."

  They emerged back onto the cliff where Lily had fought the first bandit. Behind her sat a small cave, where she'd woken up under a tattered blanket with just the clothes on her back and the weapons she'd picked out. In front of them, sprawling out in every direction, was a massive ravine. A waterfall roared out from the far end, spilling into the river. Water thick with foam crashed through the gorge, fish leaping out, and a bear ambling through the woods to catch a meal. An eagle soared overhead, barely visible against the shining midday moon, reflecting the sun at the opposite end of the sky.

  "...Yeah, okay, this can probably sell." Lily smirked. "Just make the enemies smarter."

  "They're not even supposed to be here at all," Michael shot back. "We only added them because we didn't have enough players hanging around the early game areas. We didn't want the world to feel so empty. It threw off the economy a bit, but it's better than nothing."

  "So who is supposed to be here?"

  "People," said Michael, his eyes shining with excitement. Man, this engine is something else… He might as well be real. "It's all about people. Everything, from the economy to the endgame, is by real people building a world together. We're offering something nobody else can, the chance to really have an effect on the whole world, because you are the world. You can do whatever you want, and for once, that phrase actually means something."

  "'Cause you don't gotta write it," she added, elbowing him in the side. Michael pushed her away, disgruntled, and she laughed. "I get it, Michael. Seriously. But you've been selling that pitch for years, and you're still losing players, right?"

  "This changes everything," he said, gazing out over the huge expanse. Past the gorge on the opposite cliff, they could just barely see the first signs of civilization rising up from the plains. "Nobody else can do this."

  "What, make a cool world?"

  "Be in a cool world."

  Lily frowned. "Nobody?"

  "We invented this, Lily. This is so cutting edge nobody's even started working on an interface like this, as far as I know. Everybody's still hung up on headsets and treadmills. Full body suits. All that bulky equipment."

  "And I'm lying in some weird pod thing, yeah," said Lily, shrugging. "I admit it, this is really cool." She took a deep breath through her nose. "It even smells like a forest. How do you do that?"

  "I don't. Your brain does."

  "Come again?"

  "That was our big breakthrough. Harry and I realized that we don't have to tell the brain anything. You already know what all of this is supposed to be like, and your imagination fills in the gaps. If we wanted to program this ourselves, we'd have needed an army of designers. This is all a shortcut. One brilliant, perfect shortcut."

  Michael looked positively giddy. Lily wasn't used to seeing this sort of exuberance from her brother. He was eight years older than her, after all, and by the time she graduated high school, he'd already founded his own gaming company and launched a flagship product—the one she was currently standing inside. Michael Quinn had done it all through dogged persistence, a vision he shared with his mentor, the old man who'd provided their startup capital. Her brother was a genius, beyond a doubt.

  Lily, by comparison, felt like an idiot stumbling around in the dark. She didn't want to tell Michael how impressed she was by the living, breathing world around her that she could feel and smell and even taste. What were a bunch of titles and trophies compared to this?

  "Come on," she said, before the silence dragged out too long. "We should go meet up with the others."

  
  

***

  
  

  Lily admired the world as she walked. She'd never been huge on nature or anything, but this strange virtual world? Where everything was just a little bit heightened, a little more vivid and exciting? Plus, no worrying about getting dirty or infected or anything—or so she assumed.

  "Hey Michael?"

  "Yeah?" he said, glancing over he shoulder.

  "So… how realistic is this place, exactly?"

  "Uhh… really, really close to real. Except for the obvious things." He lifted his staff a bit higher on his next step, and the crystal mounted at the top glowed as if in response.

  "But like… can we get infected? And what about pain? How painful is a sword?"

  "There's a safe limit on everything," he said. "I've never felt too uncomfortable in all the test runs."

  "But what about other people?"

  He hesitated. "Well…"

  Lily stepped in front of him, stopping him dead in his tracks. "Spill it."

  "You guys are the other people," he said, wincing a little at her harsh tone.

  "...I'm a guinea pig?" Lily snapped.

  "I told you that we were testing it!"

  "Are you kidding me, Michael? What if my brain gets fried or something?"

  "Lily, relax," Michael said, holding up his hands. "I've been in and out a dozen times. The transfer system is totally safe. Your brain's not gonna get fried."

  Lily frowned. "You sure?"

  "A hundred percent positive." He put a hand on her shoulder. "I'd never let anything happen to my baby sister."

  She shook his hand off. "Uh huh. This is because I beat you in Conquest last week, isn't it?"

  "Yup." He grinned. "Had get my revenge somehow, right?"

  A shout from down the path made them both jump. "Are you two just gonna stand around all day?"

  Down the ragged dirt path, eight people waited in a loose gathering. A young woman who looked about the same age as Lily waved a huge rusty broadsword in the air like a flag, well-muscled arms wrapped with cords that matched her thick leather armor. Beside her stood a shorter hooded woman with a sharp, angular face barely visible from the distance, armed with bow and arrow. The two stood very close together compared to the spread of the others, as if they were all total strangers.

  As Michael and Lily approached, she started to make out the rest of the group. A few more elves, but the rest chose human just like her. No stranger choices, to her surprise. She'd seen six or seven options when making her character, but just let the system decide for her—with a few extra touches. Michael had said everything actually mattered, so Lily had scaled up her muscles and scaled down a few other areas. Everything to help her be able to move fast, strike hard and get away without a scratch.

  "We disabled every other option for this test," Michael explained, after she asked why no one had picked a less humanoid option. "I don't know if you noticed, but your brain's filling in for everything. Your whole body, every single sensation. Nothing's left out."

  She hadn't, but now that he mentioned it… "...Okay, that's kind of creepy."

  "It's all in your head, with a few adjustments on what we send to you. Don't worry."

  "If you say so," she muttered. "So that's why you didn't include bird people or the weird spider things?"

  "Keldrid and the Vktrel," Michael said. "And yeah. We wanted to start with just the most simple options. Closest to normal humans. No weird variables yet."

  "It's about time," said the woman who'd shouted at them as they finally walked up. "So you're the guy in charge, right?"

  "Yes, I'm Melchagar," Michael replied.

  "The content director…" breathed a guy standing off to the side, sword and shield in hand. He wore all black, from his loose shirt to his drawstring pants. Lily couldn't help but laugh at how ridiculous he looked, even down to his exaggerated face with arched eyebrows and hooked nose. "What?"

  "You look like a B-movie villain," said the broadsword woman, not unkindly. "It's a little overdone, sorry."

  "I made this character when I was fifteen!" he said indignantly.

  "So why are you as dirt poor as the rest of us?" asked Lily.

  "New clients for everybody," said another older man, stepping forward to join Michael up front. "We wanted a clean testbed to account for any variables."

  "Hey, Harry." Michael clapped his partner on the back. The other man winced. "Looks like everybody's here?"

  "They should be." The man shrugged, his bushy white beard wagging as he did. "Do you want to call roll or something?"

  "Sure, why not? Good way for everybody to learn names." Michael clenched his thumb between his middle and ring fingers, and suddenly a pale white light shone from his eyes. It wasn't strong, but Lily could just barely make out letters reflected in his pupils.

  "What are you doing?" she asked curiously.

  "He's in the menu," said Harry.

  "Just getting my notes," said Michael.

  "Your menu isn't just floating around like mine?"

  "It's a perk of magic," he grinned. "All right." The light dimmed a bit, but didn't disappear entirely. "This is just alphabetical, before anyone thinks I'm picking favorites or something." He cleared his throat. "Avalynn Sylvela?"

  Far off to the side of the group, seated in front of a tree with a forest-green cloak wrapped around her shoulders, a elf girl raised her hand. She had a curved blade at her hip and several daggers clutched in her belt, but she too seemed to have aimed more for flexibility and movement than exaggerated features like Lily might have expected. Her long brown hair was accentuated with braids to keep it manageable and out of her face. Some real competition? Lily wondered… until she opened her mouth, and spewed a sentence Lily didn't understand in the slightest.

  "Thank you," said Michael, nodding slightly.

  "Uhh, what?" asked Lily.

  "She's speaking in Elvish," said the broadsword woman. "There's a whole language for it, if you're really hardcore."

  Avalynn spat on the ground at her words, wiping her mouth and shooting the woman a dark look. She just rolled her eyes and turned away, ignoring her. Okay, so she's some crazy roleplayer. Got it. I can just ignore her too.

  "Ketra Zutis," Michael called.

  "Here," said the cloaked younger woman with the bow. She pulled off her hood, and Lily's mouth fell open in shock. She was an elf, as expected, but where Avalynn was sharp and cold, Ketra was beautiful. She had dark brown hair that looked perfectly straight without a strand out of place, and eyes of a mesmerizing light purple hue. Her face fell halfway between the elegant angular elf features and the soft rounded human face, the best of both worlds somehow combined without losing either. Ketra clutched her friend's hand as she revealed herself, though her gaze was anything but fearful. If anything, she looked a little bored.

  "Larali Dahlquist," said Michael.

  The broadsword woman waved again. "That's me." She glanced around at the group, beaming. "Nice to meet you all."

  Michael paused before calling the next name. He glanced over at Lily. "...Really? Not even a last name?"

  Lily shrugged. "I didn't think it mattered."

  "Yeah, but this is just your professional tag."

  "I like it, okay?"

  "...Liquin," Michael said, gesturing to her. Nobody else seemed to care, but out of the corner of her eye, Lily saw Avalynn's eyebrows creased with irritation. At least, she assumed the other girl was irritated. Who knows with weirdos like that?

  "All right, then we've got Manifold, which you all know is Harry here," Michael went on, nudging his coworker, "and Melchagar Rauch, which is me. After that is Phoenixia Fireheart—" Another elf, a younger girl who couldn't seem to stop fidgeting with her bow and arrow—but unlike Ketra or Avalynn, both brown-haired elves, Phoenixia's hair was as fiery and bright as her namesake. Her face bore thin patterned scars, obviously chosen deliberately. She looked like she was ready to throw down at a moment's notice, and again unlike Ketra, she had the blades to back it up. Nice. Leaving your options open, going big or going home. If we're picking teams or something, she's on mine.

  "—and Requiant Volavus," Michael continued, apparently speeding up the introductions a bit. Lily was grateful—she was willing to go through this whole process for her brother, but they didn't need to stretch out the boring stuff so much. She was eager to actually get into this world he'd built, since she'd never once installed the game since the day he'd launched it, nearly six years ago.

  Requiant, to no surprise, was the black-clad guy who'd nearly fallen head over heels for Michael at a single word. His hand shot up like he were in a classroom, and Lily suppressed another giggle. He wasn't bad looking at all, once she got past the wardrobe and the ridiculous eyebrows, but she couldn't take him seriously. It was almost cute how much of a fanboy he was. As she choked back her laugh, she could see both Larali—and Avalynn, of all people—struggling to do the same.

  "Shirogane Kei," said Michael, glancing up. "Good to see you made it, you old lump."

  Shirogane grinned. "Wouldn't miss it, kid. You know how hard it was to set up that damn pod in my basement?"

  "So your wife did all the work?" said Michael.

  The familiar voice tore her gaze from Requiant, who'd been watching Michael with a face of worship normally reserved for the most esteemed of cult leaders, to spot a face she hadn't expected—attached to a handsome young male human with messy brown hair and a rugged beard that didn't match in the slightest. "Simon?"

  "Hey there, Liliquin," he said, confirming it with her old nickname. His smile doubled in width. "Welcome to our little corner of the world."

  "I didn't know you were gonna be here!" She broke the unspoken rule that had separated her from the rest of the group, dashing past a startled Larali and a confused Phoenixia to wrap her arms around the genial giant that was Shirogane. "You missed Thanksgiving, you jerk."

  "Yeah, yeah. Blame Mrs. Miller," said Shirogane, hugging her back. To Lily's surprise—and delight—his embrace felt just as warm and familiar as it always did. "We'll be 'round for Christmas, don't you worry."

  "Okay, last but not least," Michael said, as Lily turned around to face the rest of the group again. Michael needn't have continued though—she knew exactly who the last person in the group was. Even if he was wearing a blond-haired elf's body, with a roguish grin and a rapier belted around his waist, Lily would always recognize the dangerous glint in his charming eyes. He knew her too, of course. As her eyes narrowed, his own widened with a private glee only the two of them really understood.

  "Susanoo Umehara," said Michael, and Lily's hands clenched into fists. Of all the people in the world for her brother to invite, of all the players he could have picked out of the lottery entries or invited or whatever the hell kind of process he'd settled on… her brother had managed to invite her worst enemy. Her greatest rival. The only person who'd managed to knock her from the leaderboard and claim her title after she'd won it. They'd fought for years, in tournaments around the globe with millions of dollars on the line.

  Kevin Umehara, Lily translated in her head as he greeted the rest of the group. How the hell did he get here?

  "All right," said Michael. "Now that we're all settled in, how's the test going so far? Any bugs, any weird problems?"

  Phoenixia was still fidgeting like mad, and at his words, leapt to her feet. "No, it's perfect! It's so perfect!" She darted around the clearing. "This is amazing! Unbelievable! I never want to leave!"

  Shirogane chuckled. "Well that's a ringing endorsement if ever I heard one."

  "Thanks," said Michael, blushing slightly. "But seriously, anybody?"

  "Yeah," said Lily, annoyed. "We're still standing around here."

  The rest of the group seemed to echo her sentiment. Phoenixia obviously wanted to get out and move, and the rest of them weren't exactly sitting still. The group seemed obsessed with touching everything—from their weapons to the blades of grass beneath their fear, from silky elven hair to the simple woven shirts they'd spawned in. Lily, for her part, couldn't stop running a hand along the skin on her forearms, which was far smoother and softer than her arms had ever been, in a wonderfully pleasant way.

  Michael nodded. "Cool. Well, I figured we should just try to get to the nearest town if we can. It's a couple hours from here on foot, which is more than enough for a good demo."

  "Sounds good to me," said Larali, sheathing her broadsword across her back. "We're in the Haalfwood, right?"

  "Right."

  She glanced up at the moon, which looked very strange across from the sun in the middle of the day. Lily wondered for a moment if that meant gravity and tides were different too, before remembering it was still a game. They hadn't gone that far… probably. Larali seemed to be working out something in her head, before she finally raised a hand and pointed off in a direction. "That's west. Skyldr is southeast of the Haalfwood. So we need to go…" She rotated around to the opposite direction. "...that way."

  Larali started off, but Ketra put a hand on her arm to stop her. "It's that way," she added, turning Larali by a few degrees. "The sunset isn't directly west, remember?"

  "...Right," said Larali, blushing a little. "Well, let's get going already!"

  "Hang on," said Susanoo, and Lily swore she saw him smirk. "Let's make this fun. Melchagar, you two still have all your stuff, right?"

  "Not quite," said Michael. "Just whatever we have on these beta characters."

  "We're the first ones on the ground for the new version," Susanoo went on. "Let's do this like real warriors of Avo. Whoever gets the most loot from here to the city gets a reward. Something to kick start their new account."

  "We can't just summon anything," said Harry in an irritated tone. "After the Titwen scandal—"

  "Nah, I just meant whatever you got on you," said Susanoo. He smirked, and Lily ground her teeth together in silence at the sight. "We're dirt poor newbies right out of the gate here. Literally anything you have is a huge boost."

  Michael laughed. "All right, you're on. We'll figure out the reward by the time we get to Skyldr. It'll stay on your character when we launch this interface to the public." He matched Kevin smirk-for-aggravating-smirk. "Assuming you stay alive until then."

  "Well, come on then," said Lily. She couldn't stand to see their smug looks for another minute. "Let's go."

  She started off in the direction Larali had pointed. The huge woman and her friend hurried to Lily's side, while the rest of the party followed in a loose column behind.

  Lily wasn't about to waste any time. Sure, she hadn't played Avo more than an hour or two, but these sorts of games just weren't her thing. She didn't have anything against them. Lily needed the contest. She loved the thrill of outsmarting and outplaying her opponent, taking all challengers and proving she belonged at the top. Avo didn't really have anything like that; it was much more focused on roleplaying and social dynamics. The fight system was thrilling and deep, sure, but there wasn't anything on top of it. Nothing to motivate her.

  Kevin Umehara had just given her all the motivation she needed. Lily traced her fingers along the sword and dagger at her hips, familiarizing herself with every centimeter. From the way he'd talked and the way he'd dressed, Kevin probably hadn't played this much either. They were on even footing. Lily knew her brother wouldn't be any help—Multiverse Games was world-famous for being strictly hands off with their players to a fault, to the many complaints of their customers.

  I got this. Lily glanced over her shoulder, where Susanoo was already making easy conversation with Requiant and Shirogane. He was already making alliances. So what? She'd make her own if she had to. Kevin, you're not gonna beat me again. You tricked me last time, but we're in my brother's game now. You're going down.

  As they crested the hill and the trees gave way to a wide expanse of forest, Michael hurried to the front of the group. He spread his arms out wide, as if handing them the whole world. Lily could see criss-crossing roads scattered through the Haalfwood ahead, dotted villages, a pillar of smoke, and so much more beyond the cliffs to the south. An ancient and shattered coliseum perched on a windswept hill just at the edge of her vision. This world was huge. Suddenly, Lily felt tiny. Even in the real world, she'd never felt so small. They could get lost in here forever if they weren't careful, and even though it was only a game, that fear made itself all too real to her.

  Lily took a deep breath, and to her surprise, Larali leaned over and propped her up before she even realized she felt dizzy. "You good?" she whispered.

  Lily gasped, still getting her feet under her. She didn't usually get motion sick or vertigo, but something about the sheer breadth of the place had her knees buckling. "It's…"

  "Yeah." Larali smiled. "Looking at a screen or even in a headset's nothing compared to this. I feel like I just walked into a dream. Never thought I could be inside my favorite game. I could stay here forever."

  Michael smiled as the rest of the group joined them, making the hike up to the hill. He gestured again, arms open wide. "Welcome to Ætla Verǫld," he proclaimed. "Welcome to the Fated World."

 

 

 

 

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Etzoli

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Bio: Sysadmin, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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