Human Peasant





Melchagar Rauch

Elf Explorer





  Lily strained her ears, trying to figure out the rushing sound that had become steadily louder as they walked. "I think that's a—"

  "Waterfall!" shouted Phoenixia. She rushed forward and almost immediately tripped over a tree root. Larali managed to catch her before she fell, setting her upright again.

  "Calm down, kid," she added, patting the girl on the shoulder. "No need to rush."

  Phoenixia shook her head, hair flying everywhere. "I want to see it!"

  Larali flashed Lily a bemused smile as she let herself get pulled forward in a mad rush. Lily just laughed, waving to the two of them as they vanished through the ferns toward the crashing sound of the waterfall. She was still trying to figure out exactly where they were. Since descending from the starting plateau, the forest had been too thick to get a good sense of direction.

  I wonder if I can climb up a tree...

  Lily glanced over at her brother, talking to his coworker toward the back of the group. He seemed preoccupied. The others were milling about, looking at the scenery. Everyone was still in awe from the sheer detail and fidelity of the simulation around them. Lily usually didn't care much about graphics, but even she had to admit how cool it was. If she didn't know better, she'd be totally convinced that they'd just gone to a whole other world.

  Except, it was a game, and that meant she needed to figure out how to win. Lily thumbed open her menu, eager to explore the system—and find as many ways to exploit her brother's design as she could get her hands on. She was going to win this little contest and rub it in Kevin's face for weeks. Maybe she'd even join the game for real once the new version launched, if she was going to get a head-start. It's gonna be huge, and I'm already having some fun. Let's see what else it has to offer.






Close Menu




  Huh… Not a whole lot to work with here. Lily started pressing through the different options to see what they did. The Party screen just showed her and her brother, along with a few extra words she didn't understand yet, while the Guild option simply shifted to red smoke whenever she pressed that finger. Lily shrugged it off and tried the Status screen.



Human Peasant



Back to Menu




  "That screen's mostly pointless now," said Michael over her shoulder. Lily wasn't surprised in the slightest; her brother wasn't exactly the stealthiest guy around. "You can feel how warm or cold you are, and it'll be pretty obvious if you get hurt. Having a neural link makes all that unnecessary."

  "So there's no numbers?" she asked. That's gonna make this a bit harder than I expected… "No stats or anything?"

  "Nope." Michael grinned. "The whole point was to make a fully immersive game, where you are your character. No tricks, no abstractions. There's numbers running the whole show under the hood, obviously, but nothing for the player."

  Lily shook her head. "What kind of RPG is this?"

  "It's more like a survival sim, I guess," he answered, shrugging. "Just, you know, with magic."

  "Can't I get a little more info?" she grumbled.

  "Hold down on any of the options and you'll get a tooltip."

  She tried it on the 'Pure' status first. When pressed, the smokey text lit up a little brighter, and another line of smoke appeared above it with an explanation. 'Pure' apparently meant that her 'soul was free from corruption'... so it must be linked to the magic system. More importantly, that stat was listed on the Party screen, and her brother had a different value.

  As expected, the rest of the Status messages were pretty self-explanatory. There's gotta be something I can use… She closed the status screen and hopped over to the Settings menu while Michael wandered away to talk to someone else in the group. A few more had gone ahead to join Larali and Phoenixia at the waterfall, but Lily was still stubbornly looking for an advantage in the game system and stayed in the clearing.



NVR BETA - Pain: Normal

Corruption Effects: Full

NVR BETA - Fatigue: Normal

Back to Menu

NVR BETA - Intimacy: Closed

NVR BETA - Temperature: Normal


  "Uhh…" she said aloud.

  "Need help?"

  Lily flinched away from the sudden voice at her shoulder. Requiant had managed to get right up next to her without making any sound, despite the bulky shield strapped to his back. He peered at the settings menu, brushing the thin black beard on his chin.

  "These are all new for the neural VR demo, I guess," Lily prompted, trying to sound like she knew what she was talking about.

  "Everything except Corruption," he pointed out. "That's always there."

  "Oh. Duh." Lily hesitated, but since everyone else was gone by now—most importantly, Kevin was out of earshot—she didn't mind asking for an explanation. "So what does that one do?"

  "Well, as you get more corrupted, your screen would change colors or get desaturated. Sometimes the interface would get messed up." Requiant shook his head. "I'd never get corrupted though. I always stay pure."

  "Uh… huh." Lily pressed the setting, and it changed to 'Normal'. She tried it again, but those were apparently the only two options. She started clicking the others experimentally, and got a similar result. Pain switched from Normal to Full, while Temperature and Fatigue did likewise. None of the options could be turned off. "Not a whole lot of options here…"

  "Well, it's an immersive sim," he said. He actually sounded a little offended, as if it were taboo to even suggest such a thing. "Disabling them would give some people an advantage."

  Lily rolled her eyes. "Or maybe some people just don't like pain in their video game?" she pointed out.

  "Then they shouldn't be playing Avo."

  Wow. No need to be a dick about it. Lily clicked the Corruption setting down to Normal to match the others—she didn't feel like going on a trip if she ever delved into the magic system. The rest she left as they were. For a moment, she considered asking Requiant what the 'Intimacy' setting meant, but something about the guy rubbed her the wrong way. She waited until he got bored and wandered off to the rest of the group, then pressed down on the option until a new wave of smoke appeared to explain it.


  NVR BETA - Intimacy

  Closed: Automatically reject notifications

  Allowed: Receive notifications

  Open: accept notfications


  Lily stared at it blankly. Seriously, Michael…? What kind of game is this? She wondered if he'd even put that into the game. The menu was obviously under-developed with how unclear each description was. There was even a typo in the third option. Someone on the interface team needed a spell-checker. Probably that guy Harry, if Michael's text rants are anything to go by.

  "Liquin?" Larali had returned, with Phoenixia at her heels. The younger girl was soaked, dripping water everywhere, but she was practically beaming at them. Lily closed the menu and waved in greeting. "You should come see this. It's amazing."

  "I jumped into a waterfall!" Phoenixia shouted.

  "And you nearly drowned, Nixie," Larali snorted, rolling her eyes.

  "Nixie?" she asked, glancing up.

  The swordswoman shrugged. "Just came to me. You like it?"

  Phoenixia nodded emphatically. She seemed like she might burst into a dance—and then she did, doing a little number around the forest and spraying water everywhere. "This is so amazing!"

  "Yeah, yeah." Larali looked up at Lily, obviously torn between exasperation and delight. Lily didn't blame her; Nixie's attitude was pretty infectious. Lily already felt so much more excited about the game to come, just being around them. "Come on, you two. We shouldn't fall behind."

  Lily nodded. "Yeah. Let's go." She double-checked her belt to make sure her sword and dagger were secure, then hurried into the woods after Larali, Phoenixia close on her heels.




  "Split up?" asked Lily, surprised.

  "Yeah," said Michael. He'd been waiting at the lake where the waterfall crashed out of the mountains, totally alone. "We're going to be in two groups of five instead. That way, everybody gets more of a chance to try things out and we're not so crowded. We'll meet back up in Skyldr."

  "Let me guess," she said, glancing around the empty clearing. "Susanoo's idea?"

  "...It was." He cocked his head. "How'd you guess?"

  "Oh, come on, bro," Lily grumbled, dropping her voice a little. Phoenixia was off by the edge of the lack, holding out her palm and doing hand motions, and Larali was with her, so Lily finally had a moment alone with her brother. "You picked out all the beta testers, didn't you? Why'd you invite him?"

  Michael shrugged. "Why not?"

  Lily shook her head. "Are you serious?"

  "...Yes?" A loud hiss and a shout of glee distracted them both for a moment. Phoenixia was dancing around on the shore of the lake, while Larali clapped her hands in applause. "He's a big name and he has a huge following. If he endorses the game…"

  "Ugh," she sighed. She knew he was right, even if she hated it. "Okay, fine."

  "Is it a big deal?" Michael asked, surprised. "I mean, I knew you guys were rivals, but I figured—"

  "It's fine."

  Lily walked away before he could say another word. I'll just avoid him. Or beat the crap out of him. Hey, I wonder if this game has full PVP. She hurried off to join the other two, eager to see the new weapon Phoenixia had apparently discovered. As she emerged from the trees into the sunlight, she could actually feel it warm her skin, a gentle buzz of heat on her face, arms and legs.

  As soon as she walked up, Phoenixia shot another little ball of fire out of her palm, gasping a little as she did. "Was that magic?" Lily asked, excited.

  "Yup!" She took a breath, looking a little dizzy. Lily looked at her eyes, curious to see if she'd show the same strange coloration as Michael, but Phoenixia's remained a pure, clear icy-blue. "It's so much easier to do now."

  "Really?" asked Larali. "Looked harder to me. That thing with your hand was complicated."

  "No, you always had to do that," said Phoenixia. "But it's a lot easier with hands. You know, compared to a hand tracker." She put a hand to her chest, just around her lungs, taking another deep breath. "Kinda hurt though."

  "It hurt?" asked Lily, raising an eyebrow. "Using magic hurts?"

  "It felt so cool though," said Phoenixia, seemingly unconcerned. "I really felt like I was shooting fire out of my hand." She held up her palm again at the lake, and started twitching her fingers in a specific order. Lily couldn't keep up, but a moment later, another fireball burst out—and then another.

  "Don't push it!" said Larali in alarm, grabbing the girl's arm and shoving it down. It wasn't unwarranted; Phoenixia looked dizzy again, even though her eyes were still lit up like twin bonfires. "That was way faster than normal."

  "Yeah," said Phoenixia, grinning. "You can go as fast as you want now."

  "So it's a balance issue," said a quiet voice behind them. Lily whipped around, startled. Ketra had appeared from nowhere, pulling off her hood and joining them at the water's edge. She brushed her long hair out of her face before speaking again. "Magicians have to determine how much they can use without hurting themselves."

  I really gotta step up my game on hearing people sneaking around… "That seems way too harsh," she said. "Nixie's barely doing anything."

  "She doesn't have anything to channel magic yet," said Michael, finally joining them by the lake, standing with the waterfall just behind him. "Right now, she's just using her own essence, so it takes a lot more. You're supposed to use an implement, or take your power from the realm."

  "From the realm?"

  "Steal it from Selaverreth," said Ketra, her tone full of disdain. "That's how you corrupt your soul."

  "So what, there's three mana systems?" Lily asked. She really wanted to start getting some actual mechanics down, so she could figure out what to plan for. Magic sounds pretty useful, but if I'm gonna get a kick in the chest like that every time… ugh. "But they all power the same spells?"

  "Yes," said Phoenixia. "Kinda."

  Michael nodded. "It's really two. Using a magical implement reduces the effects of both. You can get ones that reduce it by a constant amount, or remove it entirely but only for a set amount of time."

  "Or both, if you're really rich," said Phoenixia with a sigh.

  Larali cleared her throat. "Not to be a drag, but shouldn't we get moving? They're gonna beat us to Skyldr."

  Lily glanced up at the sky. The sun still shone high above them. As far as she could tell, it hadn't moved that far since they'd all spawned in. "Is there a rush? I didn't think we had a time limit." Not that I don't want to beat him, but going fast isn't always the best way. This is a loot contest. Going off the beaten path might be a better idea.

  Not that there's even a path… We're in the middle of nowhere.

  "Not really," said Michael. "The neural cradles are rated for months at least. Years, theoretically."

  "Years?" asked Larali, raising an eyebrow. "Is that safe? Did you get medical studies done on that?"

  "Yeah. We're in the clear."

  Lily could tell when her brother was lying, and to her relief, he didn't seem to be. As rushed as the prototypes and the demo had been, she trusted Michael to have actually done his due diligence and made sure the whole system was safe. It was uncomfortable as hell—put on a skin-tight suit with sensors all over it, climb into the weird cradle, get needles stuck into her neck—but it went quick. She'd only felt an instant of pain from the interface before it completely took over her senses.

  From the roaring waterfall to the scent of the pine trees surrounding them, coupled with the warm sun on her face and the water tickling her bare toes on the sandy beach of the little lake, Lily could agree it was totally worth it so far.

  "We should get moving before sunset," said Ketra, sounding bored. She pointed up at the sky, where sure enough, the sun was already starting to drop toward the horizon. The moon was at its apex, and as Lily gazed around the sky, she saw another moon beginning its ascent, just above the treeline opposite the sun.

  "How long is a day here?" Lily asked.

  "About twenty and a half hours," said Michael.

  "Twenty hours, thirty-four minutes, eighteen seconds," said Phoenixia, looking back at the group. "Can we go already?" She'd finally pulled her boots back on and was hopping back and forth by the treeline. Lily bent down to do the same, not wanting to fall behind. She missed the feel of the sand between her toes already, but it beat stepping across the rough forest floor barefoot.

  To no one's surprise, Phoenixia was the first out of the clearing. She bounded through the trees like an excitable cat—and if she hadn't stopped every few seconds to examine a fallen tree or scampering squirrel, the girl would undoubtedly be far ahead of them all. Michael stayed close behind, and she peppered him with a never-ending stream of questions that Lily couldn't make out.

  "How old d'you think she is?" Larali murmured.

  "Eighteen at least, right?" said Lily, feeling suddenly uneasy. "My brother wouldn't have anyone do this who's underage. I mean, it's safe, but still…"

  "Yeah," said Larali, though she didn't sound convinced. "Definitely eighteen."

  "What about you guys?" Lily asked as she clambered over a particularly large fallen log, which looked like it had been struck by lightning in some long-past era. Ketra sprang across with ease, and waited at the top to give Larali a hand over.

  "We're both twenty-five," said Larali as she landed on the opposite side.

  "I'm guessing you both play this game a lot."

  "When we can." Larali smiled. "Best way to escape the real world for a bit, you know? What about you?"

  "I tried it once." Lily shrugged. "It wasn't really my thing."

  "Yeah." The large woman nodded, like a mountain dipping its peak. Her huge sword brushed against a low-hanging branch as she did. "Let's just say I'm not surprised the company's struggling to stick it out."

  "They'll be fine," Lily shot back. She felt a bit defensive for her brother's sake, even if he wasn't around to hear it.

  Larali held up a hand in apology. "Sorry! I didn't mean anything by it. I think your brother's a real genius, and I honestly think this could work." She reached up and plucked a leaf from the nearest branch—an individual leaf, and it detached exactly as they all expected. "This is actually insane, you know? Nothing on the market's anything like this."

  "It should be impossible," said Ketra quietly. Lily jumped. She'd forgotten the other girl was even with them, trailing a few steps behind at all times, quiet as a whisper.

  "My brother probably took that as a challenge," Lily smirked.

  Larali chuckled. "And damn did he meet it!" She spun in a circle as she walked forward, taking in the sights. "Not a menu in sight, just a whole world to explore. It's incredible."

  "Well, there's one menu..." said Lily.

  "Oh!" Larali stopped in place, whipping around to face them. The familiar smokey menu swirled up in front of her. She pressed into the Party menu and eyed Lily with a friendly look. Something about her smile always seemed pure and genuine—but a moment later, it twisted into a frown, accompanied by a twisting message written in red smoke. "Hey, you're already in a group."

  "Oh, right." Lily shrugged. "My brother added me."

  "Did he make you the leader? Or at least give you permissions?"

  "Maybe?" She didn't remember seeing anything, but based on the rest of the game's systems, she doubted there'd be a notification for something so inconsequential. "Hang on, let me check."



View Party

Add Target

Party Settings

Back to Menu

Leave Party

Remove Target


  Lily glanced up at Larali and picked the Add Target option. A faint puff of white smoke flew out from her menu to the woman's face, straight between her brown eyes, but she didn't seem to notice. Instead, the menu option changed to blue smoke, shifting around to form the name 'Larali'. Lily pressed it again, and the smoke swirled again to the word 'Pending…'

  "Okay, cool." Larali nodded as her menu swirled around and reformed into the party prompt. She accepted, and soon after the three of them were on their way again as a newly formed official party. Whatever that does, exactly…


Larali Dahlquist

Human Peasant





Ketra Zutis

Elf Peasant






  "So, what does that do?" Lily asked aloud. Now that she actually had somebody who'd played the game—and wasn't as embarrassing to ask as her brother—she really wanted to dig in. "Michael said it helped you target stuff?"

  "Magic, mostly," said Larali, nodding. They skirted around a tall overhang, speeding up a bit to keep Phoenixia's fiery hair in sight as the girl continued to rush ahead. "It makes people either a default target when it makes sense, or not a target when it doesn't. Healing spells, area spells, support spells, you get the idea."

  "It also lets you use Whisper spells more easily," said Ketra. "It's more difficult if you aren't in a party or a guild together."

  "Is that like voice chat?"

  "Yes. Whisper spells let you communicate within your party, but they're difficult to use. Message lets you communicate with anyone in the world, but they're a tightly held secret."

  Lily rolled her eyes. "Why don't you just use an app instead?"

  "You can't. The game blocks them. You have to give it full permissions on your system to play."

  "...That's kind of nuts." And you can still beat that, anyway… just use another machine.

  Larali grinned. "Anybody playing Avo is kind of nuts. You'll catch on quick. It's seriously fun though, if you get the itch. Not everyone does, but once you do, there's just nothing else like it."

  "No kidding." Lily snapped off a thin branch nearby and swung it around like a sword. "So you really can just do anything, huh?"

  "Pretty much."

  "It sounds like it'd take a lifetime just to get good at the game."

  "Well, it's helping you out a lot," Larali pointed out. "You don't have to exercise or do a lot of the usual routine stuff, and you don't have to worry about food either."

  Lily licked her lips pointedly. "But what if I want to worry about the food?" she said, smirking. "Just think: if there's actual taste in this game, and it doesn't affect us at all…"

  Larali's eyes lit up like twin light bulbs flickering on. "We can eat whatever we want!"

  Ketra rolled her eyes as the two of them burst into laughter. She started walking away, pulling her hood up over her head, and the two followed, listing off all the fantasy foods they wanted to eat, followed by the real world as soon as they ran out of ideas. Lily wasn't exactly a glutton, but she had to keep herself in good shape for her career, so she tended to avoid a lot of guilty pleasure options.

  "Yeah, you and me both," said Larali, once she'd explained that.

  "Really?" Lily glanced over, and promptly got her boot caught in a thicket of brambles around the next tree trunk. Ketra grabbed her arm before she fell into the thorns, hauling her back to her feet. "...Thanks."

  Ketra nodded. "No problem."

  "What do you do?" Lily went on quickly, to cover her embarrassment. "In the real world, I mean."

  "Well," said Larali, hesitating. She suddenly tilted her head up, looking at something neither of them could see. "What the—" Without warning, she hurried off into the woods after Phoenixia and Michael, leaving Lily and Ketra alone.

  "...What did she see?" Lily asked, craning her neck to get a better look. Even that movement hurt a little. Jeez, this game really covers everything. "I don't see anything."

  "She didn't," said Ketra, rolling her eyes. "That was the weakest exit line I've ever heard from her."


  "Larali doesn't like talking about her real life." Ketra shrugged, picking up the pace a little. Lily hurried to match her. "She plays Avo to get away from it."

  "Oh." Lily gulped. "I didn't mean to—"

  "Yeah, she knows that. Don't worry about it." Ketra glanced sidelong at her. Lily felt entranced by her eyes, a light shade of purple like a lavender in bloom. She's really pretty… if I'd known that kind of option was in the character creator I probably wouldn't have gone through it so fast. "You're Lily Quinn, though, right?"

  "Yeah. Michael's sister."

  "Not just that." Ketra shook her head, and her perfect brown hair danced across her face as she did. Okay, Lily, getting a bit too obsessed with how a video game character looks… even if she looks totally real. What's going on with you right now? Get it together. "You're Liquin. Top of the charts in Riposte, right? I'm… I'm a really big fan. I think you're an amazing gamer."

  "...Thanks," said Lily, trying to hold back her smile, though she felt positively giddy just at being recognized at all.

  Sure, Lily won plenty of prize money, but she never streamed or did anything social. She didn't have a big fan base like a lot of the other big professional gamers… especially him. He made a real living through it; she earned her way by winning every single tournament she could without taking a single break. Social activity pretty naturally flew out the window as a result, except for a weekly board game night with her brother.

  Suddenly, Lily had a fan. An embarrassed fan who was currently role-playing a elf in a virtual RPG made by her brother, but still! A legit, non-creepy fan who just wanted to hang out. Lily felt like she was on top of the world.

  Ketra turned away a bit, not meeting Lily's eyes. "You were actually a huge inspiration for me."


  "Being a girl and winning every game in the whole grand circuit. I bet that wasn't easy at all, with all the crap everybody gave you for it." Ketra glanced back up and smiled. "I was rooting for you the whole way. I started playing because of that run. I'm almost to grandmaster tier, and I main the same build as you."

  Lily blushed. It was her turn to get embarrassed, and she clearly wasn't as good about hiding it as Ketra. Okay, this game even does blushing? This sucks. Except… I have an actual fan for once, not just the usual slog. So that's really cool.

  "Almost every game," she pointed out, trying to deflect a bit.

  "...Yeah." Ketra shrugged. "Well, he's really good too. You'll get him next time."

  "Oh yeah." Lily nodded. "I'll kick his ass next time."

  Ketra smiled. She gestured back down the path Larali had carved through the underbrush with her huge footsteps, visible even to Lily in the dirt. "Come on."

  They hurried to catch up. While Phoenixia was still bounding ahead with Larali only a few steps behind, Michael was taking a more leisurely pace halfway between the two pairs. As Lily caught up, Ketra passed them to join the other two, leaving her alone with her brother for a minute.

  "Did you have some good girl talk?" he asked, smirking.

  Lily smacked him on the shoulder. He winced, but the stupid grin didn't go away. "Yeah, so what?"

  "Just nice to see you making some friends."

  "...What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, indignant. Does he think I don't have any friends? I mean… I don't have a lot of friends… Especially not after all the crap that went down between me and Kevin. But come on! I'm not a loner or anything… not by choice. I'm just busy. Riposte takes a lot of practice.


  He looked so annoyingly smug, she wanted to smack him again. She just settled for rolling her eyes instead. "Whatever, bro. Don't think I didn't notice you ended up with all the girls in your half of the group."

  "Not all," he pointed out. "Avalynn is with Harry. Besides, that was pure chance. You took—"

  "Shh!" Phoenixia skidded to a halt in the dirt and held up a hand. She'd hissed the warning. The rest of the group stopped on a dime, but Larali—not watching where she was going at all—nearly bowled the girl over as she plowed into her. They both stumbled forward into the open clearing ahead, with Phoenixia falling flat on her hands into the bright sunlight.

  A chorus of alarmed men greeted her: six guys with an assortment of cheap swords and armor among them. A few small tents leaned against the trees on the far side. A fox roasted over a small campfire. They'd stumbled right into a bandit camp—and the residents weren't happy about it.

  Lily drew her blades, loving the real weight and texture of the leather grips in her palms. She eyed down the nearest bandit, a grin creasing her lips. All right. Let's do this!





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About the author


  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge

Bio: Sysadmin, IT girl, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of good stories.

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