Six bandits versus the five of them. If the last few were anything to go by, Lily didn't expect this to take long. Michael was standing in the back, still half-hidden by the forest, while Ketra had slipped out to the side. Larali and Phoenixia pulled themselves back to their feet, and they settled into a loose triangle with Lily at the edge of the meadow.
Larali slowly moved her hand toward the hilt of her broadsword. "...Do we fight?" she murmured.
"You're the experts," said Lily, casually picking out targets. The guy with the bow in the rear looked like he'd go down easy. Only one of them looked like he might pose any real trouble—while most had weapons as crappy and ancient as theirs, the man who'd been turning the fox over the fire had a gleaming steel sword and actual chainmail, compared to the loose shirts and pants on the rest of the group.
"Six on five," said Larali.
"Six on four," said Michael, to their surprise. Lily glanced over her shoulder at her brother. Michael wore a wide, mischievous grin. "I'm just here to watch."
"That fox actually smells kind of good…" said Phoenixia. She hadn't drawn her daggers or her bow, but simply raised her hand into the air in a defensive stance—or at last, what she believed was defensive. Phoenixia didn't have any kind of balance or stability, based on what Lily knew of fighting. If I shoved her, she'd fall right over. She's got a lot to learn.
Lily sniffed the air, just catching the scent as the wind shifted and blew the campfire smoke their way. "Seriously?" she asked, dumbfounded. I mean, it smells like real meat, but… eww. "I don't think—"
"Hey!" shouted one of the bandits. The party looked up in unison. Lily hadn't expected the A.I. to actually interrupt them. "Be on your way, strangers! Unless you want to eat steel!"
"Oh, someone's gonna eat something," muttered Larali.
Lily didn't exactly want to attack them straight out—too obvious, plus they hadn't actually made any aggressive moves. Out of the corner of her eye, Ketra was still maneuvering through the thick trees, an arrow notched to the string. Lily decided to throw a line right back at them to stall. "Give us your silver."
The man laughed, hand resting on the hilt of a sword tucked into his belt. "You wish to rob us?"
Lily shrugged. "Unless you want to eat steel," she mocked. He'd just sounded so ridiculous, she couldn't help it.
"Be on your way, strangers," he said again, in exactly the same cadence as before. Lily sighed. Well, so much for being cutting edge A.I.
"Liquin!" shouted Ketra.
She whirled around—and as she did, an arrow crossed right in front of her eyes. She could practically count the individual feathers on the haft, messy and sticking out at odd angles. The flint tip clacked against a tree a few meters behind her and fell to the ground.
Lily grinned. "Oh yeah. Let's do this."
Another arrow shot across the clearing toward the bandits. Ketra had fired from somewhere off to their right—Lily had lost track of her after the first shot. Ketra's arrow struck true, catching the bandit who'd fired first in the shoulder. He howled in pain and dropped his weapon.
The bandits howled in anger. Four rushed forward into the fight, swords and daggers drawn. Larali roared right back at them, twice as loud. She whipped her broadsword off her back in a huge arc, nearly clipping an over-eager bandit who'd charged her.
He twisted away, but Larali was quick on the draw, and her sword was double-edged. Without a second wasted, she stepped forward and swung again. This time, she struck home. A bright line of blood appeared across the man's midsection, and the bandit tumbled to the ground clutching his chest. Larali gave a whoop of victory, and immediately almost got hit by another arrow. The last bandit had drawn his bow and fired, aiming just high of the huge Larali.
Lily couldn't keep up with them anymore, as she had two bandits of her own to contend with. She was used to one-on-one fights, but neither of them seemed particularly adept themselves. Lily simply took a few steps back as one swung wildly, and his friend did the same. Their swords actually clashed off each other.
Lily giggled. "Come on, guys. You can do better than that."
To her surprise, they actually seemed to understand her. The bandit on the left growled and charged forward. Lily took another few quick steps back, twirling her dagger to really drive home the taunt. She smirked as he swung again and missed her by nearly half a meter. In fact, she could have already taken him out if she really wanted, but messing with the A.I. (and feeling her brother seething behind her) was just too much fun.
Another arrow clacked against a tree. Ketra had taken a shot at the far bandit and missed. Larali put her sword through the chest of her first opponent to finish him off, then charged across the clearing to take out the archers. She crashed through the bandit camp, knocking dishes and bags everywhere as she chased down the fleeing men into the forest.
Lily glanced away—and nearly took a blade to the shoulder for her distraction. Phoenixia was calling for help, and Lily had been wasting way too much time screwing around with the two bandits in the center. The girl had her hands up, throwing fireballs at the last bandit of the group, but he seemed a bit more aware than the rest. He dodged each one, making steady progress toward her as she backed away into the trees.
"Coming, Nixie!" she shouted. The bandit in front of her looked confused by her words, but didn't lose any ground. He stabbed forward, aiming for her left side, where he probably assumed she was weaker. Jeez, Michael. Even when I clearly have a sword in that hand…
Lily rotated the sword around, catching his blade and driving it to the side. His eyes went wide, but his guard was even wider. She plunged forward with the dagger in her right, stabbing right into his unprotected chest. The blade slipped right between his ribs. Lily twisted it once, then tore it back out again.
The man groaned in pain and collapsed. Seeing an opening, the other bandit stepped in. He actually learned from the mistake of his companion, and swung for her right. Lily had to do an awkward double-step to the side, ducking just under the slice.
As the bandit stumbled, unbalanced from over-committing, Lily slashed her way back in. Her curved dagger caught his awkward second swing, driving his sword out of the way, while her own cut a long red line across his shoulder. He howled in pain, but didn't go down like the first man. Lily skipped back, dodging his sloppy counter, then stepped back in with both blades.
He crumpled. She withdrew, metal tinged with blood in both hands. The volume of liquid flowed down over the hilt onto her hands. Huh. Even feels warm and wet… Kind of gross.
Crap! "Coming!" Lily shouted again. She left the two where they fell and darted through the trees toward the sound of tiny explosions. Phoenixia was skirting around the back of a tree, while a very angry-looking bandit chased her with a gleaming longsword. Part of his chainmail had melted into his skin, and his hair was smoking and singed, but he was relentless.
Lily scooped up a small rock from the undergrowth as she ran. Okay, Lily, you're a terrible aim, but don't miss this. As soon as she had a clear shot, she chucked it at the bandit. The rock thwacked right into his shoulder. She let out a shout of triumph.
The man turned around to face her, sword at the ready. Lily gulped. She lifted her own blades, gripping the hilts so tight her knuckles turned white. "Nixie…"
He charged forward. Lily danced away, foot-over-foot, twirling out of reach. She just barely dodged his first two swipes. This guy was way better than the other ones she'd faced. His swings didn't throw him off balance, and he didn't seem to favor striking either side. Guess I can't always rely on that trick. Okay then, Michael. Let's see if your A.I. understands feints.
Lily was still stepping backward, trying to find a better footing. She chanced a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure the ground was clear. Tripping over a root would be a really embarrassing way to lose this fight, and Lily hated losing. As the bandit followed her deeper in, Lily saw her opportunity.
She hesitated by an ancient old oak with brittle bark, giving the man just enough time to catch up. Once he was in her reach, Lily swung forward with her sword, but just lazily enough to give him an easy out. The bandit took it, and immediately slashed back, fully committed. He'd gone right for her exposed stomach. Bingo.
Lily sucked in her gut and fell backward, right into a reverse somersault. The man's sword passed through empty air, striking right into the tree. Steel skittered along bark, and caught fast in a thick bramble halfway up. The bandit only had a second to realize his plight, as Lily planted her feet, still low to the ground. She pounced forward into him, blades leading the way.
His sword fell to the dirt, and his body followed a moment later. Lily landed on top of him, swords planted in his chest. She yanked them out, wincing at the trickle of blood that came along with.
"Holy crap," gasped Phoenixia.
She glanced up, grinning. The girl was in total awe, icy-blue eyes wide as dinner plates half-hidden under her mane of fiery hair. Lily tried to play cool as possible, twirling her dagger again, but drops of blood flew off in every direction. She sighed. "Got a cloth or something?"
"Oh, uhh…" She twisted around for the bag strapped over her shoulder. Her face crinkled up in pain as she did, and one hand went straight to her shoulder.
Lily stood up, concerned. She hurried over to the girl. "Hey, you okay?"
"He kinda got me," she mumbled. Her hand came away from her shoulder bright red. She winced again. "Ow."
Uhh… what do I do for something like this? I don't know how healing works in this game… "Come on, let's get back to the others," she said. "I bet they're done now too."
"Don't forget his stuff." Phoenixia nodded down at the bandit she'd just snuffed out. "You got him, you earned it."
"Right." Lily bent down and dug through the guy's pockets. She considered taking his chainmail too, but it felt heavy and awkward. She preferred not to get hit at all, and anything like that would just slow her down. The simple layers of shirts she wore was more than enough for now—though she would probably prefer something less conspicuous than blue and white if they were going to be in the forest all the time.
She did find some more pieces of silver, and the guy's long blade was actually in pretty good shape. She slapped it on her belt, taking the spot of her shortsword. It was too long for her to use effectively, but Lily figured she could sell it or something when they got to Skyldr.
"Do you want anything?" she added, glancing up at Phoenixia.
The girl shook her head. "It's yours. I just ran away."
Lily smiled. "Nah, you weakened his armor. See?" She pointed at the spot she'd stabbed him. Sure enough, there was a melted hole right through the chainmail. I mean, I probably could've gotten through it anyway… "Help yourself."
Phoenixia hesitated, but her eyes lit up a moment later. She bent down and went through his stuff, wincing every so often as she twisted her wounded shoulder in a weird way. If it hurts that much, I'm definitely not getting hit any time soon. As soon as she was done, they set off back to the camp.
"Ho!" shouted Larali, lifting her sword in greeting. She sat atop a wooden box next to the campfire, grinning wide with a foot on top of one of the expired bandits. To Lily's shock, she held a stick impaled with… something, and she was actually taking bites out of it. "All dead back there?"
"Yeah," said Lily. She took a closer look at the chunk of meat on Larali's stick, and her stomach gurgled in an uncomfortable way. "...What is that?"
Larali shrugged, twisting it around in her hand. "I dunno. Dead rat, maybe?" She took another bite and hummed in a self-satisfied way. "Tastes great though."
"Ugh." Lily put a hand to her mouth and took a pointed step away.
Larali laughed. "Gotta take everything you can get when you're dirt-poor on the road!"
"No thanks." Phoenixia took a step forward, but clutched at her shoulder again as a dark look passed over her eyes. "Hey, uhh… Nixie got hurt. What do we do about that?"
"You did?" Larali hopped off the crate, sheathing her sword. She rushed over to the girl and helped her sit down. Ketra emerged from inside one of the tents, pocketing something, bow and arrow back over her shoulder. "What's it like?"
What kind of question is that? "Hurts," said Phoenixia. "Swords hurt, I guess." She smiled, which seemed even more incongruous than Larali's question. "Crazy, right?"
"No kidding. Hey, Ketra," said Larali, glancing at her friend. "You got any healing spells? Any uhh… etowhatevers?"
"Etovyla," said Ketra. She knelt down next to Phoenixia. "I do, but we should invite her to the party first."
Lily tapped herself in the forehead. "Oh, duh." She opened her menu and quickly pressed through to the Party system.
"Thanks." Ketra put a hand close to Phoenixia's shoulder, though not quite close enough to touch. She began murmuring something under her breath, which Lily couldn't quite make out. A moment later, her hand glowed pure white. As they watched, the cut in Phoenixia's skin knit itself back together, forming pure unblemished skin once again, even repairing up to the sliced-open portion of her shirt.
Phoenixia giggled, squirming a bit in her seat. "That tickles."
Ketra smiled, but she shook her head. "Hold still, please."
Lily stepped away with Larali to give them some space, and found herself face to face with her brother. He smirked, gesturing to the downed bandits scattered around the camp. "Kinda murderous, sestra."
Lily rolled her eyes. "They're just A.I.," she pointed out. "Pretty easy A.I., too."
"Not difficult enough?" Michael put a hand to his heart in an exaggerated pose. "I worked hard on this!"
"Okay, they're way better than most," she conceded. "But come on."
He grinned. "Nah, we actually toned down a lot of stuff in this area."
"You did?" said Larali, raising her eyebrows. "I thought there weren't any difficulty levels. Wasn't that the whole point? No compromises and no dumbing down. A real world."
Michael shrugged. "We toned down all the possible starting areas a little. Slower reaction times and slower decision processing. Basically, we made it more likely for enemies around here to be really dumb in combat. Just enough to give people a chance to get into the game."
After a few seconds, Larali nodded. "Yeah, okay. That makes sense."
Michael turned back to his sister. "Don't worry. As soon as we get out of the Haalfwood, you'll get some real challenges."
"I thought that's where we were stopping," said Lily. "Wasn't this just gonna be a short beta test?"
"Do you want to stop?" asked Larali, surprised. "I sure as hell don't."
Lily took a second, glancing around the clearing. Phoenixia was back to her usual self, darting about without a single sign of the cut to her shoulder, while Ketra plucked arrows off of the dead archers and gathered up her own shots. Larali grinned at her. "Come on, Liquin. You ain't seen nothing yet."
Oh, what the hell. That fight was really something. I mean, Riposte gets just as intense, but it doesn't have all of this. The forest, the birds, the waterfall and all that. And the weight! Oh man, it feels so much more satisfying to swing a real sword.
Lily smiled, and Larali didn't even bother to wait for her to answer. "Aww yeah, that's what I thought. Come on, girl." She wrapped an arm around Lily's shoulders and marched her back to the other two. "When we get to Skyldr, I'm buying you a drink."
"There's drinking in this?" Lily asked, surprised.
"Duh!" Larali laughed. "What, you thought people wouldn't want to drink around here? What else are you supposed to do in a town?"
"Trade," said Ketra. "Eat. Sleep. Find work."
"Booooooring," said Larali.
"She likes to start tavern fights," Ketra added, glancing at Lily.
"I like to win tavern fights," Larali shot back.
"Only when I help you."
Phoenixia glanced up at them. "Can I help too?"
"You want to get into a tavern brawl, Nixie?" asked Larali.
"Sure, why not?"
Larali laughed. "That's my girl!" Without warning, she plucked the smaller girl up off the ground and set her up on her shoulders. Phoenixia wasn't exactly tiny; she was probably about five feet tall, but Larali was over seven and probably double the other girl's weight in sheer muscle. Ketra shook her head, but followed the two of them into the forest with her hood drawn low again, while Lily and Michael brought up the rear.
As they walked, Lily started interrogating her brother. "So, how do you win?"
"You don't?" He shrugged. "It's more of a make-your-own-endgame type thing."
"What do people usually do?"
"There's some really intense stuff out there. Dragons, evil wizard fortresses, so on. But that's not what most people come for. They're here for the PVP."
"So there is PVP." Lily rubbed her hands together excitedly. The two swords on the side of her belt clacked together as they clambered down a ridge, using an overhanging root to drop down into the pile of leaves on the lower ground. "Awesome." Means I can totally go after Kevin later.
"Well yeah. There's always PVP."
"What do you mean?"
"You can't turn it off or anything, and don't forget, we're all on the same server. Every single other player is out there right now. Any time you want, you can fight someone, or they can come after you. There's no restrictions or penalties."
"Nothing at all?" she asked, surprised.
"Well, I mean, if you try something in a major city, the guards might do something about it. Depends what mood they're in and who runs the place."
"What mood they're in?" Lily rolled her eyes. "They're just A.I., aren't they?"
"Nope. Maybe cheap MMOs do that, but not in my game." Michael smiled in a self-satisfied way that really made her want to smack him. He got really smug about Avo sometimes. He's losing subscribers left and right… Maybe he should stop thinking his design is so great. "Every single city is run by a player guild or nation, and all the guards are players too. The A.I. is just bandits, monsters, small villages and stuff like that."
"Most of the world's already taken, before you start getting ambitious," he warned, wagging a finger. "You really don't want to mess with some of the bigger guilds and nations."
Lily shrugged. "I bet I can take 'em."
"Can you take on a thousand guys who can all cast firestorm?" Michael rolled his eyes. "Or a dozen elf assassins? 'Cause the Thaumaturgical Society of Candir can field that in under an hour when they have to defend their city. They practically own the whole Steppe. Masnas will take a contract for you as long as you're not an elf—and last I checked—" he added, leaning over to tap her ears. His fingers were surprisingly cold, and Lily flinched away from his touch. "—you don't have the pointies."
Lily brushed his hand away, annoyed. "Masnas?" she asked.
"Maladec sel nara Sylvec, or MSNS, so people just started calling them Masnas for short. It roughly translates to Soldiers of the Forest. They'll hunt any contract against a non-elf target."
She shook her head. "This sounds like a recipe for so much griefing."
Michael shrugged. "We don't get a whole lot, actually. Remember, it's really hard to find someone in a world this big, unless they're okay with you finding them. Magic only gets you so far."
"If we got a report of real harassment that went beyond the bounds of the game, we investigated," Michael said firmly. "There's always a line to draw, and we're very clear when we have to be. It's still a game."
Lily nodded. "Sounds good to me." She smiled. "By the way, bro?"
"It's a really cool game." Before he could look any more pleased with himself, she smacked hard him on the back. She ran off to join the others further up. "That's for ditching us in the fight!"
Lily caught up to Ketra and Larali just in time to hear them say the same phrase she'd heard from Michael—the guild of elvish assassins. "What are you two talking about?"
Larali jumped, whipping around to face her. "Nothing!"
"...said the worst liar in Avo," muttered Ketra.
Lily smirked. "I heard something about Masnas?"
Ketra raised an eyebrow. "I thought you'd never played this before."
"Nope. Michael just told me about them." She rolled her eyes. "Said I should worry about getting a bounty on my head or something."
Ketra frowned. "Probably not. We wouldn't go after someone like you."
Lily's mouth fell open. "...We?"
"Yeah." Ketra shrugged. "I've been a member for five years."
"Hasn't this game only been running for six?"
"We're a very old guild."
Larali shook her head. "You're still wasting your time with those losers. I don't know why you stick around."
Ketra shrugged again and didn't answer. She looked ahead to Phoenixia, who was leading the group once again toward one of the faint columns of smoke twisting up into the sky.
"Isn't it a secret assassin guild?" Lily asked.
"But you just told me you were a member."
Ketra smiled, and suddenly Lily felt very unsettled. It wasn't the kindly smile she'd given Phoenixia, nor the embarrassed grin from their conversation before the fight. Ketra was a lot more dangerous than Lily had given her credit for. "I did."
She walked away, hurrying up to join Phoenixia again. Larali snickered. "Don't mind her. She's just messing with you." The huge woman paused and cocked her head slightly. "I mean… probably."
"What about you?" asked Lily, more to change the subject than anything. "What do you usually do in this?"
"Whatever I want!" she shouted with joy. She plucked her broadsword off her back and twirled it around. "And girlfriend, now that this place is real, I'm going to be doing so much more. Just you wait."
Lily laughed. Larali was a lot of fun just to be around, same as Phoenixia. She still wasn't quite sure about Ketra… but the other two? This could be a great party. "Maybe you should be the leader, then."
"Nah," said Larali. She sheathed her sword again. "I'm no good at it. You saw me back there, I got distracted by one guy. You're the one that ran off to save Nixie."
"She still got hurt," Lily pointed out.
Larali shrugged. "It's a fight. People are gonna get hurt." She frowned. "That girl should probably turn down her pain setting though. I got a cut too after you both disappeared, and it didn't feel like that at all."
"Really? Didn't hurt?"
She smirked. "Nah, hurt like hell. But I could still move and do everything. She looked like she was in serious pain."
"So why not just turn pain down for everything?" Lily wondered aloud. "Who wants pain in a video game?"
"Without pain, there's no penalty for screwing up," said Larali thoughtfully. "It makes people take things seriously. Yeah, we're probably all a bit masochistic for thinking that pain is fun, but come on. What's a world without a little pain?"
Still sounds crazy to me, but it's their game, not mine. "So you have it on Full?"
"Nah," she grinned. "I like running into the middle of a fight. If I let pain hold me back, I'd mess things up for everybody. I'd rather lose some of my immersion than screw over my friends, you know?"
"Yeah." Lily nodded. "That's really cool of you."
Larali blushed. "Thanks?"
"What about the other settings?" she went on, curious. "What do you do for tho—"
"Quiet!" hissed Phoenixia again, much the same as their last romp through the forest. Lily fell to a crouch immediately. After her last warning, she trusted the girl as a scout. Lily crept forward to join them, Larali close on her heels.
"What is it? More bandits?"
"No," said Ketra from above them. She'd climbed into the tree, peering out through the leaves into the wide open meadow. Huh. Guess you can climb trees. I think I'm gonna have to start thinking about this game in terms of things I can't do… Ketra shielded her lavender eyes with her hand from the setting sun on the far end of the clearing. "Dead bandits, and three people going through their bodies."
"Players?" asked Lily, drawing her blades. A real fight. Awesome. I thought it was gonna take forever to get one at this rate.
"Unbound," Ketra replied. "Players are called 'Unbound' in this world, unless they bind themselves to a guild."
"It's part of the story," said Phoenixia, still crouched low next to the tree gazing out over the wide meadow. Lily could barely see the three players at the far end past the couple farmhouses, and no sign at all of the bandits they were supposedly looting. Maybe elves have better eyesight? "Players are special in this world 'cause their souls aren't bound to a fate yet. Joining a guild means binding your soul to the fate of the guild."
"That sounds… intense."
"It's not really that big a deal," said Larali dismissively. "You can always leave later."
"Not without a price," said Ketra.
"They're moving," said Phoenixia. Her hand fell to the dagger at her belt. Ketra drew an arrow from her quiver and notched it. "Coming this way."
"How can you see that?" asked Lily. She couldn't tell at all. Just a couple specks past the rows of crops, and the squat houses after that.
"We have better eyes than humans," said Ketra.
"Oh. Huh." Right on the money.
"We're also weaker than you guys," added Phoenixia. "It's all trade-offs, you know?"
"What do we do?" Larali asked, glancing up at her friend in the tree.
Ketra leaned into one of the branches to steady her arm as she drew back her bowstring. "They're still coming this way. What do you want to do?"
Larali glanced at Lily, and Phoenixia did as well a moment later. Ketra kept her eye on the farm, but it soon became clear she was also waiting for Lily to answer.
"They're coming this way?" Lily asked, just to be sure. "Straight at us?"
I bet Kevin didn't come across actual players. This is gonna be way better loot than crappy bandits. Lily smiled. She could actually feel adrenaline starting to pump into her blood, yet another detail of the game that was made astonishingly real. She took a step backward into the trees, brushing against the ferns and leaves as she took cover.
"Let's ambush them."