The trio of players kept walking, totally unconcerned. They moved in a loose group straight ahead, chatting about something from the real world. Lily could barely hear them from where she lay, underneath a thick bush at the edge of the treeline, but it sounded like they were talking about a school project. It sounded weirdly out of place, now that she was surrounded by Avo. Oh man, I'm turning into one of them already.
The bush next to her shuffled around. Larali seemed to be squirming in place underneath it. "Wait," Lily whispered.
"I know," Larali groaned. "Sorry. I'm really bad at sitting still."
"Nixie's doing it," Lily pointed out. It was true—to their surprise, Phoenixia had managed to stay totally still up in the tree. She was laying down on a wide forked branch, her arm perched on a thick knot in the wood to steady her aim, palm open and ready to fire. The girl hadn't budged since she got into place. "Wait for Ketra."
The other elf was their trigger. Lily readily conceded starting the ambush to Ketra. I mean, she's a professional assassin. Kind of. Jeez, now I'm even calling them professionals… As soon as Ketra decided the players were within their trap, she'd loose the first arrow.
Leave no chance of a counter-attack, that was Lily's plan. Full power, right from the start, kill the trio and take their stuff. She wondered vaguely if she was playing the game a bit too violently, but the rest of the group didn't seem to mind when she proposed the idea. Even though these were players and not just computers, they readily agreed to the attack.
Whatever. We're just testing it out. If she were playing for real, Lily might consider taking things slower, maybe actually carving out her own niche as a sword for hire or something, but this was just a demo. Besides, they just killed those farmers. They can't be good guys. She'd take them out and enjoy every second of it—and more importantly, she'd get another bundle of stuff to add to her pack, increasing her lead on Kevin.
Lily tensed up. They were only a few dozen meters away now. She pressed herself into the dirt, hands planted to launch herself up in an instant. Her blades twitched in each hand, ready to go. Lily could even feel a bead of sweat trickling down the back of her neck.
The guys walked up. Just a few meters away now. Three humans, laughing and joking. They were barely armed, and dressed as plainly as her own party. They were brand new to the game—or at least, their characters were. Each of them had a few valuables that might be worth something, but Lily was having sudden second thoughts. I wouldn't want to get killed just an hour into the game either...
"Wait," Lily hissed, praying they wouldn't hear her.
Ketra inclined her head just slightly. She kept following the nearest of the group with the tip of her arrow, twisting in place from her seat up in the tree. If they turned, she'd loose the first shot.
They didn't. They walked right on by. After another few minutes of tense silence, the trio of humans disappeared into the far end of the clearing, completely unaware of how close they'd come to a fight.
Lily breathed a sigh of relief. She climbed back to her feet, brushing dirt off her hands and legs. Larali clambered up too. "I thought we were gonna fight them?" she asked, confused—and even a little disappointed.
"I..." Lily hesitated. "I figured they deserve a chance to live, you know? Same as us."
Ketra dropped out of the tree next to her friend, landing with almost no sound at all. To Lily's surprise, her lavender eyes shone with quiet approval. Larali looked over her shoulder toward the spot they'd disappeared, still seeming a touch disappointed. "I was so ready to beat the crap out of them."
"I'm sure you'll find another fight," said Ketra.
Phoenixia swung around on her branch, hanging upside-down from her legs to look at them, bright orange hair suspended above the mossy green forest floor. "So what are we gonna do now?" she asked, looking between Ketra and Lily.
"Well, we should probably go check out that farm, right?" said Lily.
Phoenixia nodded, which looked distinctly odd upside-down. She tried to swing herself back upward, but after a couple failed attempts, her hands fell limp. "...Can I get some help?" she mumbled, red-faced. Lily couldn't tell if it was from blood rushing to her skull or embarrassment.
Larali laughed. "How about you stick to being my magic fireball turret?" The swordswoman ducked under the girl and grabbed her with both hands. With a heave, Larali flipped her upright and set Phoenixia back on her shoulders again, patting her on the back for good measure. "We'll be unstoppable."
She giggled. "Only if I get to choose where we go."
"You got it. I've got no clue where we are anyway."
Except she was the first one to figure out we were in the Haalfwood… Lily grinned as Larali started off with the girl still on her shoulders, following her lead across the wide field. She followed at a distance with Ketra, who was unstringing her bow and setting it back across her shoulders.
"Why do you do that?" she asked.
"A bow gets weaker over time if you leave it strung," said Ketra. She opened a small pack at her waist and carefully placed the bowstring back inside. "You need a proper valafara made from syldvala if you want a bow that will never age or wither."
"An elf bow, then?" Lily guessed.
Ketra nodded. "Although I know a few human guilds that figured out how to make them, and one particular vktrel colony that started mass-producing them last year. It was an exploit that had to be patched out."
"So they lost them?"
"Nope." Ahead of them, Larali and Phoenixia had reached the farmhouse. As they approached, the bodies of the farmers crumbled into dust. "Ah, looks like they had nothing left."
"So if they don't have any real loot, it takes them early?"
"As a mercy to their souls," said Ketra, nodding. "But no, the vktrel colony didn't lose their exploited weapons. MVG never rolls back the server. After the Titwen scandal, they don't even have the ability to take away things from players, or modify them in any way. Anything that happened, happened."
"That's crazy," said Lily. "What if someone totally breaks the game?"
"Then they break the game." Ketra shrugged. "It's never happened yet, and these days, everyone here wants the world to continue. It's our home. None of us want to put that in jeopardy. We'll take every advantage we can get, but we'd never destroy our own home."
"Can't blame you," said Lily, glancing around. It's a hell of a lot better than the real world right now…
Ketra smiled. "Don't forget, we all thought that before we actually got to live in it. There's a huge difference between a headset with sensor gloves and… this." She brushed a hand through her long hair, pressing it to her face. "I actually get to live like I've always wanted."
"You wanted to be an elf?" Lily asked, without any sarcasm. She was genuinely curious.
"Well, I definitely didn't want to be who I was." Ketra frowned, glancing up at the farmhouse. "Larali?" she called.
"Yeah!" The woman poked her head up in the bare window of the farmhouse.
In response, Larali chucked out a dark brown object. It went high, sailing through Ketra's outstretched fingers. Lily took a few quick steps and managed to snatch it.
A loaf of bread.
"Try it!" Larali shouted, leaning out the window with a wide grin. "Seriously!"
Lily looked at it dubiously. I mean, at least it's not roast wild fox… but it's still a lumpy loaf of bread baked by a computer. She glanced up at Ketra, who simply gave her a cryptic smile. "After you," said Ketra. Lily grimaced, but held up the bread to her mouth, and took a tiny nibble.
It didn't taste bad. In fact, it tasted pretty all right. She took another nibble, and then a huge bite. As she did, Lily could feel a tiny wave of energy waft through her, like a rush of wind across the surface of her skin even underneath her clothes. She gulped down the bread with a smile. "Okay, that's pretty cool."
She tossed the other half of the loaf over to Ketra, who bit into it. Her eyes lit up with surprise. "Hmm."
"I didn't expect it to actually taste good," Lily said, grinning.
"Oh, ye of little faith," said Michael, ambling across the clearing. "Thanks for ditching me back there, by the way."
"Hey, you said you wanted to stay out of the ambush," Lily pointed out.
"I assumed you'd let me know if you changed your mind." Michael rolled his eyes. "Anyway. We did tweak the food a bit to make sure everything is bearable, at least."
"You actually programmed all the tastes of food?" Lily asked, raising an eyebrow. Even for modern technology, that sounded insane.
Michael shook his head. "Like I said, it's all in your brain. All we had to do was trick you enough into thinking it was tasty. It's all in the appearance. Now, if you find some bread covered in worms or something, it's probably gonna taste disgusting. I wouldn't eat that."
"Good tip," Lily deadpanned. She walked inside the farmhouse, curious to see what else was in there, and the others followed. Inside, she found Larali and Phoenixia still picking through the farmhouse. Lily glanced around. "Anything else cool in here?"
"S-m-ph bl-n-kts," said Larali, turning around. Her mouth was stuffed full of bread. She gave an embarrassed grin as she quickly chewed and swallowed it down. "Sorry. We found some blankets and a bit more silver."
"Blankets?" Lily asked. "Are those useful?"
"If you don't want to freeze tonight," said Ketra.
Phoenixia leapt off the bed, where she'd been looking at a leatherbound diary. "I can make us a fire!"
"How about we just actually get to Skyldr," said Michael uneasily. "I'd rather not sleep out here on the dirt."
"What, afraid of roughing it a bit?" Lily teased. Truth be told, she'd much prefer a bed herself, but she relished the opportunity to get back at her brother a bit. "Can't handle the dark and spooky forest?"
"Skyldr has a pretty good inn, and we really should test the sleeping system."
Lily giggled, rolling her eyes. "You are so transparent, bro."
Phoenixia tapped the linen sheets underneath her. "There's a perfectly good bed right here, you know."
"Can't fit all of us," Lily pointed out.
"Sure it can!" Phoenixia curled up into a ball and squeezed into the corner of the bed, right against the wall. "I go here, then you guys can just squish in everywhere else."
Before anyone said anything else, Larali had already leapt across the room to land on the bed with a sickening thud. "Ow," she groaned. "Forgot these wouldn't have springs or anything." She shifted around until she'd found a more comfortable spot, then rolled over and tapped the open space left on the bed. Between the two of them, there wasn't nearly enough room for even one more person, let alone all three of them. "Come on, snuggle up."
"Yeah, I don't think so," said Lily, rolling her eyes.
"What, am I not cuddly enough?" Larali asked, pouting exaggeratedly.
"Looks pretty cuddly to me," came a sneer from the doorway.
Lily whipped around. The trio of players they'd come across earlier was back—and they were much more heavily armed. The one in the back had a staff similar to Michael's, tipped with a bright yellow crystal. Each of the two up front carried proper swords, sharp and thick, with the practiced ease of experienced fighters.
Larali leapt off the bed, grabbing her sword up from where it leaned against the wall. Lily drew her own blades, just in time to block a first slash from one of the two up front. Metal clanged on metal as she deflected it to the side.
"Good pull," the guy said with approval.
"What do you want?" Lily shot back.
"Well, we're here to rob you." He looked between the the five of them, smiling slightly. His movements were just a little too stiff, giving away that he was operating through the old interface, but it was still more than enough to be dangerous.
Larali took a cautious step toward Lily's side. Ketra began to reach for her bow. Phoenixia was still sitting on the bed, but she had a hand up and was ready to fight. Even Michael looked ready to throw down, staff tilted in a defensive stance.
"You guys really want to do this?" said Lily. "Pretty outnumbered." Even though they've got us trapped in a tiny house, and I'm only really good when I can dodge out of the way… I hate straight up fistfights.
"Nah. So we'll make it easy on you." He still held the sword aloft, ready to parry if Lily tried anything. "All your silver and we let you go, no problems."
"How about you give us all your silver," growled Larali, "and we let you go?"
Should've just ambushed them… "What my friend with the giant sword said," Lily agreed, jerking her head to the side.
"Giant sword?" said Larali.
"Yeah, it's huge."
"It's not small," agreed Ketra, who had somehow managed to slither her bowstring out of her pack without being noticed. Lily couldn't see how she could string it without setting them off, though, and the elf didn't have a single other weapon on her. They caught us totally off guard. Gotta remember that next time. Gotta keep stalling until we find an angle, or just scare them off.
"What's up with you, dude?" the other swordsman asked, glancing over at Michael. "Running with a party of total newbs?"
Michael shrugged. "Just some friends."
"Ohhhhh." The guy smirked. "All-girl party. I get it."
Larali groaned. "Liquin, can we stomp these guys already?"
"Nixie, shoot him," Lily snapped.
Phoenixia, to her credit, didn't waste a second. A fireball shot across the room before the last syllable passed through Lily's lips. The flames splashed against the second guy's chest, splattering across his clothes and singing them bright orange. He flinched backward, but stood his ground.
To Lily's surprise, he didn't hesitate in the slightest. Instead, he charged forward, as did his friend. Oh, crap. They don't feel pain, because they're just playing a video game. We're at a huge disadvantage.
A lightning bolt zapped across the room, striking Lily in the shoulder. She felt it buzz and flicker through her skin, as if she were getting punched by a thousand tiny fists. It hurt, but not nearly enough to stop her. Lily caught the second slash attempt from the guy in the exact same way, sliding it aside with ease. She took a half-step forward with her right foot, and her dagger plunged for his exposed hip.
Michael shouted something, and a huge gust of wind blew through the farmhouse. The three men tumbled aside. Lily's dagger missed its target completely as the guy collapsed into the nearest cabinet. Lily twisted forward with another double-step, letting momentum carry her into a two-blade strike into his stomach.
The guy flinched again, in what seemed like exactly the same animation. His arm twisted awkwardly upward, trying to slash at her, but Lily simply danced back away again—straight into the path of the other swordsman.
She tried to move out of the way, but his blade caught her in the right forearm. Lily winced as the steel sliced a line of blood into her arm. It stung like hell, but it was a pretty shallow cut. She pulled back. As soon as the line of fire was clear, a stream of rapid fireballs tore past, each one flushing her face with heat as they hurtled by.
The stream of fire slammed into the guy, one after another, each one causing him to flinch backward yet again. Finally, he collapsed to the ground next to the first guy, who'd finally expired after the wicked wound Lily left in his stomach. Two guys down, and Lily had only taken a minor wound for her trouble, which just left…
Lily twisted around, only to see the body at Ketra's feet with two arrows sticking through his neck. She was casually unstringing her bow yet again, calm as could be. Lily gaped at her.
Larali laughed from the corner, sheathing her broadsword. "Yeah, she does that."
"Nixie, you might want this," said Ketra. She leaned down and scooped up the man's staff, tossing it over to the girl. Phoenixia caught it, panting from exhaustion after the sheer number of fireballs she'd thrown in such a short span.
"Coooooool," she murmured, tracing her fingers all around the crystal at the tip.
Lily glanced over at her brother. "Joining the fight now, huh?"
Michael shrugged. "Didn't want you to have to respawn and walk all the way back here."
She rolled her eyes. "I totally had them."
"Uhh," said Larali. "Not to be a downer, but the second guy totally had you without Melchagar's spell."
"Larali!" Lily groaned, rounding on her. "You aren't supposed to take my brother's side."
"Hey, I gotta go with whoever's right."
"He had you," agreed Ketra.
Lily sighed. "...Okay, yeah, he might have gotten me." She grinned. "Good fight though."
"Maybe for you," Larali grumbled. "I didn't even get to swing my damn sword."
"Good thing, too," said Ketra. "It's too cramped in here."
Larali kept grumbling as she left the farmhouse. Lily grabbed up one of the shortswords from the ground. It was much better balanced than the one she'd been carrying, and had a nicer crossguard to boot, with a tiny blue sapphire set in the center that twinkled whenever it caught the light.
"Looks good," said Ketra approvingly. "I'd keep that one." She glanced over at Phoenixia. "You know, Nixie, you might consider using arcane or lightning magic instead of fire, now that you've got a staff. It should be easier to channel."
Phoenixia frowned. "But I like fire."
Ketra shrugged. "Whatever you like." She followed her friend out, and Phoenixia quickly followed. Lily stayed behind to grab up the silver from the dead players, pocketing as much as she could carry. Her little money bag was already starting to have real heft on her belt. She was looking forward to reaching Skyldr now, just to see what she could actually spend it on.
"Having fun?" asked Michael.
"Yeah, yeah, it's a great game, you're amazing," said Lily absentmindedly. She rubbed her hand along the line of blood that streaked down her arm. The cut was already starting to seal up, but she still felt the stinging pain from the slash. "Do I gotta worry about getting infected?"
"No. No infections from wounds in Avo."
"Well, that's a relief." Lily glanced at him sidelong, smirking. "Kinda throws a wrench into your so-called hardcore survival sim, though, doesn't it?"
"Well, you don't have to eat to stay alive either," he pointed out. "We tried to keep a good balance between survival and actual fun."
Lily nodded. "So what's next?"
"Well, we're not too far from Skyldr now. We probably won't run into anything else unless we really go looking for it." Michael scratched the short beard on his chin—a beard he couldn't ever grow in the real world, no matter how much he wanted to. "It's getting late though, so we probably shouldn't mess around."
Lily glanced out the window. Sure enough, the sun was barely visible anymore at the far end of the farmland. "Sounds good to me. I could use a chance to actually relax for a bit."
Michael nodded. "Skyldr's usually pretty calm. None of the major guilds ever bother with it, since there's nothing really valuable out here. That's why it's a possible spawn point."
"Cool." Lily glanced out the doorway. Ketra sat atop the short wooden fence outlining the crop field, talking to Larali. Phoenixia was standing a little further away, holding out her new staff and causing tiny sparks of lightning to shoot out at odd intervals, each with a fuzzy crackling sound. "I gotta ask, bro, how'd you pick all these people anyway?"
"Secret," he grinned.
"Oh, come on." She rolled her eyes. "It's me, remember?" Besides, I really want to know why you decided to invite him, of all the people in the whole world. There's no way you didn't know about us… right?
"Seriously, everybody signed an anonymity agreement," said Michael. "I will say one of the beta testers spent a lot of money in our cosmetic store for stuff they've never actually used, just to support the game. As a stipulation of helping to fund the beta test, everyone was signed to anonymity. I know everybody, but I promised not to reveal identities otherwise. Some of them made that a requirement for their support."
"Even though I already know who Kevin is?" she pointed out.
Michael shrugged. "Can't help that. Everybody else was invited because they've been a great beta tester for us in the past, were able to sign all the necessary documents and provide proof of medical coverage, set up the cradles themselves, and had proof of an uninterruptible dedicated connection to our servers so we wouldn't get disconnected."
"Wait a second…" Lily raised an eyebrow. "They're playing from home?"
"Yup." Michael looked unbearably smug again. "That's how great our netcode is."
"You let them set up that cradle thing all on their own? What if it like… crippled them or something?"
Lily rolled her eyes. "You can't just talk your way out of this one, Michael."
"Seriously, it won't. I'm not saying it's harmless, but we took every precaution." He sighed, putting a hand to his temple. Lily suddenly realized just how tired he looked, even in game when he hadn't really done anything strenuous like the rest of them. "We're running out of money, Lily. Like, really running dry. I had to pull out all the stops for this beta, and we still only made ten cradles. So I went through our pool of the most dedicated fans and players, did a lottery, weeded out the problem candidates, and picked the ones I thought could really sell the game."
"And you ended up with these people?" Lily asked, surprised. Not that she didn't like Larali, Phoenixia and Ketra—if anything, she was overjoyed to finally hang out with some girls who she actually had something in common with. Even so… none of them exactly fit the profile of 'rich gamer with vaults of cash to burn' that Michael was talking about, as far as she could tell.
"Well, it wasn't a huge pool…" Michael shook his head. "We did the best we could."
Lily clapped him on the back. "Cheer up, bro. If what I've seen so far is anything to go by, you could've picked literally anybody."
"You really think so?" he asked earnestly.
She smiled. "Just don't tell Mom I was nice to you. I've got a reputation to keep."
Michael laughed. "Deal."
"Come on, let's get out of here." Lily offered him a hand. Michael pulled himself up with her help, surprisingly light for how tall he was. Probably another elf thing… They hurried out the door and down the hill toward the crop field, just in time to catch the tail end of the conversation between Larali and Ketra.
"...it's basically like that…" said Larali slowly.
"This is the weirdest conversation I've ever had, okay?" She shrugged. "I don't mind, just… give me a bit."
"What's up?" asked Lily, taking a spot against the fence next to the pair.
"Comparing what it's like to be an elf and a human," said Larali. "She's trying to explain what having pointy ears feels like."
Lily glanced at Ketra. "What does it feel like?"
She smiled. "Exactly as it should."
Larali groaned. "You see how hard it is to hold a conversation with her?" she grumbled, rolling her eyes.
"I did it!" shouted Phoenixia, drawing their attention. She held the staff up into the air, her eyes gleaming. The girl took a deep breath, then thrust the staff straight up and let out a huge shout of exertion.
A lightning bolt shot out of the blue, straight down from the first moon in the ever-darkening sky. It struck the yellow crystal atop her staff and shot in every direction. A bolt narrowly missed Lily, sizzling into the fence between her and Larali with a loud crack of energy. A little pillar of smoke billowed out, twirling into the air with the scent of fresh-burned wood.
"...Oops," said Phoenixia. "My bad!"
Larali laughed it off, rushing over to hug her. "That was badass, Nixie! Do that again!"
"Don't," said Ketra sharply.
"Come on," said Lily, before Phoenixia ended up burning down the whole farmhouse. "Let's get going. It's getting dark."
"I thought you said we just needed to go east?" asked Lily.
"East-southeast," said Ketra.
"...So, like… halfway between the two?"
"I don't have a compass," she pointed out.
"Nor do I."
Lily rolled her eyes. "Why don't you take the lead?"
It was getting actually dark now. The sun had vanished completely, but there was still plenty of light reflecting off of the twin moons still hanging in the sky. The stars were coming out too, far more than Lily had ever seen in her whole life. She supposed it was because there weren't any city lights to blot them out anymore. If she squinted, she could even see the arm of the galaxy, a cloudy shape just barely visible behind the backdrop of twinkling lights, the only illumination still visible.
Unfortunately, the total lack of firelight also meant they still hadn't found Skyldr.
My legs are getting tired… We've been walking for hours, and we got into two fights. I need a real break soon. "Can elves see better at night?"
Okay, so they're not totally overpowered. "Still, you're probably better at this than I am."
"If you wish." Ketra plucked an arrow out of her quiver and placed it on her bowstring before setting off, while the rest of the group followed a few pace behind. After only a dozen meters or so, she stopped again.
"What?" Lily whispered, coming up next to her.
Ketra pointed silently, through the trees ahead. They could hear swords clanging off one another. A bright flash of light illuminated the whole forest for a moment, nearly blinding Lily with the bright green foliage before it faded away again, leaving spots on her eyes. She squinted, trying to make out anything through the trees.
"Looks to be."
Lily's hand went to the sword at her hip instinctively. "Are they coming this way?" We're not in a condition to fight right now. Nixie's been doing way too much magic already, even with her new staff, and I'm not at my best either. It's been a long day.
Lily was about to tell them to wait, to just let the fight pass them by. They'd get their bearings, figure out exactly where they were, and make their way to Skyldr. Maybe find a map or something, so she wouldn't get so lost in the future. She would have, except for the shout that echoed through the forest a second later.
"Shiro, flash them again!"
Another bright light lit up the forest, bathing them all in its glow for a split second. They'd found the other five of their group—Kevin's half. Lily couldn't resist. She had to see how they fought, and if possible, rub it in their faces how much better she'd done. She turned back to her own group.
"Anybody feel like crashing a party?"