Lily and her band crept forward into the dark underbrush of the forest, toward the sound of clanging steel. She peered through the gaps, straining her eyes to see who was fighting ahead.
A torch swung like it was a pendulum, smacking against a broad steel shield. Requiant, dark hair and eyebrows barely visible in the torchlight, blocked a strike from a bandit. He shoved his shield back out at the man with a roar. The bandit stumbled backward, and Requiant didn't miss his opportunity. He thrust forward with his own sword. The bandit was impaled straight through the stomach.
Requiant kicked the bandit off his blade unceremoniously. The bandit fell to the ground, twitching, and Requiant spun around to seek another target.
"What do you want to do, Liquin?" asked Ketra, hovering by her shoulder.
Lily shook her head. "Let's just watch. It's their fight."
"I wanna see some more magic," said Phoenixia from above them.
Lily glanced up, surprised. "Nixie, how'd you get up there so fast?"
From the flickering torch abandoned in the middle of the clearing, Lily could just make out her cheerful grin. "I really like climbing."
Lily turned back to the fight. Requiant was now engaged with another bandit, but Lily was far more interested in the elf who'd just sprinted out of the woods behind him, long thin rapier in hand. Three different bandits chased him, each carrying swords and with murder in their eyes. The elf opened his mouth, and Lily heard the voice she'd grown to hate, though he spoke a word she didn't understand.
"Now," whispered Ketra in Lily's ear.
Lily raised an eyebrow. "Is he speaking Elvish?"
Since when does Kevin know Elvish…?
In the flickers of torchlight, a small object flew out of the trees and landed at the feet of the bandits. A cloud of thick smoke billowed into existence. Susanoo whipped around, locking his arm straight out.
The bandit made almost no sound as he impaled himself on Susanoo's rapier. He didn't hesitate, snatching his arm back again. The bandit fell off the blade, clutching his chest, and Susanoo spun around, rushing around to the side of the smoke cloud before the other two emerged. A second cloud appeared, directly in front of him.
"Over here!" he called, taunting the bandits. A roar of frustration, and the bandits rushed the noise, only to fall prey to the very same trick.
"Nice A.I," Lily muttered, as her brother winced.
Michael sighed. "They aren't really programmed for people who can maneuver this easily."
She grinned. As much as she hated to admit it, Kevin had found a good strategy and used it effectively. Lily had to concede him this one point. I bet I still got more loot though. I'm not losing the bet.
"Dos ones!" called a female voice Lily didn't recognize.
"One more," murmured Ketra.
"That was Avalynn?" Lily guessed. Ketra nodded.
"What?" Susanoo yelled, ducking the blade of the final bandit. The man had escaped the smoke clouds without falling victim to his rapier, and Susanoo couldn't exactly parry his sword with the thin, beaten-up old blade. If any of the bandit's swings struck true, the blade would almost certainly snap in half.
"Dos ones!" Avalynn repeated. Lily tried to figure out where she was, but even with the repeat calls, she couldn't find the girl anywhere. In the trees, probably… It's just too dark, that's all.
"I don't understand!"
Lily smirked. "So he doesn't actually speak Elvish. I knew it."
Ketra sighed. "You know, it's not called Elvish."
"Oh. Uhh… sorry." Lily winced. "So what's it called?"
"Duck!" hissed Phoenixia from up in her tree.
Lily threw herself flat to the ground, Ketra a millisecond behind her. A pale purple bolt of energy flew out of the trees across the clearing. It pelted across the field, missing the bandit by a centimeter, and straight through where Lily's head had been.
"Thanks, Nixie," she whispered, glancing up at the girl. Phoenixia gave her a thumbs up before turning back to watch the rest of the fight.
Shirogane walked out of the trees from where the bolt had appeared, staff raised up high. He fired another arcane bolt—another clear miss. Lily could just barely hear him muttering under his breath. At first, she assumed he was casting a spell, like Ketra had done, but when she listened more closely, her face got red.
Michael chuckled. Lily looked up over her shoulder at him, crouched behind a tree. "You heard him too?"
Her brother tapped his elf ears. "Yeah. Simon gets a pretty filthy mouth when he plays."
Lily wasn't exactly a stranger to such language—she played competitive video games for a living, she'd been called far worse (and called others much the same)—but to hear her old family friend curse like that was a new experience, for sure.
"Avalynn!" Susanoo shouted. He tried a stab at the last bandit, but the man managed to slap the blade aside. Susanoo winced, but the blade held true. "Is he the last one?"
"Kav'na do'vei danedas!" Avalynn replied, and Lily could hear her irritation even past the language barrier. "Dou kapar-basal!"
"That's what I said," whispered Ketra.
Lily twisted over a little to look at the elf's face, her chin scraping in the dirt as she did. "...And what was the second part?"
Ketra only smiled. "Nothing." Lily rolled her eyes, but the next move Kevin made shocked her.
Instead of trying to slip past the bandit's guard, as Lily would have done, Susanoo stepped back and lowered his rapier. The bandit seemed just as confused. His own blade quivered in place, hesitating for just a second—and that moment of hesitation was all it took.
An elf dropped out of the tree directly above the bandit. Her feet landed square on the back of his neck, and her short curved sword sliced it open before either hit the ground. They landed with a loud thump, blood seeping from his open throat into the forest floor, barely visible in the flickering orange torchlight.
Susanoo walked forward and offered his hand. Avalynn looked at it as if he were covered in mud. She got to her feet and pulled a small cloth from her bag, wiping away the blood from her blade. As soon as she'd finished, she sheathed it and walked away, muttering something under her breath. Lily had no doubt it was as rude as whatever Ketra had refused to translate.
Susanoo shrugged, glancing around. "All good?" he asked Shirogane.
The older man nodded. "Took out the other guy back in the woods. I got his stuff, if we want to split it up when we get to town."
"Sure." Susanoo raised his voice. "Requiant! You find the dev yet?"
"Yeah!" Requiant walked back into the firelight, a very uncomfortable-looking Manifold at his heels. Her brother's coworker winced at the sight of the corpses scattered around the clearing. Requiant stared at him. "What? They're just bodies."
"I don't do fights," he muttered. "And… they smell."
Lily sniffed the air. She didn't smell anything besides the forest, but then again, she wasn't very close to them.
"Well," said Requiant. "It's really hard to protect you if you just run away."
"I like crafting, okay?" He shook his head. "You guys can do all the fighting."
Susanoo put a hand on his shoulder. "It's fine, man. You want any of the loot? Plenty to go around."
Manifold shook his head. "I don't want anything."
He shrugged. "Suit yourself."
Lily was about to get up and reveal herself—if only to taunt Kevin that she'd been there the whole time—but a cold flat piece of metal fell on the back of her neck. Lily froze. She could feel the edge of the blade on her skin. From the size (and the only person missing from the group), Avalynn had found them.
The voice, so close to her ear she could feel the girl's breath, was genuinely terrifying. Lily didn't dare move an inch. At the sudden sound, Ketra scrambled up next to her, one hand going to the bow on her back. Lily heard a rustling above her, but she couldn't tell if it was Phoenixia or not.
"Onyl atel," Avalynn repeated, more firmly.
"What's she saying?" Lily hissed.
"Get up," said Ketra, frozen in place as well.
"Well, why didn't she just say that?"
"Because she's insane?" suggested Larali.
Lily rose to her hands and knees, making very sure she didn't move a hand toward the blades tucked into her belt. Another slow, careful movement, and she was on her feet, with the blade still attached to her throat.
"Dov to kaparev tolal onalal suuni?"
"Uhh…" said Lily, risking a glance at Ketra. Her friend was still frozen in place, watching Avalynn carefully.
The blade twitched. Lily grimaced, but it hadn't dug any closer into her skin. Avalynn had just turned to look at Ketra. "Danenavi sena nara kaparev."
"She asked why we were watching them," said Ketra.
"We just got here," Lily protested.
Ketra shrugged. "Suuna seves onalal sena olem."
"Avalynn?" called Susanoo, who'd finally noticed what was going on at the edge of the firelight. His eyes went wide. "...What the hell?"
"Could you get her off me?" Lily snapped. The blade pressed a little closer, cold steel threatening to cut into her skin.
Susanoo shook his head. "I've known her as long as you have, Lily."
"You guys just had that sweet combo!" Lily shot back. "Come on!" Don't you dare hang me out to dry just because of our history, Kevin.
"I don't speak Elvish!"
"What, does she not speak English?" How crazy is this girl? Lily tried to look at her brother, as far as she could without turning her head. "Michael, did you vet these people at all?"
Ketra winced again. Her hand left her bow in a conciliatory gesture. "Avalynn Sylvela. Pelas dousii volek."
"Sena dou, hila sel masasylec?" Avalynn spat. Lily flinched at the actual liquid that landed on the back of her neck.
"Are you kidding me?" she groaned.
Ketra shook her head. "Osyl, Avalynn. Nal se sed nara polec. Suuni dels della senesteka."
Avalynn hesitated. The blade hadn't moved, still weighing down on her neck. Lily sighed. "Just kill me now, I'll walk the whole way back."
The blade lifted away a moment later. Lily immediately triple-stepped forward, out of Avalynn's reach. She spun around and drew her blades. Avalynn hadn't sheathed hers, either.
Lily gripped her sword tight, waiting for the elf to make the first move. "All right. Can someone please explain to the crazy girl that this is a game?"
"She knows," said Michael, walking between them and holding up his hands. "She just plays it differently than you do."
"Aren't we on the same team?"
"Dou mysuv vei seves," said Avalynn, smirking.
"Daned linguen, Avalynn," said Ketra, standing up tall with a glare so fierce, Lily would have cowered if Ketra weren't firmly on her side. "Kavasii e akonec."
Avalynn looked at her, eyes narrowed. "Dasa—"
"Nom dena nara masasylec?" said Ketra. Avalynn reacted as if she'd been slapped. Her sword went straight into its little sheath, and the sheath onto her belt. Ketra's voice softened. "Desve nara sylajen daned linguen. Dou se evys."
Avalynn nodded. Lily sighed, letting herself relax finally. She tucked her sword and dagger back into her belt, waiting for the girl to offer an apology or something. Of course, Avalynn did nothing of the sort.
Instead, she turned to Susanoo. "We should go," she said abruptly, the first words of English Lily had ever heard from her. Without waiting for a response, she stormed off. She still moved as gracefully as always, even beyond what Ketra managed, but Lily could tell how pissed off she was.
"Okay, what just happened?" asked Lily, looking around at Ketra. Her heart was still pounding from the encounter, and the cold night air suddenly felt far more welcome on her skin.
Ketra shrugged. "I reminded her what was important."
"...Are you always going to be this cryptic?"
"You get used to it," said Larali with a shrug.
Ketra smiled, but didn't reply.
Their reunion as a full group meant they were finally back on track. Between Avalynn and Ketra (in a conversation that Lily didn't understand a single word of), they settled on a direction that both sounded fairly confident in. Sure enough, they saw the lights of the village ahead only a few minutes later. Lily was surprised how fast it snuck up on them, in fact—they'd been so close the whole time, without seeing a single lamp.
"We could've stumbled around the forest for days and never found it," said Larali, after Lily said it aloud.
"The forest claims the unprepared," said Avalynn waspishly.
Lily rolled her eyes. "I changed my mind. Can you make her speak Elvish again?"
"Anasil, kapar," she said, smirking. Without another word, she hurried up to the front of the group, joining Ketra and Phoenixia.
"What a psycho…" said Larali.
Lily laughed. "Glad I'm not the only one."
"You really aren't," said Michael, catching up to them.
"You invited her," Lily reminded him.
He shrugged. "I'm sworn to secrecy. But seriously, based on her profile, I really didn't expect something like that."
Larali glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. "You know all our profiles, then?"
"Well, as much as you put into your account info, plus your shipping address for the cradle." Michael smirked. "Don't worry. Your secret's safe with me."
"Secret?" asked Lily, glancing at Larali with interest. "You've got a secret?"
Larali glared at Michael. "No, I don't."
Michael whistled and walked away, grinning in spite of himself, but his casual revelation didn't sit well with her. Sure, Lily's life wasn't a secret to anyone in the whole group (and Kevin knew more than the rest of them combined…) but she didn't begrudge the others in wanting a little privacy. If they really were the type to play Avo, the kind that wanted to live a new life, it was no wonder they'd insist on a confidentiality agreement to join this test.
"Sorry for my brother," said Lily quietly.
"Huh?" Larali shook her head. "It's cool. I know he's just messing around. Michael's never made even the slightest hint about who I am, and he's got a lot of incentive to. I've seen the financial stuff about MVG. They're really not doing well, are they?"
"Well… yeah," said Lily. "That's why I'm here."
"Me too." Larali smiled. "If this goes well—and right now that's looking like a solid 'hell yeah'—I'm going to do everything I can to make sure it gets huge. They earned it."
"I do, by the way," Larali added, blushing slightly.
"Have a secret." She sighed, taking a deep breath.
Lily wrapped an arm around Larali's much larger forearm, linking at the elbows. "No need, right? You're Larali, and I'm Liquin. We're just here to have adventures, fight things, and get sweet gear."
"Hell yeah," said Larali, grinning. "And drink."
"And drink," agreed Lily. "Well… okay, confession time?"
"...No…" Larali gasped. She unlinked her arm from Lily's and grabbed her by both shoulders. "You've never had a drink before?" she bellowed.
The entire party stopped in its tracks. The others turned around, and both Avalynn and Phoenixia had put hands to blades just in case.
"...No?" said Lily meekly.
Larali shook his head in disgust. "That's just sad."
The others burst into laughter. Avalynn turned back to the path, but Phoenixia bounded back to them, fiery hair bouncing all the way. "Even I've gone out drinking," she said, shaking her head in earnest disappointment.
"Well, good for you," Lily mumbled. Her cheeks flared up bright red. Thanks again, bro, for making embarrassment a thing in this. Really great stuff. "I… never had anyone to go with."
Larali's disgust turned to compassion so fast, it gave Lily whiplash. She smiled, and threw an arm around Lily's shoulders, hugging her tight to her side. "Well, girl, we're about to change that."
"Do they even have good drinks in Skyldr?" asked Phoenixia.
"Hell no!" said Larali. "But that's perfect. We start her off at the bottom and she gets to work her way up to the really good stuff."
"Nixie, I've never done this before either," Larali pointed out, rolling her eyes. "Who knows what the best-tasting alcohol in Avo is?"
Lily gulped. "So what you're saying is—"
"I'm saying," said Larali, rubbing her hands together eagerly, "we're gonna go try 'em all."
The two of them cackled in unison. Lily shook her head, amused. She took the opportunity to duck away as they began listing off all the places they wanted to visit first, planning out their whole insane drinking tour of the continent.
Lily had noticed that Susanoo was walking alone, off to the side of the group, and wanted the chance to talk to him without anyone else snooping. Her brother was busy talking to Manifold, presumably something technical about the test. Ketra and Avalynn were leading the group, jabbering away in Elvish, while Requiant and Shirogane followed not far behind, arguing about some other game from the real world. Susanoo didn't have anyone.
"Hey," she said, catching up to him. Kevin glanced up, surprised. He'd been examining his rapier from every angle, twirling it experimentally.
"Balance is all weird," he commented.
She nodded. "Mine too. I guess weighted interface gloves aren't good enough to match the real thing."
Kevin smirked. "Or your brother programmed it wrong."
Lily frowned. "I'm sure he didn't."
"Easy, Tiger. I didn't mean to cast doubt on his miracle worker status." He sheathed the rapier with a smooth motion. Lily's eyes followed his thick, strong muscles all the way down, lingering on his well-toned chest for a moment. God… If it were anyone else…
"Yeah," she said absentmindedly.
"I'm up here."
She jumped, and once again cursed her brother under her breath as her face lit up. "Look, I—"
"What did you want to talk about?"
Lily blinked. She scrambled to gather her thoughts. Kevin waited, walking forward next to her without seeming impatient in the slightest. "...You and Avalynn already worked out a combo," she said blandly, for lack of a better topic.
He shrugged. "She's got smoke, I've got feints. It wasn't exactly the hardest thing to work out. What about you?"
Lily shook her head. "I'm still trying to figure out how to fight using my whole body."
Kevin grinned. "No kidding. This is way different than Riposte."
"Speaking of which—"
"Oh, you're not still on that, are you?" Kevin groaned. "Look, it was a bug."
Lily glowered at him. "I wasn't, but since you brought it up—"
"I didn't know!"
"As if." She ratcheted her glare up a notch. He knew, and he exploited the hell out of it. "Seriously, that wasn't what I was going to say."
He winced. "...Well, what were you gonna say?"
"You're…" Lily glanced around. "You aren't going to say anything, are you?"
"You know about what," she snapped. "About…" Don't make me say it, damnit. Ugh.
Kevin shrugged. "Who am I gonna tell?"
He rolled his eyes. "Why would I tell someone?" A weird look passed over his face. "...Wait… Don't tell me you're…" Kevin glanced back up at the group. "Is it the huge chick? Seriously, is it her?"
Lily stared at him, dumbfounded. "What?"
"I mean, she's pretty hot," he added. "Well, then again, so's Ketra. Avalynn too, if you're cool with crazy." Kevin grinned. "Lily, you're pretty crazy too, you know."
"God, you're gross." Lily shook her head, stomping forward into the forest. "I just remembered why I hate you."
"Lily," he called after her. "Lily, come on, I was just joking."
She ignored him, but his longer legs let him catch up in no time. "Why?" she asked, as soon as he was in line with her again.
"Just… why?" I've always wanted to know, and you were always too much of a jerk to ever really explain it.
Kevin frowned. "I mean… you know why."
"Kev, you moron," she snapped, "if I knew why, would I be asking you?"
Lily rushed away again, too annoyed to hear another word from him. She hurried forward to the two elves at the front, eager to see the town, where she could finally lay down and get some rest. Hopefully they had an inn with actual beds, or at least some comfy chairs.
Wait, what the hell am I thinking? I need to log out. Go sleep in my real bed, with real sheets and pillows and everything. I don't want to sleep in some ratty old medieval inn.
"Hi, Liquin," said Ketra, as Lily reached the pair of them. Avalynn shot her a cold glare, but that was practically a friendly wave on the scale of Avalynn-interactions she'd had so far.
"How long until we get to Skyldr?" Lily asked, sounding as exhausted as she felt.
"Should be just a twenty minute walk from here." Ketra pointed through the trees, where Lily could see the lights of the village growing steadily larger. Lamps set in windows, and lanterns hanging over the streets, covering a mix of thatched and tiled roofs scattered in a loose collection. The town bordered a huge lake, and a couple small piers extending out over the water, which reflected the twin moons chasing each other across the sky.
"You okay?" Ketra added, glancing at her.
"Suuni peveldas dou kos," said Avalynn.
"We heard you two," translated Ketra, shooting her companion a glare of her own. Avalynn flicked her head in a smug way, braids twirling through the air as she did, and turned back toward the trail.
"Oh… Right. Elf-ears, yeah?"
"Yes." Lily frowned. "Wait, so that means you heard—"
"Selnou," said Avalynn. "Dur daned anala e kapavas."
"Yeah, we did," said Ketra. "She said he speaks like a fool."
"Dou sed tol hosavel atev dur," Avalynn added.
"...She said you can do better than him." Ketra frowned. "Does she mean—"
"Nothing," Lily interrupted.
Ketra glanced at her, but after no further explanation, simply shrugged and turned back to the path. Avalynn shot Lily a knowing smirk, but didn't say anything else.
"I thought you were speaking English now," said Lily pointedly, glaring back at her.
"Only when I must," Avalynn shot back, not missing a beat.
"Ketra," said Lily, "please tell me most elves aren't like her."
"Not that I've met," said Ketra. "Most players don't get that into it."
"Della helves kelsy velsevelev," said Avalynn. She walked ahead into the open field, straight down the wide expanse of meadow between the farm fields toward the outskirts of Skyldr.
"That was another insult, wasn't it?" asked Lily.
"...Kind of." Ketra shrugged.
"You think she's crazy, don't you?"
Ketra didn't answer right away. They walked for another few minutes, following the faint outline of Avalynn through the dark, while the rest of the group emerged from the forest behind them. Finally, Ketra spoke again, her voice very quiet. "I think she's the only one who really understands what's possible here."
Ketra sighed. "In some ways, yes, I think she's crazy. But… I'm also jealous of her."
Lily didn't get a chance to ask anything else, as Larali thundered up between the two of them, Phoenixia mounted on her shoulders once again. "Race you guys to the nearest tavern!" she shouted, while Phoenixia giggled like mad.
Ketra rolled her eyes, grinning. "I'm jealous of her, too, you know."
Lily laughed. "Yeah, so am I." I wish I knew how to have fun like that.
"Enjoying the world, sestra?" called Michael, finally catching up to the pair of them.
"Sheesh, how slow were we walking?" asked Lily.
Ketra shrugged. "I was enjoying it."
"Yeah, Michael, you've made your point," Lily said, as her brother joined her. Manifold, Requiant and Susanoo passed them by, following Larali into town. Ahead, Lily could see a few other people milling about. Judging by their full movements and lack of stiffness, none of them were players.
"What point was that?"
"People could live here, it's not just a game, this is a real world, blah blah blah. Whatever point you want." Lily sighed. "Just let me go get some sleep already, sheesh."
Michael grinned. "You know, you aren't actually sleepy. It's just the fatigue system, and your brain—"
"My brain makes it feel real, yeah," Lily finished. "So if I die, does my brain make that real, too?" she added sarcastically.
"No, of course not." Michael frowned. "That's crazy."
"Ever tested it?"
"Yeah, lots of times." Michael shuddered. "It's definitely not pleasant, but that's the point, right?"
"Yes," said Ketra.
Lily shook her head. "I still think you guys are all insane."
"How have you died?" asked Ketra. Well, that's a question you don't expect to hear every day…
"Well," said Michael eagerly, "I've been stabbed a couple times, crushed by a boulder, fell into a volcano, hit by lightning until I exploded, all sorts of fun things. I got beheaded once by Masnas."
"For what?" Ketra asked sharply.
"Trying to burn down a forest," he smirked. "I was trying to piss them off."
Ketra nodded. "That would do it."
"I got eaten by a dragon once too. Hey Lily, want to get eaten by a dragon?"
"...Wouldn't that take forever?" Lily asked, after getting past a brief moment of revulsion.
"Nah, we made dragons digest things really quickly. You're only in the stomach for a minute at most. Very fast."
"Like I said," Lily sighed, "you're all insane."
Michael cackled. "Come on, sestra. I want to show you my favorite place in town."
"Okay, but after that, I'm logging out for a while."
"You are?" asked Ketra. She sounded oddly hurt by the announcement.
Lily turned to her, feeling a bit awkward. "Just for a while… I want to take a break, check my messages, get a bite to eat, maybe take a nap. You know, life things."
"The cradle handles most of that, you know," said Michael. "I checked yours. You should be just fine. If you aren't, it'll log you out automatically when the supplies get low."
"What's it like to sleep here?" asked Ketra, actually eager for once. Her lavender eyes sparkled with excitement.
Michael smiled contentedly. "It's amazing." His smile curled into a smirk. "I mean, after you get past the crappy beds and the cheap inn. If you can get to one of the real cities though, with enchanted beds that always give the perfect night's sleep?" He sighed. "It's incredible."
Ketra smiled. "I look forward to it."
Michael turned back to his sister. "Just try it, okay? Trust me, it's worth it. No pollution, no city noise, no air filters, no riots, and definitely no neighbors on the next floor banging on the ceiling all night. You'll love it."
Lily rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay, fine. I'll stick around." She hurried past them, entering the town proper. "Come on."
"Where are you going?" asked Michael.
"If I'm sticking around," said Lily, throwing him a smirk over her shoulder, "and Larali's at the tavern already… how much damage you wanna bet she's done already?"
Ketra smiled. "Let's find out."