"We're trapped?" Lily repeated anxiously.
Michael glanced down the hall. His expression wasn't exactly reassuring. If anything, he seemed as nervous as his sister.
"I can't be trapped in here," she went on. "I've got things to do. I need to get back to training. There's another tournament coming up next week."
"Liquin…" said Ketra quietly.
"Michael, you're joking, right?" She grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around. His face was pale, his lips pursed tight and his eyes wide. He shook his head, and she shook him. "This is a bad joke, bro."
"...Not joking, Lily," he mumbled. Ketra looked oddly calm about the whole situation, but maybe that was an elf thing too. Avalynn certainly hadn't seemed particularly upset. Then again… Simon and Michael were both playing elves, and they looked to be on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. Ketra wasn't doing anything to help, either, standing around silently while they began to panic.
Lily took a deep breath, and then another. She focused on her meditation exercise, the same one she used before every single match. Michael's freaking out, Simon's freaking out. Get it together Lily. She focused on wiggling her toes inside her boots, one after the other, just to remind herself they were still there. Okay, they're virtual, but good enough.
She let out another deep breath. "...Okay."
"Okay what?" asked Shirogane.
"Simon, go outside and try it again. Maybe it's something to do with the inn."
As he turned to leave, Michael added, "And don't tell anyone yet."
"Shouldn't we tell them?" asked Lily, while Shirogane hurried away. "I mean, we're safe, it's just a bug… right?" Her brother didn't answer right away. "Right?"
"Yeah," he replied, without a shred of conviction. His eyes were unfocused and dim.
Lily shook her head. She took her brother's hand, trying to snap him out of it. "Michael, it's me. It's Lily. Talk to me."
Michael shook his head, his blond hair flying around wildly as he did. "It's a bug, but… there's no other way to logout."
"What about the failsafe?" asked Lily. Keep asking him questions, keep him focused. "If the cradle runs out of stuff, we just get logged out, right?"
"All the ones we shipped out were loaded with about three weeks' worth," said Michael. "You and I have a couple months, at least." He glanced at Ketra, who had taken a spot behind Lily leaning against the wall. "Did you set it up exactly as instructed?"
"If we assume everybody else did too," Michael went on, "that's a long three weeks."
"And I have to stick it out for a couple months?" Lily snapped. "What the hell, Michael?"
"It's not like I wanted to get stuck here!" he shot back.
Ketra stepped between the two of them, raising her hands. "It's done. We must decide what to do next."
Lily closed her eyes and took another deep breath before opening them. "Yeah."
Michael sighed. "We'll need to find someone who can cast Message." He glanced at Ketra, who shook her head. "What about Nixie?"
"Doubtful," Ketra replied. "She seemed to have no experience with etola."
"Okay." He frowned.
"Isn't there like a GM help button or something?" asked Lily. "Summon the admins?"
"No. Nothing from ingame."
"So let's just find a player and get them to do it."
Michael shook his head again. He seemed like he was hiding something. Lily recognized the tell from all the board games they'd played.
"...Spill it, bro," said Lily. Michael glanced pointedly at Ketra, who'd stepped back to the wall again, but Lily shook her head. "She's cool, right?"
Ketra shrugged. "I figure I already know what he's about to say. It seemed painfully obvious." She glanced down the hallway before continuing, her voice low. "That agreement was suspiciously lacking in any certifications or approval from the HCA, the TAA, or the Office of Psychological Wellness." She paused. "I also noticed you signed it with the name of an attorney you haven't employed for several months."
"...This is what I get for inviting a lawyer," said Michael with a weak smile.
"Wait," said Lily, glancing ar Ketra. "You're a lawyer?"
"Yes," said Ketra, shrugging again. "I have to pay the bills somehow." She looked back to Michael expectantly.
"I'm breaking a ton of laws with this test," he admitted, "but I had to. There was no way we could afford the fees or the delays."
Ketra nodded. "But you did test it, right?"
"More thoroughly than anything I've ever written." He glanced at Lily. "If I'm going to let my own sister into this thing, you think I wouldn't make sure it was absolutely safe?"
Lily rolled her eyes. "Gee, thanks for letting me into a crazy death trap, Michael." Though… that is actually kinda nice of him to care that much. "Okay, back on topic," she added, just as Shirogane returned, shaking his head in dismay. "If we seriously can't logout, and we're stuck here until we figure something out… what do we do?"
"Get to a city and hire someone to cast Message," said Michael. "Or figure out how to do it ourselves."
"Nobody in Skyldr can?"
"Nobody I can trust." He frowned. "Come to think of it, there's not a whole lot of people I can trust in a random city either."
Lily rolled her eyes. "What are they gonna do? You're just calling a GM to log us out, right?"
Michael shook his head. "I'm calling a coworker to come meet us and help figure this out. GMs can't log people out. Right now, I don't have a clue how to get out."
"So let's get calling!"
Michael grabbed Lily by the wrist, much harder than he'd probably intended. He looked seriously terrified. "Lily, I could go to jail. For a long time."
Ketra stepped forward again. She placed her hand on Michael's, forcing him to release his grip on Lily. "If we can reach any of the cities bordering Atevusylvec, we can use a Masnas operative."
"You trust them?" asked Michael.
"I trust a few with my life, both inside Avo and out." Ketra let go of his hand, and Michael began to rub his wrist, as if it were sore. How tight did she grab him…? Jeez. "You just need to get in touch with one person and tell them what's going on, yes?"
"Yeah." Michael nodded. "I'll call Lucy, get her to the lab, and have her drain my cradle down to dry. That should log me out, and then I can come get the rest of you."
"And in the meantime?" asked Lily.
"In the meantime…" Michael shrugged. "Just enjoy Avo, I guess."
Lily and Ketra trailed the rest of the group as they wandered through the streets of an awake and lively Skyldr. The town was a bustling little place during the day, and Lily saw plenty to be interested in—if she weren't so preoccupied with their current predicament.
"How am I supposed to enjoy this now?" she grumbled aloud.
Ketra sighed. "Is it really so bad?"
Lily winced. She glanced over at Ketra, who seemed genuinely hurt by her whining. "...Sorry."
"I can't blame you for wanting to get back to your career."
"...Don't you have things you need to get back to?"
She shrugged. "Yes, but I'm not in any hurry."
Ahead of them, Shirogane argued with Michael and Manifold, presumably about the very same thing. Susanoo had vanished at some point during breakfast, as had Avalynn—and worse, the unpredictable elf knew what was going on. Lily still wasn't entirely sure they should be keeping it a secret, but she went along with her brother's decision for the moment.
Further up, Larali and Phoenixia were cruising through town without a care in the world. The duo had an infectious excitement that even managed to infect Lily way at the back. She chuckled as they bolted between vendors, trying everything they could get their hands on. As Lily glanced back, though, she saw a few merchants who seemed particularly pissed off by their passing.
"Are they paying for any of that…?" she asked aloud.
Ketra frowned. "No. That could be a problem."
"Well, if they cross the wrong merchant, and his employer finds out…"
Ketra nodded. "Most merchants are employed by a player to some capacity. They either act as middlemen, selling player loot from dungeons and quests, or they vend goods from player-owned lands. The Haalfwood can't be owned by anyone and Skyldr isn't worth conquering, but a few of the merchants might still be employed by Unbound."
"And if they find out…" Lily trailed off, with a burst of paranoia. She glanced around, suddenly fearful of the shadows leering behind every building, hiding potential threats within the overgrown alleys covered in grass, weeds and vines.
"We might be leaving Skyldr in a hurry," finished Ketra.
"...What does happen to you when you die?" asked Lily. "In game mechanics, I mean," she added quickly, seeing Ketra smirk slightly.
"You enter the void," Ketra replied. "Do you remember the character creation menu?"
"Yeah." Lily frowned. "So you just get booted back to that black screen? That's not so bad."
"Except that you're forced to wait there for at least thirty minutes. After that, you have to create a new character. You don't keep anything."
"That's harsh." Lily shook her head. "How can you guys ever get anything done if you lose it all just by dying once?"
"Through cooperation." Ketra smiled. "Like I said, there are a few here in Avo that I trust with my life. If I die here, they'll make sure that I'm taken care of. When I make it back, my friends will have what I lost."
"You don't lose everything," added Michael, who'd apparently been listening to the whole conversation. He dropped back to join them. "Knowledge is far more important than loot."
"Both are pretty damn useful," said Shirogane, falling back as well. Manifold trudged along behind them, looking as stressed and upset as he always did.
"What do you mean by knowledge?" asked Lily. "I didn't see a stat or anything."
"Actual knowledge, Liliquin," said Shirogane, not unkindly. He ruffled her hair with a grin. She rolled her eyes, pushing his hand away, and he went on. "To cast a spell, besides ingredients and energy and the usual crap, you also gotta know actually know it. You can pay people to teach it to you, or if you're a cheapskate, you can look it up online, but that's one bit that carries over between characters."
"...And none of you know something as useful as messaging?" asked Lily, dumbfounded. "Come on."
"It's crazy-valuable." Shirogane shrugged. "Everyone who's got it charges a ton of cash just to cast it even once."
"There's a whole network of them," added Michael. "The Avo Mail Service."
"...Nice name," said Lily, smirking.
"Yeah, I don't think the founder was very creative." He shrugged. "They're totally neutral though. A few of the biggest guilds in the game sponsor them, and because those guilds hate each other, the AMS doesn't get pulled too hard in either direction."
"We won't be using them though," said Ketra. "Masnas employs its own messengers."
"Right." Michael nodded. "We just need to get… halfway across the continent," he muttered, wiping his forehead with his hand.
"Hang on," said Lily. "If dying will just make us respawn… couldn't we just keep dying until we pop up somewhere closer?"
"One of the spawn points is near Atevusylvec," said Shirogane, glancing at Michael. "Why not?"
Michael shook his head. "I rigged it so we'd all spawn here, remember? If we die, we're gonna have to start all the way over—and that's assuming we can even find each other again."
"Great," muttered Lily. "You thought of everything."
"Look," said Michael, his voice rising. He was getting upset, and Lily right along with him. "I didn't want this to happen. I'm doing my be—"
"Larali!" Ketra shouted, interrupting them. "Above you!" Lily glanced up, not sure what to expect—and a moment later, she'd drawn her blades.
A couple dozen meters ahead, Larali and Phoenixia had been looking through a selection of cheap-looking jewelry. Larali spoke loud and fast to distract the merchant, while Phoenixia snuck away pieces, one or two at a time. It was working pretty well for them, and they'd actually pulled in a small haul without the merchant noticing a thing—but his guard had.
Larali looked straight up at Ketra's call. She stopped dead. Sitting on the edge of the rooftop above the merchant's little stall, a lightly armored soldier dangled his legs over the lip of the roof—and aimed a crossbow right at Phoenixia's little head. "Easy now, fire maiden," he drawled.
"An old west accent?" Lily hissed, while she and Ketra started to move forward very slowly. The rest of the village seemed to have frozen at the confrontation. If they moved any faster, they'd draw more attention to themselves. Both Michael and Shirogane were holding up their quarterstaffs, preparing whatever spells they might think useful. Manifold had ducked into an alleyway, cowering. Typical…
Ketra shrugged. "It gets the point across."
"But… immersion," she said mockingly.
"Real old English accents sound much stranger than that." Ketra ducked behind a short stairwell coming out of a smokehouse. "You have to make some adjustments to get the right feeling across. Better to make the right impression than to be strictly accurate to reality." Ketra shrugged, smiling slightly. "Besides, it's not the real world. Who says Avo doesn't have old west accents?"
Lily rolled her eyes. "Okay, whatever." She nodded up at the crossbowman, who was saying something to the merchant she couldn't quite hear. "What are we gonna do about him?"
"Depends on what Larali does next. She could just pay him off, or—" Ketra cut off, as Larali broke into a sprint down the road. Phoenixia followed a split-second later, as a crossbow bolt whistled through the space where her head had occupied a moment earlier. It landed in the dirt with a dull thud.
"Huh," said Lily, standing up straight. "I guess that works." She started to sheathe her blades.
Something slammed into Lily from the side, knocking the wind out of her. Out of nowhere, Ketra had thrown herself at Lily, sending them both tumbling into the dirt. Lily opened her mouth, confused, but her unspoken question was answered by another crossbow bolt flying overhead.
Ketra got to her feet, grabbing Lily by the hand and pulling her into the nearest alley. The man on the roof reloaded—and out of the corner of her eye, Lily spotted another man with a crossbow lining up for a shot further down the road.
"What did I do?" she asked breathlessly, leaning against the nearest wall while Ketra peered around the corner of the structure. She ducked back in as another crossbow bolt whistled down the way, embedding into the wood behind them.
"We're all in the same party," Ketra replied, in between calm, controlled breaths. "The Fated assume we were part of the theft, since we were so close by."
"That's some crappy A.I.," Lily grumbled.
"Doesn't matter now." Ketra took her hand and pulled her further into the dark alleyway. "Just run!"
They bolted down the twisting alley and into the next street. Lily was right on Ketra's heels, but they could hear a chorus of stomping boots just behind them, and they were getting louder.
"We're gonna have to fight," said Lily.
"We can make it," said Ketra, darting through a tight gap between two buildings. Lily followed, but her sword got caught on one of the walls. She had to back out and try again, holding it perpendicular to squeeze through. Ketra pushed out the other side, breathing hard. "Just need to get out to—"
Another crossbow bolt plinked off the stone wall in front of them. Ketra skidded to a halt. Lily had just emerged from the gap in the wall and nearly ran into her friend. She looked up, and the guard from the rooftop was staring down at them—more specifically at Ketra, whose hood had come off in the chase.
Ahead of them, three more enforcers waited: two with clubs, one with a cheap sword.
"Looks like we got ourselves a knife-ear!" cackled the crossbowman. He loaded another bolt and began to squeeze back the crank, preparing to fire again.
Lily groaned. She drew her blades. "Why play as an elf if everybody's gonna be racist?" she muttered.
"Why play as a girl if everyone's going to be sexist?" said Ketra, unslinging her bow from across her back.
'Cause anyone worth hanging out with isn't…? Oh. Duh. "...Okay, fair point."
The men on the ground didn't seem too eager to approach, and she had more than enough time before the crossbowman managed to reload. Ketra plucked an arrow from her quiver and took aim. "Let us go," she called back to the man on the roof, who seemed to be in charge.
"No can do. Y'all stole from the boss, y'all gotta pay the fine."
"Or we beat ya's," added one of the guys on the ground.
Lily raised an eyebrow, lifting her sword up pointedly. "Come and try it."
Apparently, that was enough to set them off. All three of the guys on the ground moved forward at the same time. The crossbowman twitched, readjusting his aim, and Ketra loosed her arrow. It sunk into the man's neck. He crumpled, dropping his weapon and clutching at the spurting wound. The crossbow clattered to the rooftop, useless. He collapsed a couple seconds later.
Not wasting a moment, Ketra grabbed another arrow, strung it and loosed again. Her next shot wasn't as well-aimed, but it caught one of the charging men in the shoulder. He shouted in pain and fell back, leaving Lily with only two to handle.
"Thanks!" said Lily. My turn. Just two guys? Let's show off a bit.
Lily took a step forward, right into their path. The guys, either too stupid or too committed, didn't change course in the slightest. They both swung their clubs for her head. If Lily got hit, her skull probably would have been crushed.
The clubs bounced off each other, and Lily darted forward with both blades extended. She sliced into the left guy's side, then twirled back around and stabbed the other man in the back. He crumpled, but the first man wasn't done. Despite bleeding heavily from the cut she'd put into him, his club came in, hard. Crap.
The club slammed Lily in the chest, tossing her into the wall. The guy was strong. Lily felt the impact in her bones, as she crashed heavily into the stone structure behind her. Pain shot up through her back, while the impact left her lungs gasping for air.
"No!" Ketra stepped in, an arrow in one hand and her bow in the other. The man whirled around to face her, charging yet again. Ketra sidestepped him easily.
She reached down and tripped the man as he went by with the tip of her bow. As he fell, she dropped on top of him—in a move eerily similar to Avalynn's from the night before—and plunged the arrow into the back of his neck. He struggled, but Ketra held him down until he laid still.
Lily got back to her feet, still winded. She limped over to the writhing final man of the group, the one Ketra had taken out with her first arrow, and put her sword to his throat.
"You guys done chasing us?" she grunted.
"Mercy!" he cried. "Mercy, milady!"
"Huh." Lily shrugged, and instantly regretted it as another small burst of pain rolled up through her back. "I've never been called milady before."
"I was just followin' orders!"
Lily glanced over at her friend, now cleaning blood off her hands. "What do you think, Ketra?"
"Up to you," said Ketra, unnervingly calm for what she'd just done with her bare hands.
"Any reason not to?"
"Well, does he deserve to die?"
What's that supposed to mean? It's a game. Lily frowned. "...He's just an NPC, isn't he?"
"Does it matter?"
Ketra walked over and plucked her arrow out of the man's shoulder, cleaning it off and replacing it in her quiver. "If this were just a game, then no: there's no reason not to. We're in this alleyway, totally alone, and your only witness is a friend. You're probably justified in it, too. They attacked us, after all. There's no game mechanic that will punish you."
"So… kill him."
Ketra shook her head. "Except he begged you for mercy."
"I did, milady!" said the man, nodding his head eagerly. He looked like he was on the verge of tears, and his hand was clutching the wound in his shoulder Ketra's arrow had so recently vacated. "I just want to go in peace."
"This is the difference between a game and a world," said Ketra. "If it's a game, who cares? But if this is a world… even if you're alone, with nobody around to see—are you the sort of person who kills simply out of convenience?"
"...Aren't you an assassin?" asked Lily, glancing up at her.
Ketra shrugged. "In a manner of speaking."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that if you want to kill him, I wouldn't think any less of you. In fact, I'd probably already have killed him, were I in your shoes."
"Gee, thanks." Lily rolled her eyes. "You made this a whole lot less complicated."
She looked back down at the guy, her sword still pressed against his throat. A little more pressure and she could cut it clean open… but did she want to? Like Ketra said, if this were a game, she wouldn't have hesitated for a second.
Except they really want it to be something more than that. It's the whole thing Michael's trying to sell. It's what they all fell in love with. If I just kill him, I'm just playing some really cool game, not trying to live a new life as…
"No wonder he thought Liquin was a dumb name," she mumbled aloud.
Ketra shook her head. A faint smile creased her lips. "It sounds like water, and you fight like a flowing river. It works."
"It's literally just my first and last names mashed together!" Lily protested.
Ketra shrugged. "Shirogane's is straight from an old anime. Avalynn took her last name from the novel series that the game's based on. Susanoo is the Japanese trickster god." She smirked, lavender eyes flashing with mirth. "Don't even get me started on 'Requiant Volavus' and 'Phoenixia Fireheart'."
"What's your point?"
"None of us are very creative." She shrugged. "But that doesn't matter, because we came here to get away from those uncreative people we used to be. We came here to live out a different life, one we choose for ourselves."
"...And I don't really want to be the kind of person who just murders people for no reason," concluded Lily. She lifted the sword off of the man's throat, and took a deep breath to clear her thoughts. "I got it."
"Thankee, milady!" The man started blubbering, tears streaming down his stubbled face. He clambered to his feet and stumbled away, sword abandoned, hand still clutched to his shoulder.
Lily tucked her blades back into her belt. She glanced over at Ketra, who was donning her hood once more. "Thanks for saving me back there."
"I'm the kind of person who never abandons her friends in their time of need," said Ketra with a smile. "It's a far sight better than helping companies find legal loopholes."
"Oh, so you are a horrible person," said Lily, grinning.
Ketra sighed, but Lily caught her hiding a smile. "Come on. We should head south."
"The rest of the world." Ketra draped her bow across her back and started down the road. "More importantly, that's where Michael told us to meet him."
"Yes." Ketra smirked. "Elf ears, remember?"
Lily shook her head, torn between exasperation and delight. She double-checked her belt to make sure it was secure, then followed her friend away and out of the town of Skyldr—heading south.