The second moon drifted across the clear blue sky as they walked, slowly dropping toward the horizon as the sun approached its peak. The fields south of Skyldr were wide, gentle rolling hills that lead straight to the edge of of the cliffs. Lily took a deep breath, realizing for the first time how thin the air was. She hadn't noticed it deep in the woods, but as they rose up over the hills and left the thick forests behind, it was pretty obvious.
"We're pretty high up, aren't we?" she asked.
Ketra nodded. She was walking beside Lily, as they traveled together down lonely dirt paths between overgrown farms that towered over either side. "Skyldr and the Haalfwood sit on a plateau. When we take the path down, we'll be near sea-level again."
"That's a huge drop," said Lily. "We've gotta be at least a kilometer up."
"That sounds about right." Ketra glanced at her, surprised. "How did you know that?"
"If I'm going to a tournament in person, I have a thing that helps me acclimate to the altitude ahead of time." Lily climbed up on a rotted fence post, trying to see over the crops. "Where are they?"
Ketra shrugged. "He just said to meet south of town. Maybe he meant all the way to the cliffs. I don't know of any other landmarks around here."
"Hang on…" Lily thumbed open her menu. The smoke billowed up through the reeds to float in front of her. She pressed through to the party screen.
"That won't tell you anything," said Ketra.
Lily's eyes narrowed. She looked back up her friend. "...Except it just told me you're wounded?"
Ketra shook her head, looking embarrassed again. "It's nothing."
"The game's telling me you're wounded." Lily hopped back down and walked over to Ketra. "What happened?"
"One of the bolts hit me," she said, still quite calm. Lily glanced over her, and she winced away. "Please, it's nothing."
Like hell it is… Lily grabbed the folds of her cloak and flung it wide. Ketra winced again, but didn't move. "Ketra, your sleeve is dripping!"
Ketra shied away, but she couldn't really hide it. More importantly, Lily saw a faint trail of red behind them, leading all the way back to Skyldr. She took Ketra's other hand, and the girl let herself be walked back to the fence post. After a few more moments of wincing and obvious pain, Ketra finally shrugged off her cloak.
"...That's deep," said Lily, as her stomach churned from the sight. She didn't normally have a problem with that sort of thing, but something about seeing such a cut on Ketra made her throat seize up.
"I barely felt it at the time." Ketra shrugged. "Adrenaline, I guess."
"Why haven't you just healed yourself yet?"
She shook her head. With a sigh, Ketra rested her arm straight out on the fence crossbeam, blinking a few times as she stared up into the sky. "Using healing magic on yourself's counterproductive. You're burning your own life energy to try and stave off a wound. If it's really bad, then it can stabilize you long enough to get help, but this isn't life-threatening."
There were two ways to do magic though… "But can't you also use—"
"No." Ketra spoke so firmly that Lily's mouth clamped shut of its own accord. "We have another option."
"You can heal me."
Lily blinked. "...Uhh… how, exactly?"
"I'm going to teach you." With her other hand, Ketra brushed her hair back over her ears, clearing her view. She reached for the pack on her side, but winced again. "Can you—"
Lily leaned forward and stuck her hand into the pouch strapped to her belt. She could feel all sorts of objects in it that she couldn't identify. Her hair smells really nice… Focus, Lily. Your friend's bleeding all over the grass here. "What am I looking for?"
"A little pendant shaped like a leaf."
Lily dug around until she found something that felt about right. She pulled it out—a pale gray pendant with a veiny leaf, hung on a plain leather cord. As soon as Lily touched it, she could feel it humming with some kind of energy, vibrating slightly as if it were playing music she couldn't hear.
She held it up, and Ketra nodded. "That's the one."
"So what do I do next?"
"You can feel it, right?" Lily nodded. "That's a flow of magic—an etolendei. There's a very simple healing spell contained in that stone." Ketra winced as she tried to point at it with her injured arm again. "Look at it and press your interact button."
"Your right hand, top gap."
Oh, okay. So there are more buttons. Lily looked at the stone and pressed as instructed. The stone lit up with a faint white glow. "Can you see that?" she asked.
Ketra nodded. "Press it again and you'll learn the spell."
Lily did. "So how does this—"
Her brain exploded.
Lily felt like she'd just been thrown off her feet, though her body hadn't moved an centimeter. She was struck with an overwhelming sense of vertigo, cast a thousand meters into the air before she slammed back into the ground again, safe in her own body. Her mind reeled from the impact, and she took a few shallow, harsh breaths before she could speak again.
"...Holy crap," she muttered.
Ketra smiled. "Pretty insane, isn't it?"
"I think Michael overdid it on the effects…" Lily glared at the stone, still feeling shook up by the experience. "I don't think it wor… whoah." As soon as she'd begun to doubt, Lily suddenly realized she knew exactly how to cast the healing spell—the gesture to use, the words to speak, everything. She knew it could repair basic surface-level wounds and the clothing on top, and she instinctively knew that to cast it in one way would use her own life essence, while the other would attract corruption into her body.
"And now you just have to use it on me," said Ketra. She shifted in her seat on the fencepost, clenching and unclenching her fist with a grimace. "Go on."
"Nixie said it didn't hurt," Lily reminded her.
"Nixie's also crazy," Ketra murmured. She closed her eyes as Lily crouched down next to her and took a deep breath. "I'm ready."
I really don't think this is that big of a deal… but whatever. Lily shrugged. She put her hand over top of Ketra's and began to murmur the spell. Her fingers twitched and curled in the pattern she'd learned—and as she did, Lily could feel a pinching sensation in her chest. It was like some massive hand had grabbed hold of her and begun to squeeze, slowly pushing air from her lungs. She could feel every heartbeat, every pulse of life pushing blood through her body.
At the same time, Ketra's arm began to knit itself back together, just as Nixie's had done. Lily felt like there was a little candle flame tickling her palm as she kept the spell going, a flickering warmth that moved along the bright red line in Ketra's arm. The wound sewed itself shut little by little, until it may as well have never existed, and Ketra's shirt sleeve followed suit. Within a few minutes, she was like new. It went precisely as expected—except for the giggling.
She's so… so cute! Didn't see that coming from the badass quiet assassin of the group. I just want to hug her! Lily smirked as Ketra tried desperately to hold it in, but the spell was obviously getting to her. A tiny peep, and she shut her eyes even tighter, but it kept going. Finally, just as the last part of her arm was closing up, Ketra let out a full squeal and twisted in place, though she'd wedged her arm into the fence in a way that it didn't move.
As Lily released the spell—to the gratitude of her lungs—Ketra hurriedly pulled her cloak back on and fastened it tight. Lily could practically feel the heat radiating from her face. "Thank you," she mumbled.
"Anytime," said Lily, now desperately holding back a chuckle. She didn't want to make her friend feel bad—but at the same time, it was incredibly difficult not to. "You good to move?"
They set off again, but it was only a few minutes later when Ketra suddenly whipped around, staring Lily directly in the face. She spoke with a tone so dead-serious, Lily would have assumed they were discussing a funeral.
This was the straw that broke her; Lily burst out laughing. For a second, Ketra seemed outright offended—but soon enough, her indignation melted into mirth. Lily threw an arm around her shoulders, just as Larali so often did. Together, they walked down the path to the south, toward the cliffs.
Lily gasped, gazing out over the edge of the cliff. The world stretched out before them, utterly dwarfing what she'd seen from the hills within the Haalfwood. "How big is this game?" she asked, glancing at Ketra, who'd taken a seat on a flat-topped rock and was relaxing on her back, her hood actually removed for once. Pale dagger-tip ears twitched in the breeze, and her face glowed in the warm light of the sun.
"Big enough that I've never visited more than half of it," Ketra replied. She sighed contentedly. "Now that I'm really here, I have to visit all my favorite places again."
"And do what?"
"Be there." Ketra cracked one eye open, glancing at Lily. "Do I need another reason?"
Lily shrugged. "I don't really travel much. Only for tournaments."
"You get to visit a lot of exotic places though."
"I get to visit their hotels," Lily corrected. "Then I fly right back home."
Ketra sighed. "That's a shame."
Lily took another long look out into the world—more specifically at the road ahead. A path curled around the cliffs near the lake, where a wide valley actually looked fairly passable, next to a huge waterfall that crashed down to form the river that was the centerpiece of the whole huge expanse. Down the river sat a bridge, and across that bridge…
"Is that a castle?" Lily asked, squinting.
Ketra sat up, looking around. "Hardly. I'd call that a fort, at best."
"...Okay, but still. Is that somewhere we want to go?"
"Maybe. It depends." Ketra laid back down again, stretching out like a cat on the sun-baked rock. "Michael needs someone he can trust to send the message to his coworker. We don't know who's in that list."
Lily slapped a hand to her forehead. She'd just thought up a trick and was eager to try it out. "If I can see updates on the party screen…" she muttered aloud. "Maybe I can get something on my broth—"
"It won't work," said Ketra, now irritatingly serene.
"Why not?" said Lily, closing the menu with a forlorn sigh. "It told me you were wounded."
"Because you were standing right next to me. It only updates if you're nearby."
"...So if my brother's dead, I wouldn't have any clue." Lily groaned. "What if they all died and had to start over?"
"Then we could be here a while."
Lily frowned. Well, okay then miss pessimist, if that's how we're gonna do things… She hopped up onto the rock next to Ketra.
"What are you—"
Lily plopped down next to her, laying back and closing her eyes as well. "Wow," she sighed.
She shifted slightly on the rock, adjusting her shirt so she could feel the hot stone directly on her back. It was still a bit sore from getting slammed back in Skyldr, and the sun-heated rock felt heavenly. "I was just going to mess with you, but this feels amazing."
Ketra tilted her head around to look at Lily. The rock wasn't particularly large, so they were only laying just a half-meter away from each other. "...Mess with me how?"
"Hadn't thought that far ahead." Lily glanced up at the sun. It stung her eyes just like usual, but… "Hey, I bet there's no sunburns in this."
"Mmmm…" Lily sighed again. "Okay… they can take a while if they want. I'm good here for now."
Ketra opened her mouth as if to say something, but nothing came out. After a few moments, she closed it again. They laid on the rock for a while, eyes closed, listening to the breeze flow over the cliffs, the birds chirping in the distance. At one point, Lily could have sworn she heard an eagle cry. She was fully aware how vulnerable they were, laying in the open, but she trusted Ketra to hear anyone approaching.
"Hey," she asked, after they'd been relaxing for a good thirty minutes or so in comfortable silence.
Lily's gamer brain had been ticking away, despite every attempt to relax and enjoy the moment. She couldn't help it; she was wired to try and win at all costs, with every tool she had at her disposal. That's how games work. The only rules are what the game allows you to do.
She had to break the moment, as too many questions weighed on her mind. "So if you can just remember spells and such after dying, doesn't that give a huge advantage to long-time players?"
"I guess so." Ketra popped one eye open, her serene smile fading slightly. "I don't really think of it in terms of advantages."
"Because it's not a game," Lily filled in. Ketra nodded. "But don't you still want everyone to start off fair?"
"Technically, we did." Ketra closed her eyes again. "Everybody started out with nothing. We just figured some things out over time, and got to keep those things." She opened her eyes and pointed up into the sky. Lily followed her gaze, and there circled a hawk, far above them. "Do you believe in a soul?"
Well, this got personal really quick… For the first time she could remember, though, Lily didn't mind. Maybe it was because she wasn't in her real body, or because she was talking to someone whose real name she didn't know, but Lily suddenly felt so much more open about herself than she ever had before. "Do you mean like… in real life?"
"I mean… I guess so." Lily cleared her throat. "I always figured that we didn't get to where we are now just from random evolution. But I don't really know anything besides that. It's never bothered me much."
Ketra let her hand fall back to the surface again. She hesitated before answering her own question. "I think, just like here in Avo, that we come back again and again. Every time, with a little more experience under our belt."
"So like… reincarnation, right?" Lily glanced up at the hawk again. "And if you do good things, you come back as a hawk?"
"No, nothing like that." Ketra shrugged. "I think it's as random as anything else in the universe. Sometimes you come back as what you were meant to be, and sometimes… you don't."
"And sometimes you come back as an elf with a cute laugh?" said Lily, nudging Ketra in the side with a smirk.
She blushed—but to Lily's surprise, she didn't move away. Instead, Ketra twisted over to lay on her side, facing Lily. "Lily, I—" She cut herself off, and blushed even harder.
Huh… she's never called me by my real name before… how did I get here? I've never even… I mean, not except for him. But… well yeah, I do like her. Maybe… but this is a game.
It's not to her.
Lily threw caution to the winds. She leaned forward, her heart beating faster with every millimeter.
Ketra's eyes widened, as she realized what was happening. She didn't move at all, and Lily slid just a little bit closer, until—
A white haze appeared between the two of them. Lily found herself suddenly unable to move any closer. She could only barely see Ketra through the other side, facing her own hazy screen of smoke that barred them.
She felt like a window pane had shattered, letting a cold burst of air flood between them. Lily moved back again, and the haze disappeared.
"...What was that?" she murmured.
Ketra looked utterly mortified. She pulled her hood back up, and Lily felt her heart sink. "Ketra, I—"
"It's okay." She shook her head. "I'm…" Ketra stood up, glancing around. "I'm gonna take a walk." She looked hurt—really hurt. Lily couldn't let her walk away.
"Ketra, wait!" Screw it. Lily leapt to her feet. Before Ketra could take two steps, Lily grabbed her by the hand. She could feel her heart pounding right into her throat as she opened her mouth, but couldn't stop herself from speaking. "You wanted… me to kiss you… right?"
Ketra's eyes went wide. She glanced around nervously, though of course, there wasn't a single person in sight. "I…"
Lily smiled nervously. "Let's… let's try that again, okay?"
"Wait." Ketra shook her head. Some color besides bright red finally returned to her face, along with an emotion other than sheer confusion. She looked serious, and her eyes were darting back toward the path they'd come in on. "Something's coming."
"...Not someone?" Lily asked. She scrambled back to the rock, picking up her blades from where they leaned against the side. Ketra drew her bow, picking up her quiver and notching an arrow.
"Not someone," she confirmed.
Lily crouched low behind the rock, while Ketra waited a few paces behind. They didn't have much cover available beyond that, and Lily didn't want to risk getting caught even more in the open. At least their little sunbathing rock was tall enough to duck behind. The wind—which had been so pleasant only minutes earlier—now seemed their enemy, shifting around the tall grass and reeds in a swaying mass of movement.
"...See anything?" she whispered.
"Sure you heard something?"
Ketra hesitated. "I… I thought so, but…"
Lily glanced over her shoulder. Ketra looked embarrassed, and not in the fun way like when Lily had been teasing her. Now she's doubting herself and feeling bad… this sucks. Did she make it up as a distraction? No, that doesn't sound like Ketra at all. Even though I've only known her for a day... "Hey…" Lily started.
A horrible clicking noise cut her off. Lily whipped around, and her eyes went wide as dinner plates.
It barrelled out of the fields. Eight legs pumped wildly in coordinated fashion, and a pair of pincers at the front glistened in the sun. Lily shuddered—she hated bugs, of all shapes and sizes. This wasn't any ordinary bug though; this was some freakish half-spider, half-man-spider, with a full humanoid torso growing right out of the center and sitting upright.
If Lily had hoped the thing would at least have a human body, she was sadly mistaken. The monster was no centaur—the upper half was covered in chitinous fibers, like a suit of natural black body armor. Its head was similarly pincered as its torso, with a mandible where a mouth would be. The only thing remotely human-like in its face were its beady eyes, but it had strange curved irises instead of round.
Worst of all, the spider-thing had a wickedly curved axe in its hands, and it was charging right at Lily.
"Vktrel?' Lily asked, leaping to her feet. No point in trying to be stealthy when the thing's charging right at me.
"Yes!" Ketra loosed an arrow, but the vktrel knocked it aside out of midair. That was insane. I don't think I can react that fast. Except… she had to, if she didn't want that axe stuck in her skull.
One more second… now!
Lily took a long step to the side, just as the vktrel was about to collide with her. It rumbled straight past—but if Lily was hoping it would just dive right off the cliff, she was sadly mistaken. The vktrel whipped around, barely losing any momentum. Eight legs skittering, it charged right for her again, axe raised high.
"C'm'here!" it shouted—in a voice that was distinctly male, if distorted and alien.
"...That thing can talk?" Lily asked, even as she twirled out of the way from his next charging attack. The spider monster learned quickly though. It slowed down just as Lily moved away, and took a swing with its axe.
Lily caught it with her sword. Heavy axe-head clanged with steel blade as she deflected it away. Lily tried to push it out wide, but the vktrel had her in raw arm strength, and the curved axe had her sword hooked tight. The axe started to slide back inward, and she didn't feel like she had enough balance to try and stab him with her dagger.
Okay, can't trick him into jumping off a cliff, can't break his guard with my sword. What do I— wait, where's Ketra?
Lily couldn't go backward, or she'd lose the contest and the axe would find her side. She couldn't move into it, and she certainly couldn't move away from it. The only option left was to drop to the ground and give up the advantage… or go forward, inside his guard. Larali, if this doesn't work, I blame you.
She went for it.
The vktrel's eyes widened—if that were even possible; they hardly seemed expressive compared to human or elf eyes—as Lily dove right at him, abandoning her sword entirely. He awkwardly tried to dart away, but Lily's left hand was already at his neck, sharp dagger blade pressed to his throat.
"Drop it," she growled. Man, I sure hope vktrel care about their necks as much as we do…
He froze. His legs stopped trying to skitter away. The axe fell with a soft thump onto the grass.
"Ketra?" Lily called, not daring to take her eyes off the thing for a moment.
"All good. I took out his friend." Ketra appeared in the corner of her vision, once again cleaning off an arrow.
Lily grinned. "How good are you with that bow?"
"I get by."
Lily turned back to the vktrel. "All right, spill it. Who are you and why'd you attack us?"
The guy shook his head, beady eyes refocusing rapidly with a strange eyelid that shrunk in from all directions, like a camera lens.
"He's not going to say anything," said Ketra. She walked up next to Lily and put her hand right on Lily's dagger wrist. "You can probably let him go."
"Hey," said Ketra, turning to the guy. "You going to do anything stupid if we let you go?"
He shrugged, which was a very strange humanizing gesture to see on such an off-putting monstrosity. "I'm not going to—"
A wet thunk. The vktrel twitched. It stumbled forward. Lily reacted just in time, pushing Ketra out of the way and dodging to the side herself as the thing collapsed to the ground. She twisted around to see a throwing dagger embedded in the back of the thing's skull—or whatever it was called.
"What the hell?"
Ketra glanced around. "...Avalynn." She pointed—and sure enough, the missing elf was standing just at the edge of the tall grass. As soon as they spotted her, she walked forward to join them.
"Why did you do that?" asked Lily. "He'd surrendered."
"Ala dou esusylas dur?" Avalynn smirked. She glanced at Ketra. "Eva dou halna sheves ta nal sekapar?"
Lily leaned down and snatched up her sword. She took a step toward Avalynn. "I swear I'm gonna stab something if you don't start speaking English."
"Avalynn," said Ketra sharply. She placed a hand on Lily's arm, stopping her approach. "Eva seves nara vktrelev tala?"
Avalynn shook her head. "Vei toldeka litev." She glanced over toward the cliffs. "Nylavec?"
"Nal atevus?" Ketra frowned. "Kavasii deka valensyl."
"Okay," said Lily, rounding on Ketra. "Would you please tell me what's going on?"
Ketra gestured down at the vktrel corpse at their feet. "These are both players. Vktrel guilds don't get along with most of the other guilds, especially the northern alliances. To see any this far north is… not good."
"And what did she say?" asked Lily, jerking her head at Avalynn, who was now picking through the body of the other vktrel.
"That she didn't know why they were here either, but that she thinks they might be scouts."
"Scouts for what?"
"Invasion," said Avalynn, glancing back up. She had plucked an insignia from the pocket of the other vktrel, and held it out. Lily, of course, didn't have a clue what it meant, but Ketra nodded in an unsettlingly grim way.
"So… on top of being trapped in this game, we're gonna be in the middle of a war?" Lily shook her head. "What does a war even look like in this?"
"Not very pretty." Ketra turned back to Avalynn. "Have you seen the others?"
Avalynn nodded. "Dellasii rav nara ralaev."
"They're going to the dale," said Ketra, gesturing toward the valley that marked the path down from the Skyldr plateau. "We should probably join them."
"Hang on," said Lily. "Avalynn, let me add you to the party."
The elf glanced at her, surprised. Avalynn's violet eyes—much harsher than Ketra's and without the soft glow that seemed to accompany her everywhere—narrowed, as if expecting a trick of some kind. "Why?"
"Because we need to work together," said Lily. Time to be nice, Lily. Persuade her she's gotta work with us. It'll make things easier in the long run, and it'll mean less trouble for Michael in the end… even if she's as nutty as a squirrel's nest. "You're an amazing fighter, and we need you if we're going to get out of this any time soon."
Avalynn hesitated, actually considering her words. For a moment, Lily thought she might have actually gotten through to the girl—right up until her eyes flicked over to Ketra. "Dena nal evv akonec?"
Ketra nodded. "Selnou."
Avalynn sighed, then turned to Lily and gave a single nod. Lily popped open her menu and scrolled through to the Party menu again. No sooner had the name shifted to Avalynn than it shifted back again. Avalynn turned and started to walk away, following the cliff's edge toward the dale.
Maladec sel nara Sylvec
"...Hang on," said Lily slowly. Avalynn stopped. Her foot tapped on the ground impatiently, and Lily knew she was doing it on purpose. "Your interface is in Elvish?"
Avalynn glanced over her shoulder at Ketra. The self-satisfied smirk had returned, with even more of an edge than before. "Dou sed onil e hosavel sekapar vacka atev nal dalv."
"Se develd, Avalynn," Ketra snapped. Lily could feel the frustration burning off her skin from more than a meter away. "Rav."
Avalynn marched away. Ketra took a deep breath, then began to follow, with Lily only a few steps behind. Lily kept quiet for a while, letting Ketra work through whatever feelings she was wrestling with. She didn't want to interrupt, particularly when she hadn't exactly worked through her own just yet.
So was I just caught up in the moment…? I mean, she's really cool, and she's really pretty. I could definitely see myself with her. Maybe I'm just crazy and overthinking this. Well, maybe everyone's crazy. It definitely fits the pattern so far.
If I'm not even going to stick around in her world for very long… I wouldn't want to do that to her.
"Hey, Ketra," she murmured. She wanted to stay quiet, so that Avalynn wouldn't hear—and to her relief, the elf didn't seem to react. If anything, Avalynn sped up, putting more distance between them along the cliff.
"Yeah?" said Ketra, just as quietly.
"...So, she was insulting the crap out of me, right?"
Lily grinned. "Anything good?"
"No." Ketra smiled. "Thanks."
"For what?" Lily raised an eyebrow. "You're the one she takes orders from."
"For… being you." Ketra blushed and turned away. "I'm sorry about before."
Lily shook her head, even though Ketra couldn't see it. The tall, thick grass tickled her legs as a few blades brushed just inside her pant legs. "For what?"
"For… you know."
"Inviting two giant spider monsters to our nice day out in the sun?"
"...Yeah." Ketra glanced back, just in time to see Lily wink. She smiled. "They're not good company. I should've known better."
I'll bring it up another time, Lily decided. After I figure this whole relationships in a virtual world thing out. I don't want to hurt her. Especially if she's literally an assassin after all— "Hey, wait a minute."
"...What?" asked Ketra, stopping in place. She seemed uncertain, but Lily didn't pay her any mind. Something else had leapt to the forefront of her brain—something off about the menu she'd just seen.
"Check your party screen."
Ketra did so without question, pulling up her menu. Lily stood next to her, leaning over her shoulder to watch as the menu popped up. Her hair really does smell ni— focus, Lily! As soon as the party list came up, Ketra scrolled down through it, one at a time. Lily stopped her when they reached the end, where Avalynn's details waited.
Lily pointed at the end of it, where the word 'Unbound' usually sat. She had no idea what the Elvish equivalent would be, but she knew it wasn't that.
Ketra frowned. "She bound herself to Masnas already."
"Yeah… how, exactly?"
Ketra gasped. She closed the menu and started walking again, hurrying to catch up with Avalynn. "She'd have to get in contact with them, and we don't have any operatives in this whole area. Which means—"
"Which means she can cast Message," Lily concluded.