"It's only a snow flurry," Betsy said and marched into the waiting area. As she passed Ken, she glanced sidewise at him. She stuck her calloused hands out around the potbelly stove and rubbed them together.
Harriet waddled around the front desk, grabbed Ken's arm and guided him into the waiting area. "This is Ken."
Betsy turned around and bowed slightly to Ken, who bowed back.
"Would you take him back with you to the Johnson's?" Harriet said.
"Yes, Mrs. Lawrence," Betsy said.
"But what about the work?" Ken said.
Harriet waved her hand. "Don't bother with it until after you get back," Harriet said and then leaned in close to his ear. "I won't come looking for you if you get lost." She winked at him.
Ken followed Betsy into the kitchen where she filled two boxes with manju sweets, a dozen each, and tied them up with a blue furoshiki cloth. By the time they were ready to leave the inn, the snow flurry had stopped. They didn't need their hoods. With only an occasional word of direction, Betsy led them on a winding path through the piles of snow and patches of black ice on the streets. They passed by a two-storied stone building with a huge metal sign above its double-door entrance identifying it as the city hall. The NPC townspeople had faded away like water seeping through the crevices of the stone buildings. Their boots slapping the puddles and smooth cobblestones echoed off the stone buildings and punctuated the silence.
Ken slipped on a pane of black ice. In a flash, Betsy stepped up beside him and, wrapping one arm around his waist, steadied him, her legs wide like a warrior's defensive stance.
"Thanks," he said, staring at her. The top of her head barely reached his shoulders, but underneath that trench coat was muscle sinew knitted together as tight as a bamboo forest.
"No problem," she said.
They resumed their short journey. After less than a mile out, they passed the last house. Then, the street rose and crested a hillock. He looked back out over the city. It was a mere village straddling the intersection of two major highways. They were heading northeast along the same road he'd come into town on. After Ken had looked at his own character sheet and said he was from Sakhalin Island, the messenger had fled like he'd seen a nightmare. To the north, a range of hills and thick woodlands paralleled the road. It could be an effective hiding spot for his future party.
The road was elevated and well-drained, its stones regular in size and laid down in a tight professional pattern. It was built to convey heavy loads as well as frequent traffic, but most important of all, it was built to last. Now that they were on the open road, Betsy sped up to a fast clip as though she was on a forced march, but she wasn't even breaking a sweat. On the other hand, Ken was breathing hard and falling behind. He brought up his attributes and saw his stamina had dropped by twenty-five percent.
She wasn't very talkative, but she was only an NPC servant after all. Nevertheless, what he needed was basic information and who better to ask than a lowly servant as long as it as part of her script. He sped up and caught up with her, pacing her on her right. "You know, I hope you don't think I'm trying to mock you or anything, but I had an accident in the mountains and I kind of lost some of my memories and I have a few questions about The White Imperium."
"Oh really?" Her eyes narrowed and she widened the distance between them, but maintained the same pace. "Where in the mountains?"
"I don't recall exactly, but three miles ahead I met a messenger on horseback."
"I see." Her body tensed. "Why do you want to meet Mr. Johnson? Are you looking for employment? Do you have any special skills in trading?" she said. She handed off the furoshiki to her left hand and her right hand disappeared into her trench coat pocket.
"There's a trading skill? What's its key attribute? REP?"
She narrowed her eyes and started to say something, but closed it again without saying a word.
That was dumb. Why did he keep making the same mistake? They're not players. "Uh, I need to find a trader that will take me over the Great Abyss and I heard Mr. Johnson entertains traders."
"The Great Abyss? But why?" She came to a complete stop. Her jaw dropped but then she quickly looked away.
"I have to start on the Empress's quest." He raised his fist in the air and forced his face into a show of stoicism.
Her eyes opened wide in surprise. "But why over there? I mean the shards aren't—I mean, it sounds terribly dangerous."
"The shards aren't what? Over there? Do you know anything about them?" He clasped his hands together. "Please tell me."
"What? A poor servant girl like me?" She pulled her hand holding a folded-up fan out of the coat pocket and covered her heart with them. "Good heavens, no. But everyone knows they're either in the Northern Wastes or in the Greater Southern Archipelago."
What's with the flirting? First, she's a docile NPC servant, then a helper NPC like Rob, and now a coquette. What was with that warrior stance too? Could she be one of those AI NPCs? Hey, I bet she could become a loyal sidekick. It happened to me once in the Three Kingdoms. Or she could be an NPC heroine in disguise, maybe even a legendary warrior. She could really save me.
She's heard one of the rumors the Empress spread, but the Northern Wastes... is that another rumor? "The shards, do you know—"
"Won't you tell me where you're from, I mean, really from?" She cocked her head and smiled, her eyes glistening.
"Yeah..." The last time, he'd said he was from Sakhalin, it had gone over like a lead balloon.
"Still can't remember? Well, wherever you're from, are they all strong like you?" She flipped the fan open and covered the bottom half of her face, her brown eyes shining over the fan's landscape of islands and purple clouds. Sharp tips at the ends of the fan's metal tines sparkled in the dim light. "You could easily protect a weak young thing like me."
He laughed. NPCs can hit on you now?
"Do you remember what kind of trade you were in?" Betsy said. "A tank, perhaps?"
"You know about tanks?" His heart jumped but he tried to remain calm. She could send a message! "You're not an adventurer, are you?"
"Me?" She tittered. "I'm just a lowly servant."
"Then how do you know?"
"Mr. Johnson has entertained many odd travelers seeking fame and fortune."
Disappointed but with his mood buoyed nonetheless, he smiled. Mr. Johnson could be his ticket across the Great Abyss.
"Unfortunately, not one has returned." She cast her gaze downwards at the muddy ground and sighed. Then she turned away and started walking again but not at her forced-march pace.
He wanted to ask her about the other players who had been to visit Mr. Johnson, but her mood had turned somber and he didn't want to intrude. He laughed at himself. What was he thinking? She was only an NPC.
After walking to the top of a gentle slope, Ken spied a large manor to the south at the end of a private road that branched off of the main one. They arrived at the backdoor of the manor and she rapped its thick wood. She turned her head around. "You know, Ken, sometimes, things aren't as they seem—even the Empress's quest."
Ken's eyes brightened at the mention of the quest. "About those travelers, when did the most recent one visit?"
"A week ago, but they... disappeared." She clasped her hands together in front of her.
"How do you know?" he said.
She bowed her head. "They were friends."
She's definitely an NPC sidekick! She's going to give me a quest now, a quest to find them. But I can't let myself get distracted from the Empress's quest.
"Did they go over the Great Abyss?"
Hold on, if I could find them, they could get me out. His heartbeat sped up. "Were they supposed to contact you?"
She looked down at her hands and twiddled her thumbs. "Yes, through our bindi." She pointed at the tiny ruby embedded between her eyebrows.
"Is that a magical item?" His mouth opened wide. "Oh, Qian had one. Do—"
The hinges squeaked as the door lurched open. A middle-aged woman filled the doorway with her massive build. "Hey there, Betsy, took you a right long while."
"Sorry, Mrs. Suzuki, I brought someone to see Mr. Johnson."
Mrs. Suzuki eyed Ken up and down. "Shorter than the last one, methinks, but it ain't none of my business."
Then, her arms akimbo, she turned to Betsy and scowled at her. "You should've properly taken him up through the front door. This here's the service entrance, if you've forgotten, girl."
"Sorry, Ma'am, yes, Ma'am," Betsy said and bowed. Her jaw was tight and her eyes shot daggers at Mrs. Suzuki.
"Don't just stand there like a stump, take him up, now."
Betsy grabbed Ken's wrist, raced past Mrs. Suzuki, and up the stairs.
"Phew! What a battleaxe," Ken said when they reached the top and began walking down the carpeted hallway.
"Ha, that bitch, I could fell her with one leg sweep," Betsy said. "And then I'd pound her with my bare—" She stopped and then looked sideways at him.
His lower jaw dropped.
She rushed ahead of him and stopped at a door about halfway down the hall. "You can wait here in the study." She opened it. I'll tell Mr. Johnson, you're here."
He could use her bindi to talk to other players. "But wait, aren't you going to offer me a quest to find your friends? And your bindi—"
She held a finger up to her lips and shushed him. "The walls have ears." Then she ran off back down the stairwell. He went in and sank down in a plush pastel purple sofa chair.
What a personality switch! I can't believe AI NPCs could be this complex and their facial reactions are so life-like. I mean, it's almost like I'm talking to a real warrior class player. I wonder how much cloud processing power they're leasing? But not every NPC is an AI NPC. Harriet and the messenger on horseback were both simple—especially the NPC townspeople. That's how they manage their cloud resources.
His throat was parched. He picked up a pitcher from the coffee table in front of him, poured water into a glass, and guzzled it down all at once. The floorboards creaked behind him. He turned around but no one was there. Ten feet of empty space separated him from the wall made of wood paneling with intricate paintings of heavenly deities riding kubi-kire-uma up into the swirling clouds of the deva heavens while in the narakas below them cackling demons tossed anchor-sized fishhooks into a stench-filled bitter river to catch the naked sinners bobbing up and down.
Soon enough, a man built like a sumo wrestler lumbered in.
They bowed to each other. Then the man reached out with a large hand.
"I'm Mr. Johnson, Calvin Johnson. Just call me, Calvin." Ken's hand disappeared in Calvin's gorilla grip. Short white hair stuck out of the cuffs of his long sleeve shirt and matted the back of his hands like carpets.
"Kenji Shibuyama. I go by Ken." He didn't know why he'd used his real name with Harriet, but it seemed like a solid idea because his name would show up in the logs. Then, he shuddered.
Calvin squeezed himself into a matching sofa chair opposite Ken. "I heard you're on the Quest for the Shards?" Calvin said in his deep bass voice.
"How in the world did you know?
"It's my job to know what goes on in this village."
"Then you'll also know I need to cross the Great Abyss. Do you know any merchants who are crossing it?" Ken said.
Calvin leaned forward, his hands on his knees. "Are you sure you want to do that? Cross the Great Abyss?"
Behind the intricate paintings of the deva heavens and narakas, the floorboards creaked.
Behind Calvin, from the crack in the door, sunlight glinted off of a shiny red object.
"Absolutely!" Ken pressed his lips together in a firm line and pumped his fist.
Calvin furrowed his brow and his crow's feet crinkled. The wrinkles in his leather-worn face sunk even deeper into his face. He took a deep breath in and then let it out. "There aren't many who're foolhardy enough to make that journey." His jowls sporting a full white beard bounced like a dog's. "The initial insertion into the current is treacherous."
"But you have to know someone." Ken grasped the arms of the chair and lifted himself partway out of the chair.
"You don't even know what an abyss is, do you?" Calvin's eyes bore into Ken's. "If you did, you wouldn't be so eager."
Ken's fingers dug into the plush arms. "Well, it's a deep... ocean? Like the Mariana Trench? I don't know, but it doesn't matter, I have to get across."
Calvin ran his stubby fingers through a mass of bright white hair and stood up. "You look like a right nice fellow, why don't you settle down here like I did. Lots of nice girls around."
"I've only got twenty-four days to complete the quest."
"I used to think the same things in my youth. I only have so much time, always in a rush. But as you establish yourself, things aren't so rushed and there's satisfaction in that. Now I have all these responsibilities, to my family, to my employees, to my city, I can't really give in to my spur of the moment desires and I think that's good. It gives one's life stability and meaning."
"I really appreciate all your sage advice, but, Sir—"
"Calvin, please call me Calvin."
"Right"—Ken gritted his teeth—"Calvin. I already do have a family and I'm going to do whatever it takes to win this quest and get back to them. So, I'll have to take my chances. When's the next trip?"
Calvin's face drooped and his shoulders hunched forward. "I understand, but it also makes me terribly, terribly sad." He rose up out of his chair like a great bear and stood straight. "The next trip is"—he raised his hand up in the air and let it fall like a flagman at a car race—"right now!"
Men in black, their faces hidden under balaclava, flooded out of secret panels in the walls behind Ken.
Shit! Ken leaped up and ran for the door. He twisted the doorknob this way and that, but it was locked. One of the men tackled him from behind. They rolled on the ground. Getting on top, Ken pummeled the man. Two others twisted Ken's arms behind him and dragged him off. Ken's shoulder joints cracked and he grimaced. Two more held onto his legs.
They tied him up.
He lay face down on the floor, his hands and ankles tied together behind his back.
"Please believe me when I say I wish I didn't have to do this," Calvin said.
Ken twisted his head to look up over his shoulder.
Calvin towered over Ken. "But the Blizzard Berserker King rules this territory with an iron fist and I have my own merchant business and employees to take care of."
"What the hell are you going to do with me?" Ken said.
"Orders are that any adventurers on the Empress's quest are to be executed."
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)