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We kept walking until we hit a main thoroughfare. It was a wider road, at least, though it looked like we were still in the medieval fantasy equivalent of housing.

“I wonder if this is player housing or NPC stuff,” I said.

“No clue,” Kristoph said. “We could break into a couple of places and see what the guards have to say about it.”

I found myself actually considering it even though it was a terrible idea. The sun was overhead, after all, and if my experience in other video games had taught me anything it was that breaking into houses in broad daylight wasn’t a great idea.

Even if it would provide me with a lot of information about the game. I figured it was also a good way to gather a lot of information about just how pointy some of the guard’s weapons were, and how sensitive the pain tolerances were with that dial turned down.

“I have a feeling we’re playing with fire if we do something like that in the middle of the day,” I said.

“Maybe, but maybe not,” Kristoph said, his finger idly running up and down the length of his starter hammer. Like he was calculating how much force he’d have to apply to one of those flimsy doors to really fuck them up.

“You can’t seriously be considering this,” I said.

“I mean maybe?” he said. “This game is supposed to be a playground for us. So why not have some fun and push at the edges? I thought that’s the kind of shit you liked doing?”

“Yeah, but I also don’t like the idea of being turned into a pincushion,” I said. “If we’re gonna do something like that we should at least wait for night.”

Not that I thought it was a great idea even after dark. I wanted to get a feel for this town before we went breaking in-game laws. Not to mention there was still that nagging voice telling me that treating the very realistic NPCs like they were props in an amusement park was somehow wrong considering how lifelike they were.

That nagging voice was going to push me into doing something very stupid if it kept up.

“Come on,” I said, eager to get a move on before Kristoph followed through on the high impact lock picking method he was no doubt thinking of pioneering. “You were never big on stealth characters to begin with. Even if you manage to get in you’re going to draw the attention of every guard between hear and the other edge of town. Especially next to a main road like this.”

“You’re right,” Kristoph said. “So what are we going to do?”

“Check out the town,” I said. “See what there is to see. Not break anything or break into anything until we have a better idea of what the consequences are for doing something like that.”

“And hope we don’t run into those assholes again,” Kristoph muttered. “They’re out there somewhere.”

I worried about that, but it couldn’t bother me too much as I stared at our impressive surroundings. I was still in that stage a lot of people went through when they're looking at an impressive new videogame on impressive new hardware for the first time. The stage where just about any shovelware would sell as long as it was a suitable showcase for the fancy new hardware’s capabilities.

Basically what Horizon had been doing with their Lotus modules for the past year or so since the hardware launched without a first party AAA title to draw people in. Though to be fair the Lotus game was anything but shovelware now that it was out, and it was way more than a pretty hardware demonstration.

Looking around also saddened me just a little, because as I looked at the digital world around me I knew this would be the last time I ever looked at a new game being generated by a new piece of hardware with that sense of awe and astonishment.

They'd made this look so close to reality that there was no way I was ever going to find something that rivaled this experience. Humanity had finally peaked in terms of the game graphics arms race.

I stepped onto the main thoroughfare and followed the noise. I figured where there was noise there’d be players, and as we walked on more and more players gathered around us.

Yeah, there was definitely something interesting up ahead.

Occasionally an airship would buzz overhead and drown out the noise, but it wasn’t all that difficult to follow my ears even with those things floating overhead making an odd hum that wasn’t quite the same as an old prop airplane, but similar enough that it was evocative of old images from the first couple of world wars.

Some sound design person probably took the sound of an old prop plane and warped it just enough in whatever software they were using that it sounded similar without being a straight copy and paste.

“Boy I’d like to have on of those babies,” Kristoph said, looking at the latest one flying overhead.

We passed by a small park with what looked like the remains of a statue in the center. I couldn’t make out what the statue had been, but clearly someone had been busy vandalizing the local statuary.

Not that I gave that much thought. No, the park and the break in the buildings it provided meant I could see a massive tower off in the distance that was surrounded by a couple of those airships. They seemed to be arriving and leaving on a pretty regular schedule, and I figured that meant they were exactly what they seemed. Transport to other parts of the game world.

It was nice to know that we could get the hell out of this place if it turned out those assholes were more than we could handle. Not that I was too worried.

“I wouldn’t mind having one of those either,” I said. “Can you imagine hunting someone down on one of thoe babies?”

“I can,” Kristoph said, in a tone that said he was imagining it as he said it. “But it’s not like we’re gonna be able to do anything like that.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“This game is a fantasy setting,” he said. “I haven’t seen any steampunk shit yet, and those things definitely aren’t running on engines. They’re not gonna give players flying ships like that.”

“I don’t know,” I said, staring longingly at the tower. This game seemed to give players a lot of leeway to play how they wanted. Sure I didn’t know much about the crafting system yet, but what I’d seen so far was encouraging.

Maybe I would be able to tool around on my own badass airship someday, even if that day wasn’t today.

“Let’s go towards the noise,” I said, tearing my eyes away from the airship tower.

“Good idea,” Kristoph muttered. “Let’s get closer to a crowd that probably has some of those Horizon assholes in it. Maybe they even took screenshots or videos of us so everyone in their guild knows who they’re supposed to kill.”

I frowned. I hadn’t thought of that, but considering how easy it was for me to take a video of Kristoph he had a point. As always when Kristoph had a point, I hated that he had that point.

“Whatever,” I growled. “We can’t live our in-game lives in fear of those pricks.”

It didn’t take long to find the source of that noise, and it was enough to take my breath away all over again, for all that I’d been having a lot of breathtaking moments lately. Apparently Kristoph agreed judging by the way he stared with his mouth hanging open.

“You’re gonna catch flies with that thing,” I said.

“Damn,” Kristoph breathed.

“Damn is right,” I said.

We stood on the edge of a wide circle. Like we’re talking most video games ran condensed worlds when it came to towns and housing and shops, to save on processing power and on travel time for players who weren’t interested in traversing a real world in realtime, but that wasn’t the case here. This place was just as massive as it would’ve been if it were built up in the real world over years.

Shops ran all around the outer edge of the circle, and a fountain sat in the middle spraying clear water into the sunlight and creating a small mist and small rainbows. The thing was totally epic. It depicted an armored human warrior holding a sword overhead that was about to bring the hurt down on a goblin.

Though this goblin looked very different from the goblin we’d seen in the forest earlier. It also looked very different from the goblins going about their business in the town circle. The one in the stone carving looked far more threatening than any goblin in that circle, for instance. Its teeth were bared in a nasty snarl, and it had clawed hands gripping a barbed sword that looked like it could do some damage.

Assuming it was in a fight against anything other than a human in plate armor that’d clearly gotten it down on the ground and was ready to bring the hurt, that is.

Also? There was something very off about the whole thing. Like the stone for the statue wasn’t the same color as the rest of the fountain.

Weird. Had someone been fucking with the stonework around here?

“Now that’s interesting,” I said.

“What? Looks like a big statue,” Kristoph said. “They have them all over the place in games like this. Art department loves that shit because they can do the old control c control v shuffle to sprinkle’em around the place.”

“Yeah, but that goblin doesn’t look anything like the live ones,” I said. “Unless these things have bigger scarier siblings that live out in the forest.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time there’s a scarier monster version of an NPC race lurking around the edges of a game,” Kristoph said.

“Maybe,” I said. “But…”

I looked around to make sure no one was listening in on us. It looked like the coast was clear. Still. I leaned in closer to Kristoph and whispered.

“The goblin we met out in the forest didn’t look like that either, and he said he was going to other goblins,” I said.

“Who might be big and terrifying,” Kristoph said.

“I’m just saying something’s really wrong here,” I said. “And I don’t think there are goblins that look like that in this game.”

“So what?” Kristoph said. “Humans conquer goblins and make a statue that makes the thing they conquered look scarier than it actually was. Nothing new there.”

“Maybe,” I said, still thinking there was something weird about that statue.

The circle was filled with a healthy hustle and bustle from players and NPCs alike. We joined the throng. I was walking along, minding my own business and gawking, when something slammed into me.

Before I knew it I was eating dirt. Which wasn’t pleasant considering the attention to detail in Lotus had apparently extended to a group of unfortunates who were tasked with figuring out how to add taste to the game.

Including the taste of a good old fashioned dirt pie. Yuck.

I picked myself up. My hands were covered in grime. In the real world that would’ve bothered me considering some of the microscopic crap I knew was lurking in the grime on our level, but for some reason being covered in muck and grime in a game world didn’t bother me nearly as much as here considering I knew none of it was real. It’s not like I was going to get an infection from a game world.

I looked up at the source of my sudden tumble. It was a familiar asshole wearing leather armor covered by a tabard that had a sword and that stylized H on the front that was exactly the same as the H that loaded at the beginning of fantasy themed Horizon games.

That immediately had me seeing red, which probably wasn't good considering I was going up against a couple of higher-skilled characters. Higher-skilled characters who apparently hadn’t realized who they’d bumped into yet.

I knew it was only a matter of moments though. No one could be that oblivious.

"Watch where the hell you're going noob,” Gregor spat. He pulled out a dagger and it twirled through his fingers before disappearing.

Then his eyes finally lit on the person he’d knocked over, and recognition dawned. His eyes narrowed and the dagger was back out in a flash, though for a wonder he didn’t try to use the dagger despite looking like he’d love nothing more than to bury it in me and cause some pain.

I swallowed. I’d just gotten a demonstration of how realistic the pain was in this game with that fall, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to feeling it again with something nastier than a fall.

The situation was ridiculous. This town seemed pretty big. What were the odds we’d run into Gregor and Kravos again? As I looked them up and down and saw how they were trying to look intimidating I couldn’t help myself. I started to laugh. From the way they frowned that clearly wasn’t the reaction these assholes had been hoping for when they pulled the whole video game badass routine.

I knew I probably shouldn’t laugh, but I couldn’t help it. Because if there was one thing I hated, it was assholes who thought they could push someone around. Especially assholes proudly wearing the fucking Horizon logo in the middle of Lotus which was supposed to be my escape from those corporate fuckwads.

Clearly that’d been wishful thinking. That logo design couldn’t be a coincidence, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe the reason I was seeing a bunch of those tabards dotting the town square being worn by higher level characters was because paying for early access for people to sign up to their little virtual army and invade the competition was exactly the kind of asshole move those corporate pricks at Horizon would pull.

It was game on, and that was worth a chuckle. I didn’t think Horizon would follow me to Lotus, but if they were here then I was going to play.

And I’d already demonstrated time and again that I was the best at this game. At the risk of sounding like a boasting gamer badass myself, these assholes didn’t know what they’d just gotten themselves into, for all that they sort of held the upper hand at the moment.

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About the author

Daecrist

Bio: Hi! I'm a working writer who's been doing this full time since early 2015. I got my start in the Kindle romance boom, and I'm finally getting around to publishing stories under my own name!

I live in the Midwest with my wife, kids, and cats. Most days find me sitting in front of my computer typing out stories for your enjoyment!

I'm currently releasing Spellcraft. The tale of Conlan, a gamer who loves finding ways to exploit game systems, and how he uses those unique skills to battle a soulless multinational entertainment conglomerate who killed his sister and is trying to take over the gaming world!

Spellcraft is currently released on a chapter a day schedule.

I hope you enjoy my work. Thanks for reading!

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