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I forced myself to hold that gaze while I prayed that the little adventure we’d just had with Sereh was enough to cement some sort of bond that would keep her from following through on ramming one of her daggers into my chin.

Because it was clear that’s what she was thinking about right about now if the way her hand twitched over her dagger and her eyes darted between my neck and my eyes was anything to go on.

Finally she sighed. Deflated.

“We need to move,” she said. “Sereh definitely told them we’re here, and we need to be anywhere but here when their ganking patrol comes along to ruin our day.”

I glanced around at the trees, suddenly worried about daggers and arrows coming from a completely different source.

“You’ve got a good point,” I said.

As though on cue, Keia cocked her head to the side and seemed to be listening to something in the distance. Something I couldn’t hear.

“Please don’t tell me one of your skills is hearing things better than me,” I said.

“Totally is,” she said, her mouth thinning to a grim line. “And there’s totally a group heading towards us.”

“What direction?” I asked.

“From Nilbog. I think,” she said. “Come on.”

She turned in the opposite direction, but I grabbed her. I was rewarded by her whirling around with a dagger at the ready. I eyed the thing warily as it stopped just short of my nose.

“What?” she asked.

“Um, I was thinking maybe it isn’t a good idea to go in the exact opposite direction of where they’re coming from?” I said, my eyes crossing as I stared down at the dagger and thought about how much I didn’t want that cold steel introduced to my brain. “If it were me I’d try to flush someone out and right into a group waiting in the other direction.”

She held my gaze for a long and awkward moment. Mostly the awkwardness came from the juxtaposition of my terror at that dagger and how turned on I was getting. I guess I had a thing for badass women who didn’t take shit. Who knew?

“I think you’re giving Horizon Dawn too much credit,” she finally said, blessedly lowering her dagger. “But you also make a good point. Come on.”

She turned and set off in different direction.

“Um, do you think maybe we should party up too?” I said. “Might make it easier to chat without people listening in.”

She looked over her shoulder and smiled a secretive little smile. “And who says I want to talk with you? For all you know I’m taking you deeper into the woods so I can kill you where no one will see.”

I swallowed. That thought hadn’t occurred to me. She threw her head back and laughed, then covered her mouth and cocked her head to the side as she listened to whatever was going on in the distance.

“Good idea,” she said, then frowned.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It says you’re in a party already,” she said.

“Oh, sorry about that,” I said.

With a thought I dropped the party I’d been in with Kristoph. The party status screen told me he’d logged off. He probably figured there was no point hanging around a village where people were hunting his ass. At least not without me around to save his ass.

“Try now.”

I got a party invite and accepted with a thought. Keia’s face appeared on my party status screen, a look of grim determination there.

“Now come on,” she said, speaking loud enough that I figured she was talking in party chat.

I double checked my own settings before I spoke. I also followed her, because I really didn’t want to be around when Horizon Dawn got here. Not when my PVP immunity was gone and they could have their way with me. That wasn’t my idea of a good time.

“So you were going to tell me about your hatred of Horizon Dawn?” I prompted after we’d been walking for a little while and she hadn’t said anything.

“Was I?” she asked. “I don’t remember saying anything like that.”

“Well it was sort of assumed and all, but…”

"There aren't words that can begin to describe how much I hate those assholes," she spat. “The pricks forced me to do this stupid stealth archer build, and they act like they run that town."

“Well to be fair it sort of seems like they do run that town," I said.

Keia shook her head. "They might have the local raid dungeon on lockdown so they can force people to pay more for a dungeon run than it costs to buy Horizon Dawn Syndicate gear on the auction house, but…”

“Wait, what?” I said.

“They control access to the local raid dungeon,” she said. “People have to pay for the privilege of getting into the Goblinsteel Mines without getting ganked, and the cost is more than it costs to just buy slightly lower quality Horizon Dawn Syndicate stuff on the auction house.”

“They’re selling that stuff though?” I said. “Like they’re making money from it? Real money?”

“Why wouldn’t they?” she asked. “And they are making real money. I mean people pay in-game gold, but it’s easy enough to convert Lotus gold to real world money. Horizon is making a pretty penny by creating that crap out of nothing and selling it to players.”

“But why the hell would Lotus let Horizon do something like that?” I asked. “They’re the competition!”

She shrugged as she expertly ducked out of the way of a vine that went whipping through the air over her head. The thing almost hit me, but she snatched it with her other hand and slammed a dagger into the thing. It squealed, and I realized I was actually looking at something that sort of looked like a cross between a snake and a vine.

“I don’t know what Horizon is doing in Lotus,” she said. “I just know they paid to get people in the early access and take shit over. Not that any of their local chapters are doing a great job of it.”

I eyed the snake creature. It’d dropped to the ground. It looked good and dead. I also thought about the skinning knife sitting in my inventory gathering digital dust. This thing looked like it’d be a good candidate for seeing how well that worked.

Keia took a few steps before she realized I wasn’t following. She stopped. Turned to eye me with a look that was pretty damn close to some of the looks Kristoph had given me over the years when I was doing my gathering and crafting thing.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her face going from curious to disgusted as I used my skinning knife on the snake thing.

I was a little disgusted myself. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. And really, that’s all I cared about. It worked and my inventory filled with weird vine snake skins.

“That’s disgusting,” she said.

“If I had a penny for every time I heard that from someone adventuring with me,” I said. “Got some nifty animal skins though. I’ll probably be able to do something useful with that.”

“I’m so happy for you,” she said.

The thing that was surprising was she actually did look like she was happy for me. Like she was smiling and not saying that sarcastically at all, which is what I would’ve expected from Kristoph.

A snapping twig somewhere in the distance brought me back to the unfortunate reality of our situation.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.

“You bet your ass it is,” she said. “I don’t suppose you have any stealth abilities you’re hiding away somewhere?”

“Not really,” I said. “You got anything?”

“I mean duh,” she said. “Stealth archer. That’s not gonna help you much, though.”

She had a point. I hated that she had a point. Also? I hated that I’d gone into the forest loaded down with all the stuff I’d been gathering since I first logged into the game.

“If they off me then I’m going to lose a lot of shit,” I growled.

“What could you possibly have that’s so important?”

“Reagents,” I said.

“Reagents?”

“Stuff you use to make things in the game?”

“I know what reagents are,” she said, her eyes scanning through the trees as though she was expecting an attack to come from somewhere at any moment. “I’m just wondering what the hell you’re doing with so many.”

“I’ve been gathering stuff since we first arrived in the game,” I said. “It’s sort of a thing I do.”

“Whatever,” she said. “Right now a thing you’re going to do is get your ass under those logs over there and hold your breath.”

“What?” I asked. “Why would I…”

I didn’t have a chance to protest or ask any more questions before she shoved me towards a bunch of fallen trees. I didn’t have much time to think of the indignity of getting pushed around before I heard voices calling to one another in the distance.

That was good for getting my balls to shrivel up into my body nice and good. I didn’t want to think about what those voices would do if they found me, so I dove under the trees and tried to get as far under them as I could.

It wasn’t until I got under them that I noticed the smell. And it must’ve been a hell of a smell, because it was assaulting my nostrils and refusing to go away even though I’d already turned that particular sensory slider down as far as it would go.

“What the fuck did you just push me into?” I hissed, even though there was no need to hiss since I was talking into party chat.

I looked up at the trees, and as I looked at them I realized they weren’t quite as treelike as I’d first thought. No, they were definitely long and they were definitely hard, but the illusion of felled trees was only because they had moss and other stuff growing on them.

At least I thought that was moss, though it was unlike any moss I’d ever seen.

Also? There was something small and white sticking out of them. I peered closer, and realized I was looking at bones. Bones that looked like they’d belonged to humans once upon a time. Or other large creatures that should’ve been too big for something to eat whole. Like I’m pretty sure there were a few goblins in there too.

And that’s when I realized what I was looking at.

“You had me hide under petrified shit?” I hissed, making sure it stayed in party chat. “What the fuck?”

“Quiet,” Keia said, though it was clear she was trying to suppress a giggle. “Do you want them to find you or not?”

The voices were getting louder. I looked out from under the petrified crap Keia had shoved me under. I felt sort of like Schwarzenegger when he was covered in mud to avoid the Predator. Though in this case it wasn’t mud that was hiding me.

I tried to hold my breath, but it didn’t help. The smell had already gotten into my nostrils and my mouth. That’s how strong it was. I was fucking tasting it even though I was holding my breath.

I was about to give Keia a piece of my mind when some people burst through the trees. Sereh was with them, and there were a few other people wearing Horizon Dawn tabards.

And they were all stealthers.

I could even see Keia, for all that she’d gone into stealth mode. I guess being in a party with a stealther revealed them to you when they were in stealth mode, which was a neat trick.

Now if only I could figure out a way to see the stealthers who were sneaking up on me to kill my ass as easily.

“Are you sure they went this way?” someone asked.

“I’m telling you they went off in this direction,” Sereh said.

“Shit,” one of the stealthers said.

Fuck. I knew that voice. I might not be able to see his face, they were all wearing masks of some sort that made them look like rent-a-ninjas, but that was clearly Gregor.

“If they’d run towards the little surprise I had waiting for them this would’ve all been over!” he hissed

I hit Keia with a look. She rolled her eyes. It was too bad I was too terrified to say anything, because I sure felt like a good old fashioned “I told you so” right about now.

“Keep moving!” Gregor said.

“What about those trees over there?” one of the stealthers asked.

My blood froze in my veins. Damn it. If they came over here it’d all be over. Sure Keia and I had shared a couple of moments, but I didn’t see her as the type who’d come to my rescue while I was getting gang ganked by a bunch of Horizon Dawn pricks who’d be more than happy to add her to the menu.

“Are you kidding me?” Gregor asked. “There’s no way someone would be stupid enough to hide under something that shit.”

The girl who’d made the suggestion eyed my shitty hiding place for another long moment. Like she was thinking a place no rational person would ever hide was actually the perfect spot for someone to disappear.

She even took a step towards me. Then wheeled around as Gregor stared daggers at her.

“What are you doing Lorel?” he growled.

Lorel held Gregor’s gaze, then sighed. “You have the patrol, of course.”

“You’re damn right I have the patrol.”

They moved off through the forest, making a hell of a racket as they went. Lorel paused for another moment, staring at my hiding spot like she was seriously considering coming over and checking the giant semi-petrified dung pile I was hiding under, then sighed and moved on. But not before hitting Gregor’s back with the kind of look that said she’d much rather be planting a dagger in Gregor’s back than her eyes.

Then they were gone.

“Whew, that was close,” Keia said, moving towards me. She stopped a good fifteen feet short though. Her eyes were watering. “Holy shit that stuff is nasty!”

“Yeah, thanks for letting me hide under literal shit,” I said.

“What can I say?” she said with a shrug. “It seemed like the best place for you to go where they wouldn’t go looking for you, and it turns out I was right.”

“Only because Gregor’s a fucking idiot,” I said, pulling myself out from under the giant shit logs.

“You can always count on Gregor, Kravos, and Torian to act like fucking idiots,” she said. Then she surprised me by pulling out a dagger and holding it in my general direction. “Don’t you dare come a step closer either. I don’t want to get any of that stink on me.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, turning around to look at the petrified shit logs that still retained oh so much of their fragrance.

“Deadly serious,” she said.

“What the hell made those giant logs, anyway?” I asked.

“No one’s sure,” she said. “But it’s not the kind of thing I’d like to meet in person. So far the only thing anyone’s found are the remains. That or anyone who’s discovered whatever’s leaving behind those epic shits hasn’t lived to tell about it.”

“But this is a game,” I said. “Anyone who got eaten by something would respawn and have a hell of a story.”

“Which tells you nobody’s run into whatever’s leaving those little presents all over the forest,” Keia said. “Now come on. I know a hot spring nearby we can hit to get you cleaned off.”

“Thank the maker,” I said.

“Whatever, Threepio,” she said with a wink, further solidifying my opinion that this was a girl I wanted to get to know better, for all that she’d just saved my ass by shoving me under a literal pile of shit that clearly hadn’t left me smelling all that great to anyone who hadn’t turned down their smell slider.

It was an odd way to fall for a girl, but I’d heard of weirder meet cutes.

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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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