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“Are you sure it’s safe to step into this thing?” I asked.

“Totally sure,” she said.

I turned and eyed Keia from a distance. She had a half smirk on her face that didn’t have me all that inclined to believe that she truly had my best interests at heart here.

“Okay so maybe the hot springs flare up every once in awhile for no reason anyone can determine and kill whoever’s in them, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe right now,” she said.

I sighed. There were a lot of boiling pools around here. If I didn’t know any better I’d say this area was geologically active. I did know better, though, and figured it was far more likely that some game designer had been inspired by video of Yellowstone from back before the last major eruption.

I dipped a toe into the pool and let out a sigh. For all that the thing was potentially deadly, it was also very comfy.

Also? I was presented with a situation that was potentially a hell of a lot more worrying than any of the danger I’d faced so far. If I was going to clean off I was going to have to get out of this starter gear, and given how realistic this game was that’d involve getting a little more undressed than I’d prefer around Keia.

I mean it’s not that I wouldn’t mind getting undressed around her. It’s just that under the circumstances where I wasn’t sure whether or not she was interested in doing that sort of thing with me it was a touch embarrassing.

“Um, could you turn around please?” I asked.

“And miss the show?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

I sighed. It’s not like I was a shrinking violet or anything. I wasn’t going to go all blushes and everything because a girl wanted to not “miss the show,” as she’d put it. I was more frustrated than anything because I knew she wasn’t going to reciprocate.

Whatever. I pulled my starting clothes off and tossed it into the pool, idly wondering why I got cloth crap when Kristoph got leather armor when there wasn’t a class selection at character creation. Then I forgot all about that as I stepped in.

I forced myself not to turn and see Keia’s reaction.

If she wanted a show then I was going to give her a show. What I wasn’t going to give her was the upper hand because I was embarrassed at her checking me out.

“That’s the stuff,” I said, sighing contentedly.

“Hell yeah that’s the stuff,” Keia said. “And the good news is the sulfur smell around here masks your stink!”

I hit her with a bit of the old stinkeye to go along with the stink that was wafting off of me. I also scooted lower in the hot spring so she wouldn’t be able to see anything without getting closer.

There was a part of me that very much wanted her to get closer.

“So what the hell was up with that merry band?” I said. “That Lorel girl said something about a patrol, but I thought they were coming out specifically to get us?”

Keia walked over and sat on a big rock near the edge of the hot spring. It was a perch that gave her an unobstructed view of everything that was going on under the surface given how clear the water was. I forced myself to continue washing like she wasn’t checking me out.

I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction, damn it, even if her smile did seem pretty satisfied. The last thing I needed was for her to see that this was bothering me, or exciting me, so I turned around.

“I imagine Gregor and some of his friends came out special to help Sereh,” Keia said. “And then they met up with a patrol that was already out and about making sure nobody gets to the Goblinsteel Mines without paying the price.”

“Great,” I said. “Even more Horizon Dawn people out here looking for us. I’m getting the feeling it’s going to be a huge pain in the ass trying to make a living in a town they control.”

“But they don't have complete control of Nilbog,” Keia said.

“You sure about that?” I asked. “Because they sure as hell seem to be in control of things from where I’m standing!”

“Well yeah, but they’re just bullying people around with PVP,” Keia said.

“As opposed to other methods of control?”

“Well yeah. The goblin guards hate them, and Torian is constantly having to pay fines to keep his people out of jail,” she said.

I leaned forward, suddenly interested in this conversation. “You’re saying someone could control the guards?”

“Well yeah. They have to get a Writ of Nobility though.”

“What’s that?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I knew exactly what it was from context.

“Exactly what it sounds like,” she said. “Local royals rule the game world, but players can take that power from them. The game sort of goes from an RPG to a strategy game with RPG elements at that point, at least that’s what everyone’s guessing right now since no one’s actually done it. Actually seizing control of territory isn’t something anyone has figured out.”

"What does someone have to do to get a Writ of Nobility?” I asked, scrubbing off my armor.

"They have to spend a shitload of money, I think,” she said. “No one’s really clear on how it’s done. I know Torian has been trying for awhile though, and considering the amount of money he has to throw around via Horizon I figure it must cost a hell of a lot to get a Writ. The devs obviously didn’t want it to be easy."

“So basically players taking territory isn’t something anyone will see for the first few weeks after launch,” I said.

“Or during early access,” she said.

"That's odd," I said.

"How do you figure?" she asked.

"I mean if these Horizon Dawn people really have a corporation like Horizon backing them you'd think they'd be able to throw enough money at the problem to take control, right? Like whatever the amount is, I’m sure it’s a drop in the bucket for those assholes. If they’re that intent on controlling territory in Lotus you’d think buying a Writ would be a no brainer considering they’re going for the whole game world domination thing.”

"Maybe," she said. “It doesn’t help that the only noble around here disappeared before the game went live, from a story point of view, and no one even knows who to go to now.”

“Weird,” I said, my mind racing. There was a problem here, and I loved a good problem. “What if there's some other requirements they have to fulfill, and they're not figuring them out?"

"I suppose it's a possibility," Keia said. "Honestly it's not something I ever thought about since I'm never going to have enough money to afford a Writ.”

She got a far off look in her eyes and sighed. "It’d be wonderful to be able to turn the town guards and other administrative stuff against them though. Can you imagine the looks on their faces as they get cut down by the guards they’re bribing to make it look like they’re running the place?”

I could imagine, actually. It was a pretty vivid vision I was conjuring up. Almost as vivid as some of the visions I’d been having of Keia joining me in this hot spring.

Taking control of territory sounded like the exact sort of “breaking the game within the confines of the game’s rules” sort of thing I loved pulling off. The wheels were already turning as I tried to think of ways I could make it happen, but I was coming up with a blank.

Still, there was a mechanism there I could use to cause some mischief. I just had to figure out how.

“So if they don’t have the Writ how are they bossing the guards around?” I asked.

“Like I said before. Bribes,” she said. “The bribe system is completely separate from the Writ, and it has to be costing them a shitload to be using that system instead of installing a new noble to run things considering how many times they get on the wrong side of the local law.”

“Which lends credence to my theory that they haven’t figured out how to get a Writ,” I said. “If it was just money then Horizon would own this world by now. There’s something else going on here.”

“Like I said, maybe,” she said with a shrug. “Again, it’s not something I ever worried about.”

Her eyes went distant as she glanced at something on her heads up display. “I should probably get going. It's been fun, but I’ve got stuff to do. The ganking patrol has moved on, and you should have a clear path back to Nilbog.”

I wasn't ready for her to go. Sure she’d killed my friend and sure she’d been sort of responsible for me getting a dagger to my arm, but she’d also saved my ass a couple of times now.

I figured I owed her, and the fact that she looked so good standing there with her striking green eyes and that easy smile, not to mention that leather armor that formed to her body in all the right places, had me wanting to get to know her better. The way she kept stealing glances down into the clear bubbling water made me think she was interested in getting to know me better too.

In short, I was suffering from the same affliction that happens to so many teenage boys. I was being led around by the brain between the legs, and once that brain started calling the shots there was no getting around it.

I knew I was doing something stupid because I was interested in a girl, and I didn’t care. I wanted to spend more time with her. I wouldn’t be the first guy who did something stupid while under the influence of a hottie in a tight outfit that showed off everything.

"What are you doing out here that's so important?" I asked.

She smiled. It was one of those knowing smiles that said she knew I was trying to get her to spend more time with me. Even if it was only a couple of minutes. She also went for the bait, so I figured a transparent tactic that worked was better than nothing.

"I'm on a fetch quest," she said. "One that’s probably impossible now because of Horizon Dawn. Especially now that Gregor and the asshole patrol are on heightened alert.”

My eyes went wide. "Really? What kind of fetch quest are we talking about?"

"The kind that involves finding some stupid goblinsteel ore that’s only found around the goblin mines," she said.

"And the problem with that is…"

"The problem with that is the goblin mines are controlled by Horizon Dawn. That's the place they're shutting down so that they can control the means of production and all that."

"Oh," I said. “That sucks. So because they’re keeping control of the mines, and because they hate you, you can't get out there and do what needs to be done?”

"Pretty much," she said. “Sucks, doesn't it?"

I looked down at my inventory screen. Particularly at the pickaxe I'd picked up in town while Kristoph was being led on his own merry chase courtesy of all the assholes in Horizon Dawn. And an idea occurred to me that might help out the pretty girl while also allowing me some more time with her.

“Does that ore only show up in the goblin mines, or can you find it in the ground around the mines too?” I asked.

“There are smaller mines near the main raid instance where the big supplies are,” she said. "But that involves killing goblins, and I don’t like that. They’re too real. It feels wrong."

I frowned. “They let goblins exist around the raid instance they’re keeping on lockdown?”

“Well sort of,” she said with a grimace and a thousand yard stare that left me with the feeling she was reliving some unpleasant memories. “The ring mines around the raid entrance don’t always have goblins in them, but if there are no goblins there’s no way to get the ore since they’re the ones who mine it.”

I grinned. This was sounding more and more promising, and I wasn’t only excited at the prospect of spending more time with this girl.

“So there are spots where you can mine the ore?” I asked.

“I mean the goblinsteel is there, sure, but I don’t know of any way to get at it without killing goblins to get it. The goblins always had to mine it first,” she said.

“Did anyone ever try to mine it themselves?” I asked.

“Well… No? I mean why would they? Clearly the quest was meant for players to go in and kill goblins to get the stuff,” she said.

“And who said that?”

“Well Torian is the one who came up with the… Point taken,” she said with a grimace.

“I have a pretty good idea of how to get at the ore you need without killing goblins,” I said.

“The beginnings of an idea were starting to form in my head. An idea that would allow me to go right on gathering stuff while also helping the pretty girl and spending more time with her. It seemed like a win win scenario to me.

"Do you know what this ore looks like when it’s in the ground?” I asked. “Like could you point it out if you saw it?”

"Well yeah," she said. "I've seen it on the walls in the raid dungeon and some of the ring mines.”

"I think if you get me a little closer to the mines I might be able to help you out," I said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Horizon Dawn pretty well entrenched over there. They'll find us and…"

"And what? Try to kill us? I don't know if you've noticed, but those dicks are already trying to kill us. We might as well try and get you what you need while they’re trying to kill us, right?”

She shrugged and nodded. "I suppose you have a point.” She grinned. "Yeah, the more I think about it the more that sounds like an idea. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, but it’s an idea! We should head to the ring mines and have a look. If you're sure you can actually get at the ore if we can find it in the ground.”

"Oh yeah," I said. "Totally."

My mouth was writing checks that I was fully aware my gathering skills might not be able to cash. But I was saying stupid things to get the attention of the pretty girl, and in the grand tradition of horny teenage boys throughout history pesky things like what I said I could do versus what I could actually do weren’t going to stop me.

"Let's go then," Keia said. “If you like mining then you're going to love the area around the raid dungeon. Assuming we can go around their patrols and get close enough for you to actually mine something.”

"And if we don't get close then at the very least we’ll be able to kill some Horizon Dawn pricks along the way,” I said. "Sounds like a win to me!"

She gave me a peculiar look. A half smile that made me shiver. But I liked that look.

"Bloodthirsty," she said. "I think I like that. Though I also have a feeling I’m the one who’s going to be doing most of the killing.”

I grinned right back at her. I wasn’t sure why I was acting this way, but I knew I liked it. I'd found something in this game that was even more interesting than sticking it to Horizon.

I just hoped that feeling wasn’t about to lead me to my certain, messy, and painful demise at the hands of the Horizon people I was so casually dismissing to try and impress a girl.

“Right,” I said, then realized what I was going to have to do to head out with Keia. “I don’t suppose you’re going to turn around while I get changed back into my gear?”

She smiled and bit her lip. I figured that was a big fat no, but I honestly didn’t mind.

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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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