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"Hold on," Keia said.

She paused and stared through the trees. She also put a hand right smack dab on my chest to keep me from moving even though I’d stopped.

I tried to ignore the shiver that ran through me as she put that hand on my chest. Maybe if I’d been wearing some thick leather starting armor like Kristoph it wouldn't have been a big issue since I wouldn’t be able to feel that touch, but as it was I felt every one of her fingers pressing against me through my cloth starter gear, and I liked it. Really liked it.

I looked at her and realized she was hitting me with an odd look. I worried she could somehow sense what I was thinking, and blushed. Which was the same as letting her know exactly what I’d been thinking.

Damnation. Why had I ever agreed to come along with her in the first place? But the stirring between my legs, an involuntary reaction to that touch and an embarrassment at the same time, told me everything I needed to know about why I was out here with this pretty girl.

Not that I needed reminders that it didn't have anything to do with my desire to level up my gathering skill.

"What's up?" I asked.

I hoped the question would take her mind off of some of the embarrassing things that were running through my mind that I was sure she could read even though that should be impossible. Because like all young men who found themselves in the company of a pretty girl, I was convinced she could somehow reach into my head and understand every lascivious thought running through my head as I looked at her.

And honestly it wasn’t all that farfetched a concept. Wasn’t this whole world the result of a computer using some technologically advanced earbuds to read my mind and pump information into it?

It seemed like only a hop, skip, and a jump from the computer reading my mind to the computer being able to give other people access that let them read my mind. A chilling thought, though I didn’t think Keia was doing that here.

No, her method of mind reading was far older and more primal. She grinned and rolled her eyes, then glanced down which made it clear she knew about the embarrassing situation down there.

“Not the time or place big boy,” she said with a wink.

I took a deep breath and decided to change the subject to something that wasn’t threatening to make me the first person to die from embarrassment in the game.

“Why did we stop?”

"Patrol route," she whispered. "They like to come through here and keep an eye out for troublemakers like us. It’s never pleasant for the troublemakers when they find them, and something tells me they’re going to be even more active now that you stirred them up.”

“I stirred them up?” I said. “You’re the one who gutted that Sereh girl.”

“Yeah, and you’re the reason she was out there to be gutted in the first place,” she said. “Now be quiet. We need to figure out the patrol pattern for the day.”

“Consider me holding on,” I said.

Though it turns out holding on and waiting to figure out the patrol pattern for the day was really boring. My mind wandered, followed shortly by my eyes.

She might be concerned with Horizon Dawn patrols, but I was more concerned with a bright red flower with streaks of orange running through it that I saw on the forest floor right next to us. It didn't glow when I looked at it, the game’s way of telling me I could gather something, but when I reached down to touch the thing sure enough it popped into my inventory.

The flower was a far higher level than anything I’d gathered before. Like it was solid purple. I was surprised that I was even able to gather it, but I guess the game’s design philosophy of letting lower skilled people do blindingly obvious things like picking a flower that was right there on the forest floor was still working in my favor.

There were still some tradeoffs. I only got one petal in my inventory as opposed to the multiple I got when I was gathering Nhewb’s Blessing. Still, my gathering skill went up five points when I plucked the thing which I wasn’t going to sneeze at. That higher level might also explain why the thing didn’t glow when I looked at it. Maybe things only glowed if they were within my gather skill.

I could pick it if I could see it, but the trick was being able to see it.

That was something to keep in mind as I moved through this world. I didn’t want to miss opportunities just because the game thought my skill was too low. The fact that I was able to grab this one and get a lot of skill points was proof enough that it was worth keeping an eye out for things beyond my skill level.

"Damn," I whispered.

"Is something wrong?" Keia asked, turning to face me and any potential danger that might’ve snuck up on us while she was looking at that path. She also pulled out a couple of daggers and held them at the ready.

"Nothing," I said, feeling a touch embarrassed that the “danger” she was turning to face was nothing more than a pretty flower. "Just a high-level flower I can use for potions. We must be getting close to that raid dungeon you were talking about."

Honestly the idea that I could even get this close to a raid dungeon as part of a duo, even a duo where one of the players was a much higher skill level, felt odd. I was so used to MMOs seen through a 2-D screen where approaching a raid instance meant going through a high-level zone where designers expected a raid to pick off trash mobs that were nothing to a raid but certain death for anything less than a raid.

Yet another of many examples of why this game was so completely and totally different from any other MMO experience I’d ever had.

"Try to keep your eye on the prize," she said.

"Right," I grumbled.

I didn’t bother to explain to her that by keeping my eye on the reagents I was gathering I was, in fact, leveling a skill that would hopefully prove to be useful when it came time to gather some ore.

I glanced at the in-game clock. We’d been standing here for about ten minutes of game time now, and so far the only thing I’d seen was that flower. There were no signs of the patrols she seemed so worried about. There were also no signs of those aforementioned trash monsters that were so adept at bending unwary solo players over and taking them on a one way trip to the respawn point via stops at pound town in between.

"This is so weird," I said.

"Why’s that?" Keia asked.

“Nothing is attacking us," I said. “I’d expect a big raid dungeon to be surrounded by monsters that want to tear us to pieces, but there's nothing around here."

“Duh,” Keia said. "That's another reason they have patrols running around this place. They keep this dungeon locked down and running like a well oiled machine, and that means killing any goblins or hostile monsters.”

"So they patrol around and kill anything that might get in the way so they don’t have to worry about it when their raid groups come through even though those raid groups can handle those monsters no trouble?” I asked. "That’s insane."

"Like I said," she said. "Well oiled killing machine. A killing machine that would roll us up without breaking a sweat, so best not to get caught."

“Assuming they’re willing to get close enough to the petrified shit piles to find us and avoid breaking a sweat,” I muttered.

Keia snorted, but after that silence stretched between us as we went into another ten minutes of waiting.

“Are you sure we can’t go ahead and cross the path?” I said.

“Your funeral,” she said.

I opened my mouth to tell her that I didn’t think it was going to be my funeral considering how empty that trail I could barely see was, but there was something about the way she was looking at me that gave me the feeling there was more going on here than I thought.

“They’re coming, aren’t they?” I asked.

“Maybe?” she said, trying hard not to smile.

“Were you going to warn me before I stepped out there and risked getting my ass killed?”

“Maybe?” she said, that smile finally breaking through.

“How many are there?” I asked.

“Hard to tell,” she said. “But you might want to get back behind some trees. I can go into stealth mode, but we don’t have any petrified mystery monster shit for you to hide under here, and we really don’t have time for another trip to the hot springs.”

“Right,” I said, deciding to ignore the mention of petrified mystery monster shit. “Hiding now.”

I picked a nice thick tree to hid behind and got down low. I wasn’t in the mood to take any chances when my digital life was on the line. Especially with all the cool stuff I’d gathered being on the line if I died and my stuff got snapped up by some Horizon Dawn prick who wouldn’t even know what they had.

Eventually I heard something moving through the forest in the distance, though it wasn’t all that far in the distance considering my hearing ability wasn’t all that great.

I lowered myself even further into the underbrush as a patrol appeared. They moved through the forest as though they didn't have a care in the world. They didn't look like they thought they’d run into anything dangerous. At least nothing that was a danger to them.

They were all decked out in Horizon Dawn Syndicate gear. They all wore that tabard with the Horizon H on it that made my stomach turn and my lip curl up in a snarl.

I resisted the urge to launch himself at them. Mostly because the only weapon I had was that starter sword, or I guess Kristoph’s sword which would be as useless as the starter sword with my low skill level. The point is neither one would do me a damn bit of good against these guys.

Even if I did manage to get a hit off, it would be the only hit I got before I was stuck like a pincushion from all the other guys surrounding me and sticking me with their swords.

Not my idea of a good time. I’m sure there was someone somewhere on some dark corner of the Internet who’d pay extra for that kind of thing, but not yours truly.

Keia waited, stealthed, until well after the patrol had disappeared before finally moving. I would've preferred to get moving right away. Time was wasting, but I deferred to the pretty elf girl who seemed to have a good idea of how things worked in this part of the game world.

Finally she tapped my arm and motioned for me to cross the path.

I hesitated. “What happened to waiting to see what the pattern was?”

“If it took that long for the first patrol to come along I’m not interested in waiting around for a second to see what the pattern is,” she said. “They must’ve gotten lazy since they first took over the raid dungeon.”

I looked at the path. I was well aware that if this girl wanted to double cross me, wanted to get me killed without getting her own hands dirty, then all she’d have to do was tell me to cross that path at the wrong moment. All it would take was a new patrol showing up at the wrong moment and that’d be the end.

What ultimately decided me was the simple fact that if she wanted to kill me she could’ve done it at any point in the trip through the forest. She could’ve betrayed me while I was stuck under mystery monster shit if she really wanted to give me an unpleasant end.

She obviously had a hell of a lot more skill points in combat, and it wouldn't take much for her to put an arrow in me that would send me back to my respawn point. So I moved across the path with Keia following behind, and no patrol appeared to fuck our shit up.

No, the patrol appeared about thirty seconds after we’d made our way across the path. Like we’re talking if I’d hesitated for a moment longer, or if our conversation had run a little longer, we would’ve been fucked.

Keia stared after them as they disappeared along the path. “Or maybe they didn’t get lazy,” she muttered, glancing at me with a look that was somewhere between embarrassed and apologetic.

“You didn’t want to wait around to see what the pattern was, huh?” I said in party chat as I watched another group in Horizon gear moving past making the kind of racket that would wake the dead.

If this was an undead forest where there were dead who could be woken up, which it wasn’t.

Keia gave a little shiver as she looked at the patrol.

“The patrol schedule has to be fucked up because they’re looking for us,” she said. "You think you're in the free and clear, and then boom. You get hit by the second follow-up patrol you never even knew was there."

"How raptor of them," I said with a grin. I could grin now that we hadn’t been killed by the second patrol, though my pulse was threatening to send my heart shooting out of my ribcage and I figured it’d be a few hours before I came down from the adrenaline high.

"Something like that," she said. “Fucking Horizon Dawn. They’re idiots most of the time, but they can be crafty idiots. The problem is you never know when they're being stupid or when they’re being crafty until they've stuck their swords in you."

There was something about the far-off look in her eyes that said she was reliving a painful memory of a time when they'd done exactly that to her. She shook her head and motioned for me to follow.

“Whatever. We need to get a move on and get the hell out of here before one of those patrols looking for us accomplishes its goal. One of the ring mines should be up ahead," she said.

“So the ring mines aren’t the raid entrance?” I asked.

“Yes and no. It’s easier to just show you," she replied. "Now come on."

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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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