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I was having a hard time not enjoying the view as we approached the ring mine. Whatever the fuck that was. She was a hot blonde elf, after all, and the leather armor she wore was skintight and left very little to the imagination.

It turns out a lady didn’t have to be in the traditional fantasy chainmail bikini to be a distraction when the game allowed her to wear leather that was way more formfitting than would ever be practical outside of a superhero movie.

There were more than a couple times when I was pretty sure she caught me looking from the way she turned around and smiled a little half smile that reminded me of the way she’d smiled while I was enjoying that soak in the hot spring.

At least she didn't seem to mind me looking. Assuming she’d caught me looking, which was a big assumption, and that she even liked that I was looking, which felt like a bigger but safe assumption considering some of that admiration back at the hot springs.

I tried to remind myself that there was a very good possibility this hot elf girl could be an overweight dude living in his parents’ basement.

Kristoph was right on that point. Gender fluidity in player characters, something that’d been a thing ever since the very first MMOs, was an issue that was about to get a hell of a lot more complicated thanks to the level of realism in Lotus Online.

I shook my head and wondered why I was even thinking like that. Keia was a girl. That was all there was to it. And I figured the model in front of me in those tight leather pants was all woman, too, so I would enjoy looking.

I was so preoccupied by those thoughts, and the hypnotic sight of her butt moving in those tight leather pants, that I almost ran into her when she came to a stop and put a hand on my chest.

I tried to ignore the way the game had once again taken my natural biological reaction to being touched by a pretty girl and mirrored it faithfully in the game world. I also regretted, again, that I didn’t have the kind of armor that included a codpiece that wouldn’t make that reaction quite so obvious.

"What's wrong?" I asked. “Is there something else that might kill us?”

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

She went into stealth mode again. I could see her plain as day right in front of me as she moved through the forest. The branches and leaves seemed to meld around her as she moved. A neat effect, that, and also mildly terrifying since it meant I wouldn’t be able to track any cloaked characters coming for me by the path they made through the trees while they were hunting me.

I looked around for plants I might be able to gather, but there was nothing nearby and I didn’t want to risk making noise if she thought there was something dangerous enough that she needed to scout.

“Okay,” she said from behind me.

I jumped and yelled, but thankfully that yell went into party chat.

“Sorry,” she giggled. “I couldn’t resist.”

“So is there something scary and dangerous out there?” I asked.

“Maybe. More potentially dangerous than scary. This is going to take a little finesse,” she said.

"What?" I asked.

"We’re going to have to do something sneaky to get into this ring mine,” she said. "Look."

"I know what finesse means," I muttered. "I just wondered what it meant in context."

"Well there's your context right there big boy," Keia said, pushing me forward to where the trees thinned out and an open spot began.

I could make out a lone guard in a Horizon Dawn tabard standing in front of what looked like a classic mine entrance from any MMO ever.

I always thought it was a little funny how mines seemed to inexplicably dot the landscape in MMOs. I was pretty sure mines weren’t nearly as frequent in the real world as they were in digital fantasy worlds, but I guess they were too convenient for game designers to resist.

“They only have one guard?” I asked. “After those big patrols?”

“Looks like it,” Keia said. “Like I said, they’re getting lazy. That guard is probably a lowbie.”

“So you put an arrow through his head and we rush in there to get what we can before he respawns?” I asked.

“I like the bloodthirsty plan, but a lowbie is more than capable of raising the alarm even if someone offs them. We might get in there, but there’s no guarantee we’re getting out once he raises the alarm. There’s guaranteed to be a patrol close enough to give us some grief.”

“Right. A smash and grab is out. So what's the plan?" I asked.

"The plan is I'm going to do something to distract him, and then you’re going to get into the mine."

"How are you going to get in there after you distract him?” I asked.

I also wondered what kind of distractions she was thinking. I could think of a couple of ways I wouldn’t mind her distracting me, but somehow I didn’t think she was going to pull that with the guard.

She looked at me. Cocked an eyebrow. "What part of stealth archer is so hard to understand?"

"Oh. Right."

"Stay right here," she said. "As soon as that asshole gets distracted I want you to get in there, and I want you to go deep enough into that mine that he won’t see you when he comes back. Got it?"

"Is there anything in there that could kill me?" I asked.

“Maybe. You’d better hope they’ve cleared it recently,” she said with a manic grin and a pat on my shoulder. “You're going to have to hit the sweet spot of going deep enough into the mine that the guard can't see you, but not so deep that you risk stirring up any hostile goblins who might be lurking. Easy, right?”

"Yeah, easy,” I said. "Super easy. Why would the goblins be hostile anyway? The ones I’ve met have been nice enough to me.”

“Probably because Horizon Dawn is clearing them out on the regular if they find any sneaking their way back into the mine. They let them go back in the ring mines to mine the goblinsteel, then they kill them and take whatever they’ve gathered,” she said.

“So a brutal way of gathering ore that doesn’t involve any of them doing any mining,” I said. “Okay then. I can understand why the goblins out here would be more annoyed than the ones in Nilbog.”

“Horizon Dawn is brutal, but effective,” she said. “Which means any goblins in there will slaughter us if there’s enough of them to take us out. Keep that in mind.”

“Oh believe me,” I said. “It’ll never be too far from my mind at all.”

“Good,” she said.

Not for the first time since venturing out into the dark and foreboding forest, I found myself wishing I’d invested in some combat abilities. Why had I spent all my time picking flowers instead of killing stuff?

Keia disappeared. One moment she was next to me, and the next she was stealthed and moving off through the woods.

"That’d be a useful ability,” I muttered.

"Not as useful as you might think," Keia saidin party chat.

Again I was left with more waiting. I was sick of waiting. Of traipsing through the woods. Sure it had taken a lot less time to get here than I figured it would’ve taken to cover the equivalent distance in the real world. Either the devs were doing something with how fast time passed in the game or they’d condensed the map just a little, but all the walking and waiting was still irritating.

It reminded me of old gamers who always complained about how games built character when they were young. How if they wanted to travel across the game world and discover everything then they had to do it the old-fashioned way by walking and killing any monsters that got in the way, and that's the way they liked it. I’d always been more of a fan of modern conveniences in games, including fast travel, and…

A noise on the other side of the small clearing drew my attention. It also drew the guard’s attention. He looked around, clearly searching for the source of that noise as he fingered the sword at his side.

I didn’t think that sword would do the guy much good if it came to fighting Keia, but the name of the game was stealth. That sword might not do him any good, but killing him wouldn’t stop him from sending a private message to his Horizon Dawn buddies about the bad guys moving in on their territory.

I held my breath. Wondered if this was really going to work. Wondered if this asshole was going to fall for the obvious trick.

There was more rustling, this time followed by a screech that might've been an animal of some sort. I grinned as I realized someone out there was doing an impression of crazy old Ben Kenobi doing an impression of a krayt dragon. And despite that noise still the guard didn’t move. I sighed into party chat.

“You and me both,” Keia growled back at me.

“You could try to distract him with bubble wrap,” I said.

“What?” she replied.

“I mean it worked in the old Naked Gun movies, so it might work with this guy,” I said.

“Except I don’t have bubble wrap,” she replied. “And something tells me you’re not going to be able to craft some of that out of all those flowers you picked.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I said. “I haven’t actually crafted anything yet. I’ve mostly been gathering stuff.”

“Right, well let me try something new since that krayt dragon didn’t work,” Keia said.

“Kudos to you for being so accurate on that,” I said.

“Thank you!” she said. “I still think it’s a damn shame that got pulled out of Star Wars canon though. Thrawn is my sequel trilogy.”

“Thank you!” I said, falling even more for this girl.

“So you want to try and take this guy on?” she asked.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

That guard might not be any match for Keia, but I held no illusions that I’d be any match for the guard. Even if we were talking a lowbie whose only real utility was the ability to phone the dorkish horde after his death.

“Kidding,” she said. “Don’t do something stupid like try to attack that dude. I need you alive if you’re going to mine my shit for me.”

“Glad I’m so valuable to you outside my mining utility,” I said.

“I’ve had relationships that started on less,” she said, which seemed like a maddeningly enigmatic response to my unspoken question.

There was more noise, and finally someone spoke in a voice that obviously sounded like a girl trying to disguise her voice as a guy.

I couldn't make out what she was saying. It sounded like she was talking about the rising dawn or something. It sounded like a code phrase, and I wondered what she was doing talking in code phrases. I mean given how much she seemed to know about Horizon Dawn and all she’d said about them forcing her to be a stealth archer I had a pretty good idea where she’d learned those code phrases, but there was still part of me that had a hard time thinking of my bad girl crush being a reformed bad girl who worked for Horizon once upon a time.

Whatever she said, it finally got the guard’s attention. He ran off into the forest like whatever ginormous predatory creature had created the petrified shit was hot on his trail.

I took the opportunity. I ran into the mine and tried not to think about how I’d be good and trapped if that guard came back and Keia left me for dead. I’d have no way of getting out that didn't involve going through that guard.

I sighed. "I really hope you know what you're doing Keia."

"Of course I know what I'm doing," she said, causing me to jump nearly six feet in the air.

Of course I didn't actually jump six feet in the air. The mine’s ceiling was low enough that jumping six feet in the air would be enough for me to clonk my head against some rock and potentially cause some serious damage. Or make enough noise that someone out there might hear it.

Bonking my head against a solid rock wall wasn’t the kind of thing that would be isolated to party chat, after all.

I wheeled around and Keia came out of her stealth mode as she stood from behind a pile of rocks and busted mining equipment. Her grin told me she enjoyed the shit out of scaring me.

"What the hell?" I hissed.

“I couldn’t resist having a little fun with you,” she replied. “Can you blame a girl?”

I looked her up and down and thought of a few ways I wouldn’t mind having a little fun with her, but none of those methods seemed appropriate when we were deep in enemy territory and the enemy might come along at any moment and fuck us over in the non-fun way.

“You’re hilarious,” I said.

"Come on," Keia said. "You need to hang back just a little. The goblins in here will eat you alive if there are any hanging around.”

"How comforting," I said.

"It should be comforting," Keia said, patting me on the cheek. "You have a nice strong woman to keep you all safe and secure, lowbie. And you'd better hope you can pull off what you say you can pull off if you want to keep being all safe and secure.”

I didn't like the implication there. A mine like this would be a great place for her to do more of the messy killing she'd done to her former friend Sereh earlier. Not exactly the kind of thing I wanted done to myself if I could avoid it.

"Right," I said. “You’re sure there’s that goblinsteel ore in these ring mines? And you never did tell me why they call them ring mines.”

"Pretty sure," she said. "At least all the quests talk about how you can get stuff from the local mines, but nobody bothers since they can get stuff from killing goblins in the raid instance or leaving one of these mines open long enough for them to repopulate and mine it out. One of the services Horizon Dawn offers is running people through the goblin slaughters or outright selling the goblinsteel ore on the auction house. And you’ll see why they’re called ring mines soon enough. Don’t worry your cute ass off.

“Great,” I said, though I did blush just a touch at the cute ass comment. “Hopefully the lack of goblins in here doesn’t mean the place has been mined out recently and we’re stuck waiting on the respawn.”

“That would be a big problem for you, wouldn’t it,” she said with an unpleasantly predatory grin.

I pulled my pickaxe out of my inventory and gave it a little twirl. Grinned.

“Well if you need some ore then let’s get you some ore. Lead the way, my badass lady protector.”

She grinned right back at me and flashed a dagger. “Consider yourself protected, my precious little ore freighter.”

I wasn’t sure how much I liked being compared to an ore freighter, but I figured there was probably something to that comparison. Even if this was a fantasy themed game and not science fiction where ore freighters were more likely to be found.

Besides, as long as I got to spend more time with this girl I was willing to put up with a little gentle ribbing.

Especially if it meant I got to level up my gathering. I grinned and followed her, not even trying to be surreptitious about catching glimpses of her backside in that tight leather.

Hey, if she was going to comment on my cute ass then I wasn’t going to feel too guilty about staring at hers.

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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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