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We moved deeper and deeper into the mine. It was pretty typical. Twisting and turning rock passages with dank walls dripping with moisture that seemed to come from nowhere in particular other than the unwritten universal law that quest mines in MMOs and RPGs had to be moist.

I also caught occasional scrawling on the wall which jived with goblins working down here, though I couldn’t understand the language. If it was anything like human graffiti then it was probably the goblin equivalent of bragging about who had the biggest dick or who got laid last night.

Supposedly graffiti like that went back to ancient times if the stuff on the walls of Pompeii were anything to go on, and something told me the English majors who’d been lucky enough to write scenarios for this game hadn’t held back on the vulgarity.

“So was it just the goblins in here before Horizon Dawn came in and cleared them out?” I asked.

“Yup. Just the goblins," she said. "They used to run everything in this territory. Mines and otherwise.”

“But they never ran anything in this territory really,” I said.

“Of course they did,” she said.

“That’s just the backstory in the game though. Horizon Dawn came in and started running things the day this world went live, so from a certain point of view the goblins were never in control. Even if they think they were,” I said.

Keia rolled her eyes. “Bet you’re a lot of fun at parties.”

“Actually I don’t get invited to a lot of parties,” I said.

“Can’t imagine why,” she said. “So in the game’s backstory the goblins had a whole commerce empire that stretched off to the big mountains you can see in the distance.”

“What big mountains?” I asked.

“The ones you can see if you get on one of the airships?” she said.

“Never been on an airship,” I said.

“Well there are mountains off in the distance. There’s another Horizon guild working that outlying territory, though.”

“Huh, so there are more assholes out there?” I asked.

“They’re all over,” she said. “Horizon Dawn is one head of the hydra.”

“Fucking great,” I muttered.

“Yup. Trying to take over the world by buying off players. Genius in a twisted sort of way,” she said. “And I hate the fuckers for it.”

“You and me and the goblins,” I said, thinking about that Writ of Nobility and wondering if reputation had something to do with Horizon not officially controlling everything in this territory.

"I imagine they don't considering the way they got slaughtered," Keia said.

"Was it really that bad?" I asked.

On the one hand I felt just a touch ridiculous even asking the question. After all, I was talking about creatures in a game. When you got down to it, weren't they just a bunch of ones and zeros strung together in a slightly more convincing manner than any other program I’d ever seen before?

At their root the goblins in this game were no different from the colored aliens moving across the screen in an ancient game of Space Invaders. They were the same when you got down to their nuts and bolts, even if one was far more complicated than the other.

And yet wasn’t the definition of sapient life something whose nuts and bolts came together in something so ridiculously complicated that it became self aware?

I thought back to the terror I’d seen on that goblin’s face when I first logged in. How it’d been scrambling for its life. How it’d jumped on me and held on as though I was the only thing standing between it and certain death.

Was that goblin’s terror real, or was it another illusion so sufficiently advanced that it wasn’t any different from the real thing? Was that goblin’s behavior any different from the various other hyperrealistic stimuli assaulting my senses constantly? For that matter, was it really all that different from the curve of Keia's ass I’d been admiring the entire way out here even though it was a digital representation of something that probably didn’t exist in the real world?

After all, there was still a chance she was an overweight guy named Chuck living in the her parents’ basement in Detroit, to quote an ancient movie about fictional teenagers who supposedly lived in what was now the past having adventures in a digital world that was similar to this one.

Though in this case it would be someone living on the lowest level of their parents’ quarters in one of the many Detroit Arcologies.

It was all confusing. I wasn't sure how to even begin thinking of the ethics of killing digital creatures that might be thinking creatures, and so I decided I wasn't going to think about it too much.

That goblin had felt real. The thing’s terror had certainly been real. And if there were assholes out there who were doing that to living creatures, even if that living creature was a string of ones and zeros that was thinking for itself, then I was going to stand between those ones and zeros and anyone trying to hurt them.

After all, I figured that when you got down to it I was just an expression of biological rather than technological code. Sure my code had been perfected over billions of years rather than being designed over a couple of years of hellacious crunch time by an overworked software dev who hadn’t seen his family in months, but the end result was the same.

So what if my code used for base pairs instead of the ones and zeroes favored by computer programmers? Was there really any difference if the end result was a thinking creature that could feel love, fear, pain, and all that stuff that made life worth living?

"Hey there," Keia said, waving a hand in front of me. "Is all this dungeon exploring stuff boring you? Because we could always go back to the entrance and I could introduce you to the Horizon Dawn guard if you'd like."

"Sorry," I said. "Just distracted by the game."

“Totally understand,” she said. "I had the same problem when I first got started. Everything here is so realistic that it's hard to get used to."

"You’ve got that right," I said.

"Right," she said. "So here we are."

I looked at my surroundings. If I was supposed to be seeing something I had no idea what it was. There was a rock wall in front of us, and as I looked at it…

No. Come to think of it, as I looked at the wall I came to realize there was something there. It wasn't just my mind playing tricks on me. There was a glow. Very faint, but it was there.

I reached out and ran a hand along the ore vein. I was pretty sure that’s what I was looking at from the way the glow ran through the wall in striations that made an almost hypnotic pattern.

"Impressive," Keia said. "Most people can't pick that stuff out, and nobody ever bothers to actually try and go for it. They just know there’ll be goblins holding goblinsteel if they find them near these veins.”

I shook my head and made a disgusted noise in the back of my throat. "That's such a fucking waste.”

“How do you figure?” Keia asked. “I mean yeah slaughtering goblins for their goblinsteel is terrible and all, but I always thought using the ore veins to point towards goblins who are likely to have the stuff was pretty clever, if brutal.”

“They're playing the game all wrong and being assholes while they’re at it,” I said.

“Horizon Dawn in a nutshell,” Keia muttered.

“It really is such a waste though,” I went on. “The people seeing that faint glow have the ability to gather ore, and they thought it was a way to point them towards goblins to kill? Seriously?”

Keia shrugged. "What did I tell you? Horizon Dawn is a mix of stupid and savvy, and you never know which one is going to come out on top at a given moment."

"Talk about a bunch of fucking idiots!" I growled.

“As I’ve mentioned many times before, we’re in total agreement on that point. So can you do something with this?" she asked. "Because it looks like they’ve cleared out this dungeon recently. That means the only way we’re getting at any of that ore is if you figure out a way to mine the stuff yourself.”

I hit her with a sharp look. "You almost sound like you're sad there are no goblins to kill," I said.

"I mean they are just mobs in a game," she said.

I held her gaze long enough that she finally looked away with a blush.

"I know," she said with a sigh. "I don't like it either, but how else are we supposed to complete the quest?"

"Like this," I said, pulling my pickaxe out of my inventory and slamming it against the ore vein.

Honestly I had no idea if that would work. I figured that was the way it worked in most video games. You saw some ore you wanted to mine, and so you swung a pickaxe against the stuff until you got the ore.

Well, in most games up to the launch of Lotus you clicked on the ore you wanted to mine and then the pickaxe came out and an animation ran until the stuff appeared in your inventory, or not, but I figured the basic idea was more or less the same here.

The only problem was I slammed my pickaxe against that ore vein and nothing happened.

"This is not putting the quest ore in my inventory like I was hoping for lowbie,” Keia said.

"Just give me a minute here," I said. "It can take a couple of tries to get this stuff to work when you’ve never done it before.”

“If you say so," she said, but she didn't sound very convinced.

I slammed my pickaxe against the ore vein again. This time there was a spark which was promising. At least it seemed promising until nothing happened. Again. Which made me nervous since Keia was right there looking at me like things weren’t going to go well for me if nothing happening continued to be the status quo.

Sure we’d had a flirtatious thing going. At least I thought we did. I didn’t think for a moment that would save me if she thought I was screwing with her though.

"Damn it," I said.

But then I noticed something in my heads up display. I’d gained a skill point in Gathering:Mining. I hadn't gotten any ore, but that skill point meant this was working.

"We're getting somewhere now," I said.

"I certainly hope you are," Keia said.

She held her hand out, and a dagger appeared. She rolled it between her fingers as she hit me with a too sweet smile that promised terrible things if I didn't figure out how to mine that ore as soon as possible. As far as motivations went it was a pretty good one.

That didn’t stop a few choice unpleasant phrases from running through my mind as I thought about the situation. Mostly I thought about how ridiculous it was that I’d focused on gathering rather than combat.

Though I could at least comfort myself with the knowledge that even if I did have skill points in combat, it's not like they’d do me a damn bit of good against a stealth archer who was obviously higher in any combat skills that’d matter in a one-on-one fight. Sure I might be able to get in a lucky cheap shot, but I didn't think even that would do me much good.

I sighed and poured all my frustration into the next swing. My pickaxe slammed against the ore vein, and this time a little inventory window popped up showing a nugget of goblinsteel ore that deposited itself in my inventory.

That’s a bingo!

I also gained a couple of points in mining. Apparently the stuff I was going for was high enough that a successful hit gave me a few points at once. It was a good thing for me the people who'd designed this game didn’t seem to be all about setting limitations for players.

At least so far the game didn't feel like the cheap game design in a Horizon VR module where any materials that were out of my level would’ve been impossible to gather, full stop, instead of taking longer which is how it would’ve worked in the real world.

"Booyah!” I said. "And that's how you do it!"

"You got it?" Keia asked, leaning forward as though she expected to see my inventory window or something. "That seriously worked?"

"You don't have to sound like you don't believe me," I said.

"Sorry," she said. "The whole gathering and crafting thing has never been my deal. This is all kind of new to me."

I plucked the ore out of my inventory and tossed it. Keia grabbed it and examined the hunk of metal.

"Damn. You really were telling the truth," she said.

"Of course I was!" I said. "Now how many more of those things do you need to finish your quest?"

Keia’s eyes glassed over as she was no doubt checking a heads up display with quest text. "About twenty.”

She looked at me as though she expected me to balk at that number. Instead I grinned and twirled my trusty pickaxe. That pickaxe suddenly felt way better than a nice enchanted sword, for all that I’d been getting pissy about my lack of combat abilities moments ago.

Which got me to thinking. I wondered if it’d be possible to enchant a pickaxe. It seemed like the developers had thought of and allowed so many other things, so why not enchanted gathering tools? Or whatever the hell they called enchanting in this game. It was something to tuck away in the “ways to break the game later” mental folder.

“Twenty should be easy enough,” I said.

"Really?" she asked, sounding seriously surprised.

“Is that so hard to believe?” I asked.

“What’s hard to believe is you sound like you’re actually looking forward to a boring gather quest.”

"Spending time in a dark and creepy mine working on my mining ability?" I asked. "Why wouldn't I have fun doing that?"

Keia grinned and shook her head. Her hair fell from side to side and it caused her ears to poke out just a little. The way she smiled really completed the whole cute elf ensemble. Like we’re talking distractingly cute.

Part of the reason I didn't mind spending a bunch of time in a dark and creepy dungeon doing a boring gather quest, aside from the fact that I was getting some insane skill boosts I wouldn’t otherwise get, was I got to spend a little more time with Keia. Not that I planned on telling her that and potentially ruining the mood.

"Well let's get this show on the road!" she said.

I grinned and followed her deeper into the mine.

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A note from Daecrist

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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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