"This still feels weird," Keia said.
"Tell me about it," Kristoph said. "I look fucking awesome!"
"Don't get too cocky kid," I said. "You might have some nice spell infusions on that armor, but it's not going to save your butt if you're not smart about a fight. And we're going to be going against people who have awesome armor of their own and skill advantages."
Sure their armor probably wasn’t going to be as good as what I’d put together, but on balance they still had most of the advantage.
I figured it was a balancing act. On the one hand someone could give themselves better and better abilities by leveling up their skills. There were entire skill trees with nice perks as they skilled up that could make someone really difficult to take down in a fight.
On the other hand there were spell infusion bonuses. Conceivably someone without much in the way of skills could get their hands on armor and weapons that gave them a hell of an advantage in a fight, but I had a sneaking suspicion skills would matter more than cool armor in a fair fight.
Which meant we had to be on guard as we made our way through a forest infested with Horizon Dawn players trying to keep us from doing exactly what we were trying to do.
Even if it had been a quiet walk through the woods so far. Quiet and productive. I’d been exploring the various branches of the Spellcraft skill tree to see what I could look forward to as I got more and more skill points.
Right now I could only add a simple spell infusion to a piece of armor. Sure the game was new enough that even a simple spell infusion was enough to give them a heck of an advantage, sure when potions and their flat bonus to all our combat abilities were added into that, but that wouldn’t last.
For now, though, I figured that evened the score just a little. Not to mention we’d been playing Horizon modules for a while now, so it's not like we were strangers to playing a Lotus style game, even if we hadn’t been playing Lotus Online for very long.
Of course the problem with that equation, bonuses from skills versus bonuses from armor, was anyone we went up against out here would naturally be someone from Horizon who had Horizon armor in addition to whatever skill bonuses they'd gotten from being in the game for a month.
Which meant we had to keep quiet and listen for anything coming at us, because we were going to be at a hell of a disadvantage in a fight no matter how you sliced it. Unless we were lucky enough to come across a bunch of Horizon Dawn people gathered in a group, but I didn’t think that was going to keep happening for long.
“Does this skirt have to be so short?" Keia asked.
I looked at her. More particularly I looked at the way her cloth skirt barely went down below her unmentionables. It was the kind of skirt that showed off plenty of leg while also revealing that nerd culture still hadn’t come very far when it came to depictions of female armor in video games despite women making up more than half of the gamer demographic these days. Still, I couldn’t help but grin and enjoy the show.
Both because she was so annoyed and because she looked so damn good in the sexy healer outfit.
"Sorry about that," I said. "I had no idea what that would look like on you when I bought that bit of armor. It was totally different when I modeled it on my character.”
She stuck her tongue out at me. That bit about the armor being different when I had a look wasn’t entirely the truth, I could see what it looked like on male and female character models before hitting the buy button on the Auction House, and I had a sneaking suspicion she had a sneaking suspicion I wasn’t telling the whole truth.
"I don't even need my stealth archer abilities with an outfit like this," she said. "I'd be able to distract them by flashing some leg."
Kristoph blushed and pointedly kept his eyes pointed at Keia's face, and not down below at the tight outfit that exposed plenty of her stomach and breasts up top while being little more than a miniskirt down below.
It wasn't exactly the infamous chain mail bikini that’d been the subject of so much debate and navel gazing in fantasy circles and gaming fandom over the years, but it was certainly just as revealing in its own way.
“You’re the one who said you wanted to try healing,” I said.
“I know,” she growled. “I just didn’t realize that armor for a healing class wasn’t going to be much better than the skintight leather I was stuck in for the stealth archer!”
I shrugged, and pointedly looked her up and down to let her know just how much I appreciated her new armor choice. She rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at me again, but the blush that came to her cheeks told me she maybe didn’t mind my appraisal as much as she was letting on.
"Okay," Keia said, pausing and inspecting our surroundings like she was looking for something. What that something was I had no idea, but she seemed to know what she was doing out here so she was navigating for now. "I think we need to go this way if we're going to reach one of the mines that has a crafting facility in it."
"You know that's interesting," I said.
"What's interesting?" Keia asked.
"That they have crafting facilities at all in those mines," I said.
“What’s weird about that?” Kristoph asked.
"It just seems odd that they’d put in crafting facilities for a bunch of NPCs," I said. I turned to Keia. “When you were running through those mines with Horizon Dawn did you see any of the goblins crafting? Or were they all mining and the crafting stuff was just there for decoration?”
"Hard to tell," Keia said. "By the time we got deep enough to get to the forges the goblins were usually running in terror. Not working on their crafting. Assuming that was ever something they did.”
"Fair enough," I said, trying not to think too hard about the picture she'd just painted for me.
Still, it was something to think about. There were a lot of ideas moving around in my mind. Ideas that seemed crazy. I wasn't sure if they were all going to fit together. I was looking at puzzle pieces from a distance and trying to figure out exactly how they might fit together, with no idea if my plan would work.
The goblins had crafting facilities in the mines they worked. Could that mean the goblins were capable of a crafting the same as player characters? It certainly seemed like the kind of realistic touch that would be in a game like Lotus.
That would be interesting, under certain circumstances, considering some of the skills I was reading up on as I moved through the Spellcrafting skill trees to get an idea of where I wanted to take this skill. There were lots of skills that were still greyed out, for the moment, but they were there, giving me tantalizing glimpses of what the future might hold.
Like the Mercantilism path which gave me an advantage if I managed to set up a trade empire of Spellcrafted goods. That teased the possibility that a trade empire was something that was possible in this game.
Of even more interest was the Manufactories skill tree. I could pass off some of my Spellcrafting mojo to other players or NPCs, and I would gain skill points from them using Spellcrafting to manufacture goods. The tooltip was very specific that it applied to both players and NPCs. Sure the skill point raises were fractional compared to what they would be if I was doing spell infusions myself, but if I got a lot of people I could trust to somehow work on mass producing items…
If I was reading this correctly then I could basically spark what amounted to an industrial revolution in the game. I could pass off my Spellcrafting skills to others I trusted to do the work for me and mass-produce items then sell them to a gaming population who’d already proved more than willing to buy my stuff.
I felt that familiar tingling. The one that came when I was onto something. That hit me when I was close to figuring out a way to break a game and bend it to my will. Only I was looking at something here that could potentially break the entire game’s economy rather than something small like discovering a combat loophole that would let me kill a gamemaster.
There was still a lot to work out, there were still lots of those puzzle pieces that had to come together, but a master plan was starting to coalesce in my mind at long last. A plan that involved more than pissing off the local guild that represented Horizon.
Either way my plan still involved fucking with Horizon Dawn and, by proxy, Horizon. It’s just that this was something that would allow me to hurt them on a scale I’d never imagined before. A scale that went beyond even the fallout they had to deal with when I’d tricked one of their GMs into admitting knowledge of people killed by their modules.
"You okay there?" Keia asked.
I blinked and came back to reality. The trees around me were completely different. I must’ve been on autopilot for a good little while.
"Totally," I said, looking to my companions. “I’m… What the hell happened to Kristoph?”
Kristoph glared at me as he clutched a big beefy arm in a big beefy hand. He was bleeding from the thing, and I immediately looked around to try and figure out where the attack was coming from.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“It’s okay,” Keia said, giggling in a way that put me at ease. I figured she wouldn’t be giggling if this were an emergency.
"I'm not okay," Kristoph said. "This has to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard of!”
Keia rolled her eyes. "Do you want me to get any better at this?"
"I do," Kristoph said. "Anything that has you not firing arrows at me is A-OK in my book, but do we have to train you this way?"
Kristoph looked to me as though he was expecting a rescue.
“Um, what the hell training are you talking about?”
“Watch and learn,” Keia said. “You’re not the only one who can come up with workarounds and loopholes to game rules.”
She reached out and wiggled her fingers over Kristoph’s wound which healed up rather nicely. There wasn’t even a scar.
“Okay, so Kristoph hurt himself and you healed it. What’s the big deal?”
Kristoph sighed. Put his dagger to my arm and sliced. I winced, that had to hurt considering how realistic the pain simulation was in this game, but then Keia did the wiggling thing again and the wound was gone.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Powerleveling on a convenient target!” Keia said. “You didn’t hear Kristoph swearing?”
“I was preoccupied,” I said. It said something about how preoccupied I was with that plan that I’d missed Kristoph slicing himself open so Keia could heal him.
“Must be working. You're already getting better at that!" I said.
When she’d first started the healing hadn’t been nearly so instantaneous. I well remembered Kristoph gurgling as her healing did next to nothing to help with the arrow stuck in his neck.
“That seriously works?” I asked.
“Yup!” Keia said. “He’s damaged. I heal. Why wouldn’t it work?”
“I wonder if that’d work with combat,” I mused.
Keia and Kristoph’s miniature party portraits disappeared from the edge of my user interface. I looked around in confusion, then the world went dark around me. I woke up a moment later staring up at trees with a strange tingling running over me.
Keia stood over me with a frown.
“That wasn’t funny,” she said.
An invitation to rejoin the party came up. I accepted and pulled myself up on my elbows. Kristoph stood with his hammer in hand grinning down at me.
“That took out a big chunk of your health,” he said. “I think as far as powerleveling goes, whacking each other isn’t the best. It’d be faster to kill some low level stuff.”
“You hit me,” I said.
“Only a little,” Kristoph said.
“On the bright side I got a whole skill point from healing you!” Keia said. “You were on death’s door there.”
“I’m so happy for you,” I said, pulling myself up and glaring at Kristoph.
“Hey, you’re the one who’s always going on about how we need to test systems in games. Figure out how to exploit them. I just figured out we can’t whack each other to level efficiently,” Kristoph said.
“You’re enjoying every minute of this, aren’t you smartass?” I growled.
“Maybe,” he said, whirling his hammer down and leaning against it.
“At least it works for healing," Keia said. “Doing this is really helping me level those skills!"
Kristoph grumbled as he sliced his arm again, and I went back to scouting the woods around us for flowers I could pick or a random goblinsteel ore vein I could mine.
It’s not like I could spot or hear any danger before Keia did. Her listening and spotting skills were way better than anything I or Kristoph had.
“Come on,” I said, not seeing anything worth gathering around here. “Try not to make too much noise while you’re powerleveling in the middle of the enemy infested forest.”
“I’ll do my best,” Kristoph said through gritted teeth as Keia healed him up again.
I shook my head and wondered if I looked this crazy to Keia and Kristoph when I was exploiting loopholes.
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!