The Misty Highlands were not as misty as Tasha had visualized.
In the midst of stony pinnacles, arches, plateaus, and deep gorges, not a single cloud of mist wafted over sparse gangly-looking trees and grimy soil. The river cutting through the gorge was bordering shades of brown, a gross smell lazing about in the air. Viscous, sticky ambient magic crawled on her skin.
Tasha asked no one in particular, "What do you think’s causing all the pollution?"
Munching on a nutty chocolate bar, Ayla said, "Who cares. We’ve got what we wanted. Is their Town Hall built yet?"
"Like thirty more minutes." And Gabrielle wasn’t responding again, meaning something big happened.
"Swore it was thirty more minutes thirty minutes ago." Ayla swallowed the last bite and let the wrapper fall down into the gorge.
Tasha watched the balled paper float. "Don’t do that once you're in their base."
"Litter. Gab is pretty big on environmentalism."
"Oh." An uncaring expression slowly changed into a considerate one. "But I guess I wouldn’t want to live in filth—or waste Sanitation Enchantments."
"Ya. How much did all that runestone cost?"
"Not much." Her tone was sly.
Tasha did best to not sigh. "Let me guess. You boinked another— Actually, I don’t want to know."
Ayla shrugged. Her eyes flicked toward the park bench across the field. "So who are we waiting for? What’s with the precaution?"
It occurred to Tasha that she hadn’t shared the plans of the cult. "Oh, we need more NPC followers, so we’re starting a cult… in the name of Draesear. Call it the Primrose Order for now."
And impressively, Ayla did not show an ounce of shock. She was absolutely cool with it. "Nice. Cults are good for organizing people. Just don’t promise anything too unbelievable."
A gentle frown pushed down Tasha’s brows. "Have you worked with cults?"
"Like as an attorney? No. But I’ve studied them."
Having a lawyer as a buddy was nice, Tasha mused. "Any tips?"
"It’s surprisingly easy. Just pander to the needs and wants of people, and soon you’ll have to turn people away." A certain edge flashed on her face. "Don’t let it get too big."
"That’s kind of obvious, but they want a, and I quote, a great kingdom in the north."
For once, Ayla showed surprise. Her large green eyes were stunning, envy souring Tasha’s mouth. "Then you’ll need a religion. It’s good that the gods actually can help. You mentioned Draesear?"
"Demon god, and what’s the difference between—"
"I don’t want to get into it, but basically one is a lot less controlling than the other." Ayla scratched her cheekbone. "I think I heard somewhere that each faction in this game has a religion or something along the lines of one. When you join, you basically pledge yourself to their chosen god."
That was news to Tasha. "Where’d you hear that?"
"Somewhere on the forums."
Tasha deadpanned. "That’s reading. You don’t hear with your eyes."
A ruddy eyebrow lifted. "Is it your time of the month?"
Tasha was about to retort as a figure walked into her field of view. Through the twisted trees, a young Lunar Elf approached the empty bench with short strides. Stained, baggy rags covered his upper body and thighs.
Queazy unease churned in Tasha’s chest. It had to be a child. Even if he were an NPC, this couldn’t be right. How did he even read the poster? She’d glued it pretty high up.
But Ayla clearly wasn’t of similar mind, walking through the tree with a bitchy strut. Her tight leather outfit clung to her curves without a single wrinkle. If only real clothing were as magical.
Tasha jogged to catch up, careful to not trip on any roots or slip, asking the game’s systems for a description window of the boy.
? : Lunar Elf (Level 10)
A level ten child! That was… Tasha wasn’t sure if that was rare.
Noticing their approach, the boy stood, his hand going for a strapped knife at his ankle.
"Easy there," Ayla said. "We’re not going to hurt you. Where are your parents?"
The boy did not answer.
Tasha helped herself to a steadying breath. No going back at this point. She silently promised herself to not let anyone hurt this little guy. "We’re with the Primrose Order. Are you a mortal in dire need?"
The boy relaxed by a touch. The bluish fair skin on his forehead flattened, his sharp deep-set eyes blinking twice. "Yes, I am an orphan." His voice was somewhat meek—and accented.
Ayla crouched in front of him. "What’s your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Jassin." Ayla smiled. "You’re lucky we found you before someone else did. Who takes care of you?"
"My big sister. She is coming."
Tasha took a seat next to him, catching a whiff of stench not too noticeable. She looked around through the park trees, not seeing anyone else. "Are you sure?"
"She is sick. I ran ahead."
"She’s sick, and you left her alone," Tasha scolded. She couldn’t help herself.
Those silver eyes dipped. "Sorry. I was excited. She needs medicine, and I am hungry."
"We can help with that." Ayla reached into her pouch, pulled out a chocolate bar. "Eat up."
Jassin snatched, zero hesitation. He ripped the paper wrapping and shoved the candy into his mouth.
Ayla chuckled. "Let’s look for your sister. Which way?"
Jassin pointed at the direction he had come, and Tasha followed his finger, squinting. True to his word, in the distance, a figure dressed in gray attire was stepping over the mess of roots and stones.
Suddenly, within a wink of reddish-white mana, Jassin’s sister appeared before them, a crooked staff in her grasp. A cloudy white gem the size of a grape was dimming in front of a thick scarf covering her neck and the bottom half of her face. She wore a straw hat, and her thick Mage robes were relatively clean though worn. She was quite diminutive, around Tasha’s height.
And she was a Sun Elf—an adoptive sister. Light auburn hair framed those unreasonably beautiful features, a shade tanner than most Sun Elves.
? : Sun Elf (Level 19)
She hacked a pained cough. "I am—" Another cough, worse. "I am Saeya Shatumal." Her free hand was holding the poster. She held it out as though it were some kind of voucher. "Please, help me. I have the Arctic Plague."
Tasha accepted it without pause. "What do you need for that?"
"You—" Cough, cough. "You do not know?"
"We’re adventurers, just arrived this world."
Apprehension narrowed those amber eyes. Saeya stepped back and reached for Jassin’s hand. "I have read of your kind. Is this a trap?"
Not the reaction I was expecting.
Ayla said in a cultish voice, "This is a test of faith. Come with us, and you shall be healed. You shall be saved. Leave behind your life of poverty. Leave behind your old gods. A new age is upon us."
Wow! That was direct. Tasha kept her face warm and composed.
Saeya took another step backward, but Jassin pulled her forward. "No, stay!" he pleaded. "She is not like them. She gave me food." The scrunched wrapper was in his fist.
Saeya hissed, "Did you poison him?"
"No, my status bar is empty," Jassin said.
Saeya ignored him. "Have you cursed his mind?"
"We didn’t," Tasha tried. "We really are trying to help. The Primrose Order is going to bring justice to the crimes of the Trolls and—"
The chatbox trilled a beep.
Gabby LeMort (To Tasha Namuso): Town Hall’s built! Come quick! ^_^ Coordinates passed!
Tasha NaMuso: OK! Give me a sec.
An incredible change of mood had whipped across Seaya’s eyes. She whispered, "Justice to—" Cough, cough, cough. "To Trollheim? My people will be avenged?" Cough.
Ayla smiled kindly. "Yes, the time for vengeance has come. We have been sent for this purpose. You only have to pledge yourself to your new god."
"Is it Sanger?" Jassin asked. "The god of light. Only he can be so merciful."
Seeing they were on the hook, Tasha said, "If you want to know more, follow through my portal." She grabbed her staff from her back and summoned a tide of magic from the center of being, from her heart. The three-word incantation fluttered off her lips, the glowing staff held high.
Like a vortex drilling into reality, the group portal expanded over the course of her channeling. Opaque swirls blocked view of the other side, but a chilly breeze was leaking through.
Ayla didn’t say a word before walking through.
"Well?" Tasha raised her chin.
With boyish glee, Jassin broke free of Saeya’s grip. He jumped in.
Then Saeya coughed and followed with slight wariness.
Mission successful. The Primrose Order was already growing. Tasha couldn’t stop a maniacal laugh taking over her body.
And besides, helping these two orphans wasn’t an evil act—far from it.