A note from Josh Bender

Well here is the next chapter, and I may post a second today if I have the time. This chapter is a bit short, and I don't feel as if it quite meets my normal quota.

Today is my day off and I have a bit more free time on my hands, but I think I'll be spending much of it working on Sky Drifters and other projects I've been putting off.    Once I finish this volume, I'll hopefully be ready to continue Sky Drifters and complete that one while I work on the next arc of this story.  

The book is about to enter the next phase of it's devlopment, and there is a lot to cover in the next few chapters.    Thank you all for keeping tabs on the story, and I really appricate the support.  

The next day, I woke up early on my own and sat in the chow hall eating stew, looking around for Kirk. He wasn’t around, and I wondered when he would log in. I couldn’t wait to tell him about my breakthrough.

Idly I toyed with my medallion and winced every time it turned and showed my nearly expended balance of credit. Soon I would have to go out and earn my keep. Hopefully I would have Kirk with me next time.

There was a clatter and thump, and I started as a group of players sat down around me, yanking me abruptly from my happy daydreaming.

The smile of excitement on my face began falling away as I realized it was the creepy guy in black robes, and his posse. “Ah... if it isn’t Kirk’s little stray.” He turned a big smile on me and waved a hand at one of his minions. He twirled a glowing token in front of me and I looked in shock, as it had an engraved fifty credit mark. When I frowned he smirked at me and my wide-eyed expression at the coin.

“Heard you can heal… we need a healer, and your better off with us.” He smiled and I narrowed my eyes. “We can pay you much better than Kirk, what’s he contracted you with? Or hasn’t he even paid you yet?” I inched away from the man who was definitely too far into my personal space.

“Um… not really that interested in joining up with a group… I’m still training you know.” I said carefully and he shrugged.

“Why you suddenly want me now? I bet you knew I was a healer before, it’s not like it was a secret or anything.” I asked. He shrugged, and I saw him study me for a moment. I didn’t trust these people and if they thought I’d just leave Kirk for credits they were wrong.

The man nodded to his minion and another fifty-credit token was produced. “Two weeks pay, up front. You can go bank it. We know your deal with them, and they won’t mind if we take you off Kirk’s hands. We have a special arrangement with them.” He grinned as if the matter was already settled.

It was a really tempting offer, but I shook my head. I trusted Kirk, and to me trust was far more valuable than credit. My father had told me all about people like these, who thought loyalty could be bought at a price. Those sorts of people didn’t really look at people like assets, they looked at them like tools, and tools could be cast aside.

There was a clatter of a bowl and Kirk pushed his way into a spot beside me, a classic Kirk smirk on his face.

“Ah heard about Sid… what a pity he ditched you guys. Looking for a new healer, are we?” He popped a boiled potato into his mouth and closed his eyes as if it was the tastiest bland, boiled potato ever.

“Stay out of our business Kirk! Now if you don’t mind… we were having a discussion…” Their leader said through gritted teeth. Kirk simply gave an mmmm of pleasure as he leaned back.

“You know it is satisfying… watching you guys beg a new fish just because you can’t keep a healer happy. This is what your third time losing a healer or an alchemist?” He grinned at them, and I rolled my eyes as I stood up.

“You going for your run this morning Kirk?” I asked and he nodded.

“Yea was expecting you to sleep in again…. You don’t normally get up this early.” I nodded and we both ignored the fuming group behind us as he quickly downed his stew and gave me a wink as I frowned at him.

“I’m not a morning person…” I grumbled. I was used to sleeping in, actually was used to only having a few waking hours a day. It did make a refreshing change since I had joined Endaria, just last week I had only been awake one or two hours out of four. My mind froze and I began mentally counting the days since I had been in Endaria.

Had it been seven or eight? I couldn’t quite remember, and my heart pounded when I realized it had been at least eight days. I was supposed to have been pulled out by now.

Suddenly panicking, I franticly tried to pull up my interface, but once again it was absent, I wanted that log out button but it just wasn’t there.

Kirk must have sensed my mood suddenly change and he watched me warily. “Let’s go, want to run you through your morning drill first before we run.” He said, but I felt sick and trapped. I looked at my hands and tried to calm down but those hands, they were shaking.

“You ok Nim?” He whispered when he saw me staring at my hands and I mutely nodded. I looked at him and wondered if I could tell him what was going on. Would he believe me?

“Can we go somewhere private?” I asked and he shrugged and motioned for me to follow him. The meditation room was empty, so we went inside and he shut the door, locking it. “What’s up… you ok?” He asked and I shook my head.

“I….I…” I tried to open my mouth to speak, but my mind just went blank and fuzzy. I tried again, but my throat locked up. I felt sick and faint, sinking to the ground gasping for air as I tried to speak again, tried to say something but once again my mind blanked out, this time followed by a splitting headache. Something was wrong, why couldn’t I tell him?

“Ok… I’m going to go get Saskin… something is not right. Stay here.” He opened the door and sprinted off. I clutched myself and shook, as I began to sob. I was running out of time, and couldn’t log out, and say goodbye to my father… what would happen if my character died the final death, and I couldn’t log out to make a new one? Would I be trapped in that darkness? I knew that you had to initialize a reset on the capsule, it couldn’t be done in game.

There had to be a failsafe if something went wrong. Gentech wouldn’t build capsules without that sort of thing and VirtualDreams wouldn’t make a game you couldn’t leave.

I had been told that I could log out if the game was too intense and I needed a break. No… something had gone very wrong, and the fact that they had not logged me out on their end, well after the proposed time for the one-week checkup was proof that it was something serious.

“This one is very busy, traveler Kirk, I charge for advice you know…” I heard a very annoyed Saskin whine as she was dragged into the room. Her voice trailed off when she saw me crying and clutching myself, my eyes shut as I screamed in my mind to log out.

“Please leave us traveler Kirk. Let me speak alone with the troubled one.” She shooed Kirk out of the room and turned to regard me.

Saskin sat down next to me and I felt warm arms grip me as she wrapped me in a hug. “Do not despair… friends are stronger together, tell me now what is wrong.” I tried to speak, and when my words failed me and I felt the woozy blankness. I saw Saskin’s own eyes widen.

“That is the work the great seal! You are trying to tell me something it does not want you to.” She narrowed her eyes and took a deep breath. I looked at her with confusion.

“What… what is the great seal? I mean I’ve heard of it, and I know some of what it does, but I don’t understand what it is.” I asked and she nodded.

“One to blind us. One to bind us… all to seal us and Endaria keep us.” She chanted and I looked at her curiously in confusion. I had heard that rhyme before when I had researched the great seal on the forums before I had joined the game.

It was a children’s rhyme that the locals often quoted, and was a great enigma to the other players. “Travelers… they are not normally greatly affected by the great seal… but you, you are different…. Puzzles this one….” She trailed off and then turned to me.

“Have to tell Kirk…have…” I choked off as the seal gripped me and she shook her head.

“Won’t work to try and tell this one either, if it has you in it’s grip you have to find a way to get around it or trick it. That is possible you know.” She grinned at me and I sighed.

“This one had thought it was… something else, but while we are alone here…it is quite the accomplishment! You have condensed your power into a core… very good…” She said and I her gaze was locked on me, her eyes flashing milky white for a moment.

“It’s important! I need to…” My mind blanked out and she just shook me.

“Stop it! Do not toy with the great seal! If it is important you will find a way! Worse things can happen if you force it to bind you tighter!” She huffed at me and I nodded.

“Now…” She stood up and dragged me to my feet. Handing me a white lacy handkerchief she pointed to my eyes. “Does no good… to always be at your worst.” Her smirk lifted my spirits as I wiped away tears and took a deep breath.

Kirk popped his head in, concern on his face. “You guys have a good talk? Can you tell me what is going on Nim?” When I shook my head, he gave a sigh.

“I really wish you would just tell me… you’ve been really weird since yesterday and that obstacle course. If it makes you feel any better, I’m a high-end rank B, so don’t feel bad if it takes a bit for you to catch up.” He said and I stared again at his player tag, for the first time reading his rank. He was even higher ranked then that knight, Vance.

“Its not that… it’s something else..” I trailed off, then I smiled at him.

“I figured something out last night, when I was meditating. I have a core of power now!” His eyes lit up and he beamed at me.

“You finally finished the skill tree for novice in meditation? How did you do it without a trainer?” He asked and frowned at my utter look of confusion.

“Skill tree?” I asked and he frowned.

“Do… you use your interface?” He asked, as if he couldn’t believe it. At my look of shock, he smiled. “Your one of those players then… well actually it makes more sense now.” He nodded and grinned again.

“Not many people realize that there are advantages to not using the interface. I had to learn that lesson the hard way, and turned mine off only a couple of weeks ago. Its much easier to intuitively learn with it off, even if it does teach you things through the skill tree, it is a better idea to let Endaria itself teach you. I was wondering why you were learning so fast…”

“Did someone tell you to turn it off from the start?” He asked, and I nodded.

“That player must have been a high rank vet then, because it is something that only now is being experimented with and talked about on the forums. I’m still kicking myself for not listening to everything when Killkenny started putting his stuff about Vander up. You know it was him that made the discovery public right? You watch any of his casts?”

I shook my head, and frowned. I had done some research about Endaria, and looked over forums and talked to people who played. That’s how I knew about some of the basics like the great seal. I had heard of Vander, the infamous druid of Endaria. He was playing some sort of unique class that no one had been able to understand yet. The power that player wielded was rumored to have toppled a mountain.

I turned back to Saskin who seemed to have spaced out for a moment. She stood there and I watched her closely as her focus came back to me and she nodded to the both of us.

“This one bids you a good day, and will charge credit next time! Too busy! Do not bother again unless you pay!” She huffed and I grinned at the strange woman as she pushed past us, stomping down the hallway towards a conference room.

“Bah… she’s all bark…don’t let her fool you, she will help you if you need it badly enough. Saskin, will be… Saskin though.” He chuckled and turned back to me.

“You ready to train?” He asked and I nodded my head. He held out my training vest. “I had more weight added, and I think since you have a core now, I’ll have to quickly add more.” He gave me an evil grin when he saw my shoulders droop.

“Hey… your body is important! You can’t push lots of power through a weak character. You have to build up your strength, endurance, and agility… well if there is such a thing. What’s your body metric at now? Er if you don’t mind looking in your interface.”

I tried and failed to look into my interface and he frowned when the look of annoyance passed over my face. “Um, never mind. I can tell just by looking at you that you are improving but you do have a way to go.”

I put my hands on my hips and glared at him as he backed up. “Sorry… yea… next question.” He thought for a moment and motioned for me to put on my harness. I shrugged into the weighted harness and followed him as we left out the back way towards the bath houses. He fell into an effortless trot and I had to pick up my pace to keep up.

“Let’s scoop up the fishies…” He rubbed his hands together and I saw the crowd of fishes wearing their starter outfits, all practicing. They perked up when one of them spotted Kirk.

“Morning run!” He called out and his usual group fell into pace with us, leaving a few very confused looking players behind. They were quickly urged to follow by the other vets.

We ran several circuits of the training ground, up and down the practice wall and around the main hub area. Every time people looked tired, he told us to stop and did pushups or sit-ups with us, then ran us through a little course I hadn’t seen to the side of the market. It was a series of ropes and bars. The people that had been working with our group from the start were told to run across the taunt rope, then he had us do pull-ups until each of us were completely exhausted. When we were about to drop, we ran to the maze.

When people stared at him in horror, at the sight of the maze one of the players spoke up. “Can’t we wait until we… are fresh to try it?” He gasped for breath and Kirk shook his head.

“You think you are going to run the labyrinth while fresh? More than likely you will have monsters far more powerful than you nipping at your heels! You will be surviving, sometimes going for hours without rest, and even wounded or poisoned! Your characters need to be pushed to the breaking point and beyond!” He pointed to the maze.

“This is a toy compared to the real thing… I’m not sure how many times each of you has died so far in Endaria, but let me tell you one thing that never ceases to amaze me. The locals only have one life, and they live here. They rarely ever die, even to the greatest threats and hardest parts of the labyrinth. You see they train from birth… you have a lot of catching up to do to meet their expectations.”

He pointed to all the times on the red zone board. “They have the best times… not us players. You want to impress them and get the good quests; this is where you do it.” He motioned me forward, and my stomach twisted for only an instant as I realized I was to run next.



A note from Josh Bender

As always, if you liked the chapter don't be shy, leave a comment.  I always check the comments before I work on chapters every day and will usually get back to you.  You guys are awesome, and I hope some of you will read Sky Drifters as I start it back up and finish that book.   There is a planned three book series there, though I don't know if it will ever come to anything.  I love airships, pirates and writing about flight, so probably it will take off and soar once I get back into the swing of things.   

About the author

Josh Bender

Bio: I've been writing for nearly as long as I've first laid eyes on a word processor. In the last few years, however I've begun to focus on longer works and less short stories, etc. I have three complete books I'm currently revising in my Infernal Engineers series, and one spin-off project: Sky Drifters.

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