Maya sat in the dim dungeon for several minutes, trying to get her stunned brain to start thinking of something useful to do. She crossed the door and pushed on it without much hope. It didn't move. Unsurprising.
She checked her stats. Her luck debuff had worn off, but the base stat hadn't reverted to -100 yet so it was still the same day.
She banged her fists on the door. "Hello? Anyone out there? I'm awake and very confused!"
Maya spun. Someone now sat in the chair she'd just vacated. The brown and red garbed player who’d nearly run her over by the gates, the same one who’d just snatched her out of the mage academy seemingly without resistance.
He spoke rapidly. "I've been told to speak with you. I do not know why the Guard suddenly wishes to begin a war between Domitius and Shardlord, but I do not appreciate being used to instigate it. Ask your questions, and give me my letter."
Maya stared at him uncomprehending for a moment, then she remembered. The guard captain. His friend who kept running into her. She'd asked to speak with him.
Maya laughed in confused relief. "Of all the reasons I'd been kidnapped, that is not one I would've guessed."
"You haven't been kidnapped. I simply brought you to a secure location where we could talk without your new acquaintances interrupting us."
"So, just to be clear, once were done talking I can go? I'm not actually a prisoner?"
"Absolutely. I have no reason to hold you any longer than desire. If you wish, you may go right now. All I need from you is the message with which you've been entrusted. I trust you know that it is intended for me?"
"Yes. I am aware of that."
Maya couldn't bring to mind any of the questions she'd wanted to ask him. They stared at each other, the man impatient, Maya breathing deeply as her adrenaline slowly faded.
When she finally spoke, her voice came out slow and faltering. "Um. You're always running around doing quests for the Guard, but when you came running into the mage academy, someone shouted Domitian. And you just said you didn't like being used to start a war between Shardlord and Domitius. Does that mean you are, um, Domitian?"
She knew that was a dumb question, but it was the only thing she could think to ask.
"Indeed. I am working to gain favor for Domitius with the Guard. I believe that together we can do great things. It would be remiss of me not to work my hardest toward that end."
"I heard Domitius is trying to take control of trade, much like Shardlord is trying to control magic."
"When there is an opportunity for gain, one naturally takes advantage of it. That is all. Shardlord is no better than anyone else. He simply seeks power in a different way, a fact that his sycophants remain willfully oblivious to."
"How did you get me all the way here from the mage Academy without being stopped? Was it some sort of teleportation spell?"
"There is no such thing as a teleportation spell. I picked you up and I carried you. And I escaped by moving too quickly for them to form a plan to stop me. I'm sure that if I attempt the same thing tomorrow, they'll be prepared and have measures in place, but since no one has ever attempted such a thing in the past they had no contingency measures to prevent someone from physically running in and grabbing someone at dinner."
"I saw a lot of spells being thrown. Did you seriously evade all of them?"
"Of course. As Domitius's primary liaison to the guard and the Council, I could hardly allow myself to be the sort of person Shardlord's minions could bring down easily. Not to say they haven't tried on multiple occasions, though I don't think I've ever faced so many once before. It was probably imprudent to grab you during dinner, but as I don't know where your room is and have more important things to do with my time, it seemed the most expedient way to reach you. How many more questions do you have?"
"I don't know! I don't remember what I planned to ask, what with being suddenly abducted from dinner! You really couldn't think of any other way to get my attention?"
"Like I said, I don't have time for nonsense. The guard captain offered a substantial reward for answering your questions. I accepted, since my job is to ensure they are pleased with Domitius, however unconventional the quest may be. I warn you now, I will not betray Domitius's confidences. If you ask me anything beyond simple questions anyone on the street could tell you, I will have to refuse. I'm happy to play tour guide, but I will not be used as a resource for a spy."
"You don't have to worry about that. I'm not a spy. I'm not even officially associated with Shardlord. I just want to learn magic."
The man watched her, waiting. Maya paced slowly. Why couldn’t she think of anything to ask? All her questions had flown out of her head. She kept thinking about Shardlord and Domitius.
"Who are you, anyway?" she asked, to buy time.
"You convinced the guard captain to go to all the trouble of arranging a meeting without even knowing who I am? I see that considering you to be a spy is giving you altogether too much credit. I am Rominian. In addition to being Domitius's liaison to the guard and the Council, I’m also the liaison from world 4187's Tiberionn guild."
"Do you know anyone on world 01?"
"Of course not. Do you think I'd be playing courier on 9352 if I had that sort of contact?"
"Is world 01 really that special?"
"World 01 has the highest population of any shard, one of the few with no population limit. But it's invitation-only. Almost everyone wants to end up there one day. It's the founders' world. Where all of this began, centuries ago. And it's the one world with no leaks. Not even archival screenshots. No one knows what it's like except people who've been there for themselves. And they're not talking."
Maya sighed. So much for visiting Drew anytime soon.
"Is there any way to get a message to them there? A forum or anything I could post on? I need to get in touch with Andrew Stader."
"01 is even more isolated than 9352, and that's saying something. It's no wonder Domitius managed to stay hidden here for so long."
"Short answer, no?"
"As far as I know, 01 is sealed and impregnable."
So she couldn't even send a message. It was strange, the news felt almost like relief.
"So you're really loyal to Domitius. Why? What's so great about him? If he and Shardlord are just two different people seeking power into different ways, what made you choose Domitius?"
"Domitius is not just another seeker of power. He does gather power, but not in the same ways or for the same reasons as others. He would have no desire to reach world 01, unlike so many others. Instead he seeks to make this world a place as desirable to live in. He's not here to win. He's playing the meta, working toward unlocking global achievements that benefit the entire shard, not just grubbing for personal power.
“Given the option, I'll choose to follow Domitius every time. All Shardlord cares for is being the best, or being seen as the best. He wants everyone to know his name and praise him for being at the top of the leaderboard. I can't think of a more useless purpose in life. Can you? To set your goals so low, to seek something so petty? 'I want everyone to see how much better I am than they are?'
“Not Domitius. He knows that worlds like this one are the future. There's no way for everyone to be content in a given world. We are too different, too varied, too diverse. World 01 is not an answer for everyone. There need to be different worlds, different standards. Domitius understands this. He is preparing for the future."
"You're sure?” Maya asked. “Because I see his name at the very top of the leaderboard too. Why isn't it you up there? Or someone else?”
"It would not be right for me to usurp his position. I could. Anyone could. If we each hoarded what we gained in his name, instead of giving it to his cause, we could all be level 40 or higher."
"You're not even level 40?"
"I will be one day, but it isn't something to rush into. I'd rather know that my actions are contributing to the greater cause than hoard advancement for myself. The world is too small still to be seeking personal gain. There’s too much expansion to be done first."
Maya’s heart sank. "Is there more than just the one city? Or is this as far as the world goes?"
"Unlocking additional zones are global achievements. Right now we have two cities and four wilderness zones. Domitius is close to unlocking a fifth. The requirements for cities are higher and more difficult to fulfill. I'm assuming that there is a way, we just haven't found it yet."
"What kind of requirements are they? How do you find out about them?"
"They vary from world the world. The other world I play on, 4187, has 18 cities on interconnected islands and only underwater wilderness zones. It all depends on what type of world it is."
"Do the increases also add players? Is that why some worlds have more or fewer slots than others?"
"Yes. The default is 100. Each unlocked zone adds room for an additional 50 players."
"And how long has this world been open? A year? Months? Years? A century?"
"I joined after the second expansion, when word got out of who Domitius was. I don't know how old the world was by then, but I've been playing a year and a half now."
"He's done this on other worlds, then?"
"No, but he's played other games. I knew him as Rominius when he played Destiny of Destruction. He disappeared two years ago and for a while everyone assumed he was dead. When news got out that he’d instead migrated into this game, well. He's popular enough that there was a run on available slots in world 9352. I'm surprised you were able to get in, from what I've heard there's a very long waiting list."
"I'm permanent," Maya said, feeling suddenly strange about it. She'd never been more than lower middle-class or upper lower class at any point in her short life on earth. But she kept getting special treatment in the game. To be suddenly singled out here, whether because of Drew or her status as permanent, it just felt odd.
"That's one way to jump the line, but I’m surprised there isn’t a waiting list for that as well."
Maya shrugged. "I don't know. I woke up to a character screen, designed a few characters, and logged in. I didn't know there was anything special about 9352, it was just the first option to show up that I liked the look of."
"You didn't even try to get in? How does a random end up jumping the line without even trying?"
"Don't ask me."
"Normally open slots are held for those on the waiting list, but if you're permanent and the opening just happened to show right as you logged in, that could be enough to bump you up in priority."
"So what's going on here is exceptional? This is not a normal world?"
Rominian shook his head. "Most worlds are run by guilds, not individuals. Of course, I say most, but really there is no such thing. Each world is unique. Most of the worlds I know of are run by guilds. There is no one template from which all the worlds were devised. They are as individual as their creators."
"And no one from world 01 comes here?"
"If they do, they don't announce themselves. They would be mobbed by supplicants. Like I said, nearly everyone wants to be in world 01. It's seen as an achievement, moving down to older and older worlds. In general. There are exceptions, of course. People stop playing all the time, moved to new worlds or new games. Auctions go up for slots in worlds in the low hundreds regularly. And there are worlds whose numbers can't make up for their broken ecology or system problems. If it's a boring and uninteresting world for players, too easy or too difficult, then expect a high turnover rate. Everyone wants to say they were on world 272, but no one actually stays there."
Maya couldn't help asking. "Why? What's wrong with world 272?"
"It's supposed to be a post-apocalyptic scenario, but the settings mean that basically the only resources in the game are what spawn with new players. Anything they bring from the tutorial is considered a treasure trove to the few players who remain there. There are about 30 or 40 permanents who stay there, call themselves elite survivors. They’re too high-level for anyone to unseat them. If you ever feel like having your character robbed and enslaved, 272 is the perfect world to get that out of your system.
"Occasionally new players try to take over the world, bring in a guild at a time, but no one really cares about 272. Even if they did succeed in overthrowing the old players, they'd get bored and leave themselves once the novelty wore off. It's not a fun place. At this point it would require admin interference to change the state of affairs there, but none of the characters there have enough invested into them to be worth making a fuss about.
"People would much rather advocate for a world worth saving, like 1881, 6263, 5003, or 4711. Those worlds require intervention, but 272 would need a complete overhaul."
"How many characters can a player have?” asked Maya. “And how do I unlock more slots?"
"You can have one slot per server, which is reserved for you as long as you log in at least once every 12 hours. After you fail to return, it will become available for two hours to anyone on a waiting list, then open to the public thereafter. You can create a character for any world that isn’t locked, but you'll only be able to play if there are less than the maximum currently logged in. You can swap between characters in your own slot, same as you can reload older versions of yourself. I believe you gain a new character slot with every 2nd tier unlock.
"There are some people who prefer to play as nomads, jumping from server to server wherever there's an opening, never settling down anywhere. Others choose a single server and just never leave.
"I personally play on two servers. 9352 and 4187. 4187 is where my guild is established, but I came here to follow Domitius. Once we open up enough slots, my guild is planning to migrate here as well. While some stats are little broken, this world has the flexibility to be a true home for us."
"Which stats are broken?" Maya asked. "Is agility one of them?"
"Agility isn't the problem. Specializations allow any sub stat be traded for any other. Speed is broken. It should have a cap. Probably around two or three. I have just shy of 22 at the moment. For reference, the average new player has about 1."
"You're actually literally moving, what, over 15 times as fast as me?" Maya shook her head in disbelief. "So what's your specialization?"
"I don't believe that is a necessary part of our conversation," he said, more slowly than he’d said anything else so far. “We have strayed from game systems and world information to personal questions, which I believe are not necessary to be shared with you. I hope you understand. But we all have our secrets."
He winked at her. At least she thought he did. The movement was so fast it could've just been her imagination.
"You're right. I'm sorry. I don't mean to pry. I know I have no right to demand that much of you." Maya pulled out the letter and held it out to him. "I wanted to meet another player, and I have. I'm sorry to have taken so much of your time, and I really had no desire to start trouble between Domitius and Shardlord. Please convey my apologies to Domitius, and I'll see if I can smooth things over with Shardlord."
To her surprise, he did not immediately snatch the letter and run off in a blur. He accepted it, somewhat absently, but remain seated, watching her.
She stared back. The silence began to grow uncomfortable.
"You are interesting," Rominian said at last. "I see now why Captain Larrens wanted me to meet you. The combination of ignorance and acceptance you display is unusual. With your permission, I'd like to meet again in a week or so. I am curious to see where your loyalties will lie once you learn more of our world.
"So long as you don't kidnap me and haul me off to a dark room next time," Maya said with a nervous laugh.
"Of course. I wouldn't dream of such discourtesy now that we are acquainted. Before I depart however, might I know your name?"
"You didn't know already? How did you find me?"
"Physical description. You are currently the only harpy running around in basic newcomer clothing. Most of the players have improved their outfits by now."
Maya felt herself blush, glad that it wouldn’t be visible to Rominian. "Maya. Maya Starborn, currently ranked 250 out of 250. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, even if our meetings have always been somewhat tumultuous."
"You almost ran me over about four times. It's fine. I know you high speed characters must regard the rest of us as merely obstacles to avoid. You don't seem as rude in person."
Rominian shrugged. "I have a lot to do. The sooner we maximize reputation with the Council, the sooner we can gain authorization for an expedition into unknown lands. Not that Shardlord is making it any easier. I'm astonished by how much effort he seems to put into making our job harder. You would think he had a personal stake in seeing Domitius fail.
"Shardlord refuses to slow down, taking quests and potential favor gains that we desperately need. He knows he'd never be able to keep up with Domitius if he weren't constantly trading favor for high-end items and exclusive dungeon access, but beyond that he also wastes rewards on frivolous things like cosmetic items.
"This short sighted consumption of city resources makes it difficult for us to accomplish anything important. All that matters to him is making sure everyone knows how great he is. He doesn't care about the long-term future of world 9352. He doesn't care about anything except himself and his reputation.
"He's utterly unwilling to give up even a day of his reputation gains to allow us time to reach the threshold we need. Why should he? As far as he's concerned, he and his little group are keeping up with a power leveling guild centered around a single person. To him, Domitius is a rival to be defeated, not someone with whom cooperation is possible. Any delay would mean he falls behind Domitius in the endless race to the top, and he can't allow that. Not until he hits max level."
"Are you sure Shardlord can’t be negotiated with? Have you ever explained to him why you need so much reputation? He seemed pretty ordinary to me."
Rominian gave her an appraising look, clearly surprised. "You've met Shardlord in person? After joining the game so recently? He hardly ever leaves his tower except to run dungeons with his lackeys."
"I just wanted to join the mage academy, and he came out to admit me. Is it that unusual?"
"It is interesting, to say the least. Thank you for this information. I'll be sure to keep an eye on any new arrivals."
Maya frowned uncertainly, but before she could think of anything else to say, Rominian stood in a blur and the door squealed open behind her. She turned just in time to see him pause in the doorway.
"Thank you for the message. Have fun, Maya. Whichever side you end up on. Remember, it is just a game after all." He winked again, a flicker of movement so quick it almost be mistaken for nothing.
Then he was out the door and gone. She ran after him, but he was out of sight by the time she reached the hallway outside.
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I've been writing longer than I can remember, but only started taking it seriously around '08 when I discovered nanowrimo and started attending conferences. Since then I've written several million words of practice stories leading up to posting here starting in '19.
My goal is to continue to perfect my craft and find a way to make writing my fulltime occupation rather than an obsession pushed aside by the necessity of working to support myself. Whether that means traditional or independent publication, building a strong patreon following, or something else entirely, I have yet to discover.
I always welcome suggestions for improvement and gladly accept all feedback, positive or negative. Don't hesitate to let me know what you think, and please consider leaving a rating or review! :)
(If you're looking for my cover thread, it's at https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/110578 )