“Of all the places you could choose…” Arun sighed, rubbing his forehead.
Sitting opposite to him, Chitra kept an impassive face and sipped her coke, but the cold drink did nothing to lower the hot flush on her cheeks. She could feel Rose shaking beside her, struggling to hold back her laughter. And Rahul? He didn't hold back at all. His sniggering was loud enough to draw attention. A whole lot of attention.
“Give it a rest, you two!” Arun scolded, giving the seats around them a quick lookover. Really! If he knew this would happen, he'd have booked a private room.
“Sorry sorry!” Rose took nice, long breaths, calming herself as she patted Chitra’s back. “You did it this time, Chi. Caramis...” she stifled another giggle, “is seriously a bad place to start.”
“You don’t say,” Chitra grumbled, trying to put her cup down, but she let it go just a little away from the edge of the table. Her left hand shot up, snatching it from the air before it had the chance to drop on her lap and drench her dress.
“Ooh!” Rahul clapped. “Nice save!”
“Are you alright?” Arun asked, leaning forward.
“Fine,” Chitra's eyebrows drew together in a frown over her opaque glasses. She felt the table with her other hand, lifting the cup up and putting it down carefully. She’d misjudged the distance. And this wasn't the first time either. She'd been making a lot of clumsy mistakes since she came out of the game. Mistakes she would, under normal circumstances, never make. A side-effect... of sight?
[Your orders are here!] a lively voice brought her mind back to the cafe. The server drone, a three feet long oval machine hovered beside their table. Two mechanical hands extended from its sides, lowering a tray with two pepperoni pizzas before them before drawing back inside its elliptical body. The four of them smiled dipping their heads towards the drone and thanking it.
[You are welcome!] A pink sign of heart appeared on the machine's smooth, black glass surface. [Be sure to call me if you need anything else!] it chimed before gliding away.
“It's a new tech, isn't it?” Chitra asked, curiosity sprouting in her heart. “How does it look?”
“Umm…” Arun looked at the ceiling, but before he could find a proper way to explain it, Rahul solved his problem.
“Like an egg,” he said, gesturing with his hand. “Just, like, longer?”
“An egg.” Chitra nodded. “Right!”
She tried to picture it. Eggs weren't anything new to her, but she'd only known them through touch. Forming a proper, visual image of it... was difficult. Should she find some eggs in the game for reference?
Wait a sec...
Bloom's eyes narrowed as she held that thought. Since when did she start relying on sight so much?
“Well, since it's a new tech, you won’t see a lot of these ones though,” Arun said, drawing her attention. “At least, not in cafes, serving as a waiter. They've just started using them for police patrols and stuff.”
“How’d you know that? Isn’t one a waiter here?”
“Of course, he'd know!” Rose said. “You haven't been here before so you don't know, but Arun’s uncle owns this cafe.”
"Arun's uncle..." Chitra mused. "Wasn't he a soldier?"
“He's retired already. Now he's in the cafe business,” Arun said. “He got this drone through his connections in the army though.”
"Darned connections!" Rahul grumbled, angrily picking up a slice of pizza. “Like, my uncle never did anything this nice.”
Rose almost spurted her drink. Gulping it down somehow, she sent her brother a nasty glare.
We don’t even have an uncle.
"Anyway." Chitra turned towards Arun. "You said we're gonna celebrate today, but what's the occasion? Did any of you change your birthday or something?”
“Oh, didn’t we tell you? We finally got to level 10! We got our classes now.” Rose had a hint of pride in her voice.
“Level...10?” Chitra said sceptically. “That's something to celebrate?”
“Oh, you have no idea how hard it is to reach that, do you, Chi? Mobs are more powerful than a classless player of the same level.” Rose sighed. “We played for about half a month, and we got there only yesterday!”
“Yeah.” Arun nodded. “It'd have been easier if we had someone carry us, but we didn't, so..."
"At least, we have our classes now. Hunting would be a lot easier.”
Chitra maintained her silence as she listened to them. Half a month to reach level 10! What was her level again? 25? 26? It took her, like, two to three days to reach that. were they playing the same game? She'd literally breezed through those levels. But if she told them that now...
Let’s not! I don't wanna break their hearts.
“Well, forget about us,” Arun looked at Chitra, “How did your first gaming experience go, Chi?”
“My experience…” Chitra muttered, sorting through the memories of her 'experience'. They felt odd, somewhat alien, but not completely. As if a stranger's memories mixed with her own. Even thinking about them was tiring.
“Fine,” she answered with a short sigh. “It was fine.”
Seeing her overcast mood, Arun scrunched her eyebrows. Looked like, as he feared, she probably couldn't enjoy the game.
After all, it's Caramis.
“Don’t worry, Chi," He said, putting his hand over hers. "You’re still level one. Just delete the current character and start with a new setup. I'll give you a guide for the best starting stats.”
Bloom frowned. “No need,” she said, pulling her hand back and waved the notion away. “I'm satisfied. I don't wanna change anything for now.”
Arun opened his mouth, but looking at Chitra’s stubborn, set jaws, he closed it. When she had that look, nothing would change her mind.
"Like, what's the problem?" Rahul said. “If Chi's stuck in Caramis, can't we just go there?”
Arun's eyes widened. “That’s brilliant! Since we've got our classes now, going on exploration would be the best choice."
“But there’s no fast travel option in Finitum yet," Rose said. "It’d take close to a month to get to Caramis.”
“So what, are we supposed to just leave Chi there alone? Don’t you know how Caramis is? Do you want Chi to be stuck at level one?”
Rose lowered her head. “I didn't mean that…”
“Hey! Don’t talk to her like that!” Chitra frowned towards Arun.
Arun awkwardly scratched his head, looking at Rose in apology. The girl shook her head. “It’s okay, I don’t mind. After All, you are in a difficult situation, Chi.”
"No. Your concern is totally valid. Besides, I never said I need any help from you guys. Just do your own thing. I'll figure something out."
“No no, we can’t leave you alone in a place like Caramis," Arun said. "Besides, even though it'd be a long journey, travelling and exploring have their own advantages. You can fight mobs while travelling, explore dungeons, and successfully reaching new landmarks gives you an experience boost. So it's totally worth it.”
Chitra pursed her lips in thought. Although it'd be embarrassing if they find out her levels and stuff, she just couldn't deny Arun's enthusiasm. Besides, the notion of playing with them did entice her a bit. Still...
"Are you sure?" she asked once more.
"Absolutely!" Arun's voice brimming with determination drew a sigh out of her.
“Do what you want.”
“I heard that old refugee working at your garden has been mingling with the new immortal that descended a few days ago,” A bald old man with a flowing white beard reaching his chest said to the stout, brown-haired village-chief sitting across the table from him. “First you, now your gardener. You do know this isn’t looking good for you in front of the circle.”
“Please don’t worry, elder Jonas." Vogan chuckled, pushing a silver cup and plate in front of the elderly man. A sweet aroma wafted out from the smoke twirling above the clear, brown liquid.
“Although I don’t know much about this new immortal, you don’t have to worry about the Vista guild. They have made a good deal with us. The funding they are providing would be a great help in improving Caramis. All they want in return is to build a good relationship.”
“Improving the village..." Jonas muttered. "It's been some time, but we still haven’t seen those ‘improvement’ you speak of. I can tell you the circle is not too pleased.”
Vogan's thick eyebrows creased, creating a few gullies on the skin of his forehead. “About that. I would like you to be patient for a while," he said, knuckling his thick moustache. "I am planning a surprise, and if I'm not wrong, everything should be ready before the spring festival.”
"Well, I wouldn't mind a surprise event, but..."Jonas paused for a sip of the aromatic tea and released a sigh of contentment. “This tea is quite good!"
“Yes, it’s the famous brew from mount Wesbrill. The Vista guild brought it to me as a gift,” Vogan said. “I heard it's quite expensive.”
The taste of the tea he'd praised a moment ago, suddenly felt unpleasant in Jonas's mouth. The wrinkles on his aged face creased as he twisted his lips in displeasure. “No, thank you, I don’t need any of that,” he said, putting the half-empty cup down, and stood up. “I will take my leave now, but you should warn your gardener. Sheltering someone like him is already inauspicious, I don’t want him bringing in more trouble with one of those deathless.”
“Cut the man some slack, would you? He is just a poor, homeless fellow. Even if he was a resident of the empire once, that is all in the past. A person like him, what trouble is he ever going to cause?”
“By Hagrath, Vogan! The empire was attacked by the…” Jonas gritted his teeth, stopping the sentence midway. “Honestly, if not for the fairy, we would have never sheltered such seeds of disaster. Who knows what kind of misfortune that father-son pair could bring.” He scowled, turning towards Vogan and said, "I am serious. Warn him to stay away from the deathless, or we would not hesitate to drive him out of the Village."
“Well, alright, I’ll warn him.” Vogan sighed. “What about his son though? Wasn’t he an apprentice of elder Brian?”
“That boy? He has been learning medicines to cure some disease of that refugee. Though it's unlikely for him to succeed. From what old Brian told me, that man is not ill. He is cursed."
"Yes." Jonas paused, squinting at the window behind Vogan. "Come to think of it, that child had disappeared for two days without delivering the herbs Brian asked him to fetch. I remember him complaining this morning.”
“Two days, huh…” Vogan frowned. "Did something happen to him?"
"Who knows? Maybe crows took the boy."
"Crows..." Vogan shook his head quietly. What a pity!
He'd kept an eye on that kid for a while now, even thinking of recruiting him to his cause. After all, he had a close relationship with the next…
“Either way, good riddance, I say,” Jonas harrumphed as he turned around and headed towards the door. He took down his green cloak hanging from the coat rack and turned towards Vogan. “Be careful how you deal with things, Vogan. The time for the ritual would soon be here. We don’t want any extra trouble.”
Finishing his words he walked out of the study, but he failed to notice a sudden spark in the other man’s eyes. On his way out of the gate of the mansion, he noticed Vogan's butler, Argon. Two youths in fancy armours and cloaks tailed behind him. Those immortals! His thin, dry lips immediately twisted in disgust.
The sound of cracking from his teacup started Vogan. He frowned and pried his stiffened finger off the ruined utensil. Taking a deep breath to calm the turbulent thoughts in his mind, he opened the drawer of his work desk. It took him a bit of time to go through the bunch of scrolls and documents and find what he was looking for.
A portrait of a young girl within a silver frame. The craftsmanship of the artist was excellent, capturing every detail, from the dimples on her cheeks to the lively eyes full of life and happiness.
Vogan’s lips twitched, interchanging between smile and grimace as he gently ran his fingers over the picture.
“Soon,” he whispered in a soothing voice as if trying to comfort someone. “It will be time soon.”
A few rapid knocks at the door startled him upright. “Yes?” he called out in a heavy voice.
Argon’s smooth voice came from the other side. “Sir Fazi and miss Raina are here for a meeting, my lord.”
“Oh!” Vogan raised his eyebrows. He placed the picture back in the drawer and pushed it shut. “Invite them in,” he said, rubbing his hand over his face to smoothen his grim expression.
Vogan opened the door and gestured the players to enter. Raina glided in gracefully while Fazi sauntered behind, his eyes darting around the study. He plopped on a chair as Raina too took her seat.
“So, what’s going on, Vogan?” Fazi asked after Argon left, closing the door behind him. “I thought the bandits were supposed to come last night.”
Vogan nodded, taking a pipe out of his drawer. “That was the plan, yes.”
“What’s keeping them then? It's already sunset again.”
“I don't know. They should have sent me a signal in case of a delay, but so far, there has been nothing.”
“Gee, you’re looking awfully calm about this.”
“Yeah,” Raina spoke up. “We’ve already invested a lot into this. You better hope nothing goes wrong, or the guild isn't gonna like it," she paused, giving Vogan a look of warning, "and neither would Arselan.”
Vogan massaged his temples. Calm? He was far from that. A lot was riding on this raid. And not just for Vista guild, but For him personally.
“With that man as their leader, nothing should go wrong,” he said confidently. “Well, just give it some time. They are, after all, bandits. We should hardly expect them to be punctual. I’ve sent a messenger to them, so we should receive some news soo—”
Clack! Clack! Clack!
The frantic sound of knocks interrupted Vogan's speech, bringing a frown on his face. This was the second time the damn door interrupted him. By Agira’s mane, he was in the middle of a meeting.
“What is it?” he shouted.
“Ander is back, my lord. And… it’s...” A sense of tenseness agitated Argon’s usually even voice from beyond the door. "It's urgent!"
“Urgent?” Vogan squinted. “Bring him in.”
Argon opened the door and walked in, A gaunt, tall man with a bushy moustache tagged behind him. The man looked haggard. His wide eyes spasmed with shock and panic as if he'd seen a ghost. Watching him, a bad premonition rose in Vogan's heart.
“Well? What happened? What news do you bring?” he asked.
Ander started, taking a moment to remember where he was, and lowered his studded leather helmet. “It’s the bandits, lord,” he said, wiping his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “They are all gone.”
“Gone?" Vogan shot up and grabbed the man by the collar, bringing his face mere inches from his own. "What do you mean gone?”
Fazi's lax expression evaporated as he stood up. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“This is gonna be so much trouble…” Raina whispered. She closed her eyes and quietly sank farther into her chair.
Arslan really isn't gonna like it.
“Hey man...” Fazi took a step toward Vogan.
“Please wait a moment!” Vogan said, trying to maintain his calm as best as he could, but drops of perspiration ran down on his neck. Did they betray him? Did they run away?
But how can someone like Ragnar...
“What wait? This is bullshit!”
“Hey, Fazi!” Raina called out. “Cool down.”
“How can I cool down? They are fucking with us! That's not—”
“Cool. Down.” Like a bucket of ice-cold water, Raina froze Fazi's protesting voice. She stood up and walked towards Ander. “Can you tell us what happened? Why did the bandits run away? ”
“Run?” A look of confusion passed through Arden's eyes as the scene he had witnessed at the bandit hideout played inside his mind. He took in a few gulps of air to calm his nerves.
“They didn't run. They were wiped out!”