“Weirdest dream I’ve ever had,” I said around the bite of rabbit steak in my mouth. “That’s what I first thought of this world.”
Han, a regular of the Feathered Stallion, chuckled into his second mug of ale. He was an old veteran of some war of the past, his face marred with wrinkles and scars that made him look scarier than he actually was. From what I knew of him, he liked to spend his days drinking in this inn and complaining about his malfunctioning legs.
“You’re right on that,” Han said. “Life can be real crazy here sometimes.”
I speared another slice of meat with Soul Eater’s forked end, popping it into my mouth. The rabbit was a bit chewy for a quick midday brunch, and the greenish scrambled eggs next to it had a really odd flavor … but this certainly wasn’t the worst meal I had recently eaten.
“This place takes some time to get used to,” I told Han. “Not just the magic and the different kinds of people, you know, but ordinary things too. Earth had some stuff that Nerilia doesn’t—like electricity.”
“Captured lightning,” I said, then waved for the innkeeper to bring another mug of ale.
“Captured lightning,” Han repeated sourly, gulping down the last of his drink. “I heard about it, some. It’s better to stay away from that kind of witchery, I tell ya. You invite the wrath of the gods upon your head with them unnatural magics.”
“Wrath of gods?” I asked, furrowing my brow. “They punish those who use electricity?”
“You do something they don’t like, you die. ‘Tis that simple, with them gods.”
I chewed on my meal absently as the innkeeper came over to put a new tankard in front of Han. What the old man said made a lot of sense, and I was a bit ashamed that I hadn’t thought about it before. The Inspectors were steering the growth of this world in a direction that suited them, snuffing out unwanted advancements such as plastics, gunpowder, or combustion engines. I wondered how they kept track of them all. Was some kind of AI monitoring every living person on this planet, or did they crack down only on technological innovations that got too significant?
“Interesting,” I eventually said. “So, how long has the Emperor been weaponizing electricity?”
“Eh? Waddaya mean?”
“Using the wrath of gods as a weapon,” I said, gesturing with my fork upwards. “You know, have someone infiltrate your opponent’s castle, capture lightning there, then wait for the gods to do the dirty work for you.”
Han stared at me in shock, lowering his tankard slowly.
“Lad, that sounds hella’ evil,” he said. “Not something Emperor Tarumon would do.”
“What an amateur,” I said, taking another bite.
Bringing this topic up was a mistake, I realized belatedly; Han seemed to be oddly fond of the Emperor, even if it was Tarumon’s pointless war that cost him his legs. To smoothen the wrinkles on Han’s sour face, I decided to steer the topic toward something more positive.
“I like what Emperor Tarumon did to this city, though,” I said. “The new streetcars make traveling around so much easier!”
“Aye, it was high time for that,” Han said. “The Governor kept saying that Fortram had no funds for building carlines in the lower ring, did ya know that? Then all it took was the Emperor pressing a finger down his spine and sudden-like, lo and behold, streetcars everywhere! Turns out the city had the funds, after all!”
“Yeah, that sounds like—”
A tankard hit the table next to my arm, sloshing some ale onto my shirt.
“You’re not welcome here, Reaper.”
I turned my head slowly to look up at the burly man leaning against my table. He wore a factory-worker’s uniform, which was strange because if he had truly worked in the Factory, he would have had nothing to do in the inn right now. Two other men in the same uniform hovered nearby, their muscly arms crossed over their chests. The innkeeper behind them walked to the other end of the bar – pretending to not notice anything – and even Han found the bottom of his tankard suddenly very interesting.
I looked back at the lead man, noting the animosity in his eyes—and for a moment I felt the heat, smelled the smoke, saw the furious look on Simon’s face before he attacked me. Before I murdered him.
“You deaf, punk?” the man next to me asked when I failed to reply. “If ya ain’t going, we can show you the way out.”
Quest received: Barfight
The collar around my neck projected the notice right above my breakfast, which startled the men. They seemed to be ready to punch me; the only thing holding them back was that they didn’t know what to make of my collar’s projection. Ignoring the fists raised at me, I groaned, burying my face in my palms.
“Ah man, now you’ve done it. You know what it says? Barfight!”
The lead man growled. “You wanna—”
“Of course I don’t wanna fight!” I said, looking up at the man. “But you challenged me, and I received a Quest that says barfight. Dude, if you want to throw a Player out of your inn, you should really be careful about challenging them like this.”
Unless these men approached me with the explicit intention of picking a fight—but I had a suspicion that this wasn’t the case. Sure, these guys didn’t like Players very much and they had some pent-up frustrations. Perhaps due to a lost job? They certainly wouldn’t have minded getting in a few punches if I gave them a reason—but they weren’t specifically out for my blood.
“You think you know better, eh?” the burly man asked.
“That’s what my mother always says before she spanks me,” I said. “So my answer is no, I don’t know better. I really don’t want to be spanked again, you know?”
They looked baffled at first, but the tension seemed to let up a bit. The burly man pulled out the chair next to mine and slumped down on it, somehow managing to tower above me still.
“Does she, really?” he asked.
“Spank me?” I asked. “Yeah. I mean, she spanked me only as a kid, but just look at these twig-arms of mine. I bet she could still beat the crap out of me if she were here.”
The man snorted in amusement as I rolled up a sleeve to show him my puny arm.
“That splash of ale on my shirt was a good trick,” I told him. “If you really want to make Players leave, better to make them want to leave. Sing really badly and loudly, fart next to them, or accidentally pour a mug of ale on them. Stuff like that, you know?”
The man beside me grinned, then snatched his tankard off the table and looked me up and down with it.
“Pour ale on you, huh?”
I shrunk back a little bit, holding up my hands in surrender. “Ah, maybe we could skip that part today? You see, I’m going to a job interview after breakfast. What would they say if I turned up reeking of booze?”
The man let out a belly-laugh at that. “Depending on the place, they might ask where ya got that booze from!”
I smiled. “Sadly, this is a desk job with customers and stuff…”
“A desk job, huh?” the man took a sip from his drink. “I figured Reapers were all about adventuring outside the city.”
“But he does look like them scholarly types,” another man spoke up.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “That’s about all I can do. I have a feeling that I wouldn’t last a day outside, or in other places like the Factory.”
“You bet!” the third man said, chuckling.
That led us to speak about the current employment crisis at the Factory, where the golems were slowly taking over people’s jobs. The burly man, who introduced himself as Vorg, was one of those workers who got replaced by the new high-tech golems. He and his friends didn’t lose their jobs completely, however; they were getting some training for maintaining the golems. It couldn’t have been a very intense training given that they had the time to get drunk in the middle of the day.
In the end Vorg and his friends let me finish my brunch in peace, and I thanked them with a round of drinks before I left.
Quest successfully failed: Barfight
I looked around on the sunlit street, trying to orient myself. The Feathered Stallion was right on an avenue that led to the center of the city, so at least I knew where to start. The difficult part would come later. Fortram was made up of three concentric rings, each with their own high wall, each rotating in the opposite direction as its neighbor. This meant that each time I crossed from the lower to the middle ring, I ended up in a different place. Over the dozen or so days that we had spent here, Devi had already gotten used to navigating the city … but I still got lost each and every time.
Well, maybe today would be my lucky day. I followed the set of rails that ran in the middle of the street, up until I spotted one of the streetcars coming from behind. A horse-shaped metallic golem pulled the chain of half-empty wagons at a moderate pace. The wagons were simply built, with low floors and open sides; all I had to do was to grab one of the handholds and hop on as the vehicle passed by. Streetcars were free to use by anyone, but I had learned the hard way that they were better to be avoided during rush hours.
I took a seat next to an Avarii woman. A bird-human. It felt derogatory to think them like that, but I found it easier to consider all of these alien species as animal-human hybrids. The Avarii in front of me had a completely bird-like head, after all. A curved beak occupied the middle of her feathered face, and her small black eyes didn’t move in their sockets; when she looked at me, she turned her entire head. The rest of her looked more human however, with legs and arms and clawed fingers, her slim body covered in yellow and blue feathers. She wore a colorful skirt and nothing on her upper body, but that was the usual outfit for every Avarii—no matter which gender. It was actually those bright feathers of hers that told me she was a woman; male and female Avarii looked just about the same otherwise.
I inclined my head as a greeting, and saw her eyes lock onto the collar around my neck. Not really subtle, these Avarii. Usually I hid the collar under the hood of my cloak, but today I wore only a shirt that covered the black metal only partially. The weather was too warm for any excessive clothing, and the cloak would have looked too shabby for a job interview anyway.
The woman cawed once and returned my nod, then continued reading the newspaper in her lap. I appreciated her nonchalance; many of Fortram’s citizens disliked Players, avoiding us like the plague. Players meant Quests, and Quests meant trouble. Properties got destroyed, people got hurt—or worse, got killed. Devi and I hadn’t been able to find a single inn that would have allowed us to stay for more than a night, and it had been quite the shock to find out that it was easier for me to buy an apartment than to rent one.
My streetcar slowly climbed its way up to the middle ring, and I leaned back to watch the jungle of buildings pass by. Most of them belonged to the Factory. A labyrinth of rusted metal panels and crumbling brick walls covered in graffiti, with numerous pipes twisting high above. The dull buildings were only backdrop for the riot of colors that the citizens of Fortram painted on the canvas as they bustled on the street, the clash of cultures unlike anything I had seen before. Merchants in their stalls and street vendors with their carts tried to outshout each other, dirty-faced children played in the alleyways, golem workers and skeleton servants marched tirelessly to carry out their masters’ tasks. The lower ring of Fortram could not be called beautiful, but it always had something to grab my attention with.
I got off the streetcar once it reached the edge of the lower ring and craned my neck to take in the wall; a massive structure of stone, raised by the gods themselves. It would have plunged certain parts of the city in perpetual shadow if the rings hadn’t constantly been in rotation. A wide area around the base of the wall was left free of buildings and merchant stalls to make it easier to pass between the city’s sections.
I started to walk clockwise along the wall – opposite to the middle ring’s rotation – and found a gate soon enough. Wide opening, portcullis raised high, gliding toward me at the speed of a brisk walk. The pair of guards at the gate let me through after a single glance at my collar.
My heart sank as soon as I arrived to the other side; this wasn’t any part of the middle ring that I recognized. The buildings were tidier and much more uniform than the ones in the lower ring, and this sameness certainly did not help—but I was certain that I had never seen the garish prosthetics shop in front of me. Or had I? Artificial body parts were quite fashionable amongst human citizens, so shops like these weren’t particularly uncommon.
“It is you, Randel dear, isn’t it?”
I turned to the Bolob who addressed me from beside the prosthetics shop, watching me from behind baskets of flowers.
“Oh! Hello, Arikokira. Yes, it’s me.”
Arikokira was a bit of a deviant by Bolob standards; although her species was technically genderless, she had told me to regard her as a woman. Her hairless head was wrapped in a colorful shawl and her perfectly symmetrical face was smiling at me. I liked how picturesque she looked in her patterned dress, standing amongst the vibrant flowers of her shop. More importantly however, I had met her already—which meant that I had actually been here before. Sadly, that still didn’t mean that I had any idea where I was.
“What brings you here, young man?” Arikokira asked. “Have you come to buy some flowers? For that lady friend of yours, perhaps?”
“It’s not her I’m meeting today,” I said, reaching to my pocket to fish for silver coins. “But I like your idea! I’d like to buy some flowers, please.”
“Oh, it’s a love triangle, isn’t it?” Arikokira said, clapping her hands. “How bold!”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Is that what this looks like?”
“Don’t you worry, Randel dear, I won’t tell a soul,” Arikokira said, then stepped closer to adjust my shirt. “There you go, all nice and symmetrical. I’m sure whoever you’re meeting will be charmed.”
“I hope so too,” I said. “On another note, would you mind if I asked for directions? I’m afraid I got a little lost again…”
It turned out that I wasn’t far from my destination, though it still took me quite long to get there. I hoped I wasn’t late. Time measurement was weird in Nerilia anyway, with hours and minutes that didn’t actually represent the ones on Earth. What kind of savage person decided to have a hundred minutes in an hour?
The bountyhouse was an impressive building, standing tall with its crimson brick walls and ornate domed roof, occupying the corner of two major streets. Two long rows of display boards were fixed on the wall on either side of the entrance, full of posters about pests to be killed, monsters to be hunted, and people to be found. A single look at them would start me on more Quests than I dared to count. I scaled the steps that led to a grand hall, in which numerous counters were lined up next to each other to handle new requests and hand out payments for completed ones.
Uncharacteristically, I was a bit nervous. Almost more nervous than I had been in the Dungeon. It felt so ironic that I couldn’t help but smile. My experiences with job interviews tended to be quite … bad.
“But I’ll land a job this time,” I said to myself as I walked in with my flower, ignoring the look that the guard in the entrance regarded me with.