I bounced out of bed the next morning with the wild ferocity of an over-sugared 8-year-old. BIRTHDAY! At last!
The system lock did a great job at reminding me that while yes, it was my birthday, I still had 19 hours, 11 minutes, and 40 seconds left to go until the actual 8-year-anniversary-to-the-minute of my birth. Bah humbug. It was my birthday already! Unlock! Unloooooock! I’d grab and shake the System if only I could get a grip on it. Getting up carefully to avoid waking up mom and dad – he was shifting back over to day-duty – I wandered around the house getting ready for the morning.
A brief whirlwind of chores in the morning, then lunch! Mom had cooked, shooing me out of the kitchen – a rarity when she was trying to get me every skill possible. Dad was around as well, and the three of us sat down together for a delicious lunch. Once it was over, there was a surprise for me!
“Happy Birthday Elaine” mom said. “Hair up.”
I dutifully grabbed the back of my hair and lifted it up, as mom put a pendant around my neck. It was made of iron, and it was the same diamond-shape that I had seen in the temple.
“For bringing good luck. For protection. My awakening gift to you. I hope it’ll keep you safe, the same way it kept me safe, the same way it kept your grandmother safe.” Mom smiled at me.
I teared up at the gift. I had no words. I got up and gave mom a big, crushing hug. As crushing as an 8-year-old can get anyways – blast my low strength stat, it didn’t adequately let me show how much it meant to me.
“Elaine,” my dad said, taking out a modest knife and sheath, “this is also for you. For warding off bad luck. For safety. This is not a toy, and you can start wearing it once we’ve finished lessons with it together. But treat it well, and it’ll be with you the rest of your life.”
Mom had a quick flash of annoyance go over her face, I solemnly took the knife out of the sheath. It was four inches of Noric steel, with a beautiful pommel capped with a small clear crystal.
“The crystal is an Arcanite. Your mom and I both know how much you dream of being a mage, and even if you don’t go down that path, the Arcanite in the handle will help you with your mana reserves. Treat it well.”
Oh my gods. Arcanite. Noric Steel. I didn’t want to imagine how much this knife cost. I gave dad a less-fierce hug, trying to show my self-control and maturity, that I was worthy of the gift he had gotten me. There would be no wild flailing on mango skin with this knife. There would be no attempts to cut my hair either. I winced at the memory of the spanking I had gotten with mom’s spoon for trying that. This knife wasn’t a toy.
“Now,” mom said, clapping her hands together. “Something a bit more fun!” mom exclaimed, pulling out a tunic.
Hang on, that wasn’t a beige bamboo tunic. That was a beautiful bamboo tunic, with a bright green trim on the edges. It was beautiful. I was in love.
“Are… are you sure mom?” I looked up inquisitively. I wanted this tunic. I needed this tunic. But I couldn’t believe it was being given to me. I got dirty. I wiped greasy fingers on my shirt. I spilt mango juice all over myself. In short, I was a filthy, grubby, rapidly growing kid that had no business being in a dyed shirt, let alone a beauty like this one.
Mom seemed to sense my thoughts, and helped me out. “Well, this isn’t to wear every day. And as you get older, you’ll be able to take the trims and move them into a bigger shirt. It’s my devious master plan to get you enthusiastic about sewing.”
Master plan success. While I had never been reluctant to sew things, I had never really been that passionate about it. Now [Sewing] was near the top of my “must-have” list of skills.
I was overwhelmed and happy at how much thought and care went into the gifts my parents got me for my birthday. I quietly swore to myself that I’d get them something extra-nice this year. Money was a problem though – nobody was going to pay an eight-year-old anything. If anything, I would have to be the one paying to learn things. Maybe I could get some lessons from the light-fingered kids at the market. Afterall, it was for a good cause.
I changed into my brilliant new tunic, giving myself a happy whirl in it. Happy greens! I was entering the big leagues!
After lunch and the birthday presents, blessedly, mom had mercy on me! No chores! Birthday treat! Off to the park we went! Trees and flowers and grass, all in the middle of town! We made it to the park, and mom let me run around while she went over to some benches with some other parents keeping a benevolent eye on all of us. I found Lyra at our usual spot, working on her knucklebones game.
“Lyra!” “Elaine!” One great big fierce hug later, “How are your legs? Are they ok?” I looked down, noticing my mummy impression was still there.
“Yeah, they feel fine! You’re amazing! That tunic is so nice!”
“Thank you! I just got it as a birthday present!” I felt a little bad wearing the tunic here. Lyra’s clothes were always ratty.
Lyra and I hadn’t gotten each other presents. It just wasn’t a thing here.
“When are you unlocking? I unlock tonight! I can't wait!"
13 hours, 18 minutes, and 5 seconds left. I was counting down every moment.
“Wellll…” Lyra responded, mischief in her eyes. “I UNLOCKED THIS MORNING!”
“OHMYGOD!” with much grabbing of hands and jumping up and down. “What class did you get? What level did you get? What skills?? Tell me everything!”
After much excitement, happy noises, and rapid-fire-too-excited-to-follow, I finally got a complete picture. Lyra had gotten the [Child of Remus] class with a Wood alignment, a fairly standard one for people in the Republic of Remus. She had gone right up to level 7, which I had no benchmark for how impressive it was. As a result, she was sitting on 14 free stat points to allocate, and she hadn’t done any allocation yet. “Because mom and dad need to chat and figure out where I’m putting them. And they want to see what class I unlock at level 8.”
It made sense that Lyra’s parents would want to do a bit of min-maxing on her skills and abilities, but that made me fearful myself. Would mom and dad insist that I allocate my points a certain way? Would I be given any leeway? The fact that we hadn’t had the conversation yet made me nervous, and they had been acting incredibly nice recently. Was I being softened up for a terrible blow to come? Ah well, problem for future me. Today was for fun!
I didn’t usually play with anyone else, but Lyra did! I tried out knucklebones, borrowing Lyra’s set and failing miserably. Higher dexterity was better for this game, and I glanced suspiciously at Lyra, wondering if she had secretly allocated a point or two into it. It could also be experience, since I wasn’t the biggest fan of the game while Lyra loved it. I was getting bored when two boys – Quintus and Pentus - came over with a ball, and asked Lyra:
“Hey, do you two want to play?” Quintus inquired.
I didn’t like playing with others. Usually we played Formorians vs Soldiers or Rangers vs Bandits, and I was ALWAYS a Formorian or a bandit, it wasn’t fair. Usually Lyra would help me out, but Formorians always lost. It was the rules. I hated getting hit with sticks.
At least when I was a bandit I’d get my own stick to swing at people.
Lyra did like playing, even as a Formorian. It was the source of most of her black eyes, but she usually gave TWICE as many as she got! She was amazing like that. She gave me puppy eyes. It was our birthday I suppose.
“Fine, fine. Let’s go!”
The game looked and sounded suspiciously like volleyball. How old was that game? A few more kids rounded up for an opposing team, and off we went!
Me, Lyra, Quintus, and Pentus were all on the same team, against a girl and three other boys. We were all about the same age, but I didn’t recognize any of them. I stood in the back as the girl on the other team inexpertly served the ball up. A slow, lazy move over, as Quintus, Pentus, and Lyra all moved to intercept. The concept of standing apart for the good of the team wasn’t quite a concept most kids had gotten yet – it was more fun to chase after the ball and hit it after all. I couldn’t blame them – I would be there if I wasn’t trying to keep my tunic nice and clean.
POP! Ball went up, but instead of going back over the three-foot-tall net, it headed up and back towards me. The benefits of standing away. I popped the ball back over, a long, lazy shot, and the four kids on the other side all scrambled for it. Up high it went on their side, staying on their side, when one of the boys dove to hit it again. The dive was good! He hit it, up it went! … and promptly landed back on their side.
Lyra and I stifled giggles, while the diver brushed himself off. His mom was going to be pissed, but better him than me! One point to us! The winning wasn’t nearly as important as the fun, and I had dramatically under-estimated just how fun this was. I had been missing out! Kids played terribly, coordinated terribly, and didn’t do much in the way of planning to win (although they were trying), but in spite of all of that, I found myself having a blast with Lyra.
The game went back and forth, points being traded equally. 4-3. 6-7. 10-10. I was being mindful of my nice new tunic, and I was just trying to have fun, so I wasn’t putting in my best effort. At the same time, since I wasn’t constantly running straight to the ball, I was able to contribute quite a bit more. Lyra winced and grimaced at one point, rubbing her legs. She eventually started to mimic me, keeping her feet planted unmovingly in one spot. Her mummy bandages now looked the proper dusty brown of a mummy, and that made me giggle.
It couldn’t last forever, nothing does. The shadows were starting to get a bit longer as we heard the inevitable “Elaine!” “Lyra!” “Time to go home! Do you want to go home now, or do one more round then go home?” The score was tied, 12-12. While I wasn’t hellbent on winning, it would be nice. Plus, the longer we stayed, the better!
“One more one more!” was the near unanimous chorus from the eight of us. Their parents were also circling, but at that they started saying their goodbyes to each other. Adults. Always needing to take the long way with things.
Lyra served. The ball went up and over, and another one of the nameless boys on their side bounced it back. They had learned from us, and were no longer all desperately sprinting after the ball. I felt a little proud of that, being able to teach and show kids how to do things. Maybe I’d take a [Teacher] class? The ball was going a bit far – it’d be out of bounds if that sort of thing mattered to kids – but Quintus ran after it anyway, hitting it back towards us. Lyra was firmly standing her ground, and Pentus had been running after the ball anyways, hitting it back up and over, directly to the nameless girl. The rest of their team clustered around her anyways. She effortlessly hit it back (She was so good, did she already have a [Volleyball Player] class or something!?), and it went straight to Lyra. She reached out awkwardly, and hit it towards me.
I watched it slowly spiral up and to the side lazily. Everyone else was on the other side of the field. I ran for it, trying to get it. I could dive for it. I’d get it, they were out of position on the other side of the net. We’d win, glory and fame for us forever. It’d ruin my shirt.
I took a deep breath, steeled myself, extended my arms, and –
Missed the ball, watching it drop just in front of my arms. Ah well, such is life.
Whoops and cheers from the other team, groaning and disappointed noises from our team. I shrugged. It's how things went sometimes. Time to go ho-WHAM.
I suddenly felt two hands on me violently moving me out of the way, head snapping back as I gasped in shock.
I barely managed to catch myself, whirling around in anger. Who – Lyra!? Why would she – I spotted a large glob of mud on her back. Oh. OH. Lyra got up, wincing as she got up.
“Are you ok?” we asked at the same time, ignoring our parents descending on us. “Yeah” we both said at the same time. Twins!
I wanted to ask what happened, but from the yelling noises Pentus’s parent was making, I was able to piece it together.
Pentus had seen that I probably could’ve dived for the ball, and chose not to. Upon us losing the point, and with us going home, the match, he did what every reasonable (NOT!) kid would do – throw mud at me. At my nice new tunic. Lyra, seeing this, pushed me out of the way and took the mud pie for me.
Best. Friend. Ever.
Those JERKS though! I was going to murder them! Jackasses! Dino-turds!
I started to stomp over, when Lyra grabbed my sleeve. I stopped and cocked my head at her, looking at her crazy grin. “What is it?”
“I leveled up from that.” She responded, with a grin that would split her face in half if it got any bigger.
“YAAAAAAAY!” I cried, doing some quick math.
“Wait, that makes you level 8! You get to pick a class now!” jumping up and down with excitement. “What are your options? What does it look like? What are you going to pick? Are you going to be a [Divine Priestess] like Daphne?”
Lyra looked overwhelmed and as pleased as a cat with cream. “Silly Elaine!” she drew herself up, proud that she could teach me something. “You can’t just become a [Divine Priestess]. You’d have to pick something else that turns into a [Divine Priestess], like a uh… uhhh…. [Apprentice Divine Priestess]!” Stumbling in the middle, Lyra managed to stick the landing anyways. It was good information, although why my parents had never told me anything about classes evolving like that, and needing to go down a path, I didn’t know. Maybe it had something to do with the temple enforcing System Day being people’s first contact? An unimportant mystery, but maybe I needed to ask them for more information.
“Can you tell me about the gods? I got this pendant for my birthday, I have seen the symbol in the temple, but I dunno what it means.” I asked, fishing the pendant out from under my tunic. I had never been particularly religious, in spite of my meeting with Papilion. Probably should’ve asked these questions ages ago.
Ok. Fine. I’ll confess. I’d gotten the lectures ages ago, but I’d entirely tuned them out, and I’d pretended to know ever since, just nodding along whenever the gods were mentioned. I’d puzzled out a few things from context, but…
Well, I was ready to swallow my pride and get all the information. At last.
“Sure! Ok, ok, first there were five gods, the big gods! They made Pallos and everything on it!” Lyra grabbed the pendant, and started pointing. “On this side is life - Aion, on that side is death - Thanatos”, pointing to the two side corners. “On the top is Order - Seira, on the bottom is Chaos - Xaoc. And Change – Papilion - is in the middle! He keeps everything moving and balanced.”
Ah, Change, that bastard shows up again. Although from the sound of it, it was a bigwig that decided to interfere with me dying. I shrugged. It was done and over. No way I could get revenge on a god, let alone a Major God with capitals.
“Also, as you pray to the gods, you send mana to them. However, they can grant prayers if you’ve prayed enough! So you should pick one god, and only worship that god.”
That was interesting. I figured if I was going to try that, I’d pray to Papilion. I had something of a working relationship with him already, and major god? God of change? Seemed pretty flexible.
Lyra scratched the back of her legs again through the bandages.
"You sure you're ok?" I asked.
"Yup! Completely fine!" She responded. I eyed her. I suspected she was lying again, like she’d lied to me earlier. Had… had she been doing that more often than just that one time, and I’d never noticed? Was I a bad friend? Or was I a good friend for believing her, and not pushing her? It wasn't my place to force her to tell me, yet. I wish she would though.
Our parents came to pick us up, but I owed Lyra. “Hey mom, do you have a spare tunic for Lyra? I want to wash hers. It’s the least I could do.” Mom smiled, and with a spare tunic pulled out of nowhere, a quick change, and I suddenly had signed myself up for more laundry. It was for Lyra though, and that made me hum a happy tune on the way back home.
Dinner was over in a flash, and with 7 hours, 7 minutes, and 53 seconds to go, I couldn’t wait.
“Mom, can I pleaseeeee stay up? Pretty please?”
Mom and dad shared an amused look. I didn’t see what was so funny – this was serious! I wanted to watch my System unlock! Sure, it would be the middle of the night, but SYSTEM! MAGIC!
“Sure, but why don’t we get you a pillow and a blanket so you’re comfortable while you wait? And why don’t you change out of your nice tunic?”
Concessions. I narrowed my eyes. Fine, I could deal with that. We put the pillow on the high part of the recliner I was on, and I wrapped the absolutely massive blanket many, many times around me. [High Empress] Elaine was here! Bow before me! I settled in, and realized a few problems.
One – it was another 6 hours, 58 minutes, and 30 seconds to go.
Two – I had nothing to do but be excited.
Three – I needed to pee.
Unraveled myself, sprinted outside to the communal restroom (Thankfully with Inscriptions – the only ones I had ever seen), did my business, sprinted back. Re-ensconced, heart racing at a million miles an hour. 6 hours, 54 minutes, 45 seconds to go.
44 seconds to go.
43 seconds to go.
42 seconds to go.
The blankets were warm and cozy, and the pillow was so soft and inviting. There was no real reason to stay upright the whole time now, was there?
I started at the timer slowly counting down. 5 hours, 16 minutes, 32 seconds to go. I yawned. Blinked. 2 hours, 29 minutes, 5 seconds. Blinked, and -