Alarmed by distant screams, many peeked through their windows and doors. Guards, players and other NPCs ignored him as they ran towards the source of the ruckus. Some glanced at the figure on the carriage and kept their distance. Most missed him, distracted or still tired after waking up at the break of dawn.
Hall tightened the cloak around him, keeping the cold, as well as unwanted stares, at bay. He climbed into the dark carriage to escape curious and terrified glances while Lily steered the horses effortlessly.
Soon they arrived in front of an inconspicuous store that, despite the rising sun, still lay in darkness. The merchant and one of the leader of the resistance, Jorn, waited for Hall. Beside him stood a man in a monk’s robe that hid the body of a warrior.
“Ah, Shep.” Hall greeted him. “Glad to see you here, how are the kids?”
The grim look on the bald man’s face softened. “Nice seeing you too. The kids are good. Ralk only talks about you. You’re a celebrity at the old church.” He hesitated a second as his smile vanished. “And I see you got stronger, in a way. I’m truly sorry.”
“It’s alright.” Hall shook his head. “I made the choice and I don’t regret it.”
Shep sighed and looked ten years older all of a sudden. “Boy, I pray that won’t change.”
“Stop the gloomy talk.” Jorn interrupted them. “Today is a good day. Hall, I may have had my doubts, but you really came through for us. I mean, the reports I’m getting in…” He roared, slamming his fist on the counter.
“Listen!” The merchant continued. “We are planning something. Something big. Change this whole town—this whole kingdom—big. And I want you to be part of it.”
Before Hall responded, he turned to Shep “Are you going to fight too?” The old warrior looked concerned.
“No.” He answered. “My fighting days are over. My responsibilities lie with my children and with the weak. I’ll take them out of the city. Protect them or die trying.”
Jorn gave a disapproving glare but urged Hall to speak. “Listen, what you did this night will spread through the city like wildfire.” A dark grin appeared on his face. “We’ll make sure of it. Just having you on our side will make a difference.”
“I understand.” Hall nodded. “But I have to lay low for a few days, a month if possible.”
Jorn just waved his concerns aside. “No worries, we have a lot to plan out. We’ll meet in the basement of my store.” He reached below the counter and gave Hall a small, unremarkable key. “Go down into my cellar. At the end of a longer corridor you’ll find a grandfather clock. Open it with the key and walk through it. From there you’ll be able to get into hundreds of hideouts, warehouses and homes we control.”
A map appeared in his hand which he also handed over to Hall. “Take this, you’ll need it. It’s a damn labyrinth down there. It’s also dark, wet and filled with rats, but the king’s men rarely go down there. It’s our world.”
Hall’s expression didn’t change despite his suspicion. A resistance group this organized and connected clearly didn’t form within the last few days, weeks or months. It would have taken many years and a lot of men to map out this underground labyrinth. And taking on a whole city demanded manpower beyond a motley crew of merchants and old warriors. Hall couldn’t see the whole picture and he didn’t like it.
For now Hall played along. He smiled and pocketed the items after giving them a quick inspection.
|A worthless old key. Whatever it opened is probably long rusted shut. Might as well throw it away. Seriously, just throw it away.|
Not suspicious at all…
|Map of Roselake’s Underground Labyrinth|
|Over centuries different parties used and created ways to travel under Roselake’s streets. Now, thousands different routes form a labyrinth impossible to navigate. Good thing you have this map.|
“Good, I’ll come back in a month, maybe a bit sooner, but before I leave,” Hall dumped a huge stack of stolen goods onto the counter before him. “I’d like to sell some stuff.”
Finding a dealer for robbed merchandise proved to be a challenge for many players. At least when the items could easily be connected to their previous owners. A merchant who dealt with those special kind of commodity needed to be well connected, usually outside of town.
Of course, already stolen items, hidden in some dark corner of a mansion, lost in time, could be sold without trouble. The same applied to general goods like food or basic resources. Sometimes simply waiting was enough to trade it without any trouble.
Selling rarer products, precious jewelry or clothes, maybe even marked items, was more difficult. It often came with a sizeable loss in value as a chunk of profit went into the fence’s pocket.
Hall’s increased intimacy with Jorn helped to ease the loss and he managed to sell his stolen loot for a staggering sum of close to 3000 gold. The carriage and the horses only brought him 160 gold coins, less than half their value. They belonged to a rather famous household and now—thanks to Hall—a bloody tale made it impossible to sell them in a civilized part of Bredon.
Satisfied, he looked at the amount of money he had gathered. Almost 8000 gold. A mind-boggling sum. “Good, now that this is done, I have something more for you.” Hall said as he grabbed several pages and documents from his inventory. “This should prove the existence of the Cattle Hunt and implicate the royalty.”
While Jorn’s expression darkened, he barely reacted. Shep’s eyes however widened. He clenched his fist and gritted his teeth. “We have something.” Jorn said as he lay his hand on the old warrior’s shoulder. “Finally, we have something.”
Shep nodded and breathed in deeply to calm down. “I’m sorry. Demons of the past.” He explained to Hall.
The pages disappeared in Jorn’s pockets. “This will be of great help convincing those who are loyal to the king.” The merchant said.
|Quest: The Running Man – Part 2|
You decided to give the evidence connecting the royal family and the cattle hunt to the merchant Jorn and the resistance.
Increased support among the populace.
“I have something for you.” Jorn said. “Let’s call it a little reward for your effort.” He placed a small bag on the counter and motioned Hall to take it.
“Thank you.” Hall grabbed the pouch. “I’ll be off then.” When he approached the stairs in the back of the store, Shep grabbed his shoulder and gave him an intense stare. “Before you come here next time, visit me in the orphanage. It’s important.” He whispered. “Now get going and be careful down there.”
Nodding, Hall descended the stairs. The old wood creaked under his weight.
He ignored the barrels and half-filled shelves and went straight for the grandfather clock at the end of a long hallway.
I doubt it’s a good idea to steal from those guys, at least not yet. Nothing really valuable anyway. Well, let’s see what we got.
Only a single lamp illuminated the dim cellar, but Hall navigated the sizeable basement easily and peeked into the bag he received.
|Smoke Bomb (medium)|
|Creates a large amount of smoke. Impedes sight and scent.|
|Flash Bomb (medium)|
|Creates a large explosion of light and sound. Impedes sight and hearing. Causes confusion and disorientation.|
The bag contained five of each. Hall took out the small, grey balls and placed them in his inventory. They formed two stacks with the number five in the top right.
“You should be careful with them.” Moira mentioned. “Those can be useful, but they can harm you as much as your enemy.”
“Don’t worry. I’m quite proficient with… similar devices.” He assured her with a smile. “Anyway, this looks like a safe spot. I have something to take care of, so I’ll be back soon.”
Can’t believe I’m doing this.
After a quick nap and a shower, he took a peek in the mirror. He almost expected to see pale skin and dark veins around his glowing eyes. Instead, his somewhat tired face greeted him.
Unsure of what to do, he fiddled with his hair and changed into another shirt. For Frank, clean clothes usually equaled good clothes. And while he could determine a weapon by sound alone, the facets of fashion always eluded to him.
Shrugging, he put on a pair of dark jeans and a black button down shirt. I think I lost a few pounds, good thing there’ll be free food.
When he left his apartment, the sun had long disappeared behind the horizon. He put on a woolen hat he kept in the pocket of the grey leather jacket he bought with his first salary.
At least no snow fell as he stepped into the cold evening.
He walked past other apartment buildings and a few smaller shops and restaurants that brimmed with customers. Some picked up food after work, others spent a nice evening with friends.
Soon he arrived at the university. A few figures strolled in the darkness, but nobody bothered him. An AI, together with security staff, surveyed the grounds at all times. Today, additional personnel patrolled the area, just to be sure. The ID he carried, identified him as a student. But any unauthorized visitors would be dealt with—silently.
Frank had to admire whoever transformed the cafeteria of the university into a first class party location. He passed numerous cast iron torches that lit the way to the large gothic style building. Floodlights illuminated its front and gave it the impression of an almost divine place.
Contrary to that, the people on the inside carried relaxed smiles and danced enthusiastically. Students forgot exams and classes and enjoyed themselves.
Electronic dance music assaulted him when Frank entered the party. Dazzling light shows drew pictures and patterns on the walls as they followed the melody.
Frank greeted a few guys he knew, ignored others and headed straight for the bar. The invitation said free drinks and he intended to exploit that offer.
He found himself a nice place in a somewhat quiet corner. Three full and two empty bottles of beer and a stack of pizza slices showed his intentions for the evening. He chewed on a mouthful of cheese and salami when two people sat down on the opposite side of the table.
Tom, one of his few friends, greeted him with a wide grin. “You actually came! Awesome!” His breath carried the scent of cherry and vodka. “But you’re so late. We’ve been here for hours.”
Frank raised an eyebrow but chuckled at the sight before him. “It’s not even ten yet.” He poked at Tom’s head. “What happened here?”
The boy drew back and protected his brown hair with his hands. “That’s the latest fashion you know.” He wrinkled his nose and wiped his palms on his trousers. “Alright, might have gone overboard with the hair gel.”
Frank pointed at Levi who sat silently beside him and only nodded. His smile was even wider than Tom’s and his usually pale face was flushed red. “What happened there?”
Tom just waved him off. “Might have spiked his juice a bit. Experiments you know. We are scientists damn it.” He said and slammed his fist on the table.
Taking another sip of his beer, Frank shook his head while chuckling. “Try to explain that to your mum.”
His friend, who wore an expensive three piece suit that looked a bit too classy for him, paled slightly. “Guess I haven’t thought it through yet.” Shrugging, he snatched one of Frank’s bottles and drank.
“Man, I don’t get how you can drink that.” He grimaced. “It’s so bitter and not yummy at all.”
Again, Frank only sighed and took his beer back. “You do the same thing every time. Shouldn’t you know by now that you don’t like it?”
“I told you. I’m a scientist and as a scientist I need to do experiments.” Tom said, slurring his speech a little. “And I won’t be stopped by petty bitterness.”
“But you know what Einstein said about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, right?” Frank asked.
Nodding in slow motion, Tom raised a finger. “Ah yeah, but at some point I might like it.” He said while standing up, stroking his chin and pointing at the ceiling. “On that day, I have to ask myself: Did the beer change or did I change?”
“That’s really deep,” Frank said and shoved another slice of pizza in his mouth.
“Yes, I have a very deep personality.” Tom agreed, and grabbed his little brother. “And now excuse me good sir. I have to get this guy on the dance floor. With his cuteness he will be the perfect bait for the ladies.”
“Not only a deep personality.” Frank said. “Also a great brother.”
Levi stumbled behind the persistent Tom who raised his hand. “You know it.” He yelled before turning around again. “Oh and a little down the corridor there,” His friend pointed at the doors close to his table, “are some people you might want to avoid. Jane, Steve and their gang are getting ready for an interview or something. Cameras, microphones, the whole nine yards. No idea what it’s about though.
“Oh well. Don’t sit around here all night ok? See you.”
Frank furrowed his brows. “Interesting.” He mumbled.
A few minutes later he took the last sip of his beer and chewed on the final slice of pizza. Well-fed and tipsy, he felt rather comfortable and though he wished for a different kind of music, he didn’t mind too much.
The relaxed atmosphere and the warmth in his limbs weighed on his eyelids. After his life in the army he almost had too much time on his hands and so he had been generally well rested, something that couldn’t be said about the last weeks. Though he finally felt some sense of accomplishment again. No, not only accomplishment, the excitement of a challenge. A goal to achieve.
At the university he experienced interesting subjects and some classes demanded a lot of his dedication. Yet, he never even considered the possibility of failure. He studied, worked hard and put in the necessary effort. It was only himself he had to blame if he wouldn’t get the result he expected.
But a different kind of challenge awaited him in Novus Vita. Not only couldn’t he grasp the situation he was in, the whole world around him was a mystery that waited to be discovered. He hadn’t been this excited in a long time.
After he got himself another beer, he headed for the exit. He reached for the door, but stopped himself. Scratching his head, he sighed and turned around.
Frank always had trouble letting go of grudges. It’s wasn’t his most attractive quality, but he liked to call it persistence.
Even now, years later, he still remembered the name of everyone who ever paid him too little, who smacked him or who just did something bad while he was around to see it.
Of course most he forgave, some he didn’t care about, but a select few—those either recent or bad enough—he couldn’t let go. It was one of the curses he carried with him.
Maybe it was the injustice of losing his parent. Perhaps his experiences in the following years affected him in that regard. But Frank always felt that everybody should get what they deserved. Be it good or bad. And if fate, or karma, or god wouldn’t interfere, maybe people had to. That’s why humanity created laws and a system to punish those who overstepped them.
So Frank took another sip and walked through the doors Tom pointed out. When they shut behind him, the music’s volume dropped considerably. The transparent glass walls he passed were white during the day and separated the class rooms. He preferred them clear though. Less constricting.
Down the hallway a group of people surrounded a circle of chairs that was illuminated by spotlights. A handful of cameras shot different angles of the scene as a young reporter interviewed Steve, Jane and the other three.
Except for Anna, whose face might as well be carved from ice, they all carried satisfied smiles. Cheerfully, they answered the girl’s questions and talked among themselves.
The people around the group listened closely. Their eyes sparkled as they watched the live interview. Most obviously admired Steve’s group and their faces glowed being allowed to witness their rise to a bit more fame.
Frank was surprised nobody stopped him when he mingled with the spectators. He had seen many of them at some point during his days at the university, but never had bothered to learn their names. Though he spotted some unhappy faces among the crowd.
They don’t look too glad to be here. Guess they were dragged along by their friends.
The interview approached its end as they discussed the current affairs of Roselake and the kingdom of Bredon.
Alexa hid her annoyance under a false smile. First those brats delayed the interview for hours. Then the scheduled reporter had spent the wait by chugging one drink after the other until he fell asleep. At least the crowd of students around them had thinned out.
She had to swallow several curses when one of the producers pinned a microphone on the collar of her grey business jacket and told her she had to do the interview.
Now she sat on a red leather armchair, the five players to her right and several cameras positioned around them. The interview proceeded without a hitch. The writers prepared the questions beforehand and with some charm and acting, she delivered.
“Over the last decades the importance of a virtual presence increased significantly. How do you—as young adults— feel about that?” Alexa asked the group.
“That is definitely true.” The tall, blond boy named Steve answered. His sharp, black suit tightened around his broad shoulders as he picked up the glass in front of him. He chose every single motion and every single word with care. “While it is and always will be important to maintain a presence in the real world, the virtual reality has become almost equally significant.
“Relationships, personal or business, can be cultivated no matter where one lives or works. And because no information is ever really lost or forgotten, the pressure, especially on young people, can’t be neglected.
“For example, this university, my parents and even future employers could, without too much trouble, follow my every step since birth.”
Alexa nodded and pretended to be interested in his slick words. Or your daddy puts down a bundle of cash and your white vest stays clean.
“What role do games like Novus Vita play in your life then?” She asked instead.
Now it was the gorgeous girl beside Steve who answered. Alexa had introduced her to her audience as Jane. She brushed her pitch black hair behind her ear and showed a perfect smile.
“Honestly, the value of those games can’t be overstated. Novus Vita is only the latest example. Similar games, even if nowhere near as immersive, have existed for as long as I can remember. It is probably one of the few places in this world where you can be free. It is, and I mean this very literally, a second life for a lot of people. The numbers speak for themselves I think.”
“Yes, they certainly do.” Alexa interjected. “The sales of Novus Vita reached 250 million this last weekend and the demand is not slowing down. While we are on the topic, why don’t we talk about the event you’re currently participating?” She winked at the group. “Or should I say leading?”
I think I’m gonna be sick. They all laughed together, except for Anna who was urged to speak by Alexa.
“We are currently gathering supporters for our campaign in Roselake.” Her brief words caused Alexa to sigh mentally. The girl proved to be a tough nut to crack. No matter the question, the answer remained polite, but blunt.
She barely even moved during the whole interview. Her light blond hair that fell over both shoulders, and the ice blue dress only emphasized her somewhat cold words.
It also created a severe contrast to the other girl, Jane, whose short, scarlet dress wouldn’t hurt their ratings. Yet together they seemed to still cover all the bases and share their information.
When Anna remained silent, the twins picked up where she stopped. Both wore simple, but well made, brown suits and Alexa, who couldn’t tell them apart, avoided using their names.
“We are following the king’s request.” Either Dirk or Rick—that much she remembered—said. The other one added. “We are to protect the city and keep the peace.” They both nodded in sync.
“And without revealing anything to your enemies,” Alexa continued, “can you tell us a little more?”
“We are confident in our strength.” Steve said. “Not only are many NPC soldiers under our command, we have recruited a lot of players and even a few guilds declared their support. After the king offered us an event quest which we could share, many volunteered.”
He leaned back and waited for the reporter to ask for more. “How do you respond to accusations that state you’re recruiting chaotic players? There are even rumors of collaborations with chaotic guilds like the Shadow Wraiths.”
The trace of a shadow fell over Steve’s face, but it disappeared so fast only few even noticed. “Some players made mistakes in their past, that’s only natural. Bredon’s king Malreg announced pardons for those who are prepared to support him, the rightful ruler. Those willing to fight the subversive elements that threaten the peace will be rewarded. I think that’s only fair.”
Trying to avoid the question, huh?
She pushed a bit further.
“And what about the general circumstances in Roselake? The book burnings, the inequality between the rich and the poor?” Alexa leaned forward and smiled dangerously.
That bitch! Steve’s facial muscles tensed up for a second. But one little reporter wouldn’t get him riled up. He was too good for that. Guess I underestimated her.
The smiles, the questions and her giggling, from the beginning he assumed she was just another fan. He was wrong. But he remained calm. For days they prepared for the interview. And those questions didn’t come too unexpected.
“Are we really allowed to judge that?” He asked in return. “This kingdom existed for centuries. We are only guests so far. And I can tell you, while we are protecting the city and its people, others spread death and chaos. So, I think everybody knows we are right.”
That slick bastard. Of course they all had prepared themselves beforehand. It looked like she had to use something they weren’t ready for.
“True, true.” She began to set up her question. “Do you know of anybody who could interfere with the success of your event quest?”
This time Steve hesitated for an instant. No matter his answer, Alexa would follow with another question. He tried to regain control over the flow of the interview.
“There are some parties that will try to interfere.” He admitted. “Mostly NPCs though. Maybe a few players who could even have quests to stop us. But the game’s forums don’t indicate any coordination that would be necessary to oppose us. The city is under our control and that won’t change.” His firm tone left no doubt he believed in his words.
“I understand.” Alexa said. “But I don’t know if you heard about the latest development. There has been a—let’s call it disturbance—in your controlled city. It only happened a few hours ago, so you may not know yet.”
Steve grit his teeth as and narrowed his eyes. “We know of it.” He said. “A cowardly attack on low level NPCs in the middle of a snow storm. Hardly something I’d call a slip of control.”
“Really?” Alexa acted surprised. “Our information tells us that the victims were among the noble population that were under protection in their own district. Not only did the perpetrator intrude on guarded ground, he also killed nobles that were presumed to be involved in horrendous crimes.”
Shaking his head, Steve struggled to keep calm while the others remained silent. “Even in a game there exist laws. Vigilante justice just breads chaos and death. And as I said, whoever did this, won’t be a threat, he doesn’t even have a name.”
Alexa wouldn’t let up. “Ah, but he already has quite the reputation among the common people. They hail him as a hero who punishes those above the law. And I think you’re wrong in one point. He does have a name.”
Jane, Steve and the twins exchanged worried glances before the girl asked. “What name?”
Tension replaced the comfortable atmosphere. A fun, but boring interview finally became exciting. Alexa’s lips showed an impish smile when she answered. “They call him Killchain - The Reaper of Roselake.”
A laugh erupted from somewhere among the spectators, but due to the spotlights she couldn’t locate its origin.
Instead, she enjoyed the twitching in Steve’s face. The others paled but remained silent until their leader cleared his throat and put on a smile.
“That’s quite a creative—be it an exaggerated—title. It doesn’t matter, a single person is no threat. But because we want the city to be safe,” Steve raised his voice and looked into the camera. “we offer a reward of 500 gold coins to whomever delivers this criminal to the guards so that he can rot in jail for some time.”
A roar burst from the spectators. Applause and cheers followed their idol’s statement.
In this situation it took a lot of effort from Alexa just to keep up her smile.
But Steve wasn’t done. His face beamed and he waved to his fans. He enjoyed the attention.
“I will personally guarantee,” He shouted, “Roselake will remain safe.”
The cheers grew louder around them as they reacted to his words.
Until a single voice cut through the noise. “Roselake will burn!”
Thank you kind stranger. Alexa didn’t mind the interruption of the interview. Steve included the spectators, so opposition should be expected.
He seemed to disagree and his façade cracked for a moment. “Who said that?” He yelled.
A figure already distanced itself from the crowd and walked down the corridor to the party area. Whoever it was raised an arm and waved, his back turned to them.
Despite the distance, his voice reached them. “The one with the matches.”
Alexa suppressed a giggle while most stared in shock. Nobody tried to stop him.
“Things heat up in Roselake.” She announced into the camera for the world to see. “We even have something akin to a declaration of war. Will the government keep order or will we see the outbreak of the first civil war in the history of Novus Vita? If you want to know more, keep us company here on Sphinx Gaming TV or look us up online. I wish everyone a good night and as always, keep playing.”
That was more fun than expected.
Not a smart move. His emotions got the better of him and he alarmed the enemy of his presence. Not that it mattered.
Despite that, Frank grinned as he left the gawking crowd behind. A good shepherd once said, ‘If you can’t do something smart, do something right’. And it felt right to Frank.
Who knows, maybe I got a few people to fight against them.
He closed the doors to the hallway behind him, stepped toward the bar and ordered another drink. The evening turned out nicely.
Anna checked her makeup in the mirror as a girl hugged her from behind.
“Calm as always, aren’t you?” Jane said. “Well, we went through a bunch of possible questions, so we are prepared. We both look stunning. So I guess there’s really nothing to worry about. Now let’s get some more fans.”
Jane withdrew from the classroom they used to get ready.
Left alone, she let out a sigh. Anna had stopped biting her nails years ago, but today the old habit returned. She even drank two glasses of champagne to calm down. Of course Anna couldn’t tell anybody, but she was nervous.
During the interview, her friends answered the questions without a problem. Anna on the other hand stayed brief and blunt. She felt horrible to be so rude, but more than a sentence and her voice gave in.
Yet, her expressionless face revealed nothing of her inner turmoil.
Only when the interview came to a close, she relaxed. Not everyone among the spectators agreed with them. Steve’s reaction of promising a reward when he was cornered by the reporter invited criticism. That was no surprise.
Her eyes widened however, when she saw the figure that walked away. Anna sat in the last chair and few lights obstructed her vision, so she caught a glimpse of him. And though she barely heard his voice, she might have been the only one of the group who recognized Frank.
The interview ended with a bang and they retired to the classroom they had used before. “This little punk.” Steve slammed his fist on a desk and ripped his tie off. “Did anybody see who that was?”
They all shook their head. “Don’t worry, we got our point across” Jane put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m more annoyed with that reporter girl. She clearly had it out for us.” Steve and the twins agreed. But the interview was over and the damage done.
Anna shrugged. “Alright, that was exhausting. I’m getting something to drink and then head home.”
“Your driver picking you up?” Jane asked, a lot less formal than in front of the camera. “Or should I call my own. I won’t stay too long either, it’s rather boring out there.”
“Thanks, but you know my father. I’m pretty sure a driver has been waiting outside for hours.” Anna explained. “Maybe I’ll log in tonight, if not, I’ll see you tomorrow in class. Bye.”
She didn’t wait for an answer and left the room.
Her hands trembled and her heart beat faster than before the interview. A knot formed in her stomach as she walked through the doors to the party in the cantina.
Her eyes wandered around the room until she spotted a tall, dark haired figure at the bar. Anna breathed in deeply. Her face was flushed, she approached Frank with firm steps.
She intended to do something she hadn’t done in a long time—the right thing.
Another chapter done, hope you liked it :grin:
First I want to thank the people who donated their hard earned money. I’m really grateful to you guys. In return I promise to work especially hard to improve myself as a writer so I’ll prove worthy of your trust. Next time I’d like to mention you by name (first name) as a thank you (if you want to stay anonymous, please write me a PM).
If you find any mistakes, have suggestions or criticism, I always have an open ear. My thanks to alex-jnl at this point for proofreading.
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