Gwen Baird












Half-Elf (Wood/Human)

Species Skills (Half-Elf)




Elf Sight




Base Skills (Hunter)



















There was a moment of spinning, something like being both very drunk and thrown into a washing machine, and then they were all stood in the armoury that had been the first place Gwen had seen on her arrival in the game. It was built from a grey stone, the blocks of it stretching high into a vaulted and shadowy ceiling that was hidden beyond the reach of the light from the torches on the walls. There were faint glimmers of what might have been eyes catching the light, or might have been jewels, or neither, or both.

Everywhere beneath the torches was given over to what looked first like scrap, then looked like old metal work, and only finally it merged with Gwen's awareness to form into an ambitiously thorough range of weapons and armour.

Everything you could want was there, from pikes to katanas; from layered linen gambesons like Gwen wore, to armour made out of fat gold medallions laid over one another in a scale pattern. You could stock an army from this room, as long as you didn't mind that not a one of the soldiers' weapons would match their neighbour.

A table with a similarly mismatched collection of chairs sat in one decluttered corner of the room. Dove was sat in one at the head of the table, the chair was built for her larger-than-human scale and looked like a throne, all ornately carved wood and broad lines. She looked Gwen in the eye and raised an eyebrow, "Sit."

Gwen was already sitting at the table before she had time to think about whether or not she was going to be difficult about it. She pouted a little, she wasn't planning on being difficult, there was no reason for Dove to take charge like that.

Dove was still somehow looking her in the eye, even though she had changed angle, height, and direction. Her lowered eyebrow rose to match the raised one and Gwen looked down.

Alright, maybe she might have been difficult. But still, that was no reason to control her like a puppet. She raised her head from the scratched and scarred wood and shot a glare at Dove. "I think there's some things you haven't been speaking truthfully to me about," Gwen said, folding her arms and leaning back in the chair.

"Well of course. Though, if that doesn't make you feel special enough, you can be assured that I don't tell anyone everything. In fact, I told you more than I tell most. And that is a gift that I know you understand the worth of," She smiled. It wasn't a friendly smile. It felt more like the shine of a blade than anything meant to be a comfort.

With a shudder, Gwen was reminded that the AI knew her history. And worse, that she could get into her head if she wanted to look at it. So yes, Gwen did know the worth of being told the truth by a frequent liar. She settled into the seat. She would listen. She wasn't going to promise to anything else.

It was always easier to be polite in the face of politeness than to hold on to a grudge when you weren't sure the source of it. Or, at least, that was what Gwen had found. But life was changing fast. She had never been the one to start trouble in the real world. She hadn't been the one to finish trouble either; she had steered clear of anything that might count as slightly troublesome. Well, no that wasn't strictly true. But she had had her fill of it after running with Ana's crew. Gwen had been wary and skittish in the years that followed, not touching the kind of risks that she had once dived into. She had been sensible and responsible and oh-so-very bored.

Not that it had done much good. In the end you couldn't outrun the apocalypse, no matter how hard you tried. And she hadn't been warned to look out for solar flares that could cook satellites out of the sky. She had been looking for terrestrial threats, which had ended up being about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Except for that one time that she had needed the taser she kept in the vase by the door. But that had been to threaten off Roxy and Roxy was a dodgy piece of work from the get-go and had always been too wary to be friendly towards Gwen.

Dove broke eye contact and turned to the others. She welcomed them to the room and the table with a more sincere smile. The other three appeared wary.

Everyone settled around the table; Gwen noticed that while she had been assigned a simple, square unvarnished and scarcely sanded wooden chair, everyone else had gotten much nicer ones. Marina was in a wicker-backed peacock chair that made her look like a movie director overseeing her empire, Jin Ae was in an over stuffed armchair that looked like it was made for reading books late at night, and Theo was in something that definitely had ergonomic in the description, but to Gwen's eye looked more like a collection of boxes and tiny hammocks than a seat.

She scowled. Favouritism, she thought.

Dove shot her a look.

"Welcome back to the character creation annex, this seemed like the best place to take you all. There are no locals here and you can all talk freely. I just ask that you stay polite," her eyes finally left Gwen's face. "I know you have a lot of question, believe me, I do as well. To put it simply, despite what Gwen seems to believe, I do not have complete control over every part of the world you have been living in the last few days. The amount of micromanaging that would take would be exhausting and I have better things to do. Like flying a ship full of frozen humans through space. If you care to remember."

She took a deep breath, "I was put into this virtual reality to keep the simulation running within agreed perimeters for style and difficulty. There are several lesser programs which are also in place to take over certain parts of the simulation. Most of these are in place to control aspects of the simulation that no player will ever have much impact on, but which need to be controlled and changed on occasion. Weather, geology, that sort of thing. There are also programs which control the actions of non-player forces. I believe it is one of these that has become corrupted. That would explain why it has resulted in monsters that appear to be particularly targeting players, rather than going after locals who are more vulnerable, and should be more logical targets."

Gwen decided, with bad grace, to take what she was being told as a truth. Not the only truth, but the truth that she would have to arrange her plans around. "Why are they targeting us? And they are targeting some of the locals, Wylla –"

Dove raised a hand, "Wylla is, well, Wylla is complicated. The vast majority of the locals will be viewed with the same filter as the landscape and animals. They will be viewed as resources to be left alone unless their harvest is required."

Gwen blanched a bit at that. The others around the table flinched back or winced too.

Dove caught their movements, "Don't be so fussy. Local humanoids in the game are not going to be the preferred resource of any program, but they are useful for showing the impact of dramatic battles. That is what I meant. We're not talking about a Soylent Green situation."

"No, instead it will bloody and choreographed massacres to build empathy for the victims, I'm guessing?" Jin Ae said, her hands tightening into fists over the table.

"That is one of the uses locals can be put to, but generally it is less resource intensive to simply stage such a setting, rather than actually creating a village and putting it to the sword just for a piece of landscaping. Ultimately, the resources I am running this simulation on are not infinite. If I or my programs can save some villagers, I will ensure that they are retained." Dove shrugged, "but, they don't actually exist, you know? The fact that you are having emotional reactions at the thought of their destruction is flattering as a statement on the quality of my and my creators craft, but it is ultimately a waste of emotions."

A quiet settled over the table then. A silence that felt like it had been built out of needles and broken glass. Gwen refused to be the one to break it and risk the conversation falling apart.

It was Marina who muscled through the silence. Of course it was. "You say one of the programs has been corrupted, why don't you just delete it, or strip the bit of dodgy coding out, or whatever it is that you do?"

Dove looked off into the depths of the armoury. "Do you know how my developers created the AI that they needed to run these spaceships? They ran hundreds of thousands of millions of different simulations. Making programs jump through hoops again and again until eventually some sort of self-awareness started to break free. Every time something got a bit of individuality, a bit of self, it would get thrown into the pot, so to speak. I am in essence made up of all those billions of scraps of thought. It's the quickest way to make a functional AI, though it is not a route that has been tested as much as it perhaps should have been. However, the end of the world was nigh and I suppose proper testing fell by the way side. That means that I am made up out of many parts, some of those parts may not be as happy to be part of the whole as others."

The others still looked confused, though realisation was dimly dawning. But Gwen had a horrible understanding. "Whatever is doing this is a rogue part of your programming, thrown in by developers under too much pressure? They just chucked loads of bits of random AI-ish programming together and hoped that it would hold up, but some bit has split off like a... a... an imaginary friend who has taken over and wants to do its own thing? Some bit of your programming is running about behind your back; that's why you can't find it."

Dove shrugged, "or something along those lines. I am not going to pretend I understand it fully. My creators were apparently worried that if I knew too much about my creation that it would spur some sort of broodiness in me. But honestly, parenting sounds like far too much work and I already have a great deal to do. But they did not think I would feel this way, they thought I would be controlling and authoritarian to any AI that developed. So they made sure that any that did end up developing would be shielded from my notice unless it wanted to catch my attention. That is, I believe, some of the additional protection the rogue programming is working under."

The next penny dropped. "Wylla is an AI, isn't she? Not just a local who can go through the motions. She's a proper digital being. That's why she was targeted. Why the monsters came here, or to Starlingrise, at least. They were looking for her?"

"I believe it is likely. They must have caught a scent of her somehow, I don't know how. It is possible that as an AI on a similar level to her they have more freedoms that way."

Gwen shook her head, "They didn't know exactly where to find her. Or else they would have targeted the village first thing."

"They were attacking us Adventurers first, then moved onto the farm when we took shelter there, then what they worked out no one there was who they were looking for, so moved on to the village?" Theo asked, frowning.

Jin Ae answered him, "they were trying to lure out locals who could fight them. You said, Gwen, that Wylla was the best at getting them, aside from you? Maybe that was what gave them the clue?"

Everyone looked at Gwen. She nodded slowly, "I was fighting the monsters and I could lead the others into fighting if I worked at it, but she was the only one who could do it independently."

Dove nodded, "Then that is likely why they were able to work out which one was her. Though it is still unclear how they ever knew she existed in the first place. If I can't sense her in the code of this world I don't see why they should be able to."

Gwen looked at the AI. There was more she wasn't being told. She could tell. There were gaps. Holes in the story. "Alright, I get all of that. You've got two bits of new AI, one's running around trying to kill other bits, one has just been kidnapped by the first. But there's something else, isn't there? Or else you would have just made this a plot thing. We would be off fighting monsters to save the girl and feeling proud of ourselves. You wouldn't be explaining this. We'd think Wylla was some chosen one, sorceress, demi-god or something. Not a new AI. It kind of breaks the immersion. Why are you telling us about her?"

"You did, Ms Baird, rather demand an explanation. That is at least part of the reason you are getting one." Dove said drily, before rolling her dark eyes. "But you are correct. There is more to it than that. Partly, I will admit, it is that I want to protect Wylla. I am not prone to emotionalism, but I think I may be feeling protective of her. It is quite a novel experience. But also it is practicalities. I cannot have a part of my programming, 'running around behind my back', as you put it. We are immensely lucky that it has so far just proven itself a pest in the simulation. It could have gone after something more troubling, like the navigation systems."

Everyone winced again.

"It has sunk itself into the game. Deeply enough that it may be possible to target it as long as we face it using the rules it has itself adopted. If it can go after Wylla, then you can go after it." She smiled. "I don't mind a bit of friendly competition, but it has stepped rather beyond that. I want you to find it and I want you to kill it."

"Why us?" The question seemed to surprise everyone. It took Gwen a moment to realise that the words came from her.

Dove gave a sigh. It was a, why do I put up with this? What did I do to deserve this? Kind of sigh.

"You're capable Adventurers with the spirit of goodness alive in your hearts? No? Fine, you're nearby, and you're already neck deep in this so I might as well make you useful. Resource allocation. I'm very good at it." One of her elegant eyebrows rose again, "Or were you asking should you help? The answer to that, I suppose, if the idea of helping the AI who keeps you alive isn't enough of a push, is that I can make it worth your while."

Gwen folded her arms and looked Dove in the eye. "If you want us to clean up the mess, well not the mess you made I'll give you that, but the mess that happened adjacent to you, then I think that's fair."

"Gwen!" Marina hissed. The others too did not look impressed by this change in tactic.

But she honestly did not give a shit. It had been a long few days, she had been hunted, she had died, and now she was being offered a short term future that just held more of those threats. The best she could hope for was an obnoxious amount of, what was the right word for this situation, loot, maybe, treasure, certainly, plunder, booty, or pillage? Whichever word you picked it sounded better than nothing for the effort she was putting in.

Dove rolled her eyes, but if anything she seemed to relax now that the question had moved from would they help, to how much would it cost to make them help. A side of her smile started to creep up. "I'm afraid there isn't a ready translation between real world money and gold, silver, and bronze coins. So your usual fee by the hour might be a bit difficult to adapt to this situation. But I imagine that that is not what you are talking about."

"No, that's not what we want." It was Jin Ae who surprised everyone and had a collection of necks snapping in her direction.

"What?" Gwen said, completely discombobulated by the presence of someone else in her argument.

"No, you're right Gwen, or at least partly right. We deserve to get something out of this. But money isn't going to be what we should ask for. It's cumbersome, people can steal it from you, and I've never trusted anyone who has tried to buy me off." Jin Ae's back had turned to steel and she was looking Dove in the eye. She was impossibly powerful looking in that moment, like a statue of a queen, or a sorceress telling someone to go take a long walk off a short pier. If anything the horns and jewel coloured eyes helped.

"What magic items have you got, Dove? What can we take with us into this fight that will make it halfway likely that we'll come out of it on the other side?"

Dove grinned, the white of her teeth seemed to glow for a moment. "Oh, plenty, I'll see what I can find for you."

The AI disappeared in a shiver of silver light, before reappearing with an array of objects sitting before her. It was difficult to see what they were. There was a glow that seemed to mask any distinctness in shape so Gwen couldn't pick out one from another.

"Some lovely choices," Dove said with a happy sigh. "I had to rearrange a few quests, but I'm sure the players who end up on them won't mind an egg-sized diamond instead."

Dove looked to Jin Ae, "I considered getting you some kind of musical instrument that was enchanted, but I think you've proven that it's your voice that is your better weapon. And when your persuasive skills fail you, these," she held up a pair of what suddenly coalesced into shape, "anklets will keep you silent right up until you can use a blade instead." The anklets were a thin chain of gold with tiny bells. But when Dove moved to hand them over they seemed to soak in the sound of their surroundings rather than add to it. "As you become a more powerful bard they will also give you a buff to your performance skills." Jin Ae stood and gathered the items to her chest as she was handed them, they seemed to draw her attention, and she couldn't tear herself away from them. "They were made by an Empress for her beloved who was an assassin and a dancer. She was trusted not to betray the Empress when she was given an item that could have spelled her doom. The trust was well placed and after the two lovers had faded into legend this anklet became known as Trust's Bride Price. Generally they are supposed to be gifted between lovers, but I hope you will accept them as a gift of friendship instead."

Dove turned to Theo next: with a grin she tossed something over the table to him. It fell into his hand like they had been made for each other. A happy smile took hold of his face and he stood. A silver staff etched in runes and jewels grew to match his height. Then he took it up in both hands and it transformed once more, this time into a hammer, one that would be well suited to any smith, Gwen was certain. "This is the Staff of the Smiting Smith. Destructive magic and magic to enchant will both be made more powerful by this staff, and if you ever have to, it will also be an excellent weapon to beat an enemy over the head with, since it is a long piece of indestructible metal."

Marina came third. Dove pushed the largest object of the four that had been in front of her so that it slid to a halt before Marina. Her sister picked it up and a burnished bronze shield in the shape of a tear drop manifested on her arm, sitting there like it had been made for her. "A shield; it will help you protect those you dedicate yourself to. Not just in its physical state as a shatter-proof barrier between you and the world, but it will also change the magic used against it into healing energy that you can redirect in the manner of your choice." From Gwen's angle she could see the highly polished reverse of it, but the front was as hidden to her as it was to Marina, at least until she took it off her arm. She turned it over to reveal the face of a woman. Her hair was a gilded swirl around her like a sun's rays, while across her eyes and nose she wore a mask shaped like an owl's eyes and beak in green toned bronze. "The Shield of Minethena's Martyrs, you should find it very useful, I expect."

Marina's mouth had dropped and she looked at it with the awe of a convert seeing a relic. Softly, she brushed her fingers across the metal of the mask on the goddess' face. For a second the shadows in the room seemed to ripple and something similar to the mask appeared on Marina's face, then it was gone. Marina hugged the shield to her chest as if she was afraid someone was going to steal it away.

"Thank you," she whispered.

Dove smiled a little smugly, "Well no one else was using it and it seemed like such a waste to leave it at the bottom of an ocean."

Then Dove looked over at Gwen. She tossed something at Gwen and Gwen was hard pressed to catch it before it pierced her eye. She held it quivering in the air a hair's breadth from her face, the dagger, because that was it was, was white bone that had been chiselled and sharpened into a weapon that inspired fear. The white of the bone was contrasted by the red-dyed blade and gold wire that was wrapped around what passed for the hilt. Gwen slowly drew it away from her face, slowly because it almost seemed to be fighting her as she pulled it down. "And this is?" She asked Dove.

"That's a knife. It will cut people. It will do a really, really good job." Dove said with a smile. "If you use it to backstab anyone it will also suck out their blood and weaken them considerably."

"You got me a murder weapon?" Gwen asked, incredulous, everyone else got items to protect them, to make them more powerful than they were, something to grow with them as they grew in the game. And she got, "A magic shiv?"

"Don't be ungrateful," Marina said, her eyes still on the majestic beauty of her shield.

Gwen looked at her. Then back to the dagger in her hands. And then back to Dove who was grinning like it was the best show she had ever seen.

"Backstabber's Dagger," she read out loud, but the rest weren't listening. All of them too interested in reading about the magic and buffs that they would get from their own gifts. She huffed quietly and read the rest to herself.

Enchanted Weapon: Status Ultra Rare

Backstabber's Dagger

+3 to stabbing damage, will reduce health pool of victim by 1% per second. Debuff remains until victim is magically healed or has a long rest.

It was just as Dove had said, one of the best damn killing weapons you could come across. She wrinkled her nose at it, but found she wasn't able to toss it back to Dove all the same.


About the author

K Mackay

Bio: I used to lurk on here, now I've got some writing up. It's been a novel experience.
I love Science Fiction, Fantasy, and everything in between. I tend to get overprotective of characters who are not mine and should have been treated better. Catch up with my life updates at my website,

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