Merchant of Tiqpa Ch1

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There he is, Locke thought, the bringer of end times, the Demon King of Tiqpa. He couldn’t take his eyes off the image of a giant man with a golden crown. The mountain of a man, horned and maybe even hoofed, was standing in the back of a well-organized army, surrounded by fire and soldiers on all sides as he issued out orders. Locke loved each and every fresh report that came in on Darwin because, as the fear grew, so did his paycheck. For most people, it was just fun to follow the story of a villain rising to unprecedented power in their favorite game. For Locke, however, it wasn’t just fun: It was profitable. He often felt like a reporter from the early 1990s that woke up to find out that tragedy struck right next door. He knew he shouldn’t be so happy–the devil was constantly wiping towns full of his fellow gamers off the face of the map, after all–but it was just too lucrative of an opportunity.

“So, tell me what we’re seeing here,” Ryan asked his co-host.

A drastic boost in my weapon and armor sales! Locke answered silently before the G.O.R.N. co-host could even finish his sentence.

“What makes this particular offensive unique in the Demon Army’s campaign?” the news anchor went on.

It’s the first one that will net me a six-figure sale and finally make sure that Jess doesn’t have to spend her time at college eating ramen and working crappy, part-time jobs like I did. Locke couldn’t contain his elation at the news, and it worked its way out in the form of an ear-to-ear grin. He had done everything he could to take care of his sister and keep her life as normal as possible since they had lost their parents in the accident, but he had been hit with the sobering reality of what that was actually going to cost as soon as her college tuition reared its ugly head.

Jessica was eighteen, and about as smart as they came, but she was still incredibly naive about the harsh realities of being broke and trying to come up with the money to pay bills. Locke was proud of the fact that his hard work had kept her from ever having to worry about those things, but his bright little sister had decided to attend a university that was so expensive it managed to crush his heart and his bank account along with it in one fell swoop. He was fortunate that she had qualified for need-based aid and earned several academic scholarships to cover a large portion of the tuition, but peripheral costs were still staggering. Locke knew firsthand just how quickly unforeseen expenses could crop up, and he wanted to make sure that she was able to live as comfortably as possible without having to worry about balancing a job against having a social life and academics. Until Tiqpa came around, he had almost given up all hope of finding a way to finance her first year at college. No bank was ever going to let a credit-less part-timer be the cosigner on any type of loan, and he had been struggling with how to come up with the extra money she would need.

“Well, I’m glad you asked because this is a pretty important metamorphosis in the Demon King’s campaign to take over Tiqpa. Previously, he or one of the infamous Four Riders had always taken a personal role in leading their army and were heavily reliant on NPCs. They’ve been seen on multiple battlefronts wreaking havoc against their victims, but this offensive seems to be a bit different. This time, it’s a campaign being led by an entirely new face, and our intel suggests that it’s an actual player.”

Locke blinked. Led by a player? His mouth began to salivate as the little phrase left the newscaster’s mouth. Led by a player? The little wheels and cogs that operated his money-savvy brain started to whirl and quickly kicked into overdrive. Led . . . by . . . a . . . customer?

The rephrasing had a nice, golden ring to it. Locke briefly considered how much money he could make selling to the opposition instead of his usual clientele and whether or not it would be worth it. No, don’t even go there, Locke. They’re winning right now. Remember the lessons of good ole’ salesman Dad before he died: ‘Always supply the most desperate people. They’ll pay more upfront, and they’ll be more reliable when it comes time to sell to them again. It wasn’t his favorite bit of advice his father had left him with, but it was a hard lesson he had to take into account.

“Now, this is the second time today that you’ve used that term, ‘Four Riders.’ Can you elaborate on that name?” Daria, the other news caster, asked. She was playing dumb in order to set up Ryan’s exposition. “Is this an official rank discovered by our unnamed source from within the Demon Host?”

Locke realized what she was doing and sighed at how transparent it was. That’s her job, after all.  Everyone with half a brain knew that there was a teleprompter behind the camera feeding them lines like a sports star’s press agent after a sex scandal, yet she pretended that she didn’t know anything so she could be even more endearing to the male audience. So insulting. It’s like because I’m a guy, I’ll only be attracted to her if she’s dumb. But he didn’t knock the formula. It worked. The show had one handsome and arrogant guy for the girls who were watching and one seductive ditz for the guys. If only I had been born with a strong jaw, perfectly parted hair, and a sing-song baritone voice with the penchant for over-dramatizing the rate at which paint dries on a newly painted road, I could have landed that cushy job, he grumbled.

“No, not at all. This name, much like the moniker ‘Demon Host,’ is just a popular term that players use to describe four of the Demon Host’s eight known mini bosses. We speculate here at G.O.R.N. that the title manifested in part as a joke based on the four riders of the apocalypse because, wherever they go, death generally follows. In addition, they often start and even finish battles from atop their Drakes. So far, the Four Riders consist of two Lynx hybrids from the were-people and two red-eyed Demons from, well, your guess is as good as mine.”

“But, if my in-game lore serves me correctly, those aren’t the only mini bosses in the Demon Host, are they?”

“You can bet your bottom dollar the Holy Alliance wishes they were!” Ryan chuckled.

Locke’s mood couldn’t have been any better as he listened to the two put on their little piece of theater. Every fight, every battle, brought him just a little bit closer to being able to help support his sister the way he wanted.

“But yes, there are more,” Ryan continued, stiffening back up. “Sadly, given that no one has broken through the army itself since the day the quest was first laid out, we’re a little shy on information regarding exactly how many more there are. Currently, most people estimate that there are between eight and ten mini bosses, but no one is certain on the exact number. Our anonymous source from within the Demon Host has confirmed that this number seems about right. Unfortunately, our source, like every other player that has spoken to G.O.R.N. on the matter, is not a high enough rank to get the necessary permission needed to pass the red-eyed, multi-colored dragon that guards the stairs into the lower levels of Mt. Lawlheima’s dungeon.”

If Locke had been salivating at the idea of a potential new customer, he was downright drooling at the prospect of what might be underneath that floor. The only time the upper echelons of a group put that much effort into guarding a basement was if it had something valuable. In a game, things were only protected by a mini boss if there was a bigger boss with even better loot below. Either way, if the Holy Alliance ever made it to the bottom of that dungeon, they’d be richer than a quickly-regenerating mutant who figured out how to sell organs on the black market. That just meant that they’d be able to afford even better gear and be able to pay even higher prices–just as long as he could keep the quality of his gear above the competition.

“So there hasn’t been a single player that’s entered the lower levels of Mt. Lawlheima?”

“That’s right. Apparently, since players have only been recently introduced into the folds of the Demon Host, there still aren’t any who have proven themselves enough to be promoted further than the lowest two ranks of the faction. That’s why it’s all the more surprising to see a player leading the army in this recent campaign.”

“But–and pardon me for citing the conspiracy theories on Blueit since they did all the hard work without me–but how do we know that one of the head bosses of the Demon Army isn’t secretly a player? Ever since they removed the player versus NPC distinction tags in the 1.1 patch and the name tags in general in the big 1.4 mega patch, it’s been impossible to tell the difference. I’ve even heard speculation that Darwin himself might be a player, and his arrival on starter island was the main reason the game creators took down the differentiating tags?”

“Yeah, and JFK was actually assassinated by a giant Nixon look-a like robot from the future.”

Locke groaned. Where do these awful allusions come from? It’s almost like they are birthed from a sordid love affair between an elderberry-loving drunk and a hamster. They’re so ridiculous.

“Fine, I just thought I’d throw out the possibility. Blueit gets a lot of things right, after all. But, that said, do you think the switch from using NPCs to players is strategic? Will it give him an advantage in conquest over the other player factions?”

“Absolutely. And for good reason. NPCs in Tiqpa don’t regenerate as fast as they do in other MMOs or VRMMOs. In fact, it’s been a few weeks since a Human town on the starter islands was butchered, and the NPCs have yet to return to it. Being able to rely more heavily on players instead of the NPCs has so far will put the Demon Host in a far better position militarily and given them an obvious advantage in sieges against NPC-heavy castles and towns.”

“So you think this will speed up the rate at which they’re redrawing the political maps of the land in their favor? Let them march with less preparation?”

“Well, that would definitely be the case if they were the only group building heavier player-based armies. The Holy Alliance is just the largest military force that’s started to unite against the onslaught of Demons. Several smaller mercenary guilds have also taken up that same strategy.”

“Now, if memory serves me correctly, the Holy Alliance is very new to the political landscape of Tiqpa. Do you think they will have what it takes to stop this growing threat to peace?”

No, but with the size of their orders, they definitely have what it takes to make sure that I can meet Jess’s upcoming tuition deadline. Thank you, Anthony, for your brilliant choice to buy my wares.

Locke was simultaneously working through an excel sheet to come up with the best way to maximize the next three days of character growth and browsing through the forums for good deals or new scoops on information he wasn’t aware of. He spent most of his free time like this whenever he hit a plateau in the game or had to find a way to divert himself for a little while. Unfortunately, he had become so engrossed with the newscast that he had almost completely reached a whole new level of procrastination. He knew that if he wanted to stay ahead of his competition and remain relevant as the go-to source of weapons, he would have to log back in and start the grind again. It was far from the most exciting job he could think of, and it was generally boring and repetitious, but that was just the life of a smith in Tiqpa.

To date, there were less than a dozen dedicated smiths across the entire server–and with good reason. Everyone else got to charge into battle, waving a weapon or throwing around really cool spells, but a good smith didn’t. The job was just a day in and day out life of whacking metal like an idiot after prostituting yourself into awful groups for forty levels without a ‘real’ class or any battle skills just to get to the main town where your customers would be. Trying to level that high using just the smithing function was absolutely impossible for anyone who wasn’t so loaded with cash that he could afford to put the keys to a brand-new Edison car under the seats of everyone in the audience.

The other option, of course, was to be a smith sponsored by a guild, and as far as he knew, that’s what every other smith besides him chose. The problem, however, was that those guys didn’t get paid. All the work and none of the reward. Locke just couldn’t understand how someone could subject themselves to the type of mental torture that was blacksmithing in Tiqpa without having a serious source of motivation.

“You have to remember that the Demon Host itself is relatively new to the political landscape as well,” Ryan continued. “It hasn’t been around for even a month. Many speculate that if it wasn’t for the continuous and voluntary surrendering of most Human towns they come across, their growth wouldn’t have been nearly fast enough to survive in the harsh region they started.”

“Voluntary surrendering? That doesn’t sound right. What do you mean by that?”

“Well . . . Most, if not all, of the Human towns in regions surrounding the Demon Host have failed to do so much as even put up a fight. They immediately laid down their arms and surrendered before the Host even had time to raise an army against them.”

“If they’re volunteering, making their own choice without any pressure from the Demon Host, then why are you using the word surrender? It seems like the Humans are just flocking to the cause of the Demon King.”

“I’m using the word surrender because they’re being put in this position–their hands are being forced–by the ever-growing threat of annihilation.”

“You’re just being silly, Ryan. This isn’t a political news site. We don’t have to put a spin on anything. It’s just a game. Clearly, they aren’t surrendering. They’re just signing up to support a cause that they either believe in or think that they will somehow benefit from joining. Either way, all of this falls well within game lore. Humans are an oppressed race and often portrayed as the natural, farmable NPCs for players. There are dozens of quests that have been discovered in various different regions that the Demon Host has conquered which are specifically designed so that players have to kill Humans. It only makes sense that they would join up and band together with someone stronger for protection.”

For the region? Of course they’re the oppressed race! If what I’ve heard is correct, the Demon Host started smack-dab in the middle of the Were-Beast zone. Killing Humans is the objective of multiple quests for all the were-people in the region. Every single farmable zone is occupied by Humans in some form or another, so why wouldn’t they be oppressed? Every game needs its slimes! Locke shook his head in dismay. Anyone who had ever played an RPG before Tiqpa was probably used to the concept already, but there were always people trying out their first game who didn’t get it. If you didn’t have random cannon fodder around your town to farm up, then you wouldn’t have anything off of which to level. In this case, the game just happened to use racial NPCs and players as part of a bid to establish territorial control. Without learning how to fight, players would either just arrive at a boss fight still green as an ogre’s behind or be chunked out into the world without any real concept of how PVP worked.

That’s exactly why this ‘Darwin’ guy was so brilliant to absorb them all–players and NPCs alike. His competition was left without a choice: They could either they join his army and serve on the frontlines against non-Humans, or they would be forced to give up the best leveling zones in the game. It’s absolutely brilliant. He took away all the quests, so now everyone has to join him. Even if the NPCs are just following his lead to protect themselves, the players don’t really have a choice unless they want to waste all that time traveling all the way across the world map to another region. Even then, they would have to be able to grind solely off of mobs if they were still hoping to gain experience. There’s a good chance that all of the low-level quests would be racial-specific and not accessible to them.

“That can’t be the case at all. I still can’t unsee the massacre that occurred in the Animal Kingdom, and I doubt any of the neighboring regions can either. That’s why they’re signing up: so that the same fate doesn’t befall them. It’s the only logical reason. After all, there is no decent human on earth that would willingly resign himself to being the servant of a bloodthirsty dictator like the Demon King.”

“Luckily for the Demon Host, they aren’t on Earth. It’s Tiqpa, remember? Given their tendency to witness murder on a daily basis, they probably don’t have the same notions that you or I do. I imagine they have really upped the daily body count for our NPC citizens, especially with the new players arriving.”

“That’s a good point.” Ryan’s acting ability proved to be beyond Locke’s expectations when the anchor pretended to mull over the idea, though he had probably rehearsed the bit a few times before the show ever started. “That’s actually a very good point. I can only imagine what type of psyche I would have, and what I would consider morally acceptable, if my loved ones were being murdered on a day-to-day basis. But that still doesn’t excuse them from joining the enemy and further contributing to the problem! Violence doesn’t end violence!”

“Tell that to the defending side in any war.” Daria’s voice faltered, and she broke character with this smart aleck response.

“That’s not . . .” Ryan turn to Daria with a look of confusion, probably shocked by her off-script interruption.

While the quip might have annoyed Robot Ryan, the script-reading-monkey of primetime gaming TV, it made Locke a little happy. ‘Violence is never the answeris only something people say after they’ve won all their wars and are able to live in peace. It was rare to see that sentiment shared on television, where people only pushed pleasantly-soft ideas that didn’t offend anyone. You go, Daria. He mentally applauded her as he turned off the television and took one last second to savor the image of Ryan’s dumbfounded face. Sorry, buddy, I can’t spend all day watching G.O.R.N., or I won’t get anything done, he thought as he watched the talking head vanish from the screen.

Now, time to log in. He popped on the dive device and hopped into the simulation.

 

—–

 

Locke didn’t even manage to open his eyes before he was immediately struck in the chest by a giant green hand as he logged into the game.

“Get down!” the owner of the hand yelled as he pushed Locke onto his back, creating a beautiful ‘thump’ sound as Locke practically bounced off the grass like someone was trying to dribble a flat basketball.

What the– Locke tried to cry out, but there was a clear lack of air preventing anything from escaping his mouth as he stared up in shock at burning arrows flying over his head.

The giant who had pressed Locke onto the ground charged one of the archer and tossed him into the air before he could notch another arrow onto his bow. No sooner had he reached the air than three White-Wings soared out like well-armed angels and slashed him in mid-air over and over again.

Another volley of the flaming arrows whizzed over his head accompanied by a bright streak of lighting that bounced off one man and struck another one before forking into the ground. Two targets of the attacks, people Locke struggled to catch any detail of, were incinerated before they had so much as a chance to dodge out of the way.

“There are a few more coming. Rob, have your squad root and boom them!” the large green man who had thrown him on the grown shouted to someone behind him.

“Yes, sir!” One of the other green men said, punching his fists into the dirt.

“What the heck was that?” Locke managed to ask from his position on the ground. He didn’t think standing up was a good idea if there were going to be more attacks.

Instead of an answer, he was greeted by four more opponents trickling in, two of which began chanting as soon as they reached eye level. Unfortunately for all four, they never got a chance to execute their spells as small thin vines sprung out of the ground around all four and started tugging on their legs and arms. It wasn’t much, and it was clear that with less than ten seconds of struggling they would easily have been able to break through the weak vines, but the aggressors didn’t have ten seconds. Before the only one with a sword could even hack himself free, a series of fireballs launched over Locke’s head and engulfed all four of them, burning them into nothing.

Locke waited on the ground, twisting his head back and forth between where the attackers had died and where the men who had killed them, and probably saved his life, were standing. He was surprised at how little anyone seemed to care. Not even thirty seconds after the fight ended, it seemed as if the attack had never happened.

Has it gotten to be that commonplace? Bandits assaulting the very heart of the Holy Alliance is so normal now that it seems as if it might as well have never happened as soon as it’s over? Locke frowned and he lay there on the grass. He would probably have stayed there a few more minutes if someone hadn’t kneeled next to him and extended a blue hand.

“Hey! Come on, Locke! Everyone is waiting on you!” A slender man, coated from head to toe in bark like it was plated armor, pulled Locke to his feet before clapping him on his back hard enough to shake loose any sense of bearing he had managed to recover.

“Easy there, Sal, you know Locke is lighter than your tax returns. If you hit him too hard, he’s bound to fly off like a house strapped to a million balloons,” a second Dryad warned. This one was more muscular than the first and wore nothing but a pair of bark pants that clung tighter than a hipster’s dream pair of skinny jeans.

I’m not light. I’m just a Human without much in the vitality stat. Locke sighed to himself as he looked at the two light-blue-skinned dryads in front of him. Sal and Sol each stood a full eight feet tall with green hair spiked up in such a way that it almost gave them an entire extra foot of height. Since the 1.4 patch had majorly revamped all the stats and made vitality even less important to a smith, he hadn’t been dumping any points into it. As a result, any hits he took, which apparently included even pats on the back, were greatly exaggerated.

The third face that was waiting for Locke wasn’t one he recognized. He had never seen the Human girl before, but as soon as his eyes caught sight of her, he couldn’t even see the two Dryads anymore. She was about five foot six with long hair that transitioned slowly from a dark blue at the base to sharply bright red at the tips. She had a button nose, thin lips, and a chin that, when combined with her hair line, gave the whole face the shape of a heart. Yet, with all of her features, it was her exotic purple irises that he couldn’t help but look into.

“It’s really cool, isn’t it?” Sol, the brutishly large Dryad next to Sal, said as soon as he caught where Locke was staring. “Persephone here bought an eye kit online. She’s the only person in the whole camp” –Sol gestured with his arms towards the rest of the tents around them– “that has it. I was just as shocked as you. I want to get a pair of green eyes! But the only way you can do that is by buying the new dev kit.”

“Micro transactions?” Locke gulped. “They’re already doing micro transactions in Tiqpa?” That’s not good at all. If they’re selling cosmetic stuff in Tiqpa, that means I’ll have less business than a luxury car maker in a depression. The number of potential customers will be the same, but for every person who decides that having fancy, colored hair or a little pink tutu is more important than winning in battle, the number of people who will spend their extra cash on a weapon that will last more than a few levels will go down. This is not good, not good at all. Locke panicked, and his chest seized up momentarily as his brain started to run the numbers on how many people would rather look good at their funeral than show up to a battle uglier than the soiled hind-side of a hippo after taco night but still be the best equipped on the field.

“Umm . . . No. It’s not what you’re thinking, Locke. It’s a quest reward that was sold on the same forum Anthony found your services,” Persephone explained.

Was my horror that evident? Oh no. I need to practice smiling more in front of the mirror. I can’t let that happen again or it could ruin a business deal faster than farting in a conference room, Locke chided himself, imagining his father wagging a finger at him as he lectured himself. ‘No matter what, son, just keep smiling. Smiles are infectious! People pick up on your body language, and you can smooth over a bad situation just by letting people know that you’re in good spirits.’ Wait, does she think that I’m just some money-grubbing merchant now? No, that is not in my best interest at all . . . I mean, I guess I kinda am, but that can’t be helped right now. It’s probably for the best if they just think that I’m just the kind and generous smith who wants to help out the Holy Alliance in the only way I can.

“I don’t think he heard you, Persephone,” Sol laughed. “I think you must have cast charm or stun on him because he’s out of it.”

“No, umm, I’m sorry,” Locke responded meekly, trying to make it sound like he had just spaced out for a moment. “I was just thinking about how cool I would look if I were able to get my hands on some gray eyes for my character.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that color,” Persephone responded indifferently with a shrug. “It would probably be really expensive.”

Locke had to hold back a cringe when the word ‘expensive’ left Persephone’s lips. You shouldn’t swear in public. That type of bad language is unacceptable. He almost chuckled at his own joke. “Well, let’s not worry about it. What brings you three here so early? I still have to hit the forge and get to work if I’m going to finish the order you all put in.”

“Yeah, that’s nice and all, but Anthony wanted to see you ahead of time. He had a really exciting offer for you,” Sol said, Sal nodding in agreement. Locke often preferred hearing Sal talk over Sol. Sal had a bad habit of beating around the bush and never really getting around to saying exactly what he meant. If he ever got excited or wanted something, he had a bad tendency to over-exaggerate too. When he did, his words sounded like they were dipped in honey and served with salt to the point you often couldn’t tell what you were really hearing.

“Ah.” Locke looked at Sal, hoping the slender weed’s expression would give some indication of what the ‘exciting offer’ was going to be. “Is that so? Are you guys growing again? Going to need more weapons? I don’t think I’ll be sleeping for a month at this rate.”

“We’re hoping to grow.” Sol scratched his head. “You know, one person at a time. But if we don’t, you know . . . It happens.”

“I wouldn’t turn down a new weapon though,” Persephone added as she looked at her blade. “It just doesn’t seem as impressive since the update. I might need a fresh one to make me feel better.” She turned and gave Locke a warm smile.

The update. Locke couldn’t contain his jubilation when he thought about it. Prior to the update, stat gains scaled exponentially. Weapons were doing ridiculously high amounts of damage because players were able to sink all their points into power and speed and turn fights into a one-hack, one-slash kill fest. Unless an opponent was carrying a shield or fortified with magic, damage radically out-scaled health percentages. Player versus player combat was almost cheapened to the point of ‘whoever hits first wins,’ and every monster except for bosses was killed almost instantly.

“Hey, I see where you’re looking. Don’t be thinking anything perverted about our Persephone! She’s too far up on the food chain. The other commanders will kill you if they see that smile of yours,” Sol whispered in Locke’s ears, clearly misunderstanding what was making him smile.

“Oh . . .” Locke felt annoyed at his absent-minded grin being so awkwardly misinterpreted.

“I’m right here!” Persephone stamped her foot. “If he wants to make googly-eyes at me, let him. It’s not anyone else’s business but mine.”

“I wasn’t making . . .” Locke started off as if he were going to protest, but after mentally weighing what would be in his best interest, he decided against it and left the thought unfinished instead. Maybe she’s egotistical and likes me because she thinks that I like her. She’ll probably ask for a discount, and if I pitch it as ‘this is the lowest I can do, and I really like you a lot,’ she’ll be way more likely to believe it.

“Ha ha ha! He can’t even deny it with a straight face. It’s okay, Locke. I think she’s pretty too,” Sal teased, and the two dryads both enjoyed a hearty laugh at Locke’s expense.

“Just . . . Just show me to the tent,” Locke said, doing his best to not sound arrogant. He could hear his dad again in every word that ran through his head: ‘Stutter a word here and there, act shy when needed, and keep your head down. That way, when you brag about your merchandise, it will sound all the more sincere. When you tell them that you’re offering the best product on the market, they’ll be much more likely to believe you.’ Locke hated the fact that he probably came off as a weak sap to some people, but it helped knowing that it was only a carefully-cultivated persona. “Curiosity about this new offer is going to kill me. Are you sure you can’t give me a hint?”

“Who says we haven’t?” Persephone smiled and then walked ahead of the other two, casually stepping over one of the bandit’s dead bodies as she made her way through the encampment.

Locke didn’t need to be tall or look at Sal and Sol to know where their eyes were fixed as the curvy girl rushed ahead of them. “Easy, guys. You said she’s off limits, right?” he chided, taking some small pleasure in the counter-quip.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Sol chuckled.

“He was saying you were staring at her—“ Sal couldn’t finish his explanation before a thump and a gasp were all that could be heard. “We were looking at the birds.”

“Birds?” Locke, well aware it was just an excuse, still played along and looked around for some, taking in the view of the camp while he was at it. There were hundreds of beige tents flying the flag of the Holy Alliance, a simple purple cross on a white background with a thin red border, all around them. There were, however, definitely no birds. “What kind? I like birds,” he asked as he turned to see Sal’s expression, hoping the simple Dryad would squirm a little.

“They were, umm . . .” Sal looked around, clearly trying to spot something. “They were . . .”

“Yes?” Sol was enjoying this as much as Locke. “Tell me, brother, what were they?”

“They were just birds!” Sal gave up on trying to guess a name and threw his arms up in protest. He was clearly making this into a bigger deal than either Sol or Locke. “How should I know what kind they were? I’m not some sort of ornithologist or something!”

Ornithologist? Locke could glean it was a fancy word for birdwatcher from the context, but had no idea what it really meant. For all he knew, it could secretly be a Latin word for a man who specializes in the etymology of obscure names like Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

“Anyway, we’re here,” Sal said, pointing to the large, solid-white tent with purple trim in front of them. Where every other tent was a simple tent like the ones a person expected to see on an army base, this one was as big as a conference hall and shaped like one too. Locke probably would have spotted it sooner if he wasn’t too busy teasing Sal.

“Thanks for the escort. You gents coming in?” Locke crossed his fingers that they wouldn’t. If they come in now, they’ll know the rate I give Anthony, and that’s just bad for business. Every salesman knows to keep each and every transaction separate, or people end up getting their feelings hurt. He was always going to take care of his own friends, of course, but business was business.

“No, sir,” Sol said. He suddenly straightened up and stood guard on one side of the door, Sal immediately mimicking him on the other. “Commander Anthony and the Grand Lord Marshal are waiting for you inside.”

The Grand Lord Marshal? There is someone higher up than Anthony on the food chain? Just what in the heck is the deal I’m being offered? He swallowed hard as he pulled back the tent flap and entered. Inside, he found two people standing over the cliché wooden table covered in maps and half-filled goblets. He also noticed that there were several fancy, uncomfortable-looking chairs built for smaller people decorating the walls of the tent. One of the two occupying the tent was Commander Anthony, his business partner, who had helped him get months ahead on all his bills and rent payments. He had also unknowingly been his sister’s benefactor, and was likely to continue being the source of her financial support if everything went well. Like Locke, he was the standard, clean-cut, six-foot-tall Human with golden hair and blue eyes. He always wore the same silver-plated armor, decorated on both the front and back with the Holy Alliance’s symbol, and Locke could only guess as to whether or not he actually owned casual clothes or knew how to relax.

The other person wasn’t at all what he would have expected from a guild leader. She was tall and slender with jet black hair, red eyes and an S-shaped figure. Her most striking and unexpected feature, what really made her stand out from the rest of her guild, was the simple white dress she was wearing. It stood out in vibrant contrast to the clunky armor that most members of the upper echelons lived in.

Anthony caught sight of Locke as soon as he walked in and said, “Portia, this is the promising young aspirant I mentioned to you earlier. His skills are top-notch, and with his gear, we’ll be able to turn even the lowliest of footmen into a force to be reckoned with.”

“You flatter me too much, sir.” Locke shrank under Portia’s gaze as soon as it turned on him. He averted his eyes so as not to look directly at her, and every instinct in his body told him to turn and run as quickly as he could. Get out. Get away. Danger! his senses screamed. No, not danger. Opportunity and a paycheck. His logic argued back, fighting against his instinctual push to flee back the way he came. “I merely serve in the best way I can.”

“Of course you do,” Anthony agreed and beamed a smile at him. “Always working hard, always striving for the cause . . . You’re a man among men. If I had a dozen recruits with your dedication, this war would have been won already; the blight would be eradicated and order would be restored to the world of Tiqpa.”

“There is no dedication, sir, only love for the work,” he lied. He bowed his head at Anthony’s compliment and hoped that it would make his shrinking look less awkward and unnatural. Dedication? No. Love? Definitely not. Dedication doesn’t keep a man working nineteen hours a day for weeks at a time with only coffee to keep the engines running. It’s bills. Bills and a brother’s love for his sister.

Portia let her eyes linger on Locke for a moment longer then turned to Anthony and said, “Well, I trust you to take care of this. I will return after I finish preparations to defeat my brother’s encroaching force.”

“Yes, Lord Marshal.” Anthony bowed deeply.

Locke, whose head was already lowered, straightened up just enough to match Anthony’s so he wouldn’t look out of place. When in Rome? He gave a mental shrug, not giving two thoughts to the submissive act.

“Do not fail me in this matter, Commander. I expect results.” She was gone from the tent so quickly that Locke might have been convinced that it was done in one step, leaving the two bowing men to straighten back up.

“Her brother?” Locke asked, remembering the oddity of the word. That doesn’t sound right. Defeat her brother’s force? She’s not trying to imply that–

“Don’t worry about it. It’s need to know,” Anthony interjected, cutting off Locke’s train of thought. He pulled out his sword as he spoke and set it on the war table. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“I would like to think so,” Locke agreed. He and Anthony were probably the only two people in the camp who would admire such a plain-looking sword with a rough brown hilt. They were also the only two people that knew the sword’s damage. While most swords in that level range barely added up to thirty points of damage, sometimes forty, this one did considerably more. It was a one-handed sword with fifty points of damage and a bonus of fifteen to power. After the 1.4 update, such weapon stats were almost unheard of. “Though, I may be biased on the subject.”

“You’d have to be biased not to think it’s majestic. I bet that, after working so hard on so many, you’ve probably already figured out how to make an even better one.” Anthony’s sharp eyes shot from the sword to Locke.

That’s my cue. Locke suppressed a grin. “Well, not to be a braggart, but I do have a new blade for you to inspect for the next order. That is, if you’d like to inspect it yourself.” He opened up his inventory and pulled out his latest creation. He had made it just for this pitch: a fifty-five-damage sword with a bonus of eighteen power instead of fifteen. In all, the new version was over ten percent better than the previous one.

“Do you mind?” Anthony extended his hand.

“Not at all. I think it’ll suit you perfectly. Consider it a gift.” And you can return the favor by ordering more of them.

“So do you have the original two hundred swords we ordered?” he asked, inspecting the new blade.

“I’m sorry, sir, I was just going to finish the order out today. Gathering the resources needed took more time than expected” —since I didn’t want to pay market value– “so it will be a bit longer before I finish.” His brain worked quickly to put together the numbers. With seventeen swords left until the order is finished, averaging a little under five minutes a sword, it should take me less than an hour and a half to finish the remainder. “I can be done in two hours,” he said, giving himself leeway to be safe. Finish early, and you’re a hero; finish late, and you’re in trouble.

“Hmmm. There will be no need for that. If you hand over what you have now, we can pay you right away. You can deliver the remainder at your leisure.” Anthony equipped his new toy and set the old one on the war table over the maps.

Locke gulped. Hand over the swords now? “We can do the transaction. That’s no problem. Would you like me to log off now?”

Anthony frowned at Locke. “In a bit. First, I have a question for you.”

“What would you like? Though, I must warn you, weapons are all I have experience in crafting. Armor is an entirely different beast and, while I can make it, it will take me awhile to get used to it. Until then, the quality might not be as good as that of the swords,” Locke said, anticipating that the commander might want a shiny new suit to go with his blade. Locke had picked the weaponry path early on. It wasn’t because weapons were more useful than armor, but because they were quicker to make, and people would pay the same for a sharp edge as they would a solid shield. While blacksmithing wasn’t broken up into trees, it did have its own ways of rewarding someone for specializing.

“No, it’s nothing of that sort. I wanted to hire you.” Anthony gestured to one of the uncomfortable chairs at the side of the room, indicating Locke should sit.

“Of course. What do you need me to make for you?” Locke was certain where this was going. And this is why I’m doing so well lately! That’s my favorite customer, Anthony! He is going to order another set of the next-rung-up longswords. He can tell quality when he sees it!

“I don’t think you understand: I want to hire you as an employee, not purchase your products,” Anthony clarified. “I’m willing to pay you generously and provide all the materials so that you don’t have to waste time on silly stuff like resource procurement.”

“You want an exclusivity contract? As long as the rates don’t change, and the work is steady, that’d be great! I can make sure no one in the world buys my products but you.” Locke couldn’t believe his ears. Steady payments for the rest of the year? Who could ever pass that up!

“I still think we’re not on the same page.” Anthony stepped closer, looking down on Locke as he spoke. “I need you to join the Holy Alliance, and in return, I’ll give you a monthly salary to keep up the hard work. I assume that ten dollars an hour is a standard rate of employment for playing video games, something you love, right?”

Locke’s face dropped so low that he could have served as a stunt double for a depressed hound dog in a used car commercial. Ten dollars an hour? Is he kidding? It’s a fair wage for a lot of people, no doubt, but I would barely be able to cover my own rent at that rate. I have to come up with thirty-four dollars a day just for my student loan, eighteen dollars a day for my rent, and then another sixty-seven dollars a day for Jessica’s tuition. That’s not even counting in food, electric, Internet, game subscription, transportation, or anything my sister might need that I haven’t already planned for in advance . . . I can’t take a deal like this. This would bankrupt me! Is he crazy? “Umm . . .”

“I know, it’s a great deal, isn’t it?” Anthony pulled his sword back out and inspected it. “I’m sure it’s a drop from your usual rates, but for a steady client who can pay you for every hour you work? Give you a little something for every item you produce? You can’t beat that, can you?”

“I’m really sorry, Commander, but unfortunately . . .”

“What? Are my rates not good enough? Fine. Eleven dollars an hour.” Anthony’s nose seemed to point higher with every word that came out of his mouth.

Does he think that it’s that easy? That it’s just a matter of small pennies? If I didn’t have to worry about anyone but myself, this would be a great deal. But . . . that’s just not the case. I can’t take a deal like that! I’ll just explain. He’ll understand. “Well, sir, it’s more about the fact that I can’t afford that . . .”

“Why?” Anthony’s head snapped back, once more meeting Locke eye-to-eye with a gaze so sharp it could have split a hair. “I have been more than charitable with our guild’s time and resources. We have practically sponsored you for the last six days with continuous orders. What reason could possibly push you to reject our generosity?”

“Well, you see, sir, it’s just that . . .” Locke’s brain went into overdrive and his forehead broke out in sweat as the wheels turned, looking for a polite way to get himself out of this pickle. If he separated himself from the Holy Alliance, if he didn’t sell them any more weapons, there was a good chance that he would have a hard time finding even half the demand for the current shipment in his inventory–much less a demand that would pay as well as the Holy Alliance. But, if he joined, he would only be able to coast for the next few months using the money that he had saved up. He had managed to get ahead a bit, but after that dried up, he would find himself bankrupt soon after. What do I do? What do I do? The words raced through his head. He could tell that Anthony was not one to take rejection well, especially if this was the ‘task’ that Portia, the leader of the guild, had given him before leaving. “It’s just that I have a lot of bills and . . .”

“What bills could you possibly have that wouldn’t be met with these rates? You’re just lying, hoping to suck the funds out of our guild like a parasite.” Anthony’s voice rose in volume until it reached the point where Locke was sure people in adjacent tents could hear him easily. “You come in here like a worm, squirming about on the ground, and dare bite the hand that feeds you?” His ire was evident: His cheeks had turned red and flared out, and his voice quivered with anger. “I can’t believe you are such an ingrate as to reject this deal!”

“I’m sorry! I would love to work exclusively with the Holy Alliance.” Or at least I would have until you started acting like a pompous, self-righteous jerk. Typical rich kid. Doesn’t understand how hard some people work just to make ends meet so we don’t end up homeless.  “I just need a little more money to make it sustainable. If we can just talk about it–”

“No. The offer is done. Let’s do the transaction for the blades, and then I want you out of my camp immediately after. You’ve tested my patience enough. I opened my house and home to you, extended my hand and generosity to you, and this is how you repay me? I won’t forget this! Log off now. We’ll do the transaction and be done with this!” Anthony logged off and disappeared before Locke could say anything else.

Crap, that was such a precious customer. Locke fumed as he stared at the empty spot where Anthony had stood only a moment before. But at least I can make this sale, and if I’m lucky, find a new client. Actually . . . That Darwin guy . . . I’ve heard speculation that he’s actually a player. If he is, and his guild has a ton of players in it, then wouldn’t that mean that there are also a ton of potential customers? And even if I’m out of the Holy Alliance, I can still sell to some of the members over the forum, right? Locke took a deep breath as he logged off, already planning his next moves after the money hit his account. As long as he had everything he needed, this curveball wouldn’t be a problem.

Locke’s phone rang before he could even get his bearings in the real world. Crap, that’s the angry client. He grimaced as he looked at the phone, picking it up reluctantly. He didn’t want to deal with him, but he also didn’t want to miss out on his last paycheck. There were other possible options on the table, but this was the last solid check he had lined up until he found someone else willing to buy from him.

“Alright now, you bottom-feeding, upstart pissant” –Anthony’s voice dripped with malice and pierced through the telephone– “I’m going to make this quick: You have one last chance to do the right thing and take my deal, or it’s about to get ugly.”

And there he is. The jerk has returned. “I’m sorry, man. I really can’t. Let me prove it to you. If you just give me a chance to explain, I think you’ll understand where I’m coming from.” Locke clenched his eyes tightly, wanting this to be over already. Why can’t you understand real-world problems, you rich son of a–

“Don’t even try to deceive me. I know a conman’s tricks when I see them!” Anthony almost shouted, refusing reason.

“No, I’m serious. Just give me a chance. Just please listen to me,” Locke begged, his tightening throat making it harder to get the plea out.

“Fine, have it your way. Here’s how it’s going to be then: Either you take my first offer of ten dollars per hour or I forward a copy of the email conversation where I bought items from you with real cash to a GM and get your account banned. How does that sound, you filthy traitor?” Anthony was practically screaming into the phone.

“You wouldn’t,” Locke answered, trying to call his bluff. “It would get us both banned. You’re the one who bought the items.”

“Don’t you even read? Didn’t you even look at your EULA? It’s not illegal to buy items, only to sell them. After all, the company claims possession of all items and characters within Tiqpa. It’s not your character. It’s theirs. You’re just using it, you idiot. Last chance. Once I send this off to the GM, you’ll be banned. A permanent ban that will make sure you never own an account again.”

“No! No, you can–” The double beep of someone hanging up, followed by a long tone, sounded out through the speaker of his phone and let him know that if Anthony was going to do something, he had already done it.

Blackmailing me over the phone so that there wouldn’t be an in-game record. Good job, Anthony. I’m really screwed now. Locke chuckled softly to himself, his eyes practically watering as his mind screamed. If he really did report me, that’s it. Any hope I have of being able to help support Jess are over. Locke took a deep breath, wiped his watering eyes dry and immediately tried to log back into Tiqpa.

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