Merchant of Tiqpa 2 Ch1

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“Please tell me you have a plan this time, Shy,” Reginald shouted. The Satyr was dressed in enough green leather armor to put a leprechaun to shame on St. Patrick’s Day, and he was currently doing his best to run away from a group of several lumbering ten-foot-tall Giants. Although they were dressed in furry red costumes that hid their bulging muscles and made them look like a group of part-time Santa Clauses who had been rejected from the shopping mall food court, little was done to dampen their domineering personalities.

“When do I ever not have a plan?” Locke, who went by the in-game name Shy, called back. He was crouched down behind a rock along the path Reginald was following through a field, patiently waiting for the quickly approaching mob of bodies, a solid metal hammer shinier than polished chrome in one hand and a bottle of red fluid in the other.

“Is it too much to ask that just one of your plans not involve me being strung out for bait like a worm on a hook?” Reginald shouted again.

“You’re the one who said you wanted to do some quests with me. You should have known what you were getting yourself into!” Locke chuckled as he watched the goat man’s odd shuffle toward him, still amused that he had been able to convince Reginald to dress up like a sort of mock version of his favorite holiday hero, the Grinch, to lure out the Santa Clauses of Kringle. It wasn’t necessary, but he had gotten a private message from Tubal telling him that he needed to give Reginald a hard time. To sweeten the deal, Tubal offered to pay out handsomely in gold if Locke also managed to use the in-game camera to record Reginald doing something both ridiculous and embarrassing.

“Shy, why can’t you be more like Sampson and Sparky? Their plans are always so much easier . . .” Reginald grumbled as he lept into the air, grabbed onto a rope that Locke had prepared for him, and swung across what appeared to be just regular grass in the middle of the field.

“You mean fight in front, letting you casually sit behind them and occasionally cast a spell?” Locke taunted.

“I mean any plan that doesn’t involve running. I hate doing it in real life, so why the heck would I want to do it in the game?” Reginald released his hold on the rope and landed next to the rock that Locke was behind.

The Santas, the nickname he and Reginald had given the group of gayly-appareled Giants, continued their march after Reginald without a care in the world. Halfway through the patch of grass that Reginald had avoided, however, their feet stuck fast and refused to move from the ground.

“Actually, I hate it even more in video games,” Reginald continued. “It’s got everything that makes running a pain in the rear, but it doesn’t have any of the benefits. It’s not like this is ever going to help me with my 5k time in real life.”

I wonder if it was because he spends so much time complaining? Locke shot Reginald a sideways glance as he tried to figure out why Tubal had offered him gold to make Reginald do humiliating things and videotape it. I mean, he does gripe more than a customer service representative talking about his job, so I can definitely understand that being a good reason . . . but that wouldn’t explain why Reginald opted out of his usual work with the guild.

“Why didn’t you just stick with the guild then?” Locked asked, fishing for answers. “Aren’t they doing something nearby?”

“Oh.” Reginald scratched the back of his head as he watched Locke toss the bottle of red juice onto the now-visible black tar that had entrapped the angry Santas, igniting them in a fiery blaze. “Just wanted to try traveling in a smaller group, that’s all. Also, I didn’t want you to be out here all alone. I mean, I can’t imagine how much of a failure your date with Sampson must have been for the two of you not to be hanging out more.” Reginald grinned, flashing his pearly-white Satyr teeth at Locke.

“It wasn’t a date.” Locke shrugged. Well, she might have thought it was, but I explained to her that I just don’t have time to see anyone outside of the game with all the work I need to get done on a daily basis. I’m sure she understood. Locke stood up from behind the rock and watched the quickly-melting Santas try, and fail, to free themselves from the trap and reach Reginald. He almost felt bad for the suffering brutes, as if their pain were real, and wanted to put them out of their misery. But at the same time, he also didn’t want to leave himself vulnerable or waste resources to do it. “We just went out for coffee, that’s all,” he added after a moment.

“Suuuure . . . Just coffee and nothing else. That was it. Is that why you’re out here leveling by yourself when the guild always has a spot for their favorite little bottle-boy?” Reginald, whose Satyr avatar was actually taller than Locke’s Human one, rested his right hand on Locke’s head and rubbed it in. “Come on, you gotta tell me what happened. Did Sampson hit you? She hits me a lot, but hey, some guys are into girls like that, right?”

“So you’re here less to make sure that I’m not lonely and more just to dig up information on my date with Sampson?” Locke was beginning to feel like Reginald wasn’t actually here for any other reason that his own motives.

“Man, whatever happened to the days when you were super polite all the time? I miss those days.” Reginald looked up as if he were reminiscing. “Also, is it bad that those burning giants smell delicious? I mean, I thought people weren’t supposed to smell good because of the iron in the blood and all that nonsense. But these guys? I swear, they smell like they really are Santa, and they’re just pumped full of pure sugary goodness. It’s like candy glazing on a fresh steak.”

“Reginald . . .” Locke wanted to facepalm, the urge was there and strong, but given how often these moments happened around his overly talkative and trollish goat friend, he only managed to muster out a sigh. “Sometimes, man, sometimes . . .” If he facepalmed every time Reginald said something inappropriate, off-color, insensitive or just plain ‘what the heck man,’ he’d end up walking around with a permanent palm print on his forehead.

“What? I’m just saying . . . Try to tell me with a straight face you wouldn’t want to eat them in ten minutes after they get seared on both sides,” Reginald continued pressing the point.

“Actually . . .” Locke tilted his head back and sniffed the air for a moment. ”You’re right. They do smell good.” Locke pulled out a set of tools and began readying himself to cut up the meat as soon as he realized exactly how appetizing the scent was. “What the heck did this game put in them? Peppermint and steaks aren’t supposed to go so well together.”

“Does it matter? Wait, what are you doing with those tools?” Reginald asked incredulously. “Seriously, Shy? Don’t tell me you’re going to sell those at the market again.”

“Again? This is the first time we’ve ever killed Giants.”

“I mean selling sentient, human-shaped beings as food. Don’t think I don’t remember what happened after our trip to the White-Wing’s Palace in Sine Nomine to kill their self-righteous cult leader. You think I didn’t see you in the market two days later, hawking poorly barbecued meat to newbies who wanted to work on their in-game cooking skill?” Reginald gave out a big, bellied laugh. “I couldn’t stop laughing when I heard one of your customers comment about how delicious it was. I almost suggested that he try using it in a meat pie, but then I’d have had to straighten up my face and stop laughing for a few minutes.”

“The giants aren’t sentient, they’re way too dumb to ever be called that,” Locke said defensively. “I mean, look at the trap they fell for!” He padded his way to the corpses and started cutting them up before Reginald could voice any further objections. “What makes you think that meat was the same as the stuff we put in our inventory to hide those bodies? That could have come from anywhere. It might even have been leftovers from the Knight-Clubber incident.”

“Don’t ever play poker, Shy. You are terrible at lying.” Reginald paused as if considering something. “Without me, I mean. Don’t ever play poker without me. Medical school is way too expensive these days. If it weren’t for the fact that Tubal has more tells than one of those mechanical crystal balls at a run-down carnival, I’d never have been able to afford this game.”

“Oh, yeah, how are Tubal and Sparky these days?” Locke jumped on the opportunity to find out more about why Tubal was so angry with Reginald and deflect the conversation at the same time. Though maybe it’s actually something as simple as Reginald winning too much money off Tubal in a particular poker game. Whatever the reason, his curiosity over it kept nagging at him. Tubal and Reginald taking stabs at each other wasn’t uncommon, but asking for a recording of Reginald acting the fool was taking it to an entirely new level.

“They’re . . . uhh . . .” Reginald trailed off and became uncharacteristically quiet.

Locke waited in silence, hoping that Reginald would finish his sentence and explain what was going on. He had just finished cutting up the last 300 pounds of Giant steak and throwing them into his inventory when he heard the sound of footsteps loudly approaching from behind him. Whatever was making that noise, it clearly didn’t care if anyone heard it coming.

“Get a shield or a snare spell ready,” Locke hissed in warning as he went through his poisons and potions. He had just unlocked the tar potion, which acted as a sort of adhesive for up to one hour or until it was lit on fire. An enemy could break free if he had a certain amount of Strength, but he would still be affected by a thirty percent snare for an additional minute. Its effects were amazing, but since he had just unlocked it, he unfortunately hadn’t farmed the flower needed to mass produce it.

“You gonna drop those little black goo things for us?” Reginald asked as he started casting his familiar yellow shield on Locke.

“The one I just used was my last one,” Locke said, kicking himself for leaving them so vulnerable. “But it’s not the only item in my only bag of tricks.”

“You mean that stupid hammer of yours? Shy, we’ve been leveling for five-plus hours, and you haven’t made it look effective yet. If we get attacked by a PK group, the most that thing is going to bang is your ego into the ground like a farm hoe in the corn field.” Reginald chuckled at his own joke as he finished his shield and started working on another spell.

Locke turned and was surprised to see the sight of a black bathrobe-clad woman sprinting toward them. Having not seen her in over a week, he had almost forgotten how beautiful the psychotic and angry Demon actually was. Her long black hair was characteristically pulled back behind her head, and every fluid leap she made caused it to bounce against her equally-dark and tightly-fitted bathrobe. Something about the way she moved always seemed to ensnare him, and watching her running had the same effect now. She never wasted an ounce of energy in any of her actions, and she may as well have been gliding over the ground as she rushed toward them. It was even enough to momentarily distract him from the horde of angry Elves chasing her.

“Elves again,” Reginald grumbled when he spotted them. “You sure you don’t have any more of those tar potions? Because I don’t remember us being able to kill the swarming bastards without them.”

Elves were one of the side mobs to this dungeon– since you obviously can’t have Santa’s Workshop without also having the mythical elves. The only problem was that they were neither short nor jolly. They were actually pretty tall unless compared directly to any of the Santa-Claus-dressed Giants that the two had fought. Then the little guys looked appropriately diminutive.

“What the heck, Eliza?” Locke muttered under his breath, frowning as he sorted through his emergency stash of potions and poisons, trying to find something that could help him in the rapidly approaching sortie. Even though he was certain that the battle would be won mostly by little miss Kill Bill wannabe’s expert short sword butcher skills, he stilled wanted to have something ready and in hand just in case.

“I know she’s good looking, Shy, but that woman gets us into more trouble than tequila on New Year’s Eve.” Reginald laughed to himself as he finished placing a snare spell on the ground right in front of him and Locke and began casting something else that Locke didn’t recognize. The way the purple magic coiled out of from his hands, around his staff and into the ground was mesmerizing enough to distract Locke for a second from his own task.

“I wouldn’t know,” Locke answered with a shrug as he fiddled with three blue potions and a pack of green ones. “Don’t really drink, especially not on New Year’s Eve.”

“What? You just had a few drinks with us not so long ago. Don’t tell me that was a one-time thing and that you swore off alcohol after?” Reginald’s mouth hung agape as if Locke had just confessed to a mortal sin. “If you don’t drink, how do you deal with people on the holidays? How do you deal with people period?”

“Uhh . . . I’m usually working on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The pay is way better since everyone always requests time off to get drunk.” Locke shook his head, remembering how many people exactly like Reginald he had served drinks to before Tiqpa came out. He had never been sure if his job was serving drinks or babysitting, and after a certain number of tequila shots, a grown man could easily exhibit all the signs of a five-year-old child . . . except for the ability to count to five. They always remembered how to count exactly how many drinks they had, no matter how drunk they were, and it was always less than five.

“That’s crazy, man. Holidays are the best time to cut loose. Trust me when I say that it’s worth a few dollars not to miss out on the party of a year . . .” Reginald’s voice became strained as more and more energy began swirling around the staff, and he began concentrating harder on the spell he was casting.

Despite having been active within the world of Tiqpa since before the game was even actually released, Locke had only been taking part in the combat for less than two weeks. His original character, a Blacksmith, had rarely ever left town or taken part in battle. He had spent a fair bit of time leeching off of leveling groups early on, but a vast majority of his time had been spent crafting in town or arranging trade negotiations. It wasn’t until a trade went sour, and he refused to sell out for pennies on the dollar, that his original character had been outed and banned for selling in-game items for real-world cash. The role of Alchemist had basically been forced upon him by a Tiqpa employee named Kass, who, for reasons he hadn’t quite worked out yet, had secretly unblocked his account, and though he had taken part in his own fair share of battles over the past couple weeks, he still couldn’t recognize a vast majority of the spells. Watching casters at work might have been old hat at this point to most players, but as the purple light continued to condense, he couldn’t help be watch in expectant wonder.

“Get your girl in the party, quick!” Reginald managed to gasp out as his spell seemed to come to a finish.

“Eliza, hurry up!” Locke shouted to her.

No sooner had Eliza stepped into range than Reginald’s violet light exploded outward and formed a large spherical shell around the three and the uncomfortably close group of Elves. As soon as it encompassed them, Locke was immediately alerted of a change by the Tiqpa status window:

You are now under the effects of a friendly spell. For the next sixty seconds, you will receive the following benefits:

Your movement speed has been increased by 10%.

Locke wished he had the time to stop and ask Reginald what the heck spell did exactly so that he could explore the mechanics, but he knew better than to waste the opportunity provided by the speed boost. Putting aside his curiosity for the moment, he separated out his three blue bottles and gave them a lofty toss in a slowly-moving arc so that they hung in the air above the Elves. He aimed his only spell, a powerful beam of light called the Holy Finger of the Sun God, and cast it at the falling poisons. The effect from the three blue bottles, which were filled with a concoction known as Icy Touch, instantly spread across the field and gripped the oversized versions of cookie-making Elves, slowing their movement speed.

Even though Icy Touch was currently only a rank five poison and added a paltry five percent movement speed penalty to the group, but he had hope that it would be a complete game-changer in battle when it was leveled higher. He knew from experience how devastating snares and roots could be when used effectively against players, how quickly they could turn an untenable situation into an easy victory. If he was right, it would be key to breaking enemy formations and making it easy for his sponsor, The StormGuard Alliance, known to everyone else as the Demon Host, to take over Tiqpa.

As soon as the blue mist was in place and laid out on top of the pointy-eared punks, he applied Deadly Poison to his hammer, The Light Within, and charged forward to help Eliza.

Seeing his approach and the two support spells cast, Eliza slid to a halt, spun around on her heels and immediately began shouting orders. “Cover me with a shield as quickly as you can, goat boy! Shy, watch my left flank! And where is your bathrobe?!”

My bathrobe? We’re deep in mixed territory! What reason would I have to wear it when I have General Sun’s #13 Special leather armor? There’s no way I’m putting on something that paints a bullseye on me in this zone! Locke grumbled at her demands but didn’t respond to contradict her or explain himself — it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. She was already caught up in her sword dance in front of him, dodging the Elves’ cookie swords and milk cannons as she weaved through their ranks with deadly intent. The overgrown imps seemed to be hell-bent on sending her straight to the South Pole, and she wasn’t going to make it easy for them.

Locke entered the fray on Eliza’s left side, and he was immediately greeted by a gingerbread sword coated in green and red frosting arcing toward his head in a downward slash. The confectionery weapon whizzed toward him at a speed that made him quickly question whether either Reginald’s spell or his Icy Touch was truly having any effect, and the best he could do was jerk his head to the left and hope that the blade’s reach wouldn’t be long enough. He was only partially successful, and the blade just nicked his right cheek as Locke slid inside the elf’s reach, and his own hammer struck out in a straight jab from his right hand and struck the Elf right in the gut.

Unfortunately for Locke, one strike was all that was needed to start building the stacking debuff that made the Elves so evil to fight against.

You have just been infected with “Santa’s Sweets.” You suffer a 1% movement speed reduction per stack. Every ten stacks, your avatar will gain one pound.

Ugh. While Reginald’s purple shell might only last a minute, and his Icy Touch poison would last for up to three, Santa’s Sweets was different. He had contracted the debilitating diabetes debuff once before after accidentally stepping on a candy cane floor trap while running away from a giant snowman boulder that came out of nowhere and chased him and Reginald through a narrow hallway after he stole the main prize of the dungeon, the Milk and Cookie plate. The debuff had taken over half an hour to fade away, and even though he hadn’t built up enough stacks to pork on the promised pound, Reginald had said he looked chubbier than a baby cherub holding a banner.

The Elf that Locke had struck with his hammer doubled over, and Locke seized the opportunity. He brought his hammer around in a low swing and smashed the thing’s now-lowered face like it was a fresh ingot on an anvil. He was just about to drive home one more blow and finish off the weakened Elf when a milk cannon caught him right in the face with its creamy sugar-stream of ownage, knocking him onto his back, stripping him of over a quarter of his health and applying three more stacks of Santa’s Sweets.

Despite its name, the Milk Cannon wasn’t exactly a gun, per se. For all of its standard fantasy world tropes, Tiqpa still lacked the blunderbuss style weapons found in most virtual medieval game worlds. Instead, these ranged instruments were monster-specific magic devices with an extremely low drop chance. They were extremely desirable for their rarity alone, but the added comical aspect made them doubly so.

Giving it his best attempt at a Kung fu impression, Locke rocked backward and tried to jump straight to his feet with a whip-like snap of his body. Unfortunately for him, however, even Tiqpa’s modified virtual reality couldn’t save him from his own clumsy nature. Rather than springboarding upright, all he succeeded in was creating what ending up looking like an awkward and failed attempt at ‘the worm.’

Ignoring his own shame, Locke glanced up to his right and noticed Eliza moving gracefully between two attacking Elves. She deftly wove her way between their cookie-cut blades and parted pieces from the Elves with precision swordplay, and within seconds, she had created a candy-colored sea of bloody red mist. She casually swung her sword around to her left in a wide arc, and with a slight shift of her feet, she lopped off the head of the Elf that had been standing over Locke. Even before their dismembered limbs crumbled to the ground, she had pushed through the two fallen warriors in front of her and engaged one of the Milk Cannoneers.

Crap. Always making me look bad. He sighed to himself and fortified his determination not to be the weakest link in the party. He pushed himself to his feet and doubled-down his attacks, moving up to engage the closest elf. He swung his hammer around from the side in a tight arc, landing a blow on his opponent’s arm and prompting the creature to quickly manifest a magical wreath over his other arm to block Locke’s second attack. Just as his hammer bounced harmlessly off the newly-created shied, yet another stream of milk came barrelling toward Locke’s face.

Locke managed to dodge this stream by ducking as fast as he could and responded by putting all of his strength into his legs. He pushed up from the ground in a pseudo-jump and used his upward momentum to slam his hammer against the wreath protecting the Elf. The magical barrier shattered under the force of the blow, and Locke’s hammer passed straight through and into the shocked Elf’s chin.

Ha! Locke congratulated himself as he pulled his arm back and pounded the now-stunned victim’s face a second time. See, I’m not doing too bad . . . His thoughts trailed off as he looked over to see upwards of a dozen Elven bodies littered around Eliza in a prolific scene of anti-Christmas carnage. Even with the kill count adding up around her, she continued to dance through the enemies like a whirlwinding barbarian straight out his favorite devil game.

Well, at least I’m leeching experience . . . Locke sighed and pressed forward in his own fight, doing his best to capitalize on what little remained of the speed boost Reginald had given them before it faded.

Stepping over the corpse of his fallen foe, he quickly made his way to one of the Milk Cannoneers in the back. There were at least ten of them still standing, and they were doing everything they could to try and strike Eliza. She had created a sort of controlled chaos on the battlefield, the schema to which only she could understand, and it gave him the opportunity he needed to close the gap between himself and the enemies’ backlines. If he timed it right, he estimated that he had just enough time to take out one of the cannoneers before they reloaded and switched their targets to him.

He opened up by throwing a bottle of his Deadly Poison with his left hand and charged directly toward one of the Elves on the left-hand side of the enemy line. His momentum carried his hammer straight into the water-gun-shaped weapon of the closest dairy-dishing cannoneer, and the Milk Cannon shattered under the force of the impact.

Locke quickly turned to attack the next enemy, hoping to at least disarm his foes before any of them reloaded, and everything was going smoothly until he heard Reginald shouting “SNOW GLOBE!” at him. He quickly turned about, trying to spot the Snow Globe, but by the time he saw it a few feet from his left foot, it was too late.

The bomb had already started to detonate, and Locke suddenly found himself encapsulated in a giant, fifteen-foot snowball with only his left hand and face protruding from the mass of snow. He craned his head around, desperately looking for salvation and futilely struggling to break free from his icy prison. He had just wherewithal to take in the bemused expressions on the Elves’ faces as he watched them take their time reloading the cannons and aiming them directly at his face.

So this is how I go: wrapped up like a snowy marshmallow in a s’more about to be toasted by streams of white death from Santa’s little helpers. Locke tried to swallow, but it caught in his throat. He grimaced and was about to close his eyes and brace for death when he noticed one of Reginald’s yellow shields surround him. Yes! Now I just need–

He couldn’t even finish his thought before Eliza answered his unspoken wish. She swung around from the opposite side of the field and came in, stabbing one of the gunners and quickly moving on to another. Locke started feeling hopeful, like he could see the light at the end of the tunnel. And then the remaining cannoneers all let out their streams right on his face, and his health bar instantly plummeted to zero. Ga-Dangi– Blackness swallowed his vision whole.

—–

What the heck? Locke could feel a massive headache building as he slowly opened his eyes and looked around. He wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, or where he was, but as light started to pour into his eyes and show him his surroundings, one thing became painfully clear: this wasn’t his spawn point. This wasn’t where he was supposed to be. When a player died, they were supposed to be sent back to their bindstone. Granted, there was often a delay just to allow someone to use a revive spell, but there wasn’t anyone or anything that should have stopped him from seeing the crummy, mold-infested walls of the cheapest inn in Sine Nomine. It was the type of unmistakably-awful place to rent a bed that one could never possibly forget from a single sniff, look or touch.

Yet, none of that was the case. Instead of the dark wooden walls, his eyes were greeted by open blue skies filled with fluffy white clouds and a field of what seemed like flowers. Instead of the damp and moldy smell of an uncleaned room with no ventilation, his nose was greeted by an almost-flowery perfume that reminded him of a fabric softener commercial. Even his sense of touch left him confused and disoriented as he realized that he was lying on his side and not his back. The usual rigid, ground-like bed was hard enough to be correct, but his head was elevated and resting on something that felt almost soft and pleasant as he stared out at the flowers in front of him.

“Shy? You finally awake?” A goat’s face, or rather Reginald’s ugly Satyr avatar, popped up in front of him. “You’ve been out like half an hour, bro. What the heck?”

Where am I? Locke tried to lift his head, only to have a hand press it down firmly into the soft pillow it was on. What the . . .?

“Don’t move. The Medicine Man of a Satyr said that it could cause permanent damage if you leave that position too soon.” Eliza’s voice, a little colder than usual, said from above him.

“Yeah, that injury of yours should have killed you. Like, really. You should have died,” Reginald said looking down at Locke. “I seriously have no idea why you didn’t die. Also, Eliza, you can let him up now. I think he should be good for the time being.”

Wait . . . I didn’t die? Locke slowly sat up and looked at over at Eliza, who was also standing up next to him. “Why didn’t I die?” He voiced the thought, looking directly at Reginald who, unlike the NPC, knew that a person was dead once their health bar hit zero. He had never heard of anyone being an exception to this rule, and he made it a point of pride to know as much as he possibly could. Information wasn’t something he typically traded in, but one could never tell when the opportunity to make some quick cash in exchange for a little advice would turn up.

“Because of the foul-mouthed man’s quick medical attention?” Eliza offered. She glanced over at Reginald with utter disbelief written plainly across her face.

“That’s true. . .” Reginald’s look of confusion turned quickly into a grin that spread from ear to ear. “After I cast some protective spells, of course. Then, during the time it took for you to recover, I had Eliza provide a resting place for your head so it stayed elevated. I assured her that, if it didn’t, too much blood would flow to it and you might end up even slower upstairs than normal.”

You troll! None of those things were needed! One health potion or a healing spell would have done the trick. We’re players, not NPCs. Our injuries are instantly cured when hit points are restored. Locke felt the urge to curse at Reginald for being so clearly amused with himself and the fact that he was apparently okay with wasting ten minutes of their time. Then again, it was Reginald, and he shouldn’t be surprised.

Ever since Locke had started traveling solo with Reginald, the ‘Medicine Man’ as Eliza jokingly called him, the Satyr had made it his mission to constantly trick NPCs into doing the most ridiculous things he could think of. One time, he had even convinced a run-of-the-mill townsman that the only way he could cure his cold was to place half of an orange in his mouth and not remove it for five days except to sleep. When they had come back to turn in a quest nearby, the orange-mouthed man had run out, doing his best to thank Reginald for the ‘expert advice’ that was ‘amazingly effective,’ all the while his mouth wide open as he talked around the orange. As thankful the man had been, his wife was doubly so and slyly got Reginald to extend the recommended time from five to ten days. Reginald was so amused with himself after they left he didn’t stop laughing for nearly twenty minutes, repeatedly mentioning that ‘People will do anything a doctor says is good for their health. You wouldn’t believe it.’

The entire experience had positively killed Locke’s desire to ever visit a doctor in real life ever again. How am I supposed to know whether or not a doctor isn’t just pulling one over on me ever time he writes a prescription? What if a prostate exam is just the cruelest joke a doctor ever came up with and everyone else just went along with it? No, no that can’t be . . . Wait, did Reginald convince Tubal to do something? No, that can’t be it, either . . . Tubal knows all of his tricks.

Eliza began smoothing out her bathrobe, and in a cold voice she said, “You should consider yourself fortunate that the StormGuard Alliance has further need of your services, otherwise–”

Reginald’s loud, fake laugh interrupted her. “Ha!” he bellowed out, slapping his stomach to go with it. “Never would have agreed? You demanded to be the lap pillow! You even stroked his hair the whole time. That worry on your face, pr–”

Reginald was cut short when one of Eliza’s swords stopped just short of his throat. “I mean . . . I’m just messing with you, Locke.” Reginald held his hands up and looked agast. “She had strong reservations. Like a restaurant-on-opening-night-in-a-small-town strong. Of course she wouldn’t immediately offer assistance to you. It’s not like she’d ever go out of her way to help a friend out.” Reginald took a slow step away from Eliza, far enough so that her blade couldn’t slit his throat in one flick of the wrist.

“What?! No, I’d never let my frie–” Eliza immediately exclaimed.

“Oh, so he’s not a friend. Good to know.” Reginald nodded to himself in satisfaction.

Eliza cocked an eyebrow as she straightened and took a deep breath. “You know what? There’s actually a good reason for my being here, and I will not have you two delay the StormGuard Alliance’s noble goals any longer with idle chatter and your feeble attempts to besmirch my character.”

“Wait, seriously? We got a mission?” The ‘noble goal’ part of Eliza’s response caught his attention right away, and Reginald quickly dropped his wicked grin, growing more serious. “What is it? Do we need to assist in the faction wars of another city? Overthrow a small town in the name of the rebels?”

“We? That I can’t confirm. This mission and the nature of its parameters were not disclosed to me. I was merely ordered to inform Locke he is to meet with the Great General Alex regarding an important assignment, the details of which are classified.” Eliza’s head seemed to raise slightly with each word, as if her rank in the Demon Host was going up along with it.

“Ah, so we have to make a trip to Mt. Lawlheima?” Locke scratched his chin in lieu of the fact that there was no beard to actually stroke. “That sounds great. I can restock on supplies and unload some of my new merchandise.”

“Sounds great to you,” Reginald grumbled.

“What? I thought you loved visiting Lawlheima? Didn’t you say it was ‘the best place to go to look at the best women in the game?’ after your first visit?’” Locke studied his friend, befuddled at the downcast expression of the usually-jubilant Satyr. “I think your exact words were: ‘It’s like every red-eyed woman was carved straight from stone better than Michelangelo could ever sculpt them.’ I’m pretty sure that’s a compliment, unless the Michelangelo you were referring to was some sewer-dwelling, pizza-eating mutant.’”

“Of course that was the thing the lecher chose to admire,” Eliza said under her breath as she attempted to murder Reginald with a glare. “You two were clearly made for each other. I can see why you choose to hang out with this goat-man, Shy.”

“Yeah, well, that was on our first visit,” Reginald began without giving Locke the opportunity to respond to Eliza’s jab. “They’ve gotten way more closed-doors lately, and every visit just ends up with me sitting at a table eating the same Blue Drake steaks with a bunch of furry animals, or Satyrs, or any of the other non-Human humanoids. The Demons ignore me outright whenever I try to talk to them, and I’m not even sure if I’m getting the cold shoulder on purpose or if I’m just invisible,” Reginald complained. “It’s like, if you’re a Human or Demon, you’re royalty and everyone loves you. If you’re any one of the countless other races joining the Demon Host bandwagon, you’re just cannon fodder they serve nice refreshments to in a backroom.”

“You sure it doesn’t have to do with the fact you’re not in their guild? I mean, you’re still officially part of the Blue Phoenix Brigade, right?” Locke asked. By all rights, he was still part of the Brigade too, but he had also technically joined the StormGuard Alliance so that he could freely use a lot of the guild specific features the Demon Host had to offer. No one seemed to didn’t care at all, and it had helped sweeten the terms with Alex during the initial negotiations.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure. I know at least two other people who are actually in the StormGuard Alliance, and they’ve have waited at that same table with me. Anyway, whatever. How ‘bout I go catch up on some studying for the next medical exam, and you send me a private message when it’s time to head out ”

Locke was shocked. He had never really noticed it before, but then he had always been so caught up in the negotiations that he never really had any reason to. Reginald had a penchant for exaggeration, and Locke wondered if this could be one of those times as well. But, then, racism wasn’t entirely unheard of in games. In fact, it was basically the motivating force behind most of the conflict within Tiqpa — at least as far as the NPCs were concerned. Conflicts arose on a daily basis whether over territory, mining rights or what have you, and it was almost always along racial lines.

The various different races within Tiqpa were basically designed so that they would always be in constant conflict with one another, and Factions had even been arranged so that certain races were natural allies, like the Black-Wings and the White-Horns or the White-Wings and the Fire-Walkers, but there were also natural enemies as well.

Anyone who played a Human character knew that all too well. Humans were, by-and-large, a minority amongst the player-created races. Who would want to play as a Human, when he could soar through the sky like an eagle? Or breathe underwater? In fact, if it wasn’t for the natural stat bonus that Humans received that contributed to his crafting trade so well, there were a myriad of other races Locke could have chosen instead. Being from a minority race, however, also ensured that the Humans were constantly fighting over spawns on the starter island. The Black-Wings and White-Horns controlled most of that tiny noob island, and players learned from day one that they had to be careful where they ventured outside of safe zone unless they planned on getting slaughtered by one of the opposing races.

The StormGuard Alliance was a bit different than the game’s natural Factions, however, because it was technically a player-run guild. Locke never would have expected to find division along racial lines in an organization run by players. But, at the same time, the StormGuard Alliance was also a bit unique: to date, it was still the only player-run guild with access to NPCs as well as players. The inherent biases that the NPCs had fostered for all of their virtual lives must have carried over.

“Sounds good,” Locke said, holding his tongue and leaving many things unsaid. Hoping to stop Reginald before he could log out and vanish, he quickly added, “Also, if you get a chance–”

“Try to figure out why you didn’t die?” Reginald finished the sentence for Locke before he could voice it. “Yeah, don’t worry. That’s the first thing I’m going to do. If I figure out what happened, I’ll be sure to PM you right away. In fact, have you ever thought of lodging a complaint with a GM?”

“A complaint that I didn’t die? That seems silly.” Locke brushed off the notion, but it didn’t wipe any of the concern off from Reginald’s face. Locke understood that this was a serious issue. This game’s playability hinged on the safety of the death feature. If a player died, that was that: he would respawn back at his bind point or inn and carry out his life. If he got knocked out and his hit points reached zero but still somehow remained in the game, then he might miss incredibly important real life events. The possibility of simply missing large chunks of a player’s time, especially when he wasn’t in control, was an incredibly dangerous concept. It could also be a sign of something much worse, like a faulty code associated with this character. Given the circumstances surrounding how he transitioned from being a Blacksmith to an Alchemist, and how he his account unblocked, the possibility of an error associated with the account was uncomfortably high — and even more disturbing, given that his entire stream of consciousness and identity as a living being was stuck inside his character.

The only reason he didn’t actually go through with the idea was that a certain ‘Friendly Neighborhood Ash’ would probably pop up out of nowhere and destroy his life. He was fairly positive that she was even listening to his thoughts even as he considered the notion and that his immediate rejection was the only thing preventing a nice and gentle warning from immediately appearing. Even after the sacking of Sine Nomine, she had made her presence known every now and then by pushing him to grab items which seemed of no value to Locke or encouraging him to say random things to certain NPCs.

“Just be grateful your friend saved your life let it go,” Eliza admonished. “We have business to attend to, and I don’t want to be late.” Eliza shook her head, clearly puzzled over the notion of complaining to someone about being miraculously alive. Without another word, she turned on her heels and started walking back the way she came from.

“Yes, ma’am.” Locke did his best to put it out of his mind since there wasn’t much he could do about it and rushed after her.

It wasn’t long before Reginald started blowing up Locke’s inbox with PMs. A few of them were funny; a few of them shed light on Reginald’s motives. He revisited the lap pillow incident, writing, “Well, I just thought that, with your lack of New Year’s Eve parties and antisocial personality, you had to be an anime guy. Isn’t that what guys in animes always want? Lap pillows? Come on, man, you owe me. Don’t give me a hard time about this.”

One of the messages was just to let Locke know that, even though he was passed out and didn’t get a chance to take part in the looting himself, Reginald had gotten all the good items and was still going to split them fifty-fifty with him. Apparently, the only condition to this splitting of the loot though was that Locke had to wear the Santa Hat, a festive, cone-shaped, red silk hat with the typical fluffy, white cotton brim and white ball at the top when he was at Mt. Lawlheima. Locke also needed to take at least three pictures of him wearing it there as proof. Locke obviously wanted his fair share of the loot, and he was torn between his desire to fulfill the request and find out what the rest of the treasure was and his absolute hatred of the concept of a selfie. Wait, if I get someone else to take the picture, then does it count as a selfie? Ugh. Locke felt a little vomit build up in his mouth at the thought. If I do this, I’ll never be able to claim I haven’t taken a selfie before.

When they reached the Blue-Drake, Locke noticed that Eliza’s mount, which had previously been very plain and unadorned, now had an insignia on the side, one with two spoons crossed, and a fancy saddle for two to go with it.

“Wait, Eliza, have you been promoted?” Locke guessed as he pointed to the insignia that wasn’t there last time he saw her beast.

“You might say that. I’m now officially representing the StormGuard Alliance again.”

“So you weren’t last time?” Locke looked back at her.

“Let’s just say it’s a good thing the results of our intervention at Sine Nomine were positive. Now stop wasting time and hop on.”

“Shouldn’t it be ladies first?” Locke faked a gentlemanly bow and motioned for her to get on in front of him.

“You think I’ve forgotten how you were looking at me in Sine Nomine? Don’t even think about it. You’re in front. Hop up.” Eliza’s stony face was harder to read than usual for Locke. He still could never be sure if she was telling a joke or not, but the glint in her eye gave him the feeling that this was one of the times he should laugh, not that he took that chance. He just thought he might be supposed to.

Locke grimaced as he climbed up in the saddle. Eliza climbed up behind him, grabbed the reins and passed them to Locke as she did so. “Wait, are you just having me in front so that you can rest, and I have to steer us home?”

“What? No. The Blue-Drake will take us the entire way on its own. Stop over thinking things, Locke. Or just stop thinking period. Follow orders, get the job done, go home–you should know this by now,” Eliza lectured. “But you will have to hold the reins, the drake doesn’t like when they dangle in the wind.

“Oh.” Locke answer, taking the reins. While he didn’t mind helping out, he always hated being behind a wheel of any kind. Self-driving technology was a thing in real life for a reason: staring at a road for hours on end was just a waste of time. He could be sorting out his inventory and mapping out what skills he needed to invest in next, but nope. Just hold the reins and wait for twenty minutes while the giant, magical lizard thingy carried them back to Mt. Lawlheima.

The worst part about this trip, or any trip with Eliza for that matter, was that she didn’t speak. She just sat there quietly behind him, making the entire ride feel like a long and awkward road trip with in-laws. The silence was so uncomfortable that Locke was honestly elated to see the long arching stone and wood walls that acted as a fortification around the mountain that was the home of the StormGuard Alliance. The defenses had been wooden and freshly under construction about a month ago, but they now stretched around the entirety of the mountain and were almost entirely made of grey stone that had been hewn so smoothly that its polished surface was now reflective.

The main entrance, while still made of simple grey stone, had a certain gothic flair to its architecture, and the once-tiny entranceway now rose high enough for thirty Blue-Drakes to fit through its steeply-sloping arches at the same. There was also a new series of elevated, helipad-style flat surfaces that the Blue-Drake riders used to land their drakes on. Locke knew that the Blue-Drakes were farmed and captured inside the dungeon that the guild had converted into a training ground and base of operations, and he could only guess what else, but the only time one would see an actual Blue-Drake fly back through the entrance and into the main dungeon chamber was if there was an absolutely dire emergency, and the rider needed to reach the Demon King Darwin without delay. It almost always spelled out bad news. If one Blue-Drake went through, then the Four Riders, if not Darwin himself, would be flying out of that entrance immediately after.

Their landing wasn’t without fanfare, and as Eliza parked her Blue-Drake, a valet of sorts came out to take it to the stable. They were also greeted by the jealous stares of several players.

“Man, I want a Blue-Drake too,” he heard one of the fresh recruits complaining.

“And the saddle? That’s crazy. I wonder who he is and how many people he’s killed for the cause. I hear you need over a hundred confirmed kills in official battle just to get the mount alone, much less the saddle. I’ve never seen anyone with a saddle,” the player noted, awe evident in his voice.

“What about the NPCs? A lot of the old NPCs have them,” one of his companions said.

“He’s a Human, and his eyes aren’t red. He can’t be an NPC. Their eyes are all brightly colored and lit up like stop lights. His are just one of the dull, normal Human colors.”

“Yeah, that’s true. He must be a real Darwin on the battlefield, though.”

Locke wanted to say something to them, to correct them and point out that it actually was an NPC’s mount and he wasn’t the one who was good at battle, but he was having too much fun watching Eliza’s expression as she did her best to control her rage at what they were saying. He was trying to guess what specifically about the dialogue was setting her off, whether it was the idea that the drake was his and not hers, or something else, when she reached her hand up and touched her eyes.

Oh, that’s right, Locke frowned. She had changed her eye color back during the Sine Nomine faction struggle, and now even though she was the hero to many for her role in the conflict, the slight change in eye color alone had left her somewhat alienated from the rest of her people. Locke couldn’t help but feel guilty about the whole thing, even though it was her choice and her mission too. Hmm, maybe I can run the dungeon again with Reginald and the Blue Phoenix Brigade and get another eye color changing ink from that Mohawktopus? He wasn’t too keen on it as he remembered how long it took to get them and how much work was involved, but looking at how mad she was he reaffirmed the need, I’ll get it after whatever this secret hush-hush mission is.

The inside of Mt. Lawlheima had the same open feel that Locke remembered. Most of the areas that he had been in were large, cavernous rooms carved from the flat, sheetlike, obsidian-colored walls. Walkways ran up to the various different levels of the mountain, many of which were completely without guard railing. In fact, it was something that, to the horror of many onlooking NPCs, attracted the suicidal jumping players of the VRMMO world. The number of cliff drivers just kept going up as the curiosity about ‘what was at the bottom of Darwin’s Dungeon’ increased, and players discovered that the chasm seemed to extend almost indefinitely downward. A player trying to free fall to the bottom could plummet for up to three minutes before he’d be caught by a random platform, never actually hitting the bottom. Unfortunately for the NPCs though, they had no concept of gamers and their need to jump from ridiculously high heights for no explainable reason. So, from the Demons’ point of view, Locke could only imagine how horrendous it was to watch their guild members just walk up to the ledge and jump off without warning, sometimes even to the laughter and encouragement of nearby friends.

The only exception to these open rooms were the conference rooms, like the one Locke was heading to with Eliza currently, and the temporary barrack rooms. They were both constructed from the simplest brown oak woods, clearly harvested from the trees just outside the mountain, and were largely unadorned aside from the necessary furnishings in each. The meeting rooms didn’t even have so much as a single chair and contained only a single large wooden table designed for maps in the middle of each.

“Good of you to come on such short notice,” the Great General Alex, said, greeting Locke with a gentle voice as soon as they walked into the conference room. “We apologize for the inconvenience.”

At first glance, there didn’t appear to be anything special about the general. In fact, at first glance, it would be almost impossible to tell any of the black-haired, red-eyed, pale-skinned Demons apart. They had drastically different facial features, but all things aside, Locke was the type of good, old-fashioned American who was used to looking at differences in those three features to identify people. He might have identified them by height had they not all seemed about average. At the end of the day, the way Locke managed to tell Alex apart though from the rest of the big-wigs and generals around the base was that he was the only one who openly made eye contact and treated him as somewhat of an equal.

“Not at all.” Locke lowered his head in genuine respect. This man was, after all, the reason he could afford to take a break from picking flowers and stirring poisons and potions. “I only offer my sincere regrets that I could not come quicker.”

“Scout, first rank, reporting fo–”

“Eliza, your briefing isn’t in this room. Excuse yourself. Your commanding officer will not be as patient as I am.” Alex looked up from the parchments he was holding to give her a quick glare as he cut her off mid-introduction. Locke automatically stiffened up gulped audibly as he caught the look, causing Alex to instantly softened into a much warmer smile as he turned to him. “My apologies if that sounded curt. We’ve just had a trying day at the base.”

“Not at all,” Locke replied reassuringly. “I’m often accused of the same thing more often than I’d like on stressful days.” Despite the general’s words, Locke wasn’t fooled: years of trading back and forth with people and doing jobs in the service industry had taught him exactly what to look for in a fake smile. “Perhaps there is something I can assist with?” Locke asked.

“You’re always a good friend,” Alex said, continuing a sort of inside joke that existed between him and the businessman. It wasn’t that the two had somehow built a magical friendship in the limited time they had known each other, but rather that Locke would always bring fresh goodies every time he showed up, more than requested and of better quality, and offer his help with local projects. By the end of the first week of business between Locke and the StormGuard Alliance, Alex had started saying he was akin to an out of town friend who would drop by with gifts for the little ones.

“Then I take it there is something you need?” Locke understood that Alex’s answer was more than simply repeating a running joke between them. Alex’s response was as direct an answer as ‘Yes, I need you to do something for me’ as the general would ever give. Locke also knew right away that the general’s reluctance to make requests for assistance plain and simple also meant that Alex considered him an outsider. The general was quick to snap at people who failed to meet expectations or stepped even an inch out of line within the original StormGuard Alliance, the NPCs that had come with them or joined up before the great war with the Animal Kingdom, but he was never one to even so much as chastise one of the ‘newcomers,’ as they called players, or even admonish them. More often than not, when a player failed to meet standards, slacked off too much or messed up beyond repair, it’d either be handled by General Daniel, or the player would simply be expelled and removed without any particular fuss. Reginald might think they treat me well, but I’m still a second-class citizen. He’s just lower down on the totem pole than he realizes.

“There is a problem we’re having with the Hellspawn . . .” Alex closed his eyes and took a deep breath in the middle of his sentence before continuing. “Their diplomats have unexpectedly left Mt. Lawlheima as a result of an unfortunate skirmish that happened while we were mid-negotiation. There were a few conflicts of interest that resulted in a few rather important ambassadors turning into casualties. We’ve tried to extend the olive branch through normal channels, but they’re rejecting our envoys on all fronts. They’ve even blocked direct representatives of the StormGuard Alliance from entering Witherence.”

“They’ve blocked you from entering the city? Do you need me to make some deadly poisons? Is there a strategy that requires I provide you with specialty potions? I have a new snare poison I was planning on debuting during my next visit that I’m certain will help you conquer the city in no time flat.”

It a bit of a shock when Alex shook his head. “Actually, while we may have to take the town by force, we’d like to go in a different direction first. We’re worried that if we just conquer them outright, the plebs, the commoners and middle-class members of Witherence, will reject our rule and maintain a resistance.”

“Isn’t that a concern with most of the people you conquer?” Locke was perplexed by why the Hellspawn were different than any other race. There was always a chance that a conquering nation was going to face resistance once they occupied a territory, whether from the nobles or the commoners. Most people didn’t take very well to having a new set leaders and disrupting the status quo, especially when they were outsiders.

“Sadly, the distance between the farmer and the nobleman may as well be as great as the distance between oceans for the average citizen of most of our conquests. The changing of hands is fussed over for a few days, but no more so than any other piece of gossip.”

“I take it then that this isn’t the case for with the Hellspawn?” Locke asked, having no knowledge of the inner workings of their race. He had never really thought about it, but he would have imagined that a race literally tagged as ‘Demons’ would have a naturally close kinship with the imps, skeletons and other races clearly inspired by the Western theology of the underworld that made up the Hellspawn. A small part of him was curious as to why this wasn’t actually the case, but he didn’t ask.

“Indeed. They are heavily infested by a mercantile middle class. If I am to trust the reports my scouts have sent me, then I am to believe that the nobility is exceptional in nothing more than name only.” Alex glanced down at a few sheets of paper he had picked up that Locke guessed was one of the scouting reports he referred to before he continued. “The King collects no taxes, doesn’t retain a significant number of troops, and other than the rules at his weekly balls, he doesn’t ever seem to make or change the laws of the country. It’s rather troubling, as the political structure seems built to be rigidly fortified against any change in leadership.”

“Ah.” Locke nodded along in understanding. It sounded like the difference in sacking a king versus trying to occupy Florence, Italy, during the renaissance. It wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t easy either. This is one of the few times I’m not silently rooting for equal rights and protections for merchants, he thought, restraining a chuckle so as not to appear rude.

“Then I suppose you want me to poison their tradesmen? Quietly, so as not to be blamed?” he asked. All he could do at this point was guess as to why he was there, and the way Alex moved around the topic made it feel as if there were no openings for him to insert an offer of his services–which wasn’t right, given how central the role of a merchant seemed to be. Assassination definitely wasn’t something he kept in his usual bag of tricks, but he had considered it before. I’m supposed to be a merchant of Tiqpa: poisoning my competition with the StormGuard Alliance to protect me afterward might not be bad for business.

“I appreciate the enthusiasm–and the sentiment–but let’s hope it never comes to that,” Alex replied. “I’m actually rather hoping that you’ll use sugared words over poisoned drinks and not have to dirty your hands due to our diplomatic failures,” Alex finished, putting the papers down on the table.

Can’t it be both? Aren’t sugared words how you get them to take poisoned drinks? I imagine I’ll need something to distract them from how ridiculously green my drinks are and how clearly bitter and poisonous they are . . . Locke was actually eager to take the quick route for some reason now that it had occurred to him. But, even if he wasn’t able to do that, at least he was able to scratch one possibility off the list of things Alex might want him to do.

“Sugared words?” Locke asked. “So you want me to help you reestablish diplomatic connections with them?”

“Actually, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s clear that the royalty have little to no importance within the country and have yet to exhibit any authority.” As he spoke, Alex pulled out a rather large bag of currency and laid it on the table between them. “It’s for this reason that we believe the expelling of diplomats might not have been as inopportune as we at first imagined. Instead of killing anyone, we want you to do business.”

“Wait, you want me to bribe the merchants?” Locke was positive he had finally reached a clear understanding of what was going on. Buy them out and make the transition as smooth as possible for the Demon Host with money. If everything goes well, there’s a chance to avoid bloodshed altogether. Locke immediately kicked himself for calling his guild by that title again. He knew better. They might technically be Demons, but they were so proud of their actual guild name, especially Alex, that any slight against them might cost him business–or at least the favor of his most-treasured client.

“Even easier. I want you to replace them.” Alex grinned. “The great and mighty craftsmen of the StormGuard Alliance are better in every way, shape and form than those foolish traders. After looking through dozens of reports, I am certain that we can match them, if not beat them outright, in quality at every point.”

“Ah.” Locke also grinned, but his smile ran from ear to ear and lacked any of the subtlety of Alex’s. He wasn’t just happy because of the deal Alex was proposing, but rather because even though it might have taken a minute, he finally understood what Alex was asking him. If the merchants were the power structure of the town, and their power was derived from both their intricate interdependence and wealth relative to the crown, if the crown began to do well, or the merchants began to do poorly, then the balance of power would be tipped. Additionally, if a proper alternative to the established monopolies manifested itself, then the crown wouldn’t be so reliant on their goods and services and could exercise authority against them more easily. This meant, if he was right, Alex wanted him to start filling those holes.

The bag of money was likely on the table because, while Locke had a variety of amazing goods to offer, not that he liked to brag too much, as the only Alchemist in the game, his concoctions wouldn’t overlap with any of the existing products of most towns. That meant that if he wanted to steal a hefty share of the market aware from the merchants who ran the Hellspawn polity, he needed to first acquire merchandise to sell in competition with theirs, not merely flood the streets with his own wares.

“It’s good that we understand each other, Shy.” Alex took Locke’s smile for comprehension. “The important thing is to not only turn the tables over at their markets but also spread our culture. Right now, their political concepts and social values are as alien to us as you newcomers, and it will be important in days to come that they dress like us, shop like us, and handle business like us. We can not rule a people that will naturally misinterpret the letter of our law.”

Locke nodded, his eyes now fixated on the bag of gold that sat next to Alex on the table. “Just out of curiosity, will I be able to retain any of the profits from this venture?” He hated to ask, but it sounded like this task would take several days and would surely encroach on his gold farming time.

“Would you say no to the mission if I told you that you couldn’t?” Alex gave him a look that sent chills down Locke’s spine.

“Of course not, but you can’t fault me for asking.” Locke gave a light laugh as he tried to soften the mood. “I wouldn’t be a good businessman if I didn’t. Still, anything for the cause. You know I’ll be more than happy to help either way.” He wasn’t lying, either. As far as he was concerned, he had been bought and paid for by whomever this Great Lord Darwin was the moment he had received his first full payment of gold, and had been able to get years of student loans, his sister’s future tuition bills, and even his rent for what would probably be a year off of his plate. They say most people don’t have a price tag, but the people who say that can already afford to. Locke’s membership in the StormGuard Alliance might have just been a mere stipulation worked into his employment terms, but with how well they treated him, he’d probably be willing to die–in the game only of course–protecting their interests. In real life, he still had way too much to live for and do to go around dying for clientele.

“Yes, yes, I suppose that is the case. As far as whether or not you’ll be able to keep any of the profits from your venture, that will be entirely up to the Great Lord Darwin and how successful you are,” Alex answered Locke.

“That’s fine. I’m not expecting anything,” Locke replied as quickly as possible. That said, it was still a little painful when it became clear he might not make money from this enterprise. Whatever. I’ve been taking one for the team more often than not lately, and I’ll be able to build a good network in a new town on the company dime. It’s still a win-win, Locke had to assure himself so his merry facade didn’t crack and ruin the conference.

“Good to hear. I must be honest: I was concerned you were too mercenary to work with,” the general admitted.

“I was only thinking that if I could skim some of the extra money, I might be able to buy Eliza some new weapons to show my thanks for her help in Sine Nomine and setting me up with such a nice guild,” Locke added, trying to undo a little of Alex’s negative image of him. People always hated working with salesmen or anyone, for that matter, that was only after cash. Not to mention, he really did need to thank Eliza for her help taking down Anthony, so it wasn’t like he had to risk telling a lie. “I’m sure I’ll be able to find the time and cash in the future either way.”

“Thank her? Did her basic failures and inability to focus on details not almost cost you your life just a bit ago? When you first met, did she not threaten your life multiple times after you professed to be an ally to our cause? If that’s her standard of work and demeanor when addressing others, what is there to thank? If anything, she should thank you for redeeming her from her usefulness and giving her a place back on the field.” Alex’s tone was once again as curt as it was when he shooed her off earlier.

“Uhh . . .” for the first time since Locke entered the room and began engaging in this stiff, but necessary, verbal match, he was finally caught off guard and stumped by his rhetorical sparring partner. How in the world did you know that? There was no one around . . .

“Don’t look so surprised, Shy. We always check up on the work of our troops. What commander wouldn’t double check the reports of his subordinates to make sure their job is being performed to satisfaction?” Alex gave a strange and out of character laugh at Locke’s gaping expression.

“But I don’t remember seeing anyone else.”

“That’s because, unlike Eliza, the rest of my scouts know how to hide and do their job properly.” Alex’s laugh continued a little bit before dying out.

“Is that why you sent her away so quickly?” Locke inferred, now getting a better picture of what had happened.

“No, there is a meeting, and she was late to it. She was originally to be assigned to maintain relations with the Fire-Walkers of Sine Nomine, as she had already built up a relationship with their leader, and there is still a great deal of work to be done there, but after much begging and several written requests, we finally transferred her to a new mission that will have her leaving within the hour. She’ll have a lot of meetings with Kitchens and Daniel to cram in as fast as possible,” he explained.

“A new mission? That leaves within the hour?” Locke asked, surprised that Alex was forthcoming about another assignment’s details. He was generally, at least from what Locke had gathered since he joined the guild, the type of guy who only gave away information on a need-to-know basis.

“Yes, you aren’t planning to stay here all day are you?” Alex slid the bag of gold over to Locke.

“Oh, of course not.” Locke gave a slight bow as he took the ridiculous sum of money. This was a heavy investment in him, and a great leap of faith on behalf of the StormGuard Alliance, so he was determined, now more than ever, to prove his worth and not let them down. “Shall I begin now?”

“You know what needs to be done?” Alex asked as Locke was just about to leave.

“Take this money, buy local goods from the traders in Mt. Lawlheima, and then go out-trade the Hellspawn on their own turf?”

“Good man. I look forward to hearing more about your success and how you overcome every possible obstacle in Eliza’s reports. Leave the door open on your way out. I don’t want the men to think I’m slacking.” Alex waved him off and then moved to another stack of papers.

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