Kass logged in and picked the “log in at bind point” option, a choice available to players who hadn’t logged out in combat and had stayed out of the game for more than an hour. It was kind of a cheater’s way to warp back to town if you were in a dungeon several hours away. Even though no one had really needed to use it before, since a majority of the players had only ever farmed within half an hour’s reach of their starting towns, she was happy for it now.
She had bet a lot on killing the Minotaurs and gone with the 8th Legion against the advice of most of the top players. “Minotaurs might not have armor or high health, but they can kill you in one or two swings. Even the smallest group to aggro you is going to be at least three Minotaurs.” It was advice that had that had turned out to be true as she had been forced to watch entire groups of NPCs and players decimated by the wild axe swings from the two-legged bovines. She had known it was a calculated risk, but even divided 10 or 100 ways, the EXP had been worth it. The contribution bonus from killing ‘enemies of the kingdom’ certainly didn’t hurt either. The sheer number that were present on the field at any given time had been more than enough to tempt even some of the freshest lowbies out to the front lines–especially Kass.
She smoothed her white dress and found the nearest blacksmith to sell her goods at: 1600 Gold for the lump sum of her ridiculous number of axes. The Minotaur loot wasn’t great, but it was definitely much better than you were supposed to get in a party of two this early on. This probably makes me the richest girl on the server! I wonder what kind of magic staves I can get? Or if I can get any accessories to boost my Damage? I should go find Darwin before I start shopping though, I bet that clueless old man doesn’t even know what accessories are. Tiqpa Map.
She brought up her map and looked for the blue dot with Darwin’s name on it to show where he was. Huh? He’s in the tavern? Why is he still there after turning in the quest? He isn’t one of those fully immersive role-players who spends hours on a video game talking to people in taverns instead of playing, is he? Ugh, if he’s in the tavern all the time, who will I leech experience from?
As she made her way to the tavern, she couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces of gossip from the other players hanging out in town on the way. “Hey, did you hear what happened to Greg’s group? It got toasted by ‘Flesh Wound.’ It’s like the tenth group that’s been slaughtered by them in the last day.”
“Yeah. I hear they are all around level 30 now. I bet they came here just to get some quick cash though. A full week of grinding alone wouldn’t have helped them afford that much black dye.”
“Nah. I don’t think that’s the case. They really take pleasure in it. You should have heard what they did to one of the runners.”
“The mage? I did. It’s only virtual reality, and the pain sensors are extremely dulled, but that poor guy is already booking it south. Doesn’t want to risk it twice.”
“They’ve definitely got everyone looking over their shoulders now when they leave town, that’s for sure. It’s making it hard to get a good group for farming. No one wants to risk leaving town for too long for fear of getting rolled out.”
Crud. I knew when the 8th Legion got toasted and the guards stopped patrolling for red names things would go south, but I didn’t think it’d happen this fast.
“Maybe we could try to get a group together and do a dungeon. If we log out at the end and wait an hour, then the PK’s won’t be able to get us because it’ll respawn us in town.”
The voices faded as Kass kept moving. She kept her ear trained for more rumors as she made her way through the market, but all of them were the same. Flesh Wound this and Flesh Wound that. Even the NPCs were showing signs of fear. It wasn’t until she was almost at the tavern that she heard anything different.
“How did that guy get a bathrobe? I didn’t even know they sold that item in the game. He even had matching slippers.” Ugh! NO! He better not try to keep that bathrobe forever. I don’t care how strong the set bonus is, I’m still scarred for life after that slip yesterday.
When she opened the door to the tavern, though, all the anger she was building up at him for still having a bathrobe on faded away. He was staring blankly at the empty plate in front of him with a face that somehow reminded him of her dad’s when he first heard that her mom had died.
“Did you get any sleep last night?” she asked, taking the seat opposite him.
“No, I found out that I can’t sleep,” he said, not really making eye contact with her.
“I know what you mean. If we hadn’t stayed up so late, I wouldn’t have even fallen asleep.”
I don’t know what he means. His face told her that she was so far away from saying the right thing that she might as well have been speaking a different language.
“So, about the quest. I figured I would wait on you to turn it in,” he said, changing the subject rather quickly. Something is definitely wrong with this guy. A part of Kass really wanted to help him out, but she had learned enough about leaving people alone with their problems in the past. She thought about her mother’s death again.
“Yeah, let’s go get that done. By the way, do you want to go shopping afterwards? I just got a ton of money from selling all those axes we looted yesterday.”
“Maybe. I didn’t see anything but staves and arrows in the blacksmith’s shop. One of those staves might be an upgrade for you?”
“Oh, heavens, no. Those things might as well be used as door stops or furniture props for all the use they would be to a mage. We have to get our weapons from the enchantment or magic shops, or they won’t do anything for our spells. Don’t you know anything about items?”
“No, not really. If we’re going, let me pay up first,” Darwin said as he got up and went to the bartender. As soon as he got up, Kass noticed that there was a piece of paper hidden underneath the plate with only its edges sticking out. Secret! She looked over at Darwin as he chatted away in an overly friendly manner with the bartender before deciding it was safe to sneak a peek at the paper.
Race: Unknown **No red-eyed man before me.
Locked: Attributes, Sleep, Log Out, Class Promotion
I was able to party with Kass, but Kass is a PC human. According to what I’ve discovered the party system currently prevents humans from partying with other races. Of the other races, White-Horns and Black-Wings have been seen to party with each other.
PCs don’t require food. NPCs require food. I require food. PCs don’t require sleep. NPCs require sleep. I don’t require sleep. PCs can respawn. Can I?
After a series of questions, I’ve realized that most of the NPCs aren’t aware that this is a game. They seem to be capable of making mistakes, and I can’t tell the difference between their emotions and the emo–
Kass kept glancing back and forth between Darwin and the page as she read the notes. When she saw that he was finished and heading back towards her, she slid the piece of paper back where she had found it as quickly as possible and hoped she hadn’t been noticed. Is he comparing himself to a NPC? No red-eyed man before him? What are you up to, Mr. Darwin? What’s your real secret? She wanted to ask him right away, but she couldn’t. She had discovered the paper by snooping, and he had clearly hidden it under the plate. If she brought it up right away, he might suspect her, and she still needed him for the EXP.
“Ready to go?” he asked, trying and failing to sneak the piece of paper out from under the plate without Kass seeing. Kass smiled to herself. Too late! I’m on to you, Mr. Bond.
“Yeah, sure. Let’s go find Captain Elmont and turn this quest in. Maybe we’ll hit 30 if we’re lucky, right?”
“It was really nice talking to you, Darwin! Please come again!” The NPC bartender called out to Darwin as they left. He and Darwin must have had some amazing conversation. That was the first time Kass had seen the man do anything other than pour drinks, take orders, and tell people to pay up. Has anyone even tried talking to him before, though?
“You too, Peter, and I hope your son puts that axe to good use. You have no idea how frustrating it was getting it.” He gave an NPC a gift? Doesn’t he know they aren’t actually people?
“I’m sure he will. Have a good one!” As the bartender waved them goodbye, Kass couldn’t help but think something was wrong with the whole scene. She wasn’t alone in that thought either: a few of the other players in the tavern gave both Darwin and the bartender, apparently named Peter, a strange look.
When they got out of the tavern, Kass tried to pry a little without sounding too obvious. “So you actually talked with the NPC?”
“You don’t talk to NPCs in video games? Who will give you the quests if you never talk to him?” He glanced sideways at her as they walked, and she was sure that he was smirking as he asked the question.
Is he trolling me now? “You know what I mean. He said you gave him an axe? Why would you give an NPC a gift?”
“Why do people buy toys for their dogs?”
“That’s not the same thing. Dogs are real. Dogs can feel emotions.”
“Is it any different than an NPC who is programmed to feel emotions? He seemed pretty happy with the axe.” Darwin had stopped watching her as they walked and was glancing around instead. “Ah! There’s Captain Elmont.”
“You know him too?”
“Of course. He is in the military, and I was at the only bar all night. Kinda seems obvious that I’d have met him.”
Oh yeah, these games are supposed to simulate reality. “So why didn’t you turn in the quest then?”
“Because I didn’t have my mage to protect me if he warped me to some random battlefield. I might trust my axe some, but I definitely feel more confident with an Ice Princess at my side.”
No one just warps people to a battlefield randomly, you idiot. Your sweet talk won’t make you any less suspicious. “You’re just being silly. You don’t need me around to protect you from the big, old, scary, bad men,” she said, emphasizing the last part with a little girl’s voice.
“If you say so.”
“I do. Now turn it in, scaredy cat!”
You have been invited to Darwin’s Party. Would you like to Accept or Reject?
Woops! I totally forgot to invite him. Accept! “Good thinking, Bathrobe Knight. After all, we can’t have you not getting EXP from all of my kills.” Kass was starting to wonder if she was poking him too much. His grumpy face had returned again.
“How are you, Elmont?” Darwin opened the conversation with the captain up before Kass could say anything.
“What, boy, didn’t get enough of my company last night at the tavern?” The cantankerous officer had been busy organizing some of the other NPCs when Darwin and Kass interrupted him.
“You know how things are. I thought I would introduce a struggling old man to a young girl, seeing as how you haven’t been able to meet one lately.” Darwin grinned at Kass while he said it, a smug ‘If you troll me, I’ll troll you back’ smirk back on his face.
“Oh, oh! Boy, you’ve brought me one above my paygrade. I don’t think I can match up to a girl with curves like that or a face so pretty. Bring me one a little simpler and a little less beautiful next time. I know my limits!”
Ha! This old man knows his place, Kass thought. Even so, he had still managed to make her blush more than any of the guys who had hit on her during her final year of college. “Anyways, Darwin, what do you got for me? Gonna consider joining the ranks?”
“No, we’re here for a quest turn-in,” Kass said, deciding she didn’t like to be talked around too much and needed to take control of the conversation.
“Oh yeah, I knew you looked familiar. You’re the girl who joined up with the 8th Legion before it was lost, may they rest in peace. The quest was to kill Minotaurs. Let me check your quest record to see what I owe you.” He paused for a moment as he looked at the two of them, and then his jaw made an attempt to connect with the floor. “Little missy, Darwin, I can’t thank you enough with words for what you’ve done. We all hated those White-Horns after what they did to the 8th Legion, but for you two to risk your lives to do this much. Thank you. This is all I have to offer you two, but please take it with my sincerest gratitude.”
“The honor was mine, Elmont. I’m just glad I could be of assistance to the town,” Darwin said it with a face so sincere that it would have almost convinced Kass he was serious–if it weren’t for the fact he was talking to an NPC. Is he trying to trigger a special event, or is he actually one of those role-players? He’s kind of too good looking to be a role-player, and his neck is way too devoid of beard. Kass froze. Did she just think that Darwin was good looking? Nope. Nope nope nope.
“Yeah, the honor was mine,” she said, using the same fake, cheesy manner that Darwin did. Kass was certain that Darwin knew something about the game that she didn’t. That’s why he had so many notes on that paper. If only I had more time to read it all, I’d know what he was up to.
“You two are truly great citizens. For your deeds and your concern for our people, I’ve got a reward. I normally wouldn’t give these away–no matter how many White-Horn’s someone killed–but I think you two have proven to be more than just disrespectful adventurers. So . . . here. One for each of you according to your abilities,” he said, handing each one of them a ring. The one he handed Kass was crafted with a beautiful white gold band and a series of tiny sapphires lining its edge. Jackpot! He did know something. “These rings are usually only given to the elite knights and mages to aid in their service of the kingdom. Wear them well.”
Kass brought up her inventory screen as quick as she could and pulled out the ring. ‘Ring of the Ice Queen. Grants the wearer: + 10 vitality, + 10 Spirit, + 10 Concentration.’ What? This is insane. Kass looked at Darwin with curious eyes to see what he got. If hers was a Frost Mage’s Ring, what would a Novice’s Ring be? I bet it’s Ring of the Bathrobe Knight with +10 to Spoon throwing and +5 to flap protection.
“Oh, and heroes,” Elmont continued, “be careful to avoid people dressed in all black. I’ve heard a lot of talk about people being killed lately. We rely on those people’s hard work and contributions to keep the town running. It would be nice if someone could do something about the problem, but we simply don’t have the resources to spend on gearing up new guards at the moment. Not since our silver ore mine was overrun, anyway.”
You have received a quest from Captain Elmont to clear the silver ore mine. Would you like to Accept or Reject?
Accept. You better not expect us to go straight there and skip shopping though.