Deal Me In, Poker Bear!: Valerie

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Valerie extended her long brown and white feathered wings as far as she could and relaxed her flight into an easy glide. She was at least fifty stories above the ground, and the desert had gone from sands to sheets to one flowing, brown carpet. The only thing that ever interrupted the brown were the edges of the rivers. Valerie had never visited a desert in real life, but she wondered if they looked the same.

Even after a week of playing, she couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the sensation as the wind caressed the feathers on her wings. She could feel her wings. She could feel the feathers on each wing. It was amazing to her. Since the accident almost a decade ago, she hadn’t believed she would ever walk again, and here she was flying. It almost made her cry every time. The dive machine stimulated her muscles to do tiny micro movements so she could play all day, every day without ever having to log out–except to either eat or sleep. Her mom insisted on her eating breakfast and dinner with the family. Other than that though, the winds, the feeling of freedom–Valerie was hooked and never wanted to leave Tiqpa.

“Have you spotted any enemy encampments yet?” Her commander whispered to her using the in game notification system. It basically sent the message as a text notification that wouldn’t appear when enemies were present or a player was in battle.

“No heretics have been detected. I’ve found two ore mines though and mapped them along with my suggestion of where we should establish the harbor. If we spend a day or two grinding the right resources and hire workers to handle the mines, we should have enough to get a fully functional war harbor up and running by the end of the week. The voice of the Sun God will be pleased.” She knew the Sun God was only a part of the game lore, but the more you played the game, the more you bought into it. Everything was “For the Sun God this” and “For the Sun God that.” It was fun too. Valerie felt like she was a part of something when she served the Empire. She had put off leveling for a bit today in order to scout at her commander’s request. She didn’t need the EXP off more grinding, she had gained plenty in the First Missionary War killing the Fire-Walkers who refused to accept the Sun God’s blessing.

“Great work, Valerie. Fly back and turn in the maps. We’ll get some of the Fire-Walkers to start fortifying the mines until we can afford the workers.” Of course, he was an NPC. NPCs never acknowledged that they, or anyone else for that matter, were NPCs. “If you keep up the good work you might get promoted to Herald soon.”

“Be there in no time.” Valerie was going to glide the rest of the way back, but the mention of being promoted to Herald spurred her wings onwards and she darted off like a bolt of lightning across the sky. Heralds could command troops. Even the lowest ranked were allowed to retain command of ten NPCs under them. If she reached that rank serving the Sun God Empire, she would be the first player in the entire Sun God Empire to have her own little miniature army. Imagine if I became High Inquisitor Valerie! She knew it was reaching for the stars, but being able to fly after a decade of sitting in that detestable wheelchair watching people look down on her with pity like her legs had been the only important aspect of her life made her think anything was possible.

When she finally got back to the town, she was lost again in its beauty. The Fire-Walkers and the Eagle-Wings, first blessed of the Sun God, had built the White-Wings a massive city of glass ten stories above the desert sands. The entire city was perched on a massive glass platform supported by towering pillars of glass that spiraled down into the sands below. The glass buildings on top of the platform were two, three and four stories tall with no flat sides, visible edges or sharp corners. Their buildings twisted and turned as they grew higher like lightning reaching for clouds that weren’t there.

“Welcome back, Valerie! It’s short notice, but are you ready to go out again?” The commander, waiting for her right where she landed, asked as soon as her feet touched the ground. The commander, a Raven-Wing wearing a complete set of the heaviest leather armor White-Wings were able to wear and still fly, had come out with all nine other White-Wings in her unit.

“I can leave at a moment’s notice. What’s going on?”

“A group of lava- and onyx-skinned Fire-Walkers still devoid of the Sun God’s blessing were spotted to the southwest of our holy city.”

“For the Sun God,” Valerie chimed enthusiastically. She was getting more and more into her character every day. She was Valerie, the dual-wielding, Hawk-Wing of the Sun God Empire, and she would make those pagans taste her iron daggers.

The group immediately took to the skies, flying in a clean V-formation with the Herald in front. It wasn’t long before they spotted the enemy, and, like vultures to a kill, they broke off and began circling their prey. Deep breaths, Valerie, deep breaths. We’ve done this dozens of times before.

As soon as one of the reddish lava-skinned Fire-Walkers spotted their group, the twenty or so heathens pulled into a tight group and started packing small balls of sand. It was their specialty, and it was scary. Valerie started dipping up and down and strafing left and right sporadically as she got closer, trying her best to stop them from guessing her movements. I’m almost in range. Be careful. The Fire-Walkers didn’t get their name for nothing. One of the racial perks and key reasons a lot of players liked to pick them–even though Fire-Walkers started as part of the Sun God Empire–was their racial ability to make and manipulate fire at will. It’s how they made the glass cities, and it’s also how they stuck fire to balls of sand and turned them into flaming glass balls.

Dodge! Shoo . . . that was close. Valerie had weaved an inch away from one of the glass projectiles as she saw four more coming. No matter how many times she dodged one successfully, her brain always convinced her that the next one would hit–a paranoia the accident was likely responsible for.

“Do a barrel roll, Valerie!” One of the others shouted at her. Valerie just rolled her eyes and stayed focused.

Left, left, right, almost there. You’re first, big man. Valerie finished her dive and with all the force of her descent pushed her two daggers through the skull of the biggest onyx-skinned man in the group.

  • Critical Dive! You have done 216 Damage!
  • Critical Dive! You have done 216 Damage!

Size doesn’t matter if you can’t hit squat, she thought, thankful the NPC hadn’t had a secret double-life as a baseball player. Some of the Fire-Walkers she had come across seemed to have had experience playing sports in the real world, and as a result, their aim was often impeccable.

Out of the ten other White-Wings with her, only one had been picked out of the air by the balls. The rest had all landed on a mark. Ten down, fourteen to go. The Fire-Walker closest to Valerie came at her with his Glass Mace. She charged him, dodging his overhead swing, and planted her two daggers in his back for maximum Damage.

  • Critical Hit! You have done 108 Damage!
  • Critical Hit! You have done 108 Damage!

No sooner had she pulled them back out than another one of the Fire-Walkers tried to hit her with a dull glass sword. Her brain told her she couldn’t dodge it, and for once it was right. She threw up arm up letting the glass sword sink into her flesh, stopping it from shearing off one of her wings in the process. Despite the sharp pain in her arm, she managed to use her free, unsliced arm to repeatedly stab the Fire-Walker. Die! Die! Die! Die!

  • You have taken 95 Damage!
  • You have done 54 Damage!
  • You have done 54 Damage!
  • You have done 54 Damage!
  • You have done 54 Damage!

With one arm unusable and her hit points having taken a big hit, she looked around happy to see the fight was over. The happiness quickly faded into an eerie, uncomfortable feeling, however, when she realized that of the six remaining White-Wings in her group, everyone was staring at her.

“What? Is something wrong?” she said, feeling the avian eyes piercing through her.

“No, it’s just, you really went crazy on that last one. I didn’t expect someone to use their arm as a shield–especially not someone who signed up to be a scout. I’m impressed,” the Herald said.

“Oh, well, the Sun God was watching. I couldn’t give her a bad show,” she said. It was the perfect response for the NPC herald, but it made the two players still alive in her group roll their eyes. Some people always complained that she was too corny with her role playing, but her attention to character had gotten several of her commanding officers to mention the possibility of her being promoted, so she wasn’t about to stop it now.

“Indeed! That would be a tragedy. Let’s run a sweep of the perimeter and then go put together a full unit for another patrol. There can’t be any remaining resistance here if we are to successfully bring the word of the Sun God to the White-Horns.”

‘Bring word of the Sun God’ was just a less brutal way of saying ‘conquer in a war.’ Valerie, doing her best to immerse herself in her character, had studied in-depth the creation of the Empire. Somewhere in the history of the small, sand-covered continent, one of the many nomadic Eagle-Born tribes and one of the Fire-Walker tribes decided to merge because of their mutual love for the sun. Arguments constantly sprung up between the two groups over what exactly the Sun God was and wanted: male or female, all knowing or all powerful, demanding of sacrifices or demanding of prayer. The one thing they agreed upon, however, was that there was a Sun God, and, as the chosen peoples, it was their job to spread the message of the Sun God across the world. It was confusing at first, but over the years the arguments had grown fewer and the worship grew more political.

“Of course, Commander,” she said. She took off into the air and smiled. She could feel the wind on her wings, and it felt great.

——-

Valerie felt like an angel as she took slow short steps into the Temple of the Sun God. As long as she was within the world of Tiqpa she always had the appearance of an angel: a perfectly normal human body with giant wings sticking out of her back. Now more than ever, however, she felt the celestial touch. She felt like the Sun God was real and filling her mind with awe for this fleeting moment.

It was the temple’s impact on those who entered. The structure was a massive glass building that, unlike all the other glass buildings in the city, had color-tinted glass. In fact, it had more varying different shades and hues of purple, red, orange and all the other colors of the rainbow than Valerie had ever seen before in the real world. The colorful stained glass was artfully woven into a thousand interlocking prisms, making up the surface of the giant dome. Each step Valerie took into the spacious chapel left her more in awe than the one before. it was like walking through a giant kaleidoscope as the cloud’s movement twirled the colors through the room. No two inches of the floor were ever the exact same color, and they were constantly changing. Even the very air seemed to share in the everlasting rainbow that themed the sanctuary, streams of multi-colored light visible everywhere she looked.

She steadied herself and tried not lose her focus on the swirls of beauty dancing around her. Simply being here was an honor unlike any other: she was the first player to have entered the building. The first player to have been selected for promotion. Herald of the Dawn. The title that many players had been aiming for, she managed to earn first.

“Valerie, it’s okay. It’s right to take in the wonder of the Sun God and all his beauty,” her commander said, noticing her eyes’ struggle to stay fixed on the objective waiting in front of her, the First Light of the Sun God.

“It’s magnificent.”

“Yes, it is, and you’ve earned the right to be here,” he said, putting his arm comfortingly on her shoulder. He was a NPC, but sometimes Valerie forgot that with how apt he was at being there for her. “Go on, take your time. He will wait for those who have been chosen by the Sun God.”

It’s dazzling, she thought, immediately lost in wonder. She did exactly as her commander suggested and slowly walked down her path to the First Light of the Sun God. By the time she reached the end, and was standing before the him, she had completely lost herself in the colors.

“Valerie, Scout of the Sun God Empire, do you know what has brought you before me?” The tall, white-winged man in front of her asked. He was dressed in white robes with a yellow sun drawn on the middle with orange rays radiating outward in an odd zigzag pattern. He lifted his hands in some odd ceremonial gesture that brought Valerie back to reality and made her want to laugh.

What is he doing? Oh yeah, I was told what to do here, she thought, taking a knee before the man. She felt like a soldier before a king, waiting to be knighted.

“You have been chosen by your betters to join them as a peer. You are here not just for your abilities in combat, but for your proven and tireless dedication to the Sun God. For this, you have been awarded the rank Herald of the Dawn,” he said, making a blessing motion with his hand. “Rise child, and may the light of the Sun God protect you henceforth.”

When she stood up, he didn’t have any more words or gifts or gestures. He just turned around like they had already left the building. Well this is awkward. He must be fun at parties. Despite now being so quickly ignored, however, she couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. She had done it! She was a Herald of the Dawn!

“So you know this means I’m not your commander anymore,” her former superior said.

“Yeah, I know.”

“And you know that means you’re going to have to call me something else, right? ‘Commander’ would sound strange given we’re the same rank.”

“Well, how about ‘Raven’?” she said, suggesting his wing type.

“What? No, that’s ridiculous. It’s Tim. I’m Tim. Now do you want to go get a bite at the tavern?” he asked, giving her a sly smile at the same time.

Valerie wasn’t an NPC, so she didn’t need the food, but she still took him up on the offer. Even though he was a figment of the game’s imagination, he was still the first guy who had ever asked her to anything. In real life, the accident had taken away more than her legs. It took away her friends, her suitors and even the ability to talk to her parents without being crushed by their pity. At 25 years old, Valerie had never left the house except to go to school or the doctors, so even though he was just an NPC, she happily accepted. “Yeah, sure! Sounds great! But you’re buying.” She had made a friend, and at this point she didn’t care that he wasn’t real.

“Sure, can’t have a girl like you pay for her own drinks,” he said, winking.

“Thanks. I mean, whatever. What do I do now that I’m a Herald, anyway?” she asked, her face changing colors like the Temple’s floor.

“Oh, that’s easy. You recruit. You need to find 10 people to join your command and sign them up with the office. You can technically exceed 10, but only with players that aren’t born of service. There is no cap on how many of those you can get. Then your company has to complete the missions and jobs it is assigned every day. You can take as many bonus missions from HQ as you like for extra cash, but the cash goes to your command, not you personally. If you don’t complete the base mission assignments by the end of each week, then you’ll lose your command,” he explained. She was basically a guild master now for a 10 person NPC guild that could add on as many players as it liked.

“I see. So I don’t actually have to work as long as I have enough minions to do it for me . . .” she thought aloud.

“I suppose you could say that. After all, I had you do all my work for me. Screw the heavy lifting when you can make a tiny, naive girl do it for you.”

“Isn’t it supposed to be me who takes advantages of big, handsome men?”

“Handsome? You must really want that free food. Anyway, first drink’s on me; you’re on your own for the second one. Let’s go,” he said, walking towards the tavern.

When Valerie finally made it into the tavern, she looked around at everyone. She used to see people, but her promotion was making her nervous. Which one of these guys will be a good soldier, who raise my rank higher? Her eyes darted the room scanning the crowd.

“You’re doing that thinking thing again, aren’t you?” Tim said, noticing her eyes moving from NPC to NPC. “You know it’s not good for you. It’s why you keep getting stuck with more and more responsibility.”

“Maybe so,” Valerie laughed, still not sure which one of the NPCs she should recruit or how she was even supposed to do it–things she probably would have kept thinking about if Tim hadn’t bumped her wing with his and ordered the first round.

——-

Valerie took a deep breath before she dove again. The missions she had been assigned, to clean up the heretics south of the town, kept showing up two to three times a day. The problem was she couldn’t get any NPCs to join her. Two players, Daniel and Mclean, were the only members in her party helping her out. They didn’t join her because she was a Herald of the Dawn; they joined her because she was the only one with a quest when they were about to fly off.

“So if you’re a Herald, how come you don’t have any NPCs with you to help us out?” Danielle asked, unknowingly rubbing salt in Valerie’s wound.

“I don’t know how to recruit them . . .” she answered honestly. “My former Herald, Tim, didn’t really have any advice on the subject. Just said I needed to learn how to drink.”

“I can teach you how to drink sometime, but have you thought about posting on the forum for more players? I didn’t even know there was a player-run squad. Now we can just do one quest after the other and not have to wait for the Herald to dole one out.”

“Yeah, I love this EXP. Is it just me or does a three-person party rake in way more than the usual ten-person one?” Mclean asked, landing her dive on one of the Fire-Walkers as she spoke. Valerie was happy Mclean had started her dive before her: the front diver was always targeted first.

“I don’t think it’s just you. The EXP has been great. We may hit 40 before the war starts,” Daniel said, landing his dive cleanly too.

“You may be right about the levels, but let’s not forget we are doing this for the Sun God Empire,” Valerie said, landing her dive with two blades right into one of the heretic Fire-Walkers.

  • Critical Dive! You have done 236 Damage!
  • Critical Dive! You have done 236 Damage!

“I mean, can you imagine how great it will be when we have subjugated all the kingdoms into one Empire? When our glass cities lie in the clouds above forests, lakes, and mountains? Can you imagine how beautiful it will be?” Valerie finished, dragging her blades out of her victim and turning to attack the next closest Fire-Walker. It took five hits, but Valerie managed to land each without taking a hit from the Fire-Walker’s flaming swipes in return.

  • You have done 59 Damage!
  • You have done 59 Damage!
  • You have done 59 Damage!
  • You have done 59 Damage!
  • You have done 59 Damage!

“Yeah, it would be kind of cool. You really get into the story of this game don’t you?” Daniel asked, finishing off his third Fire-Walker since landing.

“Don’t tease her about drinking the Kool-Aid. We wouldn’t be enjoying these sweet quests if she didn’t get the position, now would we?” Mclean answered before Valerie could respond.

“No, we wouldn’t; but we do need to figure out how to get her some of those NPCs. We can’t be doing all the clean up by ourselves, can we?” Daniel said as he finished off his fourth Fire-Walker.

“Don’t act like you don’t enjoy doing it all yourself. There wouldn’t be much fun if we had too many NPCs out here doing all of our work,” Mclean answered, still not letting Valerie get a word in.

Valerie, who had only killed two, couldn’t find any Fire-Walkers in range that weren’t already being picked off by Mclean or Daniel. This is going way faster than it was with the squad Tim put together.

“So either of you girls figured out what’s up with the food here? If I eat too much will my character get fat?” Daniel asked. “Or will I just always stay skinny like those kids who shovel pizza in their mouth for four years at college and come out weighing less than a 100 pounds?”

“That . . . Oh, God, I don’t wanna be a fat bird! Can you imagine how hard it would be to fly if we could get fat? Just the five to ten pounds’ worth of leather and weapons makes a big difference on our flight,” Mclean answered, finishing off the final heretic and then poking her stomach.

“Actually. I’ve been thinking about your NPC problem. Valerie, do you only have to recruit White-Wings? Can you recruit some of the Fire-Walkers too?” Daniel asked.

“How would you get them to and from the fights though? Flying makes this place seem really small, but can you imagine if you were one of the players who picked Fire-Walker? This place would be huge. I can’t even imagine how long it would take to get from one side to the other . . . Unless I somehow get fat, then I’ll know exactly how long,” Mclean said, still poking her belly.

“You’re not going to get fat, woman. Besides, you would actually need to eat something in the game to get fat. When was the last time you did anything but kill heretics?” Daniel didn’t seem very happy that there weren’t any more opponents left to kill.

“Shut up! I eat!” Mclean remarked again, obviously enjoying her banter with Daniel. The entire time though, Valerie was caught up in what Daniel had said.

What if you can recruit Fire-Walkers? Sure, the White-Wings have a huge advantage over them in movement speed and the dive; but, realistically, if the two were evenly leveled, then a White-Wing would be very hard pressed to beat a Fire-Walker. After all, their flames, the blessing of the Sun God, were a force to be reckoned with and only grew stronger with levels.

“Where do the Fire-Walkers who actually serve the Sun God live? I mean, we’ve only seen them as heretics so far. Where are the players and NPCs that have received the blessing of the Sun God?

For the first time since Valerie had met him, Daniel looked like he was thinking about something serious. “No one really knows at the city. It’s not even mentioned on the forums. It’s like a close-guarded secret or something. It shouldn’t be though, should it?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen a Sun God-worshipping Fire-Walker outside of the city gates since I started playing–and I’ve been playing since the beta launch.” Mclean’s face had also grown a contemplative look. “I know a few hundred at least are registered as playing Fire-Walkers too. The racial page says our two races are almost balanced.”

“Mclean, how long do you have until you have to log off?” Daniel suddenly asked, looking at the two of them.

Mclean paused for a minute before answering. “I have at least five hours.”

“Well, what about you, Valerie?”

Valerie checked to see if she had anymore Herald missions left. She had already knocked off all of the required weekly missions over the day and was left only with optional missions. She didn’t have any excuses to say no. First Tim invites me for a beer, now I’m being invited on a mystery quest. “I have all night, but where do we start?”

“Now that’s a question you’ll have to answer. You’re the boss, aren’t you?” Daniel said, sharing a chuckle with Mclean.

“Oh, well. Umm. . . Let’s try by making a circle around the capital. We can pick off any heretics we see and make a map of the desert in the process.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Mclean said, Daniel nodding in agreement.

“Alright then, let’s go, Boss,” Daniel said, pushing off the ground and into the air with Mclean following.

Valerie smiled as she joined the two in flight. These two . . . are they my friends? Valerie asked herself, having forgotten what it was like to have fun and go on adventures with her friends. It had been so long since she had even gone anywhere with anyone other than her parents, much less truly hang out with anyone. This isn’t exactly shopping at the mall, but then I couldn’t fly at the mall, now could I?

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