The Heroic Villain ch1

“And in today’s news, despite founding CEO Lucas’s abrupt retirement following the death of his wife and company co-founder, Yu Hua, Lu-Yu Enterprises is on track to grow for its third consecutive quarter,” the news anchor on the television announced.

Why do you do this to yourself? When has watching the news ever done anything more than leave you upset? Lucas grimaced and shook his head, deciding that it was best to listen to the voice of reason in the back of his mind. He pushed himself up from the chair he was seated in, turned off the television, and shuffled over to the dive capsule in the next room. The machine only took up about the same amount of floor space as a large loveseat, but it was by far the most dominant feature in the apartment, looming over him at seven feet tall. The capsule was reclined back at a 45-degree angle, and the door unsealed itself with a small hiss when he pressed a button on the front of the pod.

Out of habit, Lucas looked around at the mass of Internet, fluid, and diagnostic cables that sprouted from the back of the machine and crept across the floor before disappearing into the wall. The company had tested running the machine wirelessly and had even allowed users to provide their own Internet connections during the device’s beta eight years ago, but the mental trauma caused by rubber banding at even the slightest bit of lag in a virtual world was so severe that professional therapists had been hired to consult with the testers. Although virtual reality had become commonplace in everyday life, those few early adopters had been traumatized so greatly that they still refused to even come close to the machine.

Lucas crawled into the pod, turned it on, and was immediately greeted by several messages that were simultaneously displayed as text and read out loud.

A melodious female voice that made even the drabbest and dullest of notifications sound pleasant chimed, “You have four missed calls from Liu. Would you like to return her call before beginning immersion?”

“No,” Lucas answered curtly. No matter how agreeable the British-sounding voice made it seem, talking to Liu was absolutely not something that he wanted to do.

“You have thirty-seven emails from nineteen different sources. Would you like to review them before beginning immersion?”

“No.”

“You have two text messages from your mother and one text message from Liu. Would you like to read them before beginning immersion?”

“Read me the two text messages from my mother. Delete the one from Liu.”

“Text message one: ‘Are you still moping in your apartment on that damn game? It’s been over seven months. You need to get outside and exercise. I don’t care what that propaganda nonsense says about the machine exercising your body better than you ever could yourself. You need real physical exercise! And make sure you’re eating real meals! Don’t just let that machine feed you! It’s just creepy when people use those in-game meal services instead of the real thing. It’s like they’re some kind of vegetable in a coma just waiting to die.’ End of message. Would you like to leave a reply?”

“Not yet. Read me the second message from her first.”

“Text message two: ‘Liu called to check in on us again today. She said you still aren’t returning her calls. You know that she was only doing what she thought was best. Why not cut her some slack and forgive her already?’ End of message. Would you like to leave a reply?”

“Hmm . . .” Lucas stared up at the text for a moment, lost in thought. She’s still checking in on them once a week? Whatever. It’s not my problem. “Yeah, let’s leave a reply.”

“Excellent, what would you like to say?”

“Tell her, ‘I’m still eating real meals, and I’m still taking walks every day. I’ll come back and visit on the holidays. Love you, Lucas.’”

“Well written. Your message has been delivered. Would you like to wait for a reply or begin immersion now?”

“Just begin the immersion process.”

“Please close your eyes and relax. Immersion process is starting.” The dive capsule began filling up with a slick gel, and the voice slowly became softer and softer with each passing word as Lucas’s naked body was taken over by the liquid and the machine. Seconds later, the machine began accessing his brain, and music from one of his favorite composers, Vivaldi, wafted into his ears.

“You may now open your eyes,” the system notified him.

Lucas did as he was prompted and discovered that the tech display that he had been looking at moments ago from the inside of the capsule was gone. Instead, it had been replaced by a multicolored sea of flowers which stretched up a long hill. The sweet, fragrant smell of so many different blossoms filled his nose as he took in a deep breath of the crisp, clean outdoor air, and he felt the warmth of the sun against his skin.

Perfect. Lucas smiled, savoring the world around him. He pulled the pack off his back and reached inside, retrieving a few of the things that he had prepared before logging out last time: a wheel of cheese, two bottles of wine, and a blanket.

“I see you’re getting started early today,” a sharp female voice said from behind him.

“It takes a great deal of effort to lie around and do nothing all day,” Lucas replied without looking up from the work that he was doing, laying out a blanket. “You have to put in a lot of preparation to do it right.”

The woman who had spoken to him walked up and plopped down on one side of the blanket, not leaving much room for Lucas to lie down. “After almost two years of steady practice, I assume you are the expert on the matter.”

“Are you inviting yourself again today?” Lucas asked.

“Of course. I have to study hard if I want to make it into the upper echelons of apathy and join your ranks, master.”

“Whatever.” Lucas simply shrugged indifferently and lay down next to her on the little bit of blanket she had left for him.

“You’re just letting me use your blanket because you’re too lazy to shoo me off, aren’t you?” she asked, scooting closer to him.

“Your words, not mine.” Lucas reclined back and stared up at the sky. He slowly closed his eyes and then enjoyed the feeling of warm sunlight across his face. He remained that way for a long time, simply enjoying himself until he got hungry, and only then did he take a bite from the wheel of cheese.

“Mine!” the woman declared. She snatched the cheese from his hand, took a bite from it, and then tossed it back to him.

“You should really learn to bring your own if you wa–” Lucas’s words stopped cold when the sun’s warmth and its light were suddenly cut off from his face. There was no chance it was a passing cloud: the weather in Hesse was perfect. The only thing that could make shade was a person standing over him, yet no other NPCs ever passed by this place. That meant that the individual blocking his light had to be a player, and players always spelled out discomfort. They always either wanted something from him, or they wanted to do something to him.

“Hey, brother,” a gruff voice grunted down from above him. “We’re short one member for the opener quest.”

“Don’t wanna.”

“Come on! You’re the only person here who hasn’t done the class assignment quest. Just help us out so we can get the full-player-party buff that comes from not using NPCs.”

“Why are you even bothering with him? I told you to just grab an NPC,” a second voice whined. Lucas mentally added a “plus one” to the tally of people annoying him and blocking his sunlight. “Negative hasn’t killed a thing since he started playing, and he’s been playing way longer than us.”

“Negative.” It was his nickname and claim to fame in the game. The moniker wasn’t exactly creative, but it did hit the nail on the head. Rather than being related to his instant-rejection personality, however, it was given to him because of the fact that he was negative Level 71, which was an incredible feat that made him a unique entity in the game.

One of the game’s various penalties was that it actually allowed a player to regress in levels if he died too many times. The cost of dying grew progressively larger at the higher levels, meaning that a player could take a fairly substantial hit to his experience if he died, but in the early stages of the game, someone had to die between three to five times before the system would punish him.

The class promotion quest was one of the first that a player could pick up, and it was also one of the easiest. Most people would finish it within the first hour of playtime and reach level 5, so no one had ever actually gone into the negative levels aside from him. His achievement had earned him a great deal of ridicule from other players, but he didn’t care. The only things that concerned him were lying out in the sun, enjoying the fragrant aroma of flowers, and partaking of his wine. He had become such a permanent fixture on the hill that he had to occasionally deal with some jerk who wanted to kill him just to see if he would drop any money or if he was some secret event–along with some who wanted to kill him just for the fun of it–but that was the extent of his interaction with the rest of the world.

“Well, there is a first time for everything. Come on, Negative, the system told us you’re the only other player right now that hasn’t done the quest yet, so it’d really help us out,” the gruff guy pleaded again.

“Yeah, come on, nya! Pleeeeassseeee!” a sweet-voiced woman begged.

So many voices, so many annoyances. Having a conversation with so many people just felt problematic and cumbersome to him. Lucas squeezed his eyes tighter and turned over onto his side, leaving his back for the others to deal with. He knew the rude gesture was likely to tempt their anger, but it was almost certain to get his point across. Now, they’d either politely leave or just kill him, but the effect would be the same: he’d be free from their pestering.

“If you don’t go with them, then I won’t be here to bother you tomorrow or the day after,” the woman lying next to him on the blanket said, causing Lucas’s eyes to finally shoot open.

“What?” Lucas rolled over and turned to look at her. Resembling a famous Chinese actress with long legs, a petite figure, and long, sleek, black hair, she was the most stunning and beautiful NPC on the entire island–at least as far as Lucas was concerned, anyway. She had encouraged him to do stuff like this before on more than one occasion in the past, but that was simply relegated to something simple like picking up a crafting profession. This type of request accompanied by a threat was completely out of the ordinary for her.

“Don’t be dense,” she scolded, reaching up to tap her head with an index finger. “I spoke clearly. If you don’t go help out these valiant, young heroes, then I won’t be here tomorrow. It’s in your best interest. You’re going to have to do it eventually.”

The whiny-voiced male groaned, prompting Lucas to twist his head around and stare at him. The lanky fellow with spiked hair looked down at Lucas and continued. “Wait, isn’t she–”

“Yeah, I’m confused,” the girl from the group interjected, prompting Lucas to turn his attention to her. She was a willowy, frail-figured Alfar with slightly-pointed ears, and she puffed her cheeks out and stood with her hands on her hips, staring down at them on the blanket.

“Yeah, she’s . . . Dawn is right,” gruff-voice agreed. The large, barrel-chested man that looked like a fat, six-and-a-half-foot-tall Dwarf thumped his chest with his fist for emphasis. “You gotta do this sooner or later, so just man up and get it done. We’ll go finish the quest, and you’ll be back to see the sun in less than an hour.”

Lucas looked over at the woman beside him. “Dawn, are you sure you want me to do this?”

“Of course. I know all about their quest.” Dawn smiled, and her features lit up. As far as Lucas was concerned, she was even more radiant than the still-blocked sun. “It’s important. If you don’t rescue the sages from Xun Guan’s vile dungeon, then . . . I dread to think of what will happen. Without them, the heroes of the next generation will never be trained in the arts and skills needed to overcome the evil forces seeking to dominate our world.”

Lucas’s earlier frown returned as he closed his eyes and tried to process what was going on. He pressed a hand against his forehead and rubbed his eyes as he weighed his desire to remain exactly where he was against his distaste for doing what was being asked of him.

It took him a minute to process what was happening, chiefly because she was the main reason he had never taken the quest and advanced in the game. Yet, here she was, the driving force pressuring him into doing it. Her face was both a lure and a curse in its own way: he hated how she looked nearly identical to Yu Hua and loved the familiar presence that she brought with such a similar attitude and appearance.

No, even if she’s not the one asking, I need to do this for myself. I really do need to move on, at least a little, and here is as good a place to start as any, he thought, relenting at last. “If you guys need a fourth for the class selection quest, I’ll do it. Just share the info.”

“What? Really?” The short girl’s eyes widened in surprise. “This worked? Are we going to be the first people to group with Negative?”

“Thank you so much!” The gruff man extended a hand to pull Lucas up from the ground. “I’m Malik, this is Nick, and this is Valerie, and we’ll make sure this quest goes smoothly for you.”

As Lucas stood up, Nick also extended his hand. “Yeah, thanks a lot for joining us. I’ll share the quest info right away. Do you need the equipment set to do it?”

Nick was referring to the basic starting items, the wand, sword, shield, bow, scepter, daggers, and staff that were required to finish the class-selection quest. Every person was given the items as soon as they started the game, but since Lucas had been playing for seven months in real life, or over twenty-one months in game time, it was natural to assume that he might have pawned them and bought something else with the money–or merely forgotten where he stashed them.

“I have the gear,” Lucas answered. He dusted himself off as he got to his feet and looked at the quest that had just been shared with him. “I can pick them up in town if you don’t mind our swinging through.”

Quest: The Teachers of Old.

The Chieftain of the Were-Rat Tribe, Kulako, believes you have the potential to overthrow the Imperium’s tyrannical grip on Hesse. He has sensed great potential in you but worries that you will never be strong enough to break the shackles that have enslaved and tormented the non-Human residents of Hesse without the proper training.

The only trainers worthy of such astounding potential have all been locked away by the Imperium, and their skills as educators are no longer available to the younger generations as they have been left to rot within the dungeon of the oppressive Lady Xun Guan. You must rescue them, earn their trust, and convince them to teach you. Without their knowledge, the power to save the people of Hesse will forever elude you.

“Town’s too far. We brought gear,” Malik said, tossing a bundle of equipment at Lucas.

“Thanks,” Lucas answered, somewhat warily. He wasn’t used to people being this friendly. Until recently, it had been fairly common for people to add “Nancy” to his nickname just before they attacked him, so he was naturally cautious and somewhat put off by the gesture. “‘Preciate it, man.”

“Don’t let him steal the credit, nya. It was my idea!” Valerie insisted.

“But my money!” the Dwarf snapped.

“Well . . .” Lucas took out two gold pieces and passed them to Malik. “Here. This should cover the expense.”

Malik looked at the money. Lucas knew that it was far more than the going rate for the gear, as each piece of gear would cost only a single silver coin, but he had handed over two gold ones instead, which equated to 20 silver or 200 copper.

“Didn’t realize lying around doing nothing paid so well,” Nick commented snidely.

“That’s because it doesn’t,” Dawn said patiently, adding a slight smile. “Lying around all day doing nothing is what you do when you have enough money to not worry about getting paid.”

“The woman makes a point,” Malik agreed. “We don’t have time to lie around and wait. Let’s go kill some racist Imperium scumbags!”

Lucas didn’t bother saying anything as he watched the chattering group start off toward Lady Xun Guan’s mansion, which was a short five-minute walk away.

The large mansion had a mortarless rock facade and looked like a small fortress situated on the crest of a forest-covered hill. The surrounding woods set it apart from the other nearby mansions and manors, which were encompassed by simple farmland. Those same Imperium farms, where non-Humans were forced to till and work the fields, were one of the hallmarks of the area. New players could pick up a variety of quests which involved freeing the serfs and allowing them to return to the forest or helping to restore the natural order of the land by killing the guards and overseers. It was the same save-the-world plot that every MMORPG force-fed its players at some point or another.

The most annoying aspect of the quest Lucas had accepted was that it prevented players from wandering around and exploring either the surrounding area or the mansion. It was naturally designed to streamline the experience and prevent newbies from getting lost, but that meant that players were basically “locked in” and couldn’t do anything else until it was completed.

Once the small group arrived at the mansion, they snuck around back and “discovered” a secret door that was hidden underneath a patch of removable grass. What to do was fairly common knowledge at this point, but even if it wasn’t the quest’s giant, yellow, glowing markers made it obvious. Thankfully, there really wasn’t much to do. Once they approached the hidden entrance, the second part of the tutorial quest kicked in, and a status message appeared.

Welcome to the class selection quest. In order to familiarize yourself with the game, you will play each class for a portion of the dungeon. Don’t worry which class you are given or in which order: An event will occur at the end that will allow you to select the class you are most comfortable with.

Please select your first trial class by equipping your weapon set.

Note: Only one person may select each of the four base classes, Fighter, Rogue, Healer, and Mage, at any given time. If two players are holding a weapon set for the same class, the door to the dungeon will not open, and the quest will not progress to the next step.

Warning: Stat points will not be reset at the end of the quest. As such, we recommend players abstain from distributing points until they are certain which class they are going to pick. The difficulty of this dungeon should not require any prior farming or leveling to complete.

“Dibs on going Mage first!” Nick shouted.

“UGH!” Valerie grumbled. “You can’t! I really wanted it!”

Malik looked over at Valerie. “She gets the first crack at it. We already talked about it.”

“Fine,” Nick harrumphed. “I’ll take the Fighter then–unless you want to stop me from picking that class too?”

Malik glared at Nick for a second but then relented. “No, it’s all yours. I’ve wanted to take a crack at the Rogue anyway.”

“Don’t pick daggers. Pick the bow. You look so cool with a bow,” Valerie said, hovering around Malik as he pulled out the weapon.

Lucas blanched at the excessive PDA, which made him feel slightly nauseous.

While Nick was equipping his two swords, Lucas took off his pack and readied the Healer’s equipment, a magical scepter and shield. It was the only class that none of them had selected yet, so he didn’t have much of a choice.

The Healer’s scepter, much like the Mage’s staff, was not designed for physical damage. The inside had been hollowed out and loaded with what a computer geek from the early part of the century might recognize as something similar to a motherboard but with magical circuitry that allowed its wielder to cast spells. All a player had to do was select which spell he wanted to cast on the handle and then channel Holy Energy into the weapon to cast the spell.

The only thing that separated the Mage’s staff and the Healer’s scepter was that the size of the circuitry required to cast spells for a Healer was much smaller, and instead of using a Mage’s unique energy, Arcane Energy, they required a Healer’s Holy Energy to cast spells.

Restore Health, Force Shield, Purify, and Second Wind. They were the Healer’s basic skills, and each one required only 5% of a user’s total Holy Energy at Level 1. Restore Health recovered a percentage of the player’s health immediately, but it took two seconds to cast. Force Shield created a small half-sphere in front of a player that would protect them from incoming damage, and Purify cleansed a body of poisons or dealt damage to constructs or summoned entities. The last skill, Second Wind, was a Stamina heal for Rogues and Fighters that restored 50% of their total Stamina bar. It would have been a much more useful skill if it wasn’t for the fact that Stamina naturally restored itself, on average, ten times faster than Holy Energy.

Seems simple enough, Lucas concluded after going through the list. He made a mental note to remember which point on the scepter to channel his energy into for each spell. He also noted that, while the scepter felt rather sturdy and could be used as a means of bashing a foe to death, its hollow nature meant that it would deal very little damage compared to a solid blunt instrument. The shield in his left hand might actually be a more reliable source of damage when hitting an opponent.

“Sorry you got stuck being the AFK bot,” Nick snickered, flashing his teeth at Lucas. “AFK bot” was a throwback term for useless Healers who had been rendered worthless as a result of their team never needing them or because their role was so mindlessly repetitive.

Lucas just shrugged.

“Stop messing with Negative,” Valerie chided. “He gets picked on enough as it is, so if you keep teasing him, I’m going to beat you so much he’ll have to use all of his Holy Energy just to keep you alive.”

Malik and Lucas just watching on in silence as the two bickered back and forth.

The door leading into Lady Xun Guan’s dungeon then opened to reveal a stone staircase leading downward. Torches were affixed to the walls on either side, providing light.

The bonus for having a full party of players with no NPC assistance has been activated. All experience has been increased by 10%. Loot has been adjusted for a full party, and additional loot has a chance of dropping.

Lucas was slightly curious as to how this quest would turn out, but he was by no means in a rush to reach the end.

Malik, however, impatiently pushed the group forward after smacking Nick on the shoulder and pointing at the staircase. “Let’s go, brother.”

The two stopped arguing, and the group made their way down into the dungeon. About halfway down the three-person-wide stairwell, Lucas noticed a group of Human guards at the bottom dressed in chainmail. They all had their heads tilted back against the wall. They were sound asleep, and one of them was even snoring.

“Let’s kill them,” Malik said excitedly, nocking an arrow and preparing to fire.

“Psh! Let me show you how it’s done!” Nick insisted. He hefted the two swords in front of him and charged down the stairs.

Malik let loose an arrow that struck one right in the lung, but Lucas’s eyes were drawn to Valerie. She was obviously casting a rather large spell and had already spent several seconds channeling it by the time the others even started forward.

What is she doing? he wondered, and then his eyes opened wide as he remembered what spell most likely came with the starter staff: Firebolt. Its area of effect was limited to a five-foot circle around the target, but in tight, enclosed spaces, it was an incredibly useful skill–and likely a painful one for Nick, who had rushed ahead to engage in melee combat.

Lucas felt a little panic pass through him as he realized that Valerie was probably just casting away without considering her ally’s safety at all. He held his scepter up in front of him and began channeling Holy Energy into it. The process wasn’t difficult at all, and the game’s mechanics made it more or less intuitive. All he had to do was focus on channeling his Holy Energy through the scepter and then into the circuit for Restore Health. He just hoped that Valerie wouldn’t turn Nick into a fried corpse before the end of the two seconds.

“This is soooo fun!” Valerie squealed, releasing the spell. Just as expected, the basketball-sized fireball sizzled down the staircase as it shot straight for the rearmost guard. The ball of flame smashed into the sleeping man’s face and then exploded outward in all directions, releasing a wave of heat that was noticeable even halfway up the staircase.

When the smoke cleared, all four of the guards were dead, and Nick’s side had been completely charred from the blast. The temporary Fighter had figured out what was happening, but the spell was simply too fast to dodge. Thankfully, the damage-over-time effect from the burn had been immediately nullified by Lucas’s healing spell, which landed at the perfect time to keep him alive.

“Son of a milkman, that hurt,” Nick swore before turning around. “Did you manage to hit anyone besides me, Valerie?”

“Maybe,” she giggled. “Or maybe my Firebolt was just as attracted to your backside as I was.”

“Come on, brothers. We have work to do!” Malik insisted, refusing to let them be sidetracked into more banter. “No time to worry about friendly fire.”

“Easy for you to say,” Nick grumbled.

Valerie hid her laughter even as she apologized. “Sorry! I’ll try better next fight,” she promised.

The group gathered on the landing at the bottom of the stairs, and Malik pointed out the next set of soldiers waiting for them down a short hallway. Valerie immediately began channeling Arcane Energy into her staff, and Nick looked at her and then sighed as Malik began shooting. Valerie’s ball of Fire scorched through the air, exploding in the middle of the four soldiers and killing all of them.

Congratulations. You have reached Level -70.

You now have 10 stat points available to allocate.

Lucas blinked. That’s not right, he thought, opening up his status screen and looking at the point distribution. You typically get 10 stat points plus whatever bonuses your prestige class gives whenever you level up, but . . . my level was negative. How am I getting anything? He stared at the status message, incredibly confused. Every time someone lost a level, they also lost the accompanying stats that went along with it. Despite his negative level, however, this had never been an issue for him since stats couldn’t drop below 0, the base that everyone’s character started out at.

What the hell? This is a serious cheat. Lucas’s eyes slowly shifted toward the total experience needed to get to the next level. It hadn’t changed at all. He still only needed the incredibly small amount of experience a player normally required to grow from Level 1 to 2.

“Great! I guess I won’t get a chance at trying Fighter because they made the enemies too easy and gave the caster an overpowered ranged spell,” Nick complained, snapping Lucas back into reality.

“You’ve already picked your class, brother, so just thank Valerie for making the experience go faster and Negative for keeping you alive.”

“Whatever,” Nick sighed. “Well, since I leveled, give me a second to put my points into Arcanum.”

“Not going to wait until you pick your class?” Valerie asked.

“Why bother?” Nick asked rhetorically. “I already know what I’m going to be: the greatest Spell-Staff the world has ever known!!”

Once a player selected one of the primary classes, he’d be taught skills and given gear to help him in that profession. However, that didn’t mean that he would be locked into that profession forever. Depending on how he distributed his points and what skills he learned, he could easily change how he functioned in the game. “Spell-Staff” was an advanced class available to a player who started off as a Mage and used spells that would have immediate close-combat effects, like Flaming Staff or Lightning Touch, which would then be combined with melee weapons and physically damaging skills. Essentially, it was just a mixture of a Mage and a Fighter. Although Spell-Staffs generally took longer to channel abilities than the average caster since their base Arcane Energy pool was smaller, they could create very deadly burst damage on targets, making them a very popular choice.

Malik laughed. “Your ego is too much. The game has been out eight years, and the best guilds have already closed their doors on recruitment. How are you going to get your hands on the magic boards you need to be one?”

“Whatever,” Nick scoffed. “There are plenty of how-to guides on Blueit for building Spell-Staff magic boards.”

“Yeah, the lower-end ones. I’m not trying to be mean, but without the advanced, specialized designs that are only available to the bigger guilds, you’ll never be as good as other Mages. You should temper your expectations,” Malik advised.

“Yeah, that’s why I’m going to play a mix of the Ranger and the Bard,” Valerie proclaimed proudly, pushing her chest out and tilting her head back as if she had just announced she had won a tournament. “That way, I won’t be as dependent on items, and I won’t need to be the best. The best will want me on their team.”

“Paladin here,” Malik said, turning his gaze toward Lucas. The Paladin was, as one might imagine, just a simple combination of the Healer and the Fighter. It was essentially what Lucas would have been doing right now if he had been given the opportunity to attack anything. The major difference was that he didn’t have any of the martial skill trees learned, and he didn’t have any points into Athletics, the stat that determined one’s physical combat resource pool.

Lucas looked at the three expectant faces, all curious what the infamous Negative would pick. Truth be told, he didn’t have a clue as to what to think about any of the classes yet, so he just shrugged and moved forward, hoping that a change of location would also change the topic.

“Way to earn that name,” Nick said from behind. “So negative.”

Lucas didn’t get far, however, before they reached the end of the hallway. There was a door directly ahead, one to the left, and one to the right. Before he could pick one, however, a status message popped up, prompting them to change weapons.

“Dibs on Mage this time!” Nick shouted. He quickly sheathed his swords, opened up his backpack, and took out the staff before anyone could object. Unlike standard game inventory systems, their backpacks were essentially just bags that shrank the items you put in them down to much smaller and more manageable sizes but did nothing to reduce the weight of the items. For that reason, players would often set down their backpacks for boss fights or difficult battles, knowing that the system wouldn’t allow non-party members to access them. If the player died, the backpack would travel to the spot where they respawned.

“I’ll take Fighter this time then,” Valerie said, taking out a sword and a shield.

“Fine, Healer here,” Malik responded.

Since Rogue was the only option left over, Lucas decided to just go with it. He knew he could pull out a bow and contribute the same way that Malik had, but he couldn’t ignore how effective Firebolt was at clearing the enemies from a distance. So, he fetched two daggers out of his backpack instead. This way, I’ll be a lot more useful if we get stuck in close-quarters combat. If we can attack from a distance, Nick will toast everything anyway. It will also prevent me from being charred like he was.

The hallway they occupied wasn’t that large, only just large enough for three people to squeeze uncomfortably next to each other and walk side by side with their shoulders touching, so when the doors all opened at once after they had each selected a new weapon, and enemies appeared, maneuvering space quickly disappeared.

What the . . .? Lucas thought as he saw a guard exit each of the three doors, each with a weapon in hand.

“Ugh! Are you kidding me?” Nick scrambled backward in order to avoid one of the guards that had decided to go after him. “I switch from Fighter to Mage, and now we’re doing close combat? This is garbage!”

“There are more spells than Firebolt on that staff, brother.” Malik slammed one of the guards with his shield and followed up by striking the stunned man across the face with his scepter.

Valerie began swinging both her swords wildly, likely out of reflex at seeing enemies appear right next to her, and didn’t seem to bother activating any of the skills.

Lucas stepped forward and jammed his dagger into the throat of the guard that had popped out of the door next to him. All three of the enemies were dead within a matter of seconds, and he was presented with yet another level-up message:

Congratulations. You have reached Level -69.

You now have 20 stat points available to allocate.

That is such a cheat, Lucas thought, noticing that none of his companions had leveled yet. The experience requirement for each level was always higher than the last, making it significantly harder to get from Level 11 to 12 than it would be to get from Level 1 to 2. He had received the same amount of experience as the other two, roughly 250, yet he had gotten two levels, and they had only gotten one and a half.

“Does this dungeon ever get harder?” Nick asked, obviously forgetting that games often loved to start players off with what were essentially single-button fights. This particular game was famous for being a step above the rest, and many automatically assumed this meant that the incredibly difficult, awe-inspiring dungeons found in the late-game translated to the starting area as well. Unfortunately for Nick, a starter area was a starter area for a reason: a player could literally kite an entire zone of mobs together and blast them down with a single area-of-effect spell if he wanted to.

“Sorry, brother,” Malik answered. “It’s the first quest. This is it.”

“If you wanna make it fun, we could just unequip our items and punch our way through to the final boss,” Valerie suggested. “With her difficulty, we could even punch the final boss to death.”

“That would make things more interesting,” Nick agreed, “but I really want to try out this staff and cast a spell.”

Valerie nodded. “Cool, cool! You do that. I’ll just . . .” She gave a wry smile and then darted farther into the dungeon, slamming the door behind her.

Nick’s mouth dropped as he stared at the door. Then, after a second, he recovered and darted after her, slamming the door behind him as soon as he left the room too.

Lucas, having not really wanted to do anything in the first place, was fine watching them tear ahead and do all the work for him. As far as he was concerned, he was content with watching the status messages in the bottom right corner of his vision scroll past. Based on how quickly the experience messages accumulated, it was obvious how many kills one of the two was getting.

“Sorry, brother.” Malik sighed as he reached his hand out and opened the door for Lucas. “She likes to tease him . . . a little too much sometimes.”

“No problem,” Lucas said, walking through the door. “It’s no big deal.”

“You sure? Since you don’t know what class you want to be yet, this is a very important stage for you. You should learn what you like and put together a plan for your character.”

“Nah,” Lucas replied dismissively. “I’m just gonna help you all finish this quest, go back to my usual spot on the hill, and enjoy my wine.”

“I’ve heard you’ve been playing for almost two years of in-game time, but you’re still doing the same thing.” The disbelief and skepticism in Malik’s voice was obvious as he spoke, and Lucas knew that many other people felt the exact same way. “Is that all you want to do? To spend your days eating and drinking in a virtual game? It doesn’t sound like a fun future to me.”

Lucas looked at him and then at the ground, sighing and brushing off the comment. “The simulated buzz is just as good as the real one.”

“If you say so . . .” Malik shook his head, obviously not convinced. He walked up beside Lucas and continued, saying, “But, personally, I think spending all of your life lying around doing nothing doesn’t sound like much fun.”

Lucas gave him a sideways glance, not sure what had prompted this miniature lecture. Then a status message popped up on his screen to let him know that he had leveled yet again.

Congratulations. You have reached Level -68.

You now have 30 stat points available to allocate.

“Sorry,” Malik said. “I don’t mean to pry. Just hoping you play the game so that we can do the whole noob island quest chain with maximum experience. We have healing, tanking, and damage covered. You can pick anything, and it’ll fit fine.”

Lucas thought about responding, but in the end, he chose to just ignore the man. That type of gentle encouragement was the same type Yu Hua had often used to try and get him to come out of the house and do stuff with her, and once it started, it never stopped. The only way to get such people to stop pushing was to blow them off altogether. If he said “maybe” or shrugged it off, they’d just keep pestering him.

Nick and Valerie cleaned up a group of the most incompetent minions to ever appear in a video game at the far end of the long stone hallway, and Malik and Lucas arrived to find that they were still at each other’s throats. The door required all four of them to switch classes yet again.

“Will you let me kill at least one already?” Nick snapped. “We’re halfway through the dungeon, and I still haven’t fought anything!”

“It’s not my fault you’re so slow at the game, Mr. Greatest Spell-Staff,” she snapped back.

Malik gave another apologetic glance and then began switching gear. “I’m going to take the Mage this time,” Malik said, looking over at Lucas to see if he was okay not playing the class once more.

“Then I guess I’m the Fighter,” Lucas concluded.

“HEALER!” Valerie eagerly called, which meant that Nick was left with Rogue, the only remaining class.

Nick equipped a bow rather than the daggers, probably hoping to get some use out of it before someone else scored a kill, and Lucas couldn’t help feeling bad for the guy. The first hallway had been long and straight with no enemies on either side, but the farther they got into the dungeon, the more turns they made, and the more enemies seemed to appear right next to them. The bow was the worst choice if Nick really wanted to finally see action.

The others eagerly switched their gear while Lucas put away his daggers. Since unarmed combat was technically a combat branch open to the Fighter, Lucas figured he’d take that lazy route and punch anything that came close while letting the others handle the rest, exactly as Valerie had jokingly suggested.

The next dungeon door opened, and a group of feral Were-Rats rushed into the hallway the moment they had enough room to squeeze through the opening.

Ugh! I thought this wasn’t supposed to be difficult!

“It’s the final non-boss encounter,” Malik explained when he saw the confusion on Lucas’s face. “We beat these guys, and then that’s it. The only thing left to do is kill the boss and free the four teachers.”

Lucas didn’t even have time to say thanks. He had stupidly chosen the unarmed combat route while thinking he wouldn’t have to put in any effort, but the enemies were now swarming around them.

The Were-Rats were medium-sized humanoids just over five feet tall and completely covered in rat hair. They had beady, red eyes, protruding snouts filled with razor-sharp canines, and disproportionately-long arms with claw-tipped fingers.

The first Were-Rat through the door charged directly at him and swiped toward Lucas’s chest, but Valerie interceded on his behalf. She slammed into it hard from the side, sending the beast careening off into its ally. Both it and another Were-Rat bounced off the wall and then crumpled to the floor dead.

I guess there’s a lot of them, but they seem to be pretty frail and low-leveled, Lucas reasoned when he saw how easily they died.

Lucas punched the next-closest enemy in the gut as it slashed at him. The Were-Rat’s attack connected with his shoulder, and its long claws left behind three large, red scratches as they dragged across his skin. The creature’s attack barely shaved off a sliver of his health before Lucas’s first punch doubled-over the beast. His second was aimed at its open jaws and sent it flailing backward. The Were-Rat landed on its back, belly-up and dead.

“Shield!” Malik yelled, throwing a Firebolt into the doorway. Valerie responded perfectly, casting Force Shield as soon as she heard the command. The barrier of Holy Energy snapped into place, and Lucas watched through the clear barrier as the ball of flame engulfed the Were-Rats surging through the door. The flames bounced back toward them but were stopped from even coming close when they made contact with the protective barrier. Force Shield also just so happened to block the arrow that Nick had finally shot after running back and putting some distance between himself and the enemies.

“Son of a . . .!” Nick shouted, rather angry at the situation. “Are you kidding me?! Why does this keep happening to me? This is some capital BS! This is some snot-covered nonsense.”

“I’m pretty sure that phrase you just used is nonsense,” Valerie giggled. “Anyway, don’t be mad. At least you got to use a weapon finally like you wanted!”

“BUT I DIDN’T KILL ANYTHING!” Nick shouted loudly. He put away his bow as he stared angrily at the doorway, which was littered with dead bodies. “This is garbage. First dungeon, and I still haven’t killed a single thing. GARBAGE!”

“Ignore him,” Malik sighed as he watched Valerie and Nick bicker back and forth.

“I’d just like it if he weren’t so loud,” Lucas said, pretending to be annoyed with the volume so he didn’t have to take sides on this issue. In reality, he agreed with Nick a little. Personally, he didn’t care about this quest–he was doing it because Dawn had asked–but if he were in Nick’s shoes, he’d be just as mad. Truth be told, Lucas had held major grievances with games in the past simply because they weren’t balanced at the start due to how easy monsters were. Damage classes excelled as a result, and monsters crumpled so fast that players rarely got to feel exactly what their role was like until it was too late for them to change their mind.

“True,” Malik agreed as they started forward. He looked over at Lucas. “So, why have you never done this mission before? It should only take five or ten minutes, and it’s usually the first thing anyone does when they log in to the game.”

Lucas’s eyes were glued to the door, and his heart raced a little as he thought of the reason. I just didn’t want to see her die again, Lucas said, thinking of Yu Hua’s face. Lucas closed his eyes and shook his head to stop his thoughts from wandering. No, never. “No reason,” he lied.

“Um, okay . . . Nevermind. But, if you went this long without doing it already, why are you doing it now?”

“Because she asked me to,” Lucas answered matter of factly.

Malik laughed from deep in his belly. “Can’t say no to a pretty face? Well, that I can understand. Women are my soft spot too,”–he shot Valerie a glance–“but you know she’s just an NPC, right? It doesn’t matter if she dies or not. They don’t actually feel pain: they’re only programmed to show reactions that make you think they’re suffering. The Anti-AI Cruelty Act passed a while back made sure of that.”

“Even so . . .”

“Well, whatever you say, brother.” Malik patted him on the back as if he were trying to offer some small amount of assurance or comfort. “You can just sit in the back and close your eyes if you have to. We’ll finish the quest quickly, and she’ll respawn back in town. You’ll both be back to enjoying your cheese and wine right after.”

“Thanks, I guess.” Lucas looked over at Nick, who had already reached the door and switched his class yet again, and he couldn’t help but add, “Just don’t let him get the kill.”

Malik snickered. “Right. Since he’s stuck as a Healer, shouldn’t be hard to stop him from doing any damage.”

Lucas let the conversation stop there as he pulled out the Mage staff and switched his class yet again. The Mage staff, like the Healer’s, was a weapon with a concealed magic board designed to help a magician turn his Arcane Energy into a useful form. Once channeled, the energy could be turned into either a defensive spell, an offensive spell, or a utility spell, but unlike the Holy Energy board, the magic wasn’t channeled in a single direction. The board found in a Mage’s staff acted as both the energy source as well as the grounding point for every magical transistor in the staff. This meant that some of the energy also flowed back into the Mage as well as into the staff, where it would be used to power the crystals and eventually the spell. In addition, this system could slowly change the caster’s energy into one with an elemental property. If a spell user only used Ice spells, then over time, his energy would have a greater cold property innately built into it, allowing the magician to cast more powerful Ice spells while at the same time making it difficult to cast even basic Fire spells–or altogether impossible if the magician’s energy had become too attuned to Ice.

The beginner’s magic staff only had four simple spells. Firebolt took two seconds to charge at Level 1 and required 2 Arcane Energy before turning into the low-damage, area-of-effect spell that, while deadly at starter levels, was relatively harmless as players grew stronger. Zap took 5 seconds to charge at Level 1 and required 5 Arcane Energy but sent a bolt of electricity through the air and into the selected opponent. This spell was great for boss fights nearly the entire way through noob island because it did great single-target damage. Next, there was the Earth Spike, which required 3 Arcane Energy and sent a sharp spike out of the ground or wall and toward the target. Finally, the last spell was a simple Ice attack, Frost Breath. It only required 1 Arcane Energy to cast and could then be channeled continuously, making it the fastest castable skill on the staff. Unfortunately, the spell also did the least damage. It was great for removing trash mobs quickly and slowing down enemies that were charging at you, but because it was a channeled spell that couldn’t accept more than 1 Arcane Energy per second no matter how high-level the Mage was, it was terrible at dealing damage to anything over Level 5 or so.

“Remember, this boss is easy. You can just sit it out if you need, brother,” Malik said. “With Valerie healing, I can tank her the entire time. You just relax.”

“Thanks,” Lucas said.

Nick and Valerie pushed open the giant double doors that led to the final confrontation in the quest.

Whereas the dungeon had consisted of dark and dreary stone walls, the boss room was a lavish mahogany-framed room with four white stone pillars and a beautiful red rug covering a white stone floor. On the far side of the room, there were four large metal cages, each three feet by three feet wide, with bars as thick as a man’s forearm. Each contained a different non-Human elder. There was an old male Were-Bear, stuck in his half-shifted form with bear ears and fur-covered arms, an elderly Alfar, a Treant whose bark had greyed, and a Dwarf that appeared to be more white, frizzy beard than man. These captives were leaned forward, grasping on the cages’ bars, and their weathered eyes were locked on the group of newly arrived players with the desperation of the enslaved. The rest of the room was relatively empty with the exception of a woman who was seated in a chair that somewhat resembled a throne in the middle of the room, dead center between the four pillars.

Dawn grinned at the group and began clapping as the four walked in. “Bravo! Well done! Or, well, at least something along those lines,” Lady Xun Guan said. “I’m glad you could see it in your heart to butcher my men before payday. It saves me a lot of money.”

“Ha! Not like you’re going to live long enough to spend it, garbage NPC!” Nick taunted. He held up his healing mace and waved it threateningly as if it were the deadliest weapon in the world. “Let’s bash this broad in and go turn in the quest.”

“Ugh. This is why no one likes you,” Valerie snapped, smacking Nick on the arm and shaving off a few points of his health as she did it. Lucas suspected that she was acting this way on his behalf.

“What? Are you just going to stand there the whole time and scowl at me?” Xun Guan said while staring at Lucas. “Don’t be so negative. Cheer up and greet me properly.”

“Fine,” Lucas grumbled. He despised being part of a group whose intention was to kill her. “How are you, Dawn?” He used her other name purposefully, calling her by the fake name she went by as they ate their meals together on the hill, lying out and basking in the sun day after day.

“Something is off,” Malik interjected as he strode to the front of the group. “She’s supposed to have two guards helping her during the fight. Where are they?”

“Oh, those two? I sent them home. They always interrupt me and spout out terrible monologues. It’s all really quite dull. What’s the point of it all? I spend all that time and money training them, and then they just keep dying as soon as they finish their taunts, so I just got rid of them.”

“But you’re going to die too,” Nick said. “Why worry about who else is going to follow you into the grave, you gar–” Nick stopped, letting out an “Ow!” before he could finish his insult. “Sorry.”

“Brothers, something is off,” Malik warned, his voice heavy with caution. “How is she aware of her past lives in the quest? Something isn’t right.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of creepy,” Valerie agreed. “NPC AI is supposed to ignore previous deaths when they respawn. That way, each person doing the quest will get to feel like it’s the first time the quest has been completed.”

Xun Guan nodded. “Oh, yes! You’re absolutely right! That is the case. An NPC wouldn’t be able to remember what happened in its previous iterations. That’d just be cruel.”

“But, then . . .” Malik stumbled on the words, his Dwarven face twisting up as he stared at Xun Guan. He wasn’t the only one: the whole party had lost their zeal and was staring at her, confused at what was happening.

“Come now. You know the answer. Just ask the question already,” Xun Guan encouraged, her demeaning tone causing Nick’s face to twitch in anger.

“Doesn’t that mean . . . you aren’t an NPC?” Malik asked hesitantly.

“Ah, bravo!” Xun Guan laughed as she stood up, clapping her hands patronizingly. “You’re right: I’m not an NPC. I’m an evil, underpaid, overworked, middle-management staffer taking on the role of her favorite character just like I have been doing since I first got my job at this company!”

What?! Lucas was suddenly at a loss, and the revelation left him reeling, unable to put words together. He knew that Dawn or Xun Guan or whatever her name was seemed realistic compared to other NPCs, but he had never once imagined that someone had been controlling the character. He didn’t know how to process the fact that he had been talking to her as if she were nothing more than a blank canvas, bouncing his private thoughts and frustrations off of her without ever once considering the possibility that a real person was listening to him.
“But . . . that doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone take over that NPC?” Malik asked.

“Yeah, she’s terrible! Her stats are abysmal, and she dies every time someone has to do the starting quest. Why wouldn’t you pick a better one?” Valerie asked.

“Oh, I have my reasons,” Xun Guan said slyly. “And everyone has to start somewhere, right? That is what this is all about, the starting quest, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but, we’re going to have to kill you,” Malik said. “And why are you even bothering telling us all this?”

“Why not just be cute and die?” Valerie asked, twirling her daggers around as she smiled at Xun Guan.

“Die. Right. That is what happens next. Lucas, could you be a dear and do me a tiny favor really quick?”

“What do you want this time?” Lucas sighed as he asked her the question, knowing full well what she was about to ask him. He wanted to delay her request as long as possible, however, since he knew that this interaction was about to grow a lot more complicated, and he wasn’t prepared for the engagement that was going to follow yet. Since he was currently holding a magic staff, he decided to up his chances of survival by quickly assigning 10 of his available skill points into Arcanum, raising his total Arcane Energy pool from 100 to 200. This not only doubled the number of spells that he could cast, but since his total pool was doubled, it also meant that he could cast every spell in his arsenal twice as fast.

“Are you really going to make me spell it out?” Xun Guan asked. She was smiling as if she already knew that she’d get her way and that Lucas would do exactly what he knew she wanted. “I’m not really in the mood to die, so could you please kill these people off for me?”

Malik, Nick, and Valerie all turned around to see what Lucas was going to do.

Lucas just stood there, unmoving and rooted in place.

“Just close your eyes, brother. You don’t have to watch. We’ll take care of this quest for you . . . Enough now!” Malik lunged toward Xun Guan, his sword out in front of him, ready to attack.

“Don’t have to tell me,” Nick grumbled, holding his shield up and rushing the noblewoman. “Stupid quest is creeping me out!”

Valerie laughed. “So much pointless drama! Let’s just get this over with and head to the tavern while we figure out point distribution.”

In his head, Lucas was already playing out the hundred different ways it might look as she died, her face overlapping with its counterpart, and he could feel his heart tightening as he lost himself in her gaze.

Xun Guan, who was being charged by three players, looked over at Lucas expectantly. “Please . . . Please save me.” Her arrogant tone was gone, her gaze was filled with fear, and her voice was almost pleading. “I don’t wanna die again! Please! I don’t wanna die again . . .” She looked just like her. The situation was too much.

Lucas squeezed his eyes and tried to ignore her, but even as he did, he could feel his Arcane Energy being channeled into the staff. It spread through the right resistors and transistors and activated the spell.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered to the players’ backs. “I’m not watching her die again . . .” He unleashed Zap. A string of electricity shot out of the top of his staff, arced through the air, and slammed into Malik. The Dwarf apparently hadn’t put any of his stats into Fortitude yet, and there was no warning for Nick to cast the Healer’s protective barrier. The Lightning coursed through the man’s body freely, forcing him to stop dead in his tracks as his muscles tensed up. He crashed to the ground dead, seizing up and shaking violently.

You have killed Malik, another player. You have been awarded 10 EXP. A sturdy leather belt and 75 copper have dropped upon death.

Due to killing another player outside of a player-versus-player event, you have been flagged red. Players will easily be able to identify you as a player killer by the red halo above your head for 24 in-game hours or until you die. This is something that only players will be able to identify, not NPCs. You will also drop twice as much loot and lose twice as much experience upon death. Any player who kills you will not suffer this penalty.

For killing your first player, you have been awarded the suffix “the Murderer.” This suffix has no effect. It is simply added to one’s name.

“What the . . . What in the Sam Hill, Negative?!” Nick shouted. He turned and charged straight at Lucas with his shield raised and his holy mace in hand. Valerie also stopped her assault on Dawn and turned her attention to Lucas, her daggers held in an awkward reverse grip as if she were wielding icepicks instead of knives.

Lucas channeled another spell and aimed a Firebolt at the ground in front of the pair as they started toward him. He knew that Valerie would likely dodge the spell if it were aimed at her, but the ground wouldn’t move–and that made it the perfect target for his area-of-effect spell. Lucas began readying a second spell the moment the first was cast, but Nick surprised him. The moment the second Firebolt left his staff, Nick created a Force Shield halfway between them. The flaming ball crashed into the barrier of holy magic and splashed back toward Lucas. The flames licked around him, singing the hair on his arms and stripping away 20% of his health.

“I was too careless,” Lucas grumbled.

The magic shield dropped, and the two players ran through the spot where it had been, meaning that they were already too close for him to effectively use another Firebolt. Zap would take too long to cast before they reached him, and Earth Spike would only hit one of them, so Lucas focused his Arcane Energy into the least-used spell in the game: Frost Breath.

Frost Breath was relatively useless due to its low damage, and it was rarely used since most groups had someone to tank and someone to heal, but when it came to fighting melee enemies, it did have one thing that gave it an incredible advantage: it could snare an opponent and drastically reduce his movement speed.

It only took a half-second to cast to the spell, and as soon as it was done, the energy coursed backward through his body, welled up from his stomach and streamed out of his mouth.  His jaws opened as wide as he could stand, and a torrent of ice-cold air shot out of him right toward the enemies. He turned his head back and forth, trying to evenly distribute the attack into a conical shape in front of him, and he silently celebrated as both of his assailants’ steps were snared by the spell’s chilling effect. They inched closer to him at a drastically-reduced pace, a little over half of their health bars left, and then, with only another second before they would be able to strike him down, Lucas bolted. He only had the basic amount of Stamina the game afforded every new player, so he would only be able to maintain a decent speed for a short time before slowing, but he knew that neither Nick nor Valerie was likely any better off. Plus, he didn’t have to go far.

Lucas sprinted back out of the room and into the hallway, only stopping once to see how closely they were following. By his estimate, he had roughly a four-second lead before the duo caught up with him and mauled him to death. He began charging up another Firebolt as he ran, hoping to finish both of them off in one go, but as soon as the flames started to course through the staff, he noticed that Nick’s Holy Energy was being channeled into his scepter. So, you’re gonna try the same trick on me again . . . Lucas held his spell until the very last moment and then canceled it right before Nick’s Force Shield activated and snapped into place.

Lucas slid to a halt and instantly turned his attention to channeling Zap rather than running. This time, when the shield collapsed and disappeared, Lucas fired the already-charged spell. The vibrant blue-and-purple streak of Lightning arced through the air, briefly lighting up the hallway before speeding through the doorway and smashing into Nick. The man was dead before he even hit the floor.

You have killed Nick, another player. You have been awarded 10 EXP. A beginner’s magic staff and 14 copper have dropped upon death.

“Why are you doing this, Negative?” Valerie whined. “This isn’t fair! How can you do this to us?”

Lucas didn’t know what to say, so he just silently swapped back to Frost Breath and ensnared the Rogue before she could get close to him. It was over for her. Without Nick to cast defensive shields or to heal the damage Lucas inflicted, Valerie was in an untenable position since her opponent could essentially just kite her around for the rest of the fight, slowly damaging her with ranged attacks while staying just out of reach. This strategy was annoyingly predictable but still a tried-and-true, time-honored method of killing melee fighters as a mage, and it was exactly what he intended to do. Given how little damage the Frost Breath did, however, Valerie still had ample time to complain while he was doing it.

“Seriously, just let me live!” Valerie pleaded. “I promise: I won’t do anything to anyone! I just want out of here.”

Lucas actually considered it, even if only for a brief moment. The only reason he didn’t let her off the hook was that she was persistently heading toward him, even if at such a slow pace that she could probably lose a race to a tortoise.

Even if she stopped, he wouldn’t trust her not to kill him the second they had to cross paths. As such, even though he felt a little bad about finishing her off, he didn’t feel like he had much choice. He knew that he’d only be costing her a minute or two of her time and some EXP at most.

“I’m really sorry,” he said as he looked directly into her eyes and cast Frost Breath for the final time. He knew exactly what happened when a player died and how much it could smart, bottomed-out pain sensitivity levels and all. He watched as her body froze up, and a thin, blue coat of snow-like moisture crept across her skin. The crystalline layer formed first on her extremities and then crept inward in a glistening sheen, perfectly capturing her annoyed and frustrated facial expression as she finally froze over.

He felt bad having to kill his own party members, especially ones who had helped him through the dungeon and offered to do all of the work for him, but part of him didn’t hate it. Part of him actually enjoyed the thrill. He had been in control of almost the entire fight, but even so, he had been unsure of whether he would win or not. His heart was still beating at a mile a minute, and he didn’t even realize it until the moment the fight was over, but he had felt alive. The adrenaline, the challenge, the thrill–it all made him feel, and that was something he hadn’t experienced in over half a year of real-life time.

Before he could even read Valerie’s death notification or the level-up notification, his thoughts were interrupted up by the sound of Xun Guan’s clapping.

“Good job,” Xun Guan said. “You did beautifully.”

“I’d rather not have,” Lucas retorted. “Why did you tell me to do this quest if you were just going to have me turn on my allies at the end?”

Xun Guan began waving her hands about as if she were performing for a crowd. “Because I needed you to prove your deep-seated feelings to me. Only through a beautiful display o–”

“I don’t have any,” Lucas interjected, cutting her off. “I think of you as a friend, nothing more.”

“Hmm? Is that so?” Xun Guan asked. She shrugged as if it didn’t really matter after all and plopped back down on the chair. “A pity. I never thought a woman of my caliber would be stuck in the friend zone.” She reached around behind her chair and retrieved a small bag from which she produced the block of cheese Lucas had been working on before he began the introduction quest–only it was already half eaten. “You still hungry?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Lucas said pointedly. “Why did you make me choose between their lives and yours?”

“Ah! Right.” Xun Guan bit into the cheese block and then answered around her mouthful as she chewed. “I do suppose I owe you an explanation. You see, I’m having a problem here . . .” She paused long enough to swallow and then to take another bite. “I’ve spent years of my life maintaining and improving this video game, and with the way the game stretches out time, I might as well have given it decades.”

“And?” he asked expectantly. “What does that have to do with taking this quest and killing people?”

She pulled out the bottle of wine that Lucas had prepared for his lazing about earlier in the day, took a healthy swig from it, and then continued. “Well, you see, normally it wouldn’t. I’d do my job, help with the promotions and advertising, and then meet you on the hill for some of this delicious cheese and wine at the end of a hard day’s work . . .” She trailed off, swallowed, and took another swig from the bottle. “But, sadly, no matter how much I try, this game is dying. Players hit the top level, they finish the final bosses, and then that’s it. The game is over. They quit. Some stick around, roleplay fun roles, build castles with their teammates, or just grind out the same bosses over and over for money and drops, but most leave. For the longest period of time, this wasn’t a problem. Every now and then, we’d use the money from the new subscribers to release content patches that would drag the old players back to the game for a new raid boss or challenge . . .”

“But?” Lucas asked, anticipating the next word as Xun Guan had stopped talking to take another bite from the cheese.

“But we scrape by with a little less each time. The cycle gets shorter, and we’re now at the point where the investors and company owners don’t feel like it’s worth making another content patch at all. The game won’t last more than a year at this rate.”

“I’m still not getting what this has to do with me completing this quest and then killing my teammates,” Lucas huffed. He was starting to get impatient with her lackadaisical attitude and inability to reach a conclusion. It felt like she was purposefully dragging her feet on the subject.

“Because you’re going to be my solution: the fix to my problem so that I can keep my job and so that the game I love doesn’t fade away,” Xun Guan said. “If the devs upstairs won’t write the code to generate a new endgame dungeon, then I’m just going to have to make one myself. I wanted to start with encouraging regular PVP at the top level to keep players interested and keep the content feeling fresh, but with the massive potential level and item losses that come with PVP, the endgame players were too cowardly or passive to off each other and start a war. It takes a full day of grinding to recover from a single death at those levels, so I can’t blame them for not wanting to start large-scale conflicts with each other. Yet, without them, the game isn’t going to last. That’s why we’re going to have to start here at the bottom.”

Lucas could see exactly what she was asking of him. “Wait a minute. You mean to say that you want me to stir up trouble and create a player-versus-player environment on noob island? The starting zone?”

“Bingo!” Xun Guan cheered. “Your reward: a chunk of cheese!” She tore off a large handful of gouda and tossed it to him.

“That doesn’t make sense. Even if I make this area into a PVP zone, that won’t change the endgame at all. The top-end players will still be just as bored, and you’ll still lose subscribers at the same rate as before.” Lucas caught the cheese, only then realizing that he had automatically gone from simply hearing her out to actually thinking about the logistics of her plan. Admittedly, his mind was now racing to point out each and every flaw and pick them all apart.

Xun Guan nodded. “Right. The endgame will still be awful. There is no immediate plan we can put together to fix it, but this world was built on a lot more than just what people do once everything else has been accomplished. This game is built on alts and how fun they can be to play. Since players can’t respec or change their stats, they roll new characters all the time. Some people start over every time there’s a new content patch. Or, hell, they used to.”

“So, if you can’t keep them playing up there, you decided to come up with a reason to have them play again down here. And you think I can be that reason. You want me to tick off enough people that they even beg and scrape to get their friends at the top level to remake on noob island to kill me.” Lucas was slowly starting to understand her plan. Noob island had a level cap, so if someone wanted to beat him or help their friends, then they would have to remake a brand new character to do so. It would get them building new characters and thus extending how long they played the game.

“Not quite, but you’re almost there,” Xun Guan said leadingly. “I don’t need you to tick off players: I need you to make new game content.”

“New game content?” he asked skeptically.

“Yes, new game content. If this game is going to survive, it needs excitement. It needs a dungeon that is tougher than a walk in the park and, of course, a new boss that people want to kill.”

“So, the game needs a new villain . . .” Lucas rattled those words around in his head for a moment. “That sounds fine, but you’re going to need someone else.” He turned around, ready to leave the dungeon behind and return to his flower-covered hill.

Before he could take a single step, however, she had already jumped out of her seat, dashed across the floor and grabbed onto his arm. She turned him around and held onto his elbow so that he couldn’t leave, forcing him to look at her. “Please,” she pleaded, staring into his eyes. “Please help me. There is no one else I can turn to.”

“Nonsense,” Lucas insisted, “just bat your eyelashes and find some white knight to do your bidding for you. You don’t need me. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a grassy field, an afternoon snack, and a bottle of wine to tend to.”

“Actually, I still have your wine and your afternoon snack,” Xun Guan corrected. “But the reason I asked you to do this is that you’re the only one who has the actual stat potential to turn into a boss on this island. You’re the only one in the game with a negative level.”

Lucas froze. “You know then.”

“Yeah. I know. By the time you actually even hit Level 1, you’ll have at least 700 stat points more than every other player on the server. Even if you completely butcher your point distribution, you’ll still be more powerful than every other player. You have to realize that. Your broken character is the only one that is perfectly made to be a boss in this game. And that makes it perfect for the role of our game’s new noob island villain. Besides . . .”

Lucas jerked his arm free of hers and took a step back so that there was a small bit of room between them. “Besides what? The fact that you’re going to tell me that the only reason you’ve been hanging around me is because you knew my character fit the parameters you needed?”

“Stop being so dramatic,” Xun Guan contended. She stepped forward and grabbed him by both of his forearms, and it was then that he noticed that there was a bit of moisture forming in her eyes. “I need you. Not just because you have the perfect stats . . . but because you also have no life at all.”

“What?” Lucas was dumbfounded by the statement. He had no idea what kind of person tried to ask someone for a favor by insulting them in such a manner.

“Oh, come on! I get paid full time to monitor this game, so I’m at the office every day, overtime included, and I’ve never once logged in and not seen you already on. It’s like you don’t have a job, a family, friends, a pet, or anything else. You have no life. You might as well already be an NPC in this game, so why not just act like one, for me. Okay?”

Lucas thought about it for a minute. He was ready to turn around and walk out of the room, leaving this crazy office lady and her NPC-hijacking act alone, but something made him hesitate. Some part of him, some long-forgotten or newly reborn part of him, refused to let him turn and leave.

Seconds ticked into minutes, and yet he remained indecisive. “Fine,” he agreed, finally capitulating. “I’ll do it, but even if I’m helping you out, I’m not going to be your pawn. If I don’t like a part of your plan, count me out. I don’t want you thinking that I’ll always say “yes” to your requests just because I said it here.”

“Excellent. It’s a deal then!” she agreed, smiling at him. “In that case, let’s make it official.”

“Make it official?” Lucas asked, curious as to what she could possibly mean.

“With a quest,” she explained, and her words were joined by text appearing in front of him.

Quest: The Teachers of Old – Alternate Route: Dog of the Imperium.

The Chieftain of the Were-Rat Tribe, Kulako, believed that you would be the one to overthrow the Imperium and free the people of Hesse. He had trusted you, trusted your potential, and trusted your nature as he sent you on a quest that would inevitably lead to the betterment of the lives of all non-Human residents of Hesse.

You, however, have been given an alternate route by the esteemed Lady Xun Guan. Power, knowledge, and education do not only lie solely in the hands of the trainers Kulako has instructed you to free, but also in the books and teachers of the Imperium. If you choose to turn your back on the rebellion, you must prove your dedication by killing the only rebel trainers who would be capable of educating you. Destroy the four sages locked away by Lady Xun Guan and, in doing so, earn your place within the ranks of the Imperium.

Lucas studied the quest message. Earn my place within the Imperium. He looked up from the messages to see the four sages’ drooping eyes locked onto him. So, if I kill them, I’ll be the first player to have joined the clichéd villains’ camp.

He slowly walked forward.

“Boy, think about what you’re doing before you execute us. If we die here, so do the dreams and hopes of thousands of people. Don’t shoulder that sin,” the Treant in the middle-right cage said as Lucas got closer.

“Yes,” the Were-Bear entreated. “Think of all those who are oppressed, and do the right thing. Even if they aren’t your kind, they are still people. They still have feelings, hopes, and dreams. If you let us die here, then you are damning those hopes and dreams to obscurity and forcing the worst fate, the fate of a slave, on them.”

“Listen to them,” the elderly Alfar woman encouraged him. “I can tell you’re a good man. I can tell you want to do the right thing, so don’t let us down. Free us, and together, we can put an end to the Imperium’s tyranny!”

Lucas sighed. He had heard this type of quest banter and these type of good-versus-evil parallels in nearly every video game that he had played and every young adult book that he had read since he was old enough to do either. It was always “the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are good, so be the good guy.” It was part of what turned him off of the game’s storyline when he originally started playing and made it so easy to simply lean back and enjoy the gluttonous pleasures the game had to offer.

Lucas began channeling Arcane Energy into the staff. “Well, I guess, at the very least, the plot will change a little for once.” He finished Zap at the same time as he finished his sentence, and the blue-and-purple light flashed forward into the Were-Bear, causing the other three to yell and cry out in shock and fear.

Lucas knew that it was just a programmed response and that, at no point, did they ever feel pain or fear, but it still caused him to cringe and pull back momentarily as he heard their lamentations. He turned to the next one after the first was dead and began charging up a different spell. He had seen Zap, Firebolt, and Frost Breath, but he hadn’t seen the Earth Spike skill yet. It took only a second and a half to prepare, and then a giant spike erupted from the ground, impaling the grey-barked Treant with a narrow, conical spike. His body was lifted up and suspended in the cage, leaving the corpse’s feet to dangle.

Somewhat happy with the way that had turned out, Lucas decided to repeat the process on the Dwarf in the next cell. Afterward, he finished the last one off by freezing her to death with Frost Breath. As the elderly Alfar woman was frozen into a statue, a quest notification appeared in front of him.

Quest Route Activated: Dog of the Imperium, Part 2.

You have burned the bridges of opportunity with the rebellion in Hesse, and in doing so, you have placed your feet firmly in the Imperium camp. Even though you have earned a place within the Imperium, however, it is at the bottom. A traitor to the rebellion, you are currently considered lower than a dog and must climb your way up the ranks if you wish to make something of yourself in the future.

To do this, you must first earn a title of nobility. There are several methods of accomplishing this, but until you have earned at least the lowest title, the soldiers and members of the Imperium will never fully embrace you as one of their own and never share the secrets of their craft openly to you. Without a title, you will not be able to find a teacher that can help you advance past one of the four basic classes: Fighter, Rogue, Mage, or Healer.

Note: Due to betraying the rebels in the quest The Teachers of Old, if your actions are discovered, Were-Rat Chieftain Kulako’s opinion of you will reach the lowest possible value.

Xun Guan crossed the room and stood before him, a warm smile on her face. “Welcome to the Imperium . . . my heroic villain.”