The Heroic Villain ch2

Character name: Lucas

Level: -67 Hit Points: 140

Arcane Energy: 200 Stamina: 100

Holy: Class Locked.

 

Current Class: Mage.

 

Stats:

Arcanum [Increases Arcane Energy by 10 per point.] :10

Holy [No effect/ Class Locked.]: 0

Athletics [Increases Stamina by 10 per point]: 0

Fortitude [Increases health by 1% per point.]: 0

Charisma: 0

Luck: 0

Unspent: 30

 

Current Elemental Attunement:

None.

 

Combat Proficiencies:

None.

 

Lucas eyed the meal in front of him and did his best to ignore the fact that both Xun Guan and the butler were watching his every move, waiting for a reaction. They were seated at a large circular table that was covered with a pristine white tablecloth trimmed in gold and decorated with a candle, and they were currently in the third offering of a five-course meal. There were three slices of toasted sourdough bread on the plate in front of him, and each had been smeared with a layer of goat cheese and then topped with a thin layer of strawberry jam. He never would have thought of the combination himself, whether in the game or at home, and he lamented the fact that it had never been introduced to him before once he took the first bite.

“Lucas,” Xun Guan said pointedly, interrupting his thoughts just as he was reaching to pick up another piece of toast. “You need to focus. We have a lot to do.”

“Yeah, yeah . . . fetch quests. I remember you telling me that I needed to do a hundred or so of the awful things in order to advance from a regular soldier up to nobility,” he replied dismissively, brushing off her insistence for him to do the tedious run-around quests that characterized the beginning of every MMO.

She had explained to him that he’d be able to earn the Esquire title in roughly a week–the lowest rank needed to not be considered a basic soldier–if he just followed her gameplan. There were no standard military ranks between basic soldiers in the Imperium: no generals, no lieutenants, and nothing in between. Soldiers were soldiers, and the only way to increase one’s position against the average grunt was to gain Titles of Nobility. That meant that he would have to do everything he could to boost his recognition and quickly rise above the basic soldiers by earning a Nobility Title.

“Don’t brush them off as being easy, simple-to-accomplish quests,” Xun Guan insisted.  
“Even with the resources I’m diverting from my estate’s guard fund toward hiring helpers for you, it’ll still take quite a while to complete them all. We must endear you to the other local nobles, attend parties, and get them to commit funds to you so that your own personal power can grow. Without taking those steps and proving yourself, you’ll never make it up the chain and become an Esquire.”

Lucas finished chewing his food and then washed it down with wine that was in the goblet in front of him as he glanced over at the butler and then back to Xun Guan. “I don’t get it. Don’t you work at the company? If you work there, then why can’t you just alter the code and make me an Esquire? Why do I have to do all those boring, time-consuming, back-and-forth quests to earn a title?”

“Because no one can tamper with the AI. It’s set in stone to prevent abuse. Even the development team has to go through a hundred annoying bureaucratic hoops when getting the AI itself to add in new content whenever they’re ready to release it since they can’t just code directly into the game. It’s a safety mechanism that’s designed to prevent a power-hungry GM from abusing his position and doing something insane like removing the logout button or changing the transparency level of every female’s clothes. If it wasn’t for the fact that the questline to join the Imperium has always been a hidden in-game quest, I wouldn’t even be able to help you out this much.”

Lucas’s eyebrows raised as he heard Xun Guan’s statement. “So, you’re saying that this is already a pre-existing quest? That you didn’t make it yourself? Are you trying to tell me that, in the eight real-life years that this game has existed, no one else ever tried to kill the trainers? Not a single person? Not even once?”

“Well, yes and no,” Xun Guan admitted. “This game is built around logical conclusion quests. The AI has a ton of prebuilt quests that it generated with the help of developer suggestions, but it also has the ability to continuously create new quests as needed. If a particular player or the community as a whole has a specific need that is being unmet, for example, the AI can construct additional quests to fill that need. Quests are malleable that way. You would never know it, but there are hundreds of known quest chains documented in guides on Blueit and other websites that the players themselves encouraged the AI to generate.”

“Oh. I see.” Lucas took another bite of the cheese- and jam-covered toast, using the chewing to give himself a moment to process exactly what she was saying.

“I watched how most of these quests were triggered, I anticipated how to properly sequence the order of events, and I know how to get the quests to generate the chain that we need to make you into a noble in the Imperium. It’s not hard, but it’ll take a lot of work. The only other alternative is for you to be stuck as a base-class Mage without access to any of the advanced skills.”

Lucas took another drink of wine and then said, “But, I’m not going to do them. I told you when I first agreed to join the Imperium that I wouldn’t do anything you asked of me if I didn’t agree with it.”

Xun Guan sighed vexedly, and when she spoke, she sounded exasperated. “If you don’t do it, then you won’t ever become a noble.”

Her patronizing tone irked Lucas a little, but she was only frustrated because all of her hard work was going to be for nothing thanks to his apathy. In the end, he just shrugged. “Sorry, but I have a general rule of thumb when it comes to back-and-forth walking quests in video games: I don’t do them. I don’t care which noble you need me to go suck up to or which materials I need to gather for whom, I’m not going to do it.”

“Then how do you plan to fulfill your end of the agreement and become a villain if you can’t rank up within the Imperium? Without a rank, you’ll never be able to ever collect resources from the serfs, and you won’t be able to buy any worthwhile material or gear, so you’ll be stuck. The only way you’ll be able to grow is through killing players, and then you’ll just be another random player killer, nothing helpful to our game’s sales.”

“Well, I guess I’ll just have to create a need and generate the quest the old-fashioned way.”

“Which is?” Xun Guan asked, leaning forward anxiously. “How are you going to make a quest better than the ones I put together?”

“You’re forgetting a simple fact: You wanted me to be a villain, right? Well, what does every good villain or boss do at the start of his campaign?”

Xun Guan rolled her eyes impatiently and started listing out some of the more common tropes. “Work on his haircut? Sew a cape together? Find a really dark, damp dungeon to call a lair?”

“Consolidate his base,” Lucas answered flatly. “Throughout history, the best and greatest of leaders all started by uniting their people. Before Alexander sieged the Indians at Multan, he started with Thebes and Athens. The first thing Genghis did while rising to power was to unite the Mongol Confederates. If I want to be the villain you make me out to be, then I need to unite the base.”

“Exactly. Which is why I’ve detailed out these political quests to help you.”

“Dawn or Lady Xun Guan or whatever you go by–” Lucas began, unsure of how to call her since he had known her for so long only by her friendly NPC disguise.

“Just Xun Guan works best,” she answered.

“Okay. Well, Xun Guan, I’m not going to do a ton of boring quests. If I wanted to waste my time doing nothing, I’d go back to that hill and stare at the sky. At least then it wouldn’t be both boring and tiresome. Also, there is no way to assure their loyalty. It’s better to just lop the heads off a hydra, eat them, and grow bigger ourselves rather than constantly trying to use someone else’s resources.”

“But, that won’t work. They’ll just respawn, and you’ll be left without anything,” Xun Guan answered.

“Not really a big problem,” Lucas continued. “If the AI works like you say it does, and you can prompt it to create quests based on how you interact with NPCs, then all I need to do is make sure that it spawns the right quests to kill the right people–namely the leaders already in authority.”

“But players kill those same people all the time. That’s exactly what boss encounters are in this game. How will you killing them be any different than another player doing the exact same thing?”

“Because, unlike the other players, I’ll be negotiating with the AI differently. I’ll be working from the perspective of someone in the Imperium, so why would the encounters ever be the same? The only thing I need to do now is to find out which one of those nobles is the easiest to pick off. I’ll start small and work my way up until I’m king of this noob island.”

Xun Guan’s agitated expression didn’t fade completely, but it softened a little once she realized that he actually had something resembling a plan. “Well, if you’re set on that . . .” She turned to her butler and said, “Hans, could you fetch the political maps.”

The butler in the corner of the room nodded and then silently disappeared from sight. “While he’s gone, I am curious: Do you have any plans for how you plan to build your character? Are you going to go for the sword-wielding Barbarian warlord, putting most of your stats into Fortitude and Athletics? Or are you going to play as the Ranger, focusing on Athletics with some points put into Fortitude and the remainder into Luck? Maybe you’ll go Paladin so that you can stay alive through long encounters, making it more fun for the players who are trying to kill you as you keep bouncing back from the verge of death?”

“Well, I was thinking about something sneaky and cool, a dagger-wielding scout or a double-katana ninja,” Lucas admitted, “but, sadly, this game doesn’t give people starting skills for physical damage classes. Without a proper trainer to teach me how to use my stamina bar to execute chi attacks that idea is going to be useless for now.”

“You should keep in mind that the Imperium does have some of the top trainers. We even have a specialist trainer for the rare Dark Knight category. You would have to split up your stat allocation a fair bit, but that shouldn’t be a problem given how many points you have. You could invest pretty heavily into Arcane, Fortitude, Endurance, Holy, Luck and Charisma.”

Lucas brought up his status screen while she was talking about stats and looked over the options. Although he had never made it very far into the game, he still had a fairly solid understanding of how most things worked. Athletics, Arcane, and Holy were associated with three different resource pools, Stamina, Arcane Energy, and Holy Energy respectively, and they were the basis for different types of attack. Physical-damage classes, such as Fighters, Rogues and Archers, relied on stamina for their attacks, and thus invested heavily in Athletics to increase their stamina pool. Casters relied upon Arcane Energy to increase their mana pool for casting spells, and likewise, healers relied upon Holy Energy. Fortitude was the universally-needed stat that increased a player’s health pool, a boost that was more significant with each level.

After those easily trackable stats with definite effects, there were also two other stats that no one really knew how to quantify: Charisma and Luck. The players who made themselves into Bards knew that Charisma was needed, but no one really knew how much it actually affected their performance–and if they did, they weren’t telling everyone else. Players had tested everything, of course, hoping to find the most efficient builds possible. They had even gone so far as to try and put together data-mining teams to nail down exactly what and to what degree Charisma would impact their skills. Unfortunately, results were so varied that, while they could tell where correlations existed, there was never any quantifiable measurement of exactly how much.

Many hypothesized that the stats’ effects were dependent on the sum of the user’s actions and encounters, meaning that it would be nearly impossible to create a perfect control group. Since no two players ever advanced through the game in exactly the same way, it would be impossible to perfectly replicate two gameplay experiences. Even if players followed the same path and took the quests in the same order, there would always be natural differences in the interactions with NPCs.

There was also a lot of speculation that Luck and Charisma had effects that the users simply couldn’t track. Some guessed that Luck, for example, contributed to much more than a player’s crit chance, potentially influencing their chance to have random events, trigger different outcomes from quests, and get better rewards from chests among other effects. The only thing that anyone knew for certain was that both of these two stats were somehow useful. There was just no clear consensus on exactly what they did or how much was needed. As a result, the only people who put a significant amount of points into either were classes such like Bards, Dancers, Thieves or Gamblers, and even they would attribute most of their points to their resource pools.

“It’s going to have to be magic,” Lucas concluded.

All spells required a set amount of energy to activate, but a player was limited to channeling only 1% of his resource pool per second. This meant that a player would naturally channel more mana per second as his energy pool increased, thus casting spells faster. A player with 300 Arcane Energy, for example, could cast a spell 50% faster than a player with only 200 Arcane Energy.

 

Since Lucas couldn’t learn any actual skills that would take advantage of a larger mana supply yet, his magic staff would be the only way in which he could leverage his growing stat points at the moment and translate it into a form of damage.

 

“Magic is good . . .  very good, but– Oh, it seems that Hans is already back.” She gestured, beckoning the butler to the table. A moment later, he had laid out all the maps.

Lucas looked over at the maps, and the first thing he noticed was a big X over the manor they were currently in. In contrast to most estates in the region, which were surrounded by tillable farmland, this estate was enclosed by an almost-circular barrier of forest.

Xun Guan pointed at the smallest house, which lay directly to the northwest. “If you’re looking for the weakest nobleman in the Imperium, that is him. His name is Sir Kegan, and he got to where he is through wit and ruthless business practices, not skill in combat. The shrewd man spent all of his money expanding his farmland and building up his army to outrank mine so that he could siege my lands and cut down my woods to grow his territory even more. He wants to usurp my blood right and earn his place in the Imperium as a Ritter.

“Then why hasn’t he?” Lucas asked. “Is there some mechanic preventing it? For an NPC, you’re the lowest there is. Killing you is a cakewalk even for starting players.”

She pointed to the much-larger castle directly north of her place. “Because of this guy, Dray Von Maidbanger. He is the one currently keeping me safe. He is the opposite of Kegan, a battle-hardened, bloodthirsty noble who jumps at any chance to kill men. The only thing the two have in common is they both covet my place. Dray thinks that he can win my hand in marriage, and Kegan just wants to kill me off altogether. Dray’s army prevents Kegan from attacking me, and his pride prevents him from forcing the issue of marriage upon me. As long as he is here, Kegan remains static, biding his time until his army surpasses Dray’s.”

“So, it’s safe to say that these two aren’t on very good terms with one another,” Lucas concluded. “Dray, perhaps, is looking for an excuse to murder Kegan too . . .”

“He wants an excuse to kill any man who isn’t immediate family. His name’s suffix, Von Maidbanger, wasn’t his family’s original name. The second King of the Imperium gave that title to one of Dray’s ancestors after eleven kids were born into his house at the same time. Generation after generation, the apple has never fallen far from the tree. His family has never seen men as anything more than competition: people getting in his way.”

Lucas laughed, shaking his head at how ridiculous the Maidbanger family history read. “Sounds like an upstanding chap. There’s no chance he is a higher rank than Kegan, is there? I know I’m taking a stab in the dark, but since he has a fort and not a manor, he should be a higher rank, right?”

“Barely,” Xun Guan admitted. “He’s only a Baron, one step above my rank of Lady, but he is the highest ranking Imperium within the territory here on the island.”

Lucas scratched at his chin, taking in all of the information he had just been given. “Then I guess all that’s left for me to do is to fabricate a reason for the walking nobleman cliché to give me a quest to take over Kegan’s estate.”

“You know that he’s not going to be as easy to kill as I would have been, and while you might have been able to clear my dungeon without much effort, you would have had a tough time defeating me and my attendants in open combat. His guards make mine look like children learning to swing a sword for the first time, and they favor ranged weapons. How exactly do you plan to beat him, even if you get the Baron’s permission to take his stuff?” Xun Guan asked.

Lucas had only actually been thinking about how to generate the quest, but now that he was faced with the issue, he had to figure out how to follow through with it. Unfortunately, the game was designed so that most of the experience was gained from killing Imperium troops early on. Since he couldn’t actually off them randomly without jeopardizing his objective, he would have to think of a different way to get around this problem. He could spend a grind up levels by killing the bears and wolves that were local to the area, but that would be slow and taxing.

“I can probably afford one semi-decent guard for you if I repurpose the funds that I used to spend on generating two NPC guards for my boss room, but I don’t think it would be worth the cost. You need to find a way to kill Kegan–or, we can just go back to my original plan. It’s never too late to try diplomacy. You know, the non-violent method of settling problems.”

Lucas sighed. The idea of diplomacy bore him to no end, and it always had. Even before the accident, back when he had still been a gainfully-employed member of society that properly contributed to the world like a good little worker-bee, he hadn’t been able to stand listening to people talk in boardrooms

“No, I need to do this the right way. As I mentioned before, the alliance can’t be shaky,” he insisted.

“What’s wrong? Why that face?” she asked. “Is it Yu Hua again?”

Lucas slammed his fist on the table. “I don’t know who told you that name, but I don’t want to hear it ever again,” he roared. “Especially from you.”

Xun Guan raised her hands up as if she were surrendering. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to upset you. Just . . .” She looked over at the butler and signaled for him to put away the dagger he had pulled out. “You mentioned that name more than once when you were sleeping in the fields, and you always had that same strange look on your face when you did.”

Lucas managed to calm himself down again when he heard her explanation, but the anger had left him with a good bit of adrenaline coursing through his system, which stopped him from thinking clearly. “It’s fine,” he said flatly. Realizing this meeting would no longer be productive, he grabbed the plate of food in front of him and stood up. “I’m going for a walk.” He strode out of the dining room, making sure to grab the backpack that he had left by the door on the way out with his free hand.

“I said I’m sorry,” he heard Xun Guan mumble as he shut the door behind him. “You don’t have to be that way.”

But he had already made up his mind to leave.

 

—–


Lucas had converted real-life money into in-game currency and bought out a nice room at the inn in town for the next three months of game time, so he set off there. He kept kicking around ideas for how he could possibly get through to Kegan without causing too much trouble the entire walk back until his thoughts were interrupted by a loud shout.

“Negative! I knew that I’d find you if I was patient!” Nick shouted. “You ruined what should have been the easiest quest there was and took my starting staff!”

Lucas couldn’t help but chuckle. “I was in there almost two hours, had three courses of a nice meal . . . How long were you waiting for me on the road back to town?” he asked.

Nick grinned. “Long enough to catch you out here. The others had to log for the day ‘cause of real-life issues, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get away with what you did. I’m going to make you pay for stealing my weapon and ending that quest early!”

“The dungeon can be soloed. Why didn’t you just do it again?” Lucas asked, looking at the sword Nick was holding in his left hand and wondering if he was going to use it. Lucas hadn’t planned on fighting anything, and he had purposefully chosen a path that would lead him to town without having to worry about encountering any wolves, bears, giant five-foot-wide crabs or three-foot-long rats, so he hadn’t even equipped a weapon to defend himself with. There was some distance between the two men, but Lucas knew that arming himself would be a gamble that came down to whether or not he could pull out a weapon before being struck down. He also had no way to know whether he’d be able to beat Nick even if he got a weapon out in time.

“Why bother waiting for me with sword in hand?” Lucas asked. “Haven’t you wasted a lot more time waiting on me to come out of the manor than it’d take for you to just retry the quest?”

“I can’t!” Nick huffed. “Don’t you think I’d have done it again if I could? Stupid garbage game only gives you one stupid freaking garbage staff, and mine dropped when you killed me!”

Lucas blinked. He hadn’t expected this outcome. He’s actually a new player  . . . he’s too poor to buy a weapon back, and his friends aren’t online, so he can’t borrow theirs during the weapon switch phases . . . “So what? You thought you could kill me and take back the staff you lost if you waited out? You know, even if you kill me, there is a much higher chance I’ll drop something besides your staff, right?” Lucas asked. Even flagged for PVP, which mean that he would most likely drop two items when he died, he had a ton of other equipment on him aside from just the two staves that he was carrying. The odds of him dropping the exact right combination of items that Nick wanted was extremely slim, and if he managed to pull out both staves, it’d also prevent them from dropping altogether. The game made it so that anything on a player was fair game when it came to loot drops when he died, except the weapons they were using. Theoretically, if one went around stark naked with only their weapons in hand and no money on them, they’d lose nothing but EXP when they died.

Nick’s beady eyes narrowed as he stared at Lucas. “I know. That’s why I haven’t killed you yet. Just hand over the staff and the coppers that dropped, and I’ll let this slide. You’ll be killed by some other player on the way to town.”

You know, this spiky-haired weirdo is incredibly annoying, but he . . . actually has a point. Talking with people in town is not only going to be tedious, but it’s also going to be risky–not to mention that trying to convince someone to do a good deed and help me out will be even tougher with the red PVP-tagged name.

“Look, stop stalling and hand over that garbage beginner staff, you dirty muffin-muncher!”

Lucas didn’t bother stopping himself from laughing out loud this time. He knew he shouldn’t be taking pot shots at the guy, especially since he was completely in the wrong, but Nick’s red face and insistence on speaking like a teenager who had just been grounded was amusing. “Relax,” Lucas said, reaching toward his coin purse. He couldn’t help but think about how fortuitous this encounter actually was. He had a problem with no solution, and here a solution appeared before him in the form of an angry, whiney, and annoying little man. “You said you need a staff, which means you don’t even have the five silver needed to buy one, right?”

Nick’s eyes bounced Lucas’s coin purse and remained glued to his hand as he slowly took out two gold coins. Nick closed his agape mouth and nodded. “Yeah,” he answered, his eyes still occasionally flickering back to the coins.

“Which means that, unlike me, you don’t have money in real life. You probably don’t even have a job,” Lucas continued. “Don’t be worried. You can be honest with me.” He took another shiny gold coin out of his purse and held it out in his hand. “You did me a favor by letting me kill you back there since you clearly could have won if you fought back properly, so it’s only right I return the favor.” He hoped that, by throwing out a small compliment, it would help soothe the man’s wounded ego.

Nick ground his teeth. “You think you can buy me off just ‘cause I’m poor? Just ‘cause I don’t have spare money to drop into games, you think you’re better than me?”

Lucas looked down at his coin purse and withdrew a fourth gold coin then dropped all four back in and out of sight. “You know what? You’re right. This was rude and insensitive. I’ll just give you the staff you want and be on my way.” Nick’s was either going to make him as pliable or as durable as steel, and Lucas figured that it was about a fifty-fifty shot at the moment as to which way it would go. He had seen people go both ways in similar situations, so he decided to pull in his proverbial fishing line by threatening to take away the money and seeing if the fish had taken the bait.

“Wait!” Nick cried, sticking out a hand. “You might not be able to buy me, but you do owe me. I didn’t just lose that staff. I lost time and experience too.”

Lucas shook his head, doing his best not to smile as he reached into his bag and pulled out a magic staff. With how lax Nick had been in his vigilance, Lucas had been able to reach into the backpack with his left hand and pull out his magic staff while Nick was talking.

He felt much better now that he was armed. Given the distance between them, Lucas had full confidence that he would be able to kite away from Nick before he was ever able to close the gap, and given how much damage the early-game spells did, there was no way he would lose an engagement versus someone swinging a sword.

“You’re right.” Lucas charged a spell and then stopped just before it completed to make sure Nick could see that he now had the upper hand. “I do owe you.”

“Hey, easy there!” Nick called cautiously. “I just want what’s mine, and then I’ll be on my way.”

Lucas sneered as he reached into his coin purse and took out three gold coins. It wasn’t much in terms of in-game currency. In fact, outside of the beginner zone, it wouldn’t even buy a single night’s rent at some of the nicer hotels, much less proper gear, but Nick’s eyes lit up, and he let out a sigh of relief when he caught the coins.

“Thanks, now I’m getting out of here bef–”

“Wait.” Lucas raised a hand, stopping Nick. “Don’t leave just yet. I need something from you first.”

“I don’t care what you need. I’m done. You’ve already cost me enough time, and that’s all I’ve got. Stupid freaking garbage PKer.” Nick practically spat the words. Whatever tact and diplomacy he had exhibited moments ago were now gone. “I’m out, and I hope I don’t have to see your backstabbing, turncoat face again.”

“I’ll pay,” Lucas said.

Nick turned and stood frozen in place, grinding his teeth as he stared at Lucas. After a moment of silence, he finally relented. “How much?”

“A plat, and it shouldn’t take long,” Lucas said. ‘Plat’ was short for platinum coin, and they were a quarter of the size of gold coins yet exchanged at a ratio of ten gold coins per single platinum.

Nick sighed. “God, you’re such a plate of spotted dick. Well, fine. Fine, fine, fine! I’ll do your stupid freaking favor, but don’t think this means I’ve forgiven you or that we’re friends. I still don’t know what kind of man thinks it’s cool to stab his teammates in the back during a boss fight over an NPC. That’s just low.”

“It was a secret quest,” Lucas admitted, hoping it would tempt the prideful man, “one that unlocked a special racial quest chain only available to humans.”

“Huh?” Nick looked a little stunned. “That doesn’t make sense. Humans are supposed to only have a single racial questline, Redemption of the Fallen People, on the final island. They don’t have a noob island quest chain.”

“Ah. So, then, it must have been my imagination that I unlocked a way to join the Imperium and gain access to unique trainers and classes . . . like Dark Knight.”

“Dark Knight?” Nick’s eyes turned from squints to saucers at the mention of that name. “But that class is only supposed to be available after you finish the Necessary Sinners questline for the Paladin order. That’s a level-90, near-endgame quest.”

“Yeah,” Lucas said, “a class I’m sure you, a mighty spell-staff in the making, have no interest in attaining.”

“What? No, of course I–” Nick paused and gulped down whatever saliva was in his mouth. “Of course I would be okay with playing the Dark Knight early. But it’s impossible. You have to be a much higher level, and only a few people have ever finished that stupid escort quest without the NPC dying and killing their chances at it.”

“Well, for that class . . .” Lucas continued, further dangling the carrot in front of Nick, “do you think you could do me a favor? Think of the money as just a bonus. If I finish all my quests, we’ll be able to access the trainer.”

Nick’s eyes narrowed and his confusion vanished. “What’s your game, Negative? Why are you doing this? What is the questline you’re doing?”

“I need you to find me a mercenary, preferably two at the very least, that hasn’t killed Xun Guan yet,” Lucas explained. “But the problem is it’s just as you said earlier: I’m marked as a PKer. If I go to the starting town like this, a group of players might take advantage of my tag and kill me on sight.”

“Ugh. Really? You want me to talk to people and put together your stupid group? Are you at least planning to pay them too?”

Lucas nodded. “Yeah. I’ll throw you five gold coins for each person you bring–you can give them less if than the five I’ll give you if they’ll take it–but make sure they’re human,” he added. “This is a racial quest.”

“What’s the quest?” Nick asked. “I can’t get people to join if I don’t tell them first what we’re planning to do.”

“We’re going to kill Sir Kegan,” Lucas said.

“Okay. I’ll go get some people, but where we gonna meet?” Nick asked. His tone was terse, but Lucas could tell that the idea of money, a rare class, and a unique quest had all caught his attention.

“Actually . . .” Lucas paused and considered how tough the fight with Kegan might be. “You’ll need to finish your side of the quest first, join the Imperium and then meet up with me, so go ahead and take care of that. Just follow Xun Guan’s instructions and then find some players and meet me in the village just outside of Kegan’s manor. I’m going to go there ahead of you and do some reconnaissance.”

“Got it,” Nick answered, turning and walking back toward town. “Just don’t forget to bring my plat!”

“Wait!” Lucas shouted, stopping him once more.

“What is it now?” Nick asked vexedly.

“You forgot your staff.” Lucas tossed over the one he already held in his hand and then withdrew his second from his bag. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Nick not to kill him now–the greed in the man’s eyes was as clear as day–but with the PK status-effect, he had not to chance someone else finishing him off. After encountering Nick on the road back, he was now feeling extra wary.

Some villain I am. Lucas shook his head, chastising himself as he changed his direction and headed north-northwest. I can’t even walk down the road without having to buy my way out of trouble.

 

—–

 

Lucas reached the town near Kegan’s manor after a short walk, and he wasn’t surprised at all to find exactly how empty the village was. Without players coming in and out of it constantly, like starting towns or establishments housing important and frequented quests, this particular location was void of any foot traffic. While this was a good thing for Lucas since he still had his PVP tag on, it still meant that the area had a rather somber, quiet, and somewhat depressing atmosphere. A few of the shopkeepers looked at him with greedy eyes, but all of the other NPCs in the area just walked around with their heads down and eyes glued to the ground, shuffling along as if they were prisoners with their ankles bound together by shackles. The only people who didn’t appear to be distraught were the soldiers. Clad in shiny chainmail armor and metal helmets, they were seemingly oblivious to the bleak mood. A few of them walked around on patrol, clutching their halberds tightly and laughing and joking with each other.

Lucas had expected to see this: it was how the game was designed. The gloomy mood was meant to evoke sympathy from the player and help drive the black-and-white, ‘they’re evil, we’re good,’ narrative that the game thrived on. So boring, so predictable. They might as well throw in a few cheerleaders whom the hero has to protect to save the whole world. Although, I guess I should be glad that this game at least lets us kill NPCs hasn’t gone the full ‘us versus them’ yet. It’s not as bad as those games that limit freedom and try to keep all adult activities ranging from killing to romance censored to the PG-13 level. Lucas never had been able to understand those games that wouldn’t even show blood when someone was stabbed. A game without fully-explorable love interests, dragon slaying, and castle conquering lacked the basic fundamentals of what a fantasy game was supposed to be.

Lucas made his way to the small town’s tavern, and he was promptly greeted by its owner, a tall yet frail-looking Alfar man who looked as if he had seen more wear and tear than the ragged decor of his aging establishment. The aging man rushed to open the door before Lucas could make his way inside.

“Good day,” he gushed with all the propriety of a man who smelled money. “How can I assist a proud member of Imperium today? All Imperium soldiers eat half-off, compliments of Sir Kegan.”

Lucas was pleasantly surprised at the new dialogue prompt, and his eyes lit up. Every tavern owner, those who only appear during special events, would always say the same thing when a player approached: ‘Hail, adventurer! Welcome to our humble establishment.’ Their chat was so common and so perfectly scripted that people had created a series of memes around it.

“What do you have to eat?” he asked. He was keenly attentive as he waited to see if the man would revert back to the usual dialogue tree or remain off course.

“We have very little, sir, only meager amounts of anything that would be deemed worthy of being tasted by an Imperium soldier, but I will do what I can to appease your appetites.” The owner gestured toward an empty table with one hand while holding the door open with the other hand.

“I see,” Lucas replied along with a curt nod. It is indeed a whole new train of dialogue. He should have just listed off the specials for the day, smiled, and then said whether or not he had space to accommodate my party. I guess this is the result of me siding with the Imperium.

Lucas entered the tavern and saw that three tables were filled with non-humans, each set up by a different wall. The patrons were mostly Alfars and beast-men, with a few beardless dwarves mixed as well. They were all eating quietly, taking small scoops of the slop in front of them with their spoons before quickly washing it down with another sip of their drink.

The conditions for these people must be horrid, Lucas thought as his eyes roamed from table to table. There’s not even a single piece of bread between three tables to give the gruel even a modicum of texture.

After following Lucas’s gaze, the owner once more gestured toward an empty table. “If you’ll take a seat, sir, I’ll have the serving wench come by and take your order in a moment. Then he added, “If you’d be so kind . . .” He gestured yet again when Lucas refused to move toward the vacant seat.

“I think I see a much better seat,” Lucas said. He put on his fake smile and walked over to the corner-most table, which was almost entirely filled by four Alfars, two Were-rats, two Were-bears and a Dwarf. “I think this one suits my needs fine.”

“But . . . mister!” the tavern keeper pleaded. He reached out to grab Lucas’s arm, only for it to be retracted at the last second before he could make contact. He wrung his hand together in front of him, unsure of how to stop Lucas from sitting without touching him.

The group of non-humans just looked up at Lucas like he was a meteor that had fallen from the sky, completely alien and foreign to their understanding.

“Mister, if you’d be so kind as to leave these gentlemen to their conversation, I’ll make sure the first round of beer is on the house,” the tavern owner begged.

“I don’t think I’m interrupting a conversation though,” Lucas answered. “They weren’t talking at all when I sat down. Or”–Lucas looked at the group–“were you? Am I rudely barging in on a discussion?”

All of them but the Dwarf and two Were-bears shook their heads. The Were-bears just stared at Lucas for a moment longer before picking their drinks back up and each taking a long exaggerated sip at the same time.

“See, mister . . . I don’t think I actually caught your name,” Lucas said, trailing off.

“Hermann,” the tavern owner answered.

“Ah. Well, as you can see, Hermann, none of them were talking about anything. Your worries are unfounded.”

“I was,” the Dwarf interjected, finally breaking the group’s silence. “I was talking before you came over and started making a racket.”

“Oh.” Lucas turned and looked at the short man. “Sorry then. Do carry on.”

“It’s a private matter,” the Dwarf said. “Not for strangers.”

Lucas hesitated, but the small smile never left his face. He knew that how he played this next part would be very important. Xun Guan had told him clearly that the right conditions could create quests, and that was exactly what he was going to need to happen if he was going to succeed. If all the NPCs in the region ended up hating him, then he wasn’t sure what type of quests he’d be able to generate if any at all. For all he knew, he might very well end up in a situation where there was no way to take over Kegan’s position, so the next few words would amount to a lot of worth.

Maybe . . . Lucas looked over at his unspent stat points, noting that he still had thirty left over. Maybe I should try to make sure the odds are stacked in my favor. Normally, like all players, he would just completely ignore Charisma altogether. But, considering the fact that he would have far more points than other players and how he was taking an uncharted route to nobility, he couldn’t help but think that this was a ‘now or never’ moment. He quickly dumped the remaining 30 stat points into Charisma, and he could have sworn that one of the were-rats stopped frowning at him as soon as he allocated the points.

“Well,” Lucas began, having decided on his angle of verbal attack. He pointedly looked down at the Dwarf and asked, “I don’t think you can be strangers with a man that you’ve shared bread and drinks with, can you?”

The Dwarf scratched his chin for a moment. “I suppose that’d depend on whether that drink was water or ale,” he answered back, causing Lucas to laugh even as the rest of the group remained stoically quiet.

“I think it’d have to be ale. What do you say, Hermann? Do you have enough ale and bread for the table?”

Hermann’s previous frown deepened as he gulped back whatever emotions had been caught in his throat before finally nodding his head. “Yes . . . but, mister, I really think you shouldn’t. You should just . . . Mister, please . . .”

Hermann continued stumbling over his words, but the Dwarf cut him off.

“He said to bring out the ale, Herm, and I suggest you do it.”

“But, what if one of the other soldiers . . .”

“Bring. The. Ale. Herm,” the Dwarf repeated sternly. “I ain’t drinking this lukewarm water when there is an offer of something sweeter, so get moving.”

“Make it two,” Lucas added, feeling the Dwarf’s anger from where he was.

Hermann sighed in frustration, but he quickly left and returned less than a minute later with two giant glass pitchers of frothy ale and an empty frosted mug that he set down in front of Lucas. An Alfar girl about Lucas’ age followed along behind him carrying three plates of freshly-baked bread.

The Dwarf dumped the remainder of the water in his cup out on the floor, reached out and grabbed one of the two pitchers the moment they touched the table, and quickly refilled the container with some of the ale. Lucas didn’t even enough time to grab the handle of the other pitcher before the Dwarf had already downed the entire glass. He let out a loud, satisfied ‘Ah’ as he leaned back in his chair and patted his belly. “That’s the stuff,” he said. “I haven’t had a good frosty one since last year’s winter festival.”

Rather pleased with the way the conversation was going, Lucas had to fake a forlorn expression as he grabbed the pitcher. “That can’t be. That’s too shameful to even think about. I thought you lot were honest, hard-working people doing good for the kingdom. How could it be that you haven’t been able to enjoy beer on your breaks?” he asked.

The Were-rat next to Lucas grabbed the pitcher right out of his hands and then gestured to Lucas’ cup with a nod. “Let me.”

Ah, right. I forgot the manners here, Lucas thought as he watched the rat fill his twenty-ounce mug. You can’t pour your own drink if you’re eating with those of a lower class. This never comes up usually for other players, as the equality-related missions prevent most players from ever being a higher class than those whom they’re eating and drinking with.

“It can be indeed, for water is cheaper than ale, and our pay is smaller than Fiddle’s spine,” the Dwarf answered, clearly referring to the Were-rat pouring Lucas’s drink as Fiddle.

“I see. That’s a tragedy. How come you’re getting paid so little? Doesn’t this region produce a lot of food and make money for the Imperium?”

“We produce enough goods for three regions!” the Dwarf huffed. He filled another mug of ale for himself, and the others finally followed suit. “We do all the labor, but that copper-clinging miser keeps all the rewards and pays us less and less each year. It’s a dang crying shame, and I don’t care what the laws say about bad mouthing nobility. I’m saying it.”

“In front of a soldier . . .” one of the two  Were-bears said with a shake of his head.

“In front of a friend,” the Dwarf corrected. “After all, what soldier? Name a tin-can wind-up toy that would dress like he does, wearing such cheap armor and going around buying subs drinks? He ain’t your average soldier, and I don’t think he’ll report us. The boost in pay wouldn’t cover all this fine beverage.”

How expensive were the ales? Lucas suddenly wondered. He wasn’t exactly hurting for cash, but he definitely wasn’t eager to shell out a ton on a single quest if he didn’t have to.

Lucas sighed. “Well, actually, I am a soldier, but . . .” He paused dramatically and considered how to phrase this next part. “Well, I just can’t stand it either, not seeing that food in front of you. I don’t think I could eat it if someone paid me, much less pay for the privilege with hours of hard work.”

“See?!” the Dwarf exclaimed. “A friend.”

“I’m Lucas,” he replied, holding out his drink.

“Gunter,” the Dwarf offered, clinking his mug against Lucas’s. “Good to meet you.”

“Well, Gunter, is there any way to help? I mean . . . surely there has to be someone you can appeal to. What about Dray?”

“You mean that deviant pervert to the east?” Gunter asked. “I wish. What do you think he would do about it for us? There is no way he’d listen to one of us subs–not unless we were tattling on Kegan for holding back money. Unfortunately, that guy pays his tributes and taxes perfectly. I’d know.”

“You’d know?” Lucas was now very, very curious. Did I just hit a jackpot? My Luck stat is still 0, right? Don’t tell me this Dwarf knows where Kegan’s financials are.

“Yeah, I’d know,” Gunter grunted. “My old friend, Jason, thought that the copper clinger had to be embezzling, so he told that to Dray as if it were fact hand-chiseled into stone last year after Kegan cut wages yet again. He made sure to dress up a fancy story about how Kegan was hiding books and keeping money–everything he could think of. Damn shame was that, when Dray came to investigate the accusation, it all turned up as lies. Dray spent an entire week trying to find a single piece of dirt on the money hoarder, and when he couldn’t, so he took out his frustrations on my friend.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Lucas said, hanging his head low for a moment of silence.

“Hey! Don’t go cursing Jason to death,” Gunter quickly said. “He ain’t dead yet.”

“He isn’t?” Lucas asked.

“You think Dray would let him off that easy? No, he’s rotting in a prison cell and will be forever unless evidence of Kegan embezzling magically appears out of thin air–and a fat chance at that!”

Lucas didn’t know what to say. He had already made his decision to journey firmly into the Imperium’s dark side in order to help Xun Guan with her evil villain plan, but there in front of him sat a quest asking him to do the exact opposite.

Quest: The Truthfully Accused.

With certainty, morality, and justice on his side, Jason begged, scraped, and pleaded until he gained an audience with the Great Warrior of Hesse. Unfortunately, while he wielded many virtues, determination and patience among them, he did not wield truth. His hopes and dreams were built on a bed of lies, and as the bed fell apart underneath him, and his schemes were revealed, he awoke to a cruel fate in a cold dungeon. Now, his friend, Gunter, has come to you with what pride he has left to seek your help. Break into Dray’s prison and free the brave Jason from his chains.

 

Warning. Your level is too low to attempt this quest. Completion will result in much greater rewards due to the difficulty, but undertaking the challenge is not advised. Please note that the suggested level for this quest is 25.

 

This is not what I wanted, Lucas grumbled. He had been hoping to generate a quest related to Kegan, and instead, one popped up that was so difficult the game recommended he be at the maximum level allowed in the starter area before attempting it.

“You don’t have to worry,” the Dwarf grumbled. “I ain’t expecting miracles from some common tin can. “Just complaining for the sake of complaining. Don’t mind me.”

Lucas shook his head. “No, you’re right to complain. We all know our lot in life after all,” he continued. “I know mine. I work every day, fight for my country, and still barely get enough for some beer, bread, and bacon.”

“Right! If you’re fighting on the front lines for those no-good jerks, least they could do is give you some respect!” Gunter said.

“You should be careful of your tone,” the larger of the two Were-bears growled. He had a full, thick coat of salt-and-pepper-colored fur, and he was clearly unhappy with how the conversation was going. “He could just as easily wag his tongue to his superiors in the Imperium as he can to us. You should be careful how you speak.”

“Pffft! Ash, you’re too paranoid,” Gunter laughed, reaching out and grabbing the pitcher to refill his mug. Lucas was amazed at how the little Dwarf had managed to begin his third glass while the others will still working on their first, but he had to hand it to him: The man was determined. “You need to lighten up. Who the heck is going to care what a bunch of subs in a sub-owned tavern in the middle of that loser Kegan’s territory are doing? What’s he going to get reporting us?”

“Fun,” Ash said. “You know how their kind are: They like to bully us for kicks.”

“If that’s all he wanted, he could have just as easily lied and said that we talked badly of that maidbanger and saved himself the coins he spent on the beer,” Gunter countered. “Wouldn’t be the first time one of the highbrows lied for kicks about something us subs did.”

Lucas pondered what Gunter had said. “Wait, how did they know that Kegan was telling the truth?” Lucas asked. “I mean, when they locked up Jason.”

Gunter shot Lucas a look. “Oh, that’s easy: They just checked his accounting books. Apparently, the numbers matched the few contracts that they found too, so they couldn’t have lied.”

Lucas couldn’t help but grin when he heard that. He finally had an idea on how to fix his Kegan problem and acquire the land. Now, the only thing he needed to do was wait for Nick to come in with back up. And here I thought, when I first saw it, that it was going to be a worthless quest . . . “So, all we really need to do is prove Jason’s innocence to help him get free . . .” he mumbled.

“Stop worrying yourself about sub problems,” Ash said. “We can handle ourselves. We have for generations. You don’t need to mind us.”

Lucas understood immediately what Ash was saying: There was going to be no help from them. The ‘subs,’ as they apparently called themselves despite how degrading the title was, wouldn’t lift a finger to assist him with this Kegan issue, even though it was their fate that hung in the balance. This didn’t surprise Lucas in the least. History was riddled with examples of feudal towns filled with beaten and belittled serfs who never once rebelled against changing colors and shifting princes as conquerors gained and lost territory from Brittany to Napoli. People didn’t want to rock the boat if they were used to the abuse–that’s just how life was for them. It was exactly how the Arab states such as Monaco and Andore maintained the same ruling family for such long periods of time, despite varying degrees of civility or cruelty from their monarchs. As sad as it was, they were simply accustomed to it, and any other lifestyle was simply unfathomable for them.

“Ignore him. If you’re storming in to save Jason, count me among your ranks. I’ll do what it takes to help the bugger out. I owe him,” Gunter said, finishing his third mug of ale. “Although, I’ll need more of this if I’m going to have to put up with a tin can as an ally.”

‘Tin can’ must be their slang word for Imperium soldiers, Lucas noted. “No worries. I’ll be needing a few just to deal with your breath,” Lucas replied with a laugh. He tried to match the tone, but he could tell from the half-hearted laugh that was shot back at him that he hadn’t done a good job. It wasn’t something he could help, though, since he wasn’t a naturally-charismatic person. Charisma, likability, smooth talking . . . that had always been Yu Hua’s territory. He knew all the theories and had read all the books, but when it came to putting theory into practice, he never would have made it past the first board meeting without her back in the day, much less won over a single investor.

Yu Hua . . . Lucas tripped over the name and tried to force down the emotions swelling up inside of him that his awkward fumble threatened to bring to the surface. His memory automatically worked unbidden to recall the face he hadn’t seen in almost eight months of real-life time. He felt like he was forgetting the small details every time she came to mind, whether it was the curve of her face, the freckles along her cheekbones, or the smile she wore as she jumped up in excitement after they landed their first angel investor, and everyone had left the board room.

“What’s wrong with him?” Gunter asked loudly enough to interrupt Lucas’s thoughts. “He went quiet.” He waved his free hand back in forth in front of Lucas’s eyes to gather his attention.

“It’s probably having to listen to a loud drunk ramble on,” Fiddle answered.

Ash pushed himself back from the table, stood up and drained the last of his ale. “Whatever it is, let’s just leave him to his thoughts. Our break time is over, and the boss is going to want us back in the fields soon.” Then, turning to Lucas, he added, “And whether I’m right or wrong about you, thanks for the drink.”

“Hear hear!” Gunter cheered. He slamming the empty mug on the table before grabbing his meal and walking off. As if on cue, every non-human in the tavern rose and filed out one at a time, leaving Lucas alone with only his thoughts and what was left of the two pitchers of virtual alcohol remaining.

A minute or two after the tavern had been emptied of its patrons, the serving girl who had brought Lucas his bread earlier and Hermann came to the table and began clearing away all the empty plates, dishes, and glasses. After she was done, Hermann returned with a smile on his face and a much more confident disposition than the one he had been wearing when Lucas first entered the establishment. “Mister Lucas, you won’t be requiring any additional services will you?” he asked. “We don’t have many more foods than bread to offer, but we do have wines, an assortment of spirits, and–”

“Cheese?” Lucas asked. He had already discovered that the bland bread was unsatisfying to munch on. “And maybe a dry wine?”

“Right away, sir.” Hermann excused himself for a moment and then returned with a block of Emmental cheese and a bottle of red wine. It wasn’t as good as the vintages that Lucas normally bought at the starting town–it was quite bitter due to a high level of tannins but was also overly sweet and had both black pepper and bell pepper flavors mixed together–but it still went down well enough with the cheese.

After an hour and a half of waiting and munching on the cheese as Hermann and the serving girl awkwardly stared at him in silence from behind the bar, Lucas was beginning to want to take a nap. He was tired of the day, of people, of the memories that had been brought up, and of the mediocre cheese and novelty flavors that the local winery had produced in its evident effort to use up the region’s leftover fruits.

He was about to give up on waiting for Nick–and was starting to believe that the man’s pride had finally won out over his greed and ambition and that he had ditched Lucas to find something else to do–when the boisterous man practically kicked the door in as he barged through the entrance. “I made it!” Nick proclaimed. “That pompous bastard didn’t ditc— Ah! There you are! I was worried I was late.”

“You were,” Lucas said, gesturing to an empty seat at his table with his eyes. “And empty-handed I see.”

“I’m not empty-handed,” Nick argued as a slightly-curvy woman with a medium build walked through the door behind him. She was covered in leather and had random weapons strapped to her with custom-made leather sheaths. With the buckles from her weapon holders, the black leather pants and boots, the loose-fitting blue shirt that seemed to always almost be showing more cleavage than would be appropriate in a PG environment, she looked much like a pirate might before the age of guns.

“This is the bastard who killed you in the middle of a quest?” the woman asked loudly as soon as she walked in the door. “The one that blew you and your friends away like a kite in a hurricane?”

“Yeah, he’s the one,” Nick answered.

“You telling me this is the two-timing backstabber that gutted you like a hooked fish for a lousy quest and a pretty girl?” she asked, seeking clarification once more.

“Yeah . . . that’s the one,” Nick said, making Lucas a little nervous.

Did he bring her here to help him kill me? Lucas tried to stealthily move his hand toward the backpack that he had dropped next to his chair.

“That’s great,” she said. “That’s great. Man, it’s good to meet you, boss. I wish I coulda been there to watch you kill this mile-an-hour mouth of a bastage. Hell, I’d have even done it half price!” The woman laughed heartily, slapping Nick on the back. “No offense, little man.”

“How is that not offensive? I’m bigger than you!” Nick retorted.

“Not where it counts,” she said, patting her coin purse. “And I’m betting boss here is more of a man by that measure too, aren’t you, boss?”

Lucas took in a deep breath, unsure of how he felt now that another loud, high-energy person had appeared. “I got enough to pay you fairly if you do the work,” he responded, not wanting to tell her exactly how much he had.

“That’s all that matters,” she said, walking over and shooting out her hand. “Name’s Bonnie, and for a price, I’m all yours.”

“As a mercenary, she means,” Nick clarified for her. “Only one I could find that was still in the starting town. I tried to find a few more, but she’s all that was left.”

“Mercenary? I’m whatever he can afford me to be.” She clinched Lucas’s hand tighter and gave him a wink. “Whatever you can afford,” she added in a quieter, more sultry tone.

A fit female body with all the right curves in all the right places was always going to be attractive to Lucas, but he couldn’t ignore the red furry pointed ears poking out from behind her matching red hair.

“A Fox girl?” Lucas said.

“Yeah, only way you can upgrade into the silver-tailed race,” Bonnie said, explaining her choice.

“You do realize I’m with the Imperium, and this quest is going to be for the Imperium, right?”

“Yeah, the generic, cookie-cutter spell-staff explained it as he was running his mouth, but he said you paid and didn’t mind that I just started, so what of it? You need me to wear a collar and leash, act all meek and call you master around your superiors so that you don’t lose the quest? ‘Cause I’ll do it if you’re paying, I’ll even throw in a meow.”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary exactly,” Lucas said, though the image of her with a collar and leash on did flash through his head as she mentioned it. “But, if you don’t mind making yourself seen and not heard around the nobles, we should be good.”

Bonnie grinned. “Har har. Whatever you say, but personally, I think it’s more fun to just use old faithful”–she pulled out a knife that was strapped to her thigh–“to make sure the nobles don’t show up or talk again.” She looked down at the blade for a second before re-sheathing it as quickly as she had drawn it. “But killing a noble is extra, even if I like it.”

“Have you killed a noble before? I mean, just to get a feel for the price,” Lucas asked, somewhat drawn by her bravado.

“Ah, well, you see, that is . . .” Her confidence seemed to immediately crack. “That is . . .” She hesitated. “Well, no one has been able to afford me yet,” she finally admitted. “But if you got a noble you don’t like in mind, we can always make a deal.”

“I just might,” Lucas said. He did, after all, need to have someone killed. The problem was that he couldn’t kill the noble yet. “But, rather than focusing on the person I have for you to kill . . .” Lucas began, only pausing to fetch a blank, rolled-up piece of paper, “let’s focus on what I need to fill.”

“You want her to write you poetry?” Nick looked down at the piece of paper.

“You’re gonna have to pay out a lot more than the price to kill a noble if you’re asking me to model for you,” Bonnie said. “I wouldn’t even let my future Clyde do that for cheap.”

Lucas wanted to smack the two for their weird ideas. “Not you. I need to draw Kegan’s mansion. We need intel, and we need to find his documents too. We’re going to have to go in twice, so I want as much information as possible to make it smooth.”

“So, you’re not paying us just to do a map, are you?” Nick asked. “You’re wanting us to kill a bunch of people and mark where they’ll spawn?”

“Oh . . . recon, murder, intrigue, and theft. This is definitely a job for Bonnie! I’ll show you here, boss: You won’t find a better crew than one with me in it.”

“Murder?” Nick looked at Bonnie quizzically. “Wait . . . Yeah, murder. Can you actually join us to help in the mission, or are we going to have to solo it?”

Lucas looked over at Lucas. “What do you mean?’

“Well, aren’t you part of the Imperium now? If you get caught murder hoboing your way through an Imperium fortress . . . isn’t that going to kill your standing with your own faction?” Nick asked.

Lucas nodded. “I’m not at a high enough rank within the Imperium to just kill my way through without permission, which just means we just have to make sure there are no survivors to report the issue.”

Like in most stealth-based games, as long as you eliminated enemies before they could report anything, there was no way for people to know you were guilty of anything. It was one of the game mechanics that Lucas actually enjoyed, and he felt like gave most players a lot more freedom than they realized. It was also how Lucas was able to talk with the other races amicably since none of them knew that he had betrayed the rebellion and murdered their four sage teachers while they were locked away in a cage. He knew for certain that, no matter how far the distance was between Xun Guan’s manor and the tavern, Gunter wouldn’t have talked to him at all if an enemy NPC had been alive to report him. He might have even spat on him for betraying the non-humans or in the best-case scenario, although rare, tried to generate a quest that would have allowed Lucas to redeem himself.

“Should be easier said than done,” Nick said. “This manor isn’t like Xun Guan’s: there isn’t a known secret entrance that will lead us to our destination like

“There isn’t?” Lucas looked over at him, an eyebrow raised. “There should be, right? I’m pretty sure that nearly every manor on this island that players have attacked, even Dray Von Maidbanger’s, has had an entrance that has let players bypass the front door. We just need to find it.”

“Ugh . . .” Nick groaned. “I mean, I suppose we can check the forums and see if anyone has done this manor before in the past and left up a guide, but I don’t think it’s likely. I’ll log out and see.” His body went stiff, the normal process in the game for when a player logged out. It prevented someone from just leaving the game in order to avoid dying and made their body stay visible and interactable for a few minutes unless they logged out from their binding stone, the magical device they could set to reappear at upon death.

“A silver piece if I get the results faster than him,” Bonnie offered, flashing a full-toothed grin and giving him a wink. “Two if you want me to make him feel bad about being so slow compared to the great Bonnie.”

Lucas nodded. He wasn’t short on money. It was the one asset, unlike time, that he wouldn’t run out of. “I’ll give you 3 silvers if he uses the word garbage while complaining about how hard it was to find too,” Lucas laughed.

“Deal.” Her body went just as still as Nick’s almost as soon as she agreed, leaving the two standing in front of him staring straight ahead with vacant expressions.

“Hey, Hermann,” Lucas called over. “I’m going to need another glass of wine.” He had never completely gotten past the heebie-jeebies that logged-out individuals gave him. There was just something not right away about a body with nothing in it, though that was probably exactly how they looked in the real life, sitting lifeless in their dive capsules as information was shoved into their brains and nutrients into their veins.

“I didn’t realize Imperium soldiers hung out with so many non-humans,” Hermann said, avoiding the word ‘subs,’ which the others described themselves with. “That’s really refreshing to–”

Lucas cut him off by taking the bottle of wine from his hand and tossing a coin into the air as payment. “Just the wine, Hermann. Just the wine.”

Hermann chuckled and walked back behind the bar, much more lively than when Lucas had first walked in. “Whatever you say.”