The Heroic Villain 2: Chapter 1

Character Name: Lucas
Level: 30
Hit Points: 4995
Arcane Energy: 2600
Stamina: 100
Holy Energy: Class Locked

Current Class: Enchanter

Arcanum [increases Arcane Energy by 10 per point]: 250
Holy [No Effect/Class Locked]: 0
Athletics [increases Stamina by 10 per point]: 0
Fortitude [increases Hit Points by 1% per point]: 350
Charisma: 350
Luck: 60
Unspent: 0

Current Elemental Attunement:
Lightning Affinity: 1.5%
Effects: +3% Lightning Element Damage
+6% Lightning Element Channeling Speed
-3% Non-Lightning Element Channeling Speed
+0.75% Lightning Element Damage Resistance

Arcane Resistance: 2%

Combat Proficiencies:

Racial Quest Chain Progress:
Vampire: 2 out of 5 requirements met to start chain.

“So, what exactly is this?” Lucas asked as he sat down at the small table in his kitchen.

“It’s a roasted grape crostini,” Liu answered. She picked up one of the small appetizers and then took a bite as if to prove that it was perfectly edible ahead of any objection he might have.

Lucas had watched her make them, and while it wasn’t anything overly complex, it was entirely new to him at the same time. She had essentially mixed together grapes with sea salt, olive oil, sherry, thyme, rosemary, and ground black pepper to create a spread which was then topped onto a baguette with some manchego cheese crumbled over it. It was simplistic in design, but he just couldn’t wrap his head around it.

“What? You don’t trust me?” Liu asked. “When have I ever led you wrong? Go on. Give it a bite.”

Lucas took a swallow of water to make sure his mouth was completely empty before doing just that.

“Good? Right? I mean, they’re amazing to me. I absolutely love them. My mother hates the recipe, tells me that I need to stick to more traditional Chinese dishes, but I just can’t. I love the combination of sweet and salty and savory. The Spanish really knew what they were doing with this one.”

Liu was right. They were delicious. Decadently so.

“Although, I do remember seeing a recipe that made something similar with lemon ricotta and honey, and I’ve been tempted to try that one out too.”

Lucas finished chewing his bite and said, “Yeah, but that still doesn’t explain why you’ve set up a dive device in my home.”

“Ah. Right. That. Well, remember what I said after we confronted Dray von Maidbanger? Or, rather, what I said about the GM that was playing him?”

Lucas nodded. “Of course.”

“So, he kept his mouth shut at first, and it seemed like the whole issue would blow over without incident . . .” Liu paused and took another bite of a crostini. She clearly took her time chewing the bite, and Lucas knew it was because the subject bothered her so much. Despite the fact that she had to talk about it, it wasn’t something that she was comfortable with. She was likely hoping that Lucas would let her get away with changing the subject, and he was actually debating whether or not he should when she continued.

“Well, what I didn’t know was that he was just waiting for forty-eight hours so that the servers would drop all of the temporary file logs of GM interactions and conversations. He wanted to make sure that there wasn’t any evidence to contradict his word when he reported me. After that, he made it seem like I was a disgruntled employee and that he was the knight in shining armor who had never done anything wrong. Human resources didn’t even bother investigating the claim or my defense after two of his ugly, self-centered, narcissistic male jerk-hole friends backed him up. He had them submit statements claiming that I was a crazy, obsessed, irrational woman who was so crazy that I would make stuff up just for attention. Then they started spreading the same rumors around the office just to make me look bad in front of everyone else.”

Lucas understood now why she had avoided this topic when she first showed up at his place with a company-issued dive machine. He already wanted to murder the man. “So–”

“So, those jerks tried to fire me! They were going to let me go with just a simple ‘Oh, she’s a loose cannon, a lazy employee,’ but they couldn’t,” Liu said angrily. “They said some higher up won’t let me get fired no matter what!”

Ah . . . that’s . . . my doing, Lucas realized. He hadn’t simply improved the game out of the goodness of his heart. He had bought a lot of the market share, almost 35% of the game’s total stock value, when he started playing the role of the villain. The move made sense at the time and seemed like a sound investment. After all, if he was going to put in all the time and effort to save the company, he might as well make some monetary returns off of it. Not to mention, the stock was valued incredibly low to begin with. No one ever could have predicted that the creation of a new dungeon on noob island would drive the value of the company up so much.

He wanted 51% of the gaming company, but he didn’t have enough liquid assets at the time, and he refused to cash in even a single share of Lu-Yu enterprises, the corporation that he had established with his now-deceased wife. Those he planned to hold on to until the day he died as a reminder of who she was to him and the things that they had done together.

He hadn’t thought the purchase would elevate Liu’s position when he did it though. Now, they couldn’t fire her because they’d be afraid of how he might swing his voting block around at the next stockholders’ meeting. They’re literally just keeping her around so that they don’t tick me off. Anyone with the Internet would know she’s my sister-in-law, and firing the sister-in-law of a major stockholder would be career suicide in this nepotistic world.

“Yeah, well, about that . . .” Lucas began to apologize to Liu for the situation, but she interrupted him and kept going.

“Right? Just because I helped raise the value of the company, everyone is afraid to fire me! But now, because I’m some self-centered, man-hating drama-queen, no one wants to work with me. So, you know what they did? They totally made up some random ‘new position,’ gave me this dive machine, a small 1% pay raise that won’t even cover the electric bill it’s going incur, and then they told me to work from home. Ugh. Men suck.”

“You know I’m a man, right?” Lucas said, abandoning his efforts to tell her what he had done and just shaking his head.

“Don’t ask me to be logical when I’m mad,” Liu huffed. “Just eat your roasted-grape crostini and be happy.”

Lucas had no issue following those orders. He finished off the one that he was working on, washed it down with a bit of merlot, and then took another.

“Not that I mean all men,” Liu continued after stuffing another bite into her mouth. “Just those three. Those three lying, duplicitous, scheming . . . They are the evil ones. And people like them.”

“Well . . .” Lucas frowned and stole a play out of Liu’s book by taking as long as possible to chew before answering. “Well, I’m really sorry you had to go through that, but–and I hate asking–what exactly is your new job?”

“Ah. That. I am now in charge of ‘organic content development.’ The boss’s boss’s boss was so pleased with your little dungeon escapades that people are comparing it to that rolling simulator, Not the Brightest Souls 2, saying it’s the new hardest challenge ever.”

“What the heck does that even mean?” Lucas asked. “Organic content development?”

“Well, it means that I have to find a way to make more content like the kind we made on Hesse. Except, this time, I have to make it on the mainland,” Liu grumbled. She was still clearly irritated, but the subtle switch of topics had taken a good bit of the fire out of her mood. “They’re trying to make it seem like they’re doing me a favor, but they’re not. They’re shafting me hard in the hopes that I’ll just up and quit on my own. The small pay increase isn’t even going to cover the electricity that it’s going to take to run this machine all the time. I’m already taking a hit, and now I have to buy my own lunches instead of getting access to the free gifts that are dropped off all the time.”

Lucas looked at her with a sidelong glance. “So, if you have to work from home, shouldn’t you . . . you know, be at your home?”

“Oh, well. About that. I figured that if I set up here, it would be cheaper,” Liu explained. “I figured that since my kind and generous and doting brother-in-law is so wealthy, he would happily take care of me and let me work here.”

Lucas looked over at the side-by-side machines. “You’re not exactly struggling for money, Liu. Why don’t you just negotiate with the company? Actually threaten to leave and go public with the truth or something if they don’t at least cover your electric?”

Liu’s face twisted around for a moment until she settled into a slight pout. “Are you saying you won’t help take care of me? That you hate my food and don’t want me over here? I see. I guess I was mistaken. I thought that when you put on that gallant, handsome front and stood up for me and told the whole world that you thought I was beautiful, that perhaps . . . perhaps, I really wasn’t trash. That I wasn’t wasted space. But if my presence isn’t worth the few dollars for electricity, then . . .” she sniffled and paused long enough to put on the fake waterworks for a second. “I suppose I can have it packed up and taken out today.”

“You really gonna try to guilt me into giving you free rein of my apartment?” Lucas asked skeptically. He knew Liu’s tricks all too well.

“Yup. And if you don’t give in, I’ll tell sis tomorrow how mean you are when I visit the grave,” she said, suddenly perking up and giving him a wicked grin.

Lucas sighed. He could easily kick her out. Ignoring her and her guilt trips wasn’t a problem. He had done it for seven months before without returning so much as a single call, but if he was honest with himself, he liked having her around. She was pleasant enough company, and he liked her food, the drinks, and the generally good mood that seemed to follow. He knew it, and he knew she knew it too. In a way, he was actually sure that she was forcing this situation on him because she wanted to save him the trouble of asking her to come over more often himself.

“Fine, you win. You can stay,” he said.

“Awesome!” Liu said, picking up her wine glass. “We toast to the first victory of Liu against the evil miserly Lucas in the territorial wars of Lucas’s apartment!”

“Huh?” Lucas, who had grabbed his own wine glass to share his toast, stopped when he heard the reason for it. “What territory wars? What are you talking about?”

“You don’t know? I’m going to take over this entire place. You’ve conceded a few square feet today, but I’ll get a few more later. I’m the true villain here, even if you haven’t realized it yet. Before you know it, you’ll find that this is my manor, and I’m the boss!” She tilted her head back and cackled evilly.

This woman . . . Lucas felt a tug on the corner of his cheeks. He failed to resist the urge to grin. It’s good to see her in high spirits. He had been ready to punch her boss, her boss’s boss, and her boss’s boss’s boss in the face when he heard what had happened, but the fact that Liu was still somehow having a good time and not letting them define who she was or what mood she was in made him feel good.

“The higher-ups are still going to make me work hard if I’m to keep playing as Xun Guan, the noble Lady of the Imperium,” she declared, “even if I do leech off you and drink wine all day. So, you need to work very hard and become the boss of some new territory soon.”

“Yeah, about that . . .” Lucas began. “Do you mind telling me more about this town we’re about to start in? The meetup is in a few minutes, and I logged off outside the gate like we told the others to do, but I don’t really know what’s going on.”

“Ah. The city . . .” Liu scratched her head. “It’s kind of just, you know, a neutral Reputation farming zone.”

“What do you mean? What the heck is a neutral rep farming zone?” Lucas asked. Unlike Liu, who had a detailed understanding of the MMO, Lucas was relatively new to actually playing the game. He had technically logged in eight months of real-life game time, or twenty-four months of in-game time, but he had spent it all as a lazy wastrel, using real-life cash to buy in-game currency that he spent on food and supplies. He hadn’t learned many of the game’s actual mechanical skills, and there were a lot of advanced topics that he only had limited knowledge of.

“Well, it’s like this. The Imperium city was, but now isn’t, an instanced zone. It’s a large town with tons of people that players often invade to farm Reputation by killing the guards, nobility, and high-level bosses.”

“What is Reputation?” Lucas asked. This was something he had heard of when he first began ascending through the ranks, but he didn’t know a ton else about it.

“Well, honestly, the best way to explain Reputation is this: it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s your standing with different factions, cities, guilds, etc. Most factions have a sworn enemy, and by killing that sworn enemy, you can improve your Reputation within that faction. Similarly, you lose Reputation with the sworn enemy faction by killing their members. The best way to describe it would be to consider the rivalry and conflict amongst the various were-beast races. The Were-Fox, the Were-Wolf, Were-Rat, and Were-Bear tribes are all goody-goody two-shoes who work together in Hesse to throw off the yoke of the evil Imperium, but in the mainland, they’re actually sworn enemies. They hate each other. So, if you kill a Were-Bear, your Reputation with the Were-Foxes and allied groups will improve, but your Reputation with the Were-Bears and their allies will decline.”

“I see. So, it’s like a sort of pick-your-faction kind of thing?” Lucas asked. He hadn’t realized that the various races hated each other so much or that there would be so much tribal conflict. “What’s the benefit of picking one over another? Wouldn’t it be better to be neutral with all factions? That way no one hates you?”

“Hmm . . . Theoretically, you don’t have to pick one over another. Most players naturally gravitate toward their own groups, at least initially, based just on starting race. Certain quests require you to have picked a faction, and others require you to have a certain amount of Reputation before you can even pick them up. Some merchants even require you to have earned Reputation within an area or faction before they’ll do business with you, and even then, their products might be restricted based on how much you’ve earned. It’s the game’s way of rewarding you for doing well, but it’s also telling you that you’re either with them or against them.

“To be honest, a lot of people just level up their Reputation with numerous factions at the same time by attacking the Imperium. The Imperium is universally hated, so you can build Rep with a lot of people at the same time without really taking any losses. Imperium players were non-existent before you came along, so there really was no downside to it. The only major problem is that it takes forever to gain Reputation that way. It’s safe but slow. The more specialized a hatred is, the more Reputation it yields. The more factions who share a common enemy, the fewer bonuses you get for farming it.

“Wait. Hold on a minute. There are faction-specific vendors?” Lucas thought that was just weird. “That seems dumb. What’s to stop someone from just buying an item at the faction-specific merchant and then selling it to a player that doesn’t have the Reputation to afford it?”

“Oh, the game protects against that too. Well, in a way. It’s more like if someone acts as a middle man, that person instantly loses all of their Reputation with the faction. The factions basically have the same reaction to a merchant re-selling their product that a company would to someone passing out their trade secrets: they’d blacklist them and spread the word not to do business with that person again. Any individual dumb enough to do that would find it nearly impossible to build Reputation with any faction ever again. They’d be branded as a traitor by every group in the area,” Liu explained.

“Oh, I see. So, going back to the Imperium city, when you say it’s a neutral Rep-farming zone, you mean that it’s an area where any player can go to improve their faction standing without ruining their standing with a different faction. It’s a place where you can farm Reputation with a faction while staying neutral.”

“Yeah,” Liu said. “Which makes it popular with Paladin orders and priesthoods that need to be beloved by all in order to unlock their class-specific quests and annoying to others, like Silver-Wolf hopefuls and those after the faction-specific gear and quests that need negative Reputation.”

“So, is there a Human faction?” Lucas asked. He was kind of curious since the factions she all mentioned were racial specific.

“There are a few, but like most racial factions, other races can still join them. You can be a Were-Bear and still have a high Reputation within the Were-Fox faction, even though they’re natural enemies. The Imperium is, more or less, the only racially-specific faction in the game. The Grand Admiral’s is considered by many to be the prominent Human faction since the majority of its members, and all of its ruling party, are Human, but there is Blessed Light, which is made up of mostly Humans, Dwarves, and Alfars.”

“So, just to take a stab at this, but . . . the trainers that Nick, Bonnie, and myself used . . . would those be Imperium faction trainers, even though they are elite classes that other people have access to?”

“Yes. Each faction has its own elite trainers. Some of them are unique in rare cases, but most overlap with what’s available to everyone else. The Dark Knight that Nick is being trained in is one that overlaps with a few others, but the Enchanter that you were trained in is unique, and only the Grand Admiral’s faction and the Imperium get access to the Reconnaissance class that Bonnie was trained in.”

“Can players make their own factions? This seems like it would be a really neat function. If they could create their own faction and then track Reputation within the faction, basically as a way of encouraging people to join and then assigning rank based on contribution . . .” Lucas wondered aloud, automatically thinking about how he would make a faction if possible.

“Uhh . . . No, not exactly? They can make a guild, and guilds have Reputation too, but there are no factions for them. They don’t get to pick sworn enemies. They just level up guild Rep by going out and doing impressive things in the world or completing major quests. Honestly, most players complain that it’s too easy to farm, feels pointless, and has no substantive reward at times.”

“Hmm . . . You’re in charge of organic content creation, so is there anything you can do to change that?” Lucas asked. “I mean, I think it would be good to create a faction within the Imperium, but one that is still part of the Imperium. Most of my guards have non-Human partners since Hesse was full of them, and half of my crew isn’t Human. I’d like to make a faction that represents the ideals of the people following me, if possible, without leaving the Imperium.”

Liu shook her head and shrugged off his question. “Too bad. You’ve gotta work with the hand you’re dealt.”

Lucas knew that really was her take on life. She had been dealt a horrible hand at work, had been sexually harassed and then pressured into leaving the office, even though she wasn’t the one at fault, but she was somehow still optimistic.

“Ugh,” he grumbled. This was going to be another one of those situations where the game actually had some amazing concept, like the dungeon development that he used on Hesse, that hadn’t been opened up to the players. This was starting to look like a common problem: there were tons of great features built in, but players didn’t access them for one reason or another. “Since you work from home now and have basically been stripped of everything, you can’t raise a fuss and push for changes, can you?”

“Nope, not at all,” Liu said with a big smile on her face. “So, let’s just stop dealing with this and go have some fun. I can’t wait to show you around the Imperium city. Even though it’s a little dangerous, that shouldn’t be a problem for us at all.” She stuffed the last crostini into her mouth, poured the remaining wine in with it, and then stood up while still chewing.

“Fine, but one more question. Why exactly are you . . . here?” Lucas asked, pointing to where Liu had set up the dive device.

“I thought we just went over that?” Liu asked.

“No, we went over why you came to my place. But you know that, if you set up next to me . . . Well, there’s a reason why cafes have private rooms and lockers for dive machines, right?” Lucas couldn’t believe that he was going to have to point out the fact that, in order to get in the pod, they’d have to strip. Nakedness was a requirement since the machines would rapidly fill with goo and connect to the body on several points.

“Huh?” Liu looked confused as she stood up and tilted her head at Lucas. “I don’t understand. What’s the problem? Just get in the machine already. We got friends to meet.”

Lucas was about to clarify what he meant, but before he could object, she began undressing. She unzipped her skirt, unbuttoned her blouse, slid down her pantyhose and removed her bra and panties. It wasn’t particularly fast, but Lucas couldn’t move as he stood there stunned, watching her actions. She climbed into the machine, and the door closed on top of her, finally letting Lucas regain his thoughts.

Back when Yu Hua, his wife, was alive, the sight of another woman naked never would have evoked such feelings within him. Now, however, it had been far too long since he had actually been with anyone, and the urges that made up being a man were starting to win out against guilt and history. I need to find someone to relieve this stress, Lucas thought as he walked over to his own device and began to disrobe. Soon.

When he climbed into the pod, Lucas was greeted by the melodious female voice with pleasant British tones as she went through the typical startup and greeting. “You have one missed call from your mother. Would you like to return her call before beginning immersion?”

“No,” Lucas replied, shutting it down. “Did she leave a voicemail?”

“She did. Would you like to listen to it now?”

“Yes, please.”

“Her voice mail is as follows: ‘Hey sweetie. How are you holding up? Liu said she finally got ahold of you and that you went to go see Yu Hua’s grave together. I’m so proud of you. Liu is such a wonderful woman. I’m glad you’re being nice to her again. She needs it. Especially after that fight she had with her dad again this week. I can’t believe that insensitive old man had the nerve to kick her out of the house when she went to visit her mother. Anyway, glad you’re at least being nice to her. I’m proud of your progress. Love you, Mom.’ End of message. Would you like to leave a response?”

Lucas was a little surprised. What? Her dad kicked her out of the home completely? What the hell did Liu say or do to cause that? He knew that Liu had friction with her family, but he didn’t know what could have happened in the last week that would have triggered such a drastic response. He debated bringing it up and asking her, but he decided against it, figuring it was better to let her talk about that stuff in her own time. “Just . . . Just send my mother a simple text. Tell her, ‘I love you. We should have lunch together sometime. I’ll try to come home for the holiday. Love, Lucas.’”

“That is an excellent message. I appreciate its brevity and sincerity.”

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you for giving me the privilege of being your virtual assistant. Now, you also have 48 emails from 20 different sources. Would you like to review them before beginning the immersion?”

“No, thank you. Just delete all of the emails.”

“Of course. What a great way to avoid wasting time. Would you like to begin the immersion process now?”

“Yes, please,” Lucas said.

“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 in front of him was unveiled the dirt road leading up to the Imperium’s capital, Dover. The group had logged off near the entrance, but not close enough that he would spawn right next to a guard, when he finally logged in. Unlike Hesse, the mainland was, so far, much less green and flowery. The dirt road was completely turned to mud in places, and grass was allowed to grow freely along the roadway, making it look like a lawn that hadn’t been mowed in five years. Lucas’s group had ventured into the grass a few times only to find that there were dozens of critters, all just as deadly as wolves and bears, hiding out in that waist-high grass.

“Are we the first ones back?” Lucas asked. Without the usual VRMMO systems of player messaging, friends lists, and guild messaging boards, it was almost impossible for players to find each other without having pre-planned meeting spots. At times, players even had to go so far as to send out old-fashioned emails just to organize events and coordinate meeting locations. The choice added a massive layer of realism and forced players to get to know one another and each person’s individual schedule, but it also meant that there were plenty of times when they would get stood up or be inconvenienced by confusing addresses and notes.

“Seems like it,” Liu said. Her in-game name was Xun Guan, a noble Lady of the Imperium, who had been the very first dungeon boss that any of the players would ever encounter when they started up a character in Hesse.

“We’re not that early. Some of them–”

“BOO!” Bonnie exclaimed. Just as Lucas was going to say that some of them should be back, Bonnie had jumped out at him from the grass.

“What the–” Lucas jumped back and automatically turned toward her, ready to defend himself.

“Sorry, boss. We all got on a few minutes earlier and decided to wait. Surprised it took you two so long to get on,” she said as she came out of the grass with Nick and Katie behind her.

“Wait, where is Viola?” Lucas asked.

“Oh, she’s late too. I figure she’s pampering herself with grapes and wine like some fancy-pants literary snob,” Nick laughed.

Bonnie reached over and quickly smacked Nick on the head with a healing scepter while yelling “HEAL!” and patching the wound just as fast as she created it.

“You almost made it a full minute,” Lucas commented, laughing at Nick’s misfortune.

“What the hell, Bonnie? I was talking about Viola! Why’d you hit me when you think she’s snobby too?!”

Bonnie shrugged. “Boss likes grapes and wine. Your correlation was implying he was a snob too. So, you get hit.”

“A joke is not a reason to hit someone,” Nick grumbled.

“If I hit someone just for being a joke, then I’d be hitting you all the time,” Bonnie snickered.

Nick stepped away from Bonnie and then turned back to Lucas. “How come you two logged in at the same time?”

“What are you implying, Nick? That the boss and Liu are together? Grow up, man. Just because you’re unwanted like a stripper’s dirty single doesn’t mean you need to go stirring drama for the boss,” Bonnie said.

Lucas shrugged. “Well, we are family. We were having lunch together.”

“Oh . . .” Nick’s face soured. It seemed that stirring up trouble had actually been his intent.

“A knight that’s good at acting like a fool, and a fool that’s good at acting like the knight, one seen by all to only beckon laughs, one seen by none, and in that hidden gap does she draw our eyes at end of days.” Viola’s voice came from behind Lucas. “How could I be late in attendance of your play?”

“And there she is, the one and only damsel in distress,” Bonnie said. “Asking to die a little early though, aren’t we?”

Lucas turned to see one of the prettiest people he had ever met in his entire life. Viola had long voluminous dark-brown hair; a petite, feminine face; a delicate, cute nose; and large purple eyes that always seemed to sparkle. Combined with the green and brown leather outfit that she was wearing, the only way she could have looked more like a Disney princess was if she had been decked from head to toe in a ballroom gown.

“You know, what exactly happened to your quest now that you’re gone?” Nick asked. “I mean, it’s not like people can rescue you when you’re all the way over here.”

“Oh.” The princess stopped and placed a finger to her mouth. “That’s true. I don’t know. Truthfully, I never even considered what might happen if someone really did manage to rescue me. I just always assumed that Lucas would naturally show his brilliance as the greatest villain and crush every one of those would-be heroes in their tracks. The idea that one would successfully capture me? Gosh forbid!” She giggled merrily. “What a silly notion from a silly boy.”

“You two really need to stop picking on Nick,” Lucas said, putting a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “He’s the only reason I don’t die most fights, so can you cut it out?”

“Aww . . . See that, Nick? Your meat is valuable to at least someone in the group,” Bonnie teased, drawing a deep grimace across Nick’s face.

“Well, if you guys have chatted enough, let’s get a move on. I want to go greet some fellow nobles and see what I can do to begin setting up a dungeon on the mainland.” Lucas walked off without waiting for a response so that the group had to either follow him or get left behind.

They made it halfway to the town when Lucas started to hear small explosive noises that he immediately recognized as the sounds of a battle. What the hell? Already? Lucas pulled his backpack in front of him so that it was only hanging by one strap from his shoulder, reached inside, and pulled out his magic staff. He already had his necklace on, which would allow him to channel Meddling Minds, but he still liked the spells that came equipped with the Pangea staff. He had grown accustomed to using the Cursed Tome of the Endless Reader while on Hesse, but that weapon wouldn’t work outside of the starter zone.

“Dude, you really need to go to the market and get a better staff,” Nick said as he moved ahead of Lucas and assumed his role as the tank. “The spells on that one just aren’t great.”

“I’ll see you in the fight, boss,” Bonnie said, darting into the tall grass on the side of the road and vanishing completely.

Katie signaled her agreement with Bonnie’s idea and disappeared after the Were-Fox. As a Naga, Katie had a racial advantage that allowed her to move much faster than the rest of the group.

“That’s the fourth explosion, and it’s really loud,” Xun Guan said, peering ahead. “Do you think it’s a group of mages, or just one high-level magic-user?”

“It seems just one,” Lucas said. He pointed toward the scuffle that just came into view as they made their final turn in the road, and the city’s gate was revealed.

The capital was surrounded by large stone walls, a beautiful moat, and a classic drawbridge. But as everything came into view, Lucas could see that the bridge was down, and there was a group of four guards fighting against a magic user and a tank in the middle of the two-carriage-wide bridge. The tank didn’t even have a weapon in his hand and was only carrying one medium-sized shield in each arm instead, but he was covered from head to toe in plated armor. Lucas thought it looked silly at first, but when he noticed how easily the tank was able to move around and block each incoming attack while keeping all four of the guards at bay and providing his magic-wielding friend with plenty of room to throw explosive attacks at the guards, he couldn’t laugh. Well, that certainly is one way to play.

“Your time is now!” the Mage shouted as he channeled another Fireball.

“Easy, friend. You don’t want to do that! Lucas called out to the Mage while still running,  already channeling his signature spell, Meddling Minds. It was his defining spell as an Enchanter that allowed him to create suggestions and turn enemies against each other, and it was built into the class item he wore around his neck. “I can tell you’re a good man, and these are good people. You don’t want to bother them. You want to put down your weapon and use your words.”

“What are you saying?” the man shouted back. “Of course I want to kill them. Otherwise, how am I going to make it through to the barracks where all of the best loot and Reputation is?”

But by the time the man finished arguing, Lucas’s spell went off. He had a much larger Arcanum supply now, and as a result, his spell channeled incredibly fast. He was only able to channel 10% of his energy into the spell at a time, and the cost of the spell had started to go up with his total Charisma. The reason he took his time with the channeling process, however, was because the spell’s effects would be changed depending on how convincing he might be before casting it. The other factor that affected the spell was Charisma. Whereas elemental spells did damage based on the enemy type, armor type, and the environmental conditions around them, his spell had only two factors: the suggestions he was giving and the difference between his Charisma score and the enemy’s.

“You know what I’m saying. I’m saying that you need to be a good person, to not fight against the defenseless guards. You’re clearly their better, so put down your weapon.”

“Yeah, I think . . . I think I will,” the man said quietly before dropping his magic staff on the ground.

“What the hell are you doing, Lavelle?” the knight demanded. “Why are you listening to him? Help me out here! I’m going to get swarmed.”

“But I don’t feel like fighting anymore,” the Mage replied. “I’m sorry, Jackson. I think it was rude of us to attack.”

“Idiot! We’re going to get killed!” Jackson yelled back.

“It’s a little late to be worried about that,” Bonnie said flippantly as she appeared behind the Mage. She burst out of the shadows and buried her dagger into the Mage’s back before the others could even reach the fight. In a way, it wasn’t really even a contest. Thanks to her class, Bonnie gained a movement speed bonus, and poor Nick suffered penalties thanks to the heavy armor he wore.

“What the hell, are we being lowbie ganked?” Jackson asked. “Stupid noobs, why don’t you get your own prey?!” He spun around in a fury, deflecting the next round of attacks in a single move, and then charged straight at the guard closest to the Mage. He slammed into the man shield-first, and the guard was thrown back several paces.

“What the . . .?” the Mage came out of the Meddling Minds spell, Bonnie’s attack having jolted him out of it prematurely. Instead of dying, like many on Hesse would after even a single thrust of Bonnie’s blade, the guy was practically unharmed. He was confused, but he was still standing. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, so you’re back with us?” Jackson shouted. “Kill the damn lowbies! I’ll keep these guards occupied.”

“I . . . I . . .” Lavelle stuttered, still coming around. As if acting on instinct, he began leaning forward as if to recover his lost staff. Bonnie had relentlessly buried a dozen knife thrusts into the Mage’s back in the short time he had been out of it, but he just seemed oblivious to all of them. It was clear that this man’s simple cloth armor wasn’t as simple as it appeared, and that he was a much, much higher level than Bonnie and Lucas were. “I’m going to kill you!”

He finally collapsed forward and onto the ground, but his hand closed around his staff a second later, and he instantly began charging a spell the moment it was within his grasp.

“Viola!” Lucas shouted. He wanted to make sure his Sage was in position and ready to patch up whatever damage the spell caused.

“Already on it,” Viola called back, and a giant magically-made Force Shield popped up right in front of Bonnie, separating her from the magician.

A massive explosion erupted from the tip of Lavelle’s staff at point-blank range and then rebounded off the barrier. The otherwise impassable shield shattered under the effects of the powerful spell, but not before a majority of its force was rebounded directly toward Lavelle. The fiery backflow surged around the already-downed caster, roasting him with his own attack.

“Get another shield up! He’s going to shoot again!” Lucas warned. Then, taking his own advice, he began casting Wind Wall. Lucas quickly set the beginning and end points necessary to complete the spell and directed the huge gust of Wind toward Jackson. Not only would it turn away any spell Lavelle cast, but Lucas was also hoping that the forceful winds would help coerce the tank toward the moat in front of him. The blustery blockade sprang into place and slammed into a guard, throwing him forward. Although he was clearly caught off guard, Jackson somehow managed to react. He maneuvered one of his twin shields around between him and the projectile guardsman and turned him to the side, sending the guard careening off into the moat.

“What the hell?” Jackson crouched down slightly, lowering his center of gravity for balance, and turned to face Lucas, the obvious source of the Wind Wall. “Lavelle, a little help here!”

But there wasn’t much that his friend could do at the moment. Bonnie had leapt on top of him and pinned his arms to the ground, not only making it harder to cast but also making it so that his spells would blow up and hit him too if he tried to cast. The two wrestled around for a brief moment as they fought for control, but Bonnie eventually won out. She slammed her knife down into his stomach several times, eliciting howls of pain and rage.

Somehow, Lavelle managed to buck her off and over his head by pushing off with his legs and thrusting upward with his hips at the same time. It was incredibly reminiscent of a judo technique that Lucas had seen in movies, and he was instantly curious how someone was able to replicate it within the game, much less someone who was a caster.

Lavelle quickly got to his feet and backed away, but before he could raise his staff to cast a spell at the scrambling Were-Fox, three arrows darted out of the grassy wall and peppered his chest from his sternum to his Adam’s apple. Lavelle instantly abandoned his attempt at casting a spell and instead doubled over, grasping at his chest with both hands.

Lucas recognized that condition all too well as blowback from having failed to properly channel a spell. If it was anything like what Lucas himself had suffered in the past, Lavelle would be left dizzy and disoriented; and, indeed, Lucas heard the other magician gasp in several deep ragged breaths as if he were finding it hard to breathe. Then, almost as if to put him out of his misery, a fourth arrow shot through Lavelle’s cheek and into the back of his throat. Lavelle’s knees gave way, and he collapsed back to the bridge.

You have killed Lavelle. You have been awarded 1800 EXP. A fine magic staff and a leg of mutton have dropped upon death.

Nick maneuvered around Lucas and took advantage of the Wind Wall by charging Jackson. He used the Wind as a free method of acceleration and then used his extra speed to slam into the larger knight shield-first.

Jackson roared in anger at seeing his friend killed and cursed, “BY LEE’S LIGHT, I’LL KILL YOU ALL!” He fought to stay upright for one brief moment, but the combined pressure of Lucas’s Wind Wall and Nick’s weight was too much for him. The two tanks both toppled off the bridge and into the moat with a loud splash.

“Katie, can you get our tank?” Lucas asked, rushing over to the edge of the drawbridge and peering into the water.

“Nnn,” Katie responded, slithering toward the water’s edge and diving straight in with a small plop.

It took him a minute to realize that the guard who fell off was already climbing up the wall on the side–or, rather, struggling to get a foothold so that he could climb out–with Nick next to him. Neither Katie nor Jackson was anywhere to be seen. Lucas peered into the depths for a long moment, and then the two missing people burst from the water all at once. Katie’s snake-like lower half was tightly wrapped around Jackson, making it nearly impossible for him to swim. Seconds later, his shields bobbed to the surface as well. Katie’s tightly-coiled tail constricted yet again, and the two disappeared underwater once more as she dragged him down in a literal death hug. Lucas watched for a long minute, waiting to see what would happen, and then Katie appeared, slithering up the steep incline of the moat’s wall and back onto shore with ease. Once she was on land, she turned and looked at Lucas expectantly.

You have killed Jackson. You have been awarded 1500 EXP. A battered steel shield and 4 gold have dropped upon death.

“You . . . uhh . . .”–Lucas’s eyes wandered back to the moat, where Jackson had at last disappeared underneath the surface–“you did very well there.”

Katie’s cheeks turned red, and she looked down abashedly at his praise–but not before Lucas noticed her glow.

Lucas turned to the rest of his party and shared the same sentiments. “You guys all did well. That was a tough fight, and we couldn’t have done it without working as a team. Good job.”

“No problem, boss,” Bonnie said. “That was a fun one.”

“Speak for yourself,” Nick groaned as he climbed up on shore. “I felt like a kite without a string while in Lucas’s Wind Wall.”

“I don’t know . . .” Bonnie shrugged. “Aren’t you always talking about wanting to get bl–”

“Language!” Lucas warned, interrupting before she could continue. He didn’t know why, but he felt like certain topics shouldn’t be mentioned so openly in front of Katie. Even though the princess was always talked about by others as the pure one, Lucas was certain that it was actually Katie.

“I’m also going to thank you all,” the guard who climbed out of the moat said.

“Indeed,” one of the other gate guards said.

“I must extend my thanks as well, on behalf of me, my wife at home, and my two daughters,” another guard added.

The last guard shook his head ruefully. He positioned himself so that he was only talking to Lucas and said, “Being saved by subs . . . This is a first, and one I definitely won’t forget. You have my deepest thanks, sir.”

“Well, thanks are nice,” Lucas began, “but uhh . . . Can we go through?”

The guard paused as if he had been struck by a difficult question. This bridge was probably a checkpoint so that the guards could determine if Lucas was part of the Imperium, and Lucas’s question had undeniably reminded them that they had a job to do. The first guard stepped forward as if he were going to get down to business, but as soon as he saw the ring that conferred Lucas with the title of Baron, he stopped short. The other guards spied the ring as well, and they all bowed their heads respectfully.

“Of course, Baron. Your and your party’s entry is guaranteed,” the guard said without lifting his head.

Ah! To be nobility in an ancient fantasy world. Lucas squirmed a little but did his best not to look uncomfortable at the gestures. Although he wasn’t entirely used to the deference they were showing him, it was something that he had to accommodate in order to play the role that was necessary of him. It was becoming easier as the days went by, but he was still a modern man, and people bowing like that, serving him, swearing obedience, and obeying his every word just felt unnatural. Even though he had been a CEO whom people kissed up to in the past, they had been subtle with their sycophantic praise. Now that he was a noble, everyone in the game besides his party or other higher-ranking Imperium nobles treated him like royalty.

Xun Guan walked up beside him as they entered the town. “Lucas, you need to be careful in this city,” she warned. “While almost everyone in here is part of the Imperium and won’t attack you, there will be other players here to farm Reputation. A stealth-type class might appear at any second to stab you in the back, or a party might come in that we can’t handle. Keep your head down and don’t make a noise unless you have to.”

“That seems fair,” Lucas agreed. He paused for a moment and looked around at the buildings. He had absolutely no idea what to expect from the city. The first thing he noticed was that all the shops and houses were several stories tall. Although the ground levels were all made almost entirely from stone, the second, third, and fourth floors had been constructed from hewn wood. They were all painted in different colors varying from red and white to blue and purple. They all had lots of windows, and many had extensions on the upper levels that jutted out over the streets and sidewalks. It was as if their builders had been searching for a way to increase the size of the buildings without continuing upward anymore.

The road itself was packed with canopied stalls set up on the sides of the road, from which merchants vociferously harassed everyone that passed by.

“You can’t be serious,” Lucas said sardonically when he saw that all the merchants were eyeing him like fresh meat. “How could someone come in here and kill these people for Reputation?”

“They usually don’t. These merchants aren’t worth anything,” Liu explained. “They’re only here, for the most part, so that players have somewhere to sell their loot from killing the soldiers and guards in the barracks without having to go all the way back to the main town. The others won’t buy your stuff if you killed one of them, so this area is actually pretty safe–but that doesn’t mean you won’t find a stray player with a penchant for murder hanging around either. There is always going to be at least one person who doesn’t care where he is forced to hawk his wares and who is willing to go on a rampage.”

“What about stealing?” Bonnie asked. “What happens if I get caught adding a few pounds to the purse?”

“Same punishment,” Liu warned. “So, don’t get caught. Since you’re with us, you might get us all in trouble too. Be careful.”

“What’s this stealing? I thought you were a mercenary?” Lucas asked.

“Hey, I’m your mercenary at the moment,” Bonnie protested, “but if something happened to you, boss, I don’t know if I could work for another man again. You’ve ruined me. I might have to resort to a life of crime and thievery.”

Lucas noticed that, while the merchants were excited to see him and Xun Guan and were indifferent to Nick, they gave the rest of his party uncomfortable glances. Their eyes would flicker past Bonnie, Katie, and Viola as if they weren’t even there, and more than a few seemed to be openly disgusted by their presence.

“You should put that dog on a leash,” a passerby said as Lucas made his way through the marketplace.

“I’m not against it, boss,” Bonnie piped up quickly. “I’ve got my collar with me. Just give me a second to put it on. It’ll look great! Wait, do you want me to wear the leather one or the chain one?”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “Just . . . be quiet, Bonnie.” Dealing with her was somewhat frustrating, especially since just the image of her with nothing but a leash on popped up in his head. It has been way too long. Lucas sighed, making sure not to make eye contact with the more-than-happy Were-Fox. Bonnie looked way too satisfied, happily wagging her tail as if she were completely unfazed by the insulting looks she was getting from different members in the Imperium.

“It’s a little worse here than on Hesse due to the fact that the other racial factions are constantly fighting with the Imperium here,” Liu said, answering Lucas’s question before he could finish it.

“Ah. I see.” Lucas understood. The Imperium’s rivalry with non-Human races here was like that of the English’s rivalry with the French during the 100 Years War. They had to demonize the enemy. At least it makes more sense than just regular old racism, Lucas thought as he continued through the market. Several of the merchants called out, trying to sell him gear, but Lucas didn’t pay them any mind and instead just pressed forward until he saw the one merchant that he couldn’t help but greet.

“Willmarth!” Lucas shouted, spotting the blacksmith. The man’s face was covered with black ash and soot, and grey hairs shot out in all directions, giving him a wild and desperate visage. “I thought you had a nice shop set up already?” Willmarth was basically the best blacksmith in all of the starter zone. If players wanted gear that would carry them through to the mainland, his shop had been the place to procure it. Lucas had met him just before his first meeting with Dray von Maidbanger, when the system had prompted him to acquire formal wear prior to meeting the noble.

The giant, six-foot-five-inch man loomed over Lucas as he approached, and they clasped hands in greeting. The bear-sized man then planted his hands on his hips and leaned back, audibly cracking his back. “Welp,” Willmarth began, “after you took over and didn’t even so much as come to the shop to give me a promotion to Imperium Soldier, I thought I’d try my hand at applying elsewhere. If’n you weren’t going to make me a soldier, then I’d probably die before anyone else did. That’s when I remembered that I got a cousin here, and, well, they’re always looking for soldiers up here, so I got on the first boat and rushed over.”

Lucas nodded, feeling a little guilty. “Sorry about that. I was really busy and didn’t get a chance to make it to your shop before you left,” he lied. He had totally forgotten about Willmarth. “By the time I did, you were already gone.” He continued his lie, hoping that his Charisma would help him sell it.

“Seriously? Ugh. I should have just stayed. These bastards here don’t know talent when it slaps them in the face. I applied to be a soldier for the Imperium as soon as I arrived, and they rejected it faster than that lass I asked out last night. It was a stamped-out ‘No, go home and don’t apply again’ situation–not that I blame them.”

“You don’t?” Lucas asked.

“‘Course I don’t. Back on Hesse, I coulda put any one of those soldiers in his place. But here? Not so much.” Willmarth let out a deep chuckle. “I couldn’t even land a single blow on that recruiter. He popped me twice on my butt and kicked me out before I could even wipe myself after he kicked the crap out of me.”

“That’s rough. So, you gonna go back to Hesse? I can put in a word, make you a guard or a soldier there. I’m told the new guy managing the place is a bit of a jerk, but I’m sure I can work something out.” Now that the tension had lessened, Lucas didn’t mind making a joke. He had gotten away with his little fib, and his eyes began straying over the merchandise Willmarth was selling. Based on what he saw, Willmarth’s abilities as a blacksmith had improved in a very short time. The assortment of gear laid on the table was even better than what he had been selling on Hesse, and it looked like Willmarth had learned to use the same metals in gear crafting that Lucas had used to upgrade his dungeon.

His craftsmanship is remarkable! Lucas thought, admiring one sword after the other. Then he caught sight of some small metal balls.

“Are those . . .?” Nick saw them at the same time and reached forward to grab them off the table only to have his hand swatted away by Willmarth.

“Ah-ah! Don’t touch a man’s balls without asking. Those are liable to blow up in your face if you don’t handle them just right,” Willmarth explained, grabbing one very carefully. The balls were almost entirely a polished black with the exception of two wood-covered spots on opposite sides that Willmarth used to hold one by. “These babies right here are my wall clearers. You throw one of these at a wall, a person, you name it–as long as the side that hits it ain’t wood and you’ve thrown it hard enough, the thing will explode like it’s Imperium Day at the port.”

“That deadly?” Lucas asked. “How did you make them?”

“Can’t be giving off trade secrets; you need to earn those. Anyway, it’s nice seeing a friendly face, but it ain’t so nice seeing the gear you got on that mutt, that snake, and tall ears over there. Hell, you didn’t even put a proper plate on the over-eager ball grabber here,” Willmarth said as he motioned with his head toward Nick. “And where is that armor I made you? It was top-notch. You’re embarrassing me and yourself by wearing that fancy-pants comfort suit. You’re gonna get yourself killed at this rate.”

“You’re trying to sell me something, aren’t you?” Lucas sighed. He knew Willmarth, and he knew that Willmarth’s interest now was entirely commercial. “Are you that hard up for money?”

“‘Course I am,” Willmarth said. “It’s a damn marketplace, boy. Come on, let me hook you up. I can tell you need my good gear here.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to do that,” Liu said, stepping in and picking up one of his items. “For the material and level of this gear, it is practically flawless. But both of those are low. This gear isn’t even going to last you to Level 40 here on the mainland. Even though this region isn’t a particularly high-level, there are plenty of merchants that sell better stuff.”

“Ugh, Xun Guan,” Willmarth grumbled. “Don’t you dare go trying to get in the way of me and a loyal customer. Me and Lucas here go way back, so why don’t you walk that Lady arse of yours away and let me do my job?”

“I think you better watch how you talk to her,” Lucas said, fiddling with his Baron Ring to let Willmarth know he was pulling rank.

“Fine. Sorry. But I gotta eat, woman. No one is buying my stuff here, and I can’t even afford a ticket on the ship home, so could you not go throwing me under the first cart down the street?” Willmarth pleaded.

“Well . . .” Lucas looked over at his crew. “His items really aren’t good?”

“Terrible,” Liu confirmed once more. “We can find much better just down the street.”

“I see,” Lucas said, looking at Willmarth’s depressed expression. The big man’s droopy face was saddening. Spent his whole life trying to be a soldier, couldn’t make it, and now he can’t even make ends meet since he went from being the big fish in a small pond to the small fish in a big lake. Lucas pulled out his pocketbook and tossed Willmarth 10 gold pieces. “It seems I won’t be needing your gear,” Lucas said, “but here is some money. Try to buy some good materials and then make the best item you can with it. Just consider this as a custom order, so I’ll come back to see what you got.” Lucas added that last part so that Willmarth wouldn’t think that he was trying to hand out charity and feel insulted. For some reason, he had a feeling that the blacksmith would have refused him otherwise.

“Won’t be disappointed,” Willmarth said as he took the coins from Lucas.

With that, Lucas and his group once more headed down the street and made their way to the keep in the middle of town. Walking past all of the street food without grabbing any was difficult. Almost two years of doing nothing but eating fine foods and sampling the game’s delicacies had turned Lucas into something of a gluttonous connoisseur, and the sight of what looked like crepes covered in strawberries and blueberries and sprinkled with powdered sugar looked incredibly tempting. He had almost given in to temptation when he realized he was already close to his destination: the royal court.

Xun Guan had been unclear about what he was going to have to do in order to establish himself as a dungeon master in this new world, but Lucas was eager to set up shop as soon as possible. What he did know, however, was that this was the place to start. It wasn’t a court in the same sense as he thought of it in the real world, with judges, juries, prosecutors, and defendants, but rather the large, cathedral-sized building where social gatherings would take place. As Liu had explained on the way, it was a giant meet-and-greet area right in the lobby of the same building that was home to the throne room. So, in essence, it was where nobility came to converse with one another, negotiate politics and trade, and do business; and, as such, there were limitations on who could enter. Only the nobility or someone in the direct employment of nobility was allowed in.

“This looks promising,” Bonnie said as she walked ahead of the group. “With a building like this, you know there have to be a ton of loose wallets just waiting to buy a good mercenary. I bet I could make a killing in here.”

Lucas shook his head.

“Didn’t you just complain about how you’d have to turn to a life of crime if your precious boss wouldn’t hire you since you couldn’t work for anyone else?” Nick asked.

Bonnie shrugged. “Gotta say what the client likes hearing. Also gotta pay rent.”

“You pay rent with the in-game currency?” Nick asked incredulously.

“What? Like you couldn’t? We’ve made a fortune working for Lucas. I’ve already been able to buy a full month of game time at a cafe.”

“I got my own machine,” Nick shot back. “It’s uhh . . . It was a hand-me-down gift.”

“A hand-me-down gift?” Bonnie asked. “Who the hell gives someone a hand-me-down gift?”

Nick sighed. “Yeah, you know. Like, look . . . it’s just . . . fine. I got a part-time job and saved up half the money, and then my parents gave me the other half for getting straight A’s in college, okay? Just stop busting my chops about it.”

“Oh, what? You? You got straight A’s? Oh, my god. That’s awesome,” Bonnie said. “Don’t worry! It makes sense! Without a girlfriend to distract you, it must have been really easy to study.”

“Awkward and smart.” Viola let the words exit her mouth slowly. “A bit dull but definitely a pervasive role amongst gamers. The only question you have to ask yourself is, how will you stand out and be different from the others?”

“Why do I even have to stand out?” Nick asked. “This isn’t a play. I’m not trying to be the star. Can’t I just play the game and have fun? I didn’t work my rear off to spend the summer working my rear off again.”

“The whole world is a play, every part of it, and if you aren’t amusing, you’re forgotten,” Viola said haughtily. Then, as if something on the side of the street that no one else noticed was suddenly much more interesting than he was, she turned away from him.

“Anyway, it’s one thing to be supporting cast; it’s another to be behind the curtains,” Viola harrumphed.

“I’d hate to go to a play that didn’t have stagehands,” Lucas said, patting Nick on the back. “Not that you’re a stagehand.”

“Well, if you ever give up on the stage and end up working lights, make sure the one over me shines the brightest!” Viola sang, theatrically twirling about until the hem of her skirt flared out.

Do friends usually pick on each other like this? When Lucas had been in college, his then-girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Yu Hua, and Liu were the only two he had ever hung out with. After that, as a CEO of an up-and-coming corporation, everyone was either a sycophant after something or strictly professional, so he wasn’t used to the type of sharp jabs and awkward insults that were always being exchanged amongst the members of his group. He couldn’t help but think that he wouldn’t have acted so calmly if Bonnie had insulted or treated him the way she did Nick.

Liu looked over at Lucas and then glanced at Nick as if to indicate she knew exactly what Lucas was thinking about. She shrugged.

“Oh, man, you sure I don’t need a collar for this, boss?” Bonnie asked. “I would look delicious in a collar. Ooo, maybe one with studs . . .”

“Will you just quit that?” Lucas replied.

“Well, she’s not wrong,” Xun Guan argued. “It would help our case here. You’re a new noble that no one knows, and you’re about to enter the court with three non-Humans, none of whom is dressed like a butler or a maid. They aren’t even carrying any brands, tattoos, or emblems to signify what house they are from.”

“Wait, do I have a royal symbol?” Lucas asked, looking down at the ring he was wearing. He had “inherited” three such rings on Hesse, and as far as he knew, they all bore the exact same symbol. It had never occurred to him that there might be more; he only naturally assumed that they were all identical. The symbol was comprised of four separate pieces, each of which was golden and set on a blue background comprised of miniature sapphires. The centerpiece was a long staff capped with a jewel and tiny dashed lines that made it look as if it were giving off a power or being activated, and then the staff was crossed by both a sword and a scepter. In the center, where all the items crossed, there was a crown serving as a sort of cuff holding them all together.

“Yes, that’s the royal symbol,” Xun Guan explained. “And those little marks”–she pointed to two stars set on either side of the ring–“those let people know you’re a Baron.”

Lucas pulled out his Ritter Ring, the one he had gotten from Rowland, to compare and noticed that it only had one simple cross where the second star was on Lucas’s current ring. The ring he had received from Kegan, which was a basic Knight’s ring, had no stars at all. It was just a ring with the royal symbol on it.

“I take it that, as I gain levels, this symbol will change?” Lucas asked.

“No, it’ll gain stars as you gain rank,” Liu answered.

“I guess this means that I also lack any house symbol since I’m new?” Lucas asked, looking at the rings. “Or did I inherit Kegan’s?”

“Can’t inherit a house’s symbol. The only people using Kegan’s symbol now would be any family members he might have left, but given that no one showed up in Hesse after his death, I can’t be sure that any even exist. I was going to look it up in the game’s files before”–she paused briefly and looked from side to side, probably not wanting to tell the others about the incident–“but I just didn’t get a chance.”

“That’s fine. I’m sure we’ll run into his family sooner or later if they’re around here,” Lucas said.

They arrived at a large one-and-a half-story-tall wooden double door that filled out a massive arched gateway. Lucas and his entourage had to climb up a few steps from the street to reach it. There were six attendees and four guards stationed around the door, and Lucas could only presume that they had arrived at the royal court.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re not–” One of the attendants had begun rejecting Lucas and his people before Lucas could even say anything, but as soon as the gentleman saw Lucas’s and Liu’s rings, he corrected himself. “I mean . . . Baron, Lady, I apologize for my rudeness. Are these your servants? May I know which of you each of them is representing?”

“Is it your place to question whom I bring?” Lucas automatically slipped back into his role of the villain, and he felt like acting a little haughty since they had come so close to turning him away without a second thought.

“No, sir, not at all,” the attendant said, shaking his head. “It’s just . . .” The man frowned. The attendants were dressed like what Lucas expected of a 1920s butler, and they were wearing far more clothes than could possibly be comfortable in the current heat.

One of the armored guards wearing full chainmail that was even shinier than the outfit Willmarth had made Lucas on Hesse stepped forward exactly one-half step. “What he means to say is that it is a required tradition. You have to state which person is with whom so that, if trouble should arise or if one of your servants causes damage or is damaged, we know where to send the bill.”

“If one of my servants is damaged, I won’t be expecting compensation,” Lucas said gravely. “I will be expecting heads. As for who is with whom, all of them are with me. Is that a sufficient enough answer to pass?”

“Yes, Baron . . .” The guard drew out the word “Baron,” clearly expecting Lucas to fill in the blank with his name as to avoid further offense due to ignorance. The action was proof of how weighty the authority of the nobility was in the Imperium.

“Lucas. Baron Lucas,” Lucas answered. “Now, if you will move aside and let us enter before I have to . . .” This time, it was Lucas’s turn to pause as he had no idea what he actually could do to the guard. He still didn’t fully understand the rules of the Imperium, so he just trailed off and gave the guard a wicked smile, expecting him to fill in the rest. “Be creative in my punishment.”

By leaving it vague, the guard clearly thought of one of the worst-case scenarios, and beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. “I’m sorry, Baron Lucas. Right this way.” The guard stepped aside, creating a path for the six people to walk into the court.

The room inside instantly reminded Lucas of the stateroom at Buckingham Palace. There were large curved arches leading to square-tiled roofs, each with a picture across it, and heavy crystal chandeliers hanging from above. Each of the chandeliers, except for one, was illuminated by a ring of candles. The largest- and lowest-hanging contained a magic crystal, which was being powered by a Mage standing near one of the walls, constantly channeling power into an Arcane Energy line that ran up the wall, through the ceiling, and down to the chandelier. The spell she cast wasn’t very powerful, but it was flashy, and it provided a copious amount of light that was further filtered and dispersed by the crystals around the main one. The walls were as white as the stone cliffs Lucas had seen when the ship first approached the merchants’ port, and the floor was covered with a luxurious blue carpeting.

“This is amazing,” Lucas muttered, admiring the room.

Bonnie shrugged. “It’s okay. I bet you’ll have an even nicer place one day. I mean, that manor of ours was great, and we were barely there for a week or so.”

“Imagine how many lives were sacrificed so that this beautiful place could be built?” Viola said quietly, walking over to one of the walls and touching it as if physical contact might yield some sort of emotional connection as well. “It’s amazing. Hundreds of thousands of man-hours must have gone into creating this. They don’t have any of the modern tools we do, so they would have been forced to use people working day in and day out for years to build something this large, their toil and labors only serving to produce a few simple rooms that look more lavish and have more space than others. Simply beautiful.”

“Alrighty then.” Nick looked away from her as if he didn’t want to admit that he knew who she was.

Lucas shook his head, dismissing Viola’s role-play, and followed Nick’s gaze back to the rest of the room. One of the things he had been good at as a CEO was reading the room and picking up on signs, and he automatically began taking stock of the people present. Very quickly, he realized that, out of everyone in the court, there were at least thirty nobles like himself with staff hanging nearby. Every single one was talking amongst themselves in hushed tones that Lucas couldn’t quite make out. It was also painfully obvious that every single pair of eyes in the room was locked on him.

Well, I am new, and this is a group of gossip mongers. Of course, they’d look. However, as he scanned their faces, he realized that what was going on wasn’t simple gossip. It was disdain. He had already been judged.

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