Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Bathrobe Knight- Chapter 2 (Town Trip)

The Bathrobe Knight
Written by: Charles Dean, Anon
Edited by: Joshua Swayne 
Notes: Did I say thank you to John Nest from Zectas yet for sharing our story? Thanks! Also, thanks again for everyone's support and their suggestions. It's all been very helpful. Basically, thank you so much for your comments, your feedback and your participation in the story. 
We plan on doing our best to get a chapter out every Sunday. No promises that the chapters will always be this long.
Editing notes: We're working on a lot of formatting issues to make things more clear.
One last thing: Can you guys help me come up with a ridiculous monster idea? We want dungeons that aren't just filled with goblins and slimes, and we were hoping you guys could help us out.



           There was no warning before the attack came.  The scouts had grown complacent in their job.  Overconfidence and the belief in the safety of numbers had lulled them into only occasionally bothering to do the one and only task assigned to them--making sure that no one was around who wasn't supposed to be.  Securing the safety of everyone and providing an early warning of any impending attack that would threaten their efforts was, arguably, the most important task assigned to any of them that day.  Unless, of course, one considered that it was also their primary defense for protecting their hard-won loot -- what precious little of it there was to go around.
Most members of the group were far too low in level to justify even attempting the camp alone; but, they had begun their day with high hopes and in good spirits, eager to gain some desperately needed experience and advance themselves in the world.  The midwinter festival had just passed and many members of the party still sported brightly colored hats of various odd shapes and sizes they had received as gifts during the holiday.  Jovial spirits and all, the band had collected themselves and set out at first light hoping to make a day of it adventuring.  The day had started clear and bright, and making progress into the mountains had been fast and easy.  Snows during this time of the season were expected to restrict most from traveling too far into the north, but the weather so far had been unreasonably amiable.  Paths farther into the mountains were often narrow and treacherous, covered with debris and fallen trees, but the one the group followed upward was well-worn and often used by other travelers.
The small band had been struggling for hours to dispatch the large brutish ogres that inhabited a small frozen cavern on the outskirts of the northern reaches.  It was slow tedious work with few rewards.  Because of their nature, the brutes carried very little gold upon their person, and the only real rewards were the large mauls they carried as weapons.  Although they were far too large and heavy to be of any real use to anyone present, the crude weapons would fetch a decent price when they were hauled back to town and sold for coin to the merchants there.  The metal and wood weapons were barely worth more than the scrap and petrified lumbar they were used for, but the materials could be salvaged and repurposed for other tasks.  Fence posts and nails, perhaps.   It seemed ironic when one could imagine that's probably where many of them had been taken from prior to being fashioned into the rough weapons they were being used as now.  Regardless, they would fetch a decent price and the group desperately needed the resources to justify the time and effort they had invested into farming the camp.
           The beasts were slow, but they had a massive reach and hit like a truck.  Typically, if lucky, newer players such as themselves would be able to party up with some stronger adventurers and hope to leech a few levels before attempting the feat on their own.  The party as it was, however, was struggling under the task.  They had all approached the large caverns just west of where they were now and had unanimously been turned away finding a much higher leveled group from their town already there farming.  Everyone was desperate for resources.  The campaign against the White Horns and Black Wings had been going badly and everyone was pressed to contribute as many resources as possible.  The men there had promised to include them later on if the opportunity became available but the smaller band had no desire to wait and were itching to make some progress.
           As a result, they now found themselves frantically scrambling to avoid the sluggish swipes of the ogre’s maul.  Even though the attacks were slow, their massive reach made it impossible to completely avoid being hit.  And it hurt.  A lot.  The brutes may have been strong, but they were also equally as stupid.  They trickled out of the camp one by one allowing the party to pull them out of position and prevent the other ogres from drawing aggro.  The lead tank, in a battered suit of studded leather armor that had surely seen better days, labored under the blows struggling to deflect them while the other members worked on attacking the beast from behind.  Unable to manage any of the fancier and better crafted weapons available at the local merchants in town, the process took time.  Their dull blades and short swords barely seemed to nick the thick hide of the monster as they hacked away at its flanks. The mage, who had long since given up even trying to cast his inefficient spells, simply stood off to the side of the clearing staring blankly, sometimes throwing a random fireball upwards into the air to watch it fizzle and disappear.
The ogre before them fell to the ground with a great 'harumpf' finally giving up the fight and rewarding them with the chance to loot the meager items from its corpse.
"Are you kidding me?  We've been out here for hours and these things are taking forever to kill," the mage sighed.
"It's hard to kill something when all you can be bothered to do is attack the clouds," the rogue cut in, clearly not ready to hear it.
"Yeah, man, seriously," the tank replied, wiping the sweat from his brow, "I can't believe the drop rate on these things.  You'd think by now we would have at least seen a few rare item drops or something.  But there's never anything here but a few silver pieces and another crummy maul to sell back in town."
"Well, at least we should be able to make some profit once we sell those.  Every little bit counts when you're starting out, right?" The mage sounded hopeful.
"Yeah, and when you're trying to wage a war at the same time," the rogue snidely remarked.
"I can't believe how much gold the King decided to sink into npc fighters during that last battle.  I heard it was over two thousand pieces. It could have been used to build up the town but instead he just threw it away," the tank lamented, flopping to the ground in a great huff.
"Awh, man, where'd you hear that? Have you been listening to gossip down in town from those bar whores again?  They'll say anything to get you to open up your own purse."
"Nah man.  Those girls know what they're talking about.  They hear gossip from everyone.  I've heard that even some of the Lords on the Council go there.  Sneaking around in veiled carriages late at night so that their wives don't find out.  If there's anything going on those girls are the first to know"
"Yeah, okay, if you say so," the rogue replied with a snort showing how obviously he believed any of it.  "How much longer do you guys want to stay out here?  We should probably head back and bank soon.  I haven't heard anything from the scoooo--" the rogue stopped mid-sentence, an arrow protruding from his neck and blood beginning to froth out around the wound.  His hands feebly grasped at the shaft unable to do anything, eyes wide with a mixture of shock, surprise, and horror.  The rogue collapsed to the ground still clutching at the arrow shaft unable to stay his fate or stop the bleeding.
"What was that?" the tank looked up from where he sat in time to see a figure erupt from the line of trees ahead of him.  He only had enough time to begin struggling to his feet and take note of the black suit of mail before the warrior's massive axe came crushing down upon his skull splitting it in two.  The warrior only stopped long enough to shove his massive black boot into the fallen fighters face and wretch his axe free before turning after the mage.
The mage, who had witnessed the callous slaughter of two members of his party take place in mere seconds was now running towards the location of the other group at the nearby camp screaming for help at the top of his lungs.  Scrambling through the loose snow and low scrub brush his feet couldn't seem to move fast enough. His flimsy robes seemed to catch on every bush and twig he ran past jerking him violently from side to side.  The violent sounds of the warrior crashing over obstacles he desperately sought to avoid spurred him on.  He could swear he could hear his own heart beat pounding in his ears.
"Almost there.  I can see the clearing.  The other group will be there, and I'll be safe" was all he could think. The mage burst from the trees making a beeline towards the other side of the camp where the group had been camped out earlier killing mobs.  
  • You have taken 92 damage. You are now suffering a movement penalty.
A sharp pain suddenly ripped through his right calf and he collapsed to the ground in a wind-milling heap, arms flailing around his head, and face-planted in the snow.  All he could do was curl up into a fetal ball, clutch the arrow that now protruded from his leg, and wait.   
He could hear the light sound of footsteps approaching on the snow.  He twisted his head up and looked around behind him to see a tall figure approaching him slowly, clearly taking his time.  He was dressed from head to toe in a pitch black hunter's garb.  Even the bow he carried with an arrow nocked was an inky black color.
"Thought you'd get away?  Not likely, kid."  He could tell the voice was smiling, laughing behind the hood of his cowl.
           The mage could only look up and stare, eyes wide with fright, gasping for breath.  Behind the dark figure that now stood towering over him he could see the warrior that had pursued him through the woods emerge from the tree line purposefully striding towards them.  He was in no hurry, but every step he took belied the strength and confidence of a hunter without fear.  He knew his prey was caught.
           "Running like a dog, eh?"  The warrior's voice was low and gruff as he approached the other two figures.  The dark mask he wore pulled over his mouth and nose to cut the cold did nothing to muffle his voice.  "I @#$ing hate running."
           The warrior lifted a massive black boot and brought it crashing down into the side of the mages gut where he lay on the ground.  What little air that remained in the downed man's struggling lungs came rushing out, leaving him gasping for breath.  "H-help..." he feebly cried.
           The archer laughed, "Who do you expect to help you?  We're here to kill you.  Not help you."
           The mage tried to turn his head towards the other side where the other group had been.  Salvation was only a stone's throw away and he had been so close.  Why hadn't they noticed what was going on and come to save him yet?
           "No one there, little dog," the warrior growled.  Reaching down, hard iron gauntlets unceremoniously grasped the back of the mages robes and the massive fighter began roughly dragging him through the snow towards the direction of the mage's gaze.  "You weren't expecting help from a corpse, were ya?" And with that the mage was thrown forward into the snow again causing pain to explode from the arrow wound in his calf and bruised ribs.
  • You have taken 46 damage.
           Looking up, the mage was greeted with a grisly sight.  Bright red patches of blood covered the once-innocent white snow, staining it.  Bodies laid strewn about, some at impossible angles, some clearly hacked to pieces.  They were only just now beginning to fade from the world.  A momentary landmark to what had clearly been a quick and gruesome slaughter.
           "Enough.  Finish this and let's move on."  The voice of the archer sounded distant.  The mage could only stare at the horror before him.  Salvation had been so close.  He had almost been safe.  What had happened?
           "Oh, I got this.  No one makes me run."  The warrior reached down and grabbed the arrow shaft still protruding from the mages leg, twisted, and violently ripped it free.  The mage screamed.
  • You have taken 46 damage.
           "Well, at least he finally found his voice," the other chuckled from behind his cowl again.
            "PKS!  PKS!  RAIDERS IN THE AREA!" A voice screamed from across the clearing.  The mage caught sight of a small green-clad man frantically waving his arms in the air from the corner of his vision.  "PKS ARE CLO-!" came the cry again.  A dark shape suddenly materialized behind the vagrant scout.  With a silent movement it brought a knife up and slit the still screaming throat of the missing scout before just as quickly vanishing again.
           "Gee, thanks," the mage thought to himself watching the other man die.  He didn't even care.  His vision suddenly blurred as he felt himself jerked around and a black-mailed fist crashed down into his nose.  
  • Critical Hit! You have taken 126 damage.
Pain exploded from his face and his head was thrown back bouncing off the ground.  The last thing he noticed as the warrior drew back his black-mailed fist again for the final strike was the blood running down the warriors wrist to cover up a purple and black tattooed skull.  "That's my blood..." he thought.  Then everything went black.  
  • You have been killed. When your death timer expires you will be respawned in Valcrest, the town you are currently bound to.

    By the time Darwin reached town he was a solid half way into level 28. The road to the town had been long, and random ogres had kept popping up here and there, but they were easy enough to kill, and it broke the monotony of walking. If there was any downside to building a beautifully-rendered realistic world with proper dimensions, it was that the thing was bound to be huge. People might have complained that “the scales didn’t match up right” when he played old games, but at least they didn’t have to spend the hour that felt like two putting one foot in front of the other. Life must have been awful before cars were invented.
    As he finally approached the large wooden gates of the town, one of the two guards in chainmail with spears standing duty approached him, blocking his path. “Greetings, citizen. What is the nature of your visit to Valcrest?”
“I”m here to turn in a quest and sell some axes. I killed a few hundred White Horn’s, and I need to find a place that might be interested in buying them.” Darwin smiled to himself knowing this time he was definitely speaking to a NPC. Players had blue names while friendly NPCs had white names. It was a distinction he wished he had known when he first got to this world. That king was way too weird and human to have been programmed. Who wears a purple suit? It had to be a player pretending to be a pimp.
The two guards each exchanged a look between them that Darwin wasn’t able to catch. “How many axes?”
“Around 7 or 8 hundred. Why? Is there a limit to how many you can sell?” Darwin probably would have had more since he had somehow gotten most of the drops, but he had shared his spoils with Kass every now and then to keep the numbers balanced.
    The guards exchanged another glance. “You said White Horns? You killed a few hundred White Horns?” Darwin frowned.  Is this an error in the programming? Is this like when the iPhone came out and Siri had to repeat the question over and over again just to have a simple sentence understood?
    “Yes. I killed the legion that was about an hour that way,” Darwin said, pointing in the direction he had just come from. He wasn’t sure what the exact direction was without pulling out the map again. God, I miss those little blue quest markers and the compass at the bottom of the screen. They made everything in life easier.
    “Go make a report. Take the summoning circle,” the guard that had approached him said to the other at which point the other immediately departed.
    “Did I do something wrong? Was I not supposed to kill them?”
    The guard chuckled to himself before answering. “I think most people would have asked that after the first kill, not the first five hundred, but no, you didn’t do anything wrong. If you’re interested in selling your wares go straight down this road until you see a fountain that marks the center of the town and then take a right. That’s where the merchants are. Once there, take a right, and the richest blacksmith you’ll find will be the third shop on your left. Can’t miss it: it’s got the big pillar of smoke behind it.”
    “Thank you for the help. Have a good day!” Even though it was a NPC and Darwin knew it was a NPC, he just couldn’t help but treat it like a person. The AI in the game was so creepily accurate that he couldn’t tell the difference between the NPC’s behavior and a person’s.
    As he passed through the gates, the guard called out to him one more time making Darwin worry. “Sir!”
    “Yes? Did I forget to do something?”
    “No, it’s just… thank you!”
    “Umm... no problem? Have a good day.” Thank you? If metal was so in demand that the guards would thank him for just bringing his axes to sell here, then he was definitely going to make a killing. But how did food work? I know it’s a game, but my stomach is killing me, and I’m so thirsty. Where is iced tea when you need it.
    The town was utterly lacking in style to Darwin. The shops seemed to bleed into one another so well that just walking down the road one might confuse himself with a hotdog that had lost its way in a very large hallway --the shops were just two continuous walls and not a series of individual stores. The blacksmith shop itself was even hard to spot, regardless of what the guard had said. If it wasn’t for the tell-tale sign with an anvil hanging above the door he might have missed it and gone into the fourth or fifth shop on the row.
    “Greetings!” a burley, beer-gutted man with a beard that hung from chin to belly button said as soon as he opened the door. The man didn’t even bother looking up as he said it and just went back to working on whatever it was he was fashioning behind the desk where he stood. The entire shop was filled with tall stands that blocked his vision, each holding a series of weapons which were mostly made out of wood. With all the staves bows and arrows, one might not recognize the fact it was a blacksmith’s shop and not a carpenter’s.
    “Hey,” Darwin said, paying beer gut the same indifferent respect he received. He was about to ask him to buy the axes, when he realized he not only didn’t know what a good price was for the axes, but he didn’t even know what currency was worth in this new gamer world. “How much is a double bladed iron axe worth?”
    “A passable one would be worth about 2 gold coins and 50 silver pieces. Iron is shorter than my patience though, boy, so if you want me to make you one, it’ll be 6 gold coins,” the grumpy man said, pausing what he was doing for only a second to scratch the top of his bald head.  
    “Could I sell one?”
Beard belly put down whatever it was he was holding and looked up at him with squinted eyes.
    “I’ll take a look at it, but you won’t get more than 2 gold coins.”
    “Fine, but how long will it take you to look at about eight hundred?” As soon as he mentioned the number he had, a clatter came from behind one of the weapon walls.
    “Did you say you had eight hundred?” a timid female voice called out from behind the wall. “You think you could sell fifty to my guild instead of the old man. We’ll pay you the 2 gold and 50 silver pieces they are actually worth.”
    “I don’t see why not.” Money is money, after all, and I need to get some badly and buy a burger.
  • Elaine has requested to trade with you. Would you like to Accept or Reject the trade invitation?
    Accept. When he accepted the trade request a window popped up with an items and gold section on both sides. Add fifty Double Bladed Iron Axes to the trade. She added her gold to the currency section of the trade and the deal was made.
  • You have gained 125 Gold!
    Great. Now I just need to sell off the rest of them. “So, interested in the rest of my axes old man?”
    “Yeah, come on and show me what you got, kid. Don’t expect no 2 gold and 50 silver from me though,” the bald man grumbled at him.
    After selling off all but ten of the double bladed iron axes, Darwin’s hunger got the better of him, and he dashed outside to the first tavern he could find. He didn’t know when Kass would log in again, but he did know that he needed some food and water.  He wasn’t entirely sure if his character would ever fatigue and need sleep, but he didn’t exactly want to leave that part to chance either.
He sat down at the first wooden table he could find and ordered a meal and a drink. The tavern wasn’t anything like what he expected from stories and movies. It was just like an empty diner with wooden tables. Lots and lots and lots of wooden everything. Even the waitress who took his order had that same cordial friendly attitude that he had grown to expect from the restaurants back home like IHOP.
As he ate, he decided he didn’t exactly know how the friend-tracking system worked. He had a lot to do: get a job class, turn in a quest, get a quest, and find out what is going on with the racial issues around here, and of course the tutorial. No, actually, on second thought, I don’t need to do any more of the tutorial. I’m not about to break one of the cardinal rules of gaming while stuck in a gamer’s world. Darwin knew that you could excuse tutorial use if it was a necessity, but not if you chose to take it just because you had the free time.
So much to do. I wonder when Kass will get back on. I wonder if Kass is actually a girl. Darwin wasn’t certain on that last part at all. After all, for Darwin, this was a video game.  And every gamer knew that GIRL stood for Guy In Real Life more often than not. Even in the raid group that Ser Nightvale was a part of, at least two of the ‘girls’ were guys pretending to be girls. He never understood why some guys liked to pretend they were girls, but the phenomena was well documented with a thousand anecdotes to the point that most gamers just accepted it as fact. Those brown eyes of hers were so realistic looking. This game is amazing.  
The King resisted the urge to adjust his crown as the council deliberated in front of him about what he should or should not be doing with his troops and his kingdom. They acted like they had the final say. If the people had actually been as disheartened by the 8th legion’s demise as the Council seemed to believe, to wrest power from the King and turn it over Council, then he may as well have marched the legions straight off a cliff and into a pit
The fattest of the councilmen sat at the end of the long ornate wooden table in a terribly odd outfit as if his gluttony and greed had earned him the most prestige of the 13 pigs that joined him today.
“I don’t care what you have to say Willhelm, there is no reason for us to move the 4th legion out of Barkton. If we don’t keep the mills secure and safe, we won’t have the wood needed for the arrows. It won’t just be the 4th, it’ll be all the legions that suffer. My vote is the 4th legion stays in Barkton.”
“But if Valcrest falls to the White Horns we lose our first line of defense on the eastern front. Ashcroft, you can’t seriously be in favor of letting it fall and all the people in it die over a couple of arrows can you?”
“Ashcroft, see reason. I know the arrows are important but we can make a good mill anywhere.  Nothing will replace the value of the lives that will be lost in Valcrest if the White Horns press their advantage and sack the city. What if you had family there? Would you so callously toss them aside for shields and arrows?”
    I want to believe you, Dreston, I want to trust you Wilhelm. A day ago and I would have. A day ago and I wouldn’t have your machinations laid out in front of me. The messenger whose daughter he held captive had been more than effective at his job last night. He had not only killed his contact but he had also gone to the councilman’s estate and made copies of the council’s plans as well. The idiots had just left the documents scattered across their desks like every soldier in the capital was in on their scheme.
“Of course not, Dreston, but I’m just worried about the future of our legions. After losing the 8th legion, I am going to have trouble going home and telling those that put me here why their sons and fathers won’t be coming home.”
“I understand, but please, for the sake of the daughters and wives whose sons and fathers died to protect them, change your vote! I urge you to see reason.”
Vote all you like, I’m not moving the 4th legion and letting you sack Barkton and move on my capital.
“Gentlemen, we have debated this for hours.  Surely the King would like to have a say. He is in fact the benefactor of this land. King, please, speak reason to these sharks who so callously throw away the lives of good men and women over arrows.”
“What about Barkton? Is there really no threat of attack on it? When we moved the 4th legion there it was due to an imminent threat from a small group of Black Wings.”
“Your Majesty, we believe the threat has pulled back. Given the news about the 8th legion our intelligence says that it was most likely the same Black Wings threatening Barkton that were used in defeating our forces near Valcrest.” Ashcroft, the very councilman who was supposedly against the idea of moving the 4th legion was the first to offer reason against his decision. He may be a good schemer, but he is a terrible actor.
“You believe Barkton to be 100% safe then Ashcroft?”
“I believe it is relatively safe?”
“So there is or isn’t a threat to the area? Why, if there is no threat, do you want to leave the troops there instead of aiding Valcrest?”
“It is as Your Majesty says. There is still a possibility of a threat. I was only reporting on the Black Wing activity as I’ve heard it.”
“Mmm. So you gentlemen want me to leave Barkton for the wolves and save Valcrest.”
“Your Majesty, we don’t want to leave any town for the wolves, we just advise you to see reason and take as few risks as possible.” Wilhelm spoke, this time in his best sympathetic voice while eyeing Ashcroft for being so stupid just a moment ago. What? Did he forget his lines?
“Hmm. Well, you’re in luck then if you were worried. Valcrest will be fine. I don’t plan on leaving either city for the wolves. I have seen this tragedy coming and taken measures to save them both,” he said, for he did indeed have a plan this time.
He didn’t know what the council was up to after the 8th legion’s demise, but he knew they weren’t playing the same game he was anymore and that he was going to need troops. Their plans always came at the expense of lives. That’s why he had, since the moment of the Red Eye’s arrival, organized the 7th legion to secretly clear out the so called ‘threat’ that was supposedly forcing the 6th legion to overcommit to the small town of Kallafan on the north border. It was a risk doing it, if the White Horns had seen them or the council had gotten word that Oghan was defenseless, then thousands would have died. But they didn’t. The plan had actually worked, and now he could move the 6th legion further south and defend Valcrest.
“You see, this time I’ve got good news” the King began, about to tell the council of how he had defeated their plan when he was interrupted by clamor outside the chamber.
*Bang!* The doors to the chamber room flew open and a guard, one the king didn’t recognize, came in flanked by his own escort. What is it now? More drama? Another ‘surprise’ event? A messenger that they’ve planned to make sure we send troops to Valcrest?
One of his personal troops spoke first. “Sir, it’s urgent news about Valcrest.” Of course it is.”  I think you’re going to want to hear this.” Of course I do. You couldn’t wait until we were in private to bring me bad news?
“Fine, go ahead.” the King groaned, repressing a facepalm. “Tell me what the news is.”
“Sir, earlier today a strange man in a green robe claimed he defeated the White Horn legion east of Valcrest. Combined with the reports from the scouts and the massive number of double bladed iron axes he sold to the Valcrest blacksmith we can absolutely confirm the report.” The room went so quiet.
“You said the entire legion of White Horns was destroyed?” This can’t be, wait... a man in a green robe?
“Yessir, and with the axe sales, we have enough iron now to reinforce an entire legion,” the guard said, smiling happily as he stood at attention.
“The man in the green robe. Was he tall? Broad Shoulders? Red eyes?” It can’t be him. I sent that man out with just a spoon, and he killed an entire legion?
“Yessir, that’s the one.” While the King smiled everyone else in the room broke out in murmurs.
“Guard. Thank you for your service. Make sure to let the people of the town know that that man was sent by me --as witnessed by everyone in the court during the weekly scouting reports-- to destroy the legion, and he did so with only a spoon. Let them know that as long as that man resides in Valcrest no harm shall befall the town from which he cannot protect it and that the King has done this out of his love for the people of Valcrest.”  The King cringed as he made the proclamation.  Speeches like that, especially when they were lies, made his stomach churn.
What kind of rotten man is the council turning me into? Though it isn’t entirely a lie. I didn’t summon the hero to the kingdom, but I did send him to the front lines. “You see gentlemen, this is why we don’t have to abandon either town. You wanted a legion to do what my man has already done. You would leave Barkton undefended and risk its death for nothing. Have you no faith in me? Did I not tell you the other day that I had summoned a hero to deliver us from evil? Trust in your ruler, for I spend my days protecting every member of this kingdom. This meeting is over.  You have pointlessly wasted enough of my time with an irrelevant squabble,” he said while getting up and heading to the door. The stunned councilmen didn’t follow. They probably had more schemes to make behind his back.
As soon as he had gotten out of sight of the council he turned to the bodyguard on his left and whispered as quietly as he could, “Go fetch our new messenger. Have him meet me in my study as quick as you can and come with him. We have work to do.  Oh, and make sure that guard gets paid 10 gold pieces for his timely arrival. That type of luck needs to be rewarded.”
Adjusting his crown, he rushed his step and headed for the study. This red-eyed demon had saved him twice, but he couldn’t keep relying on him. The council would be sending assassins to kill him soon enough, and it was only a matter of time before they cut his throat while he slept. The only thing to do now was to stall their efforts and thwart their plans. What kind of monster is he to kill an entire legion of White Horns with just a spoon? He must be a monster, a demon of the spoon.
The problem was gone now, though, wasn’t it? The champion with the spoon killed them, and the problem was gone. He just killed them and it just went away. All you have to do is kill them and make the problem go away.
Kass logged in and picked the “log in at bind point” option.  It was available to players who hadn’t logged out in combat and had stayed out of game for more than an hour. It was kind of a cheater’s way to warp back to town if you were in a dungeon several hours away. None of the players had really needed to use this trick before, because most of them had only farmed within half an hours reach of their starting towns, but this time she was happy for it.
She had bet a lot on killing the Minotaurs and gone with the 8th legion against the advice of most of the top players. “Minotaurs might not have armor or high health but they can kill you in one or two swings, and the smallest aggro group is going to be at least three minotaurs.” It was a fact that had turned out to be true as she had been forced to watch entire groups of NPCs and PCs decimated by the wild axe swings. She had known it was a calculated risk, but even divided 10 or 100 ways the exp had been worth it.  The contribution bonus from killing “enemies of the kingdom” certainly didn’t hurt.  The sheer number that were present on the field at any given time had been more than enough to tempt even some of the freshest lowbies out to the front lines. Especially Kass.
She smoothed her white dress and found the nearest blacksmith to sell her goods at. 1600 gold for the lump sum of her ridiculous number of axes. The minotaur loot wasn’t great, but it was definitely much better than you were supposed to get in a party of two this early on. This probably makes me the richest girl on the server! I wonder what kind of magic staves I can get, or if I can get any accessories to boost my damage. I should go find Darwin before I start shopping though, I bet that clueless old man doesn’t even know what accessories are. Tiqpa Map.
She brought up her map and looked for the blue dot with Darwin’s name on it to show where he was. Huh? He’s in the tavern? Why is he still there after turning in the quest? He isn’t one of those fully immersive role-players who spend hours on a video game talking to people in taverns instead of playing, is he? Ugh, if he’s in the tavern all the time who will I leach experience from.
As she made her way to the tavern she couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces of gossip from the other PCs hanging out in town on the way. “Hey, did you hear what happened to Greg’s group? It got toasted by ‘Flesh Wound.’  It’s like the tenth group that’s been slaughtered by them in the last day.”
“Yeah. I hear they are all around level 30 now. I bet they came here just to get some cash though, a full week of grinding alone wouldn’t have helped them afford that much black dye.”
“Nah. I don’t think that’s the case. Their leader really takes pleasure in it. You should have heard what he did to one of the runners.”
“The mage? I did. It’s only a VR and the pain sensors are extremely dulled but that poor guy is already booking it south. Doesn’t want to risk it twice.”
“They’ve definitely got everyone looking over their shoulders now when they leave town, that’s for sure.  Its making it hard to get a good group for farming.  No one wants to risk farming for too long for fear of getting rolled out.”  
Crud. I knew when the 8th legion got toasted and the guards stopped patrolling for Red Names things would go south, but I didn’t think it’d happen this fast.
“Maybe we could try to get a group together and do a dungeon. If we log out at the end and wait an hour then the PK’s won’t be able to get us because it’ll respawn us in town.”
Kass kept her ear trained for more rumors as she made her way through the market, but all of them were the same. Flesh Wound this and Flesh Wound that. Even the NPCs were showing signs of fear. It wasn’t until she was almost at the tavern that she heard anything different.
    “How did that guy get a bathrobe? I didn’t even know they sold that item in the game. He even had matching slippers.” Ugh! NO! He better not try to keep that bathrobe forever. I don’t care how strong the set bonus is, I’m still scarred for life after that slip yesterday.  
When she opened the door to the tavern, though, all the anger she was building up at him for still having a bathrobe on faded away. He was staring blankly at the empty plate in front of him with a face that somehow reminded him of her dad’s when he first heard that her mom had died.
“Did you get any sleep last night?” she said, taking the seat opposite him.
“No, I found out that I can’t sleep.” he said, not really making eye contact with her.
“I know what you mean. If we hadn’t stayed up so late I wouldn’t have even fallen asleep.”
I don’t know what he means, she thought, his face telling her that she was so far away from saying the right thing that she might as well have been speaking a different language.
“So, about the quest. I figured I would wait on you to turn it in,” he said, changing the subject as quick as he could. Something is definitely wrong with this guy. A part of Kass really wanted to help him out, but she had learned enough about leaving people alone with their problems in the past.  She thought about her mother’s death again.  
“Yeah, let’s go get that done. By the way, do you want to go shopping afterwards? I just got a ton of money from selling all those axes we looted yesterday.”
“Maybe. I didn’t see anything but staves and arrows in the blacksmith’s shop. One of those staves might be an upgrade for you?”
“Oh, heavens no. Those things might as well be used as door stops or furniture props for all the use they would be to a mage. We have to get our weapons from the enchantment or magic shops or they won’t do anything for our spells. Don’t you know anything about items?”
“No, not really. If we’re going, let me pay up first.” Darwin said as he got up and went to the bartender. As soon as he got up Kass noticed that underneath the plate there was a piece of paper hidden with only its edges sticking out. Secret! She looked over at Darwin chatting in an overly friendly manner with the bartender and decided it was safe to sneak a peek at the paper.
        Race: Unknown    **No Red-Eyed man before me.
        Class: Unknown
        Locked: Attributes, Sleep, Log out, Class Promotion
I was able to party with Kass but Kass is a PC human. According to what I’ve discovered the party system currently prevents humans from partying with other races. Of the other races White Horns, Black Wings have been seen to party with each other.
PCs don’t require food. NPCs require food. I require food. PCs don’t require sleep. NPCs require sleep. I don’t require sleep. PCs can respawn. Can I?
After a series of questions I’ve realized that most of the NPCs aren’t aware that this is a game. They seem to be capable of making mistakes and I can’t tell the difference between their emotions and the emo...
    Kass kept glancing back and forth between Darwin and the page as she read the notes.  When she saw that he was finished and heading back towards her, she slid the piece of paper back where she had found it as quickly as possible and hoped she hadn’t been noticed.  Is he comparing himself to a NPC? No Red-Eyed man before him? What are you up to, Mr. Darwin? What’s your real secret?  She wanted to ask him right away, but she couldn’t. She had discovered the paper by snooping when he had clearly hidden it under the plate. If she brought it up right away he might suspect her, and she still needed him for the EXP.
    “Ready to go?” he said, trying and failing to sneak the piece of paper out from under the plate without Kass seeing. Kass smiled to herself, Too late! I’m on to you, Mr. Bond.
    “Yeah, sure.  Let’s go find Captain Elmont and turn this quest in. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll hit 30, right?”
“It was really nice talking to you Darwin! Please come again!” The NPC bartender called out as Darwin left. He and Darwin must have had some amazing conversation. That was the first time Kass had seen him do anything other than pour drinks, take orders, and tell people to pay up. Has anyone even tried talking to him before, though?
“You too, Peter, and I hope your son puts that axe to good use. You have no idea how frustrating it was getting it.” He gave an NPC a gift? Doesn’t he know they aren’t actually people?
“I’m sure he will. Have a good one!” As the bartender waved them goodbye, Kass couldn’t help but think something was wrong with the whole scene. She wasn’t alone in that thought either.  A few of the other PCs in the tavern gave Darwin and the bartender, apparently named Peter, a strange look.
When they got out of the tavern, Kass tried to pry a little bit without sounding too obvious, “So, you actually talked with the NPC?”
“You don’t talk to NPCs in video games? Who will give you the quests?” he asked, glancing sideways at her as they walked.  She was sure that he was smirking as he asked it.
Is he trolling me now? “You know what I mean. He said you gave him an axe? Why would you give a NPC a gift?”
“Why do people buy toys for their dogs?”
“That’s not the same thing. Dogs are real. Dogs can feel emotions.”
“Is it any different than a NPC who is programmed to feel emotions? He seemed pretty happy with the axe.” Darwin had stopped making eye contact during the conversation and was looking around. “Ah! There’s Captain Elmont.”
“You know him too?”
“Of course. He is in the military, and I was at the only bar all night. Kinda seems obvious that I’d have met him.”
Oh yeah, these games are supposed to simulate reality. “So why didn’t you turn in the quest then?”
“Because I didn’t have my mage to protect me if he warped me to some random battlefield. I might trust my axe some, but I definitely feel more confident with an Ice Princess at my side.”
No one just warps people to a battlefield randomly, you idiot. Your sweet talk won’t make you any less suspicious. “You’re just being silly, you don’t need me around to protect you from the big old scary bad men.” she said, emphasizing the last part with a little girl’s voice.
“If you say so.”
“I do. Now turn it in, scaredy cat!”
  • You have been invited to Darwin’s Party. Would you like to Accept or Reject?
    Woops! I totally forgot to invite him. Accept! “Good thinking, Bathrobe Knight.  After all, we can’t have you not getting exp from all of my kills.” Kass started to wonder if she was poking him too much. His grumpy face had returned again.
    “Elmont. How are you?” Darwin opened the conversation with the captain up before Kass could say anything.
    “What, boy, didn’t get enough of my company last night at the tavern?” The cantankerous officer had been busy organizing some of the other NPCs when Darwin and Kass interrupted him.
    “You know how things are. I thought I would introduce a struggling old man to a young girl, seeing as how you haven’t been able to meet one lately.” Darwin smiled at Kass while he said it, a smug ‘if you troll me, I’ll troll you’ smirk back on his face.
    “Oh, oh! Boy, you’ve brought me one above my paygrade. I don’t think I can match up to a girl with curves like that or a face so pretty. Bring me one a little more simple and a little less beautiful next time. I know my limits!” Ha! This old man knows his place Kass thought. Even so, he had still made her blush more than any of the guys who had hit on her during her final year of college. “Anyways, Darwin, what do you got for me? Gonna consider joining the ranks?”
    “No, we’re here for a quest turn-in,” Kass said, deciding she didn’t like to be talked around too much and needed to take control of the conversation.
    “Oh yeah, I knew you looked familiar. You’re the girl who joined up with the 8th legion before it was lost, may they rest in peace. The quest was to kill minotaurs. Let me check your quest record to see what I owe you.” He paused for a moment as he looked at the two of them, and then his jaw made an attempt to connect with the floor. “Little missy, Darwin, I can’t thank you enough with words for what you’ve done. We all hated those White Horns after what they did to the 8th legion, but for you two to risk your lives to do this much. Thank you. This is all I have to offer you two, but please take it with my sincerest gratitude.”
    “The honor was mine, Elmont, I’m just glad I could be of assistance to the town,” Darwin said with a face that would have almost convinced Kass he was serious --if it weren’t for the fact he was talking to a NPC. Is he trying to trigger a special event, or is he actually one of those role-players? He’s kind of too good looking to be a role-player and his neck is way too devoid of beard. Kass froze. Did she just think that Darwin was good looking? Nope. Nope nope nope.
    “Yeah, the honor was mine,” she said in the same fake cheesy manner that Darwin did. Kass was certain that Darwin knew something about the game that she didn’t. That’s why he had so many notes on that paper. If only I had had more time to read it all, I’d know what he was up to.
    “You two are truly great citizens. For your deed as well as your concern for our people I’ve got a reward. I normally wouldn’t give these away no matter how many White Horn’s someone killed, but I think you two have proven to be more than just disrespectful adventurers.  So… here.  One for each of you according to your abilities,” he said, handing each one of them a ring. The one he handed Kass was a beautiful white gold ring with a series of tiny sapphires lining its edge. Jackpot! He did know something. “These rings are usually only given to the elite knights and mages to aid in their service of the Kingdom. Wear them well.”
    Kass brought up her inventory screen as quick as she could and pulled out the ring. ‘Ring of the Ice Queen. Grants the wearer: + 10 vitality, + 10 Spirit, + 10 Concentration.’ What? This is insane. Kass looked at Darwin with curious eyes to see what he got. If hers was a frost mage’s ring, what would a novice’s ring be? I bet it’s Ring of the Bathrobe Knight with +10 to spoon throwing and +5 to flap protection.
    “Oh, and heroes,” Elmont continued. “Be careful to avoid players dressed in all black. I’ve heard a lot of talk about people being killed lately. We rely on those player’s hard work and contributions to keep the town running.  It would be nice if someone could do something about the problem, but we simply don’t have the resources to spend on gearing up new guards to protect the players. Not since our silver ore mine was overrun, anyway.”
  • You have received a quest from Captain Elmont to clear the silver ore mine. Would you like to Accept or Reject?
    Accept. Darwin, you better not expect us to go straight there and skip shopping though.
Walking into the office before noon was something that had a strangely eerie feel to Robert.  Before the project began he had certainly been working more regular business hours than he did now.  Regardless, the long nights over the past few weeks as everything pushed closer and closer to the release date, and the patch containing the final AI update, meant he barely ever saw the place before noon.  He couldn't help but feel that he was out of place somehow.  Like he was stepping into a girlfriend's dorm room when he was in college.  There wasn't anything out of the ordinary, certainly no bras hanging from computer chairs that he could see (the guys would wet themselves if there were). He just felt like he somehow didn't quite fit in.  Like he didn't belong there, that something was off.
           Even after he made his way to his work station --luckily, without having to talk to anyone-- he still couldn't quite shake the feeling.  Upon quick review of his area, however, he couldn't find any reason for the feeling to persist.  Everything was just as he had left it a few hours ago, and his slightly OCD personality was thankful for it. "I've gotta learn to get some sleep.  I must be getting paranoid," he thought to himself as he looked around.  "There's certainly no fluffy pink carpeting going to appear here."
           Pulling his laptop out of its travel bag he quickly set it up on the desk and connected it to the Ethernet cable dangling from a hole in the wall.  He had to figure out what in the world his daughter had been talking about.  A bathrobe and a spoon?  Last he had heard, the development for most of the world had been put to a temporary stop.  Anything that was still in development, and there was a ton, wasn't planned on being implemented for months to come yet.  And, as best his memory served him, though it was still a little hazy through a sleep-clouded brain, none of that had included anything about bathrobes and spoons.  Christmas hats and party favors had been sent out as gag-gifts over the holidays, a normal part of the planned festivities in any game, but none of that was supposed replace or preempt normal starting gear.
           "Where to begin?" He rapped his fingers on the desk trying to discern the best possible place to start looking for what could have explained this.  The obvious solution was to chalk it up to his daughter having exaggerated or outright lied.  But neither of those were character traits that had ever seemed to manifest themselves in Kass.  She had always been forthcoming with anything she had to tell him and never really had the propensity for making up outright lies.  Well, with the exception of a few boys she had dated in high school, but that was to be expected of any teenage girl and had been years ago before she went off to college.  Better yet, what reason did she have to exaggerate or lie?  He knew that she had been up most of the night playing the game, and seemed to be getting really immersed into the experience, but there wasn't any reason to make up something like that.  She had seemed so certain about it, too.  "So where to start?" he questioned again.
           Picking up the phone he dialed a short series of numbers that would connect him to Gary's desk on the other side of the building.  Gary was one of the lead designers for the game, and if anything had been added in at the last minute, he would certainly be the one to know about it.
           "Hey, Gary, it's Robert."
           "Robert?  Before noon?  Is everything alright?  There's not something going on with the AI again, is there?  We can't take another round of guys choking up last night’s dinner.  It's too soon after that last incident, and we can't handle that again."
           "Haha, no, nothing like that, fortunately."  Robert chuckled to himself as the image of a kid in his mom's basement hooked up to a VR-sim with a spaghetti stained t-shirt quickly flashed through his head.  "That was awful.  Shouldn't have to experience that again anytime soon.  I was wondering, did you guys make any last minute changes to the holiday packages that were sent out to players?  I know us code-jockeys aren't usually up to date on things like that, but I thought I had been keeping up with it all pretty well anyway."
           "What do you mean?  It was all just pretty much the standard stuff we discussed at the last staff meeting.  Colored hats and hair bows.  Some people were lucky enough to get candy canes or teddy bears that could be equipped as a weapon, but that's about it."
           "So you guys actually sent out a spoon as an equippable weapon?"
           "A spoon?  I don't remember anything about a spoon.  A nutcracker would have been more appropriate," Gary laughed from the other end of the phone.  "No, nothing like that.  It wouldn't make sense or fit the genre of the game.  Maybe for Easter when we do the egg dying contest, though, that's not a half bad idea.  Anyway, the stuff we sent out didn't really do any damage and was for decoration only.  You know how hard up the bosses are on us about not interfering with the game world.  You would have to be an idiot to use it for anything other than standing around in town and showing off with."
“So nothing about any spoons?  Or bathrobes?”
“Nah, nothing like that, but I’ll ask around and see if maybe one of the guys decided to try and slip something in last minute.  I trust them, but they do have a sense of humor.  They do things like that from time to time just to break up the monotony of the work.   It's pretty harmless in most cases; but, hey, I'll tell ya what, let me ask around and I'll see what I can find out.  Sound good?"
"Yeah.  Thanks." Robert hung up the phone and sat for a minute thinking.  Where was he going to look next?  If the design team had actually added in something last minute, that would have been the easiest solution.  It wasn't likely, but still possible.  They generally stuck to their schedules and limits pretty strictly.  There was so much hype surrounding the new system and AI that interfering too much would cause a panic and inevitably be found out.
Opening up his computer, he reopened the internet tab containing the forum post he had originally found.  Even though it was located within the bugs and mechanics section, a moderator had already flagged it as spam and moved it to a separate forum.  Posts were never deleted.  They had already learned all too well from previous experience that replicating issues could pose a huge problem and sometimes even the most inane or poorly written report could be the key to fixing the problem, so no help there.
Clicking on the users forum name, Robert ran a search for posts made only by the original poster.  Scrolling through his history, the guy looked like a real jerk.  Apparently, he had a reputation for being a bit of an elitist snob and liked to flaunt it at anyone who would listen.  It looked like he had made the mistake of opening up another thread in the general discussion after seeing his post in the dev forum get flagged and moved, and it also looked like the trolls were having a field day with this one.  "Trolling the troll,” he thought idly as he scrolled through the thread finding nothing of any real substance that might help him.  Searching various forums for keywords like "spoon" and "bathrobe" turned up nothing.
Robert rubbed his weary eyes that were now clearly showing his lack of sleep.  He could almost feel the dark circles sitting under them.  Glancing over at the clock, he noticed that it was now almost midday, and he had next to nothing to show for his search.  It bothered him.  Not because he wasn't turning up any information --because in truth he hadn't really expected to--  but this project had become something of a habit to him.  He had so many long hours invested into putting all the pieces together and making it run right that he had become attached to it.  All the long hours straining over a computer monitor that finally resulted in an 'Aha!' moment.  All the time spent grinding away his teeth as he tried to figure out what had gone  wrong.  Maybe it was the fatigue wearing on him, but for some reason he had to figure this out.  The connection between what Kass had said and the post from the Internet troll couldn't merely be coincidence.  If he went over the time line in his head, the timing would line up almost perfectly.
He leaned back in his office chair and propped his feet up on the corner of his desk.  One of the advantages of actually having an office rather than being stuck in a cubicle was that he could get away with stuff like that.  He didn't have to worry about someone suddenly walking around a corner and berating him for lounging a little bit.  He crossed his arms over his chest and sat staring at his monitor.  The last option he could think of at the moment, and one that may have been the most logical, was to simply start pouring through the lines of code and hope to track something down.  The problem with that route was that the game was massive.  It contained millions of lines of code and complex architecture that would make it almost impossible to find.  He would literally be searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack --except that this was like looking for a needle in a Super Dome full of hay.  He leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes.  "Just think for a minute, Robert.  There has to be a logical explanation to this."
He could feel someone pushing on his shoulder.  An insistent nudge that shook his whole body rocking it back and forth.
"Come on, man.  Wakey, wakey."
"Murgh," Robert groaned in response. His whole body felt stiff and he was quite certain that both his feet were actually numb.  He rocked forward in his chair letting it level out.  Apparently he had fallen asleep leaned back and now his body was paying the price for it.
"I know you've been putting in a lot of hours lately, but napping at work is a bit much even for you," the voice chided.
He recognized that voice.  He looked over and through sleep fogged eyes could see Gary standing beside him.
"I asked around a bit like I told you I would.  None of the guys on the design team claim not to have had anything to do with any last minute additions to the holiday packages.  They even seemed pretty confused as to why I was asking about a bathrobe and a spoon.  I'm also pretty sure Nelson thinks I'm trying to pull a fast one over on him, though.  Kid's been paranoid ever since I let him spend a full day trying to figure out how to design boots for the frog race."
"So no one changed anything?"  Robert's mind seemed to have trouble booting up for some reason.
"Or at least they claim not to have; and, as far as I can tell, they're telling the truth.  What's this all about, anyway?"
"Eh.  I know it probably sounds crazy but I just felt like there might be something to it all.  My daughter, Kass, claims that she was up most of the night playing with some guy who actually killed a minotaur with a spoon.  A spoon!  Sounds crazy, right?  Then I remembered seeing someone make a post on the forum in the Dev section claiming that he had been killed after a player somehow threw a spoon into his eye.  Something just didn't add.  If it had just been one and not the other, I would have written it off, but both of them at the same time?  Just seemed like it was a little much to be coincidence.  I was really hoping that maybe one of you guys had made some last minute changes that I didn't pick up on.  But now...."  Robert trailed off and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders.
"Alright.  Well.  There's probably something else you should know about then as well, since you seem to have taken an interest in all of this."  Gary leaned against the desk where Robert's feet and been propped up moments before.  When he started speaking, his voice was much lower.  It almost had a conspiratorial tone to it.
"This isn't being officially reported anywhere outside my own office yet.  I'll bring it up tomorrow after the all-staff meeting if I have to, but it's a conversation that I plan on having only with the department heads.  I guess you'd find out then anyway."
Robert was curious.  What was going on within the design team that would warrant keeping such closely guarded secrets all of a sudden?  Their work was basically mapped out for months in advance.
"Something went wrong with the Unity Arc."
Robert sat up straighter in his chair.  His mind was suddenly firing on all cylinders.  "Wait, wha-"
Gary held up a hand stopping him before he could continue. "Just listen.  Something went wrong with the Unity Arc.  Sorta.  You remember the basic premise for that, right?"
Robert nodded his assent and with a slight wave of his hand gestured for Gary to continue speaking.
"Well, basically, there's a lot of the game that's set in stone.  And there's also a lot of the game that isn't.  We provided the world, the concept, the races, and all the background lore that normally goes along with building any MMO on such a massive scale.  Each of the races have a history, a background, a starting area or homeland.  They have some quests to help them along in the world, but we didn't provide any real direction beyond that for the players.  But, as far as the rest of the world goes, we decided to leave everything open ended.  It's up to the players to create the politics and decide how they're going to interact with one another.  Think of it as a social experiment on a grandiose scale.  I would be lying to you if I said we didn't have some major Universities and research firms keeping an eye on what we're doing here as well. "
This was news to Robert, and it must have shown on his face. Gary shrugged, seeming to dismiss Robert's obvious concerns and said, "Where do you think we got all the money to invest into the AI?  Military grade government-designed tech doesn't come cheap and this definitely isn't a Kickstarter project."
He paused for a minute to let Robert absorb the information.  "So, what happened with the Unity Arc.  Sorry, what sorta  happened with the Unity Arc?"
"Yeah yeah.  I'm getting to that.  So anyway, to start the world off and let everyone get used to the sim while we were testing out the game, we kept most of the races locked.  They were able to venture off where ever they wanted and explore the world, but we really wanted them to focus on each of the starting areas.  Make sure none of them got into something over their head or skill level too quickly.  After the we found out that the AI was going to pair up correctly to the pre-existing game world, there was a scripted event that was supposed to take place within each of the racial starting towns.  So, we put in a check that would prevent them from partying with anyone outside their own race.  Anyway, that's where the Unity Arc comes in.  The event was supposed to allow each race's ruling council to depose the sovereign that was already in power.  After that, it would break the rule and allow any of the races to party up however they wanted.  A real 'out with the old and in with the new' system, if you will."
Gary paused to make sure that Robert was following along.  None of this would really be news to him.  It had been planned out months in advance and talked about at length.  As much as they wanted to keep a hands-off approach to running the game and not interfere, there were certain things that had to be tested.
"So, that's where things went wrong."
"You mean the Unity Arc didn't trigger?" Robert finally questioned.
"Yup.  Sure did.  Everywhere except within the Human race."
"There's no reason that should have happened.  I remember working on scripting part of those events myself.  Didn't we even finally agree to let certain members of the design team sit in on the council meetings so that things were guaranteed to go smoothly?  Being able to party up with whomever you want is a pretty big deal.  If something went wrong there, that's game breaking."
"Yeah, so now you understand why we aren't exactly spreading this news around.  The world is massive enough that the players don't seem to have really noticed.  It didn't take them long to start up their own little wars with the other races, but for the most part they haven’t figured it out and those who are catching on aren't making a big fuss out of it -- yet.  Most seem to think that it's still part of the game design for whatever reason.
But here's where things get really interesting.  Our design team member that was sitting in on the Human council meeting was Nelson.  He said that during the meeting something unusual happened.  The summoning circle within the King's court suddenly lit up and a strange man appeared.  Nelson described him as a tall broad shouldered man complete with red eyes and claws.  The King claimed that it was his 'prized champion' or something and sent him off to the front lines to conquer the invading forces.  This champion, or whatever he was, said that all he wanted as his ultimate weapon was a soup spoon."
Gary paused here watching for Robert's reaction.
"Let me guess.  He was wearing a bathrobe, wasn't he?"
Gary nodded his head in response. "Sure was."
"Why in the world wouldn't Nelson bother telling anyone about something like that?  He knew as well as the rest of us how the Unity Arc was supposed to play out."
"The guy thought we were messing with him again.  He figures we just didn't feel like including him in on all the changes and were trying to pull a fast one.  So he just kept his mouth shut and went along with it like everything was normal."
"Yeah.  Because we definitely decided to write in a spoon-wielding bathrobe wearing demon into the Unity Arc progression chain and then not tell anyone about it.  Right."  Robert's voice bordered on the edge of sarcastic incredulousness.  "So what now?  What happened to the guy?"
"Well, that's just the thing.  We aren't really sure.  We can't track the player.  There's no record of him in the database.  No character ID and no game account.  As best we can tell it's a ghost in the system."
"Ghost in the system?  Please tell me you're joking."
Gary just shrugged apologetically.
“I seriously need more coffee.”

    Valerie extended her long brown and white feathered wings as far as she could and relaxed her flight into an easy glide. She was at least fifty stories above the ground and the desert had gone from sands to sheets to one flowing, brown carpet. The only thing that ever interrupted the brown were the edges of the rivers. Valerie had never visited a desert in real life, but she wondered if they looked the same.
Even after a week of playing she couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the sensation as the wind caressed the feathers on her wings. She could feel her wings. She could feel the feathers on each wing. It was amazing to her. Since the accident almost a decade ago she hadn’t believed she would ever walk again, and here she was flying. It almost made her cry every time. The dive machine stimulated her muscles to do tiny micro movements so she could play all day everyday without ever having to log out, save for sleep and food. Her mom insisted on her eating breakfast and dinner with the family. Other than that though, the winds, the feeling of freedom, Valerie was hooked and never wanted to leave Tiqpa.
“Have you spotted any enemy encampments yet?” her commander whispered to her using the in game notification system. It basically sent the message as a text notification that wouldn’t appear when enemies were present or a player was in battle.
“No heretics have been detected. I’ve found two ore mines though and mapped them with my suggestion of where we should establish the harbor. If we spend a day or two grinding the right resources and hire NPCs to handle the mines, we should have enough to get a fully functional war harbor up and running by the end of the week. The voice of the Sun God will be pleased.” She knew the Sun God was only a part of the game lore, but the more you played the game, the more you bought into it. Everything was “For the Sun God this” and “for the Sun God that.” It was fun too. Valerie felt like she was a part of something when she served the empire. She had put off leveling for a bit to scout today at her commander’s request. She didn’t need the EXP of more grinding, she had gained plenty in the First Missionary War killing the Fire-Walkers who refused to accept the Sun God’s blessing.
‘Great work, Valerie. Fly back and turn in the maps We’ll get some of the Fire-Walkers to start fortifying the mines until we can afford the workers.’ Of course, he was an NPC. NPCs never acknowledged that they were NPCs. ‘If you keep up the good work you might get promoted to Herald soon.’
“Be there in no time.” Valerie was going to glide the rest of the way back, but the mention of being promoted to Herald spurred her wings onwards and she darted off like a bolt of lightning across the sky. Heralds could command troops. Just the regular ones could have command of ten NPCs under them. If she reached that rank serving the Sun God Empire she would be the first PC in the entire Sun God Empire to have her own little mini army. Imagine if I became High Inquisitor Valerie! She knew it was reaching for the stars, but being able to fly after a decade of sitting in that detestable wheelchair watching people look down on her with pity like her legs had been the only important aspect of her life made her think anything was possible.
When she finally got back to the town she was lost again in its beauty. The Fire-Walkers, the ones who with the Eagle-Wings were first blessed of the Sun God, had built for the White Wings a massive city of glass ten stories above the desert sands. The glass buildings on top of the platform were two, three and four stories tall with no flat sides, visible edges or sharp corners. Their buildings twisted and turned as they grew higher like lightning reaching for clouds that weren’t there.
“Welcome back, Valerie! It’s short notice, but are you ready to go out again?” the Commander, waiting for her right where she landed, asked as soon as her feet touched the ground. The Commander, a Raven-Wing wearing a complete set the heaviest leather armor White-Wings were able to wear and still fly, had come out with all nine other White-Wings in her unit.
“I can leave at a moment’s notice. What’s going on?”
“A group of lava- and onyx-skinned Fire-Walkers still devoid of the Sun God’s blessing were spotted to the southwest of our holy city.”
“For the Sun God.” Valerie chimed enthusiastically. She was getting more and more into her character every day. She was Valerie, the dual-wielding, Hawk-Wing White-Wing of the Sun God Empire, and she would make those pagans taste her iron daggers.
She equipped her daggers, and the group took to the skies, flying in a clean V formation with the herald in front. As soon as they spotted the enemy, they broke off and started circling their prey. Deep breaths, Valerie, deep breaths. We’ve done this dozens of times before.
As soon as one of reddish lava skinned Fire-Walkers spotted their group, the twenty or so heathens pulled into a tight group and started packing small balls of sand. It was their specialty, and it was scary, even for a VR. Valerie started dipping up and down and strafing left and right sporadically as she got closer, trying her best to stop them from guessing her movements. I’m almost in range. Be careful. The Fire-Walkers didn’t get their name for nothing. One of the racial perks and key reasons a lot of players liked to pick them, though PC Fire-Walkers started as part of the Sun God Empire, was their racial ability to make and manipulate fire at will. It’s how they made the glass cities, and it’s also how they stuck fire to balls of sand and turned them into flaming glass balls. DODGE! Shoo… that was close. Valerie had weaved an inch away from one of the glass projectiles as she saw four more coming. No matter how many times she dodged one successfully her brain always convinced her that the next one would hit. A paranoia the accident was likely responsible for.
“Do a barrel roll, Valerie!” one of the others shouted at her. Valerie just rolled her eyes and stayed focused.
Left, left, right, almost there. You’re first, big man. Valerie finished her dive and with all the force of her descent pushed her two daggers through the skull of the biggest onyx skinned man in the group.
  • Critical Dive! You have done 216 damage!
  • Critical Dive! You have done 216 damage!
Size doesn’t matter if you can’t hit squat, she thought, thankful the NPC hadn’t had a secret double life as a baseball player. The few Fire-Walkers who were pitchers in real life were a scary sight indeed.
Of the ten other White-Wings with her, only one had been picked out of the air by the balls. The rest had all landed on a mark. Ten down, fourteen to go. The Fire-Walker closest to Valerie came at her with his glass mace. She charged him, dodging his overhead swing and planting the two daggers in his back for maximum damage.
  • Critical Hit! You have done 108 damage!
  • Critical Hit! You have done 108 damage!
    No sooner had she planted her fresh daggers in his back and pulled them back out than another one of the Fire-Walkers tried to hit her with a dull glass sword. She couldn’t dodge it and knew if she tried it would probably tear into one of her wings so she let the glass sword sink into her arm, catching it as best she could, and used her free unsliced arm to repeatedly stab the Fire-Walker. Die! Die! Die! Die!
  • You have taken 95 damage!
  • You have done 54 damage!
  • You have done 54 damage!
  • You have done 54 damage!
  • You have done 54 damage!
    With one arm unusable and her hitpoints having taken a big hit, she looked around happy to see the fight was over. The happiness quickly faded into an eery, uncomfortable feeling, however, when she realized that of the six remaining White-Wings in her group everyone was staring at her.
    “What? Is something wrong?” she said, feeling the avian eyes piercing through her.
    “No, it’s just, you really went crazy on that last one. I didn’t expect someone to use their arm as a shield, especially not someone who picked the scout class. I’m impressed” the herald said.
    “Oh, well, the Sun God was watching, I couldn’t give her a bad show” she said. The perfect thing for the NPC herald, but it made the two PCs still alive in her group roll their eyes. Some people always complained that she was too corny with her role playing, but her attention to character had gotten several of her commanding officers to mention the possibility of her being promoted to Herald, so she wasn’t about to stop it now.
    “Indeed! That would be a tragedy. Let’s run a sweep of the perimeter and then go put together a full unit for another patrol. There can’t be any remaining resistance here if we are to successfully bring the word of the Sun God to the White Horns.”
‘Bring word of the Sun God’ was just a less brutal way of saying ‘conquer in a war.’ Valerie, doing her best to immerse herself in her character, had studied in depth the creation of the Empire. Somewhere along the line in the history of the small, sand-covered continent, one of the many nomadic Eagle-Born tribes and one of the Fire-Walker tribes decided to merge because of their mutual love for the sun. Even though arguments constantly sprung up between the groups over what exactly the Sun God was or wanted: male or female, all knowing or all powerful, or both, demanding of sacrifices or demanding of prayer. They all agreed that there was a Sun God and that the Sun God wanted them to spread his or her word and cleanse the world of all those that did not love him or her. It was confusing at first, but over the years the arguments had grown fewer and the worship grew more political.
“Of course, Commander,” she said. She took off into the air and smiled.  She could feel the wind on her wings, and it felt great.

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