Dexterity: 11 + 1
Most used abilities: Dark Bond
Most used weapon skills: Dagger Throw, Power Stab, Sneak Attack, Lunge, Spear Throw, Throat Slash
“Sorry, but I’ll have to take a look at that.”
“Uh, okay,” I said and handed over my leather bag to the guard. There wasn’t much inside, just the dictionary, the flask and the ragged remains of my cloak.
It was quite early in the morning, but none of us had been able to sleep well, so we had decided to move out early and find the Core. This part of the day was really different from what we experienced the previous day: there was a steady stream of farmers and the like who were coming to set up their stalls. Bildy had several marketplaces, the biggest one being not far from the Core. It had taken us a while to navigate through the crowd, and it hadn’t even been rush hour yet.
The Core of Bildy was a dome-shaped structure completely devoid of openings. It was about as big as a two-storey house, and all around it a considerable amount of space was left free. Just because of the size and the available free space, it was easy to tell that it was an important structure, but the dozen or so guards standing around made it obvious.
“Thank you for your patience, you are now free to enter,” the guard told me and handed back my bag. Just what did he expect to find, anyways? The others followed me as I walked closer to the structure. I was wondering how we were supposed to enter, when the wall parted on one side, and a tall figure stepped out. He was soon followed by two others who exited from their own openings, then the group of three Players began to leave the square without even taking a look at us.
“Oh hey there!” Imaya spoke up and ran to catch up to the group as they were walking away, “Are you Players as well? You are Players, right?”
While Imaya ran off to chase the group, I stepped closer to the Core where they had exited. The wall had closed right after the Players had stepped out, and I saw no trace of any door whatsoever. The wall was smooth and grey, but without any metallic shine. It looked more like plastic to me, but as I knocked on the surface I felt it was quite durable material, after all. I placed one hand on the wall and pushed. Nothing happened, until I actually thought about going inside. Goddamn mind-reading collars, I grumbled as a section of the wall sunk deeper and slid away, revealing a dark little cabin that I would barely fit into. I turned back only to find the others standing with the trio. They had their back to me and Imaya was speaking at the moment.
“…name is Devi’lynn. Oh, and the fourth member of group over there is Frog Killer. He has a real name, of course, but he prefers to be called Frog Killer, because he is so good at it. So there you go, that’s our little group in a nutshell. As for…”
Okay, yeah, I think I heard enough. I stepped into the cabin and the opening closed behind me. I didn’t see anything, but I felt metallic arms grabbing me at my waist, then something latched itself into my collar. No, several somethings. My limbs were free, but I was held in one place, leaving me no way to move my body. Suddenly I felt some kind of weird pressure, as if I was in an elevator which was moving pretty fast. The sensation stopped after a few seconds, and a holographic screen flickered into life in front of me.
This wasn’t what I imagined when I heard about ‘travelling into the Core’. Five large buttons were floating in front of me, each of them representing different menu points. On my left, Checkout and Storage could be read. On the right, Messages and Fast Travel, and up and middle there was a shiny Shop button. I was sort of pleased with this kind of development, but I also felt overwhelmed with my options and could barely decide what to investigate first. After a brief hesitation, I touched the icon of the Shop. Several submenus expanded under it, sorting the different goods into categories. Some of them were quite straightforward, like Armors or Weapons, but others were more interesting, like Morph Abilities or Information.
I almost drooled there a little but I caught myself in time. I touched the Armors submenu first, and almost got a hearth-attack. Not because of the range of the items presented: there were hundreds of kinds of clothes, garments, leather- and plate armors. My shock was due to the pricing, which was clearly indicated under the miniature holographic images of the pieces of armors. While we had been making our way to the Core, I had plenty of opportunity to see the pricing of the clothes on the market. Most of them cost only a couple of silvers, only the really expensive-looking ones were above one gold. From this selection, however, I couldn’t even see anything that was under 100 gold coins. And the majority was above 300, while some of them cost more than 800 gold!
I frowned at the list of goods in front of me, and tried to look for some kind of sorting option. I found on the left side a filter that could reduce the number of the listed items, but there was no sort-by-price option. They have such an advanced technology, yet they didn’t bother to make searching easier, I complained internally. I tapped the image of a pair of leather gloves – with a price of 250 gold coins – just to see what made these things so special.
Arinian leather gloves of Shielding
Gives you the Minor Ability of Shielding. Once per day, this item will avert an otherwise lethal blow targeting the wearer. Doesn’t work against magical attacks or weapons with magical properties.
Mana cost: 0
Cool down: 1 day
Attribute requirements: 60 Dexterity, 10 Endurance
As I looked at the stat requirements, my heart sank. There goes my strategy down the toilet. Spending my stats more or less evenly wasn’t the best tactic, at least not if all the special stuff was locked behind high attribute requirements. It turned out that Imaya had been right in the beginning, after all. We would have to specialize in certain areas to be able to make out the best of our situation.
I decided to leave the browsing of the armors, weapons and accessories for later, and take a quick look at the Information submenu. It had further submenus: People, Abilities, Places, History and Other. When I selected the People menu point, I could immediately see that knowledge wasn’t cheap either. The list was chaotic, but I discovered that I could make requests by voice command. Things like ‘show only the bakers in this town’. It was possible to buy only partial information about them, and it wasn’t really expensive – most of the time ranging from 10 silvers to 50 – though of course it would be a gamble what I got. It would probably be simpler just to ask other people about what Baker Emmond’s hobbies were, instead of paying 34 silvers and hope that it would be included in the deal.
Having no money, I decided that this was something to think about later as well. However, before I closed the shop my eyes landed on the Extras submenu. It was another jaw-dropping revelation when I found out that I could update my collar’s interface, buy new ‘skins’ for it, and even request a Map update. They even sold advanced search options for the Shop! Is this when they call a game ‘pay to win’?
From the other menus, Messages, Fast Travel and Storage were pretty much obvious – well, Fast Travel wasn’t exactly, but I played enough games to know what to expect – so I proceeded to check out the Checkout. It was supposed to be a list, but there was only one entry there.
Player support fund: 41 gold, 75 silver, 2 copper
I was rich! Well, relatively. I still couldn’t afford any of these fancy armor stuff, but I wouldn’t have to sleep on the streets. I felt a huge wave of relief overwhelm me. Everything’s going to be okay from now on! We had enough money to get on our feet. We would still have to do something to earn more money, of course, but we didn’t need to be in such a hurry.
Even as I was watching, the number of copper coins changed to 3, and then to 4. Is this all really for me? As I touched the holographic text, a window popped up to ask me whether I really wanted to claim the money. Upon accepting, I was notified that it had been added to my Storage.
Player support fund: 0 gold, 0 silver, 1 copper
I navigated back, then into the Storage. On the top of the window, my current amount of money was indicated. I was also faced with several options, indicated by three pairs of buttons in the middle of the screen. First, I was able to store and take out Abilities. Why would anyone want to do that? I wondered. The second option was to deposit and withdraw money. For a start, I decided to withdraw 1 gold. When I selected the desired amount, the whole section of the wall on my left side disappeared, leaving behind a crevice large enough that I could have fit into it. A single, shiny gold coin was floating in the air, just in arm’s reach.
“Uhhh… could I ask it in silvers instead?” I said uncertainly. The wall closed off for a moment, then reopened and revealed a storm of silver coins floating in the crevice, gently rotating around some kind of invisible axis. It was probably one hundred pieces. There was no way I could put that much away in my pockets.
“Can you give me a pouch, please?”
No response. I waited a little then tried a different approach.
“Is anyone listening to me at all? Like, behind a monitor or something? Who is operating this machine?”
It was a weak attempt, but I had to try. Just as I expected, no one replied to me.
I choose the option of depositing money, and a crevice appeared in the wall on my right side this time. I scooped up roughly half of the coins on my left, and tossed them into the opening on my right. As expected, they didn’t fall all the way down and began floating in some kind of pattern instead. After I confirmed my intention, the wall closed off once more and I saw my account balance getting incremented. That done, I pocketed the rest of the coins and looked at the third pair of options: store or withdraw items.
I took out the crystals and my last remaining acid ball from my pockets, fumbling a bit because I wasn’t smart enough to take them out before I put the silver coins away. But a few seconds later all my crystals and the acid ball were floating in the crevice, held up by some intangible force. At a sudden thought, I took out Soul Eater from my belt and tossed it into the opening as well.
Error: cannot store living organisms.
Interesting. According to its description, Soul Eater was a ‘living weapon’. It didn’t intend to leave the dagger in there, but I wanted to see what would happen if I tried. As I removed Soul Eater and finalized my deposit, I had a sudden thought. What would happen, if I put a weapon inside with Dark Bond, then tried to teleport to it? Chances were good that whoever had built this system had thought about backdoors like that, but it would still worth a shot later on. But only if I became really desperate. I didn’t survive up till now just to die from getting stuck in a dark box.
“Well then, what else do we have here?” I said, turning back to the holographic screen.
A few minutes later, I exited the cabin. I didn’t examine everything in the Core, but I didn’t want to keep the others waiting. As I emerged, I was immediately blinded by the light and it took me a few moments to see anything. I looked around, but I couldn’t see Imaya and the Sylven. However, the other group of Players was standing nearby.
“Hi there,” said the one in the middle, a lanky guy in some kind of robe. His cosplay wasn’t exactly spot-on, as it consisted of mismatched pieces of clothes. He was somewhere between a mage and a priest: his garments seemed to be more or less clerical, but it was definitely a wizard’s hat on the top of his head.
“Your friends are still inside,” he said, then nodded in greeting. “My name is Jaks.”
“My name is Randel,” I said and gave him a nod in return, “Please forget everything that Imaya said about me.”
“Ha! Don’t worry, we knew she was joking,” said the second guy, a short and bald one. He contrasted quite nicely with Jaks, with his dark skin tone and a wide frame. His chain mail rattled as he stepped forward, holding his metal helmet under one arm.
“I’m Jaice, and that guy over there is Ryven.”
Ryven was an archer, I could tell it at first glance. Not because of the leather armor he wore, but because of the huge bow slung across his back. It was almost as long as he was tall, and he wasn’t a short guy either. How can he shoot that thing?! Well, having arms full of muscles probably helped, but it still defied logic. The lack of any quivers or arrows on him was a curious too. I could barely make out his charcoal black eyes behind his long black hair as he watched me silently.
“Imaya offered us a deal,” Jaks spoke up before I could say anything to Ryven. “We give you the answer for… How did she say it? For some noob questions. Erm… basically, we will try to answer any questions that you might have concerning this world.”
“That’s… surprisingly generous from you,” I said. “What do you ask for in return?”
“Information about this so-called throne room that you’ve found. We are especially interested in that magic staff that your Sylven friend was holding.”
I frowned. Of course they wouldn’t waste their time just because of the kindness of their hearts.
“How do you know whether we would tell the truth?” It wasn’t my most trust-inspiring comment, but I was curious what they would say. Of course, seeing a group of ‘newbies’ possessing a powerful magical artifact already told them that we were onto something.
“We will find out, don’t worry,” Jaice said vaguely. “I trust you wouldn’t lie and antagonize us pointlessly.”
“No, it’s just such a ridiculous tale that I don’t know who would believe it.”
I actually didn’t mind telling them about the giants and the alutnarat. My only concern was the Thardos. They were in a very exposed state at the moment, and I didn’t want anyone to take advantage of that.
“Oho, one of them has already returned!” Jaks said, and I saw Teva’ryn emerging from the Core. We didn’t have to wait too long before the others finished too. I hurried forward to intercept Imaya before she got too close to Jaks and his buddies.
“Don’t tell them about the Thardos,” I murmured to her. She looked at me silently, then slightly nodded. I could only hope that she understood why I was telling her this.
“Alright, we accept your deal,” I said as I turned around to face Jaks. I tried to play this off as if I had been whispering with Imaya only to decide whether we should accept the deal or not.
Once everyone had gathered, Jaks said that he knew just the right place where we could talk, so he and Ryven lead the way. Imaya fell in behind them and struck up a conversation with Jaice, asking him whether they minded that we had non-human companions. Said people were following them silently, while I took up the rear.
“Ha! Don’t worry about it,” Jaice answered, “We are quite used to seeing Sylven. I have to admit, I’ve never actually seen a Sylven woman, but their men are among the best fighters I’ve ever met. The Covenant I’m part of has several ranking members that are Sylven.”
“Covenant?” Imaya asked, “Is that something like a large group? Like guilds in video games?”
“Somewhat. But it’s more like-”
That was all I heard, because in the next moment, we turned a corner and arrived to the marketplace. The noise of the crowd drowned out their conversation, and I sighed in annoyance. There was nothing to do about it, however. Devi and Teva’ryn in front of me were looking around with wide eyes, so I decided to do the same.
It was chaos. Organized chaos, but chaos nevertheless. People moving, haggling, bickering left and right, the whole place was a swirl of colors. The range of the merchandise was incredible: clothes and herbs and food and cosmetics, everything was in one place. The stalls didn’t have any order that I could discern. We passed a smithy where a blacksmith was in the middle of his work, while his assistant sold a hammer to a customer. The booth right next to the smithy sold meat pies, and the stall next to it had children’s clothes in all kind of variety.
And what I found even more incredible was that everybody seemed to know where they were going. Maybe I was just too used to the big an airy supermarkets on Earth, with the customers strolling leisurely and pushing their shopping carts. I told myself that there were probably still several places in my world where they held markets just like this. I told myself that I had even seen this market on the previous day just before closing. It all didn’t matter, I was still amazed by what I saw.
To add to the sense of wonder, if one looked closely, a few differences from a ‘normal’ marketplace could be spotted. Some of the most valuable goods were protected with translucent, miniature barriers. The barriers came in different sizes and colors. Sometimes they were large enough to cover several pieces of jewelry at once, and only the shopkeeper could reach through it. Sometimes the barrier was smaller, and the object inside was sold alongside the protective field.
Another peculiar thing was the presence of guardian golems. They were quite large, had four arms, and were equipped with different kinds of melee weapons. Most of the time they just stood motionlessly in key intersections and popular places, but a few of them patrolled the marketplace with slow, calculated steps. From what I saw, the guards were able to give them orders and they obeyed without hesitation.
I was busy gawking at a golem on my left that was helping a merchant carry a heavy box – the merchant was warning the guard who controlled the golem to be more careful with his goods – when I heard shouting from my right. I snapped my head toward the sound just in time to see a small street kid with rusty red hair and an eyepatch barrel into me. I stumbled backwards, our limbs tangled, and I would have fallen on my back if the person behind me didn’t hold me upright.
“Stop that boy!” someone shouted from the direction the kid came, but by the time I realized what was going on, he had already slipped away. I heard glass breaking and someone vehemently cursing the boy, but the sounds of the chase soon faded into the background noise.
I turned around to apologize to the person behind me for bumping into the them, but my voice was caught in my throat. He was more than a head taller than me, grey skin crisscrossed with scars, bare chest bulging with muscles. The creature in front of me was unmistakable by his elongated face and protruding horn. A Rhino-man. Beside the loose cotton pants, he wore only a black metallic collar, which marked him as a Player.
However, he wasn’t even looking at me. I looked back following his gaze, and saw Teva’ryn gripping the hilt of his sword, ready to pull it out from his makeshift belt.
“Cause any trouble, and I’ll crush your head, little Sylven,” the Kyntark said in a voice like grinding stone, and pointed a finger at Teva’ryn. Finger might have been a generous term: it didn’t even have any joints. It looked barely more than a stump, really.
“Woah, woah, woah!” Jaice pushed forward, stepping in front of Teva’ryn and raising his hands in a placating gesture. “We don’t want to fight! I know your races don’t like each other, but Teva’ryn, please stand down.”
Saying ‘don’t like’ was putting it mildly. Teva’ryn didn’t even acknowledge Jaice – he wouldn’t have understood the sentence anyways – and kept radiating hatred towards the Kyntark. The Rhino-man was also taking up an aggressive stance, but at least he listened to Jaice.
“I’m not here to fight either,” he rumbled, “But your friend there clearly has some objections about my presence.”
“Teva’ryn, he won’t attack you if you don’t attack him,” I spoke up. “Please don’t make fight here.”
Teva’ryn glanced at me, then back to the Rhino-man, then reluctantly took his hand off his sword. The Kyntark grunted and barrelled forward, making me and Teva’ryn jump out of his way quickly. Teva’ryn kept an eye on the Kyntark as long as he could, but the Kyntark didn’t acknowledge us further.
“Wow, you can speak Sylven?” Jaice asked me.
“More or less,” I said with a shrug.
“Ha! Not bad, Randel, not bad. I only know a few words, and I have been in Sylven company for years! True, they all speak Common-”
“Guys,” Jaks interrupted, shouting to be heard, “Let’s move on, you are attracting too much attention!”
We continued walking, but this time I fell in line with Teva’ryn to question him about what had just happened.
“Kyntark and Sylven are ancient enemies from where I come from,” he answered. “I didn’t expect to see one here. I thought he was going to attack us.”
It was pretty much what I concluded from Teva’ryn’s earlier reaction. It was interesting to learn that their planet had two totally different intelligent species, and both of them were targeted as potential Players for this world.
“Did you fight one of them? At home?” I asked, because I was curious for the answer.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m a House Guard. No Kyntark could ever get that deep into our territories. But everyone knows what they are like, so I’m not going to — when one is nearby.”
“What they are like…?”
“They are savages,” Teva’ryn said, his voice filled with contempt. “Arrogant and — , they can’t even — properly. All they live for is fighting and war.”
Wasn’t that the pot calling the kettle black? I didn’t know much about the Sylven – during the language lessons they were quite skittish talking about their world – but as far as I knew, their lives revolved around fighting as well.
Besides, this particular Rhino-man spoke our language quite well. It meant that they couldn’t be that bad, at least not intellectually. They might be aggressive and arrogant, but calling them savages… well, looking at the lack of clothes, I wanted to agree, but I tried to withhold judgement until I got to know them better.
Eventually we stopped at a tavern called The Glowing Eor. Before going in, I managed to pull Devi aside to warn her not to talk about the Thardos. I was glad that she had left the magic staff in her Storage, but I cautioned her not to hand it over to anyone. I didn’t think she really needed the warning – Imaya was the weak link here, not Devi’lynn – but the staff was valuable enough that I wanted to be sure no one stole it from us.
The interior of the tavern wasn’t that fancy, but it didn’t look too bad either. There weren’t many tables where all seven of us could comfortably sit, despite the lack of customers in this early hour. We eventually managed to sit down around the largest table in the room, our respective groups facing each other.
“I-I’m not sure if we would be able to drink much, though,” Imaya said with an apologetic smile. “I mean, we didn’t get a lot of money and I think we should save up as much as we can.”
Didn’t get a lot of money? I highly doubted that a drink would cost more than a silver. I wouldn’t have thought that Imaya was this stingy when it came to money.
“Oh, don’t worry about that! You are our guests. Feel free to order anything you want, this is nothing for us,” Jaks said as he took his wizard-hat off his balding head.
“Yeah, we remember how difficult it was in the beginning,” Jaice said with a sad smile, looking at Ryven who just grunted in return.
“No need to feel bad about it,” Jaks assured us. “Just to satisfy my curiosity, can I ask how much you received?”
“Twenty silvers and five coppers,” Imaya replied. What?! My mouth fell open in my shock. Imaya saw it and nudged me in my side to break me out of my stupor.
“Sorry, I was just surprised. I thought you got more money. Doesn’t everyone get the same amount?”
“No,” Jaks replied, “Though we aren’t sure what determines how much you get. Once thing is certain though: the more you participate in adventures, the more money you get. I have a theory that this is a fund for adventurers to compensate for the costs of this lifestyle, like buying healing potions or food for the journey.”
“So,” Imaya spoke up impatiently, “how much did you get, Randel?”
“Erm… Uhh, just a little over one gold. One gold and two silvers, I think.”
Jaice whistled appreciatively, and Imaya looked at me in surprise. Though I fully intended to tell her and our Sylven companions the truth about how much money I actually had, Jaks and his buddies didn’t need to know. Looking at their reactions, I already regretted admitting that one gold. I should have said an even smaller amount.
“Wow, that’s something,” Jaice said. “I remember the first time I checked my account, and I didn’t even have 30 silvers! Mind you, this was weeks after I arrived to the city. At first I had no idea every Player had a bank account,” he said with a laugh.
I shifted uncomfortably, but fortunately didn’t have to say anything because the barmaid arrived. She was a plump, middle-aged woman who had been eyeing us nervously for a while now. It seemed like she finally worked up the courage to take our orders… or she’d just realized that if she did nothing, we wouldn’t be paying.
While Jaks ordered our drinks, I took the opportunity to translate everything to Devi and Teva’ryn. I expected that at least Devi would have as much money as I had, but to my disappointment she only had 56 silvers. And Tevaryn had 9.
“Isn’t it strange that 1 silver is 10 copper coins, but 1 gold is 100 silvers?” Imaya chattered on, oblivious to my distress. It wasn’t that I didn’t like money, or the fact that I had a lot of it, but it worried me that I had so much for apparently no reason. Imaya earned two times as much as Teva’ryn, and I earned… more than 200 times as much as Imaya. How was that even possible? How was that fair?
Luckily the discussion shifted in an other direction after the barmaid returned with five tankards of ale for us, and two glass of mystery drink for Jaks and Jaice. On my left, Imaya reached out and took a sip almost instantly. By contrast, Devi on my right eyed her tankard as if she was sure that we were served liquid poison. I smiled at their differing expressions and took a sip myself. The taste was quite familiar, I was pleased to notice.
“So, what would you like to talk about first?” Jaks asked.
“Why was there an option in the Core to store Abilities?” I asked quickly, beating Imaya to the punch. I didn’t trust her not to hijack the conversation and turn it into a discussion about where the best kind of shampoo could be bought.
“Ah, good question,” Jaks said. “When I was new, I also needed someone to explain that for me. This rotten collar never explains anything.” He took a sip from the greenish liquid from his glass, winced, then cleared his throat. “Simply put, you cannot have more than ten Abilities registered in your device. If you already have ten and receive another from a Quest, you will have to claim it in the Core. You can swap them freely, though if you do so, any progress towards the next level of the Ability will be lost.”
“Woah,” Imaya said, “So you have to be actually careful which Abilities you choose! That’s actually super nice, no one can become a walking one-man army!”
“Ha! That’s one way to see it,” Jaice said, smiling at us but fidgeting with his helmet nervously. “Just don’t think it would be that easy, alright? You only receive Abilities for Quests that the collar deems dangerous for you. It’s hard to gather more than ten Abilities, and even then, some of those Abilities would be simply crap. I ain’t met many people who had trouble deciding which ten Abilities to select.”
“That’s quite true,” Jaks agreed. “I would also like to add that there are ways to surpass that ten-Ability limit. You might have already seen some of the Minor Abilities. They always come attached to the armors that can be bought from the Shop, and you can get as many as you want.”
“No, there is one limitation,” Jaice interrupted. “You can’t get the benefit from multiple clothing of the same kind. So, for example if you pull one glove over another, you will get the special power from only one.”
“True, there’s that,” Jaks said. “And there is one more thing. I take you guys don’t know anything about Morph Abilities yet, right?”
“Yes, that’s one thing I’ve been wondering about!” Imaya replied enthusiastically. “I saw that they were incredibly expensive in the Shop.”
“Well, it’s not that they are that much more powerful than normal Abilities, but their great advantage is that they are different. Let me think…” He leaned back and took another sip, but before he could continue, Imaya spoke up excitedly.
“Well, obviously they are special because they could be bought, unlike normal Abilities, right?
“Yes, you are right, that’s one of its advantages. The other one is that they don’t require mana to use. Although, it’s not necessarily a good thing to be honest. They need another resource, one that recharges only very slowly.”
“What other resource?” Imaya asked impatiently. She was already on the edge of her seat, listening intently with wide eyes. To be fair, I wasn’t much better either.
“In your collar’s menu,” Jaks said, “You can see that circle… or bubble between the Souls and the Mana bar.”
Imaya immediately opened her menu, though I was pretty sure she knew what the wizard-cleric in front of her had been talking about. I didn’t think it was such a good idea what she did, because her level and her stats were visible by everyone. Sure, it wasn’t such a big deal at the moment, but… it felt too personal to just show it off so carelessly. I reckoned that later on it would be even more important to keep our specialization secret.
“Well, it seems empty now,” Jaks pointed at the projection in front of Imaya, “But that’s because you don’t have any Morph slotted. You can’t have more than one at a time installed, but just like normal Abilities, you can swap them in the Core. The slotted Morph Ability determines what is your maximum Essence capacity. You see, when you use mana, the used-up amount goes into the orb. At least, that’s what is widely believed, since you can actually see it animated. Just use a skill or Ability while you have your menu open, and you’ll see.”
“Yes, I know what you are talking about,” Imaya bobbed her head.
“Now, the same goes for the occasion of leveling up. The gathered souls flush out when they fill up the bar completely, and they become Essence,” he said. “So all you have to do to gain Essence is to level up a lot and spend mana whenever you can. Admittedly, you cannot gather any if you have no Morph Abilities.”
“Ahh, but why do they have to be so expensive then?” Imaya whined. “One- or two thousand gold coins for a single Morph Ability doesn’t seem to be worth it. I could buy several sets of special armor with that money!”
“Well, you can find cheaper ones too, but I agree that they are awfully expensive. There are three different tiers of Morph Abilities, the lowest tier being around 500 gold in price. Still quite costly, but there is one more peculiarity that justifies the cost. You don’t just simply receive a new power. You become the power.”
“Ha! Very nice Jaks, very dramatic,” Jaice injected. Jaks just shot him an annoyed glare and continued his explanation.
“Morph Abilities change the way you are, instead of enhancing you or altering the reality in your vicinity, like Abilities do.”
“What do you mean?” Imaya asked. “I have an Ability that changes my eyesight. Shouldn’t that be a considered Morphing, then?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Jaks said. “Could you show us?”
“You don’t have to-” I tried warning Imaya, but her eyes had already lit up with that light green glow. Well, whatever. She already half-told them what kind of Ability she had anyways.
“Ah, Holy Sight,” Jaks said. “Sadly, that’s no Morph. You see, it doesn’t change your eyes, only acts like a pair of glasses. Enhances your vision. If you could turn your eyeballs into an eagle’s eyeballs, now that would be a Morph Ability. It physically changes you… and often mentally as well. If you turn yourself into a werewolf – and I don’t know if this is possible, it’s just an example – then not only will you be stronger and bigger, but probably more bloodthirsty too.”
“Oh, I see! That’s awesome!” Imaya said enthusiastically. “But still, I know someone who doesn’t fit this picture. We had a companion, who started at the same time as we did, but we parted halfway. His name is Pell, and his starting Ability was Stone Skin. It changed his skin, making it as tough as stone, so… shouldn’t that be considered as Morphing?”
“Hmm…” Jaks looked really thoughtful, “I have never heard about an Ability like that. And you say it wasn’t another layer above his skin? It was the skin itself that changed?”
“Yes, I asked him to show me several times,” Imaya nodded. “It looked cool.”
“Well, I highly doubt that they would have given him a Morph Ability right at the start. He wouldn’t have been able to use it anyways, not without leveling up and spending a lot of mana first.”
A lull in the conversation followed, and I glanced at the two Sylven to see how they are keeping up. Devi had barely touched her tankard, but she was listening to our conversation intently. Teva’ryn was sitting on her other side and was sipping his ale distractedly, his eyes following the plump waitress as she served drinks for two elderly men in the corner. I couldn’t blame him for not trying to keep up with our conversation: out of the two, Devi was the one who could speak Common better. It wasn’t because of the half day head start that she had got, she just had more talent than Teva’ryn. The Sylven man probably didn’t understand anything from what we had been talking about.
“Anyways,” Jaice spoke up, “I don’t think you should overly concern yourself with these Morph Abilities. You are much better off if you spend your money on armor!”
“Oh, is that how you got yours?” Imaya asked, looking at the helm in Jaice’s hands.
“Ha! You see a Player in heavy armor, you can assume right away that they bought it in the Core!”
He turned his helmet in a way that we could see inside. Right where the top of his head would be, there were some kind of symbols… or runes, glowing in a faint white light.
“You see,” he said, “No one would be crazy enough to walk around all day in something that weights a ton! That’s why even the most basic metal armors in the Shop have this kind of enchantment on them. It makes them light as a feather! This one here is actually one of the cheapest kind of armor you can get. It only has built-in cooling wards and an enchantment that makes it lightweight.”
“Can I see it?” Imaya asked.
“Sure, but you won’t feel anything,” Jaice said as he handed the piece of armor with one hand towards Imaya. She took it, and immediately dropped it to the table.
“Hey, this is heavy!”
“I told you,” Jaice said with a grin, “Only I can feel its effects.”
“Every piece of armor is like that in the Shop,” Jaks supplied us with the explanation. “Only the Player who bought it can enjoy those special features of the armor. This means that you cannot simply steal another Player’s equipment, and no one can sell it to others. I mean, it is possible, but the special enchantments would work only for the original owner.”
“Huh, that’s a pity,” Imaya said, then after a bit of thinking she added, “What do you think we should do to earn money for all this?”
“Well, I think you could guess what my first response would be,” Jaks said. “You can earn money the fastest by doing Quests. You actually started in a really nice area: there are plenty of undiscovered lands around here, and plenty of opportunity for Quests. In bigger cities there are higher paying Quests of course, but the competition is bigger… and usually you also have to travel far to complete those. So I’d say that you should stick around this area for now, and check the Bountyhouse frequently.”
“What if we don’t want any monster hunting?” I asked with a frown.
“Oh, Quests aren’t always about killing! Bountyhouse is actually a bit misleading name. You can find Quests issued there for escort missions as well, for example.”
I didn’t think that made things much better. Obviously, those ‘escort missions’ would have a high chance to be dangerous, otherwise there would be no need for an escort.
“There are other ways, too,” Jaks continued. “I wouldn’t recommend those. You can think of all sorts of things the Players can do that non-Players can’t, right? Well, bad news is that other Players can think about those things as well, and they had been here longer than you. If you figure out a way to earn money with your privileges as a Player, chances are good that other Players are already doing that. For example, there are others who utilize the Core’s Message and Fast Travel options to provide delivery services for everyone. And you need to have the right connections, but there are rich people all across this planet who would pay large sums of money for information from the Core. They often like to spy on each other this way.”
“Special Quests,” Ryven suddenly spoke up, and I jolted. I actually forgot that he was also there.
“Ah yes, thanks Ryven,” Jaks said. “I have yet to warn you guys, that going without Quests is a bad move, whether you like it or not. If you are idle for a long time, you will either receive a Special Quest that you have to complete… or something will happen around you that would force you to change lifestyle. This is also the reason why the common folk doesn’t like us. So many tragedies have happened around us Players, that we are like bad omens.”
“What do you mean that I have to complete the Quest?” I asked. “What happens if I don’t?”
“It depends. You will be notified of the penalty beforehand, but it’s usually having to pay a large sum of money, losing attribute points, or in more serious cases, losing a limb or losing your life.”
“Ouch,” Imaya said, “Yeah, that definitely doesn’t sound good.”
“Special Quests and Events always have penalties if you don’t complete them,” Jaks said. “Events are usually less serious, but they could happen anytime. For example, you see someone breaking into a house, and you receive an Event to stop him, or else your right arm would twitch uncontrollably for two weeks. The collar has some really creative ways to punish you,” he said grimly.
“Uhh, and…” Imaya started hesitantly, “Do you have any idea who gives us these Quests? Or who’s behind all of this?”
“Well,” Jaks said, “Nothing concrete, but there are rumors about this of course…” he trailed off, studying Imaya with narrowed eyes. “You know something, don’t you?”
I tried to warn Imaya quickly to shut her mouth by kicking her leg under the table. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough force behind it and she didn’t get my message.
“Yes, you could say so. We don’t know much either, but we met some of the guys behind this on our first day.”
“Really?” Jaks said, trying unsuccessfully to hide his eagerness. “What did they look like? What did they do?”
“Well, we- Ouch, Randel, stop kicking me! We didn’t see them, because they could control our bodies through our collars. But they gave Randel a dagger.”
I buried my face in my hands. I was done. It wouldn’t take Imaya a single day in the town to blab all my secrets.
“Randel?” Jaks asked. “Could you show us the dagger Imaya is talking about?”
“Oh well,” I said, shooting a glare at Imaya “Might as well, since the secret is out.”
“What secret?” Imaya asked, dumbfounded. “It’s just a dagger!”
As far as I knew, she had never heard Soul Eater chuckling or laughing yet. She might have changed her mind if she did. I reached for my belt to pull out the dagger, but found only empty air.
“Whoops,” I said. “I think I lost Soul Eater.”
When realization kicked in, I couldn’t sit still. I excused myself and got up to look for the dagger. The others called after me, but I barely heard what they were saying. I told them to meet me at the Core in an hour, then stepped out to the street.
I tried to retrace the route we had taken to get to the inn. I knew it was futile, but I didn’t know what to do. My mind was swirling, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. There was no chance that if I dropped Soul Eater, no one would see it on the ground. There was no chance that if it was seen on the ground, no one would take it. I didn’t even know exactly which streets we took to get to the tavern.
I wandered aimlessly among in the throng of people. When was the last time I had fed Soul Eater? I didn’t think I had killed anything with it since the alutnarat. Since then, we hadn’t hunted many animals, and even when we had, it hadn’t been my dagger that killed them. Why was I so goddamn stupid, so careless? Not only did I lose the weapon, but I had to do it when it already hadn’t been fed for days.
To be honest, I didn’t know what would happen if it got too hungry. From my encounter with the smuggler, I knew that Soul Eater could influence me to use it. To kill with it. But what would happen if I didn’t have it nearby?
The item’s description said that if it was starving too much, the dagger would consume my soul. Was that possible from a distance? Or was it just an idle threat to make me keep the weapon? I had to assume that the threat was real. It would be a great mistake if I didn’t take it seriously and it killed me in the end. I might find out the truth soon enough, I thought bitterly. It seemed very likely that after trading hands a few times, Soul Eater would end up in a display case. It was a sharp weapon, that’s true, but it was even better to look at. But even if it didn’t end up in any rich person’s possession, I highly doubted that the new owner would kill with it regularly… unless the new owner was a serial killer, of course.
Eventually I made it out of the market and back to the Core. An irrational part of me was hoping that I’d find Soul Eater in the Storage. Maybe I had left it in there somehow, after all. Maybe it had been transported back by an Inspector after I lost it.
Soul Eater wasn’t stored in there, obviously. For a few minutes I frantically navigated through the menu points, desperately trying to find something that could help me, but I didn’t come up with anything. I exited the Core dejectedly, and began wandering on the streets aimlessly. Maybe I could spot someone trying to sell my dagger.
I hated this helplessness. Up till now, there was always a way to achieve my short-term goals. Staying alive in the forest. Finding Bildy. Surviving the octopus giants. Finding a way out of the cave. Even when the situation seemed really bad, I always had the opportunity to do something in order to change it.
Losing Soul Eater was no less life-threatening than either of my previous adventures. The only difference was that I couldn’t do anything in order to get out of this trouble. Of course, I could start checking out stalls and places where they sold weapons. I could also ask Imaya and the others to help me. But if I thought about it rationally, there was basically no chance we would find Soul Eater that way. And I probably used up all my luck when I had found the magic staff and the tunnel that lead straight to the surface, I mused.
As I turned to a narrow street that was completely deserted, I wondered whether my dagger was trading hands in some back-alley right now. It occurred me that without a weapon to provide swift escape via teleporting, it wasn’t the best idea to go through places like this. In case someone wanted to rob me or just beat me up, there wouldn’t even be any witnesses and no one would hear me. I tried to turn back to take an other route, only to realize that I couldn’t move my body.
I was about to exclaim in alarm, when my right hand snapped in front of my mouth, forcing it shut. I immediately knew what this meant, and tried to calm myself. If the Council was intervening again, it must be because of Soul Eater. My nervousness was battling with hope and relief. Maybe they would hand back the dagger to me. It seemed unlikely that they would sever the connection just because I lost it… and they wouldn’t intervene if they wanted to murder me. The dagger would do that anyways.
My body walked down the narrow street, then turned into an alley and opened an old, creaking door. As I stepped inside I could barely see anything in the gloom, but I could make out the female figure in by the boarded-up window. When I closed the door, she stepped closer and my eyes took in her alien face. Her greenish skin was slightly wrinkled on her skeletal face. She had no hair, her mouth was absurdly wide, and she had a third eye where her nose should have been. But even the eyes were abnormal by human standards: they were completely black, with only tiny white dots for pupils. She was blinking rapidly, but no two eyes ever blinked at the same time. She was dressed in a pristine suit, complemented with black leather gloves and a white shirt with a red tie.
“We don’t have much time,” she said as she grabbed my collar and began tinkering with it. By her raspy voice I identified her as the same Inspector that had handled me on my first day.
“I thought we mustn’t see your faces,” I told her after I found my voice.
“Yes, that’s the protocol. It’s ridiculous and just for the show anyways,” she said. Curiously, she wasn’t as gruff as the first time. Had that been also an act?
“I have disabled the cameras in the area, but I cannot keep them this way for more than a few minutes. Otherwise they would notice that I had interfered,” she added.
“C-cameras?” was all I could say.
“Nanobots. Don’t bother trying to spot them, you won’t be able to.”
She twisted the collar around my neck, opened up a whole new menu, and began to type something. I tried to catch a glimpse, but my hands took hold of my head and covered my eyes, preventing me from peering around.
“You have gained quite a popularity among the viewers,” she said but she didn’t stop working. “It would be a shame if you died just because of a stupid stolen weapon. The other chosen Subjects with these prototypes will already have the tracking function implemented, so here is what we are going to do: you will tell everyone – even your companions – that after concentrating on your weapon, you realized that you can actually feel its presence. Which will be true, after I updated your software. It will be an obscure feeling first, but after a few days you should be getting better at determining the weapon’s direction. Unfortunately I cannot speed up this process, because your body wouldn’t be able to take the burden.” She shifted the collar back to its original position as it let out a soft chime. “I already told the other Inspectors that I have installed this feature on your first day. To avoid suspicion, you will have to act surprised. Say that you always felt the prototype’s presence, but only recently figured out what it meant. Say that you are still trying to find out how to read the signals.”
She was talking so rapidly that I barely registered the single most important revelation in her monologue.
“Viewers?! I thought we are some kind of test subjects!”
“Sure, you are. But why wouldn’t there be viewers anyways? You are all providing us a great show.”
That was quite a revelation to drop into my lap, just like that. I couldn’t see her face, but I would have bet that she was grinning.
“A-and you said I’m popular? Does this have anything to do with how much gold I received from the Core?”
I received a pat on my shoulder.
“How perceptive! That’s a good question, isn’t it?” she asked, leaning closer. “I have to say, you are indeed very lucky to be the first one who tests the prototype,” she whispered in my ear. I couldn’t suppress a shiver. I also couldn’t decide whether she was being sarcastic or not, because I honestly didn’t consider myself lucky at all.
Finally, the Inspector stepped back and my hands lowered themselves. We both had a good, long look at each other. Her face was so strange, that I couldn’t determine anything from her expression. I couldn’t hold her gaze for long, her three large eyes were so eerie. It was perfect nightmare-material.
“Alright, I let you to ask one question that I’ll answer before you go,” she said suddenly.
I looked at her in surprise, then tried to prioritize frantically. There were a lot of things that would have been great to know, but I settled on one of the most basic ones. It was the question that would either totally crush all my motivations, or give me hope.
“Is it possible for me to go back home to Earth?”
“Technically? Yes, it’s possible,” she replied. “But looking at your chances… I wouldn’t say so.”
Good. I licked my dried lips. Now would come part where I really had to choose my next words well.
“Then let’s make a deal. I’ll willingly do whatever you want me to do, and in return you will try your best to send me back to Earth,” I said, with no little trepidation. “I know you have some kind of hidden agenda with me. Let me help you achieve it.”
“Heh, amusing,” she said, her mouth becoming even wider as she grinned. I could see the points of her sharp black teeth. “What makes you think that is a fair deal?”
I didn’t think it was fair at all. There was no way that she would risk exposing herself by sending a test subject home. But I wanted to keep the conversation going, and asking for a deal was a good opportunity to gain more insight into her goals.
“Just what are you up to anyways?” I decided to ask instead of answering her. “Why do you help me? Why is it important for you to keep me alive?”
“No, no, I told you, I’ll answer only one question. Besides, it wouldn’t be very clever for me to reveal any personal information, would it?”
“Alright,” I said, “but there is one more problem. How will I be able to keep this a secret from others of your kind, if this collar can read my mind?”
“Read you mind?” she asked with another grin. “No, the Transcension Device cannot read minds. You can control your skills and Abilities, sure, but think of it more as reading intentions. The Device cannot perceive concrete thoughts, just the general purpose behind them.”
That was a relief. But… Transcension Device? I opened my mouth to speak, but she interrupted me before I could say anything.
“And with that, time’s up! I’ll consider the deal that you have offered. I’m going to convince the other Inspectors that you need an additional test. Then, I’m going to give you a Special Quest, something exceptional just for you. Should you complete that, it would make me quite happy. After that, well… I’m not promising anything. But you can hope that we will have another chat. Preferably a longer one.”
It wasn’t anything like my original offer. Even so, what she said still sounded good. I already knew so much more than most of the Players, and it had been only a few minutes long chat. How much more I would know if I had a few more minutes to ask questions!
“Make sure to stay alive,” she said finally. “I have now invested a lot in you.” My body began to move away, but then stopped at the door.
“Oh, and if it hadn’t been obvious already, Inspectors are forbidden to interfere directly with the lives of the test subjects. Now you know that we are watching your every step, hearing your every breath. I think you are clever enough to figure out the rest, but let me warn you anyways: should your mouth run more than usual, I’m afraid that some horrible accident might happen to you before anyone could take you in for interrogation.”
I gulped, and my body opened the door to step outside. I was still reeling from all the things I had learned, but I could already feel my agitation to find Soul Eater returning.
“Good luck out there,” the Inspector said. “You will desperately need it.”