After Kreation: A Widower's Tale

Discussion in 'Original Stories' started by Woofcano, Jun 24, 2017.

  1. Woofcano

    Woofcano New Member

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    Synopsis:

    Eric is a recent widower facing the opportunity to hold his late wife once again. Except, it's not really her. When the game he met Lana on makes a return, inactive avatars are revived as sentient, artificial beings. He knows he has to move on but he cannot resist the chance to see her smile and smell her ginger hair once again.

    With little to live for, he throws himself into the world of Kreation to spend time with his beloved. However, to keep up with the gaming world's competition, the world has become much harsher than what he remembers. Holding onto Lana is going to be much harder than he thought it would be.


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    I originally started posting this on Royal Road Legends. If you're a member be sure to check it out. =]
    RRL
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2017
  2. Woofcano

    Woofcano New Member

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    Chapter 1

    I hated Lana for dying. I hated her for leaving me in our tiny one bedroom apartment all to myself, and I hated her for leaving me the job of having to chronicle all her accounts. Most did not care if their social media profiles, forum memberships, and gaming accounts remained active after their passing but Lana did. With the emergence of the HoloNet, even though everything was connected, no one had thought to create a one-click button to chronicle the deceased's every account.

    Neither of us particularly enjoyed our jobs, but they paid the bills. She was a financial consultant but claimed it felt like she was selling her soul. I felt the same about the columns I wrote. It was a waste of a journalism degree. However, neither of us had to leave our apartments. Desk jobs had ceased to exist due to the Cyberspace boom. We could comfortably pay the mortgage, the connection and maintenance fees needed for constant access to the HoloNet and our many game subscriptions.

    In the 10 years of our relationship, we had played several games together. Neither of us were particularly unattractive and hence rarely toyed with avatar creation. The HoloModules used our registered physical appearances, we only toyed with racial choices, hair and skin colour on occasion. Still, it was nice to see the many avatars she had employed over the years as I went about chronicling her accounts.

    It did not surprise me that Kreation had relaunched. I had received several e-mails about it but the system would not let me change her account status even though I had administrative access. It was following my third attempt that a live chat window appeared before me.

    “Hello. This is Ravi from the customer help desk. .I see you are trying to access the account ‘RenoLana' which you are not the owner of. Please note that continued attempts will force us to blacklist your IP and biometrics.”

    “I'm not trying to access the account. I'm just trying to chronicle it. Is the UI not responding or am I doing something wrong?"

    “You are not the creator of the account."

    “She is deceased unless the development team at Kreation has discovered a way to revive the dead only I can chronicle it. Bloody hell, why would anyone try to chronicle their own account? Does that make any sense to you Ravi? If someone wanted their account gone, they'd simply delete it or temporarily suspend it. Do you not understand what the essence of chronicling an account is?" I sighed temporarily losing the composure I had maintained for the past week. "Wait, would it help if I linked her death certificate and the documents certifying me to-"

    “I'm sorry sir, but there is nothing I can do." Ravi interrupted. "All players were sent e-mails a month prior launch of Kreation 6.0. Any accounts not activated by the launch date were locked. Avatars on said accounts are now NPCs. You can try starting a petition."

    “You mean to say some random piece of programming controlling my wife's virtual clone?" I demanded not realizing how hollow my voice had become during the conversation.

    “I’m sorry sir.” He replied. “It’s not a random piece of programming though. It’s a sentient being with memories developed using the avatar’s journal, question history, friend and enemy list.”

    I disconnected before he could say anything more.



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    It was a rainy day outside the Tomb of Fallen Kings and I was sitting around hoping to find a group in need of one with my expertise. Not a lot dungeon parties that ventured to the tomb came without the much-needed support classes. Lacking offensive abilities, they had a difficult time traveling through the Kroatoan Wastelands on their own. It was tanks and damaging characters that the teams were looking for.

    The game’s Party Matching service that came to my rescue.

    "Hello," greeted a middle-aged beastkin in heavy armour. She seemed to have opted for one of the bovine variants with horns. Her round shield gave away her Paladin class. I preferred keeping my weapon hidden outside of combat. "We've been waiting for over a bloody hour but are still two short. Mind helping us out?"

    “What do you have so far?"

    “Paladin, Battle Mage, and a Bard. We need another damage dealer and a healer."

    “Unless you skipped all the healing spells and auras.

    There should be enough party recovery between you and your Bard. And the Battle Mage should be pretty self sufficient health wise."

    "My level is much higher than what the dungeon requires. My buffs will keep your asses alive as long as the Bard keeps his Ballad of the Forest up. I can provide crowd control as well."

    "Fuck it, we're getting tired of the wait.

    We'll still need another DPS."

    “I can take care of that.”

    “This is Lana Krain our Battle Mage.” She said introducing me to the team. “Marcus Nightstong, the Bard and I’m Cynthia Morningstar. We just hit level 89.”

    “Erick Krowe, Enchanter. Level 94.”

    “Level 94? What the hell are you doing still farming the Tomb?" Lana asked.

    I liked her ginger hair and forever aggressive green eyes straight away. It wasn't an attraction but

    a fascination. It didn't looked manicured

    enough to be something designed by the avatar creation system but carried a natural wildness unlike what I was used to. Over the years I had grown to love her hair but simultaneously hate it. It was her and it was beautiful. It took several years for me to get used to waking up with a mouthful of ginger hair.

    "The experience is more than decent in the Kroatoan Ruins, plenty of drops for Sphera crafting too.

    " I answered. "The lack of ranged mobs, makes life a whole lot better for someone in cloth armor. Besides I need some of the boss drops to upgrade my weapon."

    We needed one more so I called Eli. We had stayed in touch even after being excommunicated by our old guild leader. Being a Berserker, like Lana he was an abuser of regenerative abilities and made a good addition to the team.

    We made ourselves through the first floor quicker than I had expected. Cynthia provoked and kept the skeletal hordes on her while Eli cleaved through them with his unrealistically giant axe. Lana dealt with the elite ranked mobs that accompanied every horde with her empowered staff. My Sphera and Marcus's Lute lacked much in the terms of damage but compensated we compensated with our supportive capabilities.

    Totem of Unity cast through my Forest Sphera cast a regenerative aura over the team while boosting Marcus's ballad and Cynthia's Blessing of Light. The Lightning Sphera hovered around Lana boosting her attack speed through Sphera Guardian, while occasionally blocking incoming attacks. Elemental Conversion transformed the floating orb of metal and glowing blue crystal that was my Aqua Sphera to transform it into a giant ball of ice. I manually controlled it to alternate between bludgeoning foes and shielding Eli and Cynthia. It did moderate damage while slowing my targets with the Frost effect.

    When we reached King Midas, the boss of the dungeon’s first floor I was forced to give up on attacking with my snow ball. Instead, Sphera Guardian transformed the blue Sphera into a shield which jumped between my team members as Midas targeted them with his Golden Touch.

    I had faced off against him several times and found his supposedly random attack style to be fairly predictable. King Midas was a tall humanoid skeleton in dirty steel armour and a claymore he wielded with one hand. He would have looked like any other elite monster in the game if not for his unarmoured right hand which glowed with a malicious golden light. The occasional ‘Petrified' status was bad enough. It was the instant kill ability which transformed its target into a statue of gold was what made Midas truly terrifying.

    It wasn't the hardest of battles, Lana landed the final blow. She was having a hard time getting close once Midas's health dropped below 5%. He discarded his sword and proceeded to rain punches at whoever got close. A single touch would result in a five-second petrification. It was then the trio showed how adept they were at working together. Marcus requested I apply my Aqua Sphera Guardian on Cynthia. As soon as I complied he replaced his Ballad of the Forest with Anthem of War. The system notified me that my damage and speed had been increased by fifty percent. Cynthia reinforced her shield and Charged at him, she parried his punch with his fist and then swung her shield at him in full force. As soon as Midas was off balance Lana jumped in and I moved my Aqua Sphera to her. She activated all her damage and attack buffs at once and proceeded to bash the boss monster with her staff. Eli assisted her but his damage was minuscule in comparison to hers. However, when the skeleton tried to get back on his feet Eli knocked him down to the dungeon floor, allowing Lana to end him. King Midas refused to grace me with his index finger.

    "I've never met an Enchanter that managed to get past level 55." Lana said while we were making our way through the second floor.

    "You don't see a lot of Battle Mages around your level either."

    "I enjoy a challenge." Lana smiled.

    "We made it easy." Marcus sang strumming the riff to an old Beatles song. I tried to remember it's name.

    "Have you guys been levelling together?"

    "Pretty much. My brother, Cynthia's partner and the three of us live in the same dorms." He revealed. "We've been playing together since day one, they have midterms though so we had to get you fuckers."



    "Be nice." Cynthia scolded through a mouthful of raisin bread.

    "Yeah we started a little guild not too long ago. There's eight of us now." Lana explained.

    "Would be nine but Marcus tends to scare away the female recruits."

    "Sure blame it on the black guy." The bard snorted.



    “You're Korean dumbass!" Cynthia nudged before the pair broke into a play argument.

    "Are you in a guild?" Lana asked.



    “Erick and I parted with our last guild not long ago." Eli chimed in.

    “May I ask why?"

    “The new guild leader was not a fan of player killing." I told her.

    “Isn't that ridiculous? If you don't want to be involved in PK or PvP, you might as well play on the bloody vanilla server." Lana laughed. "We'd still be stuck in the low fifties if we hadn't lucked out on the caravan we robbed."

    “That was my argument as well.”

    “If you want to go attack some traders with us sometime, feel free to get in touch." The redhead said with the smile I had gotten used to waking up to over the following decade.

    “I think what Lana is trying to say, is if you're looking for a guild. We're recruiting." Cynthia said over her shoulder.

    ."I'll give it a thought. So are you guys



    just a social group or planning on making a career of robbing caravans?" I enquired.

    “We’re saving for 5.5.”

    “For a skyship?”

    “Indeed.”

    ------------------------------------------

    Three years following our meeting, Kreation could no longer keep up with its competitors and decided to shut down its servers. We had become a close-knit group and decided to continue our friendship outside of the game. Initially, we only met in cyberspace but before long we discovered that not only did we all live in the same time zone but were in driving distance of one another.

    Somehow Lana and I always ended up seated next to each other during group gatherings. It wasn’t intentional since our relationship was still platonic but that changed rapidly. The old members of Dusk were not surprised when she and I started spending time in the real world without them. Eli who had followed me into the guild ended up being the best man at our wedding. Cynthia was Lana’s maid of honour.

    Over the years some of us had lost contact but all thirteen of Dusk's surviving members were present at Lana's funeral. Eli tried to convince me to join him for a drink later on during the week but I refused. None of them spent much time gaming anymore. Though the topic of Kreation 6.0 had come up our old companions neither had the time or inclination to enjoy it, family and jobs got in the way.

    We had never liked the idea of children. Frustrated with life I had quit my job as well. With the settlement of the malpractice suit and Lana's life insurance, I could get by without working for the rest of my days.

    At first, I was furious at the Kreation team for letting an AI run around in Lana's husk but all of a sudden I found myself logging in. To my surprise my old account was not locked, the system showed my account had been activated a day prior the launch.
     
  3. Woofcano

    Woofcano New Member

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    Chapter 2

    I awoke in my bed on the Evening Star, our aptly named cloud clipper. Most preferred putting their avatars to rest in the guild base or at an inn in a secure town. However, residing on the ship meant in there was little to no travel time between logging in and joining in on a guild activity. After achieving level 100 and had crafted the best weapon available at patch 5.92 there was not much for me to do outside of guild-based activities.

    The Evening Star was a small ship but adequate for a guild our size. It was the fastest air vehicle type in the game but could not carry much, which meant we had to prioritize our loot during our pirating activities. Once all the members of Dusk had crossed the level 95 threshold and had achieved a part of their end game equipment we graduated from robbing caravans. Our new targets were affluent trading posts, merchant ships and PvE guild ships returning base camp after big hunts. We only took the most valuable of treasures due to our weight constraints, but the haul always kept us satisfied. The contributors split the loot, and we funnelled the remainder into the guild bank for ship and fort maintenance.

    The quality of the game's graphics was as realistic as that of all current games in the market if not better. The wood and metal of my room's interior not only looked real in terms of colour and texture but felt real to the touch as well. I could smell the wood and the cold air leaking in through the porthole. We were flying well above the cloud level.

    I found myself looking at a version of myself ten years younger in the mirror. My skin was smoother than what it was now, and I wore my hair messy as the fashion of 2099 had suggested. The use of combs and hair products was not 'cool.' Lana had liked it too; she enjoyed the feel of hair untouched by hair gel or wax. I did not need spectacles in-game, but they had always been a security blanket for me. I felt naked without them and still refused to give contact lenses a shot. In my twenties, I had worn large shell frames, but my avatar's glasses were more like the ones I had chosen to employ entering my thirties. Rectangular, metal and half-rimmed, looked good on my young face.

    "Ho Erick!" Marcus greeted as I climbed the ladder onto the bridge. The smile and speech pattern was the same. If I hadn't known that Marcus had taken his own life half a decade ago, I would've thought it was him. It wasn't just his appearance which the system had adopted but the body language was identical as well. The only difference was that after a year of friendship we had turned to greeting each other by our real world names as opposed to the in-game handles. "I was wondering when you'd wake up. I have no idea how the fuck you lot sleep for months at a time."

    “Hey." I smiled, looking into the face of my long lost friend, except now he only saw me as one of the ascended visitors to his world. I shook his hand resisting the urge to catch him up on how lovely his daughter was growing up to be. "Have you seen Lana?"

    “We're en route to collect her, Marina and Cynthia now." He answered nodding to the sky port we were approaching. "I was thinking of making it a double date, but I guess you're going to spoil my fun."

    Marcus had never hidden his interest in Lana. They had been together a while, but it didn't last. He married a woman he met at work, and it was no secret that their marriage had been an unhappy one. Marcus had disclosed to our friends that he still had eyes for my wife. They had thought it fit to relay information to me. After his passing, I often wondered whether it had contributed to his suicide.

    “What’s on the agenda?”

    “The Wyvern Mother was sighted to the North and Dragonsbane has gone chasing after it. It's about time we bring them down a notch. Dontcha think?"

    “Sure," I told him, eager to fight alongside my late wife once again even though it wouldn't be her. Marcus did not know his daughter; it was safe to assume that his avatar knew of nothing outside Kreation. It would be the same for Lana. I'd just be a dear friend in her eyes and nothing more.

    Patch 5.5 had not only introduced airships but new lands for players to explore in the form of sky islands. We had eventually built our base on one such island. Awen was a player built port town. We often used it to repair our ship, restock on supplies and when over-burdened to unload some of our inventory. Lana utilized the magic workshop within its walls for crafting and upgrading her staves and their magic cores. I thought the residing guild's taxes to be ridiculous, but it was a convenient distance from our base.

    The trio was waiting for us at our usual pier. My greetings for Cynthia and her partner were short; I only had eyes for my wife. Lana had her hair tied up in a high ponytail as she did in the morning before going for a run. She still wore black dragon leather coat I had crafted for her. She was not the Lana I had gotten used to after a decade together. Her green eyes still had the almost frightening wilderness to them, and her cheeks carried the slight plumpness of youth.

    “Where the hell have you been?” She demanded punching my right arm before a friendly hug. “If you’re going to be away for a month, you need to let us know dammit!”

    “Missed you too." I smiled, taking in the smell of her hair. It wasn't quite the same but was close enough. "Did you manage to get all the materials to finish the Draconic Staff?"

    “Not quite," Lana answered pulling away from the hug even though I hadn’t had enough. "Maybe this Wyvern mother will be the answer."

    “Tell you what. When you finish the staff, I'll upgrade your coat for free, and we'll go test it out together."

    “Sounds like a date.” Lana grinned.

    “Hey if that’s what you want to make of it, sure. Why not?”

    “Jeez! Thanks for making a girl feel good about herself.”

    Cynthia cleared her throat behind us, and we quickly got about preparing the ship for the assault. We hoisted the sails and armed our weapons. Marina, Marcus, and Eli were the members of the guild only ones who had trained in the sailing of airships. Marina being more adept than Marcus, took the helm.

    To avoid detection we availed of the heavy cloud cover. I played lookout perched on the Crow's Nest. We were too small a guild to take on the Wyvern Mother but were familiar with her air space. We often laid in wait outside of it raiding ships that hunted her or those flying round to avoid her wrath.

    Our plan had been to interrupt the fight and kill the Wyvern Mother before the heavy hitter of Dragonsbane realized what was going on. However, on entering the killing field, we realised that we were too late. The fight was long over. The Wyvern Mother was already dead, and her corpse had been stripped clean. However, our target was ripe for the taking; the Dragonsbane ship, Dragonslayer had sustained heavy damage. They had lost their mast and sails. A few of the crewmen were repairing the sails while the others concentrated on keeping the wyvern offspring at bay.

    They did not react when we revealed ourselves. We wore the sails of their allied guild, Leviathan. Some went as far as to cheer.

    “They think it’s a rescue mission.” Cynthia laughed. “Marina, how many do you see?”

    "Eight. They seem to have lost more than half of their crew to the battle." She answered after having activated her Eagle Eye ability. "Going by equipment, I'd say five of them were probably just manning the cannons. Poorly geared, and one seems to be a full on Carpenter. The Mage might turn out to be a threat, but his staff and robes don't look particularly impressive. Can't determine what element at this range. The Shieldmaster and Summoner seem to be on par with us.”

    “Thanks love. Lana, Marcus, fire the harpoons once we’re in range.” Cynthia directed expertly. “Marina your priority is the Summoner. The last thing we need is a fire or wind elemental knocking us out of the air. Lana, you're on clean-up, Marcus supports us. I'll engage the Shieldmaster. Help me out after you guys have taken care of the rest."

    “Want me to sit this one out boss?” I asked awaiting instruction.

    "Stay hidden. You're on lookout. It almost looks too easy. I think they may have already been expecting back up. Besides if anything changes on the battlefield, I want you to keep us informed."

    “Understood.”

    “We’re in range.” Lana informed us.

    “What the fuck are you waiting for then. Fire!”

    The pair fired the ship's harpoon guns with a precision that only came with experience. The first took out the cannons facing us and the second destabilized the hull. We tended to spare anyone that surrendered but made sure that the ship was incapable of giving chase. We closed the distance between us before the crew had a chance to regain their balance. Marina took out the Summoner with a perfectly aimed Concussion Bolt, followed by a Sniper's Shot.

    Lana dove into action her goal clear but the Shieldmaster jumped in Lana's way before she could bring her charged staff down upon the Mage. His shield swing knocked her off balance, and he pushed her overboard. My Lightning Sphera being the fastest of the three was sent flying to her rescue. She pushed herself off of it with a Mana charged kick and landed behind the Shieldmaster. She interrupted the Mage's casting with a swing of her staff before being knocked away again by his protector.

    With the crew now alert, Marina was forced to run from cover to cover while taking out the easier targets.

    Cynthia finally engaged the Shieldmaster, but their interaction was short lived. An explosion sent a concussive wave through the ship and before I could react the two tanks were disappearing into the clouds.

    We had been wrong to assume there was no one on the lower decks. A Marksman and a Cleric climbed onto the bridge through the fractured planks of the upper deck. The source of the explosion turned out to be a fire elemental called forth by the Summoner. The cleric must have started casting the revival spell not long after Marina killed his ally.

    “Retreat!” I yelled. With Cynthia down, I was in command. “Marcus detach the harpoons. Marina! To the helm take us into the clouds.”

    The Dragonslayer started losing altitude as soon as the harpoons were released. The Summoner had already dispelled her fire elemental and seconds later an elder air elemental took its place. It kept their ship from falling. Lana leapt from their ship as we descended rapidly, she missed the ledge, but Marcus caught her arm. My Lightning Sphera gave her a footrest to push off of and she jumped to safety.

    I tried casting Totem of Unity through my Lightning Sphera to increase the ship's speed but failed. The water shield of my Aqua Sphera would not activate either. It then struck me that the combat system had been overhauled. Magic was no longer a simple spell activation; I had no idea how it worked. I had no idea what I was doing. The only thing I could do to support my allies was manually control my orbs.

    The Aqua Sphera blocked an arrow aimed at Lana's back, but I failed to deflect the one that took our Marina. A Firebomb from their Mage struck our side. No pilot and damaged the ship was done for. I grabbed Lana and pulled her into the lower deck just as a second Firebomb tore through the Evening Star. I do not know what became of Marcus. He had been following us but did not come down the stairs. Lana looped her arm around a wooden pillar, and we clung to each other.

    The ship was coming apart around us. Lana was yelling at me but I could hear nothing over the roar of the wind. The porthole to our left doubled in size, second later the wall followed the glass. The ceiling disappeared above us, and Lana's grip on me tightened.

    "Hold on." she mouthed. The fear in her face was no different from the morning at the doctor’s office as we awaited the doctor’s prognosis. I put my arms around her waist, and she gripped onto the pillar. Though it was just a virtual projection, Lana felt warm to the touch. Her buttocks were pressed against my stomach. Her hair had come undone and was in my face. I missed holding my wife and tightened my grip.

    We were being battered by boxes and furniture that had been once nailed down. My grip around Lana’s waist loosened and then she was gone. The ship and I were falling in different directions. I tried imitating the many sky diving videos I had seen but it made no difference. The distance between the Evening Star and I was growing by the second.

    The forest below us was a dark green and dense. I attempted to use the Sphera to slow my fall, but I had lost my glasses. Keeping my eyes open in free fall was near impossible, and I couldn't see what I was doing. All went black once I hit the foliage.
     
  4. Woofcano

    Woofcano New Member

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    Chapter 3

    At first, I thought I had died, but in the pursuit of realism, the game must have added a knocked out status. I came to what seemed like hours later. My vision was blurry, and my ears were ringing. I found myself suspended far above the forest floor. My robe had become tangled in the canopy, but the height allowed me to find my bearings.
    I could see the airship. It seemed to have crashed not far downhill. It lay crumpled against a white limestone cliff, with several fragments littered in its trail.
    Using the unequip feature would have freed me of my predicament, but it didn’t occur to my panicked brain. My primary objective was to return to the ship and find Lana. It may have been minutes but felt like hours before I managed to rip myself out of my navy blue robes. It was a long drop, branches broke under my weight and left bruises on my back and side. The hard and knotted forest floor arrived sooner than I expected. My health bar took a substantial hit.
    The system notified me that I had left my Lightning and Aqua Sphera in my robes, but I was already trampling fauna and charging through bramble. No notification was going to slow me down. I still had my Forest Sphera hovering by my left shoulder. It was all I needed to kickstart Lana’s passive recovery, given I hadn't lost her all over again.
    The Dragonsbane ship emerged through the clouds when I was halfway down the hill. Either their Carpenter was more skilled than we had assumed or rescue had arrived not long after our attack. Their hull seemed to have undergone heavy patchwork, but the ship still had no mast or sail. The summoned wind elemental carried the ship in concentric circles, slowly bringing it down. The sun was low in the sky. Fortunately, our hunters seemed not to have spotted the wreckage yet.
    The Evening Star was in pieces. I found Marcus. He was dead, and his Lute lay in pieces. The Bard had tied himself to the bow; his body lay in a crumpled heap under it. Marina had fallen at the helm, but her body must have flown in a different direction during the fall.
    Enchanters had no revival spell. As an NPC, Marcus's corpse was lootable. I took his leather coat, shirt and trousers to replace the tattered remains of my mage robes. I pocketed his core. It wouldn't be cheap and would take a while, but I planned to bring him back.
    I finally made it to the main body of the ship. Crushed against the side of the cliff it was barely more than a pile of scrap wood. The embers of the firebombs were still burning. The rock face had kept the wind at bay, and starved the flames.
    A silver glint drew my attention. The mountain of timber around it was damp and had remained untouched by the fire. My instincts told me to rush ahead and rip the wood pile apart, but I held back. If Lana was still alive and buried under it, a cave in could end her.
    I started off taking my time, but the thought of the ginger Battle Mage bleeding hurried me along. The silver turned out to be her staff, and her bloody hand was holding onto it.
    By the time our hunters passed overhead the black of night was spreading its tendrils through the red, orange sky. The cliff cast a long shadow hiding the wreckage along with the trail of debris and shattered tree trunks it had left in its wake. I waited till the rumble of the air elemental was out of earshot before continuing my rescue attempt.
    The hard work not only drained my Stamina but my Health as well, only a sliver remained. I could feel the fatigue in my bones. I tried activating some of my spells to encourage recovery but still could not figure out how to utilize the new magic system.
    Darkness had enveloped us by the time I had Lana free of the Evening Star’s remains; I only had the green glow of Forest Sphera for light. She was alive but still out cold. As a support class, I had access to the skill 'Healer's Eyes.' It wasn't as high a level as I would have liked, it wouldn't give me a full diagnosis, but I could see she had heavy internal bleeding and several broken bones.
    I fought the temptation to pull out the game manual straight away, but my first objective had to be to build some distance between us and the wreck. The Dragonsbane guild had a history of persistence. It was likely they’d find a port town to repair their ship or switch to another before resuming their search in the morning.
    I put together a makeshift stretcher using what remained of the sails and the large supply of wood. It wasn't the prettiest of constructions, but it did the job. I dragged Lana along the side of the cliff in search of sanctuary. Even the poorest of trackers would have no trouble finding our trail, but I hoped the weather would be on our side.


    --------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Lana and I always had an unorthodox dynamic when it came to gaming. Some went as far to say that she wore the pants because of her love of frontline classes, while I preferred hanging around the back providing support and strategic direction.
    The only combat classes I had played in a 20-year gaming career was a Brawler and Lightning Mage, but it had been years since I had tried either.
    The last virtual roleplaying game Lana and I had played together had been Wild West themed. Lana had chosen to play a rifle and axe wielding Native American tribeswoman. I was her personal Shaman, taking care of injuries, scouting for hostiles with my hawk spirit and providing a damage sponge with my pet bear.
    The dynamic had started in Kreation.
    "I want to hunt Manticores," Lana said one evening, breaking the long silence. We had been tinkering with our respective weapons in a rented magic workshop.
    "I'll message Eli. Maybe he's free." I told her, not paying much attention. After months of hunting, Midas had finally graced me with his index finger. Transferring its Essence to my Lightning Sphera was taking up all my concentration.
    "No. He's been getting on my nerves lately, and everyone else has finals." Lana whined. "We'll be okay. We'll pack a lunch, maybe some healing salves. Don't worry; I'll keep you alive."
    "My concern is keeping you alive. If things get hairy, I have no issues running away, and unlike you, I'm good at it. You, on the other hand, are likely to get yourself killed, lose levels and gear."
    "Shut the fuck up and get to the point!" She snapped. "You want to fucking hang out or not?"
    "Is this not hanging out?" I asked, all the while keeping my eyes on the Sphera. Over the years I thought back to the discussion several times, wondering if she had been hinting at something. I had been too focused on the crafting to look up and take note of what she was getting at. "Do you want to end up like Marcus?"
    "Forget it." Lana had sighed and went back to tweaking her battle staff. I had hit a sore spot.
    "No, let's go," I said, feeling a pang of guilt. "What's the worst that can happen?"
    "I don't want to anymore." The redhead snapped.
    "Get the fuck up woman, put the supplies together. I'll pack some lunch."
    Neither of us were good helmsmen and chose to leave the Evening Star at the docks. We bought passage on a trading galley to the swamp city of Sundar. We paid half of the fare before boarding, and the captain offered us his cabin. Lana was quick to reject. She had not long ended her short entanglement with Marcus. We were content sitting at the bow, our feet dangling over the side.
    Marcus hadn't been very social since the breakup. He'd join in on the occasional raid or hunt but preferred spending most of his in-game time building musical instruments or gathering materials. He had died a few times to player killers and monster attacks but still would not accept help even though he was in danger of falling below level 90. Lana did not want to talk about it. Perhaps still annoyed, she didn't seem interested in talking at all.
    We knew Kreation's days were numbered, but we wanted to achieve our goals by then. Our armours were already amongst the best in the game, and our weapons were not far behind. Most of Dusk was already discussing moving onto a new RPG as a group, but I thought it was too soon. Lana seemed sad about losing Kreation as well. She didn't say much, but after three years of close friendship, her expressions were easy to read.
    Lana awakened me when the ship landed. I hadn't logged off since the start of the weekend and was running on fumes. The journey was ideal for a power nap.
    We had docked against a long wooden platform which stood well above the Sundarban forest's canopy. The mangrove forest was heavily waterlogged, but its riches had encouraged the Mandallah guild to build a settlement high above the ever-changing water level. The network of tree houses and wooden platform had at some point exploded into a thriving metropolis.
    We paid the first mate the second half of our fare before making our way down through the many levels of the city. The narrow passageways and bridges connecting the treehouses were not easy to maneuver due to the throngs of players and NPCs alike. I thought I had lost Lana in the crowd, but when a hand entwined its fingers with mine, I held on.
    Lana always said that I'm an overthinker. Perhaps she was right. It didn't mean as much to me then, but over the years of our marriage, I decided that it was where it all started.
    Lana held onto my hand even after the congestion lightened. I remember her giving it a light squeeze, and I squeezed it back, or maybe that's just me romanticizing the supposed dawn of our age.
    I paid for the gondola ride since she hadn't let me pay for the ferry from Awen to Sundar. The swamp was a beautiful sight under the canopy. The thick canopy of the mangrove tree made it difficult for other vegetation to survive, the few that had developed bioluminescence thrived. Used to the gondolas, the crocodiles ignored us. An occasional snake or mammal peeked at us through the alien like tree roots every now again. The Sundarban forest was no stranger to rain; the brief pause had the local frogs celebrating with a croaky serenade.
    "Thanks," Lana said watching the reflection of a lantern fruit in the water. "I really needed this."
    "I'm sorry."
    "Shut up." She told me and rested her head against my shoulder. That was the first time I smelled her hair. "You apologise too much."
    Our ride was short. The manticores were a semi-legendary beast. They spawned once a day at random times and their nest housed only six. To our disappointment, only two remained.
    A trio had beaten us to the nest. The second they spotted our robes they knew what to expect. The Dusk guild colours and emblems were infamous. After all, we were pirates and player killers.
    Not only were we outnumbered but their armour suggested that their level was not too far from ours.
    I erected a water barrier immediately blocking the Marksman's arrows and revealing my class. The grinning Bladedancer made a charge for me, but Lana interrupted her. I trapped her for a moment in an ice prison, spawned by the converted Aqua Sphera while Lana aimed for their Cleric. It was one of the Manticores that killed him. It had been drawn by the chanting of a spell to come and had impaled the senior man with the spines of its porcupine tail.
    Lana fell back to my side, and I erected the water barrier once more blocking the marksman's rain of arrows. In a mood for battle, the giant beast lunged at the Bladedancer and pinned her to a tree with its front paw. Its tail swung at her like a flail, but she proved to be more skilled than we had thought. Her katana deflected the lethal attacks. A swing of her weighted scabbard stunned the mythical creature long enough to end their tangle.
    Drawn by the noise, the second manticore joined the fray. Not sure who to attack it showered us with its porcupine needles. To our misfortune, neither of our foes took a hit. The marksman used his Acrobatic skill to escape up into the branches. His bladedancer companion initiated a jig waving her blade around herself. The Dance not only deflected the projectiles but kept my Aqua Sphera at bay as well.
    I had stayed behind cover. Lana had decided one manticore would not attack another. She took the opportunity to barrage its companion with her empowered staff. Buffed with my Lightning Sphera, her damage was unparalleled. Caught unaware the beast died almost instantly.
    I took an arrow to the left shoulder. The damage was not lethal, and the misplaced shot revealed the marksman's position. I did not have the damage to kill him with one shot, but my redirected Lightning Sphera broke the branch that had been supporting him. As he fell, I applied the 'Vulnerable' status with Totemic Mark and barraged him with two of my three Sphera. It wasn't my attacks that drained the final bit of his health bar but the fall.
    Lana was struggling with the Bladedancer more than I would have thought. Not only did she have to deflect the quick slashes and stabs of the katana but dodge the manticore's poisoned spines as well. I returned my Lightning Sphera to her side, but it still wasn't enough.
    Lana used Mana Blast leaving a crater around herself, but the blade wielder had seen it coming. As soon as the power of the attack ebbed, Dance of the Impaler had my Battle Mage companion at a disadvantage.
    My Aqua Sphera went for her left foot, Lana's staff went for her right. We had both deduced simultaneously that to stop the Bladedancer we had to start by hobbling our skilled opponent. The bitch jumped, dodging our attacks. I cast Elemental Conversion on the Aqua Sphera, as it turned into a ball of ice the smooth Earth under it was frozen. Though skilled our enemy was unable to regain her footing, we used the opportunity to finish her.
    We killed the manticore. Gathered the spines and whatever equipment and loot our victims had gathered. Overall, it turned out to be a worthwhile trip and the dawn of new duo.

    ---------------------------------------------------

    Perhaps the gods of Kreation were watching, but it didn't start raining till we had found cover. The cave's ceiling had a small opening, and I started the fire under it. Lana's skin was pallid, and her breathing had slowed.
    My body demanded rest. World update 6.0 had introduced the new 'pain element' which had become popular in current virtual games. I didn't feel the actual pain of my injuries, but burning and sore sensations revealed where I had taken damage.
    My stomach was rumbling, and the second I seated myself my eyelids got heavy, but I forced myself awake and alert. Lana's health was low and still decreasing but had been slowed by her natural regeneration. Her recovery was my priority.
    I called forth Kreation's manual and started reading.
    To my surprise, the class system had been scrapped. The weapon restrictions were gone as well. There were no more Enchanters and Battlemages, but Enchanting and Arcane Enhancement Masteries had taken their place respectively.
    To cast a spell, I'd have to memorize and chant its incantation. Errors would not only affect its potency but had the potential to change its function.
    I had noticed that the standard heads-up display had disappeared but had paid little attention to it. Only a health, mana and stamina bar sat at the top left corner of my vision. I had to look up diagonally to study them. The Mastery menu appeared when summoned. It revealed I had a Grandmaster rank in Enchanting, Master rank in Magic Weapon Crafting and Sphera Manipulation, and was an Adept Arcane Enhancer which was the Battlemage's primary Mastery. Though our spells were different, in essence, their functions were similar.
    "Green Sphera of the Forest. Listen to my plea." I recited, reading off the incantation guide. "Become a totem of Gaian might. Share your regenerating aura."
    The Totemic Aura of old had a short cast time but an annoyingly long cooldown. If I was forced to repurpose the Forest Sphera, a good three-minute wait stood between me and using the green Totemic Aura once again.
    I felt Mana ebb from my reserves and then emit from the Sphera but amplified. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I could smell freshly cut grass. It was like being surrounded by a screen of emerald. Lana's pale skin looked lime green; mine was more of a marshy shade. I had successfully enhanced her natural regeneration, and her health was on the rise. Her broken bones were mending themselves but stopping the internal bleeding was beyond me.
    My body demanded sleep. I did not need to be awake to keep the Forest Sphera doing its job. However, what had me intrigued was the new vocabulary and syntax the magic manual housed. Sleep would have to wait. I was going to learn how to come up with my own spells.
     
  5. Woofcano

    Woofcano New Member

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    Chapter 4

    I remember the first time I had ice cream, or at least it's my first memory of eating ice cream. I was four at the time, and it had been raining nonstop for two days. My father had been unemployed for a couple of months.

    We were going through a tough time, but to me, the most important thing was I had someone to ask the many questions my young noggin seemed to be overflowing with. I remember trying to ask my father a question. I don't remember what the question was, but he was on the phone and had been ignoring me. After what felt like hours to my little self, he got off the phone, but I wasn't having it. I was mad.

    “Baba, what was your question?” He asked. Even after two decades of living in London, the thick East Indian accent still hadn't left him. He felt the need to extend the vowels in shorter words and randomly rolled his Rs.

    I had seen my mother give him the silent treatment quite often and chose to employ it myself.

    “Baba, do you want to go out?”

    Like a pup reacting to the word 'walk,' my ears pricked up to the term 'out.' I liked 'out.' 'Out' was fun. Interesting things happened when I was out. The stubborn me managed to maintain his silence.

    “We can have ice cream. Have you ever had salted caramel ice cream?”

    I shook my head in the negative.

    So we went out for ice cream. It was more a hole in the wall with a counter than an actual ice cream parlour, but the woman behind the counter knew him by name. I don't remember her face, but I remember her smile as she looked at me, leaning over the counter. Come to think of it, I don't even remember the ice cream just my father's face as he watched me eat it.

    Memories are funny.

    I don't remember the first time Lana and I went out on a date. I remember our first kiss but not our first date. We had been sitting by the waterside, just talking after a group get together. Things were still platonic then.

    “Is this the awkward silence before we kiss?” Lana had asked as we sat watching the city lights reflected off the waves.

    It wasn't her question that took me by surprise but the fact that we hadn't been kissing all along.

    I kissed her then. The memory that I love is not the kiss but her face the following morning. I remember just watching her sleep, and I continued to do so for the many years of her relationship. The most endearing bit of it was the little pool of drool Lana never failed to leave on her pillow. It was over breakfast that I asked her out on our first date.

    Watching this unconscious version of Lana just wasn't the same.

    After several long sessions of memorizing pages of Arcane Grammar and putting it to use, I had settled on meditating. The in-game function had put me into a forced slumber while regenerating my spent Mana and Health.

    The timer woke me up after 2 hours. The sleep wasn't adequate, but it had been enough to recharge my lifelines. Lana's condition was stable, but she showed no sign of waking. Enchanters had never been true healers, that was a Cleric or a Shaman's job. The vocabulary I had access to was limited. Only way to fix her would be to find someone with the proper expertise.

    “Sphera of the Forest. Give life to your kin.” I commanded.

    The green orb shot towards what had been the cave entrance and disappeared into the tangle of green and brown that had replaced it.

    What started like a creaking hinge evolved into the groans of a wooden floor in disrepair. Kreation had changed for the better with its abolition of the class system. At some point during my studies I stopped being an Enchanter, the system changed my classification to Druid.

    Oakhearts were treants born of oak, but all I had access to was ash. I dubbed my creation, Ashheart. It was quadrupedal and used my Sphera at its core. I commandeered Lana's Draconic staff as my new weapon. Melee combat wasn't my forte, but it would have to do.

    Completely unfurled and awake, Ashheart stood like a gorilla, long forelegs, and shorter hind legs. I could not fathom it's intelligence. Our communication was telepathic. I sent it directions by thought but only received raw emotion in return. It would have to do.

    We had been in the cave for two days. I had started with a seedling and fed it Mana till my reserves were drained. I molded the creature to my specifications, using my new vocabulary. When empty, I meditated to recover. Then it was a matter of rinsing and repeating.

    I dragged Lana out of the cave on the stretcher. Under my direction, Ashheart lifted her onto his back. The pale wood on its back opened like a Venus fly trap. I had built her a cradle of vines and moss. The jaws secured her, but left some room around her face. It was unlikely she would gain consciousness without intervention, but just in case she did I didn't want it to be in darkness.

    Ashheart's shoulders were molded like that of a saddle and padded much like Lana's living coffin. I climbed onto its back, and we started our trek through the sea of trunks.

    Kreation no longer had a map function. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, only the game's compass remained to give me direction. All I could see was green and more green. I tried retracing my steps in an attempt to hunt down my lost robe and Sphera, but luck wasn't on my side. Dark was approaching, and I decided to move on.

    I had spent years developing my Sphera, but now my priorities were different. I could repeat the quests for new magic cores; more would imbue them with spirits. The revived Lana, and I could always hunt the beasts needed to return my Sphera to their old grandeur.

    My suspicions had been correct. Dragonsbane had not given up; I could see their ship – now fully repaired – in the horizon. They were heading south, as did Ashheart. There was civilization wherever they were going. Where there was civilization, there would be a healer.

    “Walker of ash and fauna. Illuminate.” I commanded. The moss and vines glowed green like the bioluminescence of Sundarban. It wasn't bright enough to draw attention but adequate to guide our trek through the night.

    Ashheart was far from quiet. He not only looked like a gorilla the size of a tank but its footsteps sounded like it too. The prints left behind were titanic and would be easy to trace. Ashheart's directive was not stealth but defense. He was not battle tested, but it was safe to assume that his behemoth fist would pack a punch.

    Lana and I had fought Oakhearts before. The wood of her staff had been sourced from an elder of their kind. Ash was a harder wood but lacked the flexibility and was heavier.

    Can you talk? I asked the creature again using the Arcane tongue.

    No. It responded.

    Do you not want to talk to me?

    No.

    Have I offended you?

    No.

    Do you understand me creature of Green and Mana?

    NO! It replied in a tone that vaguely resembled humour.



    Lana and I had discussed having children. The first time we seriously addressed the topic was five years into our marriage. I was thirty; she was twenty-seven. I wanted a child; she wanted to get her career off the ground first. The second time round was two years later, but I was made redundant out of the blue so we put a pin it. Then Lana got sick. The drugs didn't work. The surgery didn't either. A second opinion told us the surgery had made things worse. The doctors had fucked up. Lana suddenly got better, then she died.

    Ash's first word was 'No.'

    The treant's senses proved to be keener than mine. At first, I had thought Ash had tripped when he suddenly dipped to the left but less than a moment later I felt an arrow whiz through my falling hair.

    “They had a Druid?!” A voice in the darkness exclaimed.

    “The fucker looks new.” Another added.

    “Hey, twinkle toes, what's your name?” Said the third.

    I couldn't see their faces, but in the green light, a momentary flash of the dragon insignia betrayed their identity. It was Dragonsbane.

    “I told you they were still around.” The first voice said, his owner stepping into the light. Noting his mace and oval shield, I would have assumed the half-orc was a Defender. However, due to the new mastery system, there was no way to say what he had under his belt.

    “Did you just join Dusk bud? I don't recognize you.” One of his companions added. I couldn't be sure which it was, but he had no plans to step into the light. Their archer, I assumed.

    “Yes.” I lied. “Look, I barely know these cunts. They told me we were going on a Wyvern run and needed me on look out. I wanted nothing to do with this shit. I stayed out of the fight. For fuck sake man, these aren't even my clothes. I took these off the Bard's corpse. I lost my robes in the crash.”

    “What do you say boys?” A fourth voice added. “Should the druid sink or swim.”

    The consensus was sink. With the Forest Sphera planted in Ash, my spell range was limited. I started to channel my Mana to the base of the Draconic staff in preparation of attack.

    “What if we let him show us where the others are?” She asked.

    “I don't know where the others are-”

    “Didn't you say you found the bard?” One of the men interrupted. I could see him now; it wasn't the archer but the one that had called me twinkle toes. I couldn't tell what race he was in the green light. He sported their elf-like ears and was no taller than a dwarf but lacked their girth. His robes were black, with the flaming drake stitched over his heart. “I'm not buying it, boss. Tell me your name.”

    “It's Krowe. Yeah, and he was dead. I tried looking for the others and only found the fucker under the bow. I'm pretty sure you found the wreck.”

    “Yeah we found a naked guy, but we also found the wreck picked apart. It wasn't a rushed job either.” She said stepping out of the shadows. She was short with shoulder length brown hair. Like me, she was of the human race. Her hair was dark and shoulder length. Her skin was so pale that it almost seemed to reflect Ash's green glow. “Do I look like some stupid bitch to you? If you tell me where the others are, we can just skip the torture and kill you quickly.”

    “What if I show you where their guild base is?” I asked.

    “We already found it.” The gnomish mage added. “A little birdy we captured not too far from here sang like a canary. She failed to mention a druid though. The Enchanter and Battle Mage are still unaccounted for. You find me the fucking Battle Mage, and we'll see what can be done.”

    “That's not your decision Malec.” Their female leader snapped.

    “You want her head too, Kaitlyn!” The defender agreed. “That cunt has fucked us over way too often!”

    “I want the bitch too,” I added feigning anger. “She stole everything I had while we were going down. I was trying to stay alive, but that crazy cunt was busy stealing my shit. I've been looking for her. The bitch took my money, my ring, and my staff, but I've got hers. She'll be looking for me to get it back. We can find her together! You can keep everything, I just want my staff back.”

    “Tell me her name.” Kaitlyn asked.

    “Lana.”

    “Boss, I think he's like you.” Malec said his voice lowered.

    “I guessed as much, no point in killing him.” She announced. “We're taking him with us. Krowe, I'm keeping the staff.”

    I ordered Ash to hide Lana's face, he covered it with a mesh of moss and vines. I thought they'd ask me to dismount but they didn't.

    The archer stayed in the dark. A scout, I assumed. The Defender walked in front, Malec and Kaitlyn took the rear. I wasn't sure what her class or primary weapon was. She wore a long leather coat much like Lana's, but more padded. She left it unbuttoned, revealing a white blouse, cleavage, and toned midriff. Her trousers looked black in the light and were held up by a thick belt. No weapons were visible.

    A surprise attack could probably take the two in the rear out. Kaitlyn didn't seem to have enough defence to take a blow from Ash and survive. The Defender would take more time, but his damage was of little concern. My primary worry was the archer. I did not know where he was or what he was capable of.

    I decided to play along. The longer they kept me alive and paid little attention to Ashheart, Lana would be fine.

    I couldn't help but wonder whether it was a camp, they were taking me to or civilization. A town or city owned by a guild would not allow them to kill me within its walls, their best bet would be to avoid such settlements. I didn't need them to take me to one just get me close. Once charging, there would be little that could stop Ashheart. I intended to stay behind and slow them down. Death would cost me Marcus's armour and perhaps Lana's staff. However, as long as Ash survived I'd still have Lana and the Forest Sphera.
     
  6. Woofcano

    Woofcano New Member

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    If the Dragonsbane members had not revealed Kaitlyn as an awakened of their world, I wouldn't have known. It was silly of me to not think of the possibility that some members of their guild had returned to the game.
    Now that I could watch them interact, there was no way to differentiate between players and the NPCs. If they weren't hunting Lana and the unnamed Enchanter, we could have gotten along.


    I enjoyed listening to their banter. It reminded of the Dusk of old. We never dropped character, and the language was crude and brutal, no one took it personally though. Piracy was the game, and we liked playing the part.


    We made fun of guilds like Dragonsbane for their strict militaristic structure. In Dusk all were equal, we had no generals or captains. Only during combat or on a mission, one would take charge to coordinate the attack. Perhaps it was a luxury only a small guild like ours could get away with.


    “What are you smiling about?” Kaitlyn asked, silencing her crew.


    “I just like what you guys have here. I miss it.” I answered. “I lost my old guild long ago.”


    “We got a softie here.” She laughed, and her subordinates joined in. “You knew what you were getting into when you joined Dusk. You, my friend, have poor choice in companions. Stop trying to sell us this sappy crap.”


    “As I said, they told me that they were going on a Wyvern Mother run. I need her core and wings. How the fuck could I have known that they were pirates?”


    “Man, you really must think we're stupid.” Kaitlyn smirked. “You're a veteran and expect us to believe that you've never heard of Dusk. They fucked over anyone with an airship back in the day.”


    “Bringers of night.” Malec smirked. “Why would you want a Druid on an airship anyway? Either you were lying to them, or you've been lying to us.”


    “Or they were taking you for a ride.” Kaitlyn added.


    “Do I sense someone giving me the benefit of the doubt?” I grinned at my captor.


    “Don't get ahead of yourself.” She glared while the silent Defender let out a little snigger.


    “You answered your own question right there. I'm a Druid.” I explained. It surprised me how easy lying became when desperate. “Nature magic kept me pretty grounded. Our circles were different, we've heard of your ground parties but not of Dusk. I know bandit guilds, not sky pirates. Look, I just want my staff back, and then I'll stick to the fucking surface. If anything I'd want to parley with you, make an offer on any materials you gathered from the Wyvern Mother, fuck getting them for myself.”


    “Nice, you buying any of the shit this guy is selling captain?” Malec asked.


    “Not in the slightest. We'll see what the general has got to say though. Might get a good laugh out of her.” Kaitlyn grinned.


    “Speaking of the general, she's been waiting boss.” The Archer announced. The squad looked up in unison. Through the canopy all I could see was black, the stars seemed to have disappeared.


    The dormant wild life went into panic as dawn arrived early with the suddenness of an atom bomb. The source of the faux sunlight was the Mana Lantern hanging from the base of the titanic ship. It was not the Dragonslayer but their mobile fortress named after the guild itself – Dragonsbane. I had been wrong to assume that it was Leviathan that had come to their rescue. The fortress had long ago lost its permanent residence.


    Now illuminated, I could see the vessel's underside, it's many cannons, and the Dragonsbane docked alongside.
    On a low hanging platform stood a tall woman and by her side was a dwarf. With the light being behind them, all we could see was their silhouetted forms. Their features and the dwarf's gender was not distinguishable.


    “General Kris! We've got a prisoner! A boarding vessel please.” The Defender roared. His speech carried a slight Scottish accent. While I had found it sexy on Lana, he just reminded me of Scots and Vikings in old animated films.


    “A survivor? Who is it?!” She asked failing to hide her excitement. Her voice was young and high pitched. Kris waved an arm, and in response a part of the hull detached itself, coming down much like an elevator.


    “Don't get over excited Kris. Not one of the main crew, some new guy.” The archer finally revealed himself. He was tall and pale. An elf designed to resemble one of Tolkein's classic characters. He carried his bow strung and knocked, eyes still trained on me. “Should we leave the Treant down here?”


    “Bring it. We have our contingencies.” The dwarf said. Like Kris, his voice was greatly magnified. He sounded vaguely familiar but a decade was a long time, and I had met many dwarves in Kreation. Many of them had been a part of Dragonsbane.


    The elevator was unmanned and glowed a strange blue. I dismounted Ash and climbed on. My treant companion followed. Once my captors and I were on and standing near its center it started to rise.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Four members of Dusk mounted the elevator onto the Dragonsbane. Dusk was known, but our reputation wasn't as notorious as it grew to be after our mission. We had temporarily left the guild for a little sideline adventure.
    Lana stood by my side, beaming with pride. Not long ago the server had announced she was the first player to have achieved level 100 in the Battle Mage class. I thought broadcasting the information had been stupid and had kept my achievement of becoming the first level 100 Enchanter silent. However, her announcement had won her an invite to Dragonsbane. Eli, his other half Seline and I were her companions, a part of the package. Over a month had passed since we had accepted.


    “Welcome back!” Olec grinned helping us unload our haul off the elevator. “What's that? Bounty number fifty completed?”


    “Aye.” Lana grinned. “Please tell me there are still slots left for Draconis.”

    “Only two left. I tried to save four, but Kris invited some unknowns. Sorry.” Olec apologized.

    “Bitch!” Lana sighed. “First she increases the requirement from thirty to fifty and now giving away reserved slots. Eli and Seline, you take this one.”

    “No offense to your companions but it's you we want.” Said the dwarf.

    “Well, in that case, you should not have caved to Kris, you outrank her. If you want me in the attack force, you have to make room for all four of us.” Lana replied, colder than ice.

    “No, it's fine. You go.” Eli insisted. “There is always next time. We're in no rush to finish the quest.”


    “You're going to busy next week. Erick and I can go then.” Lana said in her usual 'my word is final' tone. It took me many years to get used to that side of her. We had already decided that Lana was to be our commander for the operation. She was the one with the plan after all, even if not everyone knew it's full version.

    Eli and Seline accepted Lana's decision. Olec grudgingly added them to the Dragonslayer crew roster.

    The Dragonsbane hovered just past the entrance of Drake's Pass. The cannons stood readied, and mages resided in the towers. We had seen a fleet of ships trying to breach the pass the week before. Due to the strategic positioning and firepower, none had crossed the threshold, and the damage to the Dragonsbane was negligent.

    Leviathan and Bahamut guarded the other entrances to Draconis's territory. The monopoly was the basis of the alliance.

    We bid the couple farewell. They were capable of taking care of themselves. Seline and Eli had tailored their skills and play styles to support each other. It was unfortunate that their relationship fizzled not long after Kreation closed its doors.

    “Malec and Djin are up in the crow's nest. The cannons are all occupied, but if you're feeling generous, you could give them a break.” Olec suggested before boarding the Dragonslayer.

    We were not feeling generous. Lana and I waited on the upper deck till the Dragonsbane was out of sight before beginning our hunt. The crew of the fortress were on high alert, but their attention was on the pass.

    It was funny how easily they had trusted us. Two weeks was the probationary period before members got access to the Dragonsbane and then there was the guild bounty completion requirement. After a month of membership Olec, Kris, and Djin thought they knew us. They were comfortable enough to leave us unobserved on their base.

    Lana and I walked through the ship unseen. The dining hall was unoccupied, as was the lower barracks except for the few sleeping players. It wasn't very sportsmanlike, but we decided to kill them. We kept what we liked; the rest went through the closest porthole. The haul was good. Halfway through the barracks, we found what we were looking for, a member carrying the master key. I pocketed it while we killed the rest.


    Our primary goal was the treasury. It stood behind a locked vault door in fortress's main haul. For once there were no eyes on it, they were all foolishly facing outwards.

    With the master key we waltzed in and collected our prize.The three guilds controlled the market when it came to the material gathered from Draconis and her children. They set the prices and decided on the supply.


    On entering the vault, we realised that my theory had been right. Unlike Bahamut and Leviathan. Dragonsbane stockpiled their loot.

    Their allies auctioned what they didn't need but Dragonsbane chose to let the crowds starve. When the market house had been dry for a while and desperation had peaked they'd sell the materials at exorbitant prices for ridiculous profits. The tactic had won them the status of the wealthiest nonmerchant guild.

    Their coffers contained Dragonsteel Scales, Empress Membranes, Draconic Claws and Fang of the Dragon God numbering in the hundreds. We took all that we could carry, and the rest was disposed of. Again, through a porthole.


    Perhaps it was Lana's idea, maybe it was mine, but I remember her having a big grin on her face when we found the engine room. The fortress utilized seven class 9 magic cores in a parallel arcane circuit. The levitation magic keeping the fortress floating started to fail after we had removed the three cores. They were more valuable than any of the crafting materials and the rarest of materials dropped by the great Kraken.


    We waltzed off the ship once it was close to ground level. Eli and Seline had pretended to fall overboard but Seline being a Summoner, had conjured a wind elemental to carry them to safety. We kept whatever loot members of Dusk needed to upgrade their equipment. The rest we used to flood the market. The alliance fell apart, and bolder guilds with decent fire power flocked together to breach the pass. All three guilds were forced to evacuate their posts. Dusk became responsible for returning Draconis to the people and the prime target of Kreation's three biggest guilds.


    What really mattered to us was that we had quadrupled the size of our coffers.

    -------------------------------------------------------

    The elevator stopped it's journey halfway. The platform had turned red.

    "Who's exactly with you Kaitlyn?" Kris demanded.

    "Djin, Malec, Krowe and Rowen." answered the confused captain.

    "There is one more." The dwarf added.

    "Yeah the treant." Malec added.

    "You dumb fucks." Kris hissed. "You really think I'm that stupid? You think you can double cross me?"

    "What the fuck are you talking about general?" Malec demanded. "You gave us a mission and we're completing it. You're being paranoid again you stupid bitch!"

    "Olec says you're trying to bring Lana Reno onto the ship. You cunts are hiding Lana Reno! You can't fool Olec's Detection Circle. I know you resent me for taking command of the ship and the promotion but planning mutiny?"

    "Look for yourself, Kris! There is no one else here." Djin yelled.

    "Fuck this, fuck all of you. I won't lose this ship a second time to the bitch! Kill them Olec! Kill them all" She screamed and drew a wand from her robes. The platform's glow disappeared and the Mana Lantern above turned read, we were falling. I clung onto Ash, Kaitlyn and Malec did the same. Djin lost his balance and fell over the side.


    The treant's wooden body groaned when we hit the ground. The Defender had made a desperate lunge for me before the levitation spell had been canceled, Rowen now lay crushed under Ash.

    Djin was dead under the rubble, I dould see his torso impaled by a shard of metal. Kaitlyn came charging at me with a dagger, I ducked under Ash and directed him to crush Malec before he could get to his feet. To my disappointment, he did not carry a magic core. He was a Gunmage. One of the newer classes introduced with sky ships.


    While Ash kept Kaitlyn busy, I unbuckled his two bullet belts. With them came the pair of holstered six-shooters I was after. Lana came down on me from above. The nimble dagger wielder had vaulted over Ash. I wasn't sure what her current abilities were, but she moved like an Assassin of the old game. I barely dodged her attack


    We thought Kris would have been satisfied simply dropping us to our deaths, but it was not enough for the crazy bitch. The Flame Sorceress bombarded us with her meteor spell.

    The magic had been off target, but the after effects were devastating. The surrounding trees and Ash were ablaze, and the ground under our feet was parting. The treant, Kaitlyn and I fell through the cracks into the cave system below. An underground lake broke our fall and doused the treant before it had suffered any real damage.

    Before I could regain my sense of up or down, Kaitlyn was upon me. One dagger sunk it's serrated edge into my shoulder, the second was going for my chest.


    "STOP!" I yelled. "You don't know what you're doing!"

    To my surprise she paused.

    "I was lying to you." I admitted, all pretense went out the window "Lana is inside the treant, but you have to let us live. I'm begging you!"


    "Why the fuck does it matter too much?" She demanded. "I kill you, then I kill her. You two revive in town with lost gear and experience. You owe me you little shit, you just cost me my fucking guild!"


    "Please, I can't lose her again!" I pleaded. "Let us go. Help me get near a city. Once she's past the gate, I'll let you kill me over and over again till I have nothing left."


    "What the fuck is wrong with you?" Kaitlyn asked, seemingly taken aback. "It's just a game. You screwed me over and now it's my turn."

    I told her what the fuck was wrong with me. She listened
     
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2017
  7. Woofcano

    Woofcano New Member

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    My favorite part of waking up in the morning for ten years had been rolling over and taking a sniff of frizzy ginger hair. It always smelled like ripe papaya and sweat, and I loved it. I woke up at quarter past six like I did every morning that we weren't wired in. Our alarm didn't go off till half-past six, but I enjoyed the fifteen minutes of sleeping, Lana. It was magical how nothing but the alarm disturbed her.

    I'd sweep her hair over her left ear and wipe the trail of drool down the corner of her mouth. She slept wearing a pair of my boxers and one of my old t-shirts. Often I'd tease a hardened nipple or on occasion when she'd be facing away from me; I'd rub her bottom with my morning hardness which she claimed to enjoy. We preferred leaving our amorous activities for the morning than before bed.

    It took me a moment to remember why her pillow was empty. Lana's smell was starting to fade. My father used to wrap my mother's pillow in old clothes before bed. He claimed it helped him sleep.

    Sleeping in the HoloMod, I avoided the bed most nights.

    There was little I could do while the healers worked on Lana. The dive pods systems needed a manual check. The waste extraction unit was fine, but the nourishment gages were low. I ordered more FEED and paid extra for immediate delivery.

    I called the local diner for a burger. Delivery was in fifteen minutes. The manager had been good friends with my late wife. I ate it facing Lana's empty chair.

    I was ashamed of myself for how desperately I was clinging onto this thing that looked like Lana. She looked like my wife, moved like her and talked like her, but Lana Reno didn't smell right. However, I missed my wife and wanted to hold her; Miss Reno would have to do.

    The local SkyTech hub wasn't far, and the FEED arrived when I got out of the shower. The delivery woman raised her eyebrow at my towel clad form. When Lana was still around, she'd force me to join her for a jog once in a while. However, all notion of exercise had disappeared from my life after her passing. The HoloMod kept muscles massaged such that they didn't atrophy but they did nothing to tone them or burn extra fat. She looked at my hairy gut and then at my ungroomed face. My East Indian genes had resulted in me growing into a hairy man. I had been self-conscious about it in my teenage years but my concerns faded with maturity. Lana used to enjoy twirling my chest hair. It tickled but I loved it

    Erick Krowe wasn't as hairy. I only had a little fuzz on my chest, shins and forearms when I designed him.

    "Come in," I told her. "The dive units are past the second door on your left.

    She entered hesitantly. I excused myself to the bedroom and pulled on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt to put my guest to ease.

    “Did you mean to unplug this one?” She asked nodding at Lana's module.

    "Yes," I replied. "One is more than enough, eats too much power anyway."

    “If you were thinking of selling it, I can discuss some sort of deal with my manager. If you trade in both your modules we could potentially offer you the Z20 for only a couple thousand credits.”

    “Hunting for a commission?” I asked without realising how rude it came out.

    “No, only salespeople get commissions." She replied very matter of factly. "Second-hand Z2s are hard to come by though."

    “And you're hoping you might get it at dealer cost?”

    “Less if you act through me.” She responded.

    "Leave me your details, and I'll consider it."

    It would have cost me less to replace the module myself, but it was a hassle that I could never be bothered with. It took her fifteen minutes to replace the 3-foot long canister and run diagnostics. She passed me her personal HoloID before leaving.

    Communicating with another human felt strange after over a week in the HoloMod. My voice sounded strange outside of Kreation. It sounded weak and strained like I had lost my voice and was just starting to get it back.

    I stripped down to my birthday suit before climbing in. It was like being enveloped in a cocoon of warmth and comfort. The feeding mask secured itself over my mouth, and the waste extraction unit clicked into place around my pelvis. Starting up the dive unit, felt like being sucked into a deep sleep.



    It was noon when I logged into Kreation. Kaitlyn had a high rank in Scribe Mastery. Cartography was one of her specialities. It was thanks to her we had made to the beginner village of Gaon without capture. Attempts to player kill in the area summoned Guard Golems, and no one wanted to deal with their wrath and penalties.

    Our funds were low, but we had managed to take up residence in the local inn by the Medical Hub. I'm not sure why but I chose to run a few errands before checking on Lana.

    I had put Marcus’s clothes on the market. It was near end game leather armour and already had a high base price, but I had put it up for auction. The Dusk colours and emblem had caught veteran eyes, the silver I received was double the base amount.

    With money to spare I got leather armour of the same level but one designed for a Battle Mage. The coat was light but offered decent protection. It did well to hide the gun belts and revolvers around my waist as well.

    During our walk Kaitlyn revealed to me that she and her companions had investigated the area after finding the remains of my robes. However, she did not have both of the Sphera. Djin had taken the Lightning Sphera while she had held onto the Aqua Sphera. I slipped it into the coat's inside pocket. Curious eyes would only get a peek of my gun belt.

    “Fancy seeing you here." Kaitlyn said appearing next to me out of thin air. I was starting to get used to her Silent Step ability.

    “You changed.” I remarked, her clothing was now almost the same as mine. While I had chosen to wear Funeral Black, her dye was more along the lines of Midnight Blue.

    “Of course I did. I can't be seen walking around the Dragonsbane emblem; their network is bigger than you'd think."

    “I’m sorry-”

    “Stop apologising. As I said, Kris was starting to piss me off. I don't like the path she's taking the guild down. Sticking to the guns." Kaitlyn changed the topic.

    “Well, I need to able to defend myself. I decided to start working on Arcane Enhancement, Gun Magic and Marksmanship."

    “Makes sense, I’m thinking of taking on Arcane Enhancement and Mana Materialisation for the Mana Blade skills. Might as well adapt to the new system. What are you going to do about the Sphera?”

    “I haven’t picked the Grandmaster trait yet. Thinking of going for the Subenchanter Trait.”

    “Oh. Passing on Attack Enchanter?”

    “Yeah, I read up on it. Not for me, too many incantations to recite and new phrases to memorise. I'd need a good team to pull it off, and that just doesn't seem doable at this time."

    “Whatever floats your boat. I’ve picked up the Arcane Rogue trait.”

    “Switching to Chakrams?" I was yet to see the new weapon type in action.

    “Yeah, I need some ranged options.”

    “Well if we work together-”

    “I’ve given that some thought and I’m not sure if that’s a good idea.” Kaitlyn cut me off. “I’m not mad at you or anything but you kind of fucked things up for me. You guys used to be assholes back in the day and well, people will be gunning for Lana. I’d rather not get caught in the crossfire.”

    “I understand.”

    “Look, it might not be my place to say this but what you're doing is kind of sick. She's not your wife. Sure, she's a living thing, but her memories are formulated from the old in-game journal and quest history. I never met her but I'd bet your Lana wouldn't have wanted this, maybe she activated the account for you so you could say your final goodbyes. Do you think you'll be happy if you can make this think fall in love with you?"

    “Stop calling her a thing." I snapped louder than I wanted to. "I know all of that. It's just-" I paused trying to put my thoughts together, but the words just weren't there. I didn't have anything to say to justify what I was doing.

    “Have you been by to see her yet," Kaitlyn asked, I felt her soft hand on my forearm. It was warm. I needed to be held, but I didn't want her to be the one holding me.

    “No.”

    She gave me a look women had given me all my life, but I'd never understood what it meant.

    “Why didn’t you kill me then? You didn’t have to listen. Even after listening you could have just killed me.”

    "Look I'm getting bored of all of this emotional bullshit. I know you're hurting but I'm not the girl that will be your shoulder to cry on and your soundboard, but I can be a friend for you in this world." Kaitlyn explained. "Do you want me to come with you to the medical hub?"

    “I won’t say no.”

    "Holy shit, you're depressing." Kaitlyn sighed. "What Sphera are you buying? I saw a Master ranked one on sale. It had a Light Spirit."

    "I'm going for a blank one. I'll need to feed it and power it up, but it will give me some time to think about how I want to integrate the Sphera with the guns and treants.”

    “Whatever man, let’s go check on Lana.”

    We didn’t take a direct route. Gaon being a starter town had a Mastery trainer at every street corner. We found everything but the Mana Control and Druidic Arts teachers. We registered the Masteries to our Mastery menu and picked up the basic abilities that came with them.

    We stopped by the training grounds I helped Kaitlyn with forming basic chants to enhance her knife and Chakram blades and she taught me how the Arcane Revolvers and bullets worked. By the time we got to the Medical Hub the dark tints of dusk were starting to taint the sky.



    “Good evening Master Krowe.” The dwarven medicine man greeted. “We were just wondering when you’d be coming by.”

    His elven wife smiled. She was a cleric and looked severely drained.

    “Is she awake?” Kaitlyn asked, to my surprise she was taking the lead.

    "Gremnir reset her bones multiple times, and I tried to heal her, but she kept waking up and undoing our work." Elina the elf explained. “We were forced to put her in a coma.”

    “We've fixed her up, but she'll take some time to heal and then we'll try waking her up," Gremnir told us. "It might take some time though. Maybe a month."

    “What can we do?” I asked. “Do you need any herbs or drugs for your stocks.”

    “That's not how we operate, but we're running low." The husband said and looked to his paramour.

    “I’m sure we can write out a list, for everything you check off we can shave some off the bill.” The wife added. “What we really need is Harpy Queen’s Heart and Wyrmseye flowers for the revival elixir.”

    “We'll get on that." Kaitlyn said squeezing my shoulders. I hadn't expected her to volunteer her help, but I did appreciate it. Neither of the ingredients would be easy to gather.

    I didn't ask her why she chose to help me. We found a new player training in alchemy and bought his potions and salves. They weren't the best quality, but we weren't planning on going anywhere too dangerous. It made sense to start on the easier to find materials while we learned to use our new weapons.

    Using the Arcane Revolvers turned out to be harder than I had first thought. It wasn’t just a matter of point and shoot. The range wasn’t what old western films suggested it would be. They were at best mid if not closed ranged weapons. I started off with spells that had a large area of effect.

    My Nature and Water enhanced Sphera abilities were of little use against the Triffids which we decided to fight first. Ash did a good job of getting their attention off us. Foolishly, we had chosen to dive straight into the heart of their forest. Kaitlyn was doing well cutting them down with her Mana charged Chakram. She carried one in each hand, when she threw one it flew like a discus but only when she recited an incantation I had put formulated.

    "Sphera of Blue, return to your frigid state, bless my hand with your glacial touch." I chanted and channeled the glowing blue energy from the Aqua Sphera into the revolver in my right hand. A pair of triffids had gotten past Ash, and their vines were lashing uncomfortably close. I shot a pair of bullets at the first plant's floral head. Both of them missed, my aim wasn't the worst, but my practice in Gaon had only been fighting immobile targets. The bullets struck a tree not far behind them; ice burst forth from the whole in the trunk and a large portion of it was covered in a crisp frost. I had charged the gun in my left hand with unattributed Arcane Energy. The bullets didn't go far but exploded with a mediocre concussive force. I fired again, aiming at the tree. My projectile struck home, and a large crack echoed through the forest. The green giant came crashing down towards us. I barely managed to roll out of its path. One of the two triffids were taken care of.

    I got too carried away celebrating and didn't see the second triffid lunging at me through the fallen tree's canopy, but Ash came to my rescue. The triffid wrapped itself around Ashheart's torso, and it's rafflesia like head closed upon my treant companion's face. I ordered Ash to be still and fired.

    The two bullets struck the triffid's torso, and it started to turn to ice. To my utter shock, I had misjudged how powerful my spells were. The ‘Frostbite' effect which I was taking advantage of didn't stop at the target location but continued up its body and onto Ash. The bark that covered his body seemed to pale, and a gray film envoloped his mossy patches.

    I ordered Ash not to move, but it was too late. The treant had a mind of his own, he had realised what was happening and leaped for the heart of the triffid wave. The cold spread for him to our enemies and all were frozen solid. With a labored final movement, Ash struck the ground, shattering the fauna based creatures with one attack. A crack louder than the felling of the tree followed. It was Ash's arm; the ice had made it brittle. The cracks didn't stop there and spread through his torso to his neck.

    My creation tried to move again but exploded into a spray of frozen shrapnel. The Forest Sphera hovered where he had once stood.

    I had started to get attached to the creature. It's vocabulary had improved considerably since it's awakening.

    "You'll have to grow another," Kaitlyn remarked while collecting the nectar we were after. "I think we have more than what;s on the list. Might pay the boarding fee for another week."

    I turned to answer her, but a whisper in the air stopped me.

    Stay. It said.

    I looked around but there was no one there.

    Don’t go.

    “Where are you?” I asked out loud, Kaitlyn looked up from her looting with a confused look.

    Over here. The whisper said.

    "Talking to me?" Kaitlyn asked, but I ignored her.

    A soft green glow had caught my eye. It was coming from under a pile of shattered triffid debris.

    “Are you going mad with grief?”

    Getting warmer. The voice sang, almost sounded amused.

    It took a little digging for me to find it. It looked like a ball of solid green energy with veins of bark netting over it much like a spider's web. The glow dimmed when I picked it up. The sphere sat comfortably in my palm as if it was where it had always belonged.

    “What is it?” My female companion inquired, peeking over my shoulder.

    “I think it’s a Treant Heart.”

    “Ash was a girl huh?”

    "I guess, and I think I fed her too much Mana."

    “Wow, do you think Lana would be happy that you got a tree pregnant?” Kaitlyn joked.

    I didn’t appreciate her humour.
     
  8. Woofcano

    Woofcano New Member

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    It had been Kaitlyn's idea that I swap the leather glove on my left hand with a gauntlet. I managed to raise it just in time to catch the murkwolf's bite. Punching wasn't really my forte, but neither was shooting a gun with my non-dominant hand. I had managed to build up a decent degree of accuracy with the right hand, but bullets from my left always went wild. The Sphera being an offhand weapon now, I was free to equip any two one-handed weapons. The gauntlet proved to be an excellent combination of offence and defence.

    I pressed the muzzle of my revolver to the wolf’s throat and pulled a trigger. The blast of mana was sufficient to sever the wolf's head. I was glad that the old health bar and the level system had been removed. Combat had become so much more immersive.

    “You seem to be having fun," Kaitlyn commented nursing a long gash on her side. "A little help?"

    “Sphera of the Evergreen, hear my plea." I began after making sure all the wolves had been felled. Ashheart, the Second's chest, glowed green. "Knit together this torn vessel of meat and blood. Ebb the pain and bring forth a month's regeneration like a rushing tide."

    “You could've just shot me with one of those healing bullets," Kaitlyn grumbled. "Why do you have to be so fucking cheap."

    “Those are for emergencies.” I sighed, repeating myself for the hundred and second time. “Or I can charge you for every healing bullet I waste on you.”

    “Cheap.” She repeated before turning her attention to the fortnight made treant towering over her. “Think its time?”

    "Not yet," I replied and climbed onto Ashheart's back. When growing him, I had added a second saddle in place of where Lana's cradle had been. Kaitlyn sat facing the opposite direction, keeping an eye on our rear.

    A couple of weeks had passed since we left the safe zone. Members of Dragonsbane were everywhere. Luck was on our side; we hadn't encountered any of their player members. Even if we won a skirmish, they would simply revive at a temple and inform allies of our location. NPCs once dead stayed dead. We hid their cores to prevent revival and stole their gear.

    Fencers were more than happy to buy weapons and clothing with the flaming dragon insignia. They bought the equipment for two-thirds the price. Dye and the removal of emblems weren't expensive, but they needed to make a living as well.

    “Top me up," I said. After over a month of travelling with Kaitlyn, we were comfortable communicating using just phrases and gestures, and uncomfortable silences were no longer uncomfortable. "Slow down. You're going to get us killed if you keep bleeding yourself dry." Kaitlyn replied before passing a blue flask from the pack on Ash's back. It was bitter and cold but refilled my depleted Mana. The bar did not remain full for long. My Mana continued to drip away a point at a time.

    Neither of us had logged out in a month.


    “I don’t like going out.” Kaitlyn had told me with a deadpan voice when asked why she spent all her time in the game.

    “Why not?” I had asked. We were well beyond the point of shying away from personal questions. “Don’t you have a job?”

    "I'm a HoloCounsellor. I do a few sessions while we're resting. I'm okay for money, wealthy ex-husband."

    “How old are you?”

    "Thirty-one." She told me. "I look the same as my avatar maybe a bit older, my tummy isn't as toned, but I'm not fat. Not that you can get fat in one of these anyway. Maybe a couple of inches shorter. What about you?"

    "Pretty much the same. Fifteen years older than my avatar, mid-thirties and very out of shape. Lana used to keep me in shape but-" I stopped myself. I was trying to not talk about our marriage. It just ruined the little fun I was starting to have. "Well, you know what happens when you spend weeks at a time in the HoloMod."

    “I had a tumour." Lana continued after a period of silence. "It was pressing down on some nerve, and I was losing my sight. Doctors got rid of it, and I have an implant which helps me see, but it's just not the same. I can't see colour anymore. It's not quite black and white, but you know the old sepia photographs? That's what everything looks like. It's different in virtual reality. Vision isn't reliant on the optical nerves."

    “How long ago did this happen?”

    “Five years.”

    “Cheating husband while wife is fighting cancer cliché?”

    “It's a cliché for a reason." Kaitlyn laughed. "Not the usual husband sleeping with wife's nurse or doctor or best friend. It was someone he met when getting some fried chicken. I'm glad he did though, it uncovered years of adultery and thanks to it I was able to afford the Z7. His dirty dick gave me my colour back."

    “That doesn't sound right," I commented on her choice of words.

    “I guess it doesn't." She had grinned before we shared a bottle of rum.



    I must have fallen asleep sitting on the treant's back. His sudden stop awakened me. Kaitlyn was still under the sandman's spell. Ash’s chest was growing brighter than it’s usual light green and my Mana bar was once again depleted.

    I dismounted and put Ashheart the Second to rest. The first time I had made a Treant Heart, it had been accidental. I had unloaded a tonne of Mana into it over a span of several days. What I was bringing to life with my Forest Sphera were essentially wood golems and the Treant Hearts were the unforeseen by-product.

    There was very little literature on treants and the use of their hearts. The handful of high levelled Druids protected their secrets closely. I ordered Ash to expel the heart that had developed in his core, and he obeyed. I added it to my coat's inside pocket. Increasing my stock to three. The three hearts were identical except the brown webbing around the glowing yellow seemed to have to fixed pattern.

    “When are you going to use them?” Kaitlyn asked when I had mounted Ash and we were moving again.

    "Soon," I told her and steered Ash forward.

    It was nice having a friend like her. We were both individually selfish but fulfilled each other needs to be needed. Lana needed me to revive her. I needed Kaitlyn to help me, and Kaitlyn needed someone around so she didn't feel alone.

    It was well past midnight when we returned to Gaon. Instead of disturbing the healer couple we chose to retire to the inn. Lana ate in the almost empty dining hall. I took my meal up to my room. The stew was warm and tasted better than the slime the HoloMod would be pumping into my body to complete the illusion of a full stomach and to keep my nourished.

    I wanted to log out and sleep in my own bed, but I knew that it would only sadden me. I was writing down an incantation for later use when a knock at the door interrupted my scribble.

    “Can I come in?” Kaitlyn asked.

    I wanted to be alone, but she opened the door and invited herself in before I could say no.

    “What’s wrong?” I inquired noticing a strange emptiness in her eyes.

    Kaitlyn didn't reply. The brunette seated herself at the foot of her bed and kicked off her shoes. She leaned back sighed and wiggled her freed toes. The woman let out a heavy sigh and fell across my bed, her legs dangling over the side. Her unfocused eyes were staring at the ceiling as if it were the night sky and they were taking in the infinite stars above.

    “I wasn't sad when I found out Joel had been cheating." She told me. "A part of me thinks that it was the cancer. I don't know why but it just didn't surprise me. I didn't care to find out whether it was me getting sick that spurred him on to pursue sex with other women or whether there was just something broken inside of him. It's not like we didn't have sex. Well, it obviously went down during the radiation therapy when the doctors were trying to shrink the growth. Before that, we had a very active sex life. Different locations, random times, we had a lot of fun. It's just when I found out a part of me went: ‘Huh, I guess I have to find a new apartment.'. I didn't scream or shout, I just didn't want anything to do with him anymore."

    “I see you, and it just makes me sad." She continued. It was like listening to an emotionless recording or a voicemail listing what needed to be added to the grocery list. "You loved your wife. She's gone, and it has broken you. You were so fucking dependant on her that you've turned to an NPC. This new person in Lana's shell might not even be a sentient being. For all, we know SkyTech could have lied to us. Wouldn't an actual artificial intelligence need to grow? Wouldn't it need experiences of its own to develop? What if these NPCs are just Imitation Programs? Do you think they wonder what they are, or how they came to be? Their memories aren't real. The system generated them using random bits of data."

    At some point during her drone, Kaitlyn had started removing her clothes. Her breasts were large but lacked the sag of age. Her waist was narrow, but they widened around the hips. For some reason, the term child bearing hips came to mind. Kaitlyn had told me that she had no children. Neither she nor her husband cared for them. They were dog people. She let Joel keep their husky after the divorce.

    Before getting into bed, I had removed my pants and was only wearing shorts under the covers. When she tried to remove them, I let her.


    Kaitlyn only stopped talking when we kissed. It wasn't romantic but filled with a desperate need for contact. We both craved the touch of another being. She didn't moan, but a soft sigh of pleasure escaped her lips when I closed my mouth around her hardened pink nipple.

    I was in no rush and wanted to savour the moment. I have always enjoyed the sounds women make when surprised in bed or they get the feeling they're looking for. However, Kaitlyn knew where she wanted to go and was speeding to get there. I didn't have the time to lay down on my back before she lowered herself onto me and the damp, warmth was welcoming. The sun was rising when we finally got to sleep.



    “I think she's ready to be awakened." Elina smiled serving us tea and sponge cake dotted with red, orange and brown bits of fruit. It was a bit crispy on the outside like cake left in the oven a tad too long, but the insides were still moist and delicious.

    “The issue is neither the Wyrmseye flowers nor Harpy Queen Hearts have been available on the market board for a while. I’m afraid you’ll have to gather it yourselves to bring her back.” Gremnir explained.

    “Still easier than reviving the dead." Kaitlyn grinned. It had been noon when she woke me up, fully clothed and eager to check on Lana. "We'll need supplies and two more to access either dungeon."

    “We’d volunteer but Gremnir has never been much of a fighter, and my staff hasn’t seen a battlefield in way too long-”

    “We won't ask you to come with us." I interrupted Elina. "You've done enough. We'll figure something out. It will take us a while to prepare for dungeons and even longer to find anyone willing to risk their lives in one, would you mind if we leave Lana here with you?"

    “Not at all." The dwarf answered flashing a very dwarvish grin. "Our daughter has long left the nest. We'll move Lana to her room."

    “We'll pay of course-"

    “Nonsense.” Elina cut me short. “We’re moving her so as to free up the infirmary bed, while in the house she’s our guest. We only ask you leave some money to feed her. The newly ascended visit us often but their pockets are shallow, and my husband has an annoyingly charitable heart.”

    “Understood.” Said Kaitlyn and handed her a small pouch before I could respond. Lana would have liked her.
     

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