Chapter 5 – Diamonds Aren’t Forever.
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“You’ve requested to see me?”

“Ah. Wonderful timing. I’m opening the labyrinth. Figured I should notify you.”

“S-sorry? Sir, I mean no disrespect, but surely you speak in jest. That action is one of madness.”

“Not mad. Merely desperate, very much like everyone else. And this is hardly a time for humor, my boy.”

“Surely opening the labyrinth is a bit much, don’t you agree?”

“I didn’t request your presence to debate solely to inform. I understand... and empathize with your concerns, but our situation grows ever dire. I’m opening it. Besides, I have an idea. One to grant us time.”

- - - - -

“H-hey.” I stuttered as I shakily grasped her hand. “It’s nice to m-meet you. The name’s Ashe...” I trailed as I scrambled to hastily slap something on. “Lyn! Ashlyn!” This is her. Minus the burns and soot on her face, they’re a perfect match. I get that she’s real. Aidan confirmed it, but she’s a carbon copy to the girl in my dream. Hell, her diamond’s on display for everyone to see too. I should’ve noticed it during our fight.

Suppressing a giggle, she shook her head, “no need to be nervous, Ashlyn. I just wanted to get the name of,” she paused for dramatic effect as she slowly swung her arm around to show off the mostly destroyed area. “My hero! The one who valiantly came to my rescue in nothing but her underwear!”

Covering myself, I mumbled as I started to walk off, “fuck. Forgot about that for a second.” That makes two people now. Fanfuckingtastic. Weird rabbit douche and dragonfly girl.

Pulling me back, Jordan rested a hand on my shoulder,” and where are we going? You don’t want to party up?”

“Nope,” I replied flatly, tearing myself out of her grasp. “No interest. I’m a solo player.”

Looking me up and down, she nodded to herself, “guess that explains the wardrobe choice.”

I scowled, storming off with, “Bite me.” Clothes better be easy to find. Third time is absolutely not the charm in this situation.

“Then why’d you help me?! And what kind of medic solos this game?! That’s a death sentence!” She called out as the rain started to pick up. And there’s that extra helping of ‘fuck you’ from Mother Nature. The rain just couldn’t persist at its current level.

I spun on my heel with a shrug, shouting back, “because I can! And me, I have a deathwish today, apparently!”

I turned to trod off through the treeline but was stopped by a pair of words. Notably, a set that makes me regret coming to her aid.

“I’ll buy you clothes!” She screamed, appended by the sharp jingle of coin. “I found a stash of cash! Whatever you want, it’s on me!” Dammit. Why? Fine. I guess I found my way out of nature’s wrath.

Begrudgingly, I turned to face her, muttering, “keep talking.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t catch that!” She held her hand up to her ear.

“Fine!” I snapped. “Let’s go! I’m not fond of hypothermia!”

“Welcome aboard!” She grinned triumphantly as she tossed her orange coin pouch in the air.

A message popped up right as she caught it with a twirl.

You’ve received a party invitation from Jordan.

“I accept.” I exhaled in pure unadulterated annoyance as I pressed the box only to have another take its place.

Jordan - Level 2

Trees: Flaggellant, Ironclad, Trapper (1/23).

So she’s a tank? An odd tank, unless the trapper tree has some things that I’m not aware of. Although, it’s not as if I know its contents. I only have a name to go off.

Well, if I’m stuck with her, at least our class picks have some degree of synergy. I’ll play along, get some clothing, acquire a passable weapon for myself, and pay her back later. I fully intend on us “losing” each other in a crowd, but I do plan on reimbursing her.

Aiming a finger in a direction completely opposite mine, she marched on, “now! Onward traveler! We must seek fresh apparel for your weary soul.” Oh, for the love of all that is holy. Was Jinn contagious?

“Woo...” I apathetically waved a finger as I slugged along after her.

- - - - -

We had to have been walking for at least twenty minutes with no civilization in sight. The only saving grace was that we located a road relatively quickly.

A cracked blue brick path, but it’s a trail nonetheless. This road felt so desolate and isolated that even the plants were taking notice. Droves of vines, tree roots, and differing flowers were laying claim to the decadent pathway. Overall, it was useable, but you had to watch your step. Well, unless you’re keen on the idea of getting better familiarized with the road.

Between the rain and night’s evergrowing presence, it was nigh impossible to spot anything outside of our little cone of blue light. It barely gave us enough time to dodge the vegetation, but it was better than the blackness consuming us.

Pulling her hood up to assist in battling the rain, Jordan asked, “So how long have you been playing?”

“Day One,” I answered, stepping over a root. “I quit for a while and came back for the beta.”

“You run a healer then, too?” She quired as her little orb of light circled around... wait, is that a fae?

“Uh... yeah,” I muttered as the creature landed on my shoulder. Yeah, that is a fae. How does she have something akin to that already? “How’d you know, anyway?” She noticed I was a Vestal before her party invite. I don’t believe you can inspect someone unless they’re a party member or friend. Maybe PvP, but that could be a stretch.

“The symbols on your arm. They show what trees you picked.” She smiled as the fae landed on her finger, displaying its elegance through a little dance. “I memorized the ones I thought would be most relevant, so I knew what to look out for.”

“Oh.” I nodded as she stopped to pick a flower. “How long until town?” I questioned, bringing up my menu. Let’s check out my racial ability and capstones. I might as well be thinking of possible synergies ahead of time.

My menu popped up in its usual blazing glory right as she tossed some flower petals to the wind.

Character Overview

Quests

Inventory

Skills

Map

Real-Time: 03:07

Customization

Settings

Log Out

I was half-tempted to check the map, but I tried earlier, and it only displays areas you’ve visited previously. I tapped the Skills tab. As if waiting their entire lives for this moment, my flames moved inward, voraciously consuming every scrap of paper to make way for the next section.

First, my capstones. The concept in itself isn’t new to this game. What is new, are all the trees and the fact that you can pick three. If they’re still as potent as the base game, then I can’t wait until I level up.

The Shadows capstone was enticing. I can hear it now, it’s practically begging me to pick it.

There Are No Stars Left in The Sky - Obfuscate the area in a night so suffocating, so burdening that not even the sun can free one from its shackles. Double the effectiveness of all Shadows-related skills, both positive and negative. In addition, all aggro is removed from you and your allies for a brief period. Uses: Once per an encounter. Cooldown: Extreme, persists between fights.

Vestal’s was almost the exact same as I remember. They just buffed it slightly.

A Hearth’s Warmth - A hearth’s fire, much like your will, never wavers and never slumbers. Family and friends are always welcome, and you’ll do your damnedest to deliver them that refuge. Instantaneously resurrect all allied players in the area and refresh their ability cooldowns. Uses: Once per an encounter. Cooldown: Extreme, persists between fights.

All it used to be was a group res. I’ll take the buff. Provided it includes capstones, then we’ll be able to pour on that much more damage. Okay, onward to Entourage. I’m already liking what I’m seeing.

Among Giants, We Stand Ever Tall - Your followers, inspired by the actions and fearlessness your Tier IV summon demonstrates throughout combat. They have decided not only to match them but to fight tooth and nail to attempt to surpass them. Your lower-tier followers are upscaled, both in their passives, and statistics to match your Tier IV summon until your battle comes to a close, or their defeat is realized. Cooldown: Extreme, persists between fights.

Every single one of them was tempting my hand. The only problem is I have no idea what the level cap is. I glanced at a small body of text beneath the capstone and felt disappointment slap me in the face. They have it set so you can only have one capstone equipped. Dammit. At least it seems the developers are shooting for solid game balance.

“So, what’s your racial ability?” Quired Jordan with a smiling peer over my shoulder, the fairy flying around us as she laughed. “That’s mine. As unintimidating as she looks. And about ten minutes left on our walk.”

“Um... give me a second,” I replied as I scrolled down. Huh. That’s weird. It’s not telling me what it does. Maybe it’s another bug.

Artistry - A canvas, one painted with our sense of self, and stained with the past. In sempiternal, we walk. Through sleet, through rain, through hail, accompanied only with a dried palette of the future.

“It’s not saying what it does.” I rolled my eyes in annoyance, tapping it a few times in some vain hope I’d get a more in-depth description. “Did you get a vague... ermh explanation for yours?” The word explanation is being generous.

“What,” she looked at me as if I was going crazy. “You sure you just aren’t noticing it? What’s its name?”

“Artistry. Whatever that’s supposed to do.” I sighed, massaging the bridge of my nose. If it’s related to art, as both the name and description would imply, then yes, it’s thematically relevant to me. My issue is one minor thing. What the hell am I going to use a damn painting ability for in combat? I’m not even picturing a practical use for it outside of battle!

“A-artistry?” She stuttered, sounding shocked.

I closed my menu, glancing up at her with an eyebrow raise. “Yeah. You know something about it?”

With a quick shake of her head, she sped up, pointing to the light in the distance. “The city’s coming in view, nice!”

Before I could press her further, she, to her credit, didn’t try to brush my question off with that sorry excuse of a topic change.

“I saw it in a trailer for this beta, I think.” She scratched her head as she leaped over a patch of flowers. “I saw its name. I just didn’t think it’d be a racial ability. Sorry, that’s all I know.”

“It’s fi...” I trailed as her fae’s light was slowly overtaken by a crimson so deep I could swear someone was bleeding. What’s goi-a scream? It’s not human, that was apparent. The scream’s pitch and tone, it was like it triggered some primal response of fear in me. Almost as if the creature’s both in pain, yet excited for its hunt. That’s definitely not a part of the base game. I feel like I’m fighting off my fight-or-flight response already.

Stopping dead in her tracks, Jordan cursed under her breath, “fuck. I was praying we’d have a peaceful walk.”

“What was that?” I asked, anxiety dripping off my words as I turned my gaze to the darkened trees. A flock of birds rose from the trees, only being visible with the occasional flash of lightning. That thing’s close, very close.

“That sounds like a leper.” She muttered as she poured on a bit of speed, frantically waving me after her. “Don’t sprint. It only entices them. Stay close to me, and let’s keep moving.”

As my mouth opened, another shriek reverberated through the forest. That alone was enough to steal my words away into the night. I simply nodded and kept after her, accompanied only by the radiance of crimson and my hurried heartbeat.

- - - - -

“And home free.” Jordan sighed in relief as we sprinted by a set of glowing blue lanterns. A series of them stood surrounding the perimeter, each attached to the top of a stone pole with engravings very much foreign to me.

Out of an uneasy curiosity, I turned back to the now distant treeline. “That thing’s huge...” I trailed as my blood ran cold. It was following us. We got lucky it didn’t charge.

A pair of jaundiced-looking eyes, ones that stood higher than the treetops, glared down on me. The emotion behind them, delight, and a sense of oppression more binding than the patch of darkness that rested before me. It was like he was the sole reason it was dark, almost as if he was absorbing the light around him.

“Let’s go. I don’t want that thing to try anything.” Jordan shook me out of my stupor and motioned me after her as she bolted down the brick path.

After tearing my gaze from him, I only managed a single step before it made a noise, one precisely like an animal I was all-too-familiar with. One that made my blood boil with fury.

A cat’s meow.

Barely warding off the urge to charge him, I took a deep breath, turning to leave him a parting message.

“Thanks for the tip,” I forced a smile as I prepared to twist the knife. The joy in its eyes faded in seconds when it realized I wasn’t taking the bait. “Now, I know you can mimic sounds. I’ll keep that in mind when I find you again.”

Rage filled its eyes as my words hit. It didn’t roar, attempt another sound trap, or anything. It merely stomped off into the woods as I turned away with a bit more pride in myself than I started the day with.

“Ashlyn? You coming?!” Jordan called out, a tinge of concern behind her voice.

Nodding, I broke into a brisk run as I shouted, “yeah! Just had to say goodbye!” How did he know what sounds to use? I have videos of my pets on my profile, so maybe he used that. Either that, or it plays sounds based on the popularity of said animal in your region. My privacy settings only extend to people seeing my character’s appearance and personal details. The videos are for all to view. Mainly because Smokey will conquer the web by this decade's end. I, of course, will aid in his dominance. And yes, Kirra is our strategist.

I caught up to Jordan. She was just outside of two large wooden doors serving as the entrance to the city walled off with an enormous brown brick barrier.

“What took so long?” She inquired, tugging her sleeve over her arm.

“Thought I saw an item,” I assured her with a smile as she led the way inside.

We were almost through the gates when I felt a tug on my hair, pulling me back an inch from the sudden pain.

I spun around to catch my assaila-no one’s there?

“Miss?” A squeaky boyish voice sounded off. Where’s that coming from? “Down here!”

I glanced down to a sight that both irritated me and made my heart melt. A young boy with silver hair stood staring up at me with bright amber eyes. He was dressed in an oversized white shirt and had a stack of flyers in his hand. He has a tail too? It looks like he’s part-raccoon. Surprisingly, his ears are human. He could be a type of shifter.

“Please don’t pull my hair.” I smiled as I started tending to it. “Did you need something?

“Here!” He enthusiastically handed me a flyer. “Mom said I have to hand these out. You look cool. You’re a wayfarer, right?” He pointed to my mark. “That’s not a tattoo or something? If it is, I have to tell you that’s sacrilege.”

“No, it’s real,” I quelled his worry as the mark lit up on cue.

Eyes wide with astonishment, he mumbled, “Woah. Yours is red. I’ve never seen that color before.” His eyes darted to my ears as his tail started wagging happily. “Those ears? So you’re...” He trailed as he flipped the flyers over and sat them on his head, excitedly shouting, “can you draw something for me?! I can stay still while you do it!”

Stuttering, I barely pried the words out of my chest. “H-how do you know I c-can draw?” I’d prefer to not draw for someone. They’ll only be disappointed by it. I draw for myself mostly. The concept of another laying witness to it is something I’d prefer to pretend will never happen.

“Ashlyn, you goo... oh,” Jordan asked, holding back a laugh. “Josiah, why are you out here?”

“Handing out flyers like Mom said.” He said, not budging an inch. “You can draw, right? You look just like them.”

“Yes, I can draw. Do you care what I make?” I drooped like a withering flower, trading my flyer for a pencil.

“Anything works. Just do something like you guys made in the great hall.” He nodded ecstatically.

A phoenix it is then. I sighed as I brushed a strand of hair from my eyes, touching the pencil against paper. Anxiety was starting to run through my blood, but I agreed. He’s lucky he’s a cute kid.

I tore off as the details started to fill themselves in, my pencil seemingly being guided on its own. My instrument flew around the page. It spoke of the beginnings of embers before allowing the flame full reign of the parchment. A blazing inferno consumed all, only being broken by its flying master, a phoenix. He burst from the storm, flame tracing his path as he spun, spreading his burning beauty through the scene.

“Done,” I smiled, twirling the pencil around as I handed it back to him. Huh, I don’t hate the end result. I’m legitimately satisfied with this one.

Josiah took the stack of flyers off his head and started analyzing my work. I was silent in anticipation of his rating. I may be pleased with it, but chances are, other people aren’t.

“This is awesome!” He beamed as he thrust it so close to his face I could swear he was trying to fuse with it. “I can keep this, right?”

“You like it?” I scratched my head, pondering the possibility of this being a dream.

“Yeah!” He jumped for joy, his tail fervently wagging. “You’ll sign it, too, right?”

Nodding, I scrawled my signature down. It was simple, the letter “A” drawn in a manner that had a line slashed through the remnants of my name.

“Josiah!” A shrill feminine voice echoed behind us. “Where did you run off too?!”

Looking past me, he yelled back, “The gate!”

To that woman’s credit, she was absurdly fast. Or stealthy, both are plausible. I didn’t even notice her zip by us.

She had Josiah scooped up in an instant, asking, “you passed out the flyers, right?”

“Yes,” sighed Josiah as he tried to squirm out of her grasp. “I was just having her draw something. That’s why I took so long,” he whined, pointing a finger my way as he threw a flyer to the ground.

Facing me, the woman’s concern melted into astonishment. “Oh. You guys are back.” She murmured, keeping her amber eyes on my ears. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

Bending down, I snatched up a flyer, asking, “Back? You mean wayfarers were here before?”

“No,” she shook her head as she hushed Josiah. “I meant your people. Specifically, the type of elf you are. Your lot just sorta stopped talking to everyone, and we couldn’t discover where you ran off to.”

“Oh,” I nodded, following through, “what did you guys call us?” I might actually have a name for my race.

“We referred to you by...” She winced as if she was just struck with pain, trailing off as she massaged her temple. “Sorry. I can’t recall the exact term.” She shook her head out of frustration, turning to walk off with the parting words, “It was a pleasure to see you again, but I must go. It’s time to put Josiah to bed. Please inform your people we said hello. We’d be delighted to trade with them if they wish.”

“Will do, and thanks,” I called after her with a wave to Josiah. If that’s some of the lore, this game is teasing me with, then color me intrigued to my race’s backstory.

Stepping inside, Jordan offhandedly remarked, “you didn’t strike me as the type to draw.”

“I dabble,” I replied, passing through the gate after her.

“Maybe you can show me sometime,” She suggested. I’ll pass on people that are actually capable of being critical. Kids are different. I do draw things for my niece and nephew, but that’s it. This was an exception for a child, nothing more.

“Maybe,” I muttered in jest as I skimmed over Josiah’s handout.

Its call grows. Once sealed off for the public’s safety, the labyrinth yearns to open its door to the touch of the wayfarer. To evaluate the land’s assumed saviors through means of triumph in the face of crippling adversity. To gain passage, one must present both an item of value and the spirit of rebellion in spite of defeat’s ever-present call.

Requirements:

Level Ten or Higher (0/1)

Time Remaining: 68:32:08

Item Requirements: At least one.

New Moon Grass

Virescent Widow’s Lotus

Archstone Fragment

Chunk of Bladestone (unrefined)

Concentrated Tristitia Root

Stamine Stone

Diamond

Quest(s) Added: The Labyrinth.

Purge the blights.

Provided there is one this time around, I’m assuming that’s the main quest. If not, that might be a raid-style activity. Based on what I’ve experienced in this game, this will be all sorts of fun. They always place emphasis on combat and puzzle-solving for end game activities.

I discarded the flyer and felt my breath leave me at the sight of the village before me. Small wooden buildings of varying colors coated our flanks, giving way to a town square with a sizeable well in the center. A plethora of, what I’m assuming, were other players gathered around it. The town was painted in a yellowish hue from the lanterns scattered about.

While beautiful, the town wasn’t something that awed me in itself; it was its atmosphere. It gave me a particular feeling, one of cohesion and warmth. The one a close-knit neighborhood gives off. As if everyone was there for each other when they needed it most.

“You feel it too, huh?” Grinned Jordan as she waved me after her. “I’m glad I found this village. It’s proving to be one of my favorite places so far.”

“So far?” I smirked, shaking my head as the atmosphere bled into me. “I agree with you.”

After our exchange, we broke into a light jog only to be stopped halfway through the town square via a pop-up.

Mode: Standard Duel

Wager: Money, Dark Moon Grass.

Restrictions: None

Modifiers: Disorderly Combat.

That alone wasn’t enough to stop me. What was, was the name that fell from Jordan’s lips a few seconds later.

Seemingly out of instinct, she spun toward the center of the square where two people were sparring. The familiar sight caused my hair to stand on end. I was hoping to avoid them too.

“Kick his ass, Connor!” Jordan cheered him on with a leap. “You got this!” And she knows him? Shit. Please be someone else.

For a second, I thought (and prayed) it was only coincidence, but that hope was torn asunder when I noticed the smaller guys reaction. Out of the two fighting, the substantially larger guy knocked the blade from the other. It clattered to the pavement, landing behind the big guy.

Instead of buying himself time to retrieve his weapon as most people would, the smaller person did something distinctly Connor-like. He shrugged and raised his hands in preparation for hand-to-blade combat.

That’s him. It has to be.

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