“Fuck,” Liam swore, leaning back into the couch with a dark look on his face. “Dudes and trying to get their dicks wet, jesus.”
“I would like to take this moment to point out that you are a dude,” Dana said with a sly smirk.
Amra gave a nod of emphatic agreement, hands on hips. “Yeah. I agree though, what is with guys and following their second head around anyway?”
We all stared at our archer friend with various expressions, ranging from amusement from myself and Karen, to exasperation from Dana and befuddlement from Liam. Izzy just looked startled more than anything else. She was a little innocent like that. It was a rather strange thing for Greg the horndog to say, that was for sure.
“Riiiight,” Liam said slowly, giving Amra a funny look. “Point is, Juliet appears to be onto Syl’s secret, and Jeremy is being a fucking moron. What do we do?”
Silence descended on the cabin as we all glanced around at each other. In this moment, it would have been Jeremy that said something suitably stupid to get the ball rolling. Sure, it wouldn’t have been in the same realm as a good idea, but it would have kickstarted everyone’s thinker into working.
“We could ask my sister,” Karen said quietly. “She might know what to do.”
I winced and reached out across the couch to thread my fingers through hers. “Ah… something tells me her solution would be to arrange an accident for Juliet.”
“What?” my girlfriend looked confused. “Why would she… she’s not like that, right?”
A woman with godlike powers and the ability to turn into a dragon… plus the fact that she was a highly ranked member of an interstellar order of knights. An order that seemed just a little too close to the term “for the greater good”.
“I think she’d at least consider it,” I said as gently as I could. “She’s a space dragon with near-godlike power.”
“Um,” Dana interjected, raising her hand like we were in class. “Please explain?”
“The badass space dragon is Karen’s long lost sister who was stolen from her university lecture ten years ago,” I explained with more than a little bit of bratty enjoyment. Goodness, the absurdity of my life… how often did someone get to say a sentence like that and have it be one hundred percent accurate?
More silence. Then, Amra gave a long groan and placed her head in her hands. “What even is my life. Can it please chill the fuck out? God!”
I laughed and let my head plop down onto Karen’s shoulder. “How do you think it feels for me?”
“If I were you I’d be screaming constantly out of raw frustration. I hope you’re taking time out of your batshit crazy schedule to like, sleep and shit,” she huffed, dropping her hands to glare jokingly at me.
“Yes ma’am,” I giggled, poking my tongue out at her.
“Guys, please,” Liam said with a sigh. “This is actually a pretty bad situation. Also, Karen… I’m so happy for you.”
“Thanks Liam,” she said, and although I couldn’t see her face, I could hear the smile in her tone. “I’m still… yeah, processing it.”
“She was your idol,” he smiled kindly. “I imagine there’s a lot to process.”
“There really is,” Karen said softly, as though her thoughts had fled to the processing in question. “But anyway… yeah next time Nia contacts us, we’ll ask her. Sadly we don’t have any way of tracking her down. She’s got a one track mind, so I think she simply forgot to give us a way to find her.”
Liam gave another one of his, everything is going wrong and it’s my job to fix it, sighs. “Shit…”
“Maybe I can try to talk to her?” I asked tentatively. “I mean, without threatening to beat her up?”
“Yeah, I think that’s our only option currently,” he agreed, rubbing at his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “Maybe try to—“
A knock at the door caused us all to jump in surprise. Glances were exchanged between us all as Liam got up to open the door, revealing Alexia on the other side, along with Melli, the duelist girl.
“Hey friends, y’all got some time to spare? We’ve found what we think is a pretty good site to quarry some stone, but we want your opinion on it first,” she asked with a friendly smile.
Alexia and her group were really excited to get this hilltop turned into a little player run town, so much so that I’d heard the gnome dude mention he was skipping classes at university. I’d tell him not to fail things and that this was just a game… but it actually wasn’t. Plus he was like six years older than me, what did I know?
One earth day later and our fledgling efforts to set up a quarrying operation were interrupted by a whole guild’s worth of players showing up on our doorstep. Word had apparently spread around the nearby area as to what we were trying to achieve.
Counting them in my head, I came out at close to fifty players spread out over the field directly at the foot of our little hill. Not many had real gear, some even looking like fresh spawns, or close to it. Regardless of how new to the game they were though, every single one of them looked tired, dirty and on the verge of quitting the game entirely.
“I’m only seventeen years old,” Liam muttered as he, Izzy, and me descended towards the mob. “I’m only seventeen years old and I’m now the fucking mayor of a not-real-but-actually-real town. God this is not how I thought my year was going to go.”
“I can… I can help with like, bookkeeping and stuff,” Izzy offered quietly from his side. “I can be your um, secretary or whatever.”
“Oh… um, yeah, I mean, sure… if that’s okay,” he said with uncharacteristic hesitation. His dark skin might hide a blush better than most, but I saw it. I saw the way those two were awkwardly making eye contact, then looking away, then back again.
Smothering a smile, I said, “I think that’s a good idea. Izzy would make a great secretary.”
“I would?” she asked, as though it hadn’t been her who proposed the idea.
“Yes,” I nodded, giving her a solid double thumbs up. “You got this.”
“Cool… ah, thanks so much Iz, I’m definitely going to need your help,” Liam said with a pleased, if slightly bashful smile.
“Not a problem,” she mumbled, gaze diving for the ground.
Goddess, what a pair. So cute and so so very awkward. Like a baby koala… or no! A kiwi! Such funny looking creatures, bumbling around, just a long beak and two legs. Goodness, evolution, you are hit or miss, huh?
We arrived at the base of the hill to a growing stillness among the crowd, each and every one of them turning to stare up at the three of us.
I felt an iron weight settle in my stomach. Each of them was looking up with weary hope in their eyes, like they weren’t just players in a VR game, but actual refugees seeking shelter.
“Anyone here able to speak for you all?” Liam called, scanning for anyone to tell us what was happening without all fifty of them talking at once.
“Ah, yeah,” a guy near the front said, raising his hand. “I guess I’m sort of in charge.”
“Cool, let’s hear it then,” Liam said with a nod, arms crossed.
The guy blinked owlishly up at us for several heartbeats before he cleared his throat and began to speak. “We’re uh… just players who are sick of the all out war going on in the region. It’s getting worse, guilds piling on from all sides. There’s at least five different factions now, each with their own territory and stuff. Shit, the group that was supposed to be the good guys just burned down a whole fucking city.”
The newly minted mayor of our unnamed town went still as a stone. “Uh, you’ll have to explain that.”
“Okay… um… so. Yeah, there was a coalition of guilds fighting that Blackfeather group right…” the refugee guy said, pausing to see if we were aware of at least that much. When we nodded, he continued, “Blackfeather’s tactics have changed recently. He’s not just murdering random NPCs and shit, he’s actually started being almost chill. Still a cunt to other players, but he’s… well this city—“
“Calling it a city is kinda generous,” someone muttered in the crowd, prompting a ripple of nodding.
“Town then, somewhere between that and a small city, whatever,” the guy corrected, only showing mild irritation at the interruption. “Point is, Blackfeather decided the town was under his protection. Nobody was allowed to hurt anyone, had to follow the laws or he’d fuck you up.”
“You’re right, that is out of character for him,” Liam said thoughtfully. “I’m assuming one of the other factions didn’t like that?”
“Sorta.” the dude snorted. “A bunch of Blackfeather’s allies, guilds who followed his banner because was all about chaos and shit, they got real pissed and just sorta fucked off into the forest. The guys who’d been fighting Blackfeather saw that he’d just lost a bunch of troops and went in to throw him out. There was a fighting retreat, Blackfeather knew he was done if he tried to fight toe to toe so he ran.”
“Then, cos they didn’t get the fight they were looking for, and because the locals were sort of pissed that the guilds had kicked out their protector, they got to fighting with the NPCs. Some of the players didn’t want shit to do with it, they left, but a good bunch of them stayed,” he said, pausing as though remembering the events. “Well… they burned it to the ground. That and a big chunk of the forest too.”
All those poor people. Poor, real people who couldn’t respawn, unlike us. God damn it… this world was fucking nasty. Sure, some of the gods were cool, like Feslia… but this place was twisted and sick if you thought about it.
“Well, that’s quite the tale,” Liam said after several moments of quiet. To any who didn’t know him, he didn’t look shaken up by the news. He was though, you could tell by the way his hand was all scrunched up and white at the knuckles.
“Yeah… we’re some neutral players that got out,” the refugee spokesperson said with a wince. “Plus some others we found along the way.”
“And now you want a place to play the game in peace… alright,” Liam said with a kindly nod. “I’ll cut through the bullshit. You help us get this place up and running, you get some sort of place to call your own. I don’t have more details than that because I don’t know how shit is going to turn out.”
Sighs of relief rippled through the crowd as my friend spoke, and I felt a little spark of happiness that we could do this for them. A little ray of goodness in this maelstrom of shit.
“You’ll defend the town if we’re attacked, abide by the laws when we draw them up, and just generally do as I say. This won’t be a democracy, at least not for the foreseeable future, so yeah. Really though, just don’t be assholes, we all want a safe place to lay down between dungeons or raiding or whatever else you’re planning to do in this game, got it?”
“Yeah!” came the tired but excited reply. Aw shiiit, we had townspeople now! Did that make us like, nobles or whatever? Would I get to wear a big frilly dress down the line? Maybe dance at a ball with Karen? The possibilities were endless!