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    Nightlit
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Virtualization - 8. Step Forward, Stride Onward

As noted at the end of the previous chapter, this chapter moves the focus from the A team to what other characters are doing.

Stephan looks at the house he just bought. The first day after his brother died, he’d gathered soul energy for when they found him. His brother was a good player. He wouldn’t have died that easily. Stephan was scared, but he didn’t gave up hope.

Then Skydaculous, JiantHippo and MasterAshley, along with almost a hundred other people died on the easiest Temple raid. If that could happen, certainly anyone could be killed by skilled PKers. After that, he’d taken out his frustrations on goblins. He refused to add more orbs to his fate wheel, since he had been working on his build with his brother, so he had nothing to use his soul energy on.

Before he knew it, he’d had enough to buy a house. So that’s what he’s done. But now that he has the house, not having his brother to share it with only makes him feel more hollow.

He thinks of Luke, who is really nothing like his brother if their few encounters are any indication, but something about Luke reminds him of him. Perhaps some vulnerability the man tries to hide. Like the vulnerability his brother tried to hide from him. A vulnerability he pretended not to notice.

Luke is too busy, however, and as much as he wants to talk to him, he realizes how selfish that is. Luke is here to take care of everyone, not just him, so he stares at the house that’s his. Identical in every way to the houses next to it, on a street with the potential to extend nearly endlessly. The only limitation being the fact that each account can only own a single house.

“What’s wrong?” When Stephan turns in the direction the voice came from, he sees an old man watching him from the other side of the road.

“Nothing.” He responds.

The man smiles at him, “It must be a pretty big nothing then, if it’s preventing you from stepping into the house you just bought.”

Stephan walks over to him, “I just keep wondering what the point is.” The man patiently waits for him to continue. “I have a house. But it’s not even real!”

The man takes a deep breath, “Can you smell that?”

Stephan blinks at him, “Smell what?”

The man looks at him knowingly, “Exactly. You haven’t even tried to smell anything here have you?”

Stephan blinks again, “What?”

The man looks up, “How old are you?”

Fourteen.” Stephan answers hesitantly.

The man shakes his head, “I know you’re probably thinking you’re getting old for fantasy, but sometimes fantasy is the best thing you could ask for.”

“What do you mean?” Stephan asks curiously.

The man takes a deep breath again, “I ask you again, can you smell that?”

Stephan realizes he didn’t actually take a breath, and when he does, he isn’t sure what he smells. But he knows he smells something. “I smell...” He shuts his eyes and he still can’t tell what he’s smelling. “I don’t know.”

The man laughs, “Neither do I! Why do you think I was asking?”

Stephan blinks again, “What?”

The man’s smile is knowing again, “But isn’t that the point?”

“Isn’t what the point?” This old man is kooky, but Stephan thinks he’s going somewhere with this.

“That’s the real power of fantasy. You can know the unknowable. You can find this smell.” He grins.

Stephan shakes his head, “But the smell isn’t real.”

The man tilts his head to the side, “Isn’t it? You sense it right?”

Stephan blinks, “Yeah.”

“Then what’s not real about it?” He asks.

“Nothing here is real. It’s a digital landscape.” Stephan responds incredulously.

The man nods, “Ah, I see. So by ‘real’ you mean ‘IRL’ or ‘physical’.” Stephan isn’t sure how to responds to that, so he just listens. “Smell it again? Isn’t it real enough?”

Stephan looks down, “Despite the fact that this is all in my head?”

“Maybe.” The man says. “Or maybe I’m asking why that matters?”

Stephan looks at the house, “I guess owning a digital house is better than owning no house at all.”

The man gives him a look, “So? Are you going to go inside?”

Stephan nods, “I guess I should.” He turns to the man, “I’m Stephan.”

The man smiles, “Mitchell.”

“Thanks Mitchell!” He says before dashing across the street towards his new home. He feels a bit better for some reason. Maybe, he just doesn’t feel as alone.

Meanwhile

Ben finds himself surrounded by other players as he tries to get himself organized. He hadn’t expected the main issue he’d have as the local artisan being too many people seeking his help, but that’s exactly what’s happening.

Another person, this time a boy in his mid to late teens, walks up. “So, I was hoping I could get a collar made. For my pet.” He asks.

Ben blinks. He hasn’t gotten the skills for that yet. He knows he should, but people don’t usually use pets, so it hasn’t been a priority for him. “Um… I’m sorry but… I don’t have the skill ranks for that yet.”

Fortunately the boy just sighs, “I guess that makes sense.” He looks around. “You do have a lot on your shoulders.”

Jacklyn appears next to them, “And he’s handling it well.” She scrutinizes the situation, “So what’s up?”

The boy sighs, “It’s not a big deal.”

Jacklyn puts a supportive hand on his shoulder, “Of course it is. If it’s causing you to feel this down, it’s a big deal.”

“It’s just, I wanted a collar for my pet and...” He trails off.

Jacklyn grins, “Pets! Man! I always forget about that.” She turns to Ben, “Hey! Let’s get that hole in your skills fixed right now, shall we?”

Ben looks up at her, “I thought you wanted me to get higher armor ranks.”

Jacklyn shakes her head, “We can work on that later. Jerome said he has a huge haul. We can get your armor smithing ranks from that. For now, we should start getting your leather working subskills up to snuff.” She turns to the boy, “If you have some time to wait?”

He smiles, though a bit wearily, “Thank you.”

Ben looks up at the other people waiting around, “Is that okay with all of you?”

To his surprise, no one seems to have a problem waiting. Ben sighs, “I’m sorry Jacklyn.”

Jacklyn shakes her head, “You’re doing great.” She turns to everyone, “Aren’t they doing great?” The response is supportive cheers.

Then Theo steps forward, “Looks like now is a good time to showcase the stuff people have brought in! A lot of people have been turning in anything they don’t need so that it can be given to people whose builds want it!” He smiles, “The stuff is one of a kind, so we’re gonna have to distribute it fairly, and if you can think of anyone else who it might help more? Please mention it. We want everyone to be as strong as they can be!” This gets people’s attention.

Jacklyn smiles, “He’s getting into this.”

Ben nods, “He’s always been like this.”

“Maybe you should follow his lead?” Jacklyn suggests.

Ben looks down, “Aren’t you worried a fight might start for this stuff?”

Jacklyn shakes her head, “We’re in a safe zone.” There are a bunch of cheers as Theo gives out a rare bow to a girl. “And besides, Theo is pretty great at working a crowd.”

She looks down at Ben, “So, shall we get those skills rolling?” Ben nods in response.

The guy looks at them, “Should I come back later?”

Jacklyn looks at him, “You could, but it shouldn’t take that long.”

He nods, “Okay.”

“What’s your name?” Jacklyn asks eventually.

“Armon.” He answers. “Well, Armondo, but people call me Armon.”

Jacklyn nods as she points out where to put orbs in Ben’s Fate Wheel every so often. “So, thanks by the way.”

Armon blinks, “What?”

She smiles, “For bringing up pets. I really didn’t mean to neglect them. I honestly just forgot.”

Armon sighs, “I know people don’t use them. I know they aren’t very good.”

Jacklyn frowns, “Hey, just cause no one uses them doesn’t mean they aren’t good.”

Armon looks at her, “Then you’ve used them?”

She shakes her head, “No, but there are lots of great builds I haven’t used.” Her face grows serious, “And one thing that they’ve made sure of is that there is nothing in this game that’s truly bad. A lot of work goes into rebalancing things over time to make sure everything is usable.”

“So, everything I’ve heard about pets is wrong?” Armon asks.

“Not wrong exactly, more outdated. Pets did suck at first. And though they gradually got better, they were still on the weaker side for a long time. Even now, pets aren’t the best at anything, but that doesn’t make them bad.” She says.

He smiles at that, “Thanks.”

“So, what do you want the collar to have?” Ben asks after he finally finishes his skill ranking.

Armon looks down, “Just orb slots I guess? I haven’t figured out entirely what I’ll do with them.”

Ben nods, then looks up at Jacklyn who subtly nods at him, before turning back to Armon, “Just remember: we can put the orbs in for you. Don’t get the skills yourself, I mean, unless you want them.”

Armon smiles, “I’ll remember that. Thanks.” He thinks for a moment, “You’re Trjreska right?” Jacklyn nods, “Hey. I was wondering about guilds. People have been joining them lately and… Now that I know pets aren’t just a no go, I’m thinking of joining one.”

Ben hands him the collar, “Oh. That’s a good idea. How about we friend each other and I can PM you if I hear anything?”

Armon thinks for a moment, “It can’t just be any guild though.”

Ben looks up at Jacklyn, “Jacklyn?”

Jacklyn smiles, “Of course not. But you’ll never find a guild if you never talk to anyone.”

Armon smiles, “Okay. You’re right. Thank you.”

Jacklyn grins, “Here, let me friend you too.”

Armon looks down sheepishly, “You don’t have to do that.”

Jacklyn shakes her head, “Of course I do. We’re all allies here. We gotta stick together.”

Later That Evening

“You know, the knife isn’t going to change no matter how long you stare at it.” Gail says as she approaches Jerome. She chimed in to help Jerome and Jacklyn grind energy for Ben and Theo as soon as she’d heard about it. Of course, right now they are taking a break from grinding and Jerome is staring down at his knife, pondering who knows what.

Jerome sighs, “Why can’t I get away from it?”

Gail raises her eyebrow, “Your knife? I mean. If you want to be rid of it, you could sell it.”

Jerome can’t help but snicker at that, but his forlorn expression returns a moment later. “I wish it were that simple.” He turns to her, “I’ve been trying to change my build. After that night...”

Gail’s smile flattens, “Having difficulty?”

Jerome looks down at the knife again, “I never realized how little I learned about the game. I got so good at what I did that I thought changing my build would be the easy part.” He sighs, “But it’s not. I’m no good at magic. I’m not great at tanking either. I tried a more standard DPS build and I just... I don’t understand how to do it.” He sighs, “How do I change my build when there are only two builds I ever knew, both of which were designed to kill players?”

Gail thinks for a moment, “Maybe you’re overthinking this. You don’t have to use a totally different build to change it.”

Jerome looks at her, “But that was the point! To use a different build!”

“Do you enjoy your build?” Gail asks.

Jerome blinks at her, “I used this build to hunt and kill people!”

Gail shakes her head, “That’s not the question I asked.”

Jerome looks down, “How can I keep a build that I used against players. Players who are now gone. How can I enjoy that?”

“I don’t think that’s how that works Jer. You enjoy it or you don’t.” She touches his shoulder, “But if you’re worried you’ll become some murderous psychopath cause you enjoyed one aspect of that evening? Come on!” She shakes her head, “This isn’t even the build you used back when you were big PKer. You made it on a whim for a character you were only going to play for six hours because of a skill roulette. And not only were you the first person to make a big deal about the fact that we can really die, you’ve felt as much remorse for what you did as anyone.”

She watches him watch her, as if she’s got some ancient wisdom. Something she knows she doesn’t have in the slightest, but it still makes her feel great. “You aren’t the only reformed PKer left, but you are the one who agonizes over it the most. Maybe you should trust that means you aren’t a monster? Just a guy who liked hunting players when he knew it was all a game.”

Jerome looks down at his knife, “So, what do you think I should do?”

She smiles at him, “You are really good with the stealth build, aren’t you? Maybe better with it than you were with the stun build. You’re methodical and precise, and that build really fits that.” She looks out at the town from where they are sitting on the great temple balcony, “We kind of need that. The only other really skilled player at that is Asa, and his build is totally different from yours, aside of the blindsiding.” She takes a deep breath, “And I don’t like thinking about it, but what if he dies? What if he dies and we need someone who can do what he did?”

Jerome shakes his head, “I’m not Asa. I can’t do what he does.”

Gail looks at him, “That’s not what I’m saying. Don’t compare yourself to him Jer. I don’t even know if he’s better than you, like I said? Aside of the blindsiding, your builds do totally different things. I only meant that of everyone on the server? You and him are the best at taking advantage of blindsides. I don’t know him, but I think he’d agree with that, and even if he doesn’t, that’s not the point.” She smiles, “You might have found your calling. Don’t throw it away because you regret how you used it in the past.”

Jerome sighs, “I’m scared too you know.”

Gail gives him a rare forlorn look, “I know.”

Jerome looks down at his knife again, “I did enjoy it. The thrill of the hunt. Getting the drop on unsuspecting prey.” He shakes his head, “But the enemies in the game aren’t unsuspecting. They’re not even real! I don’t know if I’d feel the same way. I don’t know how long it would be before I realized that the enemies can’t give me what I really want.”

“How do you know they can’t?” Gail asks.

Jerome looks at her with a raised eyebrow, “What?”

She grins up at him, “That shit’s all in your head. Whether simulated or real, an ambush is an ambush. And you can still hunt other players. You don’t have to kill people to do that.” She stands up, a wide smile on her face. “In fact! You could totally help people and get that thrill you speak of! Just think about it. People here need to be aware of they’re surroundings. It isn’t like players are the only things with stealth builds or that monsters never use blindsides! You could like, be a blindsider against enemies! And blindside tag players! Get everyone on the server good enough that you can’t tag them anymore. Then get yourself even better.”

Jerome looks at his knife, “I dunno Gail. What if I give in to temptation and actually kill someone?”

Gail tilts her head to the side, “Have you felt temptation to kill anyone since this started?”

Jerome shakes his head, “No. Mostly just guilt that I ever felt tempted to do that at all.”

Gail shrugs, “So why worry about it?”

Jerome looks at her, “Because I did do those things! And I enjoyed them!”

Gail tilts her head to the side, “The other top players won’t let you go down that road. And they are also counting on you to do the same for them. Look. I was there that night remember? I may seem like I’m all hunky dory, but that’s cause I try to stay positive, not cause I don’t feel bad. You have been the biggest voice against PKing since this started. Maybe trust yourself, and trust the people around you to stop you before you go too far.” She thinks for a moment, “If you’re this worried about it? Don’t go solo. Join a guild. Find some people who will make you check yourself.”

Jerome can’t help but snicker, “Wow. I… wasn’t expecting that.”

Gail groans, “Yeah. And you won’t see that again. I hate it when shit gets that serious.”

Jerome puts a friendly arm around her, “Thank you. Especially since you hate doing that and did it anyway for me.”

Gail elbows him, “Well, it wasn’t just for you. I would like to survive this thing, and one of the best players moping around doesn’t really help much.”

Jerome lets out a huge guffaw and the rest of the tension leaves his body. He wonders for a moment how some things, like tension, are virtually perfectly simulated, but other things, like arousal, are non-existent. Not that he wants to be attracted to Gail, but she’s a beautiful, funny and fun loving woman who he knows he would be attracted to under normal circumstances. Heck, he was attracted to her in high school, even if that didn’t work out so well.

But maybe this is better. When he looks at her, all he feels is a nice sense of belonging. She feels like a close friend or relative. It does make him wonder though. Should be be seeking out a romantic partnership? Or should he just accept the fact that romance doesn’t exist here. Would that be a fresh start? Or losing a part of himself? The truth is, he doesn’t know the answer to that question. He does know, though, that in the moment he has no interest in courting Gail, analytical or otherwise, so he just lets it be.

Gail stands up, “I think you should go find someone to protect.”

Jerome blinks at her, “What do you mean?”

Gail grins down at him, “I think that’ll help you a lot. Finding a guild that needs you. A group of players that need someone like you. Someone who won’t let anything happen to them. You have to care about someone Jer. You have to care about someone enough that making them happy makes you happy. Have you ever felt like that? In your entire life?”

Jerome stops to think for a moment. The truth is, he’s not sure if he has. His family had a lot of love and would do anything for each other, but he doesn’t know if he’d feel happy about making them happy or if his love for them was born from obligation. Sometimes he even felt like the fun family times were an obligation rather than something he really wanted to do, even when he enjoyed them.

His friendships, the few he had, didn’t last either, nor were they that deep. In fact, he’s probably made more real connections in the game, even before being stuck here, than he ever made IRL. So perhaps he doesn’t really know what she’s talking about. A person who makes him happy solely because they are happy.

“And I can already tell you it’s not me. You see? You’re not happy right now cause I’m happy. You’re happy right now cause I got you out of your funk.” She turns away, “Besides. I don’t want that responsibility.”

Jerome nods at that. What she says makes sense, “So, any suggestions?”

Gail turns to him, “Get up off your ass and go find someone! You seem to get along with Ben and Theo. Go find some kid who needs a big brother. Maybe you’ll connect with them, maybe you won’t. But you sure as hell aren’t gonna connect with anybody sitting alone up here.” She grins at him, “Then once you make a guild, invite me to it. Maybe I’ll join? Or maybe I’ll already have a guild and be like sorry sucka!”

Jerome shakes his head, “What happened to the girly girl?”

Gail laughs, “The girly girl grew some fangs cause she got trapped in a death game.”

Jerome frowns, “Ah.”

Gail turns to him and shakes her head, “Don’t feel bad for me Jer. I feel good. I feel alive. I just wish you did too.”

Jerome stands up, “I guess I should go find that kid huh?”

Gail winks at him, “Now yer gettin’ it.”

Meanwhile

Stephan wishes he had more furniture now that he has seen what he can do with his house. It’s almost fully customizable. He can even alter the wall layout, though he has a limited number of doorways and wall segments to work with. If he takes the time, he can create his ideal living space.

The problem is that the best furnishings are gained from quests. Quests that require you to fight. He’s not bad at the game, but he isn’t good enough to do vanity quests alone. Especially when he can’t die. But the only player he really knew was his brother. That thought makes think of how much he misses him. He wishes he could cry, but all he can do is emote and that’s so inadequate, especially when he’s only expressing it to himself.

And perhaps he’s cried out anyway. It’s been days since it happened. Even if he can’t cry, that doesn’t mean he can’t feel the loss, the sadness. But he knows his brother, that Craig, wouldn’t want him to mope around for the rest of his life. Craig would want him to live.

The question is, how should he live? He thinks of Luke again. The guy had almost gotten himself killed; well, maybe that was an exaggeration, but he’d definitely taken risks to protect him. And as much as he’d love to party with him, Luke is still busy, which means he needs to find some other options.

The obvious first step is leaving his empty house, so he decides to do that. As he leaves, it occurs to him that going to check about getting some gear with those two kids who are being artisans might be an ideal next move, so he heads there.

The truth is, he’s both envious but also deeply respectful of them. He’s not envious of their builds, he’s pretty sure he could never sit around making stuff all day, but rather they’re drive. They are doing this big thing to help everyone while all he’s done is mope around.

When he gets to their player run shop instance in the bank, he finds a number of people there standing around, but none of them seem to be in any sort of line or hurry and most of them are older than him. He once again wishes Craig were there. He’d just walk over and start talking.

Then Stephan thinks, why isn’t he doing that? Then he looks up at the much taller people and he realizes why. Because the older teenagers and college students intimidate him. Heck, a lot of other kids his age intimidate him in the real world, and now that he’s his own tiny self again here, they intimidate him again. It’s strange how he feels more scared here, in a safe zone where nothing can actually hurt him, than out there when he’s fighting for his life.

“Hey. Did you need something?” The taller of the two boys behind the counter says to him.

“I…” He looks down, “I don’t know...”

“Hey! That’s fine! There’s loads of people around who can help you! Are you looking for a guild to join? Do you need help getting some soul energy for a build? Do you just want someone to talk to?” The boy’s jovial tone calms Stephan a bit and he looks up to see a friendly wide smile. The boy motions around the room to all the people, who are now looking at him with expressions ranging from curiosity to concern. None of them, however, seem belittling or threatening.

“Uh… I guess I… was looking for a… Party maybe?” Then it occurs to him that maybe he doesn’t one to join a guild, but to start one. “I guess… I want to… start a guild.”

To his surprise the boy’s grin widens, “Yes! We need more people who wanna do that! So, whatcha looking for?”

“Whadda you mean?” Stephan asks.

The boy waves around the room, “I mean, what are you looking for! What do you want your guild to do? Do you want to form a guild with your friends like the Indecisive Ones? Or a guild of people that you just met like The Blue Hand? And what do you want from this guild? The A team treats their guildmates like family. They even live together.”

Stephan’s eyes widen at that, “Really?”

He nods, “Yep! I could introduce you to them if you want. They’re super friendly.”

Stephan shakes his head, “I met them already.He looks at Theo for a moment, “Wait. Didn’t I meet you already too?”

Theo raises an eyebrow, “You do seem familiar.”

Stephan nods, “I think we met the A team at the same time. They brought you to Ardine’s room didn’t they?”

Theo nods, “They did. Well, it’s nice to run into you again.”

Stephan smiles, “Yeah.” He then sighs, “But, you aren’t gonna be able to join my guild.”

Theo shakes his head, “Not really. I wouldn’t be able to fight anyway.”

Stephan looks down, “I don’t know who to ask. Whose gonna want to join a guild started by a kid like me?”

Theo laughs, but not unfriendly, “Plenty of people!” He moves him over to a where the shorter boy behind the counter is working with Jacklyn, one of the other players Stephan met that night. “Hey Ben, remember the guy who was in here earlier? The guy with the wolf?”

Ben turns to them, “You mean Armon?”

“Yeah, that was his name.” Jacklyn confirms.

“What’s up?” Ben continues.

The boy guides Stephan over to Ben. Stephan can’t help but notice that Ben’s taller than him. The boy continues, “This is… uh… oh I guess I never got your name?”

“Stephan.” He says.

The boy grins, “I’m Theo.”

Ben smiles, “It is nice to meet you.”

“You actually already met. He was at Ardine’s room that one day.” Theo says.

Ben blinks, Oh.” He then smiles and Stephan notices he is instantly more relaxed than before, “So, what do you need?”

“He says he wants to start a guild, but he needs members. Didn’t that guy who you made the collar for mention something about needing to find a guild?” Theo asks.

Ben nods, “After I finished his collar. But he said it couldn’t just be any guild.” He looks down at Stephan, “But maybe he’d join yours? I don’t really know him that well. I can contact him if you want.”

Stephan shrugs, “It’s as good a place to start as any.”

As Stephan moves to wait for Armon, a man he’s seen talking with Luke walks into the room. He walks straight over to Theo and Ben. Stephan wouldn’t have taken note of anything else except that the three of them look over at him.

Theo leads the man over to him. “Just in luck. This guy’s exactly what you’re looking for Jerome. A kid whose looking to start a guild.” Theo says excitedly.

Jerome looks down at him and smiles, “You want to start a guild?”

Stephan blinks up at them, “Uh… aren’t you a top player?” He asks nervously.

Theo throws an arm around Jerome’s waist, “Yep! You’re looking at Talyris. Now I know he’s a former PKer, but he’s changed his ways and been one of the biggest voices against PKing since this whole thing started.”

Stephan looks away, “I’m not worried about that, it’s just… I know Luke and… don’t you guys have more important things to do than join some kid’s vanity guild?”

When he looks back up at them they are both frowning and he looks down again before Theo speaks, “Vanity guild? Why would your guild be a Vanity guild?”

Stephan flinches at that, but then a large arm falls around him, “Are you okay?”

Stephan turns around and looks up at Jerome. “I… bought a house.” He isn’t sure why that’s important to him to say, but it is.

Jerome tilts his head to the side, “A house?”

Stephan nods, “And I realized I had no furnishings, and that the best furnishings were quest only so I… wanted to start a guild so I could go out and get them. It’s pure Vanity. A whole guild just so my house can look nice.” He sighs, “But you guys are gonna want to do stuff like Temple runs right? I’m… not good enough for that. I wasn’t nearly as good as my brother and he died! I...”

“Your brother died?” Jerome asks, concern evident in his voice.

Stephan nods, “He was PKed that first night. I would have been too, if Luke hadn’t saved me.”

Jerome hugs him, “I was out there too that night with Luke. I saw… well… I’ll just say I’m not surprised.” He takes a breath, “I’m gonna give your guild a try.”

Stephan looks down, “Are you sure? Like I said, it’s a Vanity guild.”

Jerome holds him tight, “I’m sure enough to give it a go. But I do have one thing to ask.” He pulls Stephan’s head up so their eyes meet, “Will you take part in stuff like Temple runs? Once I get you up to snuff?”

Stephan’s eyes widen, “What do you mean, up to snuff?”

Jerome smiles, “No guildmate of mine is gonna be unable to take care of themselves. But don’t worry, if you don’t want to do that, that’s fine. But, you should know I will be helping with game content even if the rest of the guild doesn’t.”

Stephan nods, “You mean you’ll join up with me even if I don’t?”

Jerome nods, “I will. As long as you’re okay with me helping others.”

Stephan hugs him, “Of course.” Jerome, like Luke, reminds him of his brother right now. Craig was always helping everybody. It makes him feel good.

Jerome literally picks him up into his arms, and Stephan doesn’t protest. He had started protesting when Craig still did that to him, he is a teenager after all, but now he’s just happy to have someone care enough.

Theo grins, “I’m glad. But don’t forget about Armon.”

Stephan nods, “The guy with the wolf right?”

“Guy with the wolf?” Jerome asks, intrigued.

Theo nods, “Yeah. He’s should be here shortly.”

Jerome carries Stephan over to the wall, then laughs. “I can’t believe you’re letting me carry you around. I’d never have let someone do that at your age.”

Stephan smiles back, “I’ve been alone since that night. I… just…” He hugs Jerome, “It feels good to not be alone anymore.” Jerome responds by just holding him tightly.

A little while later a young man walks into the room and Theo guides him over to them, “Hello Armon. This is Stephan and Jerome.”

Jerome puts Stephan down before holding out his hand, “Nice to meet you.” Stephan does the same, but he says nothing.

Theo shakes his head, “Stephan, you’re the one starting the guild. Maybe show a little backbone?”

Stephan sighs. Theo’s right. He’s been worrying about stupid IRL stigmas that haven’t mattered at all so far. “Hi. I’m Stephan.”

Armon nods, “Hello Stephan.” His voice sounds hesitant.

Theo shakes his head, “Dude! Not you too. You said you wanted to join a guild? But it couldn’t be any guild? Well, Stephan here is starting a guild. And maybe it’s not the right guild for you, but you’ll never know if you don’t talk about it.”

Armon sighs, “I dunno. I… do either of you have a problem with a pet build?”

Jerome and Stephan blink. That is not what they were expecting. “A pet build?” Stephan asks.

Armon nods, “I’m using a wolf! I’m… I’m not changing that! I know pets are...”

Jerome puts a hand on his shoulder, “You really seem to care about this, so of course you can use it.”

Stephan laughs, and Jerome and Armon look down at him incredulously. “As long as you can accept being part of a Vanity guild. I’m making it because I want furniture for my house.”

Armon smiles at that, “Wait, really?” He looks at Jerome, “Aren’t you a top player?” Jerome nods, “And you’re okay with that?”

Jerome laughs, “I am. I dunno. Maybe I needed that.” He looks down, “I’ve… been feeling pretty bad since this whole thing starter. Maybe I could use a little lighthearted fun.”

Theo gives them a thumbs up, “I really think you guys should team up! Sounds to me like you all need it.” He then looks down at Stephan. “Hey… I dunno why, but I think I have something you’ll want.”

He walks over to the counter and rings a bell to get everyone’s attention, “Hey! Does anyone here need a tower shield?” There’s murmuring but everyone shakes they’re head. “Then you won’t mind if I give one away?” A bunch of thumbs ups fill the room.

Stephan blinks at Theo when he walks back over, “A… tower shield?”

Theo grins, “I dunno why, but I see you using one. I mean, don’t change your build if you like the one you have, but we got a pretty kick ass ultra rare tower shield from the gatcha that no one wants. And you strike me as a shield kind of guy.”

Stephan thinks for a moment, “I… guess I never really considered using a tower shield before.”

“Well, think about it. If you take this shield? You won’t ever have to replace it. The gatcha unique rare stuff gets more powerful as your fate wheel progresses, so its always good!” Theo adds.

Stephan looks up at Jerome, “You’re the top player. What do you think?”

Jerome looks down at him, “Don’t defer to me for everything just cause I’m a top player. But… if you don’t mind, I’m not a tank. And I’m guessing the wolf doesn’t get a good tank build either?” Armon shakes his head in response. “So if you don’t mind, it is a role the guild needs.”

Theo thinks for a moment, “Sounds to me like you guys need a healer?”

Armon shakes his head, “I’m using the wolf’s healer build.”

Theo grins, “Awesome! Sounds like you’ve got it covered then.” He walks back to the counter.

Jerome smiles at that, “So, Armon was it? You wanna guild together?”

Armon looks down at Stephan, “You’re our leader right?”

Stephan looks down sheepishly, “I guess.”

“And you don’t have a problem with wolves?” He asks.

“I think wolves are cool.” Stephan says, not entirely sure why having a problem with wolves would be a deal breaker, but its the truth so it hardly matters.

“And you?” Armon asks Jerome.

Jerome shrugs, “I have no problem with wolves.”

Armon smiles, “Than sure!”

Jerome thinks for a moment, “We need one more front liner. A more DPS oriented build to support your tankiness.” Jerome says.

“I currently use a lance. I could do a mixed build.” Stephan says.

Jerome looks at him, “Is that what you want?”

Stephan looks down, “I don’t know what I want.” He looks down at the shiny shield Theo just gave him, “But I… shouldn’t I do what we need?”

“We do need a tank.” Jerome says, “So if you go DPS we’d still need another person.”

Armon nods, “Yeah. Going without a dedicated tank sucks.”

Stephan smiles up at them, “Then I guess I will.”

Armon looks around, “So… how do we find someone?”

Jerome thinks for a moment, “We could ask here?”

Stephan looks around, “I dunno… I’m… Wouldn’t people here already be asking if they wanted in?”

Jerome sighs, “I don’t know.” Now he looks sheepish, “I’ve never searched out a party before.”

A woman in her twenties walks over to them, “I think most of the people here already have guilds, but I know The Indecisive Ones have been helping people find guildmates. The A team is pretty well connected too.”

Jerome frowns, “I know. I was hoping to avoid asking them.”

“Why?” She asks.

Jerome sighs, “I don’t have a good answer to that.”

She nods, “Collin helped me find my guild. And it was a woman named Ardine who pointed me in his direction.”

“Collin is GoldenrodBoy right?” Stephan asks.

“Yep. And Ardine was Bonehead Throkdar. Though no one calls her that anymore.” She adds.

Jerome sighs again, “I know them.”

“What’s wrong?” Armon asks.

Jerome looks down, “I’m already indebted to them enough.”

“How’s that?” Armon asks.

Jerome sighs, “They stood up for me back when this began.”

Stephan hugs him, “You said you were out there that night too, so we all owe you just as much.” He takes Jerome’s hand. “And maybe Collin can help us?”

Jerome thinks of Gail. She’d tell him he’s being a dumb macho guy and to go see Collin already. He kind of hates that she’s right, but then he looks down at Stephan and realizes he finally feels good for the first time since he got here. “Okay.”

“So… how do we contact him?” Armon asks.

Jerome pulls up his friend list and sends Collin a message. “That’s easy. I have him on my friend list.” Jerome cringes a bit at Collin’s response, mostly because Collin is right.

[ GoldenrodBoy: I never thought I’d have you asking for help with a guild. ]

Jerome sends Collin what they’re looking for and, a moment later, he chimes in again about some candidates he’s got.

“So, two women who both run the build we’re looking for. Only catch is, they come as a pair.” Jerome relays.

Armon shrugs, “So, we get some chicks in the mix? Sounds good to me.”

Jerome shakes his head, amused, “So as soon as some girls are involved, you’re suddenly suave?”

Armon immediately looks sheepish, “I mean… I never had much luck with girls IRL.”

Stephan sighs, “Neither did I. But… they are probably too old for us anyway.” He looks up at Jerome. “And, we’re not looking for eye candy right?”

Jerome shakes his head, “No. And maybe I should find someone else?”

Armon puts his hands up in defeat, “I’ll be cool. I promise.”

Jerome sighs, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“So, where do they want to meet?” Stephan asks.

“I have to tell Collin we’re interested.” He looks at them, “I get it. I remember what it was like to be your age, but you guys have to chill out. They might not appreciate a couple of teenagers perving on them.” That causes both of them to look down in shame.

“I meant it. I’ll be good.” Armon says.

“I’ll do my best.” Stephan replies honestly.

Jerome nods, “That’s good.” He them has Collin set up the meeting.

Later That Day

Armon looks around the swamp. “Uh… are we sure we want to meet here?” Technically, they are meeting at the safe zone outside the actual dungeon part of the swamp where the mobs are still weak, but it still makes him nervous.

Jerome nods, “Collin said they’re grinding the instance.” He looks over at Armon, “Are you worried? We’re in a safe zone.”

Armon nods, “I know. It’s just… what if they want us to run the dungeon with them? I know I’m not powerful enough for that.”

Stephan shrugs, “Then we tell them that. If they don’t accept that, they’d be bad allies.”

Jerome and Armon look at him again. “I’ve been noticing it for a while, but you are so much less nervous out here than you were in town.” Jerome notes.

Stephan looks down, “Out here, all there are is programs. Things put there to give us mats and soul energy.” He kicks a rock, “There’s nothing to be afraid of out here.” He looks up at Jerome, “Not since you guys made sure of that.”

“You aren’t afraid of dying?” Armon asks.

Stephan shrugs, “Nothing here will kill you unless you let it.” He motions to the instance, “There? Maybe. But out here, as long as you have potions or a means of escape? Even a critical hit blindside from an elite won’t one shot you.” Armon can’t help but feel intimidated now. Gone is the awkward boy, replaced by a man filled with bitter rage.

Jerome walks over to Stephan and hugs him, “It’s okay to be angry.” Armon just watches. Something is passing between them that he doesn’t understand.

Stephan looks down, “What else is there to be? I can’t blush. I can’t cry. But I can seethe. I can strike out.” He looks up and motions around, “And out here? I can do that without hurting anybody.”

Armon steps forward, “Um...” He starts but then backs down.

Stephan looks at him, and can see the fear in his expression. He doesn’t want to scare anybody, and he realizes he scaring Armon. “Say it.” He almost cringes internally at how aggressive his tone sounds.

Armon looks down, “Uh...”

Jerome pats Stephan on the head and looks up, “Armon, it’s okay. Stephan isn’t angry at you. He’s just angry. He’s trying to tell you you don’t have to be scared of him.” He looks down at Stephan, “Right?” Stephan nods in response.

Armon sighs, “Oh… I… was just going to say you can be happy. The game still lets you be happy.” Jerome and Stephan both look at him, a bit surprised. “I don’t know what happened to you. And maybe it’s nothing like what happened to me. Maybe the game took more from you than it did from me. But… I lost something too. Something really important to me.” He thins his eyes, “And it sucks, but I… don’t want to be scared, or hurt. I want to be happy.” He looks at them, “I want to find a place where I can be happy.” He hesitantly walks over to them, “And at first I guess I was looking for a guild that made me happy.” Jerome and Stephan look down, both guiltily, “but maybe… maybe making you guys happy is more important.”

“What did you lose?” Stephan asks.

“Me.” He says simply, as if that answers everything.

Jerome looks over at him, “What do you mean?”

“That’s it, just me. I don’t know how else to say it. Back when this was a game, it was the only place I could really be me. Now… it’s not.” He looks down, “I know that’s probably trite compared to what you two lost. But… I look around and see people adjusting to their new lives. I see people being happy.” He takes a deep breath, “I’ve been thinking about it and. I want to be happy with who I am. Even if that means having to find a new me.”

Stephan looks down, “I want that too.”

Jerome nods, “I think everyone does.” He looks at Armon, “But it’s not that easy.”

Armon sighs, “I know. But it’s possible. I have to believe it’s possible.”

Jerome and Stephan look at each other, “Armon. I’m sorry if we’re bringing you down.” Stephan says.

Armon looks at them, “I’m still gonna give this a chance.”

“Thank you.” Stephan responds.

It doesn’t take long for the familiar flash of teleportation to produce two woman. One of them is tall and lanky, with long arms and legs, and just a tad too thin. The other is also tall, but rotund. The two of them are grinning wildly. “Hey! Are you the guys Collin told me about?” The lanky one says with a smile, before she frowns.

The rotund one’s smile fades too, “What’s wrong? You guys look like someone ran over your cat.”

Jerome stands up, “Sorry.” He isn’t sure what else to say.

The lanky one walks over, “You don’t have to be sorry. I’m just wondering what’s going on? You don’t look like you were waiting for some guildmates.”

Jerome looks at them, “It… well…”

Stephan stands up, “We are though.” He steps forward, aware that they’ll notice he’s hardening himself, “I’m Stephan, and I’m the one who is forming this guild.” He motions to Jerome and Armon, “Jerome and Armon are both in for the moment.”

“For the moment?” The lanky woman asks.

“Neither of us was sure we wanted to be in this guild at first.” Jerome says, “But now… no, I can’t promise that I’ll want to stay in the future. All I can say is that this is where I want to be now.”

Armon nods, “Yeah. Though the idea is… growing on me?” He sighs, “And scaring me.”

The rotund woman looks at them, “Are you sure this is what you want? Like… no offense? But, we kind of want to have fun with the game while we can.”

The lanky one walks forward, “Maybe they won’t be all doom and gloom all the time?” She sounds skeptical though.

Stephan takes a deep breath and stands up, “I’m sorry for wasting your time. I think we’re not a great fit right now.”

The rotund woman sighs, “That’s too bad. I was hoping to find a larger group.”

Armon walks towards them, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” He sighs, “I’d join you but I… kinda already threw my lot in with these guys and...” He looks over at them, “I think… maybe… they need me.”

The lanky woman smiles at him, “Or you need them.”

Armon smiles a little at that, “Maybe I do?”

Jerome sighs, “We still need a front liner.”

The rotund woman walks forward. “Why?” She asks.

Jerome blinks at her, “Um… because the game requires it?”

The lanky woman shrugs, “You’d think a top player who excels at stealth would have a less limited view of the game.”

Jerome’s eyes widen at that, “What?”

The rotund woman shakes her head, “Sure, having a front liner is optimal! But who cares about that? Sub-optimal doesn’t mean bad, it just means not the best. If you guys don’t want a front liner, don’t have a front liner!”

The lanky woman nods, “Yeah. Find the way that works for you and do it!”

Stephan smiles at that, “I guess you’re right. Thank you.” He looks at them, “So, do you mind if I ask you your names?”

The rotund woman smiles at them, “Well, normally I wouldn’t deign to give my name out to complete strangers… I suppose I can make an exception for you. I’m Zuri.”

The lanky woman shakes her head, amused, “I’m Kaja.” She grins, “And maybe we aren’t the best fit for your guild, but we’d love to party together sometime. Just, try not to be all mopey, okay?”

Jerome can’t help but snicker, “We’ll try.” He gives both of them a look, “You guys just pair up?”

Zuri looks at Kaja, “Eh? Usually we party up with whoever’s around.”

Jerome nods, “That’s good. I was just thinking about two people I know who used to party together all the time. You remind me of how they used to be.”

Kaja looks at him knowingly, “Why does that not sound encouraging?”

Jerome looks down, “They had a falling out.” He looks up, “But that’s not what I was gonna say. It’s just… it feels good to see that. In light of what’s happened.”

Kaja smiles at him, “Thanks.” She motions towards the dungeon, “So, we’re doing Bayou runs. You wanna join?”

Armon shakes his head, “My build’s not ready for that.”

Stephan nods, “I don’t think mine is either. Rain check?”

Zuri smiles, “Sure.”

“I hope you find what you’re looking for.” Jerome says.

Zuri nods, “I hope you guys do to.”

Jerome, Armon and Stephan watch as they head back into the dungeon.

“What should we do?” Armon asks.

Jerome ponders this, “Maybe we should do what they said. See if we can find a way to make what we have work?”

Stephan nods, “Yeah.” He smiles a bit, “I’m glad we met them.”

Jerome puts a supportive hand on Stephan’s shoulder, “Yeah. I’m glad we met them too.”

“Should we go?” Armon asks.

Stephan and Jerome nod in response.

Now we get a picture of what other people are doing. One could call this part two of the story, as the pacing and focus has changed. I hope you guys like this still and, as always, I'd love to hear any comments you have!

Stuff You Might Want to Know

Mechanic – Player Owned Property: Ring Spiral Online has always had player owned property, and the version they are in is no exception. Currently, there are 3 major player owned properties:

The first is the room in the lodge, which every player has and cannot be lost or sold in any way.

The second is player run shops which are accessed by going to the second floor of the bank.

The third is houses, which are on an ever expanding street in the residential zone where all the NPCs live. Each account can have one house, which can be sold or rebought.

All player properties are customizable, though the specific rules for each vary. The rooms in the lodge have predetermined general layouts, but the color, style and furnishings can be altered. The shops have a number of predetermined layouts, but can be further customized similar to rooms. Houses have the most customization, as the room layout itself can be customized. Though it’s technically not a property, the instance created by the sanctuary spell can be customized in the same way as the lodge rooms.

Copyright © 2020 Nightlit; All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Comments

travlbug

Posted (edited)

Why buy a house rather than stay in the lodge? 🤔

The guilds that the players are creating appear diverse.  As Theo says to Stephan, "What do you want your guild to do? Do you want to form a guild with your friends like the Indecisive Ones? Or a guild of people that you just met like The Blue Hand? And what do you want from this guild? Ultimately, Stephan says that he wants to create a "vanity" guild, with the ultimate goal being to buy better furniture for his house! (Why not? 🤗) With so many differently-constructed groups, it will be interesting to see who succeeds--and why.

I love that people are networking, with specific people having specific goals. (Jerome, for example, wishes to transition from pker to protector, and Armon wants to use a wolf).  

Thus, we have unique people creating guilds and unique guilds waiting to engage the game content. Can't wait to see the action!

Edited by travlbug
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14 hours ago, travlbug said:

Why buy a house rather than stay in the lodge? 🤔

The guilds that the players are creating appear diverse.  As Theo says to Stephan, "What do you want your guild to do? Do you want to form a guild with your friends like the Indecisive Ones? Or a guild of people that you just met like The Blue Hand? And what do you want from this guild? Ultimately, Stephan says that he wants to create a "vanity" guild, with the ultimate goal being to buy better furniture for his house! (Why not? 🤗) With so many differently-constructed groups, it will be interesting to see who succeeds--and why.

I love that people are networking, with specific people having specific goals. (Jerome, for example, wishes to transition from pker to protector, and Armon wants to use a wolf).  

Thus, we have unique people creating guilds and unique guilds waiting to engage the game content. Can't wait to see the action!

Mostly because awesome. But also, houses are more fully customizable than the lodge and some people like the feeling of owning their own properly, since the room in the lodge is kind of more like a dorm room or rented apartment than something the player owns. Something they just AUTOMATICALLY HAVE for existing within the game.

And yeah. People are forming guilds based as much on how they want to live as the game play. That networking? The start of the society within the game? That's the main focus of the story. That's why the story hasn't been focused on the action so much.

In any case, I'm glad to see you still following this! Thanks!

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I find that old man at the beginning interesting. At fourteen, maybe Stephan views people in their 30s or 40s "old" but maybe this person actually is an old man. But would someone in the 60s or 70s be playing a game like this? It makes me wonder if this is an NPC and if they're becoming more sentient.

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3 hours ago, Geoffrey257 said:

I find that old man at the beginning interesting. At fourteen, maybe Stephan views people in their 30s or 40s "old" but maybe this person actually is an old man. But would someone in the 60s or 70s be playing a game like this? It makes me wonder if this is an NPC and if they're becoming more sentient.

He is a real player, and he is 60-ish, but you're right, most people his age do not play games like this. But there are a few that do, and he's one of them. There are a few other people, including at least one who is older than him, on the server but they aren't relevant to this particular narrative.

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