Chris had finished installing the game, selecting the option to start it immediately. His friends had only had the game a few days and everyone was raving about this new MMO. The massively multi-player online games had begun back in the nineties with Ultima Online, Everquest, and Asheron's Call. Compared to more recent games, those original releases were barely evolved beyond text based MUD and MOO types or solo player role-playing games, played by a small minority of the population. Games like World of Warcraft had changed all that, making the online game industry as big a player in the entertainment industry as television, with millions of players online every day. Every few months a new competitor came out, trying to gain control of a share of that market. Quite a few failed outright. Good and Evil Online was an exception, and an instant challenger to everything that came before.
GEO did that by incorporating features into standard game play that were considered ideal design options, goals every company tried to reach but couldn't achieve due to practical considerations. The game world was continually evolving, with new menaces growing and showing up in places where the ecosystem supported them; but when adventurers defeated them, the threat was gone completely. There was no respawn or repop, the terms used by the gaming industry to describe the reappearance of things that had been killed off, so the next player could come by and find an opponent. New creatures spawned via a simulated reproduction system that occurred any time unused resources were available in a local region, or migrated into an area with high unused resources from ones that were overpopulated.
Quests were often different from player to player, only duplicated in settings where many characters would be needed to complete a goal. Many quests were even originated by other players, in a sort of trickle down effect as veteran players received major rewards by pursuing and completing complex world-moving quests and then involved (and rewarded) others to achieve portions of the whole. Each action, quest completion, or bit of exploration or controlled land changed the development of the story and moved a larger plot along in ways typically only achieved via large content patches or expansions. This helped create a world that made more sense and allowed players to immerse themselves in something unique and special, in a way that no computer game had ever done... and only the best storytellers and pen and paper games had accomplished.
The interface was also a big factor in the excitement about the game. It seemed to learn from the player, becoming more and more seamless as time went on. Emotes, small text and visual animations related to emotions or simple actions, were tailored to the character and triggered through mouse and keyboard interaction in a way that quickly became instinctive for the player. The voice communications system released in the game's first expansion allowed for dialogue to take place using character based voices overlaid on the player's, giving an even greater depth of immersion. For a player who wanted to block out the real world and explore the idea of being someone else, that was important. Chris was one of those people.
The thirty year old was heavy set, not all that uncommon amongst gamers, and barely kept his secret life contained to his entertainment. Chris was a cross-dresser, or possibly a transsexual. He suspected it was more the latter, but couldn't risk seeing a doctor about it. What were his options, after all? Dress up as something he couldn't be? Try getting hormones or a sex change? How exactly would that work, his family and what few friends he had would be freaked out completely; he would probably lose his job; and everyone in his small town would know. It's not like anyone could keep a secret like that once you started involving other people. Amy... whatsername... came out about being a lesbian four years ago and had to close her shop and eventually move closer to the city just to survive. As if she hadn't been a lesbian for the twenty five years she had run that shop without people knowing, all that history and interaction with people; gone like it had never happened.
Chris had tried on some women's clothing he'd bought from one of the big online department stores that carried both men and women's things, but they just hadn't been cut for his body and he'd felt and looked foolish. Oh, he knew that it would take hard work and exercise to look good, the same as if he wanted to look good as a guy... but also hormones and probably surgery, like liposuction and breast implants, to solve that problem. But either way, the clothes did little to salve the cravings he felt. Only immersing himself in being a woman as he played a role helped. Most of his characters in games were female, though not all of course. He had to have male ones to convince people he was normal. But the ones with the most time on them, with the most experience, were always women. If GEO were as great about immersion as everyone kept saying, and as customizable, then he could finally make the Rachel side of himself and play as the woman he wanted to be. His only other hope was to be a victim in some sort of mad science or magical battle that resulted in bystanders getting changed into other people. The odds of that were pretty slim in small towns like his own, though; and even if he moved to the city, it was far more likely that he'd end up getting blasted by some blue haired girl who threw around plasma.
Chris watched the intro cinematic, swearing as he did that the specific segments of heroes and villains shown in the light and shadows were different than previous times he had seen it. It was a point of contention among his friends, that there was simply too much going on to see everything and he was just seeing something that had been there before but just hadn't caught his attention. He had tried to find certain specific bits that he had seen in previous views, however, and it wasn't always possible to find them. His friends didn't have a way to counter that point, and they also weren't sure how to challenge his point that he had seen a scene in the cinematic that had not even happened yet when the game had released, a few days after he had seen it on the news. Their best guess was that the cinematic was getting updated on patches, but considering movie quality cinematic pieces took significant time to develop, it would be a significant amount of work to update for something that most people only watched once.
The intro finished and the personality profile system started. Some people had tried to game the quizzes to force certain archetype options to be primary, but for whatever reason; the system was able to identify falsified answers. Most likely it was simply a matter of response times and question repetition and concept overlap, but there were entire sections of fan sites dedicated to people relating their questions and answer options and speculating on the esoteric possibilities of how the game seemed to profile everyone accurately. Chris had already decided that he was going to be as honest as he possibly could; he knew that Rachel was going to be one of his options.
You are faced with a difficult issue of identity, do you: he read the first question, a chill racing up his spine. What kind of question was that for just starting out? That sort of thing might have turned up, logically, after other questions that started to reveal his secret; but right away, without any lead in? He quickly scanned through the choices.
1. Openly identify yourself with introductions, explaining where you are from and why you are present.
That wasn't really him, how long had he kept his secret, even from his closest friends.
2. Hide your true nature, adopting a disguise and presenting yourself as something that fits the situation.
That one certainly hit close to home.
3. Avoid identifying yourself unless pressed by circumstances beyond your control.
That really seemed to fit too, there had been one or two occasions when he had taken risks that would have forced him to reveal Rachel to others if he had been caught; he might even have taken the risks hoping it would happen that way but he had just been lucky... or unlucky maybe... and he hadn't been caught.
4. Don't make an active attempt to identify yourself clearly, but have the necessary details available if circumstances require them.
Chris sat and considered the two options that seemed to describe him, trying to decide which to select. Twice he reached out to the mouse to pick one of them, two or three, and each time he stopped and went back to read them again. The screen blinked on it's own and cleared the question.
"Hey!" he burst out, then stopped as new text scrolled across the screen.
Are you certain that your secret identity is as hidden as you believe?
The question was followed by simple yes and no options. He hesitantly selected yes, beginning to be frightened by the whole process. How could the questions be so personal and relevant to his own thinking? A follow-up question joined it on the screen.
If your identity were to be revealed, would the problems you would face:
Chris sighed in frustration. This question was certainly vague enough to relieve some of his concern about how personal they were and as he thought back, he could see how the questions might apply to the archetype selections. For example, a thief might avoid revealing his identity to authorities but not have any problems talking up his reputation with a potential client or among his peers while other archetypes wouldn't have any reason to hide who they were. For his own problem though, this last question was almost impossible... they were all true, really. So, which would be worst?
Most companies weren't really permitted to discriminate against people due to sexual orientation or race and all that... but the transgendered weren't really as well protected. They sort of fell into a lot of the same blind spots as mutants. If taken to court, it would probably be bad for the company that discriminated. But that wouldn't make life any easier for the person who had to continue working in that setting, with superiors who had been called out for something they had done. Family and friends would hopefully understand better, but so many stories and accounts people had written about their own experiences showed that they didn't. So many of them seemed to take the revelation as a betrayal or considered it an accusation that they had been at fault somehow, raising their child improperly. As Chris considered the options, the screen blinked and there was a fifth option added to the list.
Time sensitive responses... he quickly selected the new option.
The next question appeared almost immediately,
1. Immediately try to use them, regardless of whether what you were told was correct.
2. Perfect the abilities, then use them with confidence.
3. Only use the abilities if you had no choice, when the risk of failure wouldn't be any worse than not trying at all.
4. Distrust the abilities, knowing that anything that solved problems like that is too good to be true.
Chris wanted to select the first option right away, but he had told himself he would be honest. He selected answer four as quickly as possible, knowing that the selections might be taken from him if he waited to think about it. He would distrust it, be hesitant to use the genie even if he were standing there staring at the smoking lamp. There were lots of stories about people who jumped before they considered the possibilities, and most of them ended badly for the protagonist.
Question after question, Chris answered as quickly as possible to keep from having his choices taken from him. Even still, three more times the game moved on before he was certain of his choice and several additional times, he was offered additional choices from the original selections. Almost every time this occurred, the new option was the one that was right for him. Finally, the profiling quiz came to an end.
Thank you for answering honestly.
He winced, reading that. It felt like he'd spent several hours pouring out his worst memories and feelings to the most persistent psychiatrist in the world. Some of the things he'd answered were... difficult to consider, even in his own mind. It may have been the first time he'd admitted some of them, even to himself. Was it always this detailed?
The center of his screen lit up with a triangle, upon which arcane looking runes raced back and forth between the three coins, one at each apex. Each coin was labeled with the Latin term for the server it represented: Primus, Secundus, and Tertius. A lot of the chatter on the forums lately suggested that Tertius was the place to be, that several really active and powerful guilds were keeping the storyline moving fast and that that activity meant lots of opportunities for everyone. Chris' friends were all playing on Secundus, though, so he selected that option and watched as the server coin flipped over and revealed the pentagram that served as the character selection panel.
There were five slots available for each account, for each server. Most players seemed to recommending having two or three active characters at any time, as getting involved in any aspect of the storyline could tie up a character in a part of the world that didn't really allow for solo play and maintaining continuity gave other rewards through the various parallel experience systems. It was also possible to develop your character while offline, through offline crafting and training options. That meant it was far better to have characters that got used on rare occasions than to try to force all your play time into developing just one powerful character. Chris selected one of the blank slots to begin creation on a new character.
The screen was filled with maybe twenty hexagons, locked together in a cluster, each with its own geometric patterns and color palette. As he slid the mouse over each, the music in the background shifted to reflect some new mood or personality. Chris had watched his friends create characters, so he had a fairly good idea of how the system worked; he was still surprised to find that the graphical display and sounds that were representing each archetype were somewhat different than when his friends had done this. They knew it was some sort of psychological matching system, just like the quiz, but this meant it was even more elaborate than they had guessed.
There were a few female archetypes, but not as many as Chris had thought he would have. How could the game ask him such detailed and revealing questions and still not give him what he wanted? Instead, he had a variety of criminals to choose from. Bandits and Thugs, Burglars and Pickpockets, even an Assassin. There were few magical archetypes, Arcanist was out near the very edge of the screen and Illusionist was only halfway back to center. The mix of options seemed far more suited to an Evil character than anything on the side of Good... where his friends played. The Illusionist was the female character closest to his best match. He just hoped he could convince them that it was his best, but then he had been pretending to be something he wasn't most of his life. That had to count for something. Maybe he could even convince them that he had tried gaming the psychology system and this was what he got.
As he began assigning statistics to his character, he couldn't help but admire the balancing act that the designers had managed to incorporate into her developing appearance. Illusionist was an archetype focused on willpower and charisma, giving him an easy justification for making her attractive. Unlike some of the game systems he had played though, charisma seemed to have far less obvious effect on physical appearance. In fact, the purely physical core statistics had the most result in altering her looks. She was thin, lithe but with definite curves; he tweaked her agility abilities just a bit higher than might be normal with a magic based archetype, but he wanted her to move gracefully as well as looking beautiful. As a bonus, the stat choices made her more symmetrical and classically beautiful. Once he had the archetype abilities set up, he went further to customize her appearance; giving her a rich brown waist length hair and green eyes. He made her a little less slender, slightly less busty; after all, he wanted to be her... a real woman, not some impossible supermodel version of a woman. There were a few dozen similar adjustments he made, adding imperfections that made Rachel more realistically beautiful and less of an impossible caricature of life.
Finally, basic statistics and equipment set; Rachel stood complete. She was the slightest bit below average height and wore simple clothing that looked like it belonged more in the outdoors of a Robin Hood setting than the enclosed studies of a student of magic. The linen trousers and tunic weren't particularly feminine in cut, but still did little to mask her natural attributes. Her weapons included the long stiletto at her hip and a bone staff, similar in design to a bo stick. It was a commonly used tool in several types of magic but could also serve as a physical weapon quite effectively.
In addition to her primary skill set, Chris had given Rachel some preliminary skills in Rune-crafting. This would give her some additional combat capability that illusions might not be capable of... not that he really had any idea what Illusionists were able to achieve. Runes were something of a cross between potions and scrolls, precast magic abilities that were fairly limited in scope but could augment other combat abilities by being independently triggered. Handfuls of runes could be cast at the beginning of a fight, shields and healing, even a few offensive abilities... to be activated parallel to performing other abilities.
He tweaked skill values around a bit, trying to work out a good balance between a ton of options. Every statistic and skill had a sort of splash effect on similar skills; each one had a maximum potential, a current potential, a trained skill value, and a practical skill value. It seemed to be possible to really alter the current ability of the character to be very good at taking certain actions now, at a price of reduced potential later. After exploring the possibilities, he restored the default values and added one or two little things from his free potential pool... once he had a better feel for how each of those aspects of the skills worked, he would spend more of the pool; at the moment, he was bound to waste it, putting things into useless abilities or crippling vital skills. Chris selected 'Character complete' and watched the display break down into a collection of fragments of light and dark.
The fragments whirled around the screen, temporarily resolving themselves into the form of the great hall of the smith seen in the cinematic. This image had not even fully formed before it shattered again, and resolved into some sort of library or study. Two men stood in the room, the older of the two looking over the shoulder of the younger as he studied a large tome by candle light. Neither of the men looked like a stereotypical scholar or wizard, they were clean cut and fit, wearing clothing that would reflect an active physical lifestyle. The older of the two seemed to be in the prime of his life, mid to late twenties and rather dashing. The younger was most likely in his late teens, past the gangly growth of youth but with some room yet for growth into his full adult physique. The spark of intelligence and determination was clear on each face and in their eyes.
The younger man turned to the older, tapping the segment of the tome he had just been studying and spoke to his mentor, "This passage, it suggests that illusion can be just as real as any manifestation of Wizardry or Conjuration. How can simple images and sounds do that?" He held out his hand and produced a simple wreath of fire. To the eye and ear, the illusion appeared to be real fire; it produced light and flickered and moved naturally yet produced no heat. "It's not like I could burn someone with this."
His mentor held out a hand and produced a similar spell. With his other hand, he took up a piece of parchment from the desk and held it over the flames. Immediately, it burst into flames and began flaking off in ashes. The younger Illusionist let his flame fade and reached out to catch the ash drifting to the ground. His eyes widened as the ash landed in his hand.
"I can feel it," he stammered out.
"Indeed," his mentor agreed. "Yet even now, it is only illusion. More complex, but if I were to release the spell the ash would be gone and I would once more be holding the full piece of parchment."
The younger man nodded in understanding, "So it is a matter of expanding the spell to cover the other senses..."
"Correct. Yet, even that is not the full extent of Illusion," the older Illusionist explained, letting his magic fade to reveal just what he had told would occur. "True masters of our craft can fool not only the senses, but also the mind. The spirit. Even reality itself. At that point, Illusion becomes Shaping..."
"Indeed. The world itself is defined by our perceptions of it, especially at the largest and smallest scale, but in all aspects being able to create a mask of perception enables us to redefine the very nature of the world. You, my lad, have the potential one day to become a Shaper... if you continue your studies and practice our art diligently. When that day comes, few will be able to stand against you. For some, it is enough to use the art for entertainment; they create pleasing images and enhance the works of other artists in performances. These uses can make one quite wealthy, but they are not true scholars."
"We have many things to study before you are ready for such things. For today, take up your bone rod. It is time for you to begin to understand the physical mask, to fool the sense of touch. There are all too frequently reasons for those of us who understand the mystic arts to need our skills for combat. While we can do much to disorient and manipulate the enemy with light and sound, it is the physical mask that is needed when we are alone against true monsters."
The two took up weapons and moved to an open area of the room. On the screen in front of Chris, the starting UI faded into view. There was a small character status indicator in the upper left, a rough translucent image of the young man sectioned off with a sort of gray mesh that indicated the potential hit and damage locations, that would shade through the spectrum from gray to blue any time a light hit occurred and from there towards red as more critical injuries occurred. Because the game applied injury based penalties to skill checks rather than using a health pool, there wasn't a need for the usual hit point bars. There were small globes for stamina and willpower at the top left and right corners of the screen, that were glowing brightly at the moment but would fade as the character took actions that caused physical or mental fatigue. A third globe would be visible during mystic actions, that represented the available power. More powerful characters could assess this potential all the time, but it wasn't an innate ability to start off.
Several small dialogue boxes popped up on the screen with beginners tips. Physical movement was a bit different from the standard, which would probably take some getting used to. Instead of forward, back, rotate, strafe and jump with a single speed toggle between run and walk; GEO used a system of actually controlling the steps which gave the ability to change speeds in action, moving at a slow walk, jogging, running, even crawling, creeping, and a wide variety of acrobatic motions. This flexibility of movement gave the game much more of an action game feel than the usual MMO. The tips windows suggested combinations of movements along with visual estimates of how long to hold each key to get the exact results desired. The final sequence moved the character through a dance like gymnastics routine; when it finished, the mentor approached and spoke to him.
"Not badly done, but if you're finished dancing around; we have a lesson to continue."
Chris had started snickering to himself, it was always great when a game made fun of itself and teased the player for doing player things. He followed along as the game walked him through the use of the basic action panel, accessed through tapping the shift key and the magic panel, which used an identical sort of layout but was triggered off the control key. He also found the combat actions, which took the alt key to open, but the game didn't show him any actions using it. More than likely it would be explained when he found himself in combat or in some sort of combat training session somewhere. He would have to look into binding those keys to something else, extra mouse buttons perhaps, as the current setup could be tricky to achieve while in motion. Besides, Chris had horrible luck with hitting the control key when things were moving quickly; he tended to bring up the taskbar and start menu by hitting the windows key accidentally.
All the activities to learn how to use the game had kept his attention but it wasn't enough to distract him completely from the confusion he had experienced since taking control of the character. Raisc, pronounced like race, seemed to have the statistics and background details of the Rachel character Chris had created... with the obvious flaw that Raisc was male. It was frustrating really... he'd spent all that time making sure Rachel was just perfect and then the game had glitched out and ruined it. On the bright side, he could message his friends and have them come look for him once he finished up his introductory segment without having to worry about explaining her to them. Raisc would just have to be his public face; he could make a new version of Rachel later.
By the time his Illusion lesson was over, he was really getting used to the magic panel. When it popped up, a disk very similar to the coin that denoted each server appeared, a variety of options expanding off it in rays. The effect was very similar to a sun or star. The initial options off the panel were vague, indicating styles rather than specific spells. The ones at the top were more aggressive, the bottom were fairly passive, the ones to the right were more orderly and practical and the ones to the left were more emotionally oriented and somewhat abstract in concept. Selecting a specific skill involved tracing a path through sub-sets of options until you found the right one, the pace and smoothness of how you went through the menu altered how the action itself was performed with subtext and so on. In fact, once he knew the specific menu options for the spells he was practicing; it was almost like tracing out a rune on the screen to produce an effect. He could make it huge, taking up half the screen; to throw lots of extra power into the spell... or do it slowly and cleanly to keep it refined and delicate and perfectly controlled.
Afterward, he glanced through the statistics pages on Raisc. His practical skill on several spells had gone up a bit, getting closer to reaching their max potential. In one or two cases, the potential stat maximum for a spell had gone up slightly, suggesting that it was possible to turn existing spells into something better even as he learned to master them so they didn't fail when needed. He had also earned some points to spend on talents and abilities, which he put into the Illusion Senses subcategory... that should boost the rate which he grew into being able to use more complex illusions.
His lesson was soon over and he collected his things to leave, planning to do a little exploring of the area. He didn't even know if he was in a city or anything about the part of the world he was in. As he left his mentor's home, a young boy came up to him, "Raisc, the Master-at-Arms told me to come remind you that your lesson at the practice yard is canceled this evening. You're expected out on the North field with the militia."
Chris had his character nod and thank the messenger, passing him a copper coin. So, his next tutorial segment was some sort of field exercise outside the town, on the north side. There didn't seem to be any sort of mini-map visible, so how did he tell which was north? He spun around looking for some sort of street signs or... wait... he felt somewhat stupid as he turned back around, putting the sun on his left and headed north out of town.
As he left the town walls, he could see what looked like a small militia company going through some exercises. A grizzled old warrior gestured at him as he approached. He quickly closed the gap between them as the gray haired fighter turned his attention back to observing the villagers and farmers sparring in groups.
In a session much like his magic lesson, the Master-at-Arms worked through his basic combat skills. The footwork turned out to be the more complex aspect of combat, choosing menu options turned out to be more forgiving than the actions of magic. It didn't always matter which specific attack he took, slight variations on swings might matter between two highly experienced combatants; but at his skill range, and that of the militia, as long as he was more defensive when being pressed and more aggressive when he had an opening, he was able to be fairly successful. The old warrior scowled and corrected him any time he made small errors, some of which were truly mistakes but it seemed harder to get the menu to match up properly. Was it possible that the erratic motion he was experiencing with the pointer was actually tied to his potential in these combat skills? That could be a very interesting way to disrupt effectiveness without a behind the scenes dice roll making him just miss outright. He attempted a few extremely aggressive, then some very passive, defensive moves that required little more than moving the mouse through the menus in a vertical line up or down. Even using the side of the mouse pad to ensure a straight line, he still saw variation off of center that resulted in missing some of the specific choices he was trying to make. That confirmed his belief in the random variation as a skill factor. Of course, the moves also got him chewed out for being reckless; Chris focused on taking the more appropriate actions being taught by the lesson.
The sun moved quickly across the last arc of sky, and the militia began putting away their gear before it grew too dark to continue training safely. One of the sergeants approached him, "Raisc, would you give them some light? A few of them cut it closely enough that they'll have a tough time putting everything away without someone tripping over things and getting hurt."
Chris quickly pulled up his magic action menu, tracing through some of the passive spells until he found the one for Light. With one hand placed on the shield hung at the side of the Master-at Arm's equipment tent, he traced back through the menu chain and released the spell. A brilliant light sprung up from the shield, forcing the two of them back from the shield, arms held in front of their eyes.
"A bit bright, lad. Still, it will serve... once these spots are out of my eyes."
There were a few tired huzzahs from the militia as they went about their tasks and one or two murmurs too faint for him to understand. Evidently, the men were of mixed opinions about the light... or his magic. Perhaps both. Chris looked around a bit, though there didn't seem to be any expectation that he help load equipment into the wagons. In fact, the sergeant came back moments later with a puzzled look on his face.
"You lose something lad? You'd better get moving, if you don't get to the tavern while your food is hot; you know Mazy will tan my hide. More battles than I can count in my life... and that woman still scares the devils out of me." He clapped Raisc on the shoulder and went back to work. Chris turned his character back to the town, hoping that the tavern he had seen just up the street from his mentor's home was the right location. If not, he was probably doomed to find out just why the Sergeant feared this woman Mazy. He waved a respectful goodbye to the Sergeant and included the Master-at-Arms as well, then headed back to the walls.
The streets of the small town were starting to empty out and families gathered around dinner tables and smiths and shops closed up for the evening. Chris couldn't help but be impressed by the realistic portrayal of the community activities that the game was presenting. The background ambient noise seemed quieter, less busy, and the music was settling into a soothing peaceful twilight mood section... but underneath that was something subtle, with strings, slowly building an unexpected tension. He slowed Raisc to a walk, looking around carefully. He was nearing his mentor's home and looking ahead to it, he could see odd flashes of light in the upstairs windows. He took a cautious step toward the building and heard something shatter. There hadn't been much glass, except what was used for alchemy purposes. If something was breaking, it had to mean trouble.
The music took on more of an adventurous quality as he rushed through the door. Books were scattered all around and equipment had been knocked from tables and desks. A masked figure stood at the foot of the stairs to the second floor, a sword in his hand.
Chris traced out one of the runes that he had worked through over and over in the tutorial earlier, enveloping the man's head in a bright light. With a cry, he dropped the blade and pressed both hands to his face, trying to protect his eyes. But the illusion would persist even if the eyes were covered, causing pain and disorientation while it lasted. As Raisc pushed past, running up the stairs; the man was seeking to bury his face under his arm and cloak.
There was another man just at the top of the stairs, but out of sight until Raisc had nearly plowed into him. He bounced back, only barely catching himself from falling back down the stairs. As he tried to get his footing back, he was open to attack; a moment later the attacker's hammer slammed into Raisc's shoulder, nearly disabling that arm completely. The force of the below put him off balance again, almost knocking him through the railing. Chris quickly sketched out the rune he had just been taught, creating a physical illusion of chains locking the second bandit to the wall.
He pushed forward, heading into the main work room where he'd seen the flashing lights from the street. As he went through the door, Raisc was cradling his left arm and leaving a trail of blood. That couldn't be very good... hammers were blunt weapons, right? That shouldn't cause bleeding. Then Chris recalled a time in his youth when he'd slammed his hand badly enough to cause a huge blood blister. The thought made him more than a little queasy as he considered the sort of pain that being hit by a war hammer, without any armor on, must cause.
Inside the workroom, there were two men in addition to his master. One of the men, a sharply dressed spell caster, was exchanging combat magic with the older master. Raisc's appearance distracted his master just long enough for the enemy to get in a good blast, pushing him onto the defensive. It also caught the attention of the third man in the room, who was tearing books off a shelf as if looking for something hidden among them.
"Raisc, run! Get help!"
There wasn't time for much running, unfortunately. Before he'd turned and taken a step, the thug inside the room was rushing at him. Raisc had time to snatch up one of the bone rods in the rack near the door and parry the first sword strike before it struck him. Then it was all he could do to keep up with the attacks. The man was hardly a master swordsman, but he would have been more than good enough to take any of the militia one on one. Chris couldn't help wondering if he was also played by a player, or if it was just an NPC. Either way, it was definitely better than Raisc... he had to do something or he was going to get his first tutorial on dying.
Then the fight ended abruptly, in a way he hadn't considered. One of the men he'd hit with illusions at the stairs had broken free and came up behind him, taking a solid grip on the shoulder that was already injured. The pain spike drove Raisc to his knees, the display shifting in color as if representing the character 'graying out' from the shock. The two bandits flanked him, dragging him back to his feet. One of them had a dagger out and had it pointed at an angle at his upper back as they approached the other fight. His master caught Raisc's eyes and lowered his hands in submission. The other caster quickly bound him in chains similar to the ones Raisc had used in his second fight at the stairs. He smirked at the more experienced Illusionist before turning to the apprentice.
"So, this is the new boy? Not much too him, is there?"
The two goons chuckled in appreciation of their leader's mockery. They let Raisc collapse to his knees.
"Today's your lucky day boy. We get to see just how much your master cares for you. If you've got lots of potential, maybe he'll even tell us what he knows about the Haersita crystal before we have to hurt you too badly."
He could hear his master suck in a quick breath as he realized what was going to happen.
"Of course, we might find out he doesn't care for you at all... and that would be too bad. It would certainly be a rough ending to your day," he joked, darkly, before turning to his men. "Put him on the table."
The goons picked Raisc up and manhandled him up onto a nearby worktable. Their leader scooped up the bone rod the young Illusionist had dropped and tapped it rhythmically on the floor as he approached the boy. A variety of crystal and metal fragments scattered across the floor began following the movement of the rod as though it were a magnet dragged through iron filings.
"My men aren't really experts in torture, unfortunately. If they start cutting you up, it is going to get very messy... and you're going to die. In a backwater town like this, you might not even have anyone available for a resurrection, it might be days... or weeks... before someone comes by to help you out. Who knows what that much time decaying will do to you. So let's try another sort of torture..."
Chris wasn't sure how death or major healing affected characters in GEO, but he knew it wasn't like some games. There were long term results and penalties for it. Some methods could minimize those, like having a friendly player perform the right spells soon after the death; but having to wait several days for whatever option might come along... that was bound to be a problem.
"Has your master shown you the ultimate carrot of being an Illusionist yet?" he teased, glancing at Raisc's mentor. "Has he told you about Shaping?"
Raisc carefully nodded, unsure what the look on his master's face meant.
"Well, well. Did he tell you that almost no one ever reaches that point? Did he tell you that he hasn't reached that point?"
Chris had Raisc nod carefully; he wasn't giving the guy any chance to drive wedges between his character and his teacher. Sure, he hadn't exactly said it... but this Shaping had to be high end stuff, hardly the sort of thing a new character is really going to have any clue about... and someone with that level of power wouldn't be lingering in the small towns teaching newbies. He was rewarded with a bit of a look of surprise. It hadn't been the answer the man had expected. Good.
"He has? Maybe he's told you about his first apprentice then? The man who he cast aside in his own grab for power? The former apprentice who went on to become a Shaper?" he sneered at Raisc. "Let me show you just how it works."
He whipped the end of the bone rod through the air, trailing a stream of crystal and metal, and connected square in the center of Raisc's chest. A splash of colorful magic seemed to chase all the colors out of him; and then, his torso started to melt. The screen dimmed again, and the two goons pulled away from him, cursing in fear. They continued watching in disgust and terror as colors and shapes rippled across his body. Their leader turned to his former master.
"So dear Master, what have you done with the crystal? Will you give it to me, or do I take my vengeance? I'm sure my boys will be able to do something to torture your new apprentice... now that she looks like this."
The magic was settling down, and the looks of disgust on the faces of the Shaper's men were quickly turning into something far more frightening... lust. Raisc was now Rachel, lithe and beautiful as Chris had created her to be. But lying bound on the table, in the torn and poorly fitting clothes of the male Illusionist she had been moments before; she was looking far more vulnerable than he ever wanted her to be. One of the men reached forward with his dagger and cut a long rip up a loose sleeve. The gap parted, revealing the smooth pale flesh of her arm. He glanced to his leader and received a wicked nod in response, encouraging him to continue.
The two men stepped forward eagerly, grabbing and slicing off bits of cloth here and there, tearing longer pieces off violently where there wasn't room to slip a blade without cutting into soft skin. Chris frantically began looking through the action menus for something... anything... that he could do to get free. Option after option was grayed out, unavailable in these circumstances. Rachel screamed, once... twice... struggling against the bonds as the formerly male apprentice had body parts revealed that he had never had. When more flesh was visible than cloth, breasts revealed proving that the game definitely needed its mature rating, the men switched from cutting to grabbing and feeling. Chris gasped in dismay, he had created Rachel as an escape... somewhere to explore his wishes to be a woman... and her first experiences as a woman were going to be torture and rape.
Just as Chris was considering using alt-F4 to close the game completely, to avoid seeing what was about to happen; a small whirlwind flew up the stairs into the room. The miniature air elemental stopped at the Shaper's feet and whistled and blew at him, in some sort of natural language. The man evidently understood what the thing was telling him because a look of frustration and outrage crossed his face moments before the sound of boots tramping below could be heard.
"Cardic, set up a drift step. We've got company," he ordered the two goons, interrupting their explorations of Rachel's body. "Well, girl... it looks like we will have to take up our fun another time. You can keep this form... consider it incentive to learn as much about Illusion as you can. Maybe one day you can fix yourself."
The man with the hammer had several pieces of leather out, interlaced in an odd pattern at the end of a longer string of them. He whirled this around his head, faster and faster until all that was visible was a blur. The three men seemed to stagger slightly, each taking a wider stance to keep their balance. As they settled, their images faded and were gone. Rachel sat up, slowly... trying to pull pieces of her clothing and cloak around to cover herself, as men from the militia and the Master-at-Arms burst into the room.
The old warrior assessed the situation quickly, observing the young woman trying to cover herself from what looked to be a close call and the older Illusionist bound against the wall. He reached into a pouch at his belt and pulled out some sort of powder that reflected light from the several lanterns his men carried with a silver metallic glint and sprinkled it sparingly across the illusory bonds. They began to fade until the master was able to flex and shatter them. He immediately moved to Rachel's side and began casting. In a moment, she was dressed in a female cut version of Raisc's outfit, hiding her ragged appearance from the eyes of the young men of the militia. The Master-at-Arms started to step forward with his dust, but the Master Illusionist caught his arm and stopped him.
"It won't work. Raisc isn't dealing with an illusion there, its a real change. Nothing we can do here will be enough to fix it and return him to normal. He needs a Shaper... or, a powerful Wizard might be able to effect a change that will override the spell on him. I've heard rumors of a few items usable by Arcanists and Artificers that might work as well, but I've never seen one used."
What followed was a blur of action. The men of the militia seemed confused by what had occurred; they knew Raisc and expected to be able to support him in recovering from the attack... but few of them knew what to do with the young woman he had become. They took their feelings of frustration and confusion out on the fourth member of the attacking group, who hadn't recovered from the light illusion before the militia had arrived. He was bundled off to the cells in the town hall, but he wasn't being handled delicately. The actions of the men he was with reflected badly on their moral stance and it was clear, even before any clergy member was found, that he served the Dark. It was likely to be a death sentence for him, even though his part in the action was little more than that of a bandit. The town was much too far inside the border of the Kingdom of the Light for his kind to be treated well.
Mazy, who turned out to be Raisc's foster mother as well as the sister of the Man-at-Arms, who turned out to insist on being called Uncle Feris when they weren't in combat practice; was a veritable dynamo. Mazy took charge of the situation almost before Rachel managed to leave her mentor's home, making the new woman feel safe and protected. The tiny woman, even smaller than Rachel, was full of suggestions; not the least of which was that the girl shouldn't stay in this small town now. Too many people wouldn't know how to handle her new appearance and it would make it difficult for her to relate to anyone... but in a new place, she could set up a new life as a young woman with no one knowing she had ever been anything else. It would be different, but at least it wouldn't require living two separate lives simultaneously. Chris almost sighed in relief... the last thing he wanted to have to do was try to relate to this community of people as a woman who wanted to return to being the man who they all knew. He didn't have the heart to play that role.
Rachel had one more lesson with her master before she left for the Hero's Academy at the White Citadel. He taught her an illusion that, for now, was beyond her ability to cast successfully more than half the time and even when she did succeed, it tended to fail quickly. He assured her that the important thing was that she understand how to cast it; practice would ensure that she would eventually master it and be able to extend its duration for use in recovering her life as Raisc. It was an illusion of the man she had been. It was limited to the senses that Raisc had been taught to work, and imperfect even in some of them. There were aspects of female physicality that would be harder to mask than others and the Illusion would be evident to most casters, even if they couldn't see through it. Most Illusionists wore Seemings over their true appearances, though; so it wouldn't be entirely unexpected, just slightly unusual that a young Illusionist would need one. Chris didn't tell the older Illusionist that the only reason Rachel would learn the spell would be to hide her female self from Chris' real life friends. If he was careful, they might never know that he was really playing a female character.
They never discussed the Haersita crystal that the Shaper had been seeking, so Rachel left the small town without ever discovering that her Master had one more important piece of information that he might have shared. After all, Rachel was more than just his student; she was the physical incarnation of the object the Shaper sought. She was the Haersita crystal. And eventually, what she didn't know, would come back to haunt her.
Note: These events take place following Sara's introduction of GEO and Marala in IP-1. They also follow the in-game progress of the Apropos Ring as described in Revelations and take place before the GEO activities occurring in Ultimate Disguise. - Kristin
Now that Sara had the DVD uploaded for the new GEO expansion, she browsed the forums for the latest gossip. One subject caught her eye immediately: New Light Side Quest in the Lumar Hills Region. That was right next door to her lair, the Caves of the Lost. Practically on Quothrax the Vile's doorstep. Whoever had issued the quest must not have liked those adventurers at all, it was deep inside Dark Territory. Brain Eaters and Acid Mists and Dragons, oh my!
The first thing Sara noticed about the upgrade was the speed of her link. It only took a minute for her laptop to retrieve her data and spawn her onto the Golden Throne at the center of her hive, the lava deep below providing illumination for the vast, engraved, chamber. Her scribe, a lowly NPC minion (the evil version of retainers or henchmen) bowed and scraped at her feet as Marala's scaled wings and tail unfolded from her back.
"Mistress," the minion grovelled, "the Dark Master wishes to have a word with you."
Sara breathed deep, recasting herself in the role while fiddling with the new headset, moving her cursor over the new interaction options, selecting the most appropriate, silently commanding her Undead Knights to activate her Farscrystal. The Farscrystal was a black gem mounted on the tip of a stalactite in the center of the ceiling that enabled her to communicate, like other Villain-class characters, with the Dark Master, the world keeper and quest master of the Dark Side.
As always, he chose to manifest as an inky blob of shadow with luminous red eyes, its voice boomed through the speakers of Sara's laptop, "Keeper of the Golden Throne, I have for thee a task threefold. A band of reckless adventurers have ventured across the borderlands into the lands of the Plague Dragon Quothrax, Eater of the Dead."
Sara chuckled in the privacy of her room. Whoever was running the Dark Master had a sense of humor, that title had been pegged on Quothrax ever since he mauled the body of an adventurer continuously after a particularly frustrating kill. Now even the moderators were needling him.
"His first attempt at foiling the quest has not succeeded in reining in this... Tericia's incursion, perhaps unsurprising with more than fifty members of the Apropos Ring at her back, including the famous Garic and Necina the Enchantress, as well as more than a score of lesser lights following at a distance."
Sara groaned. Garic and Necina. The Apropos Ring was the front for the Beta Bunch, a group of legendary gamers who had been playing GEO since the first Beta release. Tough opposition to be sure. What in the world could they be after? Revenge for the sacking of Yuthgar?
"Quothrax's minion Phaeruzel, an Illusionist by trade, has failed in her first attempt to ambush the group and eliminate their threat. Your tasks are therefore: Destroy Tericia and the Apropos Ring, punish Quothrax and Phaeruzel for their failure and crush all those that stand in your way. You are not the only Pawn that I have selected for this task, you will be competing with many of your peers. Failure will not be tolerated."
With that, the Darkness collapsed in on itself. As Sara watched, Marala twitched her tail nervously, biting one dainty claw. The new animation routines were very realistic. It took her a moment to realize that she had unconsciously activated the worry emote by waving the mouse over the button. The interface was seamless, almost magical.
Pulling herself together, Sara activated the Farscrystal again, watching the holographic image of the Black Cap mountain range flicker into view. Focusing in to the entrance of her caves, she then began scanning the area, searching for movement. The Orc clans were massing in the forest, but this was nothing new, the Orcs were always massing somewhere. Sara never understood the Orc players, not only did they talk in their own guttural language, but most were quite content playing a mindless peon who's only purpose was to die on an adventurer's sword.
Several small parties were wandering the borderlands to the south, again this was nothing unusual. The Kingdoms were now paying for entrepreneurial thrill seekers to hunt and cull the swarms of carnivorous and rabid beasts roaming down onto their lands. Of course, they probably didn't know that the Dark Beast-masters of the Caves of the Lost were responsible for that inconvenience. She watched one particular battle for a moment between such a party and one of her Carnivorous Vines, a vicious blend of Rose, Poison Ivy and Giant Venus Flytrap. They didn't fare too well.
Finally moving on, Sara found Tericia's path without much trouble, a razed village marking her first campsite in the Borderlands. The pitched battle in the ruins of said village was another clue, swarms of Skeletons running into the town in streams, getting alternately blasted and hacked to pieces as they charged mindlessly into the vanguard of the Apropos Ring's heavy hitters while several straggling members and opportunistic freelance parties fought their way towards the wall.
It seemed that she wasn't the only one with the Epoch expansion pack, the leaders barking orders to their henchmen and subordinate players which were audible through the laptop's speakers. Closer inspection revealed that the more serious threat posed to the forces of light were packs of Quothrax's Ratmen, the plague-carriers and poisoners softening the soldiers for the swarm of undead. It would have worked much better, however, against a force that wasn't as well equipped and prepared.
Still, it was enough to keep them busy while the main party planned the next move of the campaign inside and inn at the center of town. Zooming in, Sara could even hear what they were saying, in voices well suited to their digital forms.
"We know that there are Necromancers in these hills, we've locked horns with the Skull Mob before," This was from a tall fighter type who could only be Garic. He was wearing enough magical artifacts to light the room with his radiance, "We don't know exactly who rules the roost in these parts, but several members have reported seeing a dragon flying overhead."
"Great." Another grumbled, a rare bird indeed with a style and look to her that Sara had yet to meet in the game. This one, in complete contrast to her companions, was wearing very little in the way of magic, merely shelf-items and buffs, probably from the Apropos Ring's armory. Still, she was carrying herself as an equal with her companions and seemed to be holding her own in the leadership stakes. Sara concluded that this was Tericia, the newbie with the quest.
Finally, there was the woman who Sara both itched to meet and grit her teeth with fear to see, the famous Necina the Enchantress, one of the terrors of the Dark Side. Where Garic was luminescent, Necina was hard to see, burning almost like a miniature sun. She pointed to the map on the bench as an arrow bounced off her personal shield spell, "I'd say that the closest place a dragon could lair would be in these mountains past the hills. It would make sense, a cave high up to take full advantage of it's flight capabilities. Any player worth his salt's gonna want all the tactical advantages he can scrounge."
"Hang on, players? This dragon's a player?" Tericia seemed a little shocked.
"Yup, that's one of the nice things the bad guys get," Garic chuckled, "phenomenal cosmic power, only they can't trust their own shadow. Believe me, before this one's over that dragon will be not only dealing with us, but the six poisoned dragonbane knives in his back. The only stable villains who have lasted have as little to do with other evil PCs as possible."
"Charming. I suppose my quest might be to get rid of this dragon then?"
"Don't count your chickens yet," Necina warned, "maybe it was simply to take back this village for the light side. We're just off the border of Dark Territory, this village makes a valuable staging post for the Light Side and an excellent guild hall for the Apropos Ring, if we can hold it we can make up for the loss of Yuthgar."
Just then, three Ratmen burst through the door intent on murder. They got it, only not in the form they wanted. Their bodies melted away a minute later.
"Anyone get hit?" Necina asked, more to Tericia than her other companion.
She shook her head and they returned to the map, Tericia seemed to come up with an idea, "Are their any NPCs about at all? Shouldn't there be someone around to guide us?"
"We've got people looking," Garic nodded, "but it's a little hard in this siege. We're more concerned about sealing off the sewers, it'd be easier if we'd brought more Engineers with us, but we didn't think that we'd be fighting a war here."
Tericia smiled, "You didn't think a half-hundred of the most experienced players on the server would be considered a war?"
"Well," Garic scratched his head, "They've never reacted this way before. Usually, the evil factions leave the other factions alone when we're pounding the snot out of them. Less competition for them, you see."
"So what's changed the rules?"
Garic and Necina glanced at each other, unsure. "The Dark Master?" Necina asked quizzically.
"I can't believe that. Just for Tericia? It couldn't have known we'd accompany her that fast, could it?"
"Lost me again." Tericia pouted.
"The Dark Master," Necina explained, "is the villain's version of a god, it's run by a moderator and doesn't confront anyone directly. A few people have seen it, but most of what we know comes from Dark Side players OCC. A big black cloud or shadow with red eyes that hands out quests to the big-shot dark siders. Most people are never even involved in one of it's plots, and we've only been entangled once or twice. That we know of at least."
"Ok, where do our quests come from then? Or, better yet, where did this quest come from? And where are the clues to the next destination?"
Sara turned off the crystal. That was her 'in', they needed a plausible guide. Someone to show them where to head next. Someone like Faye the Druidess. Faye was one of the first new forms she took after being granted the power of the Succubus, modeled after Nikki for full sexual effect while dressed in practical leather armor and carrying a wooden staff, the identity backed by the powers she had drained from the Grand Druid.
The transformation animations were more than cool, they were spectacular. The slosh of muscle and the crackle of bone accompanying the pulsating movements under Marala's skin. Her wings withered and tucked underneath her shoulder blades, while her tail simply retracted into the base of her spine.
After ordering her temple locked and sealed from visitors, a simple teleportation spell left her at the edge of the Dark Forest, beyond the reaches of her domain but as close to the siege as she could get. Using another druid ability to transform into a wolf, she was well on her way across the hilly plain a moment later, setting her sights for a sewer outlet.
The army of skeletons ignored a simple wolf roaming the valleys trying to stay out of sight. It did take time to find a proper way into the castle without being seen by the Apropos or the Ratmen, however. The dank sewers didn't seem anything like the sewers under Boston, but then she didn't have the smell assaulting her nostrils for full effect.
Sara's first order of business, as she saw it, was to worm her way into Tericia's trust. That meant, as much as it stung, giving them a little help on the way to more dangerous opponents. As it was, the Ratmen were the real threat in the situation, mainly because it seemed that no matter how many died above, more always came from below. Logically, that meant that there was a guild hall somewhere in these sewers that had to be taken out before the city became secure.
Finding the Ratmen's Hall was relatively easy, she just followed one of the groups, dodging those who saw her and tried to take pot shots at her for fun. Fairly soon, it was obvious that the good guys were also in the sewers, trying to root out the menace as well. Several engineers had erected barriers and walls to funnel and block the Ratmen's attacks. It was only partially successful due to the efficiency of the Ratmen's Sappers.
However, all the confusion could only help once Sara found the Ratmen's Guild Hall near the riverfront. Trust rats to gravitate towards the river. Sneaking inside as a rat herself, Sara discovered a woman with the assassins who was busy casting spells into a cauldron, brewing up a powerful multi-stage conjuration that Sara wasn't familiar with. Whether this was Phaeruzel or not meant nothing, the most efficient plan was also the most expedient.
Changing back to her Faye form, she simply dumped her most powerful area of effect spell into the center of the chamber. The resultant smoke, fire and sheer chaos was great enough for her to murder the rest of the Ratmen, slaying with her trusty oak staff. When it came time to deal with the NPC prisoners in the dungeon, she 'borrowed' several poisoned knives and torture implements and literally butchered them all, chuckling as she pinned a little girl up onto the wall with several iron spikes and feeling a sense of dark satisfaction when she shoved one peasant's head into a forge while he was still alive.
Her resultant blood-soaked, greasy, sooty, appearance did wonders for her believability as she staggered out of the guild hall, leaving her wooden staff to be consumed by the fire along with the Ratmen, carrying her new bloodstained poison dagger. She had also manifested several cuts and scars using her shape-shifting power and wore the tattered rags of one of the female prisoners for show. The members of the Apropos Ring who 'rescued' her while she was lying next to the guild entrance were very impressed anyway.
"Are you all right? Can you walk?" The priest was role-playing right up to the hilt, despite his obvious lack of the expansion pack, his generic phrases somehow still rang true with his synthesized voice full of emotion.
Faye just nodded, Sara also playing the wounded damsel to the hilt, though she let them know she wasn't to be messed with as she refused to let go of the poisoned dagger. The priest dragged her, his arm over her shoulder, back into the light, the fighting in the city proper practically ceased.
A message appeared down the bottom of Sara's screen, an OCC message from the priest. Are you an NPC or PC?
Now that would be telling, Sara typed back. Always leave them guessing was one of the first rules of deception. The less information you give, the more assumptions they'll make. Besides, if they don't figure out that she's a PC soon, anything she did to them will be well deserved.
The priest healed her, then took her straight to Necina, Garic and Tericia. Sara made 'Faye' pull up the shoulder of her dress as she was escorted gingerly into the leader's presence, always playing the role to the hilt. It won her big points before, it would do so again.
"Who are you?" Garic demanded, his powerful voice booming through the speakers.
Faye winced, "Faye the Druid, milord. Late of the White Spire Party. Who are you people? I didn't hear of an army anywhere near these parts."
"We will ask the questions, young elf!" Necina turned on the unearthly charisma of the Enchantress while Faye acted suitably impressed, "None of us have heard of your party! Speak, what are you doing in Dark Territory, Druidess?"
"Well, we were a group without guild or kingdom to claim membership, mercenaries most termed us. We dwelt in the Borderlands and were really a... loose affiliation of ruffians. A warrior called Hafdan the White organized a jaunt into the Dark Forest collecting wolf pelts and raven beaks, though we were ensnared by a patch of Carnivorous Vines early into our trip and most of us were devoured. The survivors were set upon by bandits and slain for our treasures. I managed to flee the carnage but got lost in the night... and because our glorious leader was the only one carrying a map."
Garic snorted, "So, how did you get here?"
"The smoke. I followed it in wolf form simply to find a landmark and get my bearings, little did I know there were Orcs about. A Shaman dispelled my magic and captured me for sale to a wizardess working from the sewers here, she was using the prisoners to harvest spell components for her incantations. Her last spell, however, backfired I think, at least she was the only one who could have made that explosion that I know of down there. I killed my jailer in the confusion and stole the key, butchering as many of the fiends as I could find with the dagger. I was too late to save the others, one of the Ratmen decided to torture them to death."
The fighter next to the priest nodded, "It's a bloodbath down there, sir. A little girl pinned to the wall, one guy shoved head-first into a forge and another woman hanging headless from the ceiling, the word 'Piñata' written in blood on the wall next to her."
Sara had to suppress a chuckle. She'd used a two-handed sword as the 'stick'. Fortunately, she controlled herself enough not to accidentally set off the laughter emotes. The interface was excellent, but touchy. She had to keep tight control of herself again when Necina scanned her with a brace of detection spells while Garic kept her occupied with more innocuous questions. Sara was more than confident that her non-detection wards, confidence that seemed to have been borne out by Necina's lack of reaction.
Naturally, it was just when they were getting to the good bit that the global OCC message came through. 2:00am, Apropos Ring request for truce accepted. Moderators are now invoking the Globe of Peace, please stand by.
Sara sighed as the screen went white. The Globe of Peace was an artifice the moderators used to stop important game play when players had to sign off for sleep. It was so rarely evoked that she hadn't even considered getting caught up in it. Basically, a white shield was erected around the town, inside which no combat could occur. Anyone caught inside the globe could do nothing except log out and send OCC messages.
Another global OCC message from Necina flashed up in the message bar, Goodnight, guys, reconvene at 9:00pm tomorrow night, EST. Sleep well.
Sara didn't wait for anyone to PM her, she just logged out. She often found that talking to her victims made things much harder later. Like the intern at the cafeteria telling her that her breakfast's name was Rufferto. Details like that just make things harder. Unfortunately, it did leave her with nothing to do for seven hours but read.
Note: These events take place following the Battle at Lumar Hills during the progress of the Apropos Ring toward the Font as described in Ultimate Disguise. - Kristin
"Come child, it is time and past time." Aunghadhail urged Nikki, with the girl's own voice at that.
"People hearing us talk with each other this way think I'm crazier than I am." The young Sidhe grumbled then added in a pained tone of voice. "You've been playing this idiot game for months! Can't you give it a break for a while?"
"You feel the magic behind this so called game." Aunghadhail countered. "I wish to KNOW what it is, where it comes from, and most importantly, what its intent is. To do that we must play the game."
"And you won't give me any peace until I let you do it." Nikki sighed. "I don't believe this. The ancient, so powerful Sidhe Queen living in my head is a gaming geek."
"It is the magic I seek." Aunghadhail imperturbably answered then prodded. "Now turn on that marvelous device you possess that connects us to GEO."
"It's only a laptop." Nikki shook her head while booting the computer up and clicking on the icon for Geo. Though to be fair, it was the top of the line notebook from Next that hadn't even reached the market yet. A gift from her father for her birthday. She did have to admit that having a dad with clout did have its good points. "But okay, we're there. Have fun."
Seramis peered into the water of her scrying bowl with a frown. Things were not going well for The Apropos Ring in the Valley of the Font of Evil. Not that she possessed the temporal power to change that fact, even if she had been inclined to do so. Which she wasn't in the least.
No, she was weighing things, searching for an advantage to use against either side in the current conflict. An advantage that would mean gain for her and the people who looked to her for leadership in such uncertain times.
Dismissing the vision in the bowl, she poured the water out of it, making sure it all reached the drain in the corner of her rather simple chambers. The bowl then returned to being a plain clay receptacle on one of the rough hewn shelves that held her possessions.
Once that was finished, she opened the door that led from her private chamber into the larger open area of the keep and nodded to her second. "Bring the prisoners in now, Baltus."
Baltus, who gave the word ruffian a bad name, with his bulk, muscle, and low brow that masked a keen intelligence didn't acknowledge the order, simply moved to obey it. His lady, called The Bandit Queen of the Denravi required no answer, just results. He knew far better than others, even those who thought themselves close to the shadowy, unearthly beauty who had taken suzerainty over the myriad bandits, murderers, thieves, cutthroats, and less savory types who called the imposing, and daunting Denravi mountains home, had abilities she seldom showed, let alone used. But they without doubt were there, they were potent and it was dangerous beyond simple death to oppose her. As more than one former rival had discovered.
Riahal, and Demitruus had long ago stopped snarling at one another and accepted the fact that even if they were from opposing sides, they needed to forge some sort of halfway amicable alliance for the time being.
Riahal, a wizard of the Dark, had been taken by bandits in a nameless pass through the Denravi, and was the only survivor of the Scouting and raiding party he had been charged to guard by the Demoness Marala. One didn't fail when given a task by that one. Death would be an easy thing compared to how Marala repaid failure. But he clung to a vague, but viable hope. The Patrol had been taken by bandits organized to the point of military precision in their attack with a well laid ambush that left little to chance for them, most of the soldiers in the party were dead before anyone even knew they had been attacked, let alone react. That could mean only one thing. Seramis, the shadowy ruler of the Denravi mountains had sent them. Gaining any real information about the notorious and mysterious Bandit Queen of the Denravi would hopefully mitigate Marala's ire. Providing, of course, that he survived the present predicament he had found himself in.
Demitruus considered the position he was in and fumed in spite of being able to do nothing about it.
Prisoner, and the only survivor of a critical supply caravan to support the attack on the Valley of the Font of Evil, he cursed the day that the creature everyone had taken to calling the Bandit Queen of the Denravi had entered the world.
She had somehow united the usually fractious bands of brigands who called those rugged mountains home, and had drawn in others with prices on their heads for offenses ranging from petty thievery to Patricide. Once, a caravan with a few competent guards could negotiate the twisted, narrow passes through the Denravi without problems. That was a thing of the past.
Seramis had made sure of that.
The paladin shuddered at reaction to being separated from his holy weapon and blessed armor. That loss was bad enough, though he couldn't see any way the Gods be damned riff raff in the rude keep he had been taken to could possibly profit from them, but worse, he had to keep company with a mage of the Dark. Both men had been imprisoned in the same cell, and left to their own devices for several days.
Somehow, beyond all reasoning, they had reached an agreement. Seramis and her lackeys indiscriminately preyed on Light and Dark. So she was an enemy to both of them. Uncomfortable as the idea was, the dark mage had become an ally.
Seramis sat in her favorite chair, a simple farmers bench with an added back and cushions for her bottom and back, at a plank table groaning under the weight of roasts from the wild creatures of the mountains, vegetables available from carefully tended plots or gleaned from the forests in the surrounding mountains, and ceramic pitchers of beer and ale. She watched with no little amusement as her chosen prisoners were ushered into the rude hall then released.
Their reactions were both entertaining and informative.
The dark mage peered at everything with a concentration that showed he was trying to pierce nonexistent illusions. The Paladin of light was doing the same thing.
"Welcome to my hall!" She opened the conversation with a grin. "Have either of you found anything that smacks of unreality here?"
"No." Demitruus admitted a bit reluctantly. "All I see here is truth."
"I detect no illusions, or falsities here either." Riahal almost reluctantly answered.
"Good." Seramis smiled warmly then waved them both to chairs at the table she was seated at.
"Then come, eat, drink, enjoy my hospitality. We'll talk as we have our meal."
Their hesitation brought out a laugh that was pure music, a tinkling of delicate bells from the female seated at the table. "Oh, this is priceless, you two. If I had wanted either of you dead, your bones would be picked clean by the mountain vultures by now. Come! Join me in a meal without fear of anything but indigestion. I know it has been some time since either one of you has had a decent repast.
Ware the ale." She chuckled as Demitruus moved forward to pour from a pitcher into a clay goblet he had taken up. "Without food to buffer it, the brew will go to your head in a very short time."
"Where is my armor and my sword?" He almost demanded an answer while taking a deep draught of the ale and widening his eyes in appreciation.
"Right over there, Lord Paladin." Seramis waved to a corner of the hall and he turned to see his armor and blade waiting, and polished to a sheen he'd never been able to achieve with them. "If it makes you more comfortable here, by all means, go get them."
"My staff and wands?" Riahal questioned as the Paladin retrieved his armor and weapons.
"There, mage." Seramis waved to another corner. The staff, and twelve wands shone with careful oiling and care. "Feel free to collect them.
I hope our care of your valuables has been adequate." The inhuman beauty hosting this bizarre meal told both of them then laughed. "Oh what a picture this is! A mage of the Dark and a Paladin of the Light, seated peacefully at the table of the only being in the world who refuses to bow to either force! Now, eat, drink, enjoy. I assure you, nothing bad will happen other than a mild case of indigestion or a hangover if you enjoy too much of that fine ale or beer."
Following a period when all three sampled the delights of Seramis' table and the potent brews she provided, Riahal sat back and gave her a long, searching look. "Why the hospitality when your people killed everyone else we were with?"
"Yes." Demitruus added with confusion clear in his expression. "Why destroy our caravans and kill everyone in them but us, then treat us as honored guests?"
"I'm proving a point." She answered after taking a delicate sip from her own cup of ale. "I can raid, plunder even kill, indiscriminately. Dark, Light, it doesn't matter. But this is the point I want to make to each of you. I am NOT your enemy."
Both men looked at the other, ran more than a few thoughts through their minds then reached the same conclusion.
"If you are not an enemy, then what are you?" Demitruus questioned.
Rhiahal nodded in agreement without saying a word.
"I can be a clearing house, a point where each side might approach and not be attacked by the other." She answered simply. "The Denravi mountains could become neutral ground for both sides if you each take this message back to your lords and ladies.
Have no doubt." She smiled and that was like the sun coming out after a thunderstorm. "My people will continue to raid and rob, they do need to make a living, you know and that is all that is left to them now. But with the proper signal a lone emissary will be conducted here for discussions with the other side."
"How will you enforce this 'truce'? Rhiahal questioned.
"Like this." Seramis answered almost idly while negligently waving a hand to open a portal to a raging furnace of flame and heat that she closed just as quickly. "I am not without my own resources. I will enforce the neutrality I offer, and will punish anyone who violates that."
"What do you get out of this?" Demitruus asked bluntly.
"Peace and quiet." Seramis answered with another stupefying smile. "A respite from both sides you represent from trying to clean out the nests of 'bandits' in these mountains. You have no idea how annoying that has been recently."
"Lady." Rhiahal carefully responded. "Our patrols, and raiding parties have been either rebuffed with disturbingly heavy losses recently, or don't return at all. And you say we are annoying you?"
"Yes." She answered simply without an expression on her inhuman features. "I, and my people, have other concerns without dealing with incursions from outside. We do need to survive, after all. Attacks on any of us reduce the possibility of that circumstance being something we will be able to rely on in the future. Oh course my people would be rather savage when they are attacked for no reason. We have raided a few of your caravans, killed no more than necessary, and allowed more than a few to pass through our lands without being impeded. Call the ones who are hit a toll, if you must, but we raid the caravans of light just as often. There is no malice in it, believe me."
"No malice?" Demitruus snorted in disbelief. "Your people have kept any significant supply to reach our troops at the Valley of the Font of Evil. How can you sit there so demurely and say you hold no malice towards the forces of Light?"
"Had the Dark invaded your territory," Seramis answered with a shrug. "We would be just as diligent in keeping them and their supplies from reaching the battle. The Apropos Ring intruded on lands that they should have left alone. We in the Denravi are very conscious of intent, and of The Balance. You sought to upset that, and if we can prevent that we will."
"Why do you even interfere?" The paladin questioned. "What is so wrong with Light, or Dark gaining ascendency?"
"Because if one or the other gains ascendency," Seramis answered without either fear or the belief it could happen clear in her face and posture, "That side would seek to eliminate the annoying thorn in their foot that the Denravi have become. To put it simply, I wish to see my people survive, and the only way to do that is to maintain the balance. In order to do that, I am offering my small, rude city as a meeting place that is neutral, so each side might discuss issues that could be resolved peaceably with the other without fear of treachery."
"How would you enforce that peace, if really powerful people from either side were here?" Rhiahal questioned. "How would you keep one side or the other from ambushing the other here?"
"Ahh, that is the crux of this, isn't it?" Seramis answered with an odd smile. "Just trust in the fact that I can enforce the truce if things come to that."
"Are you hinting that you have access to an undiscovered font?" Rhiahal questioned with a raised eyebrow that showed his disbelief.
"I am hinting, or saying, no such thing, mage." Seramis smiled mysteriously. "Power can be accessed from more than one thing. Just trust that here, in my own home, I will be able to enforce that truce should things come to that."
"Without a font to draw on, how can you hope to hold your own against either Light or Dark, or both?" Demitruus questioned with a derisive note in his voice.
"You would be wise NOT to test me, paladin." Seramis quietly told him adding. "But I am not an adversary here, to either of your sides. I would rather not rouse the ire of either Light or Dark. I would prefer being a friend to both."
"Neutrality is not something this world is made for." Demitruus answered that with a sigh. "Though it does have its good points now that I think of it."
"Such a thing would be abhorrent to those who now rule." Rhiahal added. "Dark will not tolerate neutrality. Either you are with them or against them."
"That is how my own lords will see it." Demitruus put in. "They will not tolerate a force that is not in alignment with one side or the other."
"They will learn." Seramis told them calmly. "That is why you two still live. You are to take my message to your respective lords and ladies. And convince them."
"That won't be possible." The paladin argued. "They see things in pure opposites. Someone in the middle is not a thing they comprehend."
"Teach them." The woman hosting them commanded. "Trust me, much suffering will come if they don't accept what I offer."
"Are you making threats?" the mage questioned.
"No." Seramis laughed with a chilling amusement in her tones and expression. "I merely say what will happen. Dark and Light need a place where they can safely discuss issues that are critical to either side's survival. I offer that. Nothing more, nothing less."
"You will side with the strongest." Rhiahal accused.
"I will NOT." The woman rose from her seated position, showing a body that would be alluring to any man, clad in dark violet silk that clung to her slim figure, and waved a hand in their direction. Both were suddenly pinned to their chairs and couldn't move no matter how much effort they gave the attempt. "I side with no one. But I will defend those who look to me for leadership. Test that at your peril."
"She has a font." Demitruus breathed in both fear and lust.
Taken by surprise at what had happened and looking watching the paladin's reaction to the woman, Rhiahal shrugged. "Font or not, she has power. That will have to be taken into consideration in the future."
"Yes." The lithe figure the woman displayed distracted the pair for a moment and she gave them a chill, wicked smile in response. "Do that, and make sure your Lords and Ladies understand."