5822 words (23 minute read)

Chapter 2

Kirabell walked in an almost comical manner in the bright light of the full moon, raising her legs much higher than necessary, and plucking the strings of a small harp with each step. She wasn’t so much playing a song as she was adding background music to her movement.

MaxDamage24 followed, dragging his feet in protest. “Could you knock that off? It’s annoying,” he requested.

“It wouldn’t be fun for me if it wasn’t,” she answered.

Max retaliated by dragging out a loud groan for as long as he could, his voice droning on for nearly a full minute. Kira ignored him. Unsatisfied with her reaction, he turned his attention to his journal. “I have a message from someone that needs help with the Fire Tomb. We’re way over leveled, so we could pop on by and do a quick run through to give him a hand,” he suggested.

“Nope,” Kira chirped.

“We haven’t done that last quest for the Devil Born expansion yet, we could check that out,” he tried again.

“Nope,” she repeated. 

“Or maybe we could...”

“NOOOOPE!” She cut him off. “Tonight is farming night, and we have northern cave wolves to murder.” 

Max let out another groan and allowed his arms to dangle limply to express his reluctance. “But they suucckk! And take soooo many bullets,” he complained like a child, annoyed at the fact that he was stuck following his sidekick when it was usually the other way around.

Kira stopped abruptly and turned to face him, forcing him to stop as well. Holding her harp at her hip with one hand, she poked him in the chest with the other. “You’ll wish we spent the night farming when I get killed by something stupid because I don’t have the materials to craft bone charms. But, at least I’ll have the comfort in knowing that I won’t be alone in my grave, as your ass will be joining me soon after if I’m not there to keep you alive. So, to avoid that, we will need the Bones of Predatory Beasts. And lots of them.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said, laughing at the appearance of her poking him. The fact that she was almost a foot and a half shorter than him, making her look rather ridiculous.

She spun back around quickly, her light silver hair flipping around her head so that one side landed across her face. She blew it away with a huff and shoved a few locks behind a slightly pointed ear before adding, “Might I remind you, that this arrangement was your idea. We’re in this together.”

“Yes dear,” he said, in a tone appropriate for responding to a nagging girlfriend. Suddenly, without warning, a wolf shot out of a small opening to the side of the sloping path that they traveled. It lunged at Kira, eyes trained on her throat. On reflex, Max drew his pistols and pumped four rounds into the beast before it could make contact. Smoke and flame roared from their barrels, as the wolf landed with a thud at Kira’s feet. He quickly swept one gun around the scene, following its iron sights with his eye to secure their perimeter while still making a point of keeping his other trained on the dead wolf just in case. Satisfied that they were safe for the moment, he slid them back into the drop leg holsters he wore strapped tightly to his thighs.

“I knew I kept you around for a reason,” Kira commented casually. 

Max watched her for a moment, wondering how hard she was trying to keep from looking startled. “Maybe you should put that harp away and pay attention to your surroundings,” he retorted, as if to say, I told you so.

She groaned, not wanting to admit that he was right as she tapped a small tattoo of a pair of skeleton keys that sat just below her caster on the underside of her left wrist. From it, blossomed a elegant design of filigree that spread, wrapping around her forearm to form what the players generally referred to as their, stat sleeve. The design varied from player to player depending on what they had chosen. Kira had picked something delicate. Max had picked a skull surrounded by flames. Either way, it framed their party’s status readout stylishly. 

She ran her eyes over the numbers briefly. Kirabell. Hit points, five, out of five. Mana, one thousand fifty, out of one thousand fifty. MaxDamage24. Hit points, three thousand seven hundred, out of three thousand seven hundred, skill points, three hundred, out of three hundred. 

She frowned at the readout and flipped her arm to the other side where her menu options were woven into the pattern of curled line work. She tapped one near her hand that read inventory, and the design shifted to display a short list, which showed everything she physically carried in her item bag. Below that, was a longer list that contained everything held in her virtual inventory, which could only be accessed outside of a dungeon. At the bottom, near her elbow, she touched a word that read, transfer. Instantly, the harp she held in her other hand dematerialized as if it had been made of nothing but air. The words, Harp of Endings, appeared on in the list. She continued walking as if nothing had happened. 

The path they walked ran down the side of Hunters Canyon, the bottom of which, was lined with a number of small cave openings to explore. Most of which, were filled with northern cave wolves, which if you hadn’t guessed by their name, could be found in the north, and dwelled in caves. The nice thing about Hunters Canyon was that few people went there ever since they had added an event to the area a couple of expansions ago. It used to be a great place for level forty to fifty parties to grind their way up to new heights, but the event had since made it too dangerous for casual play, forcing players to seek greener pastures elsewhere. But for Kira and Max, it was perfect. The event in question was called The Culling. And what it did, was simply call all of the wolves out of their caves roughly every two hours to attack anyone in the canyon. It also spawned a mini-boss named One-Eye, who most of the players just called Willy. Again, if you haven’t guessed by his name, he only had one eye.

The two of them continued down the path cracking jokes, mostly about farts, when they noticed a party at the bottom of the canyon finishing off a wolf that they had lured out into the open. It was clear from their gear, which was a bit flashy for their tastes, that they were around level fifty. “That’s pretty risky,” Max said, just as a low growl echoed through the canyon, followed by a dozen shorter growls emanating from the openings that lined the rock walls. In unison, dozens of drooling mouths emerged from the shadowed entrances of the caves and closed in on the unsuspecting party. The Culling had begun.

The unfortunate party below, was quickly forced into a tight group, it’s members taking hits left and right. Their healer began panic casting to keep them alive. Which was always a futile effort that never ended well, since it essentially painted a target on the mage’s back from the overuse of their magic. Max looked at the scene trying to gauge whether or not they could help just as Kira turned back to him and said a quick, “meet me down there,” before shooting up into the air. A swirl of lingering sparkles circled around the place where she had stood as a faint trail of magic followed behind her. At about twenty feet up, she redirected in mid-air and shot back down in a maneuver that few could manage at high speed.

At first glance, she appeared to be using a standard flight spell. Though, her agility and the sparkling trail that followed her every move exposed her for what she was, a fairy. The primary difference between the average flight spell and hers, was that it wasn’t a spell at all. The soft hum of her wings was barely audible, and at the speed she moved, they were only visible during brief moments where the light caught them at just the right angle. They still consumed a small amount of mana while active, but not much.

 Another important difference was the control system. While standard flight was controlled simply by looking in the direction you wanted to go, and closing or opening your hand to set the speed, a fairy’s wings, were just that, wings. Four individually controlled, dragonfly style wings, to be exact. Learning to use them well, was like learning how to use entirely new appendages that you had absolutely no instinct for. In fact, very few in the world of Valain, had even seen a fairy in flight. Not just because few people choose the fairy race to play as, or because their wings could only be unlocked at level seventy five. But mostly, it was because the extreme learning curve caused the majority of players to crash into everything from the ground, to other people. Despite that, Kira made it look easy. Practice makes perfect after all.

She dive-bombed the wolves, throwing out several Pulse spells that she always kept ready in her quick-cast queue so she could activate them without having to open her spell menu. They caused almost no damage, but shoved the beasts back enough to clear a landing zone in the middle of the party. She circled briefly, letting the shining particles that trailed her fall across the group. Then she whipped back up high and looped downward into what looked like a death spiral as she streaked back towards the party. Just before hitting the ground, she flipped, landing so gracefully it was hard to believe how fast she was moving only a moment before. It was as if she weighed nothing at all. Which was close to accurate, since the fairy race was not only small, but also weighed about half as much as normal person their size. The moment she touched down, she set up her strongest area effect heal and combined it with a heavy protection bonus, sending a wave of energy through the group, bringing each of them up to full health and boosting their defence stats significantly. It was a powerful mix of spells that she rarely used, partly because it was hard to set up, but more, because it was just as bad as panic casting in terms of how much attention it drew. But that wasn’t the problem right now. One thing at a time.

The small group of lucky adventurers stared with mouths agape, as she stood between them, her bare feet, still in a wide base to ensure a stable landing. Her silver hair drifted across narrowed eyes that shined the brightest shade of blue they had ever seen. She wore a simple sleeveless dress of light gray fabric with an open space in back to allow her wings to materialize. A small hood hung just above the opening, mostly for decoration. Slits ran high up her hips on both sides, topped with two crossing laces, the strings of which dangled and swung along with her movement. Showing a little too much leg, she added a pair of short pants underneath that ended with a cuff just below her knee. On top of it all, a heavy leather belt sat low on her waist to hold her item bag, a small bone charm hanging from a ring on one side. 

Despite her tomboyish appearance, she was still an enchanting sight to see in action. Though, this was no time to stop and stare. The first wave of wolves were already closing back in, outnumbering them three to one. “Look alive people, I didn’t fly down here just to get killed!” she barked, putting on her bravest face to hide the fact that she was actually terrified.

As mentioned before, not many people chose the fairy race when making their characters, or at least, few stuck with it beyond a couple levels. The main reason for this, was that the starting number of hit points a fairy had, was five. Of course, every player gained several upgrade points each time they leveled, and she could have put them into constitution to raise her health, but the increase just never seemed enough to make it worth doing. In the end it made more sense to just dump points into wisdom and focus. So it didn’t matter that Kira was over level one hundred, she still had only five hit points, just as she did the day she had set foot in Valain three years ago. Sure, as far as magic went, a fairy was simply unmatched. But the fact that every single enemy in the world could kill them in one hit, made them less than desirable to play as. Fortunately, there were ways to block some attacks, hence the bone charm that hung at her side, which was carved in a way that sort of resembled a person. The unfortunate item could take one hit for her if need be, giving Kira a slight sense of security.

If that hadn’t been enough to discourage a user from choosing her unique race. Fairies were also the only race that’s physical capabilities were limited in game. So unlike most players, who’s virtual bodies roughly shared the same physical strength as their real ones, Kira could barely lift a weapon, let alone wield it properly. Sure, she could dump points into strength, but that would that only effect damage dealt. It would do nothing for her physically. So for her, casters would be the only option. With that, she might have stood a better chance as a fairy if she had picked a combat mage class such as a venom, which weakened enemies and caused damage over time, or a cauldron, which while slow, could deal out some pretty massive punishment. But Kira had picked either of those? Nope. She was a breath mage, which could heal... And that was pretty much it. She had a great number of interesting support spells, but aside from a her pulse spell spells that barely did any damage, she just didn’t have anything to defend herself with. That’s why she needed Max. He kept her safe, and she kept his health full. They were partners through and through. But at the moment, due to her rash action of diving in without thinking, which was sometimes a pattern with her, Max was too far away to help. She was on her own.

It would have made sense to stay in the air where the wolves couldn’t get her, but thanks to a passive ability belonging to her race called, Well Spring, she needed to be touching the ground to maintain a connection with the world. As long as she did, it gave her a significant buff to her magic’s effectiveness, which allowed her to get more out of lower level spells. The trade off was worth the risk. It also was why her feet were bare.

She raised both hands, revealing not one, but two casters. They snapped open in unison, a tranquil white glow coming from both that almost seemed soothing. Or at least it would have, if the group wasn’t about to be torn apart by ferocious slobbering wolves. Numerous sets of teeth lunged at her all at once. She deflected two by casting a couple pulse spells in their direction, then dodged another three with some quick foot work when her queue ran dry. When you can be one-shotted by everything in the world, you get good at dodging. Eventually, a shield class from the party got their act together and stepped in, taking another two hits for her, as was their job. It was helpful, but not enough. 

“Any time now Max,” she said to herself as she swiped open her spell menu, selecting Mirage, with one hand while casting another pulse at a hungry wolf with the other. Two transparent versions of her appeared, bracketing her on both sides and mimicking her every move. They were quickly taken out, buying her precious little time. That’s when a drooling mouth clamped down on her left arm. 

A dull simulated pain spread through her wrist, followed by a numbness that radiated from her elbow to her hand to keep it bearable. She pivoted quickly, using the beast’s momentum to swing her attacker off. She looked to her forearm where the marks of where its fangs had penetrated her skin glowed red across the digital ink of her sleeve before fading away. The bone charm at her side did the same, leaving a feeling of vulnerability inside her at its loss. “Crap!” she said, regretting her decision to jump into the situation headfirst.

Suddenly a cacophony of sound and smoke erupted as Max slid onto the scene in the human equivalent of drifting. His eyes darted between enemies, acquiring targets with both guns and making each bullet count while swirls of smoke trailed around him. Finally running out of momentum and ammunition, he came to a stop on one knee. He stood still for a moment, letting his dumbfounded audience take in the scene. He knew how to make an entrance. Being a fury class, he was fast, loud and full of style. 

Feeling satisfied that he had made the right impression, he raised up to a standing position and ejected the magazines from both guns. Like most high-level players, his equipment was less flashy. He wore a pair of black canvas pants with a pair of high boots that folded over and split just below his knees. Simple leather armor, black like the rest, covered a worn gray shirt with stitching running up the sides. The design of his chest piece, despite being made of leather, seemed to suggest a modern bulletproof vest and he topped it all off with a loosely wrapped scarf that made him look a little more like a present day soldier than a gunslinger from a fantasy world. He reloaded just in time as the wolves got into position for another attack. His head whipped back to check on the party, sending a lock of his dirty blonde hair down to rest on his cheek. He ignored it while his dark brown eyes darted around the area with precision.

The fury class wasn’t too popular amongst players either, despite its versatility. It may have been able to deliver a respectable amount of damage. But that was only if you could actually hit your targets, which was easier said then done. Especially considering the fact that the system lacked any form of aim or combat assistance. That would’ve required it override the signals from a players mind and control their movements, and for that, the technology simply hadn’t come that far. Stats, like strength and dexterity, still mattered for damage output, but if you wanted to run, jump, attack or dodge in game, then you had to do it on your own, just like you would in the real world. Granted, the enemies didn’t really start to get challenging until mid-level, and for many players, it was certainly acceptable to as to stay below that. Which was why ArkConnect had gone out of its way to create plenty of content for casual play. But, if you really wanted push yourself, then they had that covered too. Meaning that the only way to play at higher levels and face all that Valain had to offer, was to learn to fight. In other words, git gud. 

 On top of the raw marksmanship skill needed to play the fury class, it also seemed to take something special to use it proficiently. Something that Max had in copious amounts, allowing for moments of truly epic badassery. And his appearance, yet simple, complemented his wild actions well. He was a creature of function blended with just the right amount of style. A well-worn weapon forged through over three years of combat.

“Nice of you to show up.” Kira spouted. “Did you log out and use the bathroom on your way down?” she asked, trying to hide the fact that she had been pretty sure she was about to die.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I did you jackass,” he replied sarcastically.

“That’s good, I’d hate to repeat that night you ate all those tacos, before logging on,” she said with a musical laugh that seemed entirely out of place in such a tense situation.

“God, you’re never gonna let me live that down, are you?” 

She laughed again. “Nope, it was hilarious.” 

Noticing the helpless party’s unease at their banter, Max’s expression grew serious again. “You ready for this?”

“It’s what we came for.” She turned back to the party “We’re gonna need some space for this. Before I landed, I released enough fairy dust to give you all a couple minutes of flight, use it to get clear.” The group looked stunned, not realizing the fact that they could have made their escape at any moment. Before she could say good luck, they were gone, making her glad she hadn’t mentioned the effects of the dust earlier.

Almost on queue, the wolves closed in around them, now outnumbering them ten to two. Kira and Max turned to face each other and stepped in close, their backs to the wolves.

“May I have this dance?” he asked with a smirk.

She rolled her eyes as hard as she possibly could and swiped her hands up, dropping a few spells into her queue that she had chosen for this exact situation. Even though they were both level one hundred and fourteen, that didn’t mean they were strong enough to survive the Culling with only the two of them. They could win easily if they had a party of six, but alone, it would take strategy. Their main problem was that the fifteen bullets in each of Max’s guns, wouldn’t be enough to kill all of the wolves surrounding them before being overtaken. Not to mention that, with Kira being defenseless, combined with the fact the he would be lost if she fell, there was no margin for error. 

Of course, he could just use the class skill, Custom Rounds, to add an elemental property to his hits, then target the wolves’ weaknesses to kill each of them in one shot. But the tricky thing about northern cave wolves, was that the creatures had a rotating elemental weakness that swapped between fire, wind and lightning at random. And since the skill had a moderate cool down attached to it, he wouldn’t be able to reset his ammunition fast enough to keep up. Fortunately, Max had a skilled breath mage capable of charging his shots with any element she chose.

Normally in this situation a mage would hang back and cast a version of the spell, Infusion, on multiple players, giving each one a different element. But that was too slow, required more people, and didn’t allow them to change attributes on the fly. Instead, she used three low level spells, appropriately called, Flame Touch, Spark Touch and Wind Touch. Most players completely forget about this little group of spells as soon as they found new rune stones and spent the upgrade points to learned better ones from them. This was mostly because the three spells only affected the caster’s hands, requiring the mage to physically touch the intended player’s weapon. They only lasted for a few seconds, but they were fast and took less mana to use, making them perfect for taking on large groups of varied enemies with only two players. She also activated a spell called Guidance, which allowed her to see the elemental weakness of each target as a colored aura around them. So as long as she could keep up with Max and avoid getting hit, they would survive, probably.

Kira turned to face the pack as they closed off any possible route of escape. Behind her, Max swept the scene with his eyes. He took a breath and raised his pistols to a carefully planned height to allow the fairy to touch them easily with her short stature. She reached back over her shoulders, tapping each gun gently with her fingertips just before the first of the wolves attacked. The pair darted in opposite directions, causing it to stumble between them. Then, turning in unison, Kira pointed at it with her right hand, telling Max to use his right gun. He fired. Before the ejected bullet casing hit the ground, she was already selecting two more targets for elimination.

The wolves swarmed, leaping two and three at a time as the pair dodged and weaved past each other. They took out the closest threats first, while leaving alive the ones that didn’t currently match their set up. She ducked past him, close to his side. He responded by lowering one pistol for her to touch on her way by. Then she spun across his back like a dancer and updated his other weapon. With both guns set to spark, he to cleaned up the last of the first wave, electricity arching off each kill. As a second round of enemies moved into position, Max ejected his near empty magazines. Normally he would keep firing until they were spent, but he had to make efficient use of the moment available, since he might not get another chance later. 

Kira and Max continued to dance around each other, speeding up as their confidence grew, which led to an almost cocky attitude. Max began cracking wise with various one-liners as Kira became more excessive with her movements for added style. Materializing her wings, she leapt backwards into the air and flipped gracefully over him. At the same time, Max raised his guns for her to update, the shimmering particles generated by her wings mixing with the swirls of smoke that drifted around him. It was an impressive maneuver, but her landing put her in the path of a lunging wolf, which forced Max to dash between them to take the hit. With his balance thrown off, he took two more, dropping his health dangerously low. Kira immediately cast a mid-level heal to get him back to fill him back up. They recovered, but the near loss reminded them of what they were up against. So from there, they pushed on with renewed focus, leaving few openings for the rest of the pack.

The whole fight, which seemed to last forever, only took about a minute. After which, they were left standing in the middle of a circle of corpses. The wolves didn’t bleed, as that would have been more graphic than what the game intended for its audience, but the sheer number of bodies still gave the scene a macabre feeling. They took a moment to catch their breath as the same deep growl that signaled the start of the event, echoed from the largest cave in the canyon. They both looked in its direction, making contact with one massive yellow eye that glowed in the dark of the shadowed entrance. A glance at the shifting ink on their wrists, showed them the boss’s heath bar as it appeared, running down the edge of their forearm to the side of their party stats.

 Slowly, One-eye stepped into the light of the moon, his size being several times that of the wolves that they had just finished off. Despite being nothing more than a construct of system, his low growl seemed full of contempt and rage for the ones that had just put his pack to death. He charged. Max and Kira did the same. She darted into the air, casting a pulse with both casters. The white puffs of energy hit the beast in the face and neck, bursting on impact. His massive body stumbled, but only slightly. He recovered and spun his head to face the fairy for a killing blow as she landed on the ground in front of him, easily within reach. It would only take seconds for him to end her.

Two small clicks came from directly beside the huge wolf. It hadn’t seen Max approach, as Kira’s distraction had kept the beast’s blind eye turned towards him. There was no time for it to turn or run. Instead, it just made a sound. It wasn’t quite a growl, nor was quite a whimper, but something in between. To Max, it almost sounded like surprise. And for a moment, he felt bad for the artificial beast. But only for a moment. He unloaded one pistol’s remaining bullets into the scarred indent where the creature’s missing eye should’ve been, landing several critical hits before switching hands and emptying his other gun for good measure. Max ejected the magazines of each in unison, while saying one line to finish things off. He kept his voice low as he quoted a Stallone movie. “Rest in Pieces.”

Kira casually regrouped next to him, her intensity from before replaced by a simple cheerfulness that suited her a little better. “That was quick, didn’t have to wait around at all,” she stated matter of factly.

Max’s face lit up. “That’s true. We still have a couple hours before logout. We could do something else,” he said in a hopeful tone.

Kira navigated through her sleeve’s options again, this time selecting the word, loot, and it redrew itself into a list of the items gained by the fight. Five wolf pelts, twelve wolf fangs and fifteen bones of predatory beasts. “Nice! This should cover me for a couple weeks at least,” she said happily as she tapped the, collect all, option. Almost instantly the bodies faded to bones, which would disappear as well over the next hour, erasing the evidence of the last few minutes of wolf murder from the landscape. 

Running up to them from a hiding place a few dozen feet away, a blade class named DarkA55a55in, thanked them profusely for saving his party. Apparently they had gotten some bad information and thought that the Culling had just happened before they got there. They were trying to get a quick level before it activated again. “That was insane,” he said, almost at a loss for words. “I mean, how did you even do that?” Max ignored the question and just nodded as if they did it all the time, which was partly true since it was the fastest way to farm crafting supplies for Kira’s charms.

“Tell your shield, thanks for protecting me while we waited for this dumbass to take his sweet time getting down here,” Kira said, hooking a thumb at Max.

“Hey! I ran as fast as I could.” He paused as if realizing something. “Actually, why the hell didn’t you just dust me up before jumping down there? I could have just flown down with you.”

“Ahhhh,” She started to say, but then closed her mouth and shrugged while making a sound that suggested the words, I don’t know. They said their goodbyes to DarkA55a55in and he sent them both a friend request as soon as they parted. “Man I hate it when people use numbers in the place of letters in their names,” Kira said as soon as she opened it.

“Oh God, not this again,” Max responded.

“I mean it’s so hard to read,” she continued. “The only thing worse is when they alternate between upper and lower case, cause that’s completely illegible.”

Max rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers as if he had a headache. “I know. I’ve heard this rant, so many times.”

“Well it merits repeating. Is it so much to ask, to just come up with something original enough not to require alternate spellings and numbers?” she questioned while walking backwards in front of her aggravated partner.

Max sighed. “Anyways, what you wanna do next?” he asked to change the subject.

She shrugged and gave her usual response. “I don’t care. You pick.”

He opened his journal and held it so they both could see as she slid up to his side. “Let’s see if that guy still needs help with the Fire Temple,” he suggested.

“Tomb,” she corrected. 

“What?” 

“I thought it was the Fire Tomb that he needed help with.” 

“Temple, Tomb what’s the difference?” Max argued. 

Kira thought for a second. “Well, one is a place of worship and the other is a place to lay the dead to rest.” 

“Thank you, Miss Dictionary,” he groaned. 

“Hey you got a new message,” she said as, leaning in close so their shoulders touched and pointing to a line of text at the top of the page that had just appeared before them. The subject column read one word, Important. If that wasn’t enough to encourage the pair to open the message, it was also written in red ink to signify that the sender had marked the contents as urgent. 

“That’s odd, the sender’s unknown,” Max commented.

Kira scrunched up her nose as if smelling something. “That’s fishy.”

“Better not be spam,” Max said, selecting the red text and reading aloud. “Meet me in the back room of the Hanging Frederick tavern in the city of Ferris. Bring the fairy. Can not wait till tomorrow, must be before logout. I have a mission for you. I repeat, come ASAP!”

Kira interrupted. “I hate when people say ASAP. I don’t know why, but it makes me feel like I’m at work reading emails. Also, I do have a name,” she said with a sour expression.

Max looked like he was thinking it over. “Might be interesting though. I mean, it’s peaked my curiosity.”

“What’s that they say about cats? Oh yeah, curiosity kills them, she noted, starting with a laugh and ending with a solid deadpan.

“True enough, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything about it killing fairies,” he responded.

“I guess so,” she said, opening her spell menu and selecting a teleport. “I didn’t wanna do the Fire Tomb again anyways. It’s too easy.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 3