Water poured from the mouths of the decorative stone dragons frolicking in the fountain at the center of the large circular park in the heart of the city of Ferris, where an orange sphere appeared. Sparkling flakes dissipated from its surface, revealing Max and Kira standing casually as if they were used to it, which they were.
Max began making his way in the direction of the tavern, holding his journal open to a map of the city, a line clearly highlighting the path to their new waypoint that came in the anonymous message. He stopped abruptly, realizing that his partner was no longer by his side. With a quick glance, he spotted her at a strip of food stands lining the side of the park buying some form of meat on a stick. How the hell did she get over there so fast? He wondered to himself. “Hey!” he called back to her. She turned in his direction, a skewer of what looked like chicken in her mouth. Max tried to look annoyed, but in truth, it was rather adorable in an unintentional sort of way. He chuckled to himself before calling to her again. “ASAP doesn’t mean, after you buy all the food in the park.”
She pulled the skewer from her mouth, taking a bite in the process. “That’s what they get for saying ASAP. I have to rebel a little,” she replied as she walked happily to a bench to enjoy her meaty bounty. Max joined her, understanding from experience, that there was no point in arguing. She forced one of four sticks of food into his hand. He grumbled, but took a bite without further protest. Then they sat in silence, just enjoying the atmosphere and watching people pass by.
Ferris, was easily the largest city in the game. Amongst the six major cities in Valain, it was more than double the size of each of them. And as the only city under the direct control of ArkConnect Systems, it and the territories that it ruled over, remained relatively peaceful no matter what was going on in the game, even when wars broke out between one house or another. Like most of the cities in the world, it had an overall fantasy look to it, but with much larger, heavily stylized buildings featuring Gothic architecture. Valain might have been a world of magic, but it also had elements of technology and present day life mixed in. Look through its medieval streets, and you’d see taverns full of players taking time off from questing, as well as cleverly disguised nightclubs and malls catering to the less adventurous inhabitants of the world. After all, some people just used the system to take back the night while they slept, which had always caused a bit of a crowd in the heart of the city.
In the sky, large airships drifted lazily, transporting people across a world that begged to be explored. Joining them, were a number of private transport shuttles, mostly carrying the cities workaholics, who spent their night time hours making deals and racking up more money than Max and Kira would probably ever see. In fact, business was booming in the city of Ferris. So much so, that it had become something like Valain’s unofficial capital of commerce, with corporations renting entire buildings of virtual space for their online operations. With a system like Somno available, things like international travel had become a thing of the past. Some of the world’s larger corporations had even held entire trade shows and conferences right there in the city. And thanks to ArkConnect, it was all kept hidden within the beautifully designed buildings that towered high into Valain’s sky. Business was good and all, but that didn’t mean it was allowed to interfere with the game. That would have gone against everything that Dreamfall stood for.
Amidst all the activity, Kira finished off her three skewers before Max could finish his one. She stood up to stretch, which might have seemed needless since her body wasn’t actually real. But one interesting thing about the way the system interacted with the user’s mind, was that it actually included subtle things, such as stiff shoulders and sore legs simply because their brain expected it. She raised her arms above her head and leaned to each side, inadvertently allowing the slits of her dress to shift upwards to show a perfectly formed hip just above the low waistline of her pants. Her delicate pale skin, peaking out to say hi.
Kira’s age was a little hard to judge, being so small, but depending on who you asked, most would put her at around twenty. She was cute, that much was obvious. Granted, that wasn’t really saying much, since most of the users, especially the ones in the city, had designed their avatars to be easy on the eyes. This resulted in an overall population that was actually pretty damn hot. But as such, it made the more unique characters stand out, adding something special into the mix. And with the added features of the fairy race, Kira could almost magical with her large eyes and slightly pointed ears. On top of that, the fact that she weighed so little compared to others, infused her every movement with a subtle grace that simply didn’t exist in the real world. And when combined with her somewhat goofball personality, she gained a sort of perfect storm of appeal, making it seem like a night with her might be more fun than most could imagine. Which had proved dangerous for Max, as it was occasionally hard for him to stop staring.
Her back arched exquisitely as she extended her arms behind her and let out a quiet sound to express her transition into relaxation. Max caught himself eyeing her bare skin in what most would call, an inappropriate manner. Unfortunately, he realized he was leering a second too late, averting his eyes only to meet hers as she looked down at him over her shoulder. Her hair hung down, hiding half of her face, giving her a look that inadvertently radiated sex appeal. “Don’t make it weird bro, don’t make it weird,” she said shaking her head at her partner.
Max sunk into the bench, bringing one hand up to rake through his stylishly messy hair as if trying to hide. She laughed at his discomfort. Then abruptly, he sat up. “You know what? No,” he said with conviction. “You’re the one making it weird, always wiggling that thing around in front of me.” He gestured to her rear as the thing in question.
She considered it. “True, but as you remember, you chose this body for me as part the deal. So the root cause of said weirdness, was definitely you.”
The weirdness in question was largely due to the fact that in their twenty seven years of life, they had been friends for almost all of it. Also, both of them were men. Not that there would be anything wrong with them finding love in each others arms, but that just wasn’t on the table for them. They were bros, and that was just how it was. Back when MaxDamage24, whose real name was Wyatt, told Kirabell, also known as Seth, that he wanted to get Dreamfall when it came out, they both decided that if they were going to play it, they were going to be the best.
In the past, they had mostly played teamwork based shooters. And over time, they had learned each other’s tactics inside and out. So much so, that they appeared to be able to read each other’s minds as they worked together in perfect sync. Their friends even complained when the two of them were placed on the same team against them, claiming that, “it wasn’t fair.” So when they read that Dreamfall would offer a range of experiences, from fun and simple quests to near impossible boss fights referred to appropriately as Nightmares, they were sold.
In the year before the release of Dreamfall, they got a head start by looking over all the pre-release information to learn everything they could about their new world. And the first thing they had needed to decide had been the best combination of races and classes to give them the maximum potential possible, even if it meant that it might be difficult in the beginning. After all, they were far from casual gamers. In the end, it took some convincing and a number of spreadsheets, but they settled on a Human Fury and a Fairy Breath. The convincing needed, was primarily due to the fact that fairies only came in female. Meaning Seth, would have to explore his feminine side. He had tried to back out the deal a couple of times, but he was told that, “he was being a baby”, and, “not to worry about it.” Eventually launch day came, and Kirabell was born. It was too late to go back.
When she first materialized in her new form three years ago, the first thing she had said was an awkward, “this is new.” Her words were then followed by a burst of giggles at the sound of her own voice, which she never expected to be so pretty. Back then, Max had found her rolling on the ground amongst the other new players at the spawn laughing her dumb little ass off.
She certainly wasn’t the only one to choose to play as the opposite sex. That had always been common in most MMOs. But since the player actually had to inhabit the body they designed rather than just look at it on a screen. It did change things. For some, Dreamfall meant giving them a much needed outlet, where they could live as the gender that they felt matched their identity. For others, it was just part of living in a fantasy world and making it as different as possible. And of course, there were also those that chose it for, well, less pure reasons. Granted, most of them got bored with it once the novelty wore off. Which was why ArkConnect instituted a policy that allowed players to transfer their character data to a new one if they felt uncomfortable with their choice. Kira though, didn’t really notice much of a difference other than getting used to being so short, so she decided not to over think it. Which allowed her to continue her dual existence as both, a both well adjusted adult male and an adorable fairy mage.
As for relationships, she had never sought to date in the world of Valain, and therefore avoided most of the issue altogether. Besides, back on earth, Seth did somewhat okay attracting the opposite sex. Although currently, he had been single for the last few months, as his last girlfriend had been what Wyatt respectfully called, crazy town.
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Wyatt, who had been single longer than most. As impressive as he was on the battlefield, he seemed equally inept when talking to women, in both worlds. It was a fact that made it even more painful to pal around Valain with his bro, in the form of a magical enchantress.
“Arrgggg!” Max exclaimed, jumping up from the bench. “You know what!? I’ve been single for like three years now. So at this point, I don’t care. This whole thing you have going on here, is hot,” he said this while waving his hand in a circular motion, to indicate her general area, highlighting what he referred to as, this whole thing. Kira smirked, a little unsure of how the comment made her feel. Max continued. “Now obviously, I don’t consider you an option, because THAT, would be weird. But yeah, I’d totally hit that. And by hit that, I mean, I would wreck that.”
Kira stood looking at him for a moment, her expression hard to read. “You done? Got that out of your system?” she asked with a raised eyebrow and a hint of sarcasm.
“Yes, thank you very much,” he responded almost politely.
“Okay then,” she paused before smiling devilishly. “Wanna touch my butt?” she joked in a sing-song tone as she pushed her rear in his direction.
He feigned annoyance to humor her. Then, without warning, he slapped her square on her left butt cheek. She let out a surprised squeak at the sensation. His victory was clear, and he started walking. “Come on, we’re late for a meeting,” he added as she lagged behind for a moment, straightening her dress and stalling while she waited for the bright shade of pink to fade from her face. Max stopped to glanced back. “You coming or what?”
Finally, she jogged to catch up, taking her place by his side. “You will pay for that,” she said without looking in his direction. “Oh yes, you will pay.”
“Oh I know,” he said with a sarcastic laugh, as the two of them resumed their progress down the street.
Max took a look at his map, examining the line that showed the shortest path to the tavern. He tilted his head to the side, making a dissatisfied groan before pulling out his pen and drawing in a few edits to alter the line. As leader of their two-person party, his map edits appeared in Kira’s journal as well. Though, it was a detail that didn’t matter much, since she mostly just followed his lead and trusted his judgment, which was also true for much of what they did. She was the sidekick after all.
The custom path set by Max was almost twice as long as what the system’s navigation had suggested only moments before. He hoped that by taking a detour, they could avoid some of the crowds that gathered in certain parts of the city. The worst being the entertainment district, which was essentially just a long street lined with clubs, bars, and other distractions. For those users who didn’t care about questing, and just wanted to take advantage of a few extra nighttime hours, it was the place to be. Actually, to be more accurate, it was party central. And with no risk of a hangover in the morning it could get pretty crazy, which was why Max and Kira avoided it at all costs.
It wasn’t that they didn’t like fun, but there was just something about the crowd there that made them feel a little uncomfortable. It certainly didn’t help that last time Kira had set foot in the area she had felt the need to need to activate her cage, which was a fail safe option that forbade other users from touching her by creating a invisible barrier just above her skin. Players under eighteen, had this option locked in active status at all times to prevent certain activities that might be considered inappropriate. Hence, the reason why it had been referred to as, a cage.
Fortunately, most of the party people in question, never ventured beyond the city’s walls. Hell, most of them were level one and didn’t even own a set of armor, so their impact on the world of Valain was minor to say the least. They were background characters, not adventurers. ArkConnect had even gone through the trouble of designing Valain’s cities in a way that keep that part of the world hidden when it would undermine the feel of the game, which made the crowds easier to avoid. But, hidden or not, they did still serve a valuable purpose, which was consuming virtual content like it was going out of style.
The economic setup of the game world was actually a work of brilliance, as it offered two distinct kinds of products, and operated on a dual currency system that kept everything balanced. All equipment and items that had an effect on the overall game, could only be bought with virtual credits that could be earned by simply playing the game. In contrast, any transaction having no bearing on it, could be purchased at a reasonable price, with regular money, ArkConnect taking a percentage of course. So if a user wanted to see a movie, buy a beer, or purchase a new outfit for the club, they would pay for it just like they would anything in the real world. And since there was no way to exchange one currency for another, it ensured that players would never be left struggling to afford important things, like crafting items.
The inability to purchase game items outside the system, also created a demand, allowing the worlds better players to make a healthy sum through web sites where users could post requests for help in exchange for real money. Sometimes it would be something simple, like needing to purchase a transport shuttle to get around, and other times it would be something more complex, like escorting players through high-level territories. It was a system that had just funded a road trip up the east coast for Max and Kira just last year. It had been fun. They saw a deer.
Now, the pair traveled away from the bustling streets of commerce, and towards the dim corners of Ferris on the outskirts of town. Being a virtual world, users were never truly in danger anywhere in Valain, but since the game allowed for player versus player combat as well as friendly fire, fights were not entirely uncommon. Player-killing happened from time to time, but for the most part, it tended to gravitate towards the places in the world where that kind of behavior was encouraged. So as long as you didn’t make a habit of provoking people, you could generally walk around most places without much worry. But still, the outskirts were rather spread out and getting around could be inconvenient. So in the end, it was a place that didn’t draw much of a crowd, allowing players to enjoy their adventures without distraction. For Kira and Max, it felt like home. They belonged there and they knew it.
The outer districts branched out chaotically into a maze of side streets and alleyways. Lamplight flickered dimly, casting a soft silhouette of the pair across the cobblestone path as they progressed towards their waypoint. Random barrels and crates cluttered the edges of the winding street, making the place seem like a functioning town with its own purpose. Gone was the decorative stonework of the city’s high rises, and in its place, loomed simple wooden buildings with rickety shutters covering their uneven windows. Threads of light spilled from cracks here and there, lending an air of added mystery to their already intriguing night. A lagopin, which was a sort of a cross between a rabbit and a bird, but bigger, slowly plodded past them, pulling a cart full of freshly cut hay. The sweet grassy odor filled their senses. Its driver, a hardened looking man, leered at them from under the brim of a floppy hat as he took up most of the narrow street, forcing them both to stand aside to let him pass. The animal in front, shook its head as if to scratch an itch, its long ears flapping back and forth while it rustled its stubby wings. A small part of Kira wanted to pet the hard working creature, but she refrained.
The night air was crisp, feeling several degrees colder than the air in the city’s center. Kira wrapped her hands around her bare arms as the chill touched her skin. It was enough to make her shiver, but not enough to make her uncomfortable. Unable to equip any form of footwear without interrupting her Well Spring ability, she padded along, her feet bare on the stone covered ground. Max strode comfortably a few steps in front, dressed appropriately in his armor and scarf.
The pair arrived under a dangling wood sign, bearing an image depicting a stick figure game of hangman, the blank spaces below, filled in with the words, The Hanging Frederick. “Well that’s ominous,” Max said matter of factly.
Not a soul was in sight. Apparently, it wasn’t a popular spot. Upon opening the door, they were greeted with exactly what they expected, a dimly lit room with mostly empty tables. Exposed beams ran along an uneven ceiling, which was held up by a series of rough wooden pillars, bearing a number of mismatched carvings. The walls were decorated with pictures of all kinds, raging from wanted posters to landscape paintings. Each one in a different style of frame, none of which were fancy but gave it a eclectic feel. Only a couple parties occupied the place, taking a moment to unwind after a night of exploration and progress. Occasional laughter peppered the air intermittently while a lone guitar player sat on a stool in a corner singing a slow acoustic version of a Space Oddity. The atmosphere was perfect, so much so, that it made both Max and Kira wish they had come across the establishment sooner.
The obvious focal point of the space, was a long dusty bar that ran along the full length of the space. A burly man stood behind, wiping a mug made of dark wood with what looked like a filthy rag. Fortunately, germs were not an issue in their fictional world. As Max and Kira approached, they triggered the NPC to cease his cleaning, if that was what you wanted to call it. He leaned on the bar and said in a gruff but friendly manor, carefully crafted to match the atmosphere. “Ello my young travelers, what can I get you on this fine evening?” His accent could only be described as old timey, and his words regarded them as welcomed guests.
“Yes, We’re...” Max started to say but was cut off by his partner.
“Could I get some food?” Kira asked, stepping on Max’s words and somehow sounding polite and rude at the same time as she glanced at the haphazardly carved menu on the wall, a dagger sticking out of it as if placed there to add items later.
The bartender stuttered for a moment, his programming unsure of whom to address. He started again, algorithm clicking into place. “What can I get for such a lovely young lady?” he asked, lowering his head closer to Kira’s height and ignoring Max altogether.
“Turkey leg please,” she requested cheerfully, placing her right hand on the bar to allow a transaction of ten credits to process. She bounced excitedly upon noticing that the tavern worked off in game credits, rather than dollars, which was practically unheard of. Most food items fell into the category luxury items, so discovering a place that worked off credits was a rare find. She made a mental note to mark the place on her map for future cravings.
Max stared at her with an aggravated expression. “Really? You just ate, like ten minutes ago.” She shrugged as if it couldn’t be helped and the bartender walked away through one of two doors behind him, returning a moment later with a perfectly smoked leg of meat wrapped loosely in wax paper. She took it from him enthusiastically and raised it to her face, leaving Max to continue his conversation uninterrupted. He turned back to the bartender and started again. “Hi, we’re supposed to meet someone in the back room.” He hoped there would be some kind of prompt in place to let them past the bar.
“What can I get for you?” repeated the bartender, since Max hadn’t waited for him to speak first in the interaction. The man’s tone was less friendly than the one he used when addressing Kira. Apparently pretty young women got better treatment from his algorithm.
Max grumbled to himself and repeated his inquiry, growing impatient with each passing moment. “We’re supposed to meet someone in the back.”
Apparently there was either no prompt to proceed, or Max had simply not used the right words, because the bartender skipped back to the beginning of his dialog loop, repeating his question in the same unfriendly voice. “What can I get for you?”
Placing his hands on the bar and lowering his head, Max let out the heaviest sigh ever produced by a human being. A snicker came from Kira. Max looked at her sideways then up at the man again with narrowed eyes. “Okay pal, my friend and I got a message to come here. You gonna let us back there or not?’ he said pointing to the door behind the bar.
The bartender paused for a moment as his algorithm tried to understand Max’s words, giving the appearance that he was considering it. Then he spoke. “What can I get for you?”
“Arrrggg,” Max growled, inadvertently giving new input to the algorithm.
“What can I get for you?” the man repeated.
Max stepped away from the bar and walked in a small circle before returning.
“What can I get for you?”
Max tapped his fingers on the counter, then tried a different approach. “Hello my good sir, I hope this evening finds you well. My compatriot and I were asked here to this fine establishment for a clandestine meeting with persons unknown. Would you be so kind as to allow us access to your back room?” He finished with a slight bow, which he held while awaiting a response.
“What can I get for you?” the bartender repeated.
“OK that’s it!” Max yelled as rage flashed across his face. For a moment he looked like he might go for his pistols. Instead, he hoisted himself onto the bar, standing upright on it before jumping down on the other side. The bartender didn’t seem to notice the intrusion, though several heads looked up at him from across the tables of the tavern as the lone musician ceased an acoustic rendition of, Safety Dance, so that he could gawk properly.
“What are you looking at?” Max barked. “Go about your business.” He gestured a shooing motion with both hands, then turned away from the onlookers and banged heavily on the unused door behind the bar. “Okay, we’re here. Let’s get this show on the road,” he called out. A moment of silence went by and Kira stopped chewing momentarily to listen. Then a quiet click-clack sound came from the lock. Max twisted the knob. It turned. “You coming?” he asked, looking to Kira expectedly. She swallowed a mouth full of turkey before climbing onto a bar stool and awkwardly hoisting herself onto the counter, one hand still holding the large leg of salty meat. She slid her rear across the bar, inadvertently dusting its surface, then dropped to the other side to join her partner. Max shook his head.
“What?” she asked indignantly.
“Nothing. Let’s go,” he said with a smirk as they passed through the door and into a large and heavily shadowed room.
Strangely, it was much larger than it should’ve been. In fact, it was larger than the tavern itself. Decorative stonework lined the walls making it feel disjointed from the wood beams of the previous space. It was as if the room wasn’t even part of the same building, like they had walked through a door and into a completely different part of the city, which was technically possible.
A long stone table stretched into the empty space with several high backed chairs lining its sides. A few small lanterns ran down the table’s imposing surface, causing the shadows cast by the chairs to reach across the floor and up onto the walls, the gaps of light and dark making the room feel like the rib cage of a giant skeleton.
A lone hooded man rose from the furthest chair at the head of the table. He seemed to glide towards them silently in the darkness as he approached. The shadow of his hood twisted the features of his face in the dim but hard light of the lanterns. Suddenly the door closed behind them, making them aware of the presence of two additional figures lying in wait. They were surrounded.
Stupid, Max thought, walking into a room without thinking, So very stupid. The air grew thick with tension almost instantly as they realized the trap they had just stepped into. Max and Kira’s minds fired up to process the situation as their artificial muscles twitched in anticipation. That’s when the man in front of them pushed back his hood. They recognized his face instantly.
“Thank you for accepting my invitation,” greeted Aleister Coldblood. The trap had sprung.