Principale Shattered Sword: A LitRPG Adventure (Eternal Online Book 1)

Shattered Sword: A LitRPG Adventure (Eternal Online Book 1)

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I. Beginning and a Break

1: “It’s a Dangerous Business”

2: “A slime draws near”

3: “Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have.”

4: “Friendship is ever a balm for fear.”

5: “Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death th; at brings total obliteration.”

6: “An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”

7: “Words aren't the only way to tell someone how you feel”

II. Wishes and Whetstones

1: “Thus, I had so long suffer’d, in this quest”

2: “The rose petal floats on water. The kingfisher flashes above the pond. Life and beauty swirl in the midst of death.”

3: “Defend a girl, make her safe for a day. Teach a girl how to use an axe, keep her safe for a lifetime.”

4: “Some old wounds never truly heal, and bleed again at the slightest word.”

5: “Friendship is just love that has yet to sprout wings and take flight.”

6: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

7: “I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen.”

III. Build a Bridge, Burn

1: “Run when you have to, fight when you must, rest when you can.”

2: "What happens when people open their hearts? They get better."

3: “Dreams are glimpses into life’s truths.”

4: “Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity and ruin.”

5: “Revenge wasn’t what I had in mind. Protection was."

6: “Even though the end may be dark.”

7: “Courage does not always roar. Valor does not always shine.”

IV. Flight of the Fallen

1: “Anger held is a fell poison. Anger expressed is the tonic that breaks the fever of heartache and allows the soul to mend.”

2: “The greatest fighters do not rely on their own strength. Rather, they trust the strength of the love they hold for others.”

3: “All that is made by one’s hand, proves more valuable than any trinket bought at market.”

4: “And you may have my bow.”

5: “Sharing the warmth of a fire and fine drink is the quickest way to bond, if not the fury of battle.”

6: “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.”

7: “We three, though born of separate ancestry…”

8: “Few injuries can’t be set aright with a double serving of eggs and bacon.”

9: “Never laugh at live dragons.”

10: “Nature does not make mistakes. Right and wrong are human categories.”

*Quest Complete!*




Groups you can find TJ on


Part I

Beginning and a Break

Relevant Progress of Dahlia Otou

Status: Grieving. Broken. Determined.

Class: Level 100 Gamer, Level 85 Autodidact, Serf to the Great Overlords of America.

Items: A ring, a sword, the clothes on her back.

To Do: Sell your life. Seek out Eternal Online.

1: “It’s a Dangerous Business”

— Mr. Baggins

“Fiery flesh biscuits! I don’t care how fancy your hair is, a sword that long just wouldn’t work.” My body was surging with righteous gamer anger. And this was my day off? I’d silenced my inbox, taken a break from the endless job hunt, and tried to find a bit of peace destroying the enemies of Gaia. I hadn’t finished Final Fantasy 7 in years, and I wanted to see if I could beat it at Level 50. I’d done everything right!

Something was off. I launched a quick search: FF7 Sephiroth Final Battle. I read the first walkthrough I found. I had slain the bare-chested angel’s first two forms. The last was supposed to be scripted. I clicked Omnislash, but Sephiroth had dodged my blow and killed me with his ridiculous sword.

There was only one explanation: Someone had hacked the file I was playing!

I might have punched my keyboard, just to make sure it knew the extent of my frustration.

When I cooled a bit, I walked over to the feed tube. I typed my favorite meal number into the keypad. 60731, a bowl of ramen with a glob of printed meat and a cube of algae. Most people hated the algae, but it tasted almost like seaweed, something my parents and I used to be able to afford. Besides, I needed my greens.

I nommed while streaming an old show my family would watch together. So old, it was practically a history film; the movie was called Willow.

At one of my favorite parts of the movies—when a “brownie” character was just about to fall into the beer—the power cut out. 2PM, then. Enter the doldrums. Power and connectivity shut down every day from 2-8PM. Conservation is best practiced on the poor, my dad used to say. Though many used the time wisely, I tended to flounder, one reason why I woke up early. The hours stretched, my mind always flirting with anxiety.

I had a routine that helped. I started with light cleaning. My room was tiny, so this only took a few minutes. I cleaned the toilet stall and sink. Showers were communal, yay. Drones swept through those with chemicals some time in the middle of the night, killing microbes with efficiency. A good clean toilet though, especially when it stood in the corner of an 8-by-12-foot room, was mandatory. At least if you valued your nose.

I missed being a student. Homework had been a boon. Now, I played sudoku. I clicked the silver button on the corner of the digital whiteboard attached to my wall. Yesterday’s sketches and numbers and scratched-out boxes instantly dissolved, leaving the glass clear as day. I quickly looked up today’s new games and drew the first one out.

I usually burned through three or four of these. But some days, I’d finish early and feel the hot breath of a panic attack looming. Then, I’d make my own.

I had just finished the fourth puzzle when I heard the sucking smash of my ramen arriving in its pneumatic tube. The tech was ancient but practically never broke down. Occasionally, some fool would send something in their tube that didn’t fit. The pipes would get clogged. FlatWorld Admin excelled in turning any situation to their favor. Residents were charged, and their next month’s subsistence pay showed the difference.

My father and I had been lucky to receive this room. We had a window. I opened it wide, ignoring the tang of city fumes, sat in my bamboo chair, and stuck my ugly toes out into the sunlight. Even more rare was the fact that this window got nearly an hour of light each day. It was a marvel.

I savored the noodles and sipped the broth. I ate the algae cube last then sucked down the last bit of broth, filling my mouth with salt and flavoring. Soytastic.

I counted to sixty while the sun warmed my face and opened hands. Afterwards, I moved the chair and pulled my cot into position and delicately fell onto my face. The sun was the best blanket in the world, so I absorbed as much as I could. As soon as the light no longer filled the window, I rolled over and pulled on my blanket.

My face was warm, my eyes heavy. I focused on my breathing, each breath in and out. A sleepy rhythm took over and the edges of the world began to slip away.

A pounding rattled the plastic walls of my room. I sat bolt upright. Someone knocking at my door? A terrible dread filled me. It could only be one thing, what I’d been fearing ever since my dad was taken. No, maybe if I just…

“Dahlia Otou! Miss Dahlia Otou, please open the door,” a very masculine voice announced, followed by more knocking. I stared for a moment, mouth slack. “You have ten seconds before I forcibly enter. The damage incurred will be charged to your account.”

“Okay, okay, I’m here!” I pleaded as I crossed the room, blanket wrapped around my shoulders.

When I opened the door, a small man, as square as an algae cube, held out a letter. He wore a gray jumpsuit that was immediately recognizable.

No, it couldn’t be.

“Please take the letter, ma’am,” the man said, giving it a shake. He didn’t meet my gaze, but stared straight ahead, as if seeing me might somehow sully his eyes. He shook the letter a second time and cleared his throat.

I took it and he left me facing an empty hallway.

I stood there for a while, then opened it. The blanket fell from my shoulders, the last motes of warmth leaving me chilled. The logo, a diamond of hands binding wrists, hovered above a too-short paragraph describing the end of my world in technical language. So few words. Only some of them mattered: “In the process of repaying debts procured by AllHands Inc., Mr. Haruki Otou deceased from toxic exposure to lithium hydroxide while…”

I pushed the door shut just as my knees buckled, and I crumpled to the polymer floor. It had a greasy texture, no matter how much I cleaned it, and held every scuff and gouge like a map of my tiny life.

Biting my lip, I read on.

“All subsequent debt incurred by Mr. Otou falls to his solitary heir, Dahlia Otou. Payments shall be made to AllHands Inc. beginning one month from his death in installments of 1% of debt, a total sum of no less than 263,848 YD. After any failure of payment, indent service shall be required as per penal code…”

I did not care to finish. It was official and not surprising. America’s most beloved debt consolidation company had a reputation for using their “indent workers” in less than ideal conditions. Some only lasted a few weeks, others toiled away for decades.

My father had served as an indent for less than a year. How long would I last in their ranks?

I stared at the black-inked logo and let myself go, retreating into the vast tunnels I’d dug from the loam and sandstone of my mind. I’d been expecting this, planning for it even, but how can you ever truly prepare?

Time passed. The sky darkened at the very least.

An intercom announced dinner was being served in the dining facility, bringing me back to the moment. I had a few things to do before I could leave this place. The old computer hummed to life. In a few keystrokes, I cancelled my web access and occupancy at FlatWorld. I cleaned my room, making a pile of wrappers and dingy belongings, recycling everything except my middle school backpack, a change of clothes, a handful of photographs, and my two vast treasures.

I slept one last time on my cot. Dreams of my father fled before me. He was sitting down with his hands in his lap, as if a boy, covered in soot and soil. I sat across from him, and we stared at each other. I would have been okay with staying, staying just like that, but I woke.

The next morning I took my things and left. It was raining as I made my way to the street. This city had become like any other, filled with everything one could wish for, sold only to those with the currency to buy.

Most of LA had been transformed into standardized building units: massive blocks of concrete, all thirty stories high, a federal minimum for urban areas of high density. The city was a maze of tunnels that passed around and through the ugly structures. A secondary system of transportation rode the backs of these industrial or housing elephants. Skyscrapers clustered in the city center, their polycarbonate bodies gleaming in the sun. Vast networks of greenhouses made them shine like emeralds.

I walked instead to the nearest shopping unit, a place where the low could spend their monthly subsistence income. An ancient LED light hung in the pawn shop’s window, faded and cheap. Inside, I sold my antique keyboard, mouse, and interface headset for a handful of credits—the easy part. Then I took out my most valuable treasure. It was imperial jade set in platinum. A fortune rested in my palm along with a thousand memories. My father had given it to my mom when things were good. They’d both had paying jobs, which meant we were rich. She’d worn the ring everywhere, but when out, would hide it under a pair of simple cotton gloves.

I traced my finger over the etching of a flock of cranes. Perhaps a dozen birds in a cloud flying above a curling stream. Good fortune. A lifetime of luck. The cranes had not proven their worth. Maybe a thousand would have been better.

I slid the ring across the counter, and the woman at the register gaped before picking it up. Yes, it is real. Just take it and make this easier. She pulled a jeweler’s eyeglass from her pocket and inspected it. It felt perverse, but who was I to blame this person? She was just doing her job.

“This is very…” she began.

“I know. How much can you give me?”

She wrote a figure down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I read it. 4,400 YD. The Yen Dollar had been the presiding currency since the last of the Big Three broke our economy. Depressions are possible to overcome, but three had been too much, even for America.

She placed the ring in a small envelope and held up her payment device, a small black wand with a screen on one side. I held out my wrists, and she scanned my citizen chip, uploading the money immediately.

Before the clerk could take it away, my hand darted out on its own volition. Our eyes met, both surprised. Her brow furrowed, mouth opening as if to scold me.

“Please,” I said in a horse whisper. “Please keep it as long as you can. I will buy it back for more. Please just… just give me a month.”

The woman shook her arm once. I let go of her wrist. She stood and rubbed where I’d gripped her. Her face solemn, she said, “I’ll see what I can do. A month is a long time. I won’t display it for at least two weeks. That is all I can promise.”

I nodded and ducked out of the front door, embarrassed but feeling some thread of hope.

While crossing a street, I passed a young man who startled me with a wet cough. His face was covered in a white face mask, now a requirement for anyone noticeably ill. The fine was 5,000 YD or up to three months in jail, so it was rarely ignored.

The sight of the cotton made me think, again, of my mother. 128,015 dead, swept away like chaff in three weeks. She had been on a business trip, and upon returning, was corralled into quarantine. We got to say goodbye to her drawn face through video. A strain of Influenza A. It was called the Pigeon Virus, but it was never confirmed if the birds were actual carriers. It was just a colorful name to pin the blame on.

I arrived at a building made of steel and black marble. Opulence was rare, this was the .1%, the new ruling class. Still, when my father lost everything, he’d come to this place. He wanted a week-long vacation before finding a new job. He was a day user, coming to see me after school every day. Eternal Online had become a place for him to exist where he didn’t have to feel my mother’s absence so acutely. How could I blame him?

The man at the desk gave me a dubious look. Evaluating my clothes and appearance, his eyebrows seemed to question my credit rating. “Might I ask what your age is, dear? Without a parent or guardian…”

“I’m 16. I’ve finished all required public education. Thanks for asking.” I said it a bit harsher than I had intended. I always hated anything that smacked of condescension. He was right to ask though. Live-in game bays, like the one I hoped to see soon enough, were reserved for adults only. 16 was deemed to be legal adulthood. I couldn’t vote or drink, but was conveniently kicked from the government-funded public schooling system. In 2107, my beloved graduating class and I had joined the ranks of undereducated “adults,” destined to live out our days in poverty.

He continued unperturbed, “Very good. And how will you be paying for your time here at Eternal Online?”

I refused to flinch at his tone.

Instead I stretched out my hand, palm up to expose my wrist. “You are authorized to take 4,500 YD,” I said. “Should cover me for a few weeks, yeah?”

“Of course. I’m so sorry for delaying you. I’ll just scan your ID?” As he worked to upload my info into the system, I began to reflect on what I was doing, where I was going. Eternal Online… Is this real? And despite the numbness in my chest and legs, a trace of wonder still stirred within me. An escape, yes, I was fine with admitting that. But it was one I needed. Besides, there was little hope elsewhere to escape my future as an indent.

The man cleared his throat, interrupting my thoughts. “Just this way, please.” His tone had changed entirely, and I saw something in his eye I could no longer despise. Something like pity but kinder. He scanned his palm on a door behind the counter, and it slid into the wall.

“You have paid for 22 days of membership,” the man said. “Any subscription longer than two weeks grants membership status. And membership comes with several benefits. The first of which is access to your own pod, private room, and complimentary meals. You can also stay logged in without interruption.”

The man was repeating information I already knew. I’d looked into Eternal when father was picked up by three men in black jumpsuits, AllHands logos on their chests. My lack of reaction told the man as much. He changed tactics.

“Are you aware of the in-game perks as well?” he asked as we approached another door, which looked like a pixelated waterfall endlessly falling.

“I am. I get to choose from all realm types. And I get to scan one real world item to bring with me.”

“I’m Maurice, by the way,” he said with kindness in his eyes. “I can see you did not fail to bring your item of choice. Given the nature of this game, I am not surprised.” He gestured toward the exposed handle of my sword, jutting from my pack like an exclamation point. “I’ll have your welcome package delivered to your room. You’ll be in D43,” he said as he walked around the counter and bound the blade into its scabbard with an alloy zip tie. “Do you have any questions?”

“No,” I replied. “Thanks,” I added. It was never easy for me to be polite after someone had been rude to me. Too many people use manners like forks and spoons: plastic for the unwanted guests, silver reserved for those deemed important enough.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” he said. “Just remember, although you can choose your realm, because of your age, Eternal’s system AIs will filter out all players who are 18 and older. And before I leave you to your adventuring…” He gestured to the digital door. I looked up into Maurice’s face and saw him weighing his words. “Excuse me if I overstep, but I hope you find what you need there.” He broke off with a sigh and stepped back into his role as a proprietor. “Keep your handkerchief dry and walking stick handy. Farewell good traveler!”

I smiled at the allusion as I watched him turn and walk away, passing countless doors that led to countless corridors beyond. Only one thing remained undone. I pulled my backpack tight against my shoulder and walked toward the wall. The cascade of colors fell over me as I stepped through.

I’m not sure what I expected. Noise, bustle, bodies moving, I suppose, but none of these greeted my arrival.

Instead, there was a wide room clad in white, gray, and at least ten shades of green. At the back, dim lights shone over couches and cubbies filling a sunken depression in the floor. Closer and to my left, a group of tables were clustered together, chairs scattered about them. A single boy sat with his back to me. I could hear the crunch of whatever he was eating. He didn’t bother to turn, so I didn’t bother him

I discovered something else surprising across the bay. Two compact floors of translucent rooms held a variety of exercise equipment. Everything from standard free weights to treadmills and ball ellipticals could be seen at a glance. A line of glass rooms stood along the right wall, sealed off and tinted. What could be inside those?

I felt at a loss. What an odd reception. Then came a soft whir, and a bright, electronic voice announced, “Welcome to Delta Bay, traveler! You have been assigned to pod 43. Please follow me.” A diminutive robot, the size of a bathroom trashcan, zoomed away and led toward the far end of the room. I frowned, not able to think of where the little recyclable might have come from. Nevertheless, I followed.

After passing dozens of doors, the bot stopped and turned to face me. “Welcome to your primary domicile. If you have questions, you can summon me with the command Gita .”

Gita sped away. I looked up at my door, touched the palm scanner, and the door slid open.

I’d watched hours of in-game feeds to bolster my knowledge of the EO—Eternal Online—universe. Not a scrap of video had leaked showing the inside of an Eternal gamer’s room, though. The mystery had been worth it.

My room was small but nicer than the one I’d had at FlatWorld. There was a slim desk facing a wall monitor. I could see a pinhole a few inches up the wall that no doubt projected the keyboard onto the desk space. A tidy bathroom stood at the back of the room.

My VR pod stood gleaming, owning the right side of the room. It was an egg-shaped bed, all white, and lit from within by a dark blue light. A thrill ran up my spine; I was in gamer heaven.

I shrugged my pack off and set it beneath the edge of my desk. My room’s door slid shut on its own, and the wall monitor to my left lit up. “Greetings Dahlia Otou! Welcome to your new home here in Delta Bay. Are your accommodations satisfactory?” The screen was a shimmer of fuzz, and it pulsed with every word the AI spoke.

Wait, did it expect a response? The screen remained silent.

“Yes, everything is great,” I replied. I’d long ago turned off all AI interactions in my life, the ones I could control at least. They felt forced, like speaking to a public servant.

“Very good. This is your computing station. If you prefer, as some adventurers do, please begin your character creation here. As far as your other needs are concerned, restrooms can be found in the bay itself, though you can also use your personal lavatory. If you need food, Gita can bring you whatever you desire. Eternal has the finest chef printers the tech gods can provide. Travelers can also eat in the communal bay. All components are voice activated. For anything else, ask me. My name is Elendil. Pleased to meet you, Dahlia Otou.”

What awesome names. “It’s nice to meet you,” I said. “I don’t need anything, except maybe some water.”

“Gita!” the AI commanded. Less than a minute later, the tiny robot whirred in, chest opening, producing a bottle on a tray the size of a dinner plate. I took a sip and noticed the taste. No twang of chlorine, iodine, or peroxide.

“Your draught was customized for VR gamers,” the AI said. “A balance of amino acids, hormones, probiotics, and electrolytes to keep your body satisfied for as long as possible with no food. I hope you like the taste.”

“I do.”

“Wonderful. When you are refreshed, do you plan on enjoying the task of character creation and realm selection on this monitor, or do you wish to immerse yourself in the gaming pod?”

I paused. I couldn’t wait to get into Eternal. I had only ever experienced school-funded VR demos. But I knew this. “I’ll stick to my desk for now.”

“Ah, an old school type, eh?” the AI joked.

I couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, I suppose.”

“Good. Well then, I will leave you to it. The Eternal Online interface will load when our conversation is complete. The katana you have chosen to upload looks lovely. When you are ready to upload into VR, lay the item in the chamber with you. Our sensors will scan its specifications.”

The AI winked out, and the screen changed from a bright, electric blue to a dark green. A holo mouse and keyboard formed on the desk before me, and I lifted my hands to begin. Now we were talking.

A different voice intoned, this one devoid of personality, “Please begin your journey by selecting a realm. If you need information, click the help button. Would you like me to run the introduction tutorial now?”

No. Tutorials were useful, but it had been a long day, a long week. I couldn’t resist moving forward. The tutorial could wait. Instead, I clicked on the blinking icon labeled “Realm Type.” I had seen several feeds online about this aspect of the game. By choosing realm, you were specifying the experience you wished to have. Most realms were generic, but for membership users, almost any realm could be entered.

For those players who needed an “authentic” experience, they could enter a Role-Playing realm. Some of these were so strict, players were banished for using non-period language. Other realms sported anime-style blood effects or variable gravity settings.

I knew my choice before I consciously made it, however. I saw it on the list as I scrolled down: Realistic. A realm type that had no requirements for language or behavior. The Realistic Realm type was the least chosen. The pain settings were high, XP hard to gain, items and resources difficult to find.

It was also much easier to die. A tank couldn’t be stabbed six times through the heart and continue to rage on. What made it worth the discomfort was the fact that fewer players chose it. That meant fewer resources were available, so it had high trade prices for in-game items. This was where I could make money.

The next choice was trivial but fun. I clicked the button marked “World” and saw a massive list open. Many of the Worlds focused on popular periods or themes. I saw Steampunk Classic, Steampunk Western, Steampunk Japan. I couldn’t believe how specific some were: Austinian 18th Century, Shakespeare’s Fantastic Forests, Paradise Lost, and several renditions of the Odyssey. All, no doubt, were cool.

I knew what I wanted, though. No data was available to account for the number of players in each world, so it was purely aesthetic at this point. Countless hours playing computer ROMs of NES and Playstation, and the six times I’d read through LOTR, made me choose Classic High Fantasy.

Finally, I arrived at “Mode.” Another easy one for me. I selected Immersion Mode. The game mechanics were hidden unless mentally prompted. I wanted the full experience.

The boring part was out of the way. Now it was time for Character Design. A surge of excitement shot through me and I called aloud, “Elendil, I would like to switch to pod interface please.”

“Of course, Dahlia.” The lid opened with the sound of smooth hydraulics. “Right this way, then. Do not forget your in-game item.”

I pulled out my katana, kissed its lacquered sheath. A delicate and fading purple trail of flowers tumbled down the scabbard. Wisteria. I came from flowers, and the sword would never let me forget.

I’d climbed in and was about to tell Elendil that I was ready when the lid closed down over me. As I tried to relax, I imagined my dad lying down just like this, his sad face covered with this technological shroud.

The last time I had been in a VR unit was sixth grade. Mr. Mendoza’s entire class had walked outside to take a tour through the VR demo. Several beds filled the inside of a portable trailer. That was when I first thought of a career as an In-Game Resource Specialist, otherwise known as an Earner. VR was so lucrative, a decent portion of the gaming world plugged in every day to make money. Some farmed for high-level items, others provided services or entertainment. I even remember our teacher telling us about Gareth ‘Bright Tongue’ Willows, a man who started his singing career in virtual pubs and festivals in a Renaissance World.

Thank the gods, the days of nanite injections or cerebral taps were over. Far too many side effects—and some outright deaths—had occurred. The latest VR tech allowed users to upload their consciousness by manipulating the psychoelectric fields around their heads. A simple band wrapped around my forehead, and dozens of straps covered me, allowing feedback throughout my entire body. I closed my eyes.

A world of light and color exploded around me. Saturated blues and greens tore across my vision, making the world of my tiny white-and-gray room seem drab by comparison.

“Welcome Dahlia!” Elendil said in a voice that rivaled Zeus. I couldn’t help but flinch. I’m not good at dealing with loud noises. “Let’s begin by choosing a race.”

A list of hundreds of options fell before me. Everything from trolls, orcs, and naga to centaurs and high elves. If not for my research, I would’ve been stuck here for hours. I selected what I thought to be a useful combination. Under the many variations of elf, a mix of half night elf and half forest elf appeared. The racial bonuses were significant for my strategy.

My night elf ancestry would grant me additional stealth at all times except for the brightest parts of day, increased night vision, and Skill Sight. The first two were useful, but Skill Sight could be helpful, especially when fighting new mobs. It allowed a player to identify any creature’s abilities as long as they weren’t more than three levels higher than yours. Players and NPCs also didn’t count, but you couldn’t have everything.

The forest elf boasted increased movement speed and stealth in forested areas, and a trait called Wild Husbandry, which granted increased perception and tracking of all non-magical creatures and plants. I had seen some explanations of this awesome trait online, though EO censored anything that even hinted at meta-gaming, so it was vague. Still, anyone with half a mind to hunt considered Wild Husbandry valuable. That I was getting only half of each set of racial bonuses was okay with me, as their effects overlapped and supported one another.

Drawbacks were also part of any race selection. Since I had no high elf ancestry, my strength and health took the brunt of my losses. Ten percent reduction to both attributes was tough, but worth it. Also, certain races like the orcs, gremlins, and most of the other “baddies” hated my perky-eared guts.

Despite the setbacks, I was happy with my choice. It was time to speed up and get started.

It was uncanny watching a cursor float across to the tab I wanted. It made me feel telekinetic. I selected physical appearance. Gender, female. I’d thought of playing as a male because it would allow me to avoid creepers. Though all “adult content” was blocked in the under-18 world I’d be playing in, Eternal was notoriously realistic in its renderings of the human body. I had no intention of learning how to pee in a new way. No thank you.

I selected shorter hair, just long enough to tie up into a topknot when I needed to warrior out, flattened the chest, and narrowed the hips. Finally, I had the system scan my face for upload. I thought of thinning my lips, building up my jaw for good measure, but stopped. I left it. My face would stay. The end result was an avatar that would allow me to avoid some of the attention I loathed in the real world.

Choosing a class tree was my final decision before logging in. I had considered this decision endlessly. There were many top Earner jobs in Eternal. Mining and Farming made consistent income if one was lucky or skilled enough. Some went the traditional route and built on the Warrior tree, hoping to slay the right mobs for valuable loot. I didn’t have the personality for any of these. I preferred to be alone when possible, wanted versatility in gameplay, and having witnessed some other worldly scenic screenshots, wanted to experience EO’s version of nature.

I selected the Hunter class tree. I would begin as a Naturalist and need to work my way up by building foresting skills. Players of this class had bonuses to ranged attack, stealth, and movement speed at higher levels. Also, they could capture and bond a single pet, allowing them to use that pet as an assistant in combat as well as a companion. I had no clue what companion I might find, but I hoped for something as furry and cute as it was fierce.

“Character creation complete,” a voice announced.

I was done.

As I prepared myself for Eternal, an experience I had wanted for years, I couldn’t help but pause. Unspoken questions rose within me, ones I could not ignore.

Why did you come here, dad? What were you looking for? What was worth leaving me alone sooner than you had to?

I wiped my face, clenched my jaw as tight as I could. Maybe I would find something in this game to shed some light on my father’s last months, weeks, and days. A finger of cold doubt wormed its way into my heart. Regardless of what happened, I had twenty-two days to find out. Today was Friday, October 3rd, 2107. I had until October 25th to level up and start making some serious loot, or I was doomed.

Throwing my qualms, anger, and a string of shattered promises to the wind, I spoke the words I’d been burning to say. “Log on to Eternal Online…”

A world coalesced around me. How strange, to suddenly be standing in a field of grass, a warm breeze rustling rough-spun clothes on my body. I smelled leaves, and soil, and sun. I wriggled my toes and felt the soles of burlap boots. My hair was tight on my scalp. I lifted a hand to find a topknot formed above my skull. A few strands of my bangs hung across my cheeks and stirred in the wind. This was it. Flaming Eternal Online! I was about to take a step when a system alert brought me out of my reverie.

“Uploading item. Please wait!”

I had forgotten my sword. A weight pulled at my left hand, a blade forming out of thin air as I watched. My katana was here. The blade and tang formed in my palms. I waited for the hilt, scabbard, and hand guard to form. Despite waiting for several moments, no tsuka, saya, or tsuba formed. What the haymaker! I was in a fantastic new world, I had my sword, but it was little more than an overpowered razor blade…

2: “A slime draws near”

— Horii Dai-sensei

Another system warning flashed before my eyes as I held up my sword to inspect its gleaming metal.

“You have uploaded an ancient, magical item. Its quality is legendary and unique. As a beginner in Eternal Online, such an advantage is unfair to other players. The various pieces of the katana have been scattered across the realm. You have the option to craft the remaining pieces of your sword to accompany your blade or search for them in the world abroad. Each addition of an original piece will restore some of the sword’s power and magical abilities.”

“Mother of hashbrowns!” I screamed. There went my plan for having an uber-cool weapon to aid me in leveling up. “Hotsauce and handgrenades!” I tried again. Okay, so I wasn’t good at swearing. If I dropped even an accidental curse word, my face would light up in a blush so bright it could be seen a league away. My parents used to be the same.

The split thought of my parents filled me with an old dread. My mother leaving us so suddenly. Then my father. “In the process of repaying debts procured by AllHands Inc.…” the words on the letter ran before my eyes until I forcibly pushed them away. I did not have the time or the energy to go there.

I inspected the blade, and an unobtrusive icon appeared. I wasn’t sure if I could touch it, but as I thought of doing so, a list of characteristics popped up.

The Katana Kotoba

Quality: Legendary: +50% to damage

Durability 200/200

50-300 damage - 0/9 bindings

Unbound Blade: 200% reduction in damage, chance of self-injury +300%

Parts collected: 1/10 - blade and tang (nagasa and nakago)

Parts missing: 9/10 - tsuka (handle), ito (braid), same (ray skin handle wrap), kashira (pommel), tsuba (guard), habaki and fuchi (blade and handle collars), saya (sheath), sageo (hanging cord), menuki (ornaments).

Blarg. That figures. Well, I did still have one heck of a sharp stick. As it was, though, it was as dangerous to me as it was to any potential enemy. I slid it through my belt and held the blunted end, making sure the blade was pointing away from me.

I looked around. My God, the world was vast. The sun was high in the sky and there was plenty to do.

A conveniently placed road sign was just a few dozen paces ahead. I nearly tripped on a small sack, also made of burlap, which was sitting on the ground before me. A quick glance inside showed me a few basic items. There was a piece of flint, a too-small waterskin, one apple, and a map. I opened the latter and saw that it was completely blank except for a picture of the road sign.

I strode forward to read it. One arm pointed in the same way I had headed. It read Taelman's Pond 6 Leagues. A second hand pointed back to where I had come from and read Bridgerun 72 Leagues. The third arm pointed off to one side and simply read Lorinand Forest. There was no distance marker, but when I looked where the sign pointed, I could see trees begin to clump together less than a hundred feet away.

As a player in the Hunter class tree, my first rank was Naturalist. Basically, I had just a few crude foresting skills that could keep me going until I could level up to Survivalist, then finally Novice Hunter. I wanted to get there as fast as possible. Not only would it unlock a bunch of skills I would need as an Earner, but there was a class tree split after that I was excited to see. EO had kept any info about higher level classes under lock and key, so I had no idea what came next.

Before I could head off into the woods to begin the work I’d planned, a scream rose in the near distance. It sounded terrifying, as if someone were in pain yet enjoying themselves.

I jogged down the path toward the town of Taelman’s Pond. A gentle hill rose before me. When I had crested its ridge and the slope fell away, I saw a crowd of people off to the side of the road a few hundred feet ahead. My immediate response was to retreat. Whatever was happening might be dangerous to a noob like me, yet a few bouts of laughter rose above the din as well, and curiosity got the better of me.

I fell into a walk and attempted to act natural. As I drew closer, I counted nearly twenty people, most of them players if their garish outfits and motley armor combinations were any indication.

A few trolls towered above the rest, watching whatever spectacle was unfolding in the ring formed by the crowd. Their skin was a deep blue, and they wore only trousers and leather vests. The clubs they carried were impressively sized, but I had the feeling these were low-level players too.

A scattering of gnomish people were mixed amid elves and humans. Most wore simple and sparse armor, though a few had matching sets of chainmail.

I could guess at the classes the players had chosen by their various trappings: sword and shield combination for warrior-like classes, a long, gnarled staff to mark a magic user. It was nice to see that much of what I’d come to know about RPG gaming held true in Eternal Online.

“Come on, Teegan!” a grizzled dwarf called out from the sideline. “Quit toying with the boy! Finish the damn thing already.”

I found a gap between two humans too busy to notice me and peered through. One of the onlookers was gripping an unsheathed sword, and he jabbed in sync with the action of the fight. The other was a broad-shouldered warrior with leather armor slouching on a boulder. As I found my place between them, I noticed the latter was as beautiful as she was fierce looking, a long braid coiling over a bronze shoulder. I also noticed the tremendous axe that hung from her hip.

In the central fighting ring, a bare-chested barbarian with the green skin, underbite, and protruding bottom canines of an orc was bouncing on his toes, a pair of axes in his hands.

Facing the creature was a severe-looking elf. He had the dusky skin of a night elf, and wore black leather armor that fit his body like a glove. At his waist hung a thin sword, its silver pommel glinting in the sun. The expression the fighter wore was passive, almost bored, but there was a fire in his eyes that betrayed a well-guised chasm of emotion below.

The orc swung wildly, unskilled but ferocious. Instead of fighting back, the elf darted from side to side, allowing the axes to come close. The sheer economy of his movements was impressive. He was not sweating or even breathing hard. It seemed like the elf could do this all day.

“You’re fighting like a coward!” the orc bellowed. He stopped moving long enough to draw the blade of one of his axes across his chest, spilling blood down his torso. A green light emanated from his weapons, and the orc’s attacks increased in speed.

I stared at the axes and commanded “inspect.” And though the scene before me continued, unhindered by my actions, a list of information scrolled before my eyes. Thankfully the data was off-center, so that although it took up some of my field of vision, I could see what was before me clearly.

Active Skill: Vampiric Dexterity. This player’s health will drain at the rate of 10% every ten seconds. While active, Vampiric Dexterity increases player’s dexterity by 15% and overall movement speed by 10%.

“Yeah—now give him a taste, Crooga!” a fellow orc shouted. It had the same lackluster gear but was leaning on a massive two-handed sword.

“Should have activated that as soon as the fight started,” the female warrior beside me said. “Damn fool’s so slow he couldn’t kill a three-legged goat.” I glanced over and noticed that although her body was relaxed, and she looked almost bored, her eyes were focused, taking in everything.

I half-expected the fight to turn. The orc’s strikes were noticeably faster as he darted in and out to attack his opponent. But the elf remained just out of harm’s way. This only made the orc more furious, his attacks growing sloppy with rage.

A few other voices noted the lackluster display, some laughing as the orc wore himself down with missed attacks. Then at last, a new voice chimed in, this one belonging to an elf outfitted in matching black leather. They called in a calm voice, “And that is the five-minute mark. Teegan, let’s collect and go.”

The crowd’s disappointment came out in a cacophony of sighs and moans. Money was exchanged amid the mostly dissatisfied crowd.

“I still can’t believe it,” a troll said as he hefted his club to his shoulder, preparing to walk away. “Five minutes and not a scratch on him. Who fights like that?”

“Teegan Shadespar,” the troll’s companion said as he landed a bone-jarring punch into his fellow’s meaty shoulder. “That’s who. Told you not to bet against him.”

The orc warrior who had been defeated stood panting. His face was a mask of outrage. The fight was over, and the elf had already turned his back to leave the ring. Despite every honorable rule of engagement, the orc bared his considerable fangs and swung his axe at the unwary elf from behind.

A few gasps rose, but nobody had time to call out. Seeing only the look of surprise in those that faced him, Teegan Shadespar spun and dodged. Rather than split his skull, the axe only traced a thin cut down Teegan’s cheek. Before the orc could strike again, the elf stepped forward, his shoulder slamming the warrior back. Still moving forward, the elf struck the orc’s belly, sternum, and chin in quick succession.

Teegan stood back, adopting a defensive position, but the orc simply fell to his knees, his limbs shaking violently.

Everyone cheered but the orc, and his disappointed friend simply shook his head in disbelief.

Rude jokes were passed at the expense of the orc, who had now begun vomiting. The crowd seemed pleased, but there was an unstable energy about them. They had seen violence and now wanted more.

“Who’s next?” a human called, apparently the one who was encouraging the bets. “Any of you troll boys want to fight a couple of the elves? We can have an unarmed match if that suits any of you.”

He began searching the crowd, hoping to find some easy target to bully into an unfair duel. Some shuffled their feet anxiously, wanting to feel involved but not willing to step into the center of the ring. A few others drifted away, having seen their fill.

“Hey, you,” a voice whispered to my left. I looked over and saw the warrior woman standing up, hoisting a pack on her shoulder. One of her eyes had locked on me. “I’d slink away now before they decide you might be fun. You’re brand new girl, and it’s obvious.”

I glanced down at my clothes, the beginner’s gear standing out more than I had realized.

“What about the noob?” the man hollered, and the crowd parted around me. “I’ll fight you myself. You can use that blade of yours, and I’ll fight you unarmed. What do you say?”

The scrutiny of the crowd was suddenly overwhelming. I backed away, then ran down the road I’d come from. “Sorry, I’ve got to go!”

I sprinted away from the disappointment and scattered laughter of the players, a few catcalls following on my heels. That was not a situation I wanted to be in.

When I’d retraced my steps and found myself on the top of the hill, the road split once again. Down one path, I saw Teegan and his companion walking side by side. Their prowess was somehow softened by their proximity to one another, the trust and intimacy they’d forged while traveling together apparent. When I cast my eye back towards Taelman’s Pond, I saw the lone figure of the warrior. She walked alone, the crowd looming behind her, and the empty road ahead highlighted her solitude.

Having someone I could trust enough to travel and fight with was something I desperately wanted. But that sort of trust wasn’t easy to find, nor could it be paid for. My parents were gone, and I had no friends.

I watched her for a few more moments before another roar of applause rose from the lingering crowd of players, a new duel apparently chosen. Sick of reckless players and the intensity of the public eye, I adjusted my satchel and turned to the only sanctuary within sight, the patient forest beyond.

With little time to waste, I set out on my own. After all, there was work to be done.

I approached trees that seemed familiar even though I could not recall ever seeing them. They stood like maple trees in the structure of their branches and leaves, yet they had bark like an aspen and were taller and more majestic than either. I went to the first in the grove and ran a hand over its bark. Expecting a rough texture, I was surprised by a smooth surface, almost like skin. It was silver and seemed to gleam in the failing light. I glanced up and was startled by the explosion of yellow gold.

“By Beorne’s beard!” I shouted. “They look like Mallorn trees!”

The realm designer was a fan of LOTR. That much was clear. I was proud I’d gotten the reference so quickly, but I didn’t waste any further time. I had skills to build.

The path from Naturalist to Survivalist was straightforward. I needed to level up my Herbalism, Animal Harvesting, Fire Building, Stealth, Rustic Cooking, and Shelter Mastery skills, all to Level 3. Thankfully, I still had hours left in the day, but one of these was an obvious priority: my first task was to build a shelter.

As I searched for an acceptable location, I could hear the scurry and rush of a thousand tiny creatures. Every once in a while, I would hear something larger move, further off in the forest. Was that a fox? A weasel? I honestly wasn’t sure what creatures would exist here. High fantasy meant magical, but what about the low-level creatures?

I had walked about a mile when I found something that gave me an idea about how I might make my first shelter. A small tree, little more than a sapling, had been toppled. Its roots were exposed like fingers frozen in death. Curious, I set down my blade and tugged at the tip of the tree. It came loose.

I dragged the brittle sapling to the base of a nearby tree. Its lowest limb was just five feet high, and I braced the tip of the dead tree into the space between its trunk and first limb. The space was tight, so I gave it a shove and was satisfied with how snugly I was able to form the union. I stepped back to observe my handiwork. Step one done in making a lean-to!

A quick glance around confirmed the location. I was in a small depression, not deep enough to obscure my view through the trees, but enough to at least partially block the fire I planned on building. It would do for now.

Next, I stripped off the branches that lined the bottom edge of the leaning tree. I couldn’t sleep with dried leaves and twigs poking me in the eye. With some effort I was able to break each branch free with a resounding crack. In a few minutes, I’d created a space under the sapling where I could lie, one that had a partial covering of the branches to the side and top edge of my lean-to pole.

I also had a pile of branches that I could use to stack against the pole, ensuring I could cover my sleeping spot and block at least some cold and wind. If it rained, I’d be SOL, but as I glanced up at a violently blue sky, I noticed that there wasn’t a single cloud in sight. It was easy work closing one side of the lean-to with branches I wove into the sapling. When I was done, one side was closed off, giving some resistance to the wind that blew in from that direction.

Another hour flew past as I piled together some leaves for a miserable—but better than nothing—mattress. I also cleared a space for the fire a few strides away from the open section of the shelter and used a stick to dig a shallow hole. Gathering firewood and maybe some herbs along the way was next.

Walking through this magical, Tolkien-inspired forest soothed my aching heart in a way I had hoped for but not really expected. Recent events—the letter, the debt, being left alone in a world that did not love me—felt so distant they seemed unreal. I wondered how much of the effect was provided by the EO’s neural reprocessing. I was no expert on the matter, but in order to “upload” someone’s consciousness, a player’s brain had to believe the new setting was real. Regardless, I slowed my pace in an attempt to activate “stealth” and scanned for harvestable plant life. I did not care a wit for how the magic worked, only that it did.

Some flowering plant, knee-high and smelling like a mix of sage and lavender, caught my eye. It was incredibly subtle. Not a flashing highlighted item like in some RPGs, but seemingly brighter by the slightest degree. I gave the mental command to “inspect” the herb.

Unknown Flowering Herb

Level 1 Herbalism required

Properties: Unknown

Not sure what to make of it, I pulled it up by its roots, folded it, and placed it into my satchel. Scanning the area around me revealed two others like it. I took these in a similar manner. I was feeling quite proud of myself.

Then, on a hunch, I gave the mental command “notifications,” causing the script Herbalism Level 2 to pop up in my vision. Bam! One step closer.

Curiosity getting the best of me, I gave a second command: “Character Status.”

Hana Kotoba: Level 1

Class Rank: Naturalist

HP 100/100

Vitality 10

Strength 8

Dexterity 12

Intelligence 10

Stamina 10

My class choice must have caused a hit to Strength and a bump to Dexterity. It was a good reminder that my character would never be an axe thrower. I would need to focus on Dexterity skills. This prospective hunter needed a bow.

When I got back to camp, arms loaded with sticks for a fire, the sky was beginning to darken. I assembled the skeleton of a fire but waited to light it. The wind had picked up and brought tendrils of cold with it. My shabby clothing would not be much help, nor would the thin screen of branches of my shelter. An idea came to me and I rushed to complete it. I gathered a pile of bright green leaves, each the size of a dinner plate. Then I wove them between the branches I’d set up as a wind screen. The task was tedious, but when I was done, the inside of the shelter was much more protected than it had been.

Everything needed for the night was at hand, yet my elven eyes could still see through the closing dark as if it were early evening. I grabbed my katana and headed out for one final foray. Some mushrooms were known to glow in the dark, so that was one hope, but I also simply did not want to lie down to my own thoughts. It would be ten hours till sunrise, and that was too long.

I was bent over, lifting one side of a fallen log in hopes for some fungal treasures, when the unmistakable rustle of feet running towards me filled my ears.

Tiny feet? What in the hallowed Pits of Hathsin is out here and rushing me? I spun on my heel and saw a squashed and twisted manling scowling at me. Its face looked equal parts mole and dog. More strange were the pair of spectacles on its head, and a shirt that was entirely too big for its frame.

“Kills you!” it hissed. “I kills you now!” Then it leapt at me.

I would love to say I didn’t scream, that the great adventurer in her first baddie battle didn’t squeal like a noob, but I totally did. I dropped the slick tang of my katana and dodged just in time to avoid a very filthy and substantial set of claws.

“You will not kills me!” I pulled up my fists and almost laughed at my own lack of protection. I glanced to the side and found the gleam of the blade in the heavy dusk. Thank the gods I had enhanced night vision! The blade was partially obscured by the sticks I’d gathered, but before I could take a single step toward it, a stab of pain shot up my leg.

“Gaw!” I shouted. “You little—ow!”

It laughed in its tiny throat. “Haha, I kills to take your metal!”

I looked down and saw several deep gashes across my thigh. The rough-spun clothing I’d spawned in had not even blunted the wound. I had to get to my sword, but this blasted thing was fast. I held my hands out, palms open. Walking backward, a step at a time, I watched the tiny monster bounce side to side on nimble feet. Finally, the back of my heel brushed against something hard and heavy.

I dared a quick glance down, but before I could see anything, I caught a blur of movement. I blocked another swipe of claws and screamed as I felt grooves of flesh being torn into my forearm. At least it hadn’t been my stomach. Holy kraken, the pain was so acute, so lifelike. It made thinking almost impossible.

I had to start fighting. Wake up Dahlia! Feigning to turn again, I anticipated the coming attack, and dodged to the side. The creature recovered quickly, bouncing back to its original spot, but not before I gave it a quick and well-aimed kick in its chest. The little monster flew back a dozen feet in a tumble of limbs and claws. I swept a foot back and crouched low to the ground so I could scan for my blade and still keep an eye on my enemy.

“Kicks me scared lady!” it said as it rose to its feet. “Knows I going to kills. Taking the shiny sword from you.” It was obviously angry, but I could see it was flustered.

I noticed a glint of blue silver, the gleam of folded steel under the pale light of Eternal’s moon, and waited for another attack. My little monster was breathing more and thinking less. It attacked again, and I rolled to the left, grabbing my sword as I did so. The blade bit deep into my fingers. I had snatched it up at its tip. I somehow managed not to drop the blade again and grabbed it in my good hand by the tang.

I faced the creature, holding my katana in one hand. I dropped into a modified Chudan, the tip of my sword pointing at the thing before me. My grip was tight to compensate for being one-handed, but I did not want to get blood on the already unsteady surface.

I could feel my strength starting to ebb. My right leg was wet with blood, and my left arm continued to bleed freely. I had to finish this quickly.

“Come on you little hairball,” I growled. “Let’s do this.” I was hoping to lure it into attacking senselessly, but apparently it had some brains in its head. Instead of charging dead-on, it darted to the side, then leapt clean over the swipe of my sword, dragging its claws across my face.

I shouted with pain again and took several steps back. I had to stop screaming each time I got hurt. This was embarrassing.

I felt fresh blood run down my cheek and into the hollow of my neck and collar bone. Thank goodness it hadn’t hit my eye. I kept the blade before me despite the urge to lift my hand away. If it was going to be clever, then I had to do the same.

I dipped the point of my blade and slumped my shoulders. I hoped to give the impression that I was succumbing to my injuries. The creature didn’t hesitate. It sprinted straight at me and jumped at my throat. I had been hoping for this reaction. I turned the blade toward the monster and stabbed the point into the ground, bracing with both hands against the tang. The force of the animal’s attack was devastating. The creature’s belly and chest were scored deeply as its speed carried it toward me. My blade pulled free from the ground, and a pile of fur, blood and flesh bowled me over.

I jumped up, found my katana again, and spun to meet another attack. But the fight was over. My enemy lay in a heap on the ground.

I believe that moment was when most heroes would strike a pose, clean the gore from their blade, and maybe grunt and stretch their muscles. I sat down and dropped my sword. It thumped in the leaves and grass of the forest floor, and I just sat and stared. I held my palm close to my chest, feeling the cuts in my fingers throb. My other wounds were on fire, but I couldn’t hold them all, so I sat on my self-sorry haunches and stared into the tree line.

I’m not sure how long I stayed like that, but I listened to the forest hum with activity. My thoughts danced with images of my lost parents. Self-hatred warred with despair, and I found the only solace I had left—the numbness. I let it take me as it had so many times before.

The first light of a silver moon woke me from my stupor.

I looked down at my palms and noticed that the blood had dried and my wounds were gone. Realistic Mode made wounds heal slowly, but obviously still much faster than real life. The memory of the pain came back. It was one thing to know that the pain you felt in the game would be “realistic” and another to feel it.

My most devastating wound in real life had been the time I’d gashed open my foot on the lid of a can of green beans. The recycling was waiting to be taken out, two garbage bags against the wall leading to the door of our old house. A real house. I had walked past and skimmed one of the bags, and even took a couple steps past before I felt wet and warmth on my foot. The cut went down to the bone and oddly didn’t hurt for ten minutes, then a slow, deep throb set in. As bad as that had felt, having my skin raked open by kobold claws was so much more intense. I didn’t look forward to the first time I would inevitably die in this game.

I stood on shaky legs and picked up my sword, this time by the tang. Then I walked back to my furry friend. No disappearing bodies and materializing bags of loot here, just a cold corpse. I could see it was indeed an ugly mix between a rat and a wolf, but it had an upright posture. The creature design seemed so familiar. I inspected it.

Lesser Kobold

Level 3

HP: 0/155

Abilities: Night Vision, Sneak, Sneak Attack.

Items: Soiled jerkin, spectacles, 3 copper, smooth stone.

“Found that smooth stone I’ve always wanted,” I said with a smirk. “Might as well get on with it then.” I wasn’t going to sleep this night, so I walked back to my shelter, dragging the Kobold behind me by an ankle. Everything was still and eerie in the silver light. The forest seemed caught in the flash of a camera, frozen.

I used the tang of my katana to strike the flint. Sparks showered into leaves, and after a few tries, I saw the tiny embers of a fledgling fire. I knelt and stoked it with my breath. I would have stood and gestured frantically to the sky, screaming “I have created fire!”, but I was exhausted. Instead, I stacked twigs and branches over the flame, and within a minute, had a proper campfire.

Well at the very least, I was making progress on my next class rank. I’d need to focus on building stealth tomorrow. My thoughts were interrupted by an epic growl from a very sad stomach. I reluctantly glanced over at the kobold, slumped against a tree nearby like a tiny drunkard.

What could go wrong? Standing, I walked over to the recently departed beastie and unceremoniously stripped it of its gear. I took off the “soiled” jerkin first and found it to be quite soiled indeed. It was sour and stiff with sweat, and I placed it on the ground next to my fire. I pulled the spectacles from its face and found both the copper coins and the smooth stone. And, yes, I did take the damn stone. I’d bled for it, so it seemed only fair to do so. Besides, you never knew when an item turned out to be helpful.

Finally, I stood and surveyed the body in front of me. A thick torso and small, wiry arms. A head stuffed onto pinched shoulders, no neck to be seen. And stumpy but stalwart legs ending in furry paws. I picked up my katana, put a foot on the kobold’s ribcage, and pulled at a leg to extend it. I swung.

Thank God for Japanese steel, because if it hadn’t cut through in a single swing, I do not think I would have had the guts to try again. I turned the kobold leg and cut off the nasty foot. Then I lifted the massive chunk of hairy meat. With some difficulty, I cut a line down the drumstick, pinned the ankle with one foot, ripped the skin free. The sound made me gag. I chucked the refuse into the woods, and, taking care not to look at anything directly, placed the drumstick directly onto the thick top branches of my fire.

I turned my back to the pyre and dug a hole. Dark loam was just beneath the leaves, and I used a few handfuls to scrub what I could from my hands. I rubbed away the dried blood, whatever kobold cooties I’d picked up, and my own clinging desperation. Using soil as a cleaning agent sure is not as good as soap and water, but at that moment, it was the best I had.

Meat crackled behind me. A delicious smell tickled my nose. I looked at the drumstick in the fire and saw that it was blackened around the bottom. I stabbed with my sword and managed to roll it over. Giving it a few more minutes, my mouth began to water. I soon lost my patience, skewered the leg, and took a very cautious bite. It tasted like a charred turkey leg. There was something else, something more akin to the venison I’d tried once as a girl, a hint of forest. I ignored that and focused on the familiar.

I sat and ate more than I expected, filling my belly with kobold. I set the remains on a few sticks of firewood. Then, without further ceremony, I stumbled to my shelter, fell into a heap, and—trusting the fire would deter any further attacks—passed out like a guildy at the end of a ten-hour raid.

3: “Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have.”

— Son of Domingo, Bane of Six Fingers

“It’s just us now, Dahlia,” my dad said. “Okay? No, look at me please, in the eyes. There. I see you, girl. My girl. I know how much your heart hurts, but I am here. I will not leave you, I promise. I will always be here.” His strong right hand held my jaw and I swam in the chocolate and amber of his eyes.

“You’re a liar, dad. That isn’t what happened. You left like she did.” As the final words she did left my mouth, a ripple passed through my father’s face. His skin blackened and cracked, and his hair turned to soil that fell to the ground and covered my feet. When his eyes shriveled, I woke with a scream.

It was a small scream. And the forest swallowed it kindly, preserving my dignity.

Morning had come, and my hand still clutched the tang of my father’s sword. The dreams were not new. They’d been plaguing me for months, even before my dad really died. Since he began disappearing all day to play EO, they’d been there.

It had been a long night. Not exactly a star performance for my first day in Eternal Online, but from all the streams and blogs I’d researched, choosing Realistic wasn’t easy for any player.

I had a strong urge to log off and rest in the real world. What stopped me was a stronger desire to come back into this world with more than a gut full of kobold.

Water. Cracked lips and a glued-shut mouth told me I needed water. The land nearby had a very subtle slope, so I headed that way with my pack and sword. Sure enough, after several minutes of following the slope downhill, I found a small brook. Only a few strides across, but enough for my purposes. I walked downstream until I found a pool deep enough to wade into up to my knees. My belongings made a sad and dingy pile on a rock nearby, and after scanning the wood line for a time, I decided I was alone. I let myself droop down into the water.

It was ice cold and heavenly.

After a night covered in blood—a mixture of a monster’s and my own—and campfire smoke, I needed a good scrub and a change of mindset.

I scoured my arms and face with sand, getting truly clean for the first time in what felt like ages. Had it only been one night? After I was done, I soaked the kobold’s jerkin in the water and scrubbed it till my hands were numb. When I was done, it still stunk like pond scum, but it was much improved. My own clothes could only block a mild breeze. Any upgrade was welcome.

I pulled free the leather cord that wove together the collar of my shirt and threw it onto my satchel. In a few quick jerks, I ripped the sleeves of my shirt off just above the elbows. The jerkin, I slapped against a stone until it was nearly dry, then laid it in the sun. Finally, I took one sleeve and wrapped it tight around the tang of my katana. The blade was as sharp as I could wish for, but it was hard to wield without a proper handle. After I was done, I took the leather cord and bound it as best I could, using the mekugi peg holes to cinch the cord and tie it off. When I was done, I had a thin, ugly, pathetic, but moderately padded tang. Inspecting the blade, I was pleased with the modest boost in stats.

The Katana Kotoba

Quality: Legendary: +50% to damage

Durability: 200/200

50-300 damage - 0/9 bindings

Improvised Binding: 150% reduction in damage. chance of self-injury +150%

Well, perhaps not a boost, but at least less of a chance of lopping off one of my own limbs. The chance of self-injury had been cut in half. That alone was worth the effort.

I found the other sleeve I’d torn from my shirt, tied the cuff and wrapped my rope belt around it, then pinned it to my left hip. Then I slid my katana into the makeshift sheath. I would need to be careful still, but it was better than leaving the blade in the open.

When I was done, I slid on my smelly new jerkin. Thankfully, it had wooden buttons running up the front and even a breast pocket. I rifled through my satchel, put the smooth stone in the pocket for good luck, and slung the pack over my shoulder.

It was nearing midday, and my stomach began to speak to me in tongues. I headed back and found my cooling campfire, stoked the coals, and started a fresh blaze of sticks. The kobold body was still relatively fresh, so I cut free the second leg. The first had begun to look a bit gray, so I tossed it into the forest. I cut the meat away from the bone in strips. These I laid over a crude spit. Having taken the second leg all the way up to the… the haunch, let’s call it, I had at least four pounds of meat. Yay… kobold jerky. Couldn’t be worse than crocodile, right?

As the meat cooked, I admit, I got bored. I went back to the body for a closer look. The face was shriveled, and the beast had tiny eyes. Apparently not reliant on sight. Its snout was long and wide like a cartoon coyote. It probably smelled me coming from a half mile away.

The paws caught my attention. They were wide and short, but each had four long claws and a shorter one that was not quite opposable. Each claw was sharpened to a fine edge that shone in the daylight. Holy MacBook, they were sharp. Then I remembered the smooth stone. I removed it and saw it had been worn away at its middle. The kobold had put an edge on each one of the four-inch claws.

After you’ve eaten a gutful of kobold meat, and harvested jerky from a cold and stiff body, cutting free some claws isn’t so bad. I stashed them away in my satchel. A bone-deep satisfaction crept through me. I was sure that the claws would not be valuable enough to make much of a difference in my situation, but this was what becoming an Earner was all about.

I’d need to trade everything I found and harvested for in-game gold. Enough of that and I could afford higher quality equipment. Eventually, if I had enough time, I could start finding out what items were rare in this realm, ones that people needed. Eternal used to host a rich black market for such sales, with players selling anything from gold to rare equipment sets, for the right price. In recent years, EO had created the Interworld Exchange, or IE. Now any player could log in and pay real world money to buy anything they could imagine. This often led to some unfair advantages, but that was money. I wanted to do the opposite. I would use IE to sell the items and materials I gathered to the highest bidder. Equipment could be bought and sold throughout the different realms of EO, but not materials. I was going to become a hunter because the isolated realm I’d chosen, Realistic Mode, meant fewer people were competing to sell mats.

Thinking again of the insane debt I owed AllHands Inc. made me queasy. Nothing like 131,924 YD to stir your appetite. In a conscious rebellion, I took out a piece of jerky and ate.

The meat was hard and dry, but I had wanted to be sure it wouldn’t make me sick. I put the jerky bits away as well, but kept one out to chew on.

I spent the afternoon trying to up my skill levels. A quick inspection of my class rank-up quest was in line. I made the command “Status Class Rank Survivalist.”

Survivalist Class Rank Requirements:

Herbalism: Level 2 out of 3

Rustic Cooking: Level 2 out of 3

Animal Harvesting: Level 2 out of 3

Stealth: Level 1 out of 3

Shelter Mastery: Level 2 out of 3

Fire Building: Level 2 out of 3

My Stealth skill was troubling though. I’d tried sneaking around camp, but without anyone or anything to evade, my Stealth remained at Level 1. I could do something about my Herbalism though. I fanned out and away from my shelter in search for anything.

I wanted to see how much territory I could reveal on the map before sundown. Nighttime exploration was not happening again. I found a handful of berries, blue and plump, that I picked and saved for later identification. Again, inspection yielded little information:

Unknown Berries

Level 2 Herbalism Required

Properties: Unknown

I found one more of the herb I’d already picked and a new one that burned my hands like crackling fire. It was probably some type of nettle.

I saved the first to dry near my fire, and rubbed soil on my hands for the better part of an hour thanks to the second.

As the sun began to fall, I pulled a second piece of jerky from my satchel and began munching. I’d had a chance to refill my small waterskin that morning, so I took sips with each bite, trying to make it feel like a meal. I was quite proud of myself. This was the wilderness after all, and I’d managed to find a semblance of comfort and sustenance in a short amount of time. Then I heard the most humbling thing I could ever imagine. Laughter.

At first I thought I’d imagined it. But my elf ears were simply too good. Again, I heard the unmistakable echo of laughter. And more than one person, by the sound of it. One person’s voice was a light trill, the other a deeper tone that carried further.

I scrambled to retrieve my sword, which I’d left inside the lean-to. I laid the blade bare across my knees and feigned nonchalance. My hearing was amazing. They must have been more than a hundred yards away when I’d first heard them. I watched as two people, a boy and girl perhaps fifteen years old, passed my camp. They were almost eighty feet away, and obscured through the trees, but I sat still anyhow. PVP kills were off limits, but the rules said nothing about petty theft or bullying.

Thank the heavens, they didn’t notice me. Yet before I took an easy breath, another figure—an older girl following the first two—came into view.

She wore leather armor, and even from this distance, she had a familiar strut. She walked well apart from the first two, but was obviously in their group. Her hair was pulled back into a thick braid, and a long-handled axe was resting on her shoulder. It was the same woman from yesterday, the warrior that had warned me off.

Her head swiveled my way. She saw me!

My eyes went wide, but I remained sitting, chewing the last of my jerky.

She looked at me for a few long seconds. One elegant eyebrow, proud enough for a monarch, arched skeptically. Then, just before her form disappeared behind a large tree, a smile broke across her lips. And wait, was that a wink?

They continued to march away, and I marveled at the sheer size of the axe woman—axe lady? She was taller than the other travelers, and looked tougher than the jerky I was eating. Then she was gone. A trick of the forest took them from my sight, though the sound of their passing and the murmur of their voices followed them in an invisible wake.

The sun fell, and the moon rose as I watched the flames dance. I stacked the blaze as high as I dared, then lay down in my shelter.

Staring at the branches above me, I fretted about kobolds, spiders, wolves, and a litany of unseen horrors. But as the warm blanket of exhaustion covered me, I thought about the woman with the axe again. We’d seen each other, if only for an instant. It was hard to forget such a strange and solid connection. Her eyes were—brown? And as skittish as I was around strangers, I found within me a strong hope that our paths might cross.

The next morning, I decided I was entirely too squishy for this world, with a single cotton jerkin as my best piece of armor. Despite my determination to reach Survivalist as quickly as possible, a trip to town was necessary.

I pulled out my map and saw a small patch of revealed local terrain: a few square miles at best, but it was a start. I could see the creek I’d bathed in running nearly due north from me. Just a bit off into the murky borders of the unexplored map, a small dot floated with a single word printed below it: town. I remembered the sign I had seen before heading to the forest. It had named the town as Taelman’s Pond.

I decided to head toward town in hopes of increasing my equipage in some way. I might even learn how to find more kobolds or other creatures. I could use a few level-ups.

Not wanting to squander my time, I headed back to the river to see if I could find any new plant life on the way to town. Maybe I would be lucky enough to find some unlucky creature.

The sound of the creek filled my ears long before it came into view. Could there be a happier sound than flowing water? I filled my palms with the icy water and washed the sleep from my face. I’d become addicted to caffeine, like most of the real world. Coffee was best scalding hot or iced, black either way. Interesting, I thought, to not need caffeine in this world.

I looked up from my musing and spotted several fish darting in the current. Well hello breakfast! After several failed attempts to catch them with my bare hands, I tried using my brain. Aha!

“Out of the frying pan and onto the bank of the stream!” I shouted, pointing my finger to the sky. Not as catchy, but to the point.

I found two flat discs of stone big enough to fill my hands. When the first fish came near my ambush site, I scooped it up and out of the water, tossing it to the shore. Easy peasy. I did a small victory dance, just long enough to allow the fish to flip back into the water and up the stream in a flurry. Thankfully, laughing at myself was a skill I had already acquired. Despite this setback, I managed to scoop five fish out within a half hour. I knocked them on the heads to kill them, then left them in a shallow pool I’d dug a few feet from the brook.

I picked a dozen of the wide, pliant leaves from a nearby tree. I wrapped the fish in the leaves and tucked them away, pausing only to admire their beauty. The fish, perhaps six or seven inches long, were a silver brown. When their sides turned to the sun, though, their scales reflected back a bright copper. They had a row of yellow-ringed blue spots down each flank and blue ridges on their rear fins. As lovely as Lothlorien.

Moving on, I followed the river upstream in a southward direction. I found several more sprigs of the sage I’d already picked, and plenty of the nettle I was now wise enough to avoid. I had elvish eyes in this world, but didn’t need any racial perks here. I had always been a keen observer. When my mother was still alive, we would people watch as a form of entertainment. One of the best places we ever found was a local mall that was a short taxi drive from the airport. All sorts showed up there. From Chanel to shower shoes, my mom would say.

Using these skills, I found and harvested several more herbs, leveling up Herbalism again in the process. I found a plant that looked and smelled nearly identical to the mint I was used to in the real world. I picked, washed, and stored these away with my other finds and kept on.

After another hour of meandering toward town, I heard voices. These were not loud and merry like before, but shrill and angry. I slowed my pace and listened. I couldn’t make out the words, so I decided to slink in closer. Remembering the terrific snout of the kobold, I crept around into the woods, trying my best to approach whoever was speaking downwind. I had no desire to be sniffed out.

Long minutes passed as I closed in on whatever or whoever was making the noises. Each step was a challenge. Avoiding the thicker gravel of the creek bed, I wove my way into the trees from stone to stone. It was lucky there was so much bedrock here.

Another burst of noise came from ahead. “If you hold it be the end!” The words were followed by a garble of hissing and muttering.

A game trail flanked the creek closely, so I silently padded down it, the soft clay making an ideal surface. Then I saw a break in the branches. That was my opportunity. Crawling forward on hands and feet, I lifted my head over the ridge of a fallen log and was surprised to see three massive rodents. These were similar to the kobold but longer in limb, taller, and with a look of brutality about them. In all other ways, they were very much like a common rat. Still, the difference was obvious. Each of the beasts was at least fifty pounds and standing upright.

One wore a tiny shirt, but the other two were all skin and fur. They held short staves in their paws, and two were attempting to bat fish in the stream. I thought “Inspect” and was rewarded with some basic information.

Common Ratkin

Level 3

HP: 130/140

Abilities: Synchronize, Tail Whip

Not much to go by, but any information could help. I wondered what Synchronize meant, but Tail Whip seemed pretty obvious. I noticed the one with the shirt had Leader pinned next to his creature title, and he was Level 4, his HP at 165. Interesting. I’d come across my first party of monsters!

My initial thought was, beasties, XP, loot! Then I checked myself. These were intelligent creatures that were foraging for food. Maybe I shouldn’t just kill them where they stood. Putting diplomacy first, I set down my belongings—with the exception of my sword—and stood to walk toward them. I tried to remain stealthy, but they heard me immediately. The two common ratkin swiveled toward me, staves in hand. The leader just turned his head.

“Dagnal, look!” one hissed. “A lady man is here. It found us!”

“I can see that, Midge,” the leader replied, turning to meet me and resting his paws atop his staff.

I glanced at the weapon and realized I was being generous in calling it a staff or stave, as it was the same sort of branch I’d burned the previous night. It looked well used and strong though; one of its ends was thick A knock to the head could be dangerous.

“Hello,” I said cautiously. “My name is Hana.”

The leader laughed in a low voice. “Good to meet you. Awfully young and soft to be so far from town, eh?”

Not a particularly friendly statement coming from a stranger’s mouth. I tried to make the best of it, though. “I suppose I am. I just wanted to stop and say hello. I see you’re fishing. I managed to catch five using stones to throw them out of the water.”

The ratkin named Midge spoke next. “Fish are fine, Dag, but lady flesh tastes better. Not so slimy.”

“It’s true Dag, yeah, it’s true true,” the third said excitedly. He hopped on his rear paws as he said this, a lolling tongue darting out of his mouth in anticipation.

“Easy guys,” I said. “I just wanted to see what you were up to. You know I could have ambushed you.” I moved a hand to the handle of my sword.

“Ha!” the leader jeered. “It has a thorn to scare us, boys. Wrapped up in clothes, too.”

I couldn’t help but blush. Apparently even rat people were jerks.

“I will leave, okay? Just let me be, and you guys can keep fishing.”

The leader exchanged a nod with his companions, then turned back to face me. “That’s alright, Hana. We know your type. An adventurer! You are new to this world, soft and so, so new. We’ll be taking your things, and eating your eyes and liver tonight. Don’t worry. You’ll just be reborn again. If you’d like, you can keep coming back our way. We’ll happily kill you as many times as you want.” He spoke in a quiet voice, filled with far too much confidence for my taste. They spread out, the leader in the middle, and lifted their staves.

They did not jeer or smile or make a noise after that. Apparently Synchronize had just been used, and killing adventurers was a serious business.

I drew my katana from its sheath, and they paused a moment. Yes, I wanted to scream at them, I have some serious steel here. Deal with it!

Instead, I took advantage of the moment. I slashed out and cut Midge’s staff in two, then kicked up a spray of pebbles toward his face. Like I’d hoped, he flinched and took a step back. Dagnal took a step forward instead, but rather than meet him next, I dodged his first attack and sidestepped to meet the other ratkin. I managed to reduce their advantage by changing the position of their line.

The third ratkin struck out and cracked his staff against my shin. I yelped, but refused to lose my momentum. As fresh blood began to wet my leg, I feinted a stab toward the thing’s stomach. He reacted and swung his weapon downward to block. I withdrew my half-hearted attack and swung my blade up and around, slicing a neat gash in the ratkin’s throat. He fell to a knee and held his neck. The look on his face was not pained, but confused, almost curious. He gurgled as he tried to speak, and then fell to the ground.

“No!” Dagnal shouted with wide eyes. “You nasty! You fallen apple. Crushed mushroom, empty acorn! He was my third nephew!”

I guess I wasn’t the only one who was crummy at cussing. I ignored the tingle of a level-up as the leader renewed his efforts to confront me, swatted his hand to the side and gesturing for Midge to get behind me.

“You attacked me, Dag. Not my fault.” I swung my blade in a downward strike, hoping to split the rat’s head in a single strike. My sword wobbled in my hands though, the tenuous handle shifting enough to send the blade off course. I barely avoided removing my own foot. Dagnal sidestepped the clumsy blow easily. I took a step forward to catch myself, but before I could recover, the hard slap of wood struck my jaw and temple.

The blows were swift and frighteningly well placed. A rush of dizziness nearly overcame me. I shook my head to recover and adopted Hasso stance—my blade held high overhead, feet close together. I was hoping to take advantage of the adaptability of the stance. Blast this “Unbound Blade” status. I could not afford another slip like that. The implications of wounding myself in this fight were obvious.

Midge attacked from behind, forming a quick welt on my lower back, but I didn’t turn to meet him. I couldn’t lose sight of Dagnal. He’d nearly knocked me out once already. If he managed to do so, I’d be someone else’s jerky. Then a thought occurred to me. To strengthen your attack, present only a single front to your enemy. I stomped toward Dag, and he took a quick step backward. I used the moment I’d created to sprint to the creek. When I was within a foot of the water, I spun. Suddenly I was facing two ratkin instead of being surrounded.

Dag grunted but nodded his head subtly in respect. It was his move. He was a fierce opponent despite being under four feet tall. He moved faster than I could imagine, using the feral instincts of an animal yet possessing a keen mind. He took a step forward and thrust his staff at my stomach. I easily parried his advance, but was caught off guard as he whipped his thick tail at my ankle and split the skin.

The pain made me pull my leg back, and without meaning to, I was one foot in a creek facing two enemies. At least I knew what their Tail Whip ability looked like.

The enemy didn’t miss the opportunity. The leader lowered the point of his staff, then shot a quick jab out toward my knee. At the same time Midge leapt into an overhead attack, trying to reach my head. They knew the trick to defeating a human was to bring them to their knees. This was not their first encounter.

I was already bleeding in three places, so I figured, what was one more? I allowed Dag’s strike to land, but reduced its force by stepping into it. I brought my blade down with Midge’s, cutting his staff in two, and cleaving a deep gash through his chest. It was not enough to kill the rat, but he was out of the fight.

Dagnal screeched again, further enraged as I wounded another of his kin. I’m sure Midge was his sixth cousin or second grandson. I didn’t care anymore. These creeps were gonna pay.

I took a step toward the rat, pulling out of the water again, glad to feel the firm shore beneath both feet. Dagnal responded with a quick but light strike against my shin and another whip of his tail, this time aimed at my thigh. I granted him the first, which was so fast it would have been hard to dodge. I wouldn’t be cut by his nasty tail again, though. I rushed forward and blocked, blade out. The force of his attack against my katana’s edge cut his tail in half.

I lifted my blade high for a downward strike. Dagnal raised his staff to block. I kicked him square in his chest, feeling the crunch of cartilage and bone under my heel. It sent him sprawling. and I heard a harsh wheeze after he’d landed. I darted forward, and even as the nasty creature dragged his claws across my leg, I plunged my katana’s point into his chest. Without waiting to see his lights fade, I returned to Midge—who was struggling to reach his staff—and stabbed him between the shoulder blades.

It was over. Dagnal was still. A second tingle shuddered through my body. A brief glance at my Character Status confirmed my suspicion.

Hana Kotoba: Level 4

Class Rank: Naturalist

HP: 78/173

Armor Rating 5

Vitality 13

Strength 9

Dexterity 14

Intelligence 11

Stamina 10

The level gains had been worth it. Battling higher level creatures was always a good way to gain XP in games. Still, the fight had been close. 78 HP would have gone quickly had I cut my own foot off.

I scoured my blade in the river and returned it to my sheath. Then I soaked my wounds in the cold water, grateful for the numbness it granted me. This world might not be real, I pondered, but the pain was.

Cleaning the ratkin’s fish raised my Animal Harvesting to Level 3, and I was happy to see my Stealth had finally reached Level 2. Painful progress, but progress nonetheless.

I took the shirt off Dagnal’s back and scrubbed it as best I could before wringing it out. I checked to see if they had anything else I could take. I found a small pack filled with moldy cheese and several plump mushrooms. The latter were brown and plain-looking, with flat discs for caps. I tossed the cheese and removed the mushrooms long enough to wash the pack in the stream. It was smaller than my own satchel, but this early in the game, it was a solid find. I stored the mushrooms in the pack, hoping someone in town might confirm if they were edible.

I decided to rest for a few hours before finishing my hike to town. Checking my map, I saw I was getting close, probably only a mile or so away. I gathered what I needed and built myself a fire, setting the fish up to cook. As I cut into the ratkin’s flesh, a rotten smell met my nose and I decided not to cook them like I had the kobold.

I didn’t feel like digging out the rats’ massive teeth, and couldn’t think of how they might be useful. I also thought their impressive tails weren’t worth it. I did take several of their claws, however. Many were jagged or dull, but I found eight between the three bodies that were sharp as needles. Although much smaller than that of their kobold cousins, I thought they might be useful later in crafting.

After I was done, I passed out in the shade of a small tree. I might even have woken up with drool on my cheek, but hey, it had been a rough morning, and nobody was looking.

When I woke, I packed my things and continued upstream while snacking on some of the trout.

Half an hour passed before clearing a sharp bend in the stream and hearing falling water.

Around the bend, I found a quaint waterwheel spinning eagerly beneath an earthen dam. Steps were cleaved into the side of the hill. I jogged up with a rush of excitement and found myself on a trail that wrapped around a glassy pond. Reeds broke the water in thickets, and insects hummed mindlessly in the air. I saw smoke rising from several chimneys, and through patches of trees, the browns and tans of wooden buildings.

It would seem, I thought with a sigh, that I’ve finally made it to Taelman's Pond.

4: “Friendship is ever a balm for fear.”

— Sir Quinn Taelman III

A tidy path wound around the rim of the large pond. Deep ruts marred either side of the road, marking the passage of countless wagons. I walked along a third path that ran a few feet from the water. I suspected this was the path for those on foot who preferred the beauty of the water’s edge.

Tall shoots of a water plant similar to cattails surrounded the shore of the pond. The tips, rising ten feet or higher above the water, faded from a bright green at the water’s surface to a stark white at the tip. They looked like a grove of living spears. Small mats of weeds clung here and there, and for the second time since my arrival, the sheer volume of the local insects amazed me. Dragonflies the size of my hand darted across the water. Most were a violent blue that contrasted with the greens of the landscape.

I resolved to stop gaping and get on with my business. There was plenty to do in town.

I picked up my pace to a brisk walk, skirting the water’s edge, but soon came upon a pile of sleeping boys sprawled out in the tall grass. The largest lay on his back, his hat tipped over his face for shade. Another slept in a nook beneath his friend’s arm. Perhaps they were kin.

The last boy was sitting upright, his feet manning two small poles made from slender sticks and fine string. He held the shafts of each rod in the grip of his big toes while his hands whittled a piece of wood. Now, if that wasn’t initiative…

I came to a stop, adjusting my gear and sword. The fishing boy watched me, following my progress. He was small, but had a maturity in his eyes that gave me the impression that he was at least eight or nine years old.

“Hello friend,” he said as I stopped. “Care to sit down for a minute? No offense, but you look like you’ve been wrestling a hill cat.”

I chuckled, and looking down at my clothes, I realized he was right. Blood stains were visible on my legs and the collar of my shirt and jerkin. I also needed a seamstress if there was one here. I knew little of this town, and neither its layout nor its rules. In line with ancient RPG strategy, I would milk this NPC kid for all he could tell me.

I sat and took a sidelong glance at my new companion. “Hello in return… friend.” He smiled wide, showing me a mess of hopeful teeth. Wow, I thought, I hope all the people here are this kind. Nice change from back home.

“So, was it a mountain cat?” he asked.

“Ha, I wish. I could have skinned the thing. No, I had a fight with a kobold two nights ago and three ratkin this afternoon. The last happened a mile or so downstream.”

“Wow!” the boy said with a glint in his eyes. “That’s crazy. You seem inexperienced to be taking on three ratkin by yourself. They’ve been giving our town a good bit of trouble. Some are wicked fierce!”

I nodded my head in agreement. “That they are. What’s your name? I’m Hana.” I put out my hand.

The boy took it and gave it a firm shake. “Name’s Abra.”

“Abra?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “Cool name. Is it your full name?”

“Full name’s Abrahim, but the other kids don’t enjoy long words, and I’m also magical with fishing. So they started calling me Abra, like from the spell, yeah?”

“Okay,” I said. “That makes sense.”

He returned my question with one of his own. “Your name is nice too, but why don’t you pronounce it like they do in town: Hannah?” Abra asked, his voice flattening out the first a.

“It’s a different language. It means flowers in a tongue called Japanese in the place I come from.”

“Flowers,” he said, nodding in agreement. “You are as pretty and proud as any flower I’ve ever seen. I’m glad you stopped to talk, Hana. Fishing with these two can be a boring business.” He pointed a thumb at the two behind him. I couldn’t help but smile again. This might be my new best friend. No surprise there. In the real world, I made friends with old folks and kids. Those near my age never seemed kind. “Should’ve skinned them all,” he added.

“What was that?” I asked, surprised by the switch in subjects.

“Kobold skins are less common than you’d think. Fetch a gold or two. The ratkins’, only a handful of copper each. Pull any of their teeth or nails?” As he asked this, he tested one of his lines by lifting his foot.

“What? Man, I had no idea. I’m new at this. That’s a lot more money than I have right now. I got 3 copper coins off the kobold. Coppers are probably not worth much, huh?”

“You can buy exactly three apples,” he said with a grin. Darting a hand into his pouch, he pulled out an apple of his own. “This one though, you can have for free.”

I took it, having not had any fruit or vegetables since arriving. “Hey, would you like some jerky?”

“I’m not too fond of rat, thank you very much. Tastes somehow like the scum of a pond, even after smoking it half to death.”

I pulled free a strip of the kobold meat and handed it to him.

“No way!” he exclaimed. “It’s been months since I’ve had me some boldy. Some don’t like it, but to me it’s like a weird mix between venison and turkey.”

“You mentioned teeth and claws. Are they valuable?”

“Kobold claws are great tools. They can fetch anywhere from a few silver up to a solid gold coin. It’d need to be a big one for that, though. Can’t find any big kobolds unless you travel up into the hills. Their teeth, not so much, but still a few coppers. The ratkin teeth are even less valuable, but their nails make great needles. The seamstress will buy them.” He rattled all this off without taking his eyes from the water. What a trove I’d found here. The boy was vast.

“Thank you so much for telling me all of this. Business is calling, though. I’ve got to trade in my teeth and claws, not to mention the fish I caught.”

The boy’s head darted back to me. “Hold on now, fish? You caught fish… from the creek I assume?” His voice sounded nervous.

“Yes, I caught five trout, I think. After killing the ratkin, I took a dozen more that they’d caught. Why? Good price for them too?”

“Not likely. They are out of season. Every third to fifth month of the year, the trout are off limits. They spawn up the stream to feed. After the fish grow fat, the townsfolk put out some nets before they return downstream. Catching them in spawn is like eating an apple when it’s green, y’know?” His eyes searched mine, his face pinched with worry.

“Do you think I’ll be in trouble for this?”

He bit his lip and thought for a minute. “If I were you, I’d go straight to speak with Marshal Dandre. You’ll find the marshal in the only stone building in town. Say what you’ve done, claim all five trout you took, and pay the fine. It is steep, but worth it. Otherwise you might be banned or flogged.”

My eyes did not hide my fear well. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Abra noticed my worry, reached out, and grabbed my pointer finger. He gave me a crooked smile and wagged my hand. “Don’t worry, Hana. The marshal is not cruel. Stop at the seamstress and shopkeeper first and sell what you have. I’m sure you’ll have enough for any fine.”

“Thank you, Abra. I’ll see you around, okay? Maybe I can trade you something good to eat if you teach me to fish this pond.” I grinned as I shouldered my gear to go.

He took another bite of the jerky. “Aye, I’ll teach you how to nab the bass in spring, the carp in summer, and the trout and salmon in fall and winter. A fish for every season. Plus my year-round favorite, catfish!” He turned back to his pond, not waiting to watch me go. That boy knew what it is to be alone.

I headed to the town proper, amazed that the other two boys slept through our entire conversation. I gave the command to see notifications, curious to see any consequences to my actions.

Word Play - Level 1 - All interactions with NPCs have a more favorable outcome by a degree of 2%.

A second notification popped up immediately after, making me stumble a bit. A new quest!

Fishing with Abra: Minor Quest. You have struck up a friendship with Tael’s young Abra, the local expert fisherman. He has agreed to teach you how to fish for the native species. This is a multi-stage quest that continues to develop until every season and fish type has been explored. Status: 0/4 complete. Rewards: Skill in fishing various species; 150 XP per phase; additional rewards upon full completion unknown.

I smiled as I dismissed the information, clearing my view and preparing myself for town. Gaining XP just by hanging out with little Abra would be a treat. Who said all quests needed to be hard?

I swallowed down a bundle of nerves as I entered town. I had not expected a confrontation with the law on my first trip into town. Abra had a good point though. I’d head first to the seamstress to make some coin. It had to be enough to tip the scales regarding the fine for… fish poaching? I wasn’t even sure what to call my accidental crime.

The town opened up into a wide patch of well-worn earth and ran around half of one bank of the pond. Down the center lay a cursory path of cobbles, tipping the hat to the notion of a proper street. Though not a city by any means, Taelman’s Pond had plenty of citizens.

Various shops had every telltale sign above their doors. This was what one might expect of an RPG game, but the convenience still reassured me. Eternal Online had been anything but convenient so far.

I passed a stand of produce, a butcher’s shop, and the anvil-and-hammer sign of what I assumed to be a blacksmith. I heard no clanking when I passed, just rushing gouts of air consumed by a hungry fire. Bellows?

A needle and thimble above a small cottage drew me in. Soap, and some harsher chemical, made the air thick and hard to breathe. I winced at the intensity of the fragrance.

A young woman, not much older than I, stepped forward. “Y’get used to the smell. Can I help you, ma’am?”

“Yes, um, I’m new here and need to sell some items if that’s okay,” I said with a blush. The first interactions were always the hardest for me.

“Depends on what you’re peddling, miss. My name is May. Nice to meet you.”

She made no move to shake my hand, so I remained likewise reserved. “My name is Hana. I have some ratkin and kobold claws that Abra thought you might like.”

She gestured to the counter between us and I fumbled with my bags, pulling out the herbs and claws.

“Ask the cook if they can use any of those herbs, otherwise you might need to find the herbalist that lives in the hills. These though, not bad. Ratkin claws are needle-sharp!” She grinned.

“The rest were blunted.”

“As they often are,” she said, then pointed at the claws. “I’ll pay good for this lot. I’m short on needles of any sort right now. I will give you 3 silver for every two claws. How does that sound?”

I remembered my conversation with Abra and nodded my head. I was getting more than he’d predicted. “I’d like to