Player – Part 2246 min read

Player – Part 2246 min read

“We have come for the other two, we have no business with you,” Jennifer said. She didn’t know the woman, and she didn’t care. She wanted to get their marks and finish this damned quest. When the woman denied and acted up, she was already growing frustrated and angry. It grew further when the woman stood up and had the audacity of conjuring a shield. But all that frustration and anger was nothing next to what Jennifer felt when she noticed the woman’s hands. Well, hand. 

On her right hand, the woman wore a ring. A simple, silver-looking ring. Modest in design and size. The ring bore a signet though, one Jennifer recognized and knew all too well. One that filled her to her core with hate and a thirst for vengeance. 

Blinded by anger she slapped Oswald’s arm, trying to point out to him what she had seen, trying to say it but only managing guttural groans. Tired of trying, she simply summoned up two spells and attacked. The next moments followed in a hazy frenzy, where Oswald followed her into an attack and the woman tried to hold up the shield. The youngsters, Jennifer noted, were trying to fight back as well. Brave and courageous, if not stupid and meaningless. 

Meaningless until they managed to hit her leg and then impale Oswald in his core. Perhaps Jennifer should have seen this coming, perhaps she did underestimate them. But when Oswald went down, she lost herself in a frenzy. She flung spells at them at an insane rate, spending her mana as if it was nothing. She damned the woman, damned the youngsters and she damned her master. 

“Oswald! Are you okay?” Jennifer screamed as she ducked between two of the incoming spells. They were crude, lacked sophistication and skill. But they did pack a punch. She kept channelling, enhancing her body with mana to make it move faster. It was the only thing allowing her to dance between the attacks from the youngsters. Oswald, of course, had never bothered to study channelling. The workings of the lord are enough, he had said. And now he was on the ground, clutching his stomach, pierced by a magic missile from a Player a few weeks old.  Jennifer swore and cursed as she threw spell after spell. She used crude, high energy attacks. It drained her mana rapidly, but it battered the woman’s shield as well. She could see it crack and dim, soon enough it would fall. And then she was hers. Jennifer looked forward to paying some of that sorrow back to her. But first, she had to check on Oswald.

She finally managed to get to him and conjured a shield. Smaller but far stronger than what that bitch could conjure. As the youngsters pelted her shield without effect she quickly conjured some healing on Oswald. The wound slowly started to mend itself. The bleeding stopped first and then the damage started to diminish. Jennifer grinned, after this, she could go all out on the shield, it would crack in a matter of moments, the youngster she could take care off in a heartbeat as well. And then the woman.

In the corner of her eye she could see her shield suddenly moving, rotating around her, moving from her side to her back. Before she could wonder why she felt the sudden but demanding pull on her mana as the shield took a blow. A strong blow judging by the mana it demanded. Jennifer gasped and ended her healing. 

“Heal yourself further, will you?” She said through gritted teeth, then stood up and turned around. A man was attacking her now, his magic felt familiar. Jennifer quickly realised this was the other Player the three of them must have fought earlier, the traces they had found. It matched him. 

“What do you want?” Jennifer demanded as she flung two spells at him at the same time. Both of them missed but still managed to scorch the man’s skin as they passed. He used no shields and instead flung two spells back.They burst against Jennifer shield without hurting her, but it drained her mana. 

“Leave her alone!” The man screamed, he was clearly enraged as well. 

Jennifer groaned as she kept attacking, switching her spells from high-energy to more tactical ones. Small spears that were hard to see coming, little orbs thrown to the sides that homed in on the man. They did less damage but had more chance of hitting. And it was working, the man was getting wound after wound. Jennifer turned the battle into one of attrition, one she would win. But the others were getting away now though. Between every outburst of attacks that she dared to glance at them, she could see them. Leaving, running. 

Fuck.

It was okay, she could track them later. She was exhausted, and the youngsters couldn’t be off much better either. Jennifer groaned again under another heavy attack against her shield. 

Yes, she could find them later. This one first. If he defended her, it meant he was probably the same as her. And then he deserved the same as well. Death. 

With a roar, Jennifer disbanded her shield and charged, conjuring three spells at once. She had only recently reached an arcane mastery high enough to do that, and it was still very taxing. But vermin like this deserve nothing less than extermination. Two large balls of energy flew towards the man, he could evade them but not prevent them from grazing his arms. The man readied his next spell but only then saw Jennifer’s third spell, a long spear of light. He tried to evade it, channelling as well Jennifer noted, but he was too late. The spear pierced his shoulder and left a hole in it. Blood was now seeping from several wounds and the man already seemed tired. 

“Give up,” Jennifer said as she flung two fireballs at him. 

The man stepped back and conjured two small shields. Not to catch the balls but rather to deflect them. An elegant solution, one that required little mana. It only angered Jennifer more. “Never.” Was his resolute answer. 

“Suit yourself,” Jennifer said and engaged in a brutal barrage of spellfire. The man channelled and tried to evade most of them. Those he couldn’t evade he tried to deflect with his small shields. But whatever he did, he couldn’t prevent from  hit or grazed every now and then. And Jennifer’s plan was working, the attrition was building up and the man was getting visibly more tired. Slower. His attacks packed less of a punch. He moved more and more on the defensive. getting

“Tell me your name, so I can remember what vermin I killed today.” Jennifer spat.

“Fuck you bitch,” The man gritted his teeth. “You can have my name, but only so you can remember who sent you to the afterlife. I’m Karl.”

Jennifer flinched, allowing the man to land a spell on her, piercing her leg. She cursed. 

“Karl? Karl Meyer? Karl of Abirax?” Jennifer asked, demanded.

“None other.” The man said with a wicked grin, something flickered in his eyes. 

Jennifer was enraged, she knew this man. By name, not his face. She hated him. Her surprise and her rage caused her to notice the flicker in his eyes too late, made her understand what it meant too late. 

“No, don’t-” She tried to say, but it was too late. 

The man roared loudly and clutched his head. His roar turned from anger to pain to rage. Louder and louder. His muscles twitched and spasmed as he fell to his knees. Jennifer gasped as his aura suddenly changed to something vicious, something powerful. 

“Why would you do that,” Jennifer whispered. And for the first time in a while, she felt fear. She quickly started to conjure and prepare spells, firing them at the man. They bashed against his skin but did far less damage now. Exactly as she had expected. 

The demon transformation, this spell was called often. A last resort kind of thing. It gave you incredible power but at the cost of your humanity and life. Once the rush passed, nothing was left but a lifeless husk with a maddened soul. 

And this man had just chosen to do just that. 

As he stood back up, he conjured two spells. Balls of raw mana, a menacing deep red colour. He threw them at Jennifer and she was just in time with her shield. The balls smashed against it and broke it. In one attack. She groaned under the waste of her mana. 

She channelled again and started to move around, throwing the smaller spells again. The man evaded most of them now, and those that did hit he didn’t even seem to register. He was channelling as well, continuously it seemed instead of small bursts like Jennifer and most other Players did. It was insane, was this the power of the transformation? Jennifer shivered at the thought of fighting an army of these, as her master did in his past. 

The man attacked her with his hand, augmented with magical blades, and managed to hit her calf, taking her down. 

Jennifer swore and tried to conjure a shield as he dashed towards her but before she finished or he reached her a sudden flash of golden light showered the both of them. 

The man suddenly stopped and howled. He started to jump around, trying to reach the middle of his back. When he turned around Jennifer could see a large burn mark there. Further behind, she saw Oswald, panting but grinning. Already preparing his next working. 

Jennifer smiled and conjured her own spells, the strongest ones she had. Together they started to pelt the man, their spells doing minimal damage, but at least some damage. 

The man howled and trashed around, chasing one, then the other as they both attacked him. He lost his mind more and more to his rage and in the end, he was like a rabid dog. Attacking whatever side had hurt him. This made it easy for Jennifer and Oswald to attack the man and keep him from ever reaching either one of them. 

Jennifer smiled as they had once again made this into a battle of attrition,one they would win. Although there wasn’t much of a buffer this time, their mana was rapidly depleting with the amount of power they put in their spells. But they had to, anything less wouldn’t be able to scratch the man. Let alone hurt him.

The battle raged on for quite some time, far more time than Jennifer had hoped for or anticipated. But eventually the moment came where the man’s demonic transformed skin was growing weaker and weaker, until it was weak enough to pierce. Jennifer let Oswald pelt the man as she prepared a more complex spell and fired it, just as he was about to reach Oswald. 

Three glowing, purple orbs fired from her hands and rushed for the man, piercing his body, entering one side and exiting on the other. The man howled, groaned and gurgled as he fell to his knees with three large holes in his abdomen and back. 

“Finally,” Jennifer said between gritted teeth and then gasped. 

Oswald stopped moving and leaned on his knees, catching his breath. “The Lord be praised… what was this?” 

“Demonic transformation,” Jennifer said as she joined him. “I never thought it would be this powerful.”

“Me neither,” Oswald said as he straightened his back. “Our master is insane. Fight an army of this? What were they thinking back then.”

“How did they even do it,” Jennifer replied.

As they were catching their breath the man kept gurgling, clawing at his belly, looking at the holes. As if he didn’t understand what just had happened. 

“He is still crazed,” Jennifer said as she nodded towards him.

“Yeah, I think he is getting his mind back though,” Oswald said, then the man screamed. A loud, painful scream. “Yeah, he is,” Oswald said, some remorse in his voice.

“Fuck him, he earned it,” Jennifer said. “That is, was, Karl Meyer. He deserves all of this.”

“Fuck,” Oswald said softly. Anger flared in his eyes too, and Jennifer could see him struggle with his wits for a moment. But he kept his composure, as always. “Perhaps you have a point this time. He won’t find any remorse or pity from me in any case.” And with that Oswald turned his back to him. 

Jennifer looked at Karl, kneeling a bit away from him. Watching him struggle. 

“Sucks right? Dying? Well, enjoy it, we are going to make sure your dying lasts as long as we can make it.” She spat at his face. Karl flinched, seemingly in a haze as he still tried to cover up the holes in his body. 

Jennifer turned towards Oswald. “The only reason he is still alive is the transformation. But it will fade over time, it has only so much power and most of that is used up. It is now a matter of time before it is all spent and he dies. I am going to follow the others, try to track them again. You make this bastards last moments as painful as you can.” Her voice was stern, and it was clear to Oswald this was not a request. 

It irked him but he understood, so he just nodded to her. “Sure, but-” He suddenly stopped, his eyes going big. “Son of a-”

Jennifer turned around and saw Karl making a run for it, limping, bleeding profusely. She wasted not a single second and conjured a spell, firing needles made of light at Karl. They all hit, pinning his back. Karl roared in pain but kept running. 

“Fuck!” Jennifer shouted. “Okay, fuck this. You,” Jennifer turned around to Oswald. “Leave a nice surprise for our friend. Something that will ensure he dies. Then you come to me. Here,” Jennifer handed a small amulet to Oswald. “It is attuned to me, use it to find me. Do it covertly. And Oswald,” Jennifer looked him in the eyes. “Make sure he dies.”

And with that she turned around and dashed off, channelling to make her movements faster. Going from a jog to a run to a jumping forwards kind of manner. Each jump powered by channelling-enforced legs. 

Oswald sighed as he looked from Jennifer’s vanishing form to the limping, struggling escape of Karl.

Oswald sat down on one knee and put both of his hands on the ground, pushing his fingers into the earth. He felt the cold, wet mud as he dug in deep. Conjuring the power of one of his strongest workings, after such a battle, made him groan under the load. This was a controversial working as well, some of the faith refused to use it, others deemed it to be among the holiest artefacts they had. Oswald was undecided. He saw its use, he saw the Lord’s hand in it, but he also acknowledged that it went against some of his teachings.  

The working took him a good fifteen minutes and when he was done he was exhausted. He forced himself up to his legs again and waited. Sure enough, after some time, the ground started to form two small, growing heaps of mud. The dirt and mud seemed to trickle up from the ground, the little heaps growing and growing until they were big ovals half the size of Oswald. They stopped growing and hardened and after a few more heartbeats the ceramic shells broke and shattered. Revealing two curled up creatures. 

Their flesh seemed to be stone and clay, their eyes gems, their teeth obsidian. They had a sleek, humanoid build but resembled demons more than men. They uncurled and stood up, standing only half a head smaller than Oswald, and glared at him.

“Masterrrrr,” hissed one of them. “Thy orderrrrr?”

Oswald shivered, their voices were perfectly normal and understandable, aside from the odd accent. But they sounded empty, lacking something; A soul, Oswald knew, but it was hard to get used to it. 

“Yes, there,” Oswald pointed at some of the blood that Karl had left behind. “Your mark. Track, Kill. Bring their head.”

The creatures cracked their heads to the side and then suddenly moved towards the puddle of blood. They sprinted on all fours, at an inhuman speed. Their joints bent in odd angles and the whole image was unsettling. Yes, Oswald understood what some of the Faith had against this working. But neglecting to use a tool of the lord would be tomfoolery. 

Oswald watched the creatures lapping up the blood, hissing and crackling and then rushing off full speed into the direction that Karl had left. Oswald sighed and took out Jennifer’s amulet and tried to position her. Little time had passed but she was already quite the distance away. He decided to regain some of his strength first and then leave. Perhaps the Lord’s servants would have returned by then. With their prize. 

The sun had settled and darkness fell on the land. Jennifer was panting, the Channelling had taken its toll on her. Her muscles ached, her skin glowed along the veins where mana travelled through her body. She felt as if she did not have a single drop left. 

But she knew where they were, she had found them again. Even better, they had set up camp. They were exhausted too, and the woman, she could barely feel her. She was overspent, it would be days before she could pose a threat to them again. The youngsters were theirs now, and the woman too. She took some time to rest, regain her breath and some of her mana. She used some potions she had brought with her, to accelerate it all. And by the time the moon was rising, she was ready to approach them again. She knew Oswald was on his way, but it would take him some time to reach her. 

So she decided to scout ahead. There were some alert spells deployed, crude little things, probably the handiwork of the youngsters. While Jennifer saw the potential and talent in them, it was nothing to her to figure out how they worked and untangle them to bypass them.

Slowly she moved closer to their camp, watching out for signs of life, with spell and sense. And eventually, she found far more than what she had hoped to find. While at first she wanted only to scout and gauge their strength, she found one of the youngsters. All alone. It was the boy, huddled up in a tree. Keeping watch? Letting the other two sleep first? Great character, that was promising at the least. Perhaps she had to trust her master more in these matters. 

She wasted no time and moved towards him as fast as she could, channelling and using spells to avoid detection until the very last moment. She conjured a spell blade and put it to his throat, threatening him, silencing him. 

But even as he stared death in the face, the lad started to conjure a spell. Jennifer had to admit he was courageous and had some balls. 

“No.” She whispered. And pushed the blade further against his neck, drawing a drop of blood. She looked into his eyes and saw many things, mainly fear. “I won’t harm you, but you can’t conjure a spell. Understood?”

There was a moment of silence where the boy looked at her, holding on to the mana he had charged in his spell, but then he let go of it again. Sighing. 

“Yes,” He said, defeated. 

“Good lad, I’m going to retract my blade. Don’t do anything stupid now okay.” Jennifer warned and then took the blade of his throat. The boy groaned and then rubbed the small cut. 

“What do you want?” His voice was filled with hate, and he reminded Jennifer of how she had been once. 

“Not so fast, let’s be a bit more friendly hmm?” Jennifer said as she took a step back and glared at the lad. “I’m Jennifer.”

The lad glared back and after a long pause replied. “Finn.”

“Well, Finn,” Jennifer said as she eased a bit. “I want you to know that you, or that girl you are with, were never in danger. We don’t want to harm you.”

Finn scoffed. “It sure didn’t look that way. You attacked us!”

“We attacked the woman, not you.” Jennifer butted in. 

“You said your business was with Sam and me,” Finn replied but regretted it. 

“Sam, so that is her name,” Jennifer said. “Well, yes. Our business is with Sam and you. But our business is not hurting you.”

“Then why did you attack us?”

“Again, we did not attack you, we attacked her. Never did we aim for you or Sam. In fact, I think you noticed how I could have hurt you several times but each time dissolved my spell.”

Finn was quiet for a moment and then replied hesitantly, “…yes.” 

“Right, because I don’t want to hurt you. Or Sam. Neither does my,” Jennifer hesitated for a moment. “Friend.”

“Why do you want to hurt Mira then?” 

“Mira, is that her name?” Jennifer asked, her face distorted by hate and anger. “Well, that is a long story, Finn.”

“I have time.”

Jennifer sighed. “Okay. I guess I owe you an explanation of sorts. But after I am done, you will answer some questions as well.” 

“We’ll see.”

Jennifer sighed again but bit through her frustration. “Very well. We had no intention of attacking you or this Mira. All we wanted was to talk to you and Sam. That is our quest, given to my partner, Oswald, and me by our master.”

“Who is your master?”

“I can’t tell you that, it is up to him to tell you who he is. But for now, know that he is a man far stronger and more skilled than me, and one I respect. However, when I saw the ring on Mira’s finger… it sealed her fate. I will not allow her to live. Not even if my master commanded me to. And that is why I attacked.”

“Ring?” Finn asked confused. “What about her ring?” He remembered it vaguely, never paid any real attention to it. 

“It won’t say much to you or your friend, you are new to all of this.” Finn’s eyes went wide but Jennifer scoffed. “Oh please, you two basically spell out ‘new to this’. But that ring, it bears the signet of a specific order. A sort of guild or group in the world of Players. And these people… they are vile people. Not worthy of the earth they walk on or the air they breathe.” Jennifer spat out those last words. 

“What? Because they help others? Because they take in people like Sam and me and help them?” Finn asked angrily. 

“What?” Jennifer gave him a confused glare, then her eyes lit up. “Oh, is that what she said to you? That makes sense, I was wondering why you two were travelling with her ilk on your own accord. They do not do that at all, on the contrary.” 

“What?” Finn asked, his body froze, all of the doubts he had. This woman, this Jennifer, she just had validated them. 

Jennifer could see realizations form in Finn’s eyes. “Yeah, she is the exact opposite. These people, these so-called Angels of Borinia. They hunt for your kind, new Players. Freshly awakened. Setting their very first, careful steps in the world. But not to protect you, oh no. They hunt you to own you. You see, in this world, you’ll find a lot of people. A lot of vile people as well. A lot of selfish people. The Angels of Borinia are among the worst. They will enslave you, use you for their own nefarious deeds. Lust, greed, hunger for power. They will suck you dry of your mana and impetus. They will use you to experiment on, they will force you to test out their invented spells based on madness and chance. To them, you are nothing more than a resource and a tool. And once they take you ‘home’ there is no escape. Their Guildhall is a fortress, one that has never been breached or conquered. And the sad reality is that their way of … ‘life’ has attracted and nurtured some pretty strong Players among their ranks. Ones that would be a match even for my Master. So yeah, once you are inside their hall, you are as good as dead. Your life is over.”

Finn gasped, holding his head, his mind racing. It all made sense. Why he didn’t trust her, why his gut was telling him to be wary of her. Why she acted so odd at times. 

“That man, the one that attacked you in the fight, he was one of them wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” Jennifer said, she was happy Finn made that connection himself. 

“Oh god, Sam!” Finn suddenly exclaimed. “She is alone with her now, I need to go and-”

“No, stay,” Jennifer said as she put a hand on his shoulder. “I doubt Mira will recover from that fight anytime soon, she seemed to be spent entirely. And your friend can use the rest.”

“Yes…” Finn was thinking. “I… I don’t even know if she will believe this. She has trusted Mira since the start. I think she feels safe around her.” 

“Hmmm,” Jennifer was thinking as well. “Maybe she ensorceled her to an extent. Nothing too big, you may be new but you would catch on to that. But there exist smaller, more nuanced spells as well. Small nudges in somebody’s opinion instead of brute-forcing it.”

“She hexed her?” Finn exclaimed.

“Shhh” Jennifer hushed him. “I don’t know. Perhaps, there are some traces from spellwork on your Aurem, might be from some tries to ensorcel you as well. Ones she abandoned when it became clear you would notice.”

Finn thought for a moment. He was hesitant to believe this Jennifer, although his gut wasn’t warning him. This new world was chaos, he hated it. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore and he couldn’t trust anybody anymore either. 

“So, what do you want to talk about to Sam and me then?”

“Well, isn’t it better to do that with her here as well?”

“No, you can do it now.” Finn had no intention of possibly pulling Sam into danger as well. He had done that enough already. 

Jennifer sighed. “Well, okay then,” she finally said. She quickly conjured three spells, the fog swirling and moving through varying hue’s. “Detection spells. Just in case.” She said with a smile when Finn looked alarmed. Then she sat down on the branch, with perfect balance. 

“So, my Master is a very powerful Player. Among the elite, you could say. There aren’t many around that are stronger than him. Or well, it is hard to say. There aren’t many around that we can measure to be stronger than him. When people at his level fight, it often ends with one of them dying or both parties surviving and retreating. Some call them titans, and when the titans fight, you don’t want to be anywhere near them. Their power is destructive beyond imagination.” 

Finn eased his back against the tree again as Jennifer talked.

“Now, he is part of a guild of sorts as well. It is not really a guild, more a loose gathering or group of very strong Players. Very different kinds of people too, but they share some general ideologies and morals, and they have gathered to preserve, guard and enforce them. As much as they can. They once were a much tighter group, there were even days when they were a proper guild. Structured, with a hierarchy, with rules, with goals. But those days are long gone. He doesn’t speak about it often, and if you meet him, do not ask about it too much. Something happened in the past, something awful. Many of his friends and guildmates died. A gruesome battle, stuff from before my time. But the little morsels I find about it …” Jennifer shivered and went glass-eyed for a moment. “Suffice to say it is the stuff nightmares are made off. Something you never want to happen again. But the few that survived that and did not go into isolation or went mad, they formed this new grouping. A large part of what ties them together is preventing such a battle from ever happening again. Now, every one of them is at the level of my master, a titan. And they see it as their duty to spread both their skill and their morals. So they take on apprentices. Oswald, the man that was with me, and I are both my master’s apprentices.”

Jennifer took a pause and looked back, Finn didn’t know what she was doing but she was gauging the distance Oswald was at, he was making good ground but clearly not going as fast as he could be going. Slacking off again. She clicked her tongue. 

“Apprenticeship comes with duties and responsibilities. For one, we have to do everything our master asks of us. It is not often, but sometimes he will send us on quests. Like this one of finding you. Some take days, some take months. Usually, they are a chore. He also gives us other tasks, like assisting him in magical rituals or the training of a skill. In return, he teaches us, trains us and forms us. There are shortcuts to training certain skills. Well not short cuts, but more efficient ways of training them. He knows many of those, he has years upon years of experience and knowledge. To young Players like Oswald and me this is a gold mine, to fresh ones like Sam and you, it is like finding a lost vault of knowledge. Invaluable.”

Finn was listening closely, it sounded amazing. Dangerous, but amazing.

“Most masters in the group have between three and eight apprentices, my master is the odd one out, having only two. He used to have three, but they all died, and then he got Oswald and me. But my master also busies himself with… rather dangerous things. Stuff the others usually shy away from or ignore and neglect. But to him, this belongs among their duties as well. So he picks up the work and does it.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“You will have to ask yourself, it is not up to me to speak about those things,” Jennifer answered curtly. “Now, he recently finished something. And he has both more time on his hands now and the need for more hands to help him. So he has been on the lookout for fresh apprentices. And this-”

“And this is where Sam and I come into the picture?” Finn asked. 

“Yes,” Jennifer said. “He detected you out of pure luck, really. And sent us after you. By the time we found your trace you had already met up with Sam. And by the time we got close, you had already introduced her to the System.” She sounded regretful. 

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Well, not necessarily, but if we had been able to find you before that, we could have educated you on all of this. And then you could have decided with a bit more …. Knowledge. Now you just pulled her along with you.” 

It was a sneer, and it hurt. But Finn agreed with it, he had been feeling like this for a while now. And hearing it from another person solidified it. Making it hurt even more. 

“Don’t look like that, you didn’t know anything. And chances are you didn’t have much choice either. This is how things like this go for most new Players. They discover it, pull some friends in it and then stuff goes horribly wrong. You two aren’t doing that bad so far.”

“Is that how it went for you as well?” Finn asked. 

Jennifer went silent, her eyes glassy again. Her face contorted a bit and she bit her lip. “Yes, but no more of that.” She said softly and curtly. “The thing is, we found you. And now we are to offer you to join us under our master, and to come along with us.”

“And why should I, we, believe you?” Finn asked. “You can say many things, but there isn’t a lot of proof here. Am I supposed to blindly trust you?”

Jennifer smiled. “Good, if you had just accepted to come with me, I would have been second-guessing my Master’s choices. No, you should not. I have no proof for you, about what I just said. I have no proof either about Mira, aside from the ring she wears. But the signet bears no meaning to you. All I can say is, give it enough time and you will see her true nature. Go with her, and she will take your freedom away. And then you will be beyond my help, or even of that of my master. So yes, you will have to blindly follow me along. But you are right to question it.”

Finn frowned. “This is not much of a choice, either I follow one that I don’t trust or another. It is all a gamble. One that can cost me my life, and that of Sam.”

“Indeed.” Jennifer eyed him lazily now. “It is a shitty situation. I know. I have been where you are now. So has Oswald. But we both decided to come with. Your call is your own.”

“And that of Sam’s, I need to talk about this with her. We’ll decide together then.”

“But if she has been ensorceled by Mira, she will be biased and forced to choose to follow her. Perhaps even up to the point where she wants to split up. And,” Jennifer said as she leaned closer. “Something tells me that you will go along with her then.”

Finn bit his lip in frustration. “You are probably right, she means a lot to me.”

“You love her,” Jennifer said and chuckled when she saw the face Finn made. “Don’t give me that, you two basically emanate love. You really like each other, and it is cute. One of you should just man up and get that relationship going.” Her words were clearly aimed at Finn to ‘man up’. 

“Yeah, well, it is not as simple as that-”

“Nonsense, love is easy. Love is simple. If it isn’t, it isn’t love. You like her, she likes you. That is love. Love doesn’t care for whatever happened before. Love cares only for you and her. Seize it, before it gets bored of the two of you and decides to move on.”

“I’ll think about it,” Finn said, her words resonated with him though. 

“Good lad, now-” Jennifer stopped talking and tensed up. 

Finn wasn’t sure what was happening until he heard the sounds, tensing up as well he wanted to prepare a spell but Jennifer waved her hand at him. He stopped and moments later a man, the man from before, climbed in the tree, joining them. On another branch though. 

“Evening,” Oswald said, clearly tired and exhausted. And fed up with the whole ordeal. 

“Took you long enough, and why do you make so much noise you oaf? I said stealthily. S t e a l t h i l y” Jennifer sounded annoyed as she spelt the word out.

Oswald sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I am dead tired okay. Cut me some slack. Here,” Oswald lifted up something in his right hand. At first, Finn couldn’t see what it was, then the clouds moved and a sliver of moonlight hit them. He tensed and jumped back, his hands rushing to his mouth as not to scream in surprise and horror. 

Oswald was holding the severed head of the other man, the one that had come to their rescue earlier in the fight. 

“He put up quite the fight, managed to even kill one of my Damned.” Oswald sounded impressed by that, Finn had no idea what it meant. 

“So you had to use that hmm?” Jennifer asked apologetically. 

“Yes, it is okay though.”

“Thanks,” Jennifer said.

“I’m Oswald, “ He said as he offered his hand to Finn. 

Finn took it and shook it. “Finn.” His answer was short, uncertain. 

“I take it that Jennifer has brought you up to speed?”

“Yes, somewhat.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“And are you going to come with us? Damn boy, I am done with this quest. Please don’t lengthen my torture.”

“I-” Finn hesitated again. “I don’t know. I need to discuss this with my friend.”

“His lover.” Jennifer corrected with a teasing grin. 

“No, what- never mind. My friend,” Finn said as he glared at her. “We travel together, we are in this together. So I need to discuss it with her and then we will decide together.”

“I hope you don’t mean that hag when you say friend,” Oswald said. 

Jennifer’s eyes flared with sudden hate. “No, no he does not. She tried to deceive them, tell them her guild was protecting new players.”

Oswald groaned. “Damned bastards, may the Lord grant them eternal hellfire.”

“You stay here for a bit, I am going to get rid of this,” Jennifer said as she took the head. Then she jumped down from the tree.

“So, what do you think,” Oswald asked. 

“As I said, I want to ask my-”

“No, what do you think. Not what do you and your friend think.” Oswald said.

“Well,” Finn sighed. “To be honest, I think this is an amazing chance for us to learn how this world works and to get some invaluable skills. I also trust you two, or well. My gut isn’t telling me to not trust you. Like it did with Mira. But that could very well be because any of you have ensorceled me. And even if you didn’t, I don’t know what this apprenticeship entails. How much freedom will we have? How will we live? We have families, we were only going to be away for the summer.” 

Oswald smiled at Finn and squeezed his shoulder. “Lad, I understand. We all went to a situation like this, or a variation thereof. About your duties and freedoms, I can’t say much. That is up to our master. You’ll have to talk about that with him if you do decide to meet him. But on the family part…” Oswald hesitated, looking at the moon. “Lad, if you are a Player, and take part in this world. You need to let go of your family. Not for you, but for them. You gotta cut them off because if you don’t they will get hurt one day. By stuff, they can’t comprehend. And you won’t be able to protect from everything. Hell, you won’t be able to be around them all the time. There are gonna be people, things, in this world that will try to hurt you. Any way they can. And family is a great way to hurt somebody. Especially somebody who cares about them.”

Finn sighed. This was another thing he had been thinking about. Something he had tried ignoring for now. He would have to talk about it with Sam eventually, but the thought of leaving behind his family… it destroyed him.

“No worries lad, time heals all. It will get better. I still miss my own, but I got better at bracing through the hurt. And the hurt comes less often as well.”

“I could-”

“Yeah sure, you could. But would they deal well with this?” Oswald asked as he pointed his finger up and moved it in a wide circle. “I thought about that too, but the truth was, very few of my friends or family would deal well with this. Most of them would die or kill themselves. This is not a world for everybody lad. It takes a certain kind of people. People who can get broken time and time again, but have the resolution, the will to see it through. I can tell you are one of those. That lass of yours as well. But tell me truthfully boy, is your mother? Is your father?”

Finn sighed again. “Well… No… I guess not.” 

“Exactly, and that is why you won’t do that. If you do, you’ll end up like Jennifer, regretting it for the rest of your life.”

“Wait, what? What happened to her then?”

Oswald cursed. “Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that…”

“But you did, so tell me.” Finn pushed on. 

“Well, it is not like she is hiding it…” Oswald said. “You probably have noticed Jennifer has quite the hate for that woman right?”

“Mira, yes.”

“Well, she has plenty of reasons for that.”

“How so?”

“When she first discovered the System, she was young, seventeen or nineteen or something. She told her friends immediately. They had a tight group of seven. They all became Players. They learned together, explored together. As you probably know, the system has several built-in mechanisms, to punish and reward Players on their behaviour. Well, not all of Jennifer’s friends were good people. They hurt animals, normal people, with their skills. So the system reacted to that. It did what it always does, tearing the Veil and allowing some demonkin in. Imprinting a target in their feeble minds, and then setting them loose. Two of Jennifer’s friends were being hunted, but since there were seven of them, working together, they beat off the first three waves. They got lucky.”

“Lucky? How so?”

“Ah, you don’t know? Well, the system punishes you if you go against its ‘rules of conduct’. But if you deflect the first wave, it sends another, stronger wave. Defeat it again? It will send a third, even stronger one. But if you defeat that wave, it will stop.”

“What? Why?”

“Nobody knows really, just what it does. Break the rules of conduct again, it will start anew. Players have gotten pretty good at either evading demonkin, killing them or adhering to the rules of conduct. So little further research is being done into that. But, Jennifer and her friends were ecstatic. They thought they could handle anything the world would throw at them.”

“But they couldn’t,” Finn said with a sad tone. 

“Indeed, they couldn’t.” Oswald agreed in a just as sad tone. “A few days later, still high on their win, they met two Angels of Borinia.” 

Finn gasped.

“Not Mira, no, others. But they tricked them. They showed their true colours sometimes before they reached their dreaded Citadel though. And it came to a fight. In short, they slaughtered her friends. All of them. And the only reason Jennifer could getaway was that two of them slowed the Angels down. Jennifer was the only one that survived amongst her friends.”

Finn was silent, he couldn’t even begin to imagine how that felt. The guilt, the hurt…

“They gave chase, of course. And they almost caught her as well. But then she ran into my master. He knew the angels, and he disposed of them. They had a talk, she joined him. And that is that. Some years later, I joined as well.”

“That… must have been horrible.”

“I am sure it was. She doesn’t like to talk about it… but from how she behaves about it. Lad, they didn’t just kill her friends. Angels go further than that. I don’t know exactly what happened. But they must have tortured them, done unthinkable things to them. These scars, she will carry them for the rest of her life.”

Finn remained silent for a bit. Trying to wrap his head around it all. 

“So, when you see that hatred in her eyes. Know that she isn’t a bad person. There is a reason for all that hate. And even though I oppose hate, I understand it. Don’t judge her too harshly for it.”

“I won’t, I don’t,” Finn said. “I just- it is a lot.” 

“I know lad. Jennifer and I, we haven’t been Players for too long, well not in Player term at least. She has been for fourteen years, I am in my eighth year. We still remember our first days.”

“What is long in Player years then?”

“Well, once you get at a high enough level, you will start to have passive buffs and other skills you can use to prolong your life. Make yourself sturdier, healthier. It makes the average life expectancy of a Player above the beginner levels quite high. Our master, for example, we don’t know his exact age, but it is something close to two hundred years.”

“Two hundred years?!” Finn exclaimed in a gasp. 

“Hush boy,” Jennifer said annoyed as she crawled back up in the tree. “Really, neither of you two understand stealth do you?”

Oswald chuckled. “I’m afraid not. Did you dispose of him?”

“Yes, the ritual went fine. No hiccups.”

“Good.” Oswald sounded relieved. Finn looked puzzled at the both of them.

“That man, he had done something…. Bad. A ritual. If we don’t get rid of him… The right way. He might come back for us. So it was important it went well.” Oswald said. 

“Yeah, if not, we would have been royally fucked in the arse,” Jennifer added.

Oswald sighed. “May the Lord one day change your language.”

“Oh, can it Oswald.”

“Oswald has told me about… what happened when you first… awoke.” Finn said suddenly, butting in. “I… I am sorry that happened to you.”

“Oh,” Jennifer glared at Oswald. “Thanks, lad. It is okay. It has been a while, I have been able to make peace with it.”

“Peace?” Finn asked puzzled.

“I found a place in my heart to put it. I am not forgiving. Mira will die. I will make sure of that. Non-negotiable kid.”

“No, no. I understand that.” Finn said. “I won’t try to stop you but-”

“No worries. I will not hurt your lo-,” Jennifer stopped herself. “Your friend.”

Finn smiled. “Thanks.”

“Now then, I would like to see your friend and speak to her as well, if you don’t mind,” Jennifer said.

Finn hesitated again. He was still not entirely sure about the two of them. But he did trust them enough to let them speak to Sam. On the other hand, if they had bad ideas with the two of them, Mira wouldn’t be able to help them. Hell, she wouldn’t even be able to defend herself. Would it be okay to deliver her like that to Jennifer? 

“Lad, she is not your responsibility. And she tried to enslave you. Think of yourself and your friend, not her.” Jennifer looked at him. 

“How-”

“No, I can’t read minds. But you carry your thoughts far too clear on your face.”

“Yes, well. I guess it would be okay. But I will go and ask Sam first. Okay?”

Jennifer sighed, another wait. But it would have to do. Soon they would be going back. Their master would be happy. 

“Sure, go ahead. We will wait here and-” Jennifer stopped abruptly because Oswald had held up his hand. 

Both she and Finn started to listen, but they couldn’t hear anything. Jennifer checked her spellwork, but those hadn’t detected anything either. 

“Oswald, what is it? I can’t hear, see or sense anything. Are-”

“Hush woman, my workings have sensed something.”

“Your workings have sensed something my spells haven’t? Nonsense Oswald how-”

Oswald swathed his hand around again. “North-east, three hundred metres away. Check for yourself.” He sounded annoyed, but his voice remained silent, a whisper, nothing more. 

Jennifer groaned but closed her eyes for a moment, and then gasped. “You are right, well I’ll be damned.”

“If we are lucky, one of these days,” Oswald said with a self-righteous grin. 

“Oh shut it, seems like we won’t have to go for your friend after all Finn. Mira is coming, and she is taking Sam with her.”

“What? Where?”

“North-east of us, but she’ll be here in a minute or two at this speed,” Jennifer said as the mist started to glow. She was preparing spells. Oswald likewise closed his eyes and started to prepare. Probably these workings Finn had heard of but didn’t know what they were. 

“Wait, Sam is with her. Please, she can’t get hurt!”

“Don’t worry lad, I won’t allow her to get hurt,” Oswald said, smiling. “I can protect her with my workings.”

“Workings?”

“It is,” Oswald thought for a moment. “Well it is like magic, but different.”

“Aha!” Jennifer said triumphantly. “You finally admit!”

“I do no such thing! It is just easier to think of it that way first.” 

“Sure, now leave me be. I am going to tear this woman apart.”

Finn still looked anxious, afraid Sam was going to get hurt in the battle that sound would erupt. 

“Don’t worry lad. Jennifer can handle this Mira. You and I can focus entirely on keeping Sam safe. I can ward her and shield her. You just need to get to her once the fighting starts, then guide her to me. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Finn said. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. If things go well, we’ll be colleagues soon enough.” Oswald blinked. 

“Hush, she is here.” Jennifer finally said. 

Finn swallowed and tried to look around, to see where Mira was. Where Sam was. Nothing could happen to her.

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