Chapter 1

Eizel 2

Chapter 1 banner

Eizel Oqerton, using the name Aymy, prudently looked both ways before hastily—as fast as she could without draining her meager Stamina, already down to a Current Max of 28—moved out from the alleyway she was hiding in, through the west gate, and to the closest waypoint stone.

The world was painted in the dim hues of early morning. Despite that, there was a friendly guard on duty, standing just beyond the gate, who shouted a friendly greeting.

She tensed, pulled her black hooded cloak tighter, and promptly ignored the man. He grumbled something about humans and then repeated the process to someone else.

Of all the ridiculous things she had done, this was by far the most foolish. One person; if just one person recognized her—the sole daughter of the famous Oqerton family—gossip would spread.

Kind citizens, seeking favor, no doubt, might find themselves fancying the idea of warning her parents of her peculiar activities.

Not to mention her peers.

She could already hear the meddlesome Kina Starworth whispering about a secret love affair with a Runner. Oh, the scandal! As if stealing a recent clothing business wasn’t enough, the girl would jump at any opportunity to kick an opponent while they were down.

Needless to say, a member of the Founders class simply didn’t play dress-up and escape into the dangerous Wilds. Were they to adventure into the unknown, it’d be a publicity stunt to show off their importance or a new product, not something bound in secrecy, slinking in the shadows.

And Eizel was a terrible shadow slinker!

After all that waiting and watching, she managed to time her exit from the great City of Creannan at the same time as someone else.

Quickly and without due thought, she stepped onto the waypoint stone for the first time. It was a circular platform with blue gems set in the shape of a sun.

The gems gave off the slightest glow. There might have been an electric hum in the air. It was hard to tell while her heart bounced around like a caged animal desperately fighting to escape.

She extended her index and middle fingers until they pressed against an invisible sheet of cold glass. Her fingers slid upward, trailing red pixels. Then fragments of translucent shapes in the same color formed into her game screen.

Eizel-mini grinned excitedly. The little avatar was going on an adventure and pointed to the only unlocked waypoint available.

The city had provided everyone this waypoint to encourage people to go out and find resources. And when that wasn’t enough, it was later subsidized, making the waypoint free.

Eizel tapped the sun symbol, then tapped the Accept button on the newly formed dialog. Doing so, and doing it quickly, helped her not ponder on exactly what she was doing.

“Too much thought,” her father had always said, “brings distraught. Act in the moment!” And so she acted, a coil tight in her stomach.

She nearly jumped out of her cloak at the sudden intake of breath from all around. The desaturated colors of green hills, the distant forest, and Creannan’s walls elongated and warped around her.

It lasted a whole second or two. Then, in a snap, she stood in a different place, a dangerous place beneath tall twisting trees swaying in the breeze.

There was a true desire to stand there while the platform’s edges sparkled with golden pixels, signaling her immunity so that, if the area was not ideal, she could trigger a free return. But she was blocking the waypoint for other people to use, other people she needed to avoid.

Eizel picked a random direction and ran, bare feet crunching the forest debris. She got about twenty feet before a party of three materialized on the waypoint in a whoosh.

She crashed into a bush, twisted around in the dirt, and held her breath, peeking through the gaps between leaves.

This whole thing was quite ridiculous indeed.

What was she doing?

Her stomach growled.

Yes, thank you, she thought to her incredibly empty organ that had thoughts of its own. Were it one of the Oqertons’ many employees—in a previous life—it would have certainly gone on strike by now, publicly shaming the Oqerton Alliance for mismanagement.

The party of three adventurers, wearing leather armor and carrying weapons, marched off in the other direction, following a trail.

She let out her breath, then remembered that this was the Wilds. What helped her remember this truly frightful fact was the long black and red centipede, with many white legs, that scurried across her fingers.

She squeaked and ripped her hand away, flinging the insect to some unknown place. It was even more foolish that she had no shoes or trousers or protection of any kind.

Now it felt like insects were crawling all over her, tickling her legs and arms. She stood and did a little dance in the forest, swiping at the tiny non-existent threats to her mental fortitude.

Insects couldn’t actually hurt her, or so one of the many guides she had read last night said. They were the details of the living system to give the world a sense of realism.

Well, she certainly could have done with less realism in this particular case. Maybe there was a game setting for insects that could be disabled? And why not? This was a digital world. That should be one of the perks of giving up their physical bodies.

All of this was distracting from the entire point of being here: food. Real food. Food she didn’t have to pay for with her paltry earnings, which would go to Marley to pay down debts.

The woman had already been exceptionally patient. But that patience wouldn’t last. It was only a matter of days before she would make the trip to the manor and demand to see father for payment.

That couldn’t happen.

Birds whistled a tune. They sat on the winding branches, watching her. Their tweets mixed with the quiet music that thrummed along. It had fit so naturally with the environment she didn’t even recognize it was there until now.

Eizel scanned the many bushes, of which there had to be some with berries, right? All of the foragers went out into the Wilds and returned with resources aplenty, enough to sell and pay back debts, no doubt.

There were no berries or nuts or herbs, much to the disappointment of her stomach. And no cotton or flax or . . . wool. How would she even get wool? Did this world even have sheep, or did it come from some other animal?

Silk seemed unreasonable. She’d need hundreds of caterpillars. Or maybe one giant one. Oh . . . that was something she didn’t need to think about at this precise moment in time.

The station used milk casein to substitute wool and soybean protein for silk. But something told her such resources weren’t available. She’d need to get creative if she was going to cut out the middleman and compete with Kina on price.

But this place had been picked clean. And of course it had. All the people starving on the streets and driven to find food wherever they could had likely scoured the closest available areas for anything of value.

Eizel would just have to go where no one else dared travel: deeper. This troubling thought was accompanied by the swoosh of another party appearing on the waypoint stone.

She crashed back into the dirt, holding absolutely still until the group wandered off in the same direction as the last. Was that the direction of the dungeon she had heard about? She was positively not ready to explore a dungeon of all places.

The moment they were out of sight, she stood and hastily took four steps onto what had looked like dirt-covered ground but snapped under her weight.

She sucked in a breath, arms stretched out to the sides in an attempt to catch herself, and fell into a pit of spikes.