“That’s not funny,” said Britta.
Stan grinned at her. “It’s kind of funny. Imagine the look on your bully’s face when they get bundled into the back of a van.”
It was hard to know how to respond to something so stupid. “That is a horrible idea. Please tell me you’re joking.”
“What?” said Stan. “They wouldn’t really get hurt.”
She knew he was winding her up, probably. Not even he would go to those sorts of lengths for a prank. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it. I’m not the one being bullied. I just thought you might have an insight into the mind of a bully. I should have realised there’s no point asking a psycho about how to handle other psychos.”
“I feel you’re being a tad unfair,” said Stan. “Can you see that small square building in the corner of the main square? That’s the Institute for Magic Studies. I imagine you’ll want to find a way to gain entrance, although it’s supposed to be very difficult. There’s always a bunch of players trying to get in.”
“ It doesn’t look very magical.” It was a nondescript structure that could have been one of the annexe buildings at the back of her school.
“No, not very magical. Things aren’t always as they appear.” He said it like there was a lesson to be learned.
“Usually they are, though,” said Britta.
The street was busier now. There were more shops, too.
“What do they sell here? Anything useful.”
“For adventuring? Not really. You can buy gear from the stores in the main square, but they’re not cheap. I can take you to a few out of the way places when you have more time.”
“Is there a black market?” she asked.
“There is, and you’re looking at him.”
“Well, I try. Business hasn’t been very good lately. Everyone wants to buy and no one has anything to sell. I can do you a deal on bandanas, two for one. Excellent for keeping your identity hidden. Look.”
She looked up at him and he had a red and white polka dot bandana covering the bottom part of his face. He pulled it down. “It’s me!”
“Amazing, it was like you were a whole other person. I think I’ll pass, wouldn’t really go with my outfit. Isn’t the black market all about stolen good?”
Stan shook his head. “You really have a poor view of me, don’t you. We’re on the side of truth and justice. Don’t look at me like that, I’m a reformed character. My time in prison helped me see the error of my ways.”
“It wasn’t a real prison,” said Britta.
“It was very realistic, I’ll have you know. Bars on the windows, bunk beds, the attention to details was excellent.”
It sounded like her family holiday to Butlins from when she was very young. “Just because the Empire are the bad guys doesn’t mean you’re the good guys.”
“Maybe, but we’re certainly the better guys.”
“You won’t bully and cheat people when you’re in charge?” There didn’t really seem to be much difference between the two factions in Britta’s eyes. Both wanted to tell people what to do.
“Do you know why people bully and cheat and break the rules?” said Stan. “It’s not because they’re weak and cowardly, it’s because they’re strong and they want to make the most of it.”
“So you’re saying it’s a good thing? Survival of the fittest?”
“No,” said Stan. “It’s not a good thing, but it is an understandable strategy. You know who does drugs at the Olympics? It isn’t the athletes with no talent, it’s the best athletes. The fastest, the strongest, the ones who always stood out at school and college. Then they get to the big stage, and they’re the same as everyone one else. They’re used to being number one. They’ve already proved they have what it takes, they are undeniably part of the global elite — not an easy group to get into — they just need an edge to win the medal. That’s how it works at the top. They aren’t bullying the weak, they’re struggling against the equally-strong.”
Britta wasn’t convinced. “You’re just making excuses.”
They were in the square now, surrounded by crowds. No one took any notice of the leader of the rebels and the most powerful illusionist in the world. As far as the locals were concerned, they were no different from any other visitors to the city.
Stan pointed out the main post office, the Adventurer’s Guild, the bank and a Starbucks. The Starbucks was the busiest.
“I predict you’ll soon be a key player in the future of this city. I wonder how you’ll use your power.”
“I don’t intend to force anyone to do anything,” said Britta.
“Easy for you to say, you have the world doing whatever you want already. It’s when you get the opportunity to choose between being fair and losing, and being a bastard and winning that you really find out the kind of person you are.”
“Yes,” said Britta. “I agree. So why don’t you use your advantage to give your rebels a boost.”
“I wish I could,” said Stan, “but I think the game has us figured out. No easy mode.”
“What does that mean? No more cheating?”
“No, just different, less obvious ways. You can’t just group your kills up and AoE them down. Look how hard they’ve made it to kill anything. And the penalty for dying is savage. They clearly don’t want us to go in all guns blazing.”
“Some people seem to do alright,” said Britta. “There’s that team that beat the raid boss.”
“The Chinese team?”
“You know about them?”
“I know they’re Chinese, that’s about it. I’d love to know how they got so strong so quickly. Maybe they’re all expert players, but I doubt it.”
“You think they’re cheating?”
“I think they know something we don’t. Whatever it is, it means we can’t compete.”
“Then don’t,” said Britta. “Just level up a different way.”
“Sounds great. And how do you suggest we do that?”
“I don’t know. Get a job?”
Stan looked at her like she was joking. “Apply for a nine to five and buckle down?”
“I mean live with the NPCs as one of them. If they accept you, they might tell you how to get ahead in the game. That’s what happened to me.”
Stan’s mouth fell open. He snapped it shut. “Do you think that’s what the game’s been trying to tell us?”
Britta shrugged. “I have no idea. You were right about people wanting to get into the Magic Institute, look at the queue.”