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Preface from Mooderino

Bitter 506

The trees formed a canopy over the road. It was cool and pretty, the dappled light creating a mosaic of yellow and green patches. Britta was wary of bandits or wild beasts jumping out from behind the trees, but there were no more encounters.

She was feeling a bit guilty for being so mean to the wood sprite. No matter how she rationalised it, the fact was she’d bullied the sprite into not singing anymore. It was easy enough standing up for yourself when it was one on one — what did you care if the other person had different tastes to yours? — but when people ganged up on you, it became very hard to not capitulate. We all think you suck is a hard argument to counter.

When she emerged on the other side of the forest, wide open fields lay in front of her, sloping down into a valley where a city sat waiting on an island in the middle of a large body of water. A bridge stretched out on each side, four giant structures supported by cables, girders and beams that looked far too advanced for a medieval society. But, as always, they had magic to fall back on. It was an impressive sight, whatever the inconsistencies.

The city itself was exactly what you would expect to find in a fantasy world. Towers spire, domes and battlements, with a riot of coloured flags and banners flying from every rooftop. You had to hand it to the devs, they knew what a city of wizards and knights was supposed to look like.

Donald didn’t seem very impressed and was more interested in the weeds growing by the side of the road. They kept going, a sense of accomplishment already lifting Britta’s mood. She had set herself a goal and now she was about to reach it.

As they got closer, the road started to fill up with traffic. Various NPCs — merchants, farmers, traders — were also on their way to the city. The noise of cartwheels and horses got louder, and clouds of dust made it harder to see or breathe. Britta tucked her nose and mouth into the top of her shirt. Donald seemed oblivious.

There were soldiers standing outside a low building just before the bridge, but the wagons and caravans rolled across the bridge without stopping. This appeared to be a free and open place, welcoming all comers. Or so it first appeared.

It was only when Britta was almost at the bridge that she saw the encampment to the side of the road. Judging by the swathe of name tags floating over people’s heads, these were all players.

Britta dismounted and decided to walk the rest of the way. She didn’t want to get involved with whatever the other players were up to, but she was curious why they were out here. Donald gave her a look that suggested he didn’t care what she did and then wandered off.

Britta walked alongside a heavily laden cart, trying to act casual. The camp must have held at least thirty or forty players. They had all had the same idea as her, to come to the big city and see what it had to offer, so why were they out here? Were the prices so exorbitant they couldn’t afford a place to stay in the city? Was there a bridge toll? She wasn’t exactly swimming in money herself.

“I wouldn’t bother, if I were you,” said a young man with a comically terrible pageboy haircut. “They won’t let you across.” The tag hovering over him said his name was Lavazza, like the coffee. He was dressed in beginner clothing, with a sword hanging from his belt. Fighter? Thief? It was hard to tell.

Britta had to shout to be heard over the rolling vehicles constantly moving behind her. “Who won’t?”

“The soldiers. Not unless you’re part of the Empire.”

“Do they charge a fee to enter the city?”

“Nope. They’ve got a list of requirements you have to meet. You have to be over Level 3, for a start.”

That didn’t seem so bad. She was Level 5, but she could see why it would be a problem for most other players. Level 2 was considered good going for most people. There were bound to be some Level 3s by this time, though.

She looked being Lavazza. The other players were sitting around fires, none of them looking very happy, like they were on some miserable camping holiday.

“Couldn’t you go level up?” She meant it as a casual inquiry, after all, that’s what you were supposed to do in a game like this, not just sit there. What were they waiting for? “Sitting around won’t change anything.”

“It’s not quite that easy,” said Lavazza huffily, taking offence from Britta’s attitude. To be fair, she had made it sound like the players here were lazy and stupid. “It’s not just the level thing. You also have to have a reason to enter the city. A quest or an official task. The only other way in is to join their army. Sod that. I didn’t shell out a bucketful of money for this game just to join the military and get ordered about. I’ll decide how I play this game. Nobody’s telling me what to do. I’d rather unplug and uninstall.”

He sounded very passionate in his determination not to be a low-level grunt. Defiantly shouting his intentions in the middle of the dust and noise, but still stuck out in the middle of a field with nothing to do. Not the funnest way to play. Britta wasn’t sure if his rejection of the military life was due to lofty principles or a desire to avoid strenuous labour, but she would also refuse to join if she was in his place.

The game seemed very keen to recruit players into the Empire’s forces. Maybe the AI felt it was the best way for players to understand this world and to train them in combat; that would make sense for all the players not familiar with this kind of world, but judging by Owen and MrKappa’s experiences, it was mostly guard duty and patrols.

There was a kind of logic to ignoring the starter towns and rush to the big city. Even if you died a number of times on the way, you couldn’t go below Level 1, so it was the best time to throw caution to the wind. That was if you found a warm welcome and plenty of opportunities for quests and experience points at the end of your journey.

If you were going to go the independent route, what you needed was an alternative plan. One that kept you moving. Sitting outside the city wasn’t going to get you anywhere.

Britta looked behind her. The carts and pack animals had disappeared.

“Rush hour’s over,” said Lavazza in response to Britta’s confusion. “There’ll be another one in the morning.”

Britta nodded. Just like at home. The soldiers were still standing by the bridge, looking as bored as the players. Now seemed an excellent time to try her luck.

“What’s the city called?” She hadn’t actually got round to finding out.

Lavazza shook his head at her noob question. “Shona. Shona-by-the-Sea, to give it the full title.”

It looked more like a lake than a sea, but Britta wasn’t an expert. Maybe there were inland seas. She would ask her geography tutor about it.

“Okay, thanks.” Britta turned and started walking towards the bridge.

“I told you, they won’t let you in,” Lavazza shouted after her.

“Got it,” she shouted back. “Just want to see what they say.”

“Don’t sign anything.”

She gave him a thumbs up as thanks for the warning.

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