“What a lovely way to greet an old friend,” said Stan. “Nice to see you, too.” He folded his arms and then lifted a hand to his chin like he was waiting for what she had to say.
He had changed quite a lot since she first met him. He had a goatee beard and his hair had grown, but that was just cosmetic. He still had the pompous look permanently fixed to the front of his face, like he had everything where he wanted it, but there was less of an edge to it. He was trapped in a game but he didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps he even preferred it.
Britta looked around the chapel painted in colours from the stained glass windows. There was no one else here.
“It’s true, isn’t it? You force people to do what you want because they’re weaker than you. That’s what you tried to do to me.”
“Wow, something’s bent you out of shape, hasn’t it? Tough day at school?” He was mocking her, as expected of a bully. “Britta, you are possibly the strongest player in the game. Going after you wasn’t bullying, it was an act of bravery. I should get a medal for even trying.” Mocking her and buttering her up at the same time.
“I don’t feel like the strongest player in the game,” said Britta.
“That’s because you’re so strong, you bypassed the rest of us and went straight to dealing with this world’s gods. Boss monsters are your buddies and regular mobs are polite and helpful in case they piss you off. Trust me, you’re doing a lot better than the rest of us.”
She let out a long breath. She wasn’t the strongest fighter or the most powerful magician, but she did have access to the most interesting parts of the game. She looked around the chapel again, in case there were people in the shadows.
“Where is everyone? Don’t you have a revolution to organise?”
“It’s a rebellion, not a revolution. And they’ve all logged out. They have lives, or something. I imagine they’re eating unhealthy meals and watching bad TV. Can’t say I’m not a little bit jealous.”
For all her whining about her own life, Stan had been stuck in the game for months. His body was in a hospital bed, slowly deteriorating. He had it tough, but so what? Same with Rick. He definitely had problems at home, but that was no excuse for treating others poorly. Stan didn’t deserve her pity and neither did Rick.
“Okay, well, I’ll see you later.” She headed towards the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m only here for twelve minutes, I thought I’d have a quick look around the city with the—” Britta checked her screen “—ten minutes I have left.”
“Wait.” Stan had lost some of the laid-back composure he’d been projecting. Was his whole persona an act? “I’ll come with you. Give you the quick tour, no charge.”
She was fairly sure he was after something, but it would be helpful to have someone to point out the city’s interesting features and answer a few questions.
They stepped outside into the late afternoon sunshine. There were people passing by, all NPCs, and the air was filled with the noise of activity.
“Welcome to my city, Shona-by-the-sea.” Stan raised his arms like he was presenting the city to her.
“Your city?” said a voice from a window above them. “Don’t talk daft.”
“Who are you talking about?” said another voice. “Oh, the tourist?”
People were leaning out of windows and watching from doorways. They were his neighbours, so they probably knew him.
“Been here five minutes, thinks he owns the place.” Laughter erupted around them.
“It may seem like they have a very low opinion of me,” said Stan quietly. “But it’s all part of the plan. No one can know who I really am. The less they think of me the better.”
“I think it’s working,” said Britta.
They set off down the cobbled road which sloped down to the city centre. The buildings around them were stacked up close to each other but every now and again a gap would allow sight of the boats in the docks, and the sparkling water.
“What would you like to see first?” asked Stan. “The city buildings? The Adventurer’s Guild? Tourist hotspots?”
“Just the main places I should know about.”
“Let’s go down to the main square,” said Stan. “Should only take five minutes. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.”
Helpful and accommodating. He was definitely after something.
“Thanks. I’m hoping to find a way to level up that doesn’t force me to kill everyone I meet. How easy is it to pick up quests here?”
“Tough,” said Stan. “It’s just as tough to level up even if you do kill everyone you meet. If you find a decent place to grind weaker mobs, they pick up and move their entire village to some hidden location.”
“Do they? I didn’t know that. I suppose it makes sense. Why stay where you are if players are going to hunt you down? I’d move, too.”
“It might be realistic,” said Stan, “but it isn’t very convenient. How are players supposed to level-up? Everyone’s stuck at low levels unless you join the Empire. It’s hardly fair.”
“I don’t think enlisting with the Imperial Army is much better,” said Britta. “They don’t give you much to do, apparently. It’s all training and guard duty.”
“To tell you the truth,” said Stan, “we’ve been finding it hard to compete with the Empire. They have lots of meaningless achievements people seem to like. Medals and uniforms and a place to stay with food and hot baths. Fascists.”
“And what do you offer?” Britta asked.
“Freedom,” said Stan.
“Don’t you tell people what to do?”
“Yes, but only until we win. Then they’re free to do as they please, that’s the prize.”
Britta could see a problem with that kind of thinking. No one wanted to work for someone so they could then not work for them. Might as well not turn up in the first place.
“You know, I could really use your help,” said Stan casually, in a way that wasn’t casual at all. “You know, find ways to level up, unexpected ways, it’s what you’re good at.”
Britta stopped. It took a Stan a few paces to realise she wasn’t next to him. He turned around.
“And what’s in it for me?” Britta asked him. Simply rejecting his request would only encourage him to try harder. Forcing him to admit he could offer her nothing in return would end the discussion a lot sooner.
“You help me with my problem, and I’ll help you with yours. I do have a very good understanding of bullies, like you said. I also have contacts on the outside. Just tell me who’s giving you grief and…” He ran his finger across his throat.