Sirena opened her eyes after long minutes of praying to fill her Prayer bar, her expression shifting from serene to restless in an instant. “This is too slow,” she complained.
Blade left off shooting practice against the animated practice dummies conjured by the training arena, currently set to continuously perform backflips while standing in place[i]. “It’s not like there’s a faster way to fill your Prayer bar.”
Sirena’s eyes sparkled in humour. “Of course there is.” Standing up, she retrieved a slim volume that had previously been tucked into the voluminous folds of her mage robes, its cover embossed with the lightning bolt-wave-whirlwind symbol of Thrain.
The developers of Fantasia had a distinctly irreverent attitude towards the game version of religion. (So, uh, if you find this offensive, maybe skip this scene.) As such, they had set up the Prayer system such that rites of devotion were either time-consuming, expensive, publicly embarrassing, or a combination thereof.
Simple prayer, being only time-consuming, was the least efficient but most popular method to earn favour with one’s favoured deity.
Sirena flipped through her book, which was less of a bible and more of an instruction manual detailing the various rituals that would gain favour with Thrain the Storm King and stopped on an illustrated page depicting various dance motions.
Blade peered over her shoulder at the page. “…You’re going to do that?”
“Yup! Accompanied by this song,” she added, flipping to the adjacent page to show him the lyrics. Handing the book over, she walked purposefully towards the arena’s exit portal.
Blade left off his incredulous perusal of the prayer book to catch up. “Where are you going?”
Sirena raised an eyebrow at the silly question. “Prayer rituals are worth more if they’re performed in public.” (This is the aforementioned “publicly embarrassing” part.)
“You’re going to do that in town?” Blade asked. His tone was less ‘incredulous’ and more ‘I wish I could actually be incredulous, given it’s Sirena’.
“I mean, unless there’s a larger population centre nearby,” Sirena answered easily, not slowing in the least.
Unable to come up with an reply, Blade followed mutely, half appalled and half awed by Sirena’s sheer brash confidence.
In some ways, Fey had higher self-confidence than her best friend, but when it came to complete and utter lack of concern for personal dignity, Sirena was one in a billion. Transported back to the Moonwood, Sirena strode directly to the town centre and began her performance among the throngs of players busy doing quests, trading, and socializing.
Both the song and the dance began softly, Sirena’s small movements and hushed telepathic notes going largely unnoticed by the busy players passing by. Only Blade took the time to appreciate the windy rasp she inserted into her singing, the melody feeling like wind turned to music.
The energy of the performance began to pick up, like a storm gathering strength. :Thrain,: Sirena sang out, self-harmonizing in a beautiful chord.
Despite the density of the trees, a breeze picked up, rustling through the leaves, cool and pleasant against the skin.
Blade found a tree at the edge of the town centre to lean against and watch the unfolding exercise in ridiculousness, noting how Sirena caught more and more players’ attention, captivating them with her beautiful song and graceful motions. If the entire ritual were destined to continue in a similar manner, he would allow himself to be mesmerized as well, but instead, he found himself the protagonist of a psychological horror story, the only one aware of impending doom, unable to warn anyone else because he would not be believed. Torn between admiration and acute embarrassment on behalf of someone who felt none, Blade crossed his arms and hunkered down for what was to come.
Sirena began to spin, faster and faster as she sang (silly) praises to her deity.
:Hold me in the eye of your storm/ From your worship I shall never be torn:
In the sky, grey clouds gathered with supernatural swiftness. A light rain began to fall as Sirena transitioned to the part of the hymn dedicated to water. Her movements slowed and became heavier.
:Flood me with your power, Lord/ That I may storm the land with your Word:
The light shower became a heavy rain as Sirena’s volume increased and her movements became increasingly ridiculous. Players began to move, ducking into buildings to escape the downpour.
:Wind, water, lightning parts/ Your elements are in my heart:
Things came to a head when Sirena transitioned to the section devoted to lightning. An ominous rumble came from the sky as the clouds turned storm-grey. Sirena’s movements took on the convulsive qualities of being electrocuted, her music sharp and dissonant, her telepathic volume piercing painfully into the minds of the Moonwood’s population.
Finally, the hymn lost all semblance of melody and became a primal scream.
:Thrain! THRAIN! THRAIN!:
Everyone, indoors and out, winced and covered their ears, to no avail. Intent on maximizing the Prayer value of her performance, Sirena pushed her volume to the maximum, her final cry as loud as a lightning strike.
A bolt of real lightning struck Sirena despite the taller structures in the area with a blinding flash of light and a deafening crack as superheated air expanded faster than the speed of sound.
Blade ran forward, pushing past screaming players running in the other direction, expecting to see a charred husk where his party-mate had been. Blinded by the lightning, it took a while before his vision recovered enough to understand what he was seeing.
Sirena was smiling. And glowing. A halo of lightning surrounded her form as she raised her arms in supplication, flickering and shrinking closer to her skin as it was absorbed.
When it disappeared, a flood of system messages came in.
<Sirena’s Prayer bar has doubled!>
<Sirena’s Prayer bar has doubled!>
<Sirena has earned the title Devoted of Thrain!>
<Devoted of Thrain: Devotional rites to Thrain are 10% more effective. Prayer bar recharges passively at 10 Prayer points/hour. Small chance to grant larger miracles than requested.>
<Sirena’s water affinity has increased to 25% (+5%)!>
<Sirena’s wind affinity has increased to 5% (+5%)!>
<Sirena’s lightning affinity has increased to 7% (+5%)!>
<Sirena’s infamy has increased to 5 (+5).>
<Warning: infamy negatively affects your interactions with NPCs. Reduce infamy by performing community services.>
Sirena lowered her arms and beamed at Blade, pleased with the huge gains she had made in a ten-minute performance. Being completely soaked in the ongoing downpour suited the mermaid. She said something that Blade could not make out over the rain.
“What?” he yelled.
Sirena leaned in closer. “I said, that was easy.”
“…” Blade nodded weakly, more exhausted than if he had spent the same amount of time battling monsters.
Fey dangled a dizzy-looking Amethyst over a nearly full potion vial. To the uninformed eye, it would appear that the slime was dripping sweat, but of course, she was actually using Potion Slime and pushing her mana stores to the limit.
“One more drop,” said Fey. (Whether her tone would be considered ‘encouraging’ or ‘ruthless’ is a matter of interpretation.)
Amethyst strained, and a fat drop of liquid fell into the vial, filling it up to the etched line that marked one dose of potion.
Fey raised the vial to eye level to check the meniscus[ii]. Satisfied, she plopped Amethyst into the stream to replenish body fluids and put the vial away.
Mimi appeared on the trail from Moonwood Village, having gone to town to drop off their loot and repair equipment while Fey and Amethyst did their potion-making.
Fey scooped Amethyst out of the water and plopped her onto Boris’ back. “Let’s go.”
Mimi eyed the mana-depleted slime, who swayed unsteadily even while stationary. “Is she going to be all right?”
“Oh yeah,” Fey answered. “She can just hold on to a saddle strap. As she spoke, Amethyst reached out with her bubble-arm and missed twice before she secured a hold on Boris’ saddle.
Mimi shrugged and did not comment further. They set off at a fast jog deeper into the forest.
(Amethyst slipped precariously but maintained her grip on the saddle.)
Leander walked into the collaborative area in the game developers’ office to see a large group of devs watching a movie.
Or… “Is that me?” he asked. On second glance, he recognized the videocapture as from his previous night’s battle with a giant roc. Only, instead of a plain video, someone had taken the time to add cinematic panning effects and music.
His question went unanswered, drowned out by the music and amplified battle sounds. No one even noticed his entrance, eyes glued to the screen.
Amused, Leander settled against the wall and watched. The giant roc had approximately the same wingspan as his avatar, as well as metallic talons and beak that clashed against his dragon-blooded mithril sword without apparent harm. Its avian body was more suited to flight and achieved faster speeds, but his angel form possessed greater flexibility in its wings and was able to maneuver with greater agility.
On screen, Leandriel and the roc turned and swooped in the air, coming together for several clashes with dazzling – enhanced – magical effects. He escaped injury with deft dodges and deflections, while the roc simply absorbed attacks with its impenetrable appendages. Its chest and wings sported a few shallow cuts and damaged feathers, indicating that the rest of its body was not so invincible.
After several exchanges, Leandriel appeared to be losing the battle for height, dropping several metres below the roc. The audience gasped as the giant bird of prey dived with murderous speed, talons extended to pierce and crush.
At the last possible moment, Leandriel flipped in the air and parried the attack with his sword, harnessing the huge momentum from impact to sharply change direction and dodge sideways while the roc continued in a mostly downward trajectory. He began to sprint upwards, wings clawing for height, his horizontal motion almost nil.
The roc recovered and gave furious chase, gaining with every wingbeat. Leandriel began to slow, the laborious movements of his wings indicating fatigue. With a victorious screech, the roc struck.
Again with impossibly perfect timing, Leandriel lifted his legs as the roc’s beak snapped shut on where they would have been and kicked downwards with all his strength. With a booming crack, the roc’s neck broke and it began to fall. Victorious music accompanied the descent all the way to its grisly end, a red splatter on the ground. The video ended with a zoomed-out shot of Leandriel flying off towards his next opponent, giving the impression that he was victoriously patrolling the skies.
People clapped and cheered as the screen went blank, chattering excitedly about the fight.
“That timing! It’s like he has eyes in the back of his head!” said a developer wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘Emperors rule!’
“Not quite,” said Leander, causing the people closest to him to jump in surprise.
“When did you get here?” someone else asked.
“About five minutes ago?”
“Make some noise, would you?”
“I did. What is all this, anyways?” Leander asked, waving at the screen.
Kevin answered from his spot next to the projector. “My submission for Fantasia’s next promo video. It’s on the shortlist.”
The ‘Emperors rule’ guy cut in. “What do you mean, ‘not quite’?”
Kevin answered by turning the projector back on and zooming in on a still shot of Leandriel’s back. “Eyes on his back, not the back of his head,” he said, pointing at the mushroom between Leandriel’s wings. Now white in his death angel form, Magic blended in with Leandriel’s plumage and was hard to see, even if you knew he was there.
“Is that a pet? Can you see through its eyes or something?”
“Nothing so complicated. I just had him count down the seconds to impact,” Leander explained. “Now, what’s this about a promo video? You are not in the marketing department.”
“Free time,” Kevin said jokingly, referring to the twenty percent of paid hours given to employees to pursue random projects. It had become a company joke to complain about ‘too much free time’ whenever someone came up with a particularly silly or audacious idea.
“Do I get a say in this?” Leander asked.
“Of course not. You signed away all rights to your game footage when you joined the company,” said Kevin. “Don’t worry,” he added. “If they use it, they’ll put in a full-face helm so nobody will see your pretty face.”
Leander sighed and did not pursue the issue further. “Why are you doing the marketing department’s work for them, anyway?”
Kevin shrugged. “I gotta do something in my free time. Besides, you should see the lame simulated fight sequences they spent hours choreographing for their videos. I got hours of better footage right here,” he said, patting his custom laptop.
Leander sent a brief thought into the aether, hoping that the competing videos were not as inferior as Kevin claimed, and that one of them would be chosen to be publicized instead.
“What are you doing here, anyways?” Kevin asked as the crowd dispersed to return to work. “You’re not usually in in the afternoon.”
It was Leander’s turn to shrug. “The boss lady messaged me to come in, so here I am. She did not explain.”
“Huh,” said Kevin thoughtfully. “I saw her heading out a few minutes ago. I wonder what’s up.”
The elevator dinged at that moment, disgorging two passengers from the ground floor. (That’s what’s up.) Of the two, Leander recognized Lina Bosse, manager of the quality control department for Fantasia, known as ‘the boss lady’ even outside her department. As usual, the vivacious brunette was dressed in an eclectic blend of business formal and gamer geek, her custom suit decorated with armour-like accents, her earrings replicas of Fantasia’s crystal 1000g coins.
“Leander!” she greeted with a warm smile. “I’d like you to meet the newest member of our team, Allison Byrne. She just transferred over from the AR department. Allison, this is Leander Roth-Simmons. He’s been with Fantasia since the beginning.”
“Hello.” Leander shook hands with Allison, rather surprised at her appearance, which would have made him guess she was from the marketing department. Rather than the high-tech athletic gear or gamer-casual clothing commonly seen on campus, she was wearing a knee-length blue dress, her blonde hair professionally highlighted and styled, her face perfectly made up. However, he saw evidence of her profession in the lean muscle in her arms and legs. The augmented reality department tested games that relied on full-body suits to simulate game environments, and testers spent six to eight hours a day running, jumping, and climbing in their real-life bodies. Allison was probably in better shape than he was.
“He-llo,” said Allison with particular emphasis. She held on to his hand for a few seconds longer than Leander felt comfortable with.
Leander extricated himself from the handshake and purposely reoriented himself to face his boss.
Lina got straight to the point. “We brought Allison in to help test flying mechanics. The avariel and angel models have pretty much passed, but we still lack data on the flying werebeast half-shifts. And dragonborn, of course, but werebeast takes priority.”
Leander nodded his understanding. He kept his expression neutral, but he did not like where the conversation was going. “I’m to give her flying lessons?” he asked.
“Oh, not just that,” Allison chimed in, leaning forward closer than necessary. “We’re going to be partners.”
“We want more data on combat with multiple flying players,” Lina explained. “You’ll be collaborating with multiple testers over the next few months.”
‘Multiple people’ sounded preferable to being left alone with this new tester who seemed to want something from him. Leander nodded again. “Does this start tonight?”
Allison opened her mouth, but Lina cut her off. “Oh, not for a while yet. We’ll be accelerating Allison’s avatar growth, but it will still take a couple of weeks to get her to your level range.”
Leander shot his manager a grateful look. Lina was a keen judge of character, and more importantly, the compatibility of her testers when working together. She had noticed his discomfort and her expression told him she would interfere to minimize his interactions with Allison. “If that’s all, then, I will take my leave and wait for your updates,” he said, relief audible in his voice if you knew him well.
Allison looked ready to argue. “I thought—”
“Allison, why don’t I give you a tour of this building while we’re here?” Lina interrupted. “Leander, I’ll keep in touch.” Arm around Allison’s shoulders, Lina steered her newest member deeper into the building.
“Man, she was into you,” Kevin commented, having stayed behind, ostensibly to disconnect his laptop from the projector, but really to eavesdrop.
Leander grimaced. “Not me. I think she knows who my father is.”
“Oh.” Kevin considered his words for a second, then asked, “Are you sure you’re not being paranoid? I thought she definitely liked what she saw.”
Leander was not convinced. “I’ve seen that exact look when I was still short and had terrible acne at seventeen. It started the week VirtualRealities became publicly traded.” He sighed. “I’m heading to the athletic centre. See you later, Kevin.”
Leander walked down the stairs and out of the building, shoulders slumped with bad memories. He never told anyone but the closest of friends, but it was not difficult to access VirtualRealities’ website and see the family resemblance between him and George Roth, company co-founder and head of European operations.
Leander had moved to the North American branch of the company as a regular employee, never relying on his father for anything career-related, and so far, his coworkers had not seemed to notice the family connection. He devoutly hoped that Allison would not change things for the worse.
He did not think she would spread the gossip about him. She seemed more like the type to keep the information for her own benefit. Whatever she wanted from him, he braced himself for weeks of overly friendly gestures and fake smiles that would change to annoyed looks when she realized there was nothing to be gained by associating with him.
That night, he put a little extra effort into training, delaying as much as he could the time when Allison would catch up to his level.
[i] Readers may or may not recognize this setting from Training Mode options in Super Smash Bros. Melee.
[ii] The meniscus is the curved surface of a liquid due to adhesion with the wall of the container. Most liquids, including water, present a concave meniscus, but it can be convex if the liquid’s surface tension is greater than its adhesion with the container. When reading volume measurements, it is important to measure from the line that is even with the centre of the meniscus (the bottom of the curve for concave menisci).