Chapter 1:

On the Tower

Mylo and the Summoned Hero

Mylo Bract stood atop the mana pumping station's spotting tower, three hundred feet above anything, alone, but chilled by the certainty that he was being watched.Bookmark here

The spotting tower reached skyward from a hill at the edge of town. It was a sturdy wrought iron scaffold that ascended to a little wooden platform with a guardrail and a telescope that didn't aim at the sky. As a concession to Mylo and other employees who couldn't fly, the tower had a ladder up the side, and next to the ladder ran a thin orange voice tube. The tube linked the platform and the mana pumping station below, but you could also clip a harness onto it. Sometimes they sent Mylo up during a shift, to peer down the scope, spot darkness where light should be, and call balance adjustments back down.Bookmark here

No one should be able to see him up here, unless they were airborne. But even at the height of summer, a little tundra town like Edule didn't draw much air traffic. A lone broomstick and its rider rose and made a lazy turn south, disappearing over the conifer woods. That left the sky to Mylo and the birds.Bookmark here

The crows aren't spying on you, Mylo.Bookmark here

He unlocked the telescope with his employee key. Its coated beryl lens revealed more than just the visible. It highlighted mana flow. From the pump building, aragonite pipes ran toward town. They carried mana to selenite streetlamps, to fountains in the parks, to healers' huts, spas and hotels for adventurers on summer visits, and to the magic carpet charging station. There was talk of expanding the network, of pushing mana to every home. Of course, Count Callawea wanted to expand his revenue, not to pay more strobili to handle the load.Bookmark here

No sign of a rival scope or binoculars. And if someone was watching assisted by some spell, well, there wasn't much chance of noticing them, was there? What would he even do if he detected his observer?Bookmark here

"What a stupid idea," Mylo murmured. He sat down, cracked open his lunchbox, and extracted the stale cucumber sandwich within. Each bite crunched like winter ice.Bookmark here

Feeling watched was new, but climbing the spotting tower after his night shift was typical Mylo. Up he went each day, unless a blizzard had chosen to roll through. He would clip his lunch box to his belt and climb the ladder at 6 in the morning, regardless whether it was the depths of winter or, as today, nearly the height of summer. Below, his coworkers looked up to watch him for a moment, then walked away chuckling. Boss Lafferty called Mylo a romantic, going to see the sunrise each morning, which didn't quite compute—at this latitude, sunrise and his shift only aligned at the equinoxes.Bookmark here

Mylo went up to eat in peace, but he also thought it a shame to let a good telescope sit idle. The air was still and cool—perfect for viewing, or being viewed.Bookmark here

"See? Nothing," Mylo told himself. "Everything's fine."Bookmark here

Time to get to 'work.' Mylo latched onto the scope and took a wistful glance at the southern gate and the rutted road leading south, towards Dioon, and the other great cities, from which only a trickle of life meandered this far north. Then he swung the telescope on its pivot to look east.Bookmark here

From up here, the spotting tower commanded a view of town to its west, and the forest beyond, but on the east side of the hill lay the ruins of Old Edule. Mylo didn't remember the history, some old war, bombardment with spells, maybe there was a nasty sorcerer? In any case, the mineral deposits had been too good to abandon, so the citizens moved over the hill and rebuilt. And in the ruins, where they said that old war left the bones of the earth shattered, mana crackled up through the ground in unstable currents.Bookmark here

Peering through the telescope, Mylo flicked a switch that ran a mana current through the lens. Some areas of the ruin looked the same, stones in tundra glowing yellow in the dawn. In other spots, the filter revealed fumaroles of mana, invisible to the naked eye, as sparkling rust-colored haze. Mylo found the largest, densest patch. In that room, monsters would grow in strength and power fastest, becoming the boss of the ruin. Mylo began backtracking with the telescope, determining a route connecting the boss room to the main entry point where adventurers approached the ruins.Bookmark here

The location and route weren't useful to Mylo—he was yawning off his night shift, and had to sleep most of the day to be ready for the next one this evening. But other people wanted to know. Whether they wanted to skip the bulk of the monsters so they could face the boss fresh, or just to get there first, some adventurers were willing to part with good coin for this information.Bookmark here

Mylo should have been deep in concentration, but feeling so watched left him on edge. From the boards behind him came a thump and a creak. Mylo spun around.Bookmark here

There on the platform, a person sat with their legs outstretched in front of them, their arms at their side, like a doll seated upright. Mylo should have heard someone come up the ladder, or if they flew in they should look conscious. Mylo waved a hand in front of their eyes.Bookmark here

"Uh, hello?"Bookmark here

He didn't get a response.Bookmark here

Where Mylo wore a faded, hand-me-down jumpsuit with the pumping station's initials stitched on, the stranger had a rich forest green robe that ended just above the knee. Their features were well defined: a pointed chin, toned arms, milky skin, long fingers, jet black hair that fell straight and even, and golden eyes. Even unresponsive and unfocused, the stranger appeared striking. Would fit right in at the bar of a mining town saloon. Mylo only had dark burgundy eyes to anchor his bushy blonde hair and wiry build.Bookmark here

Mylo felt a tinge of jealousy, but he was wasting time. He tore his gaze back and returned to the scope. Sunlight peered over the crumbling ruin walls now, and the faint heat already stirred the air. Any more breeze, and the mana plumes would spread and blend, then Mylo would have no way to identify the boss room again if he lost his place again.Bookmark here

Mylo muttered the directions under his breath. He didn't have magic to help him record, so he envisioned each turn and straight as another card added to a stack. It was a delicate trick of memory.Bookmark here

Behind his back, there came footsteps, then a gasp.Bookmark here

"Wow! The graphics are so realistic!"Bookmark here

Still glued to the telescope, Mylo rushed as much as he could. Down a fractured street, left through an overgrown forum. He reached a square dais when a face blurred into his way, blocking his view. Mylo's heart sank.Bookmark here

He looked up. "Can I help you with something?"Bookmark here

"Hi!" said the stranger, beaming. A moment ago they had sat inert, doll-like. But now the gold eyes flashed and their arms waved with such excitement Mylo thought they were trying to fly.Bookmark here

"Yes, Hi. Who are you?"Bookmark here

"Kasumi Hoshino," she said. Then her expression plunged into mortification, but bounced right back to giggling. "Wow. I got carried away. This all feels too real, I just gave my real name."Bookmark here

Kasumi cleared her throat. "Call me Pelgram. I'm a battlecaster."Bookmark here

The name rang foreign on Mylo's ear. So, this adventurer wanted to use an alias when buying information? Fine by him.Bookmark here

"Mylo Bract. Nice to meet you. If you'd move, sir, I can finish up. Info is 2 denara."Bookmark here

Kasumi's face tightened into a wince. "Sir? But I'm a...oh right."Bookmark here

She sank into a squat and traced shapes in the platform's coating of pine pollen while grumbling. "I've played so many games, almost all of them. NeverGrind? Girl. World of Worlds? Girl? Spaceships & Spreadsheets? Girl."Bookmark here

Her mumbling dipped below the audible.Bookmark here

Safe to say Mylo didn't understand, the only games he'd been introduced to involved colored glass pieces on a wooden board and losing a lot of money.Bookmark here

Kasumi surfaced. "Oh I've made alternate characters who were guys before, but that was just to get the feel of the community before I made my main. I was never in their shoes, you know? I was stuck with old fashioned MMOs, not the VR kind. The character was just a low-poly model with janky animations and a 3rd person camera orbiting them. Didn't think being called 'sir' to my face would hit so different than when it happened in text chat."Bookmark here

She looked up at Mylo. "I do look like a guy, right? Black hair, kinda muscular?"Bookmark here

"Um, yes. So I call you Pelgram, got it."Bookmark here

Kasumi tapped the side of her nose. "First rule of the Internet, never use your real name."Bookmark here

What the heck is the Internet?Bookmark here

"But, Mylo's my real name."Bookmark here

"You're the tutorial NPC, it's fine." She stretched her arms way up and let them flop down onto her hips. "Welp, no sense crying about my little mistake. These games always let you change your appearance later."Bookmark here

Kasumi's moody slump had burned off like morning fog.Bookmark here

Up on a spotting tower 300 feet up, there aren't many options for changing she subject. Kasumi pointed at the telescope.Bookmark here

"So, Mylo, nice telescope! But why are you using it at daytime?" She feigned a gasp and put on a very real smirk. "You're not peeping on someone, are you?"Bookmark here

Mylo protested, "It's obviously pointed at the ruins. No one out there this early."Bookmark here

But she'd already grabbed the barrel and pushed it off alignment. "Woah, nice! No input lag, and the haptics are great! Its like I can feel the cold metal."Bookmark here

"Oi! That's sensitive equipment."Bookmark here

While Mylo tried to reacquire the dais in the telescope, Kasumi ran to the guardrail and gasped at the sunrise view.Bookmark here

"Holy s—! I didn't think my old headset would be able to handle raytraced...well, raytraced anything."Bookmark here

The ruins of Old Edule were too big, too uniform at this distance in their decayed state. Not enough surviving landmarks, and the telescope's zoom now became Mylo's enemy. Its field of view was pinpoint tiny. With naked eyes he couldn't spot the dais, and finding it with the scope was pure trial and error.Bookmark here

There went this morning's chance.Bookmark here

Kasumi ran back to the platform's center and poked Mylo's cheek, amazed, apparently. "Woah, you have skin! I mean, with warmth and texture. So this is full-dive immersion, huh?"Bookmark here

"No, that's my face."Bookmark here

Kasumi ran to the edge again and leaned over the side of the tower, peering straight down. Then back again, she ran circles around Mylo, bombarding him with questions.Bookmark here

"This is a funny place to start new players. Is this tower instanced? You are the tutorial NPC, right? You must be, it's always an NPC the player meets first. So that's the starting village? Looks peaceful. When does it tragically explode? They always—"Bookmark here

"Pelgram."Bookmark here

As she turned, the morning light spilled across Kasumi's cheek. It might have been a more tender effect had she not given herself such a hard jawline and cheekbones during character creation. "Yes?"Bookmark here

Mylo tried not to judge. Some of Edule's more eccentric individuals were his coworkers. But he'd never seen anyone go this many bubbles off plumb.Bookmark here

"Are you okay?"Bookmark here

"Never better. Ooh! Are those other players?" Kasumi pointed upwards.Bookmark here

Two adventurers were descending on broomsticks. One was a woman with raven hair far longer than Kasumi's, who wore leather armor reinforced with hexagon-headed rivets of brass. Her companion was a muscly fellow draped in ochre wolf pelts and bandoleers.Bookmark here

These two Mylo had expected. He gave them a mournful wave. "Veronica, Ulfberht, good morning."Bookmark here

"Morning Mylo," Veronica called down, hovering five feet off the deck. "Did you find it?"Bookmark here

"Northwest quadrant, old Jumikken district." As Veronica fished for her purse, Mylo held up a hand. "Route's incomplete."Bookmark here

He finished with a pointed look at Kasumi. "Someone interrupted."Bookmark here

"Shame. Tomorrow then," said Veronica, pulling her broomstick into a climb. Ulfberht followed, giving a little wave as he went. Bookmark here

Veronica yelled back, "And meet your boyfriend somewhere he can't interfere."Bookmark here

It took Mylo a moment to realize that Veronica referred to Kasumi. "That's not my…" he began, but the rogue and the barbarian were already racing off toward the wall of the old city.Bookmark here

Kasumi watched the whole exchange with starry golden eyes.Bookmark here

"Hey, Mr. NPC, why didn't they land?"Bookmark here

Mylo pointed at the wooden boards below their feet. "This platform is part of the mana pumping station. It's all property of Count Callawea and his family. Telescope too. I work here, but anyone who doesn't would be trespassing. Fly overs are okay, though."Bookmark here

"Woah! This is a really unique start. Intrigue! Corruption! A mysterious something those two are searching for! I thought I'd be fighting rats in a sewer, or killing 10 of some pest animal so the farmer can work his field again, or helping someone in town who will tragically die later to motivate a glorified fetch quest."Bookmark here

Kasumi glowed. "So, Mr. NPC. What's next?"Bookmark here

Flatly, Mylo said, "You do realize you've been trespassing this whole time, right?"Bookmark here

"Oh...that applies to players too? I guess I should go."Bookmark here

"That would be for the best. The ladder—"Bookmark here

"Count's property?"Bookmark here

"You can use the ladder."Bookmark here

"It's fine. I'm a battlecaster. Levitation is one of my starter spells."Bookmark here

"Please, just use the ladder."Bookmark here

Kasumi hopped over the guardrail and stood on air. Smugness took over. She did a little twirl.Bookmark here

"The ladder…" Mylo began.Bookmark here

"Is pointless! Look at me, I'm flying! Games are better than reality." Kasumi put a hand up to her mouth and laughed. "Ohohoho! Gravity's my bi—"Bookmark here

Then Kasumi's mana ran out. Her face cycled through all five stages of grief in a second. She plunged like a stone.Bookmark here

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