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.

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.

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.

The crows aren't spying on you, Mylo.

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.

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?

"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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"Uh, hello?"

He didn't get a response.

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.

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.

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.

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

"Wow! The graphics are so realistic!"

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.

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

"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.

"Yes, Hi. Who are you?"

"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."

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

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

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

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

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."

Her mumbling dipped below the audible.

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.

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."

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

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

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

What the heck is the Internet?

"But, Mylo's my real name."

"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."

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

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

"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?"

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

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."

"Oi! That's sensitive equipment."

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

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

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.

There went this morning's chance.

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?"

"No, that's my face."

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.

"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—"


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?"

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.

"Are you okay?"

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Kasumi watched the whole exchange with starry golden eyes.

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

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."

"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."

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

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

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

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

"Count's property?"

"You can use the ladder."

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

"Please, just use the ladder."

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

"The ladder…" Mylo began.

"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—"

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

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