Chapter 3:

Kasumi Prods the "AI"

Mylo and the Summoned Hero

The air rushed to get out of Kasumi’s way. Weightlessness's sickening grip clenched her stomach. In that split second before the acceleration took hold, she looked toward the platform. Which she’d just been standing on. Which she didn’t need to jump off. Didn’t the tutorial NPC-guy tell her to use the ladder? But no. She had to show off, and her tiny first-level mana bar failed her.Bookmark here

The wind whipped through her hair. The chirping birds faded into the rush of wind. She tried to tell herself it was a game. Everything would be fine. If she did hit the ground, she’d wake up in a church, or graveyard, or something. Wouldn’t feel a thing, right? Wouldn’t die, right?Bookmark here

Nope, too real. Kasumi’s scream dopplered up to Mylo, who had dashed to the guardrail and was reaching down.Bookmark here

Most of Kasumi’s mind frothed in panic, but the deep, stillest waters of her mind recognized Mylo’s outstretched hand. Oh, Mr. Tutorial NPC. It’s very sweet of you to try, but I’m already beyond your reach.Bookmark here

The levitation spell’s indicator blinked yellow, and the mana gauge crawled upward. Slowest recharge she’d ever seen in a game.Bookmark here

In the various MMORPGs Kasumi had played, her first death had rarely been preventable mistakes born from lacking familiarity with the games’ systems. Most MMOs were fairly alike. They copied each other’s homework but changed the wording a bit. The players, like most teachers, spotted the plagiarism immediately. But that copy-catting wasn’t entirely bad in a game. Sometimes the new game implemented the idea better, and even if it didn’t, then the players already had a base of understanding and could get right to trying for mastery, or starting a guild, or whatever suited their fancy. Experience and familiarity led to assumptions.Bookmark here

Kasumi had assumed she was meant to use the spells given. After all, these were starter spells for the class. She didn’t choose them. Why would the developers give her a levitation spell but only enough mana to use it for four seconds? And start her on a very high place, where she would be tempted to use it? She could imagine someone on the development team thought they were clever and wanted to shake players out of their complacency. Considering how real this all felt, that was downright cruel. Might traumatize somebody, seeing the paving stones rush up to meet them with these graphics, with these haptics.Bookmark here

Maybe there would be a class action lawsuit Kasumi could get in on.Bookmark here

"Hey, Pelgram! Shall we head down?"Bookmark here

Kasumi stopped flailing and looked over. Mylo stood next to her, a hand on the ladder and a carabiner at his waist clipped onto a bright yellow tube. He had one foot on a ladder rung, but this was stuck out like a motorbike’s kickstand—Mylo stood positioned to slide down the space between the tube and ladder.Bookmark here

"Just don’t do any acrobatic flying, please," said Mylo.Bookmark here

About now Kasumi realized she was floating. The wind didn’t rush, but took its sweet time and tried not to wake the neighbors. Apathetic cobbles showed no particular interest in meeting her. Most intriguing, her mana gauge read as full and not draining despite an active spell.Bookmark here

"Huh? Why am I suddenly able to keep it going? Forever, by the looks of it."Bookmark here

Then Kasumi spotted the pale thread. Blue, quartz-clear and thin as a final breath. The thread ran from Mylo to her, pulsing and bowing in the breeze.Bookmark here

"Mana transfer," he said.Bookmark here

Kasumi made a sour face. "Why do I get a teaspoon of mana while you have spare?"Bookmark here

"You said you were a battlecaster, right?" Then he pointed at himself and said, "Strobilus." Apparently satisfied he’d explained everything, Mylo resumed his controlled slide.Bookmark here

Kasumi drifted down alongside. She silently tried the unfamiliar word on her tongue. Didn’t sound like any of the options she saw in the character creation menu. She assumed it was a prestige class, something new to level for players who maxed out the levels of their starting class. But Kasumi was already questioning that notion as she alighted safely on the street—if the tutorial NPC was supposed to show off cool end-game stuff, why dress him in a ratty old jumpsuit?Bookmark here

Mylo excused himself, going into the pumping station to get changed. That was fine—gave Kasumi a moment to take stock. Her thoughts drifted back to the view she’d barely taken in atop the tower. She always liked it when the game gave you a sweeping vista soon after you started. It was as if the world beckoned and said, "look, this exciting new realm is yours to play with," and finished off with a cheeky wink, knowing you’d be stuck questing & grinding in the starter area for at least the next five hours.Bookmark here

The promise was freeing enough. Few limits and systems that you could figure out. No real world drudgery like rent, cram school, those fiddly shells on pistachios, or having to wait for a pedestrian signal to cross the street without getting flattened by an unmarked white truck.Bookmark here

Endless possibility stretched out before Kasumi. What to do first? Mylo hadn’t mentioned a quest hub, and her quest journal lay barren, blank, empty. An idea struck, and it made her smile. But first she had a question needed answering.Bookmark here

She aimed the flat of her palm at the brick wall of the mana pumping station. "Flame…wisp!" A spitting glob of flame arced out of her open hand with decent speed, sinking a bit on its trajectory as gravity demanded. It spattered where it met the mortar, sizzled for a moment, and left a bit of black carbon residue at the impact site. Underwhelming.Bookmark here

Then Kasumi checked her mana gauge. 12 points total, four spent to cast the spell, but it was already recharging. Recharging really slowly.Bookmark here

When Mylo emerged with a yawn, Kasumi was waiting. "Oh, Pelgram. I didn’t ask you to wait for me, did I?"Bookmark here

"No, you didn’t."Bookmark here

Kasumi pointed an accusative finger at her mana gauge, still crawling back toward 10 points. To Mylo, it looked like she pointed at an empty patch of air.Bookmark here

"Why is my mana recharge so slow? How am I supposed to do anything with this?"Bookmark here

"You’re...not from around here are you?"Bookmark here

"Just answer the question."Bookmark here

There were a lot of intricacies to unpack there. Mylo didn't understand most of them well enough to teach; he couldn't even have told her why he got his mana from a gyre in his chest and not the air except because…because strobili were weird. She probably wasn't interested anyway. He stuck to the point.Bookmark here

"Mana’s scarce, this side of the hill. You noticed the ruins of the old city from the tower?"Bookmark here

Kasumi nodded.Bookmark here

"The rock beneath is shattered, so mana just takes the path of least resistance. Comes up there instead of here. Also, most of the stone you’ll see in Edule is rhyolitic tuff, it neutralizes the little that gets in the air. But you’re a battlecaster. They’re pretty good with weapons, right?"Bookmark here

"Yeah, but I don’t have a sword, yet." Kasumi turned and regarded the mana pumping station. So mana comes up from below in this game. "So this place pumps mana out of the ground for the whole city?"Bookmark here

In an automatic, flat tone, Mylo said, "We supply the town. And yes, we do have a pump."Bookmark here

Kasumi’s younger brother spoke in the same manner when lying about the state of his homework.Bookmark here

"Is that a burn mark from a spell?" Mylo pointed to the remains of the Flame Wisp.Bookmark here

"Like that when I got here," said Kasumi.Bookmark here

Well, that solved the mystery of the slow recharge, but introduced another riddle. Maybe the pumping station was involved in a quest? Her quest log remained quite empty—later, perhaps.Bookmark here

"So," Mylo was saying, "it was nice to meet you, Pelgram, but if that’s all…"Bookmark here

Quickly as she could without biting her tongue, Kasumi said, "But you didn’t offer me the tour."Bookmark here

Mylo blinked. "Tour?"Bookmark here

"Oh, that sounds lovely, you’re too kind."Bookmark here

A tour for learning the terrain was a good idea, but Kasumi angled to find out just how good the NPC’s artificial intelligence was.Bookmark here

Mylo might be coded as neutral or friendly toward players, but Kasumi figured he probably shared some coding with bandits—some parts of the AI code, like path-finding algorithms, were often shared by enemies and NPCs to speed up development of the game. Just how far could they bend from their scripted routine and still act naturally? Kasumi had some ideas how she might find out. Bookmark here

"So, what’s over there?"Bookmark here

Mylo stifled another yawn, and for a flash his expression hinted impending regret. But he recovered his composure and straightened up.Bookmark here

"That’s a printing shop. It’s quite new." Mylo leaned in for a conspiratorial whisper. "They use movable letters."Bookmark here

Kasumi feigned a gasp. "No!"Bookmark here

They wandered down the cobbled street, which steadily grew crowded. The architecture presented its wrought iron and pale yellow masonry. The windows reminded Kasumi of photos of Paris, but the shutters were wrong, folding off to one side. Then, as the street opened and split to go around a little park, Kasumi spotted a chance to test Mylo.Bookmark here

"Nice fountain, why does water only come out of the lower nozzles?"Bookmark here

"The top ones let out a little mana. Well, they do when we’ve got all the pipes balanced, anyways."Bookmark here

Kasumi got behind and pushed him toward it. Mylo tensed up and pushed back. "What are you doing?"Bookmark here

"It’s hot already," Kasumi said. "Let’s get in and splash around a bit."Bookmark here

"No." If he thought it was a childish thing to suggest, he didn’t make it known. His refusal was simple and flat, more like declining an offered cup of coffee than dealing with someone actively trying to make a scene.Bookmark here

So the AI will try to avoid non-pathed areas in a manner that looks natural. Nice step up from NPCs who you can walk through. Much more immersive. This also beats NPCs who are collideable, but rooted to one spot forever. Well played, developers.Bookmark here

Kasumi relented and they continued walking. Edule was properly awake now. Wagon wheeled carts hissed by on compressed mana canisters. Merchants waved from their stalls or set signs outside their shops. People filled the streets, and Kasumi was pleased to spot what appeared to be a lot of other players mixed in with the NPCs. Those dressed in metal or leather or chitinous armor and those wearing the fine robes not unlike hers must be other players, she thought. Everyone dressed more casually, an NPC.Bookmark here

Not quite how Kasumi expected things to be at first, but she felt she was getting the hang of it all.Bookmark here

One thing was strange though: no one had a name indicator or health bar over their head. Must be for immersion while in town, Kasumi decided.Bookmark here

They came to a square where a crane was working up against the side of a clock tower. One of the crane’s operators wore an identical jumpsuit to the one Mylo had worn earlier. The whir of the crane’s winch drowned out the chatter of the cafes.Bookmark here

"Oh, I forgot that was happening today," Mylo said as the digital clock face swayed its way to the ground. On the ground, an old analog face waited to replace it.Bookmark here

"They’re going back to a clock with hands?"Bookmark here

"People thought the new one was ugly. Didn’t keep time any better, but it was the look of the thing that inspired people to complain."Bookmark here

Most people paid the operation a glance and then went about their business, but there were a few watchers. Near them, an older man in a buttoned gray vest and folded back shirtsleeves stared up at the crane. Kasumi stared at the chain of his pocket watch. Another test for Mylo sprang to mind.Bookmark here

She nudged him and pointed to the unguarded fob chain. Kasumi reached and watched Mylo’s expression go from curiosity to indignation.Bookmark here

Mylo swatted Kasumi’s arm down at the elbow. "What are you doing?" He hissed.Bookmark here

So an NPC will try to follow the laws of the land. And enforce them on players in town. But what about Mylo’s little deal with Veronica? That seemed shady.Bookmark here

Pouring as much innocence as she could into her voice, Kasumi said, "Just seeing how you’d react. I wasn’t gonna take it."Bookmark here

"Really…"Bookmark here

"Really! I need to know your boundaries—you don’t seem so upstanding a citizen yourself."Bookmark here

"Really?"Bookmark here

"Just what is that little arrangement you have with the pair who flew over the tower earlier?" Kasumi watched Mylo’s disapproval evaporate. "They’re looking for something, what was it?"Bookmark here

Mylo turned away from her gaze. "Why don't I introduce you to Paul? His shop is just around the corner." Bookmark here

He started leading the way, clearly hoping Kasumi would let the subject drop.Bookmark here

"Paul's a friend of yours?"Bookmark here

"We...know each other a little too well."Bookmark here

It was less of a store than an undercoft which had been converted into a shop. Clothes of vibrant colors peaked up at them through a window almost level with the cobbles. There were dresses with lacy necklines hanging next to starched-collar suits.Bookmark here

One more test for Mylo, though she had a hard time thinking of him as a tutorial NPC now. His reactions were too natural, but surely no game could afford enough real people to greet all the new players—there might be hundreds at any given moment. He had to be AI…but the tech wasn’t anywhere near Mylo’s level and had hardly improved in years.Bookmark here

They went down narrow steps into a cool space that smelled faintly of paper and starch. Clothes of all cuts hung from racks against the walls, free standing in the center, and a few dangled from the low ceiling. A couple small lamps blazed to assist the sunlight.Bookmark here

From the back, there came the proprietor. He was stout, dressed in a sharp pale suit and losing the war to preserve his hair. His cane clicked a staccato beat on the floorboards.Bookmark here

"Ah, Mylo. I see you decide to stop neglecting the fashion. No, don’t tell me," he pointed from Kasumi to Mylo, "it is your friend who brings you."Bookmark here

"Pelgram, this is—"Bookmark here

The proprietor brushed past him to stand in front of Kasumi. His gaze evaluated her through pince-nez glasses. Kasumi’s robe might have been starter gear, but it screamed stylish compared to Mylo’s plain gray shirt and dusty blue jeans. Bookmark here

"You brought Mylo here to save him from his apathy and dress him up, didn’t you?"Bookmark here

Kasumi felt like she was teetering, about to fall over backward. Something about the proprietor's dark eyes—like black holes, they seemed to absorb all detail. For now, honesty in purpose, if not motive, seemed safest. Bookmark here

"Yes, I did. He’d be kinda handsome if he put a little effort in."Bookmark here

"Good. I feel we shall get along most splendidly." The proprietor's brow relaxed into a more genial arc. "Ah, were are my manners? I have failed to introduce myself. Paul Etier, at your service."Bookmark here

Mylo and Paul chatted in whisper tones for a moment while Kasumi went around the racks. Third test was about to begin.Bookmark here

Kasumi returned to the pair with a neatly folded stack: a tan dress patterned with blue cornflowers, silk stockings, penny loafer shoes, and a broad, dark red headband. These she shoved into Mylo’s hands, and she pushed him into the changing booth.Bookmark here

There, gotcha. A guy wouldn’t put on girl’s clothes, not when there was someone to see him. But an NPC meant to travel with a player will equip whatever the player gives them.Bookmark here

Kasumi caught herself in a smile.Bookmark here

Paul watched Kasumi. "Pelgram, my friend, you have the taste most…particular."Bookmark here

"That’s not my taste."Bookmark here

"Then, why the feminine clothing?" There, that piercing gaze from Paul again.Bookmark here

"Oh, it’s a dare."Bookmark here

A good lie, to the best of her knowledge. Didn’t high school boys dare each other to put on women’s clothing? Kasumi couldn’t say, most of her awareness of boys her age came from fiction. It wasn’t that she couldn’t talk to boys, she just didn’t take the opportunity when it arose. Anyways, she thought both Mylo and Paul were NPCs, and this world a game, so she’d respect the 4th wall—who walks into a clothing shop and tells the tailor they aren’t real?Bookmark here

"Just a dare."Bookmark here

Paul frowned, "Pelgram. We have a nice little start to our friendship, let us not ruin it with lies. Mylo, he does not take the dares."Bookmark here

"How can you be so sure if he avoids you?"Bookmark here

"He avoids my lectures. Our acquaintance goes back, a bit before I found my true calling." Paul Etier looked toward the changing booth curtain. "We met when I was still working as a detective."Bookmark here

Kasumi was about to ask a question, but forgot it when Mylo emerged. The dress, the stockings, the headband, he wore it all. The dress? Bad choice, too close to his skin tone, same for the stockings. But the headband matched his eyes. And it sat naturally in his hair. Kasumi regretted thinking of this as just a test of a game’s AI—if she had put a little more care into her picks….Bookmark here

No, what mattered was that he put it on, without fuss at that. So I was right. A player gave you gear and you equipped it without a thought. You really are just a bunch of 0s and 1s on a game server.Bookmark here

The thought didn’t bring any satisfaction.Bookmark here

Then a smile infected Mylo’s face, and spread into a smug smirk.Bookmark here

"You didn’t think I’d wear it."Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.