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The Tipsy Troodon was on the far edge of the town, down the muddy road past vine covered buildings and a variety of trees interspersed between the buildings. It was difficult to catch sight through the storm but some lightning flashes showcased a sprawling market, mostly stalls shuttered against the storm, as they hurried past and individual homes across from it. As the few who braved the storm pushed on, they’d notice a small ball of electricity floating around them that continued to expand. A status icon called “Static Charge” appeared and a player near Cecilia was suddenly struck by lightning after the orb grew to the size of his head. A few seconds later, a few more players were struck, most of their health disappearing as the wind snatched their strangled cries from their throats.

A quick duck into a door frame almost immediately dispelled the effect but drastically slowed their movement. Eventually, they made it to their destination: The Tipsy Troodon a flapping wooden sign declared. The few stairs up to the building’s porch could be heard over the storm as they protested under the weight of any adventurer. A few rocking chairs laid on their side, obviously forgotten before the storm.



The inside was rather small, only five or six round tables scattered around, and the bar stools had seen better days. The bar itself had long gashes cut into it and chunks and bits missing around the sides. A few pictures hung askew around the otherwise plant filed walls, a variety of flowers decorating the creeping vines, and more than one pot collected the drips that leaked through patches in the ceiling.

“What are you foolish creatures doin’ outside when the Rathan is lurking here 'bouts?” An older woman snapped form behind the bar, glaring at travelers that let the rain in for even a moment. “Even those bothrian know better! ‘Ey girl, we have company!” The woman, name tagged as Nerile, shouted back into a door behind the bar. A brief clanging could be heard and a young woman, tagged Anu, came dashing out, a bright smile on her face as she zipped around and welcomed the adventurers in out of the storm while taking orders for drinks and food. She frequently pointed to the sign above the bar, where it listed options and prices. Nerile gave a fond huff as the younger woman scurried about before she turned her attention to River, casting a critical eye over him.

“You look like a drowned Chitter. Nerile commented bluntly as she cleaned out a glass with a not so clean piece of cloth. “Whatcha havin’?








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Outside



Suddenly, the lightning ceases and the wind and the rain quiet down. A massive roar ripped across the town, buildings and trees shaking slightly in its wake, and the Static Charge debuff vanished.

Inn





The NPCs stilled for a moment as a mighty roar resounded in the Inn, holding for a few moments before sighing in relief, and resuming their duties. Anu nodded as he accepted the payments and rushed off to fill their orders. Nerile nodded at the calming storm outside.

“The Rathan’s a mighty beast full of lightning and fury. Always know when its here abouts when the storms so bad. Lurks in the rivers and comes out to feed on the Chitters and the Welkin and sometimes the big Maledoeons when its belly pains demand it.” Nerile shrugged as she took the coin and deposited eight room keys in front of him. They were all in poor condition, a bit dented and bent. Each one had a big wooden tag with a number between 1 and 8. “Let me know when you’re ready for the water and which room you want it in. Anu and Drash will bring it up. Fruit will be out in a jiffy.”

More people started meandering in once the storm let up and the bar filled up quickly, most people edging away from a great axe wielding guy at the end. He wore low grade armor and stared into the bar after ordering a cup of ale in a small voice.

“Don’t cause no trouble or I’ll haul you out myself.” Nervile warned him as she slammed down his cup, sloshing some of the ale onto the bar.

His name was red.

Guild Hall





As Cecilia ran, feeling the wind whip around her as she pushed herself faster and faster against the odds, her static charge grew and grew and grew. She stepped onto the bridge just past the first watch tower on the edge of town and the heavens opened up. In a blinding flash of white, a deafening roar, and boiling heat, lightning arced between the clouds and struck.

Next to Cecelia.

Half a hair to the left and Cecilia would have been struck. The small “Evade!” notice popped up and the charge restarted. The air around her still boiled for half a moment before the wind and rain whisked it away and the sharp cold returned. Another flash of lighting in the distance and another…

No boom, no epic crash. Instead, a roar that shook the ground reverberated across the storm torn world and in the next flash of lightning, Cecilia could see it. A towering monster half submerged in the wide river the bridge spanned. A massive fin rose from it’s back with lightning dancing across it and the worst of the storm writhed above it. It let out another mighty roar and sank into the depths of the river. As it did, the storm lessened, the wind all but stilled and the rain slowed to a drizzle. The Static Charge notice vanished.

The Guild Hall was only a few minutes past the bridge, with nothing more than a little mud hampering the journey. Unlike the rest of the town, the Guild Hall was a towering building of marble and stone but various plants still climbed it’s surface. A towering double door opened as a Player approached it and inside was as elegant as it was on the outside. A long single hall ending in a set of stairs and a full sized window overlooking the story sea greeted all those who entered, a variety of doors on the left side leading further into the building while a long counter was on the right and a few NPCs sat behind them. Two NPCs however, Dracion and Rania, stood towards the left side and seemed to be discussing something serious despite Rania’s periodic chuckling.




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“You are single handedly the reason I drink.” Willow sighed at River. She would have preferred everyone took the night and rested. Just because their stats were topped off, the game still demanded they sleep and eat. After a huge battle, she’d rather play it safe but if everyone was insisting they push on then they would push on. She downed the rest of her drink before sending out a message to Cecelia.

Cece,

Did you at least take a moment to eat? A level up doesn't stop the game from hitting you with hunger. We're about to head out once we finish up here. Did you want me to pick you up some bread and fruit?

Can you also keep an eye out for Prome? He was with us freaking out and now he up and vanished.

Stay safe please.


"I need to pick up the rest of the body line anyways. I overestimated how much my stat would influence it's healing power." Willow grumbled, sending the message and picking at her stew. "We really need someone working on the numbers. Wonder if that's capped behind that arithmetic skill."

The inn was still noisy, Players coming and going as they wanted. Renn was flowing freely and the alcohol was right behind it. People were really going all out.









"Our condolences for your losses. Rania said, Dracion lifting his hand off her shoulder as she stood down. Both of them have him a wary look as he continued to blather. "I am Rania Hawthorne and this is Dracion Wildbron, second to the Shaman Chief. It an interesting choice to brave the Rathan's scorn. What brings you here with such purpose?"

Meanwhile, Dracion hauled Prome up by the arm off the floor. The weight of his suit didn't seem to bother the man all that much. He patted the Tinker hardily on the back.

"Stand up, you strange man. Around these parts we look each other in the eye. We don't bow down and grovel like beasts scrounging for food." Dracion boomed with a frown. "Now 'fore I can help you, need to know a few things. One, what tower? You talkin' about the ruins on top of the mountain right. Well, that there-" Rania smacked him lightly on the shoulder.

"I can handle this, Dracion. Go do your rounds." Dracion shot her a curious look and she just shook her head. He shrugged, said his farewells, and made his way out into the rain only to be stopped by other players. Rania turned back to the pair.

"Discussing the universe's layout with the unenlightened will only confuse them further." Rania spoke quietly as her tag blinked, changing from Rania to Rania Hathorne, Shifter Trainer. "Ultimate power is an illusion of your own creation. Ascension can only be achieved through the concurrent use of many powers, not a singular one. A single fish among the sharks is sure to die but when they swim as one, they may escape. At the cost of some of course."

Quest Accepted.
A Mechanist's life for me!
See Professor Ratshrew in his home in the residential district to
unlock the Mechanist subclass.

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COLOR TEST!

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“The enthusiasm is much appreciated! We’ll do great things together, great things! I feel it in my bones!” Alfor chuckled with a clap on Prome’s shoulder.





Willow turned and lead them beyond the town borders. A soft ding went off in everyone’s ear, a symbol disappearing off their dashboard as they left the safe zone. Various animal cries bounced around the gradually thickening forest that surrounded the town and bugs almost immediately started buzzing around the group. There was a soft rustle ahead and two small creatures, no taller than Cecilia’s hip, popped out of the undergrowth.



Chitter 1: (Left)
Health: 1250/1250
Mana: 2500/2500

Chitter 2: (Right)
Health: 1250/1250
Mana: 2500/2500


The two Chitters hissed softly and then a rapid chittering, not unlike squirrel's conversing, sound came from their throats as their heads twitched in unison. Their neck frills only partially expanded as they seemed to watch the group’s movements.

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Home was a bittersweet struggle for Varis. Antwone picked Varis up perfectly five minutes before he was expected, his preferred travel bottle was ready for him in the back of the car along with the glass Eloise brought him back as a gift the last time he sent her off to one of Edgar's show mage's soirees. They threw so many it baffled Varis how they got any work done but it gave his own show mage a way to show off however she wished, within her expected behaviors of course, and it made her happy to see some of them so her smiles weren't all forced, tight lipped, amateurish shows like a certain mage he had to deal with now. Varis opened the bottle with practiced ease and poured himself a tall glass.

He knew they had a deal but by the Queen's saving grace, the boy was a complete idiot. How did a mage with such an amazing pedigree turn out like that? There wasn't an original thought in the boy's brain! Varis took a deep drink. There were times when he wished alcohol affected vampires in a mortal fashion and this entire semester so far was one of them. Couldn't figure out where a link cuff was supposed to go when he didn't have cuffs! Eloise graduated from that bat shit thought process when she was three. He couldn't imagine Ryner let any of her mages act like that at home. Completely void of independent thought and any semblance of rational thought. The only thing the boy was useful for was holding things. Anything more complex and Varis had to hold his hand like a child. The boy did well once and nothing since. Pathetic.

Varis tapped his foot irritably against the passenger seat. How many times had he considered breaking their deal? Since meeting the boy, he'd turned so impatient but the Starag boy just didn't learn! Admittedly, Varis only had experience breaking Sinnenodel mages in but he couldn't imagine this primitive child any different than the others. The absurd loyalty to the Noilas was just another expression of their intellectual inferiority. Anyone with an advanced intellect knew that loyalty was a cheap and easy method of manipulation; rather, temporary alliances were the only thing that could be trusted. Anything else was just a ploy to bring you to heel. Things like trust and faith were misplaced in this world. They were what made all of humanity, mage or otherwise, excel in their servitude. A vampire could never last.

The ride home was silent. Antwone kept the privacy screen up, the AC running, the drive smooth, took the detour Varis enjoyed when he was stressed and drawn thin, and pulled home with no fan fair. The first days home Varis always prefer the silence of his own company. Varis stepped out and didn't acknowledge the servant opening the door and then scurrying away like the insect he was. Varis waited until he was alone again and sighed, letting a weary smile as his lavender garden washed over him.

"Finally home." He murmured to himself as he entered the garden, a sprawling maze his family kept up for generations. He'd slowly had the gardeners change out the original plants for the lavenders. He wandered through it, the paths familiar but he turned that off. It had been years since he let himself get lost beneath the soft moonlight in the well manicured garden. He let his thoughts wander, far away from the weariness of the boy, from the expectations of Court and Council, from the deal, from bothersome Dukes and Duchesses. Here in the garden, he felt closer to something he had before, a memory forgotten but the impression still there. It was bitter-sweet, an impression of laughter, of longing, of a broken heart, and of bitter fury. Mostly, it was betrayal but Varis had no idea what it meant.

The garden and the library had been his escape from a tyrannical father and apathetic siblings. Why he would feel this way here of all places always confused him but he did. Sometimes it hurt so much he couldn't stand it but he suffered through it to try and figure it out. Those nights he spent, picking the tangled web of emotions apart left him more confused than before, in more pain that before. Every thread brought him to another tangle, each tangle revealed more threads. Never tangible memories. Impressions. Reactions. A periodic thought. And always music. A piano. He didn't even know how to play the piano and yet he remembered it clearly. Some days, it infuriated him. Not to know your own mind was the hallmark of insanity in his opinion and he'd barely been alive a century. Time hadn't left its mark on him just yet.

Some days, it was reassuring. Knowing there was always another mystery to solve, that he could never truly be bored with eternity was a surprising comfort. More than one vampire lost their minds when everything stagnated. But Varis had his own little puzzle locked away where no one could find it. When vampires became predictable and his web wove itself without any help, he could always take a moment and try again and again and again because there seemed to be an endless supply of emotions of a depth he never thought possible. He'd never wish them on his worst enemies and he certainly wouldn't enjoy having them every night. Once in a while was perfect. A kickstart when things got boring.

The path he followed took him to his childhood spot, a secret little swirl of hedge that opened into a small space. A jagged piece of stone work carefully set into the center of a stone pagoda. His grandfather stole it from an archeological dig he funded before he reported the findings to the Council. The tablet was covered in archaic writings, something he didn't know and Ryner refused to teach him. If everything went well, that would change. Varis knelt, pressing for the loose board at the bottom of the structure, and pulled out a long thin box. He replaced the board and tucked it safely away. He spent a few more moments tracing the familiar lettering before he took his leave back to the castle.

The family's castle was dark and imposing, a design choice of his great grandmother's back when the vampire lords fought off hunters and other lords. It clawed at the sky with three long towers that spiraled out of the well fortified structure. Varis pushed his way into the main hall, picking up the letters that were neatly stacked at the table there. He flickered through them quickly, leaving more than one in the trash next to it.

Two stood out. Dutchess Fennilia demanding attention after he ruled against her in a border dispute. Typical. He expected it sooner than this but she was always one to sulk for a few years before she tried to garner favor with him. He slipped that on in his pocket as well but the other chilled him to his core. It took all his control to make his way through the silent halls as calmly and collected as he usually would until he climbed the stairs to his personal room. He shut the door. He placed the letter on his desk. He sat on his bed.

He screamed into a pillow. The Sinnenodel seal on the back was marked with the distinctive eyes that only she used in the family. Lady Sinnenodel sent him a summons.

The tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. He'd just gotten home and arranged a few days off before he had to attend a business meeting and now this. He'd received summons before, plenty of times in the past fifty years, and summons with that symbol only ever meant she was displeased with him. Which was far more often than not because she expected perfection and nothing was ever perfect to her. Varis wanted to bash his head against the wall. He likely had to cancel the business meeting or at least arrange to conference call into it. If she permitted him to speak this time. He stood up and walked stiffly back to the letter, pulling out a snake engraved letter opener. He paused, took a deep breath, and opened the envelope.

Count Varis Sinnenodel,

Your presence is expected at Lady Sinnenodel's Raining Star Villa along with all documentation on the acquisitions of Green Vision Inc and plans for hosting Chaend. Lady Sinnenodel's attendant will arrive in three days. Arraignments for your meeting with the Astorio Counts have been made. Expect to return to the Noila Academy directly from the Villa.

Secretary of the luminous Lady Sinnenodel.


Varis reread the letter several times. His frustration and anger, his brief and naive belief this wasn't what he thought it was, all collapsed into a frustrated resentment. Set was exactly what he thought but she was taking it one step further. The irony was clear. Just as he forced the boy to handle a public reminder of his place, she was doing the same thing. He ground his fangs together furiously, threw the letter aside, and collapsed back on his bed. His luggage from school wasn't fully returned, likely being taken in from washing, but several other pieces sat in their place. Eloise must have seen the letter and known he'd be leaving. Thank the Queen someone knew how to anticipate his needs.

His violin was sitting in it's place on his dresser and Varis realized with a start he hadn't lifted it once from its place at the dorm. It was normally a key piece of relaxing but he'd been so stressed about everything that he'd forgotten about it entirely. He chewed his lip for a second as he considered and sighed again, putting all thoughts of everything else aside. He pulled out the box he'd brought in and set it carefully on his desk, sliding the box open and pulling out the carefully coiled sheets and spreading them open. The thin, wispy handwriting of his mother carefully transcribed one of his favorite violin pieces from his youth. He knew the notes by heart of course. He played it on the anniversary of her death every year without fail. Varis chuckled at the page. He could almost hear her, upset that he ignored everyone but her. He imagined she would tell him off about how much work he did, how much he let the Lady of the house hurt him, how much he hurt other people.

But she wasn't here. Only her memory and her grave. Varis shook away the nostalgia welling up in him as he picked up the violin, amused at the futility of the effort. He was bound to feel it, playing his mother's piece, and here he was trying to shove it away. He couldn't have his mage and drink too.

Varis spent a few moments applying rosin, making sure his strings were still good to play with, and tuning it. The violin firmly tucked under his chin, fingers on the strings, and elbow in its sweet spot. He held the bow just above the strings as he counted the beat in his head, a silent metronome that sounded far too much like his mother's counting for his taste.

The first pass of the bow felt as sweet as blood in his veins. The tension faded from his shoulders as the music sang away his worries with each pass, beckoning his mind far away from what his muscle memory could handle. Back in a time where he clung to his mother's skirts with every new face, when his room smelled like cookies and strawberries and cream, when the wild lavender was a playground and a reading nook all in one. Back before his father turned his attention on him, before his siblings loathed him, before he gambled his family's reputation and won. Before he schemed. Before he raised his walls. Back before he cared about more than the next book he read.

He played the rest of the early morning away, ignoring the tears that stained his cheeks again, ignoring the hurt and the anger pressing in around him, ignoring all the responsibilities he built for himself. He played for hours. Even when Eloise came in and closed his curtains, he played. Even when she offered him blood, he played. He played long into the day and even once he succumbed to sleep, he curled protectively around the violin.
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