Dan and I didn’t say a word to each other the whole way through the town, which was fine by me. My goal here wasn’t to make friends; it was to find the one I’d lost some time ago.
The Thorn King’s palace didn’t look all that different from the temple. It was a large cobblestone building, with a slanted wood roof and vines winding all around.
Two guards stood at the front of the palace, wielding spears. They were ugly-looking guys: green, broad-shouldered orcs.
As we approached, Dan whispered into my ear, “I’m going to introduce you to the Thorn King, then he’s probably going to want to ask you some questions.”
“This is a lot of shit to go through for some NPC,” I whispered back.
“Don’t mention that they’re NPCs,” Dan said. “Trust me.”
I shrugged him off. Seriously, who gave a fuck what an AI thought of me?
The guards saw Dan coming. He nodded at them and they let us through.
The palace was nothing more than one gigantic room. It had black-and-white tiles, two guards standing to either side of The Thorn Sage. The Sage certainly liked his guards.
Something about him bothered me. Maybe it was the languorous way he sat on the throne: his head off to one side, with the long black hair getting a bit in his eyes, his white skin about as pale as paper, high-heeled green boots planted about two feet in front of the throne.
“Hello, Dan,” The Thorn Sage said. “I see you’ve brought a friend with you. Who might you be?”
“Chris.” I scratched my nose, hating that this had become a social thing. One of the advantages of gaming was not having to deal with people so much.
“And what is it about him,” The Thorn Sage said, stirring the air with his white hand, “that makes him worthy of my presence?” While the hand itself looked almost like it’d been painted white, the nails were a gnarly green. Little bits of plant matter hung off each of the nails.
“I can just leave.”
“It’s a joke,” The Thorn Sage assured me. “I’m teasing. Still though, I’d be curious to hear your answer, Dan.”
“He shoots lightning out of his eyes,” Dan said.
The Thorn Sage’s light green eyes moved up and down my body. My stomach felt like someone had wrapped their hands around it and squeezed.
“And he’s a Thorn Player?” The Sage asked.
That surprised me. The Tutorial Helper knew it wasn’t real, but it was Dumb AI. Didn’t interact with anyone but PCs, didn’t have an intense backstory or anything.
But for The Thorn Sage to know he was a fictional construct? That was odd. Most players liked immersion in a fantasy world. An in-world NPC who knew he was an NPC seemed… campy.
The question had to be asked, so I asked it, “You know you’re not real?”
His lips curled to smile, and that smile turned into a high-pitched laugh. He laughed and laughed and laughed.
Before The Thorn Sage had finished laughing, I figured the answer must be no.
“You PCs are just so hilariously cultish.” The Thorn Sage swung both of his legs over the left side of his throne, so that his head and shoulders were hanging off the right side. He pushed down with his thighs so that his torso curved upwards. He let out another quick giggle, then let his torso sag onto the throne. “How could you be talking to me if I wasn’t real? That’s absolutely ridiculous. Patently insane!”
The Thorn Sage looked expectantly in my direction, who knows why. Did he want me to be offended, to argue with him? Did he want me to act like I was wrong?
No need to give him the pleasure.
“Okay,” I said. “I want to log off soon, so let’s get down to business. Lightning comes out of my eyes. I don’t really know why, but it doesn’t matter. The point is that I do, and I can do cool stuff for you. So give me a mission.”
The Thorn Sage scoffed. Did velociraptor quotes as he said, “‘Log off.’” He continued, “You’re all so nutty. Your kind hasn’t been here for very long and already there’s such a predictability to your actions. You’re only half-here. Just disappearing at random moments.”
“Logging off.” The Sage snapped his fingers. “Disappearing in thin air. It’s madness.”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
The Thorn Sage sighed, then rolled his eyes. “Oh, we’ll start you off with something simple. Kill ten of the Zebdas that are roaming around out there. Come back here when you’re done. Then, if you manage not to mess things up too badly, we’ll see if we can’t give you a real mission.”
“I’m going to log off first, so it’ll take me a while.”
“Of course you are and of course you will,” The Thorn Sage said. He shooed me away with his hand.
I nodded my head at The Thorn Sage, then at Dan. Dan stayed, while I walked out the palace door.