Chapter 1: The New Normal

I sat on my dragon, Tundra, overlooking the battlefield below me. The Hellspawn, Vampires, Lamorea, and Undead rushing at the Alliance forces. Blade clashing against claw, magic being tossed back and forth. I felt Amber move behind me, loosening her grip from around my waist. “Looks like another insane battle.” Her new spiky black armor glistened in the moonlight, the magical red highlights glowed, giving her the look of cooling lava. “Should we intervene?”

“As if you need to ask.” I gave her a smile and licked my lips; just thinking about the chance to feast on the blood and flesh of the players below made me salivate in anticipation.

“Have fun, Var,” Amber said as she grabbed the dragon’s reins from me.

“I always do.” I turned in my seat and spread my wings, ready to take off. I pulled away and let the wind take my wings like a kite and drifted away from her and the dragon. I felt the wind blow through my red, silk trench coat, my long silver hair whipping behind me, and trails of flames flowing off my crown of fire.

I picked my target, a lightly armored Human player fighting with a cluster of Hellspawn. I put out my claws, ready to strike. I hit him like an avalanche, we went tumbling through the battle, knocking into players and Ns alike. Once we stopped he looked up at me, probably trying to figure out what the hell had just hit him. His eyes widened when he saw who was on top of him. I smiled at him and said in a whisper, “Shadow Swarm.” My shadow exploded into a swarm of black pulsating tentacles, each stabbing him repeatedly. He tried to pull himself away from me but was unable. I watched as his health diminished to almost nothing. The moment before his death, I sunk my teeth into his neck, draining the delectable and thick blood from his body. By the time I lifted my head away from him, he was dead. I turned to face a gaggle of players rushing at me, ready to strike me down. Well, they can try anyway. I pointed my finger at them and shouted “Firestorm!” and a flurry of fireballs came flying from my fingers, each flying to the attacking players. As the fireballs hit, the players were knocked down and soon after were overwhelmed by the Red Empires forces. 

“So we meet again, Red Queen,” came a voice from behind me. I turned to see the sturdy framed man. I had met him a lot over the last two years; King Roe, the leader of the Alliance. His long, dreadlocked hair moved back and forth and he slowly walked to me. His cool, green eyes locked upon me, “We keep meeting each other in the most strange of places.”

“Oh Roe, you are as shiny as always.” It was true, he was shirtless and his ebony skin shined brightly in the moonlight. “I’m curious, do you take baths in body oil?”

“No, I’m just naturally like this.” He rushed at me, his spiked knuckles flying at my face.

“So, that’s sweat? You must feel sticky at every moment,” I retorted as I did a backflip away from his blow.

“Not sweat, I’m just this beautiful.” Roe came rushing to me with a number of blows, a few actually managing to make contact.

“Huh, Humans think you are good-looking? I feel bad for your species.” I grabbed his fist and tossed him over my shoulder into the ground. Tundra and Amber went flying close by us, Tundra blasting some Alliance players with a frost breath.

“You’re not my cup of tea either, Hellspawn,” he grumbled, getting back to his feet.

“To each his own.” I gave Roe a shrug.

“I guess.” Roe came in for another punch. “Iron Fist!” he shouted as an amber flame emitted from his hand.

“Blackhole!” I cast my spell on him. We both hit each other hard. His punch knocked me back, leaving me with only a sliver of health left. My black vortex of a spell dissipated from around him, only leaving him with a few health points, or HP, as well. And then we both waited for the next part of this dance we were enacting with each other; we needed a player to kill each of us. One of the new Red Empire players rushed over to Roe and hit him with an arrow, knocking the last bit of HP he had to nothing. He could have easily avoided that arrow or cast a defensive ability, but he did nothing. Just like I was about to do nothing about the Alliance mage who cast a lightning spell on me. I watched my health drop to zero and a message flash across my vision, ‘N0-2244, Var Zargronith, The Red Queen, has been killed by P-1,522,191, Da’ Mann.’

Everything went black and then I found myself in a mostly empty room. The room was nothing more than simple wood walls and floors. There were no doors or windows, it was basically a large wooden box. In the center of the room sat three seats, again simple wood that looked like they had seen use but were not in any kind of disrepair. In one of the seats sat Adam; the Game Master had taken over my story since my last GM had been… how can I say this? Given an extreme timeout. I looked over to my left and, as expected, I saw Roe standing there, giving me a smile. “Do you take a bath in body oil? You crack me up, girl.” He offered me his hand to help me up. I took his hand, even though I didn’t need help, but the gesture was nice and I didn’t want to be a jerk to him if I didn’t need to. I looked at him and gave a wry smile myself, “I try to keep it light out there.” 

“Well, I always enjoy our time together and thanks for bantering with me. It’s hard to find someone to get any good verbal dueling matches with when you’re surrounded by underlings.” Roe lightly punched me on the shoulder.

“Tell me about it. All I get every second of every day is, ‘yes, my Queen. Right away, my Queen, what can I do for you today, my Queen.’ Not to mention all of the bowing; I mean, I understand it’s their job, but seriously, how much can people bow in one day?” I sighed. “But I guess it’s better than being some item shop vendor.”

“Are you two done?” inquired Adam. I looked over to Adam and as always he was unremarkable. He was an older man with a long, black beard and long, messy hair. He was dressed in simple brown clothing. He could easily blend into any crowd of this game without being noticed. 

“Yeah, we’re done,” I informed him as I moved to one of the empty seats next to him.

“Okay, no rest for the wicked, I suppose,” Roe said as he took the last of the open seats.

“So, the Alliance defended the attack; Var, you didn’t gain any new territories.” Adam waved his hand at me.

“Ha, in your gray face!” Roe pointed his finger at me in victory.

“It happens.” I gave a shrug. Really, this happens all the time now. Ever since players were allowed to join the Red Empire, a worldwide war had been raging. We had been doing a massive battle every two weeks for the last 102 weeks where the Alliance and the Red Empire would jockey for territory.

“You both did well. Our simultaneous log-in is up by two hundred and thirty percent from this time last year,” Adam said dryly.

“Well, I’m happy things are going your way.” I leaned back in my chair.

“I wouldn’t say things are going perfectly.” Adam eyed me. “But I do appreciate you two doing what is necessary for Another Online.”

“Yeah, whatever.” I looked away from Adam; I hated the fact I had grown so accustomed to all this crap.

“You can count on us.” Roe pointed his thumb at himself in his usual exuberant fashion.

“Good to hear.” Adam’s voice was soft and had almost no intonation in it. “Now onto other matters.” Adam pulled up a terminal out of nothingness, the ghostly screen floated in front of him and he started messing with it. This always felt strange; as Ns we had been trained to ignore anything out of the roleplay of Another Online, and this was way out of place. “We have some problems with faction membership. The Alliance is growing more and more outnumbered by the Red Empire each day. This wasn’t a big problem seeing as they weren’t high level, where most Alliance players were, but that has changed. There are a lot of high-level Empire players and soon the battlefield will be uneven and the Empire will have an unfair advantage. More than likely this will make more Alliance players quit or make new characters in the Empire.”

“That’s because they have all the cool races!” Roe exclaimed. “Undead, Imps, Vampires, Hellspawn, not to mention you can be Lamorea or Human and still be a Red. What does the Alliance have that’s just for us? The freaking Siveen!”

“And the GMs agree with you, Roe, that’s why we have decided to release a race expansion pack.” Adam flicked his finger and a row of Ns appeared in front of us. They looked around once they arrived- being spawned someplace was always disorienting. Once they spotted the GM, they all walked over to us and stood silently and avoided eye contact. This was normal; for the most part, if you came into contact with a GM this is exactly what you were to do. “Please take turns introducing yourself and your race,” Adam ordered them calmly. First to speak up was ‘N0-0991, Pronoia Hester, Lady of the Sun’ a beautiful woman with a thin frame. “I’m Lady Hester, of the Puer Sole.” She gave us a slight bow as she spoke. On closer inspection, she looked like she was designed to be my exact opposite. Long, wavy, golden hair flowed over her white feathered wings. She wore a baby blue toga that covered her snow-white skin, and floating above her head was a glowing halo of light. I was disappointed in the GMs with this race; they couldn’t come up with anything better than angels with a different name? 

“Hello, I’m Augur Exto, of the Senso.” I peeked over Augar’s head to catch his N information, ‘N0-2245 Augur Exto, Lifebringer’. This race was much more interesting; it was a being made of coalescing wisps of light that flowed in and out of the wide-framed humanoid figure. It was almost like a swarm of fireflies. There were several pieces of golden armor floating close to his body but not touching it, like they were being held in place by magnets. And he had one large wisp in the center of its head making a single eye. Augur placed his hands together and inclined his head ever so slightly, “I look forward to working with you all.”

The next to step forward took me aback, ‘N0-1002, Vraklu Wildflare, Matriarch of the Shining Swamp’ was a frog on her hind legs dressed in flowing purple robes and a tiara adorned to her moist green skin. “I am Matriarch Wildflare of the Amphibira.” Her voice was smooth and calming, odd coming from such an odd creature. 

“Greetings to you, I am Zajak Mezis of the Al’nor!” Zajack exclaimed extremely loudly. The long tangle of branches curving into horns protruded into his N title that read, ‘N0-0599 Zajak Mezis, The Mighty’; his body was a swarm of plantlife covered in ancient Roman-like armor adorned with a short red cape. He placed his fist across his chest and boomed, “I’m excited to be here with you all!”

Lastly was a tall, extremely skinny figure in a tattered puffy dress. Her chipped porcelain mask was slightly covered in messy long blond hair that looked like a bad wig. She took a step to us, and with every movement, I could hear mechanical sounds, like the turning of gears in a clock. I peeked above her head and read, ‘N0-8,985,211, Oracle, The Clockwork Princess’. She looked way out of place from this lineup. A mechanical whisper came from the woman, “I am the Oracle, I am one of the Machina, my people will be coming to the Red Empire soon.”

“Wait, I thought we were getting all the new blood,” Roe blustered.

“The Machina aren’t going to be a playable race. They were designed by one of our GMs for story reasons,” Adam informed us. I cracked a small smile; I bet this was Lily’s doing. Leave it to the only GM I would consider a friend to give me something during an expansion for the other team. “One week, that’s when we’ll be releasing the new expansion. You should prepare for this grand event.” Adam got to his feet, “And that’s it, I’m going to let the new Alliance N0s get acquainted and the Red Empire get to know each other. Once you’re done, exit out the door,” a door spawned behind Adam, “and you will spawn back into the game world.” Before I realized it, it was just Oracle and me left in the void; everyone else was gone.

Oracle’s head slowly ticked so she was looking at me. Her mechanical movements were uncanny and unsettling. “Hello Var.” Her hand jerked suddenly to me with an open palm. It took me a second to realize she wanted me to shake her hand. By the Void, handshaking, I haven’t done this in years, everyone else has just been bowing to me. I grabbed her hand and we gave it a few shakes. “You have quite a grip there, Oracle,” I mused.

“Oh sorry, I’m still getting used to this body.” Oracle let go of my hand. She moved over to the seat where Roe had been moments before. Each step weared and clicked as she moved. 

“I understand that, I was Human before this.” I gestured to my Hellspawn body.

“Weren’t we all?” Oracle tilted her head ever so slightly.

“Well, I was a Human N before this,” I amended.

“Wait, you didn’t start like this?” She moved her arm to gesture at me.

“No, I was running an item shop before this, but I glitched into this whole Red Queen thing.”

“Oh. I was nothing before this.” She paused for a few seconds, more than likely reliving the training. I understood why- N training was unpleasant. “Then I was here in this room with you.”

“Wait?! You are new? Like brand new to AO?” I was genuinely shocked. Everyone I knew had been here from day one, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that new Ns would be put into AO.

“Yes, I am new. How long have you been here?” she inquired, shaking me out of my ever growing hate for Gear Tech.

“I have been here about sixteen… or closer to seventeen years.” I looked away from her as I spoke. I hated the idea that I had been here this long.

“Hum, interesting. I didn’t -” She started to say but I cut her off.

“It is what it is.” I crossed my arms, “So, did they tell you what you should be doing?

She paused and watched me for a moment, and her arm twitched and her hand clenched, “No, I was not informed on what I should be doing.”

“You should expect that from the GMs around here, they are extremely unhelpful.” I narrowed my eyes angrily.

“I see.” Her voice was unreadable and even. “What I was informed, my people will be coming to your city a few days before the expansion release. So you should be ready for us.” She stood from her seat and started walking to the door.

“Woah, where are you going?” I stood and took a step behind her.

“I wish to leave,” she informed me simply. “I don’t have anything else to say to you.”

“You should take advantage of GM and System-free time, this doesn’t happen often.” I went to grab her wrist, but she moved it away from my hand. “I do not wish to keep talking.” She grabbed the handle of the door and vanished.

“What in the Void?!” I exclaimed. I looked around the empty space, now only me and the three chairs. “Damn it.” This was annoying, I looked forward to post-battle chatter, it was the only time I could truly be me and it had been cut short today. I let out a sigh. I guess that’s the way things go here in the shit show that is Another Online. I walked over to the door and placed my hand on the handle. 

The next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes to see the silk canopy of my massive bed. Respawning was always strange, it was like when you fell asleep someplace crazy when you were a kid and you would wake up in your bed like magic. “Rise and shine, kiddo!” my Papa called out to me as he opened the blinds, letting the light into my bedroom.

“What?” I enquired as I blocked the light hitting my eyes.

“I said it’s time to get up, my Queen,” Xor spoke softly. She was lit by the morning light, her beautiful Imp body dressed in a black and silver handmaid uniform. Her silver hair cut short around her thin horns. Her bright red skin surrounds penetrating silver eyes. “There is much to do and little time to do it.” She gave me a soft smile.

“I doubt that.” I stood, sliding out of bed nude- well, almost nude there was a yellow ribbon that never came off my wrist. At this point the System had learned that was how I normally went to bed so it made sense to spawn me that way. As soon as my feet hit the ground, Xor was ushering me over to my dresser. “I think the red and gold sarong and halter top are in order today.” She held the outfit out in front of me.

“And the coat,” I added, crossing my arms, letting her know that the coat was a demand.

“And that awful beat-up trench coat,” she surrendered. I don’t understand why she hated that coat so much. I thought it looked cool. It was one of two things gifted to me by my friend Lily, the other being the yellow ribbon. Over the next thirty minutes, Xor got me ready for my upcoming day, cleaning me, dressing me, and filling me in on my schedule. This was our routine, a completely unnecessary one. Before I had taken her in as a handmaid, I just woke up ready to go, but apparently taking her on let The System know this was a story override for my character. I had to admit I kind of liked it; it made me feel a bit more like a normal person. Well, as normal as AO could get. Also, this was one of the only opportunities for genuine human, or maybe creature, contact? Well, whatever the correct terminology for the contact we were having right now was, it felt wonderful. Xor was currently brushing my hair and she gave me a smile, “You are grinning like a fool.”

“Am I?”

“Yes, you most certainly are.”

“Is it wise to call your queen a fool?” I crossed my arms.

“Probably not. But it was an apt description of the dumb, happy look you were wearing.”

“Digging that hole deeper and deeper, I see.”

“Then do something about it. Toss me out the tallest tower for my insubordination.” She was now running the brush under my flaming halo with practiced grace.

“Na’, then I would need to get ready myself in the mornings.”

“Well, we couldn’t let that happen now, could we?” She placed the brush on the vanity. “Done, and looking as good as ever.” She placed her hands on my shoulders in a kindly, almost sisterly, manner.

“Well done as always, Xor.” I looked at myself in the mirror; I did look damn good.

“My pleasure, my Queen.” She gave me a bow as I stood. 

“So, what’s on the schedule for today?”

“I’m not privy to that information, you would need to ask Ren-”

At that exact moment, a short, ugly little spud of an Imp named Renny entered the room. “My Queen, Hell’a Oll’don requests an audience with you,” his high-pitched voice squeaked.

“Speak of the devil- no, Imp in this case, and he and he will appear,” Xor mused.

“What are you talking about, Xor?” Renny looked at her and blushed a bit as he did. Renny had a major crush on Xor, and for the life of me, I didn’t know if she had feelings for him. She did flirt with him, but I didn’t know if that was so she could get a rise out of him, or if she was actually interested in him.

I snapped my fingers a few times and Renny looked back at me. “Renny, pay attention, you were saying about Hell’a?”

“Oh yes, she needs to see you right away.”

“Of course, she does,” I grumbled. “Renny, go get the equipment I made for her.”

“As you wish, my Queen.” Renny bowed his long slicked-back black hair, not moving at all. 

“How much hair pomade does he use to make it do that?” I whispered to myself as he scurried out of my bedroom as fast as his little legs could move him. 

“Bye, Renny!” Xor gave him a wave as he left.

“Oh, right, Xor.” He paused and gave a huge smile. “As always, it is a pleasure, Xor!” Then he made it the rest of the way out of the room.

I walked to the door and looked to Xor right before I exited. “Xor, would you mind getting one of the guest rooms ready?”

“Are we expecting anyone, my Queen?” she inquired.

“No,” I paused. I had to play this one safe. If I said too much about the update and that Clockwork Princess, the System wouldn’t be happy with me and I would be punished, N0 or not. “I just have an odd feeling we will be needing it. I could be wrong, but better safe than sorry.”

“As you wish.” She gave another bow as I left the room.

I walked down the hallway of my castle, the soft echo of my footsteps bouncing down the main corridor as I walked. There were paintings of my fake family, well-dressed Hellspawn with long horns, flaming crowns, blue skin, and serious or malevolent expressions on their faces. I had to give it to Lily and whoever helped her make all these paintings, each one was masterfully painted and it looked as if they were windows into rooms where row after row of Hellspawn sat eerily still.

 I stopped at a painting I found extremely entertaining every time I saw it; it was a painting of me in all my splendor, a well-dressed Human man- apparently my dearly departed husband, and Drac, my son, as a child. Drac was dressed in a ridiculous-looking Victorian child outfit, skirt and all. From my art classes back in the real world, I knew that it was common for boys to have little dresses. Hell, I had a friend who was a boy and would wear a skirt on the regular, so it wasn’t the fact that a boy was wearing a skirt that was funny and more the fact that it was Drac in a skirt. His hair was curled and he had a huge cute bow around his collar, and to top it all off was holding a candy. It was hysterical.

“Mother, must you always look at that dreadful painting?” Drac Zargronith, the Red Prince, my son, came sauntering over to me, his long black hair drifting slightly behind him. “Every morning, you laugh at that painting. Yes, I get it, you had a twisted sense of style to make your beloved son dress in such a dreadful outfit, but must you revel in it every morning?”

“I can’t help it, Drac, just look at that cute little thing you used to be.” I used my baby-talk voice as I spoke. “Just look at that little face.” In reality, Drac never looked like this. He, like the rest of us, came fully formed into AO as whatever age we were going to be for the rest of our lives. This painting was something made by the GMs, probably my friend Lily because she would also find it really funny to dress Drac like this, to make the world feel more robust.

“Mother I… Ugh, you are hopeless.” Drac pushed his large, round, red lens sunglasses up his nose, a clear sign that he was annoyed.

“Why not dress like this again? I mean, it would be a nice change of pace from that same red suede suit you have on every day.”

“Stop it, Mother…”

“Aw, did I hit a nerve?” I went in and pinched his cheek.

“I will destroy you,” he grumbled as he swatted my hand away and started to move down the hallway away from me.

“I think I could take a cute little baby boy like you.” I matched his speed and walked down the hallway with him.

“We have brawled before and I remember it being a draw.”

“Mostly I remember breaking holes in the walls.” Alexander was so mad at us for that fight. He was working so hard on making this castle and we went and made so many new holes in it during our throwdown.

“Alright, then the Zargronith family one, castle walls zero.” Drac gave his trademark impish smile.

“Yeah, we beat the hell out of those walls.” I returned the smile. We walked down a long flight of stairs to the main hall where three thrones sat. The largest was mine, to one side was Drac’s, and the last and smallest was Hell’a’s, who was currently sitting on it. Hell’a was dressed in a black dress that covered much of her body and a large-brimmed hat; this is what she wore during the daytime to keep the sun off her pale-white vampire flesh. I thought it would just be easier to wear clothing that didn’t show so much skin, but Hell’a was one of those people that would always prioritize style over functionality. She looked over to us, stood up, and opened her arms almost like she was waiting for a hug. “Var, Drac, how marvelous to see you today.”

“Hell’a, you see us every day.” My words were dry and a bit sarcastic. 

“That doesn’t change the fact I enjoy seeing you.”

“I guess.” I shrugged and sat down in my seat. “And before you ask, I did finish enchanting those doodads you wanted.” As per his usual perfect timing, Renny came into the hall with a box of enchanted gears and other mechanical devices. This had been going on for months now. Ever since I took the magical enhancement ability both, Hell’a and Alexander had been giving me all kinds of crazy devices with very odd enhancement requests, mostly things like when a certain cog hit another a sound would emanate from it, or for it to change its rotation speed every few seconds, a gear moving up or down a dowel or other random things. I had no idea why these two wanted such things, but they assured me that it was needed for the Red Empire. I wasn’t going to argue with them seeing as it gave me something to do during the day. Now that those first few weeks of the Burning World expansion ended, things got a lot more mundane. Where there were once battles with dragons and making alliances with Vampires, now there were briefings and hours of empty time with almost nothing to do. I managed to get out and actually see the world now that I was free from the confines of the item shop where I spent the first 15 years in AO, but sightseeing could only be fun for so long. And I was always kind of a homebody, preferring to sculpt or watch videos in my previous life back in the real.

“Wonderful.” Hell’a grabbed one of the gears and spun it around in her fingers. “As always, your work is beyond amazing.”

“You say that every time,” Drac said as he slid past Hell’a and Renny to his seat, slumping into it with a soft thud.

“It is true every time,” Hell’a retorted. “She’s the master of enchantments.”

“But it’s the same thing every day. Next thing you are going to do is ask for more strange enhancements.” Drac shook his head just a bit.

“Well, Prince, today is different. I no longer require Var to help me with this. We are done with the magical enhancements.”

“Wait, what?” I groaned, “I actually enjoyed making those.” 

“Don’t let my lack of need for them stop you from making enhanced items of your own. I mean, you did do an excellent job enhancing Lady Amber’s and Lady Ral’s armor.” Hell’a mused as she inspected another of the gears. She was right. I did have a lot of fun with Amber making her new armor. Amber forged it and I gave it its magical fire abilities and resistance, but that was a one-time thing. Well, a two-time thing, I did the same for Ral’s armor. “Renny, go take these to the portal, my man will take them from you,” Hell’a snapped.

“Right away, Mistress.” Renny moved towards the exit of the castle. I got to give him credit, that box he was holding was as big and probably as heavy as he was, but even with that, he was moving exceedingly quickly. 

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go speak to Alexander,” Hell’a excused herself and slid through the back exit. I looked over to Drac and saw he had summoned a drink for himself. Today it looked as if he was indulging in a white wine. He held out the drink to me, “Would you like some?”

“No, thank you, I’m fine.” I held out my hand and spawned a glass in between my index and middle finger. I then opened a portal into the blood tank that had been set up in the basement. This was one of the more brilliant ideas I had come up with. Now that there were a lot of players in the Red Empire, I had to come up with quests for them, and one of them was to hunt down Alliance players and gather their blood with a contraption that the Vampires had designed. For every leader of blood brought to the castle or to the Blood Lands, the players would gain Experience Points and Gold. It was a popular quest and kept the Vampires from drinking Ns blood, and kept me fed in the most delicious drinks I have ever had. There was something about the players’ blood that just tasted so much better. The blood exited the portal in a slow gloopy stream into my large glass. Just before it reached the top of my glass I got rid of the portal and the flow of blood subsided. “Would you like some of this?” I asked, knowing full well he would decline.

“You know I never developed a taste for the stuff.” He clinked his glass of wine to my glass of blood. “To another boring day.”

“Yeah, to the new normal.” I sighed. We both took a drink and looked into the empty hall.