I stared around the shop, still feeling that rush of amazement. I’d been here a hundred times – no, a thousand times – before, but it still amazed me, still left me breathless.
“Hey Tim, what’s this one?”
I turned, looking over at Alma. My older sister stared up at the stained glass window, and I stifled my little groan of irritation.
“That’s Etruvian Man,” I told her, certain that I’d named the figure in the window to her on previous visits. “And it’s Hedron while we’re here, remember? This is a Game shop, so we use the Game names.”
Alma nodded, but I doubted she’d remember. To her, the Game was just a way to communicate with her friends; she never ventured out beyond the safety of the walled cities. Her avatar was still only at the first level, and she hadn’t gained experience since she left the tutorial island.
“Have you ever fought one?” she asked, after a minute.
I shook my head, but then realized that she wasn’t looking at me. “No,” I replied. “I’m only level thirty. I wouldn’t stand a chance against one of those until I was at least level fifty.”
“Oh, right.” Alma sounded a little disappointed, but I put her out of my mind, focusing on the models of the creatures around me, all the mystical, magical monsters that could be mine for exuberant prices.
“Ah, Hedron. Good to have your presence, as always.”
I started a little, nearly dropping the crystal from my hands as Asmodean, the shop’s proprietor, slinked out from behind a curtain. Tall and preternaturally thin, I didn’t know his age, or anything about him, aside from his character’s information in the Game. But he bought my little captured creatures, paying me enough credits to cover the little room that I shared with my sister.
Asmodean slipped behind the counter, interlacing his long, thin fingers as he peered down at me. “And what have you brought me today?” he asked, nodding down towards the crystal in my hands.
I lifted the crystal up, placing it on the counter. Asmodean ran his slender digits briefly over it, sliding it over to the interface console in the middle of the counter.
A little hologram flickered into life, showing off the growling, impatient creature trapped inside the silicon structure. “Ah, an elder Clefthoof,” Asmodean remarked, his voice giving away nothing of whether he considered the creature worth anything to him.
“It’s got a weird coloring pattern on it, too,” I offered, knowing how clumsy I was at bargaining, but also knowing that I needed to try. “I haven’t found one in the Game like that before, so I thought it might be worth a little more.”
Asmodean just gazed back at me, and I felt the urge to shrink back away, to apologize. A Clefthoof, even an elder one with weird coloring, couldn’t nearly be worth as much as some of the creatures on display in Asmodean’s shop. I’d likely never be able to afford any of those beasts, those homunculi, even if I scrimped and saved for a decade.
No, I had to spend most of my credits on supporting myself and my sister. It was a hard life, and sometimes I hated everything about it, but it was the only way I survived. I didn’t have any other options.
“Yes, the coloring pattern is intriguing,” Asmodean said, but I didn’t know if he was just humoring me. He never really showed me any explicit kindness, but I suspected that he didn’t bargain as hard with me as he did with some of the other Game hunters who brought their finds into his store. “Let me see.”
I waited as he tapped keys on his Game interface. Asmodean had access to the Market, and he could determine the prices that my little trapped Clefthoof would fetch across the Game’s universe. I couldn’t afford access to the Market – those terminals were horrendously expensive – so I had to let Asmodean take his cut of what I slaved away to bring him.
“Yes, I see,” he replied after a minute. “Well, some breeders are interested in this coloration. Perhaps five hundred credits would be fair?”
I felt my heart jump in my chest. Five hundred credits would be enough to cover our room and board for the next two weeks, with some left over! Maybe I could save it, or put it towards an upgraded trap, or even a second crystal containment chamber. I tried to keep my face from showing my excitement.
“If you’re offering me five hundred, it has to be worth at least a thousand,” I said to Asmodean. “Could you do seven fifty?”
He frowned down at me, his eyebrows drawing together on either side of his hooked nose. “Six hundred, because you’re such a good customer,” he said at length. “No higher.”
“I’ll take it.” My mind spun at the possibilities. Six hundred credits, all mine!
Asmodean typed a few more keys, and the little hologram of the Elder Clefhoof vanished as the creature’s code was sucked out of my little crystal prison. “Your chit,” he requested.
I held out my chit, the translucent crystal card that carried all of my character’s information. Asmodean took it, slid it into a slot, and then withdrew it and returned it to me after a moment.
“A pleasure, Hedron, as always,” he murmured to me, bowing as he withdrew.
I retrieved my crystal from the counter, and turned to find Alma. “Come on, sis, let’s go home,” I told her.
She nodded, smiling at me. “Get a good deal, little brother?”
Six hundred credits. It felt like a fortune. “Yes. You know, if you helped out with this, we could earn more-”
But Alma was already shaking her head. “Sorry, Tim. You know that I’m no good at making money in the Game.”
Alma acted as the adult for us, paying the fees that we incurred, covering so that the authorities never realized that we didn’t have any parents or other adults with us. “That’s okay. I’ll transfer our rent to you so that you can pay, when we get home.”
Before we left, however, I took one last moment to gaze around at the fantastic creatures in the Game, all of them projected as three-dimensional little holograms, moving and roaring and howling and snarling.
Someday, I promised myself, my fingers tightening to grip the crystal in my hands so tightly that my knuckles turned white. Someday, I’d catch them all.