Stoni found it disorienting to look upon a person she had been. She momentarily doubted that it was really Natalia speaking with the officials. The woman's voice didn't sound exactly as she remembered when she had used it and her face wasn't familiar.
Of course it doesn't, I never saw it! And voices sound different to the person speaking because of... something to do with ears and the skull. I guess that applies to VIVID too. She's definitely Natalia Plinth though. I recognise the silver necklace with five sapphires, and that dress...
Stoni winced at the visible damage the expensive dress had incurred while she had been wearing it and Natalia's body.
No wonder she gave me zero stars. I don't think anyone sells or repairs anything close to that quality in Star Town either. No, forget about the dress, what's she doing here?
The officials were standing at the front of the room, far from the door, while Coda and company were standing around a low table close to the left wall. Stoni wanted to listen to Natalia but decided it made more sense to check in with Coda first. That opinion strengthened when she saw that the table held a map of the city and the local region. An array of flag pins in a variety of colours dotted the surrounds. Stoni quickly deduced those showed confirmed encounters with the blockade. "Hey, Coda, I've got a couple more death locations to report."
The man turned to look at the newcomer and frowned. "I don't remember you."
"Oh, sorry, we haven't met. I'm Hana, a messenger."
His confusion cleared, but incompletely. "You've got a message for me?"
"If you'll excuse me, I'll need to see that map," she said, stepping into the largest gap. Vil and Garthol shuffled out of her way, but she bumped elbows with Vil. "Sorry about that, Vil. Let's see, there was a whole mess of terror hounds over... yeah, in that region," she said, indicating a cluster of brown flags. "But not exactly." She looked at the surrounding landmarks on the map and tried to picture Malivia's memories shortly before her painful death. "Ah, right there and surrounding it, but more towards the town than other directions," she said with a stab of her working pointer finger.
"What time?" Coda asked as he picked up a loose brown flag.
"Er, not long before noon," Stoni said. "The other death was to mercenaries, maybe forty minutes ago." She'd waited about ten in Cube Farm 3 before being sent on the current mission, which amounted to double that in perceived VIVID time. "The mercenaries were in a group of five and at least three had spears. I think the other two were ranged." She searched the map and indicated the location to the best of Tania's memories. "They were waiting under a group of small trees."
"Copse," Robin said.
It was Stoni's turn to be confused. "Cops? I didn't see any guards around, if that's what you mean."
"Huh?" Robin responded with utter bewilderment in their young eyes.
"The town guards are the closest thing around to police," Stoni explained.
Coda's group exchanged questioning looks and Bindiby spoke up. "I've got no idea what you're talking about or why you're acting so familiar with us. I really don't think we're well known enough for you to recognise Vil. No offense, Vil."
"Sorry, I think there's some language confusion," Stoni said, hoping that would reduce the tension. "I've got some... memory issues."
Some of the tension went out of Bindiby's small shoulders, though some wariness remained in the lem's pale blue eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry. Er, if you don't mind me asking, is that a character thing, or...?"
"It's a me thing," Stoni said. "Don't worry about it. What was it that Robin said?"
"A copse is a group of small trees. Or shrubs. But I didn't introduce myself either," Robin said, looking perplexed.
Stoni realised she'd made a mistake, but saw a way out of it. "Oh, I should have said. Lira told me about you. Lira the teacher."
"Oh, Lira, that makes sense," Coda said, sounding more friendly than before. "Do you think she'll be joining us soon?"
"No, she had to go. Out, you know. So I'm here instead."
"Ah, that makes sense," Coda said, clearly used to players popping in and out of VIVID. "So, you said you're a messenger, Hana. We're working on a plan to have a messenger get the word about the blockade out as soon as possible. Do you think you could help us?"
Stoni scratched the back of her neck as she thought of how to politely say no. She wasn't entirely sure why politeness mattered to her, but she felt that it did. "Watch-Captain Marsha told me you're looking for a messenger. I already have a quest I need to turn in and can't really stick around, sorry."
Bindiby gasped, earning her looks of reproach from Coda and Vil.
"What she does with her time is her choice, Bindiby," Coda said. "We can find someone else."
"No, that's not what..." Bindiby cut herself off and addressed Hana directly. "It's your arm!"
"Pardon?" Stoni said, rubbing her brow as she felt a new headache rising.
"No, the other arm. You haven't moved it at all."
The ever-grumpy Vil was the one to speak up in Hana's defence. "Hey Bin, give the new girl a break. She's already said she has memory issues, and she's clearly doing fine as a messenger. This is Riches of Renfros, not Cybernoir."
Stoni was immediately fascinated. "Cybernoir? What's different about Cybernoir?"
"Oh, you don't know? Renfros is a pretty simple place. Wood, stone, and chunks of metal. Towns and villages, fields and castles, serfs and nobles. Adventurers fighting beasts and monsters, political machinations, armies with spears, bows, axes and clubs. Well, that's all it was until the DiZo incident and the start of the Celestial incursions. Point is, it's all basic ancient tech. Super triple ancient tech, I mean. Cybernoir's more modern and hypermodern. Meaning you could get a new arm that thinks for itself. If you can survive long enough to afford it, that is. Cybernoir's not a safe or friendly place."
"And Riches of Renfros is?" Stoni thought otherwise, from her short experience in the world, which had often ended in death.
Vil shrugged. "Comparitively."
"Blockades around newbie towns aren't a common occurence," Coda added.
"Hey, I'm trying to say something important," Bindiby said with impatient forcefulness. "That wasn't what I meant about Hana's arm at all! About it not moving, I mean. Lira was exactly the same. Some of Lira's mannerisms were the same too.
Vil gave her friend a questioning look as if she'd lost her mind, but then stepped close to Hana and looked right into her eyes. Hana blinked and stepped back. "I see it now! There's something off about her right eye. Lira had that too. Or perhaps... this is Lira in disguise!" She poked Hana in the right shoulder as if that would prove something. "Perhaps not. Lira was way taller than you."
"It's obvious what's going on," Robin said with understanding dawning in their eyes. "We're talking to a hireling. You were playing Lira before, now you're playing Hana."
Coda opened his mouth and was a breath away from protesting. "Actually that makes a lot of sense," he said instead. "Is that how you've gathered so much intel about the blockade?"
Stoni was completely lacking any notion of how to respond to the unmasking. "Uh... Is that a problem?" She failed to keep her voice from cracking as she forced out the question.
"So you must be working for whichever faction's trying to break the blockade," Vil mused. "That means the other side already knows what's going on. Another side, I mean. We don't know how many are involved in this."
"In answer to your question, it might be a problem," Coda said a little louder to discourage Vil from butting in again. "But I don't think we're the ones at risk for acting on a little extra information. You might be a target for retribution for passing the information between characters like this, but I'm uncertain whether it's you Berrentan will punish, or all the players who conspired to use the same hireling consecutively like this."
"That's a lot to arrange," Bindiby said, sounding even more worried by a thought she was yet to voice. "What if this is part of the plan? To trick us into bringing Berrentan's judgement down on all of Star Town, I mean."
"That's not... Listen, I've been working mainly newbie zones and got a bunch of short jobs in this area, that's all. So I thought I might as well tell you what I knew, since I couldn't come back as Lira after her time expired. I'm not working for anyone and I've got no idea who's behind any of this." Hana lowered her voice and glanced furtively at Natalia Plinth, who was still in conversation with the town officials. "Except maybe her. She was picnicking with friends right before this started, and there was something strange about the whole affair."
"That can't be right," Coda said. "She's here to offer support."
"Unless..." Bindiby began.
"Enough speculation," Vil interrupted. "Garthol, what has she been saying?"