3. Saturday night at the Barley Mow

The four of them — Charlie, Mitchell, and two other guys — walked through the gate and into Krim proper. The rest of the bachelor party was already waiting for them at their destination, Charlie had said. They were the last group.

“It smelled like something died here.” Mitchell looked around at the merchant stalls crowding Krim’s main square and wrinkled his nose.

“Probably lots of things died,” said Charlie. “They don’t have bots here to clean the place up.” He kicked a severed hand out of his way.

Michell swallowed and was able to keep from throwing up but one of Hampton’s work buddies wasn’t as fortunate.

“Come on, hurry up before somebody notices.” Charlie pulled at the back of the man’s coat.

Mitchell scratched under his collar and hurried after them. The wool itched and the leather armor that came with the outfit was making him sweat. It was a cold, clammy sweat.

Out of habit, he waved his hand to pull up his body management app, but nothing happened.

“Avexa,” he said under his breath. “Stop the itching.” There was no response.

“What happens if someone notices?” asked the guy who got sick.

Charlie shrugged. “If you’re lucky, they’ll just throw some rotten fruit at you. Worse case is a snife in your belly. Gut wounds are the worst. You want to avoid them.”

“Why? Because we’d have to reset and start over at the gate again?

“No,” said Charlie. “Because you’d die a very slow, painful, lingering death and you’d feel every painful moment of it. And then you’d reset and have to come back in through the main gate. Oh, and they’ll probably fine you for littering. Krim loves to nickel-and-dime its residents to death.”

Michell stumbled over a loose cobblestone and fell heavily to his knees.

“How do you dial back the pain?” he asked, standing up. He wiped his scraped palms on his pants. “I can’t pull up my interface.”

“It was in the terms of service,” said Charlie. “No interfaces. No net connection. No magic powers. No AIs. I thought you’d be happy here, Mitch. It’s everything you ever wanted.”

“Can you at least turn up the light?” asked the guy who’d thrown up. Mitchell couldn’t remember his name. Ed? Fred? “I can’t see where I’m walking.”

“You go buy a lamp from one of the merchants back there. But they’ll probably rob you blind. Just be careful where you walk.”

Michell shivered and looked around. They were crossing the street that surrounded the main square. Directly in front of them was a tavern, the King’s Arms. The windows were lit up and he could hear the sounds of revelry all the way from where he was standing.

“Thank God, we’re almost there.”

Charlie looked at him and followed his gaze to the King’s Arms.

“That’s not where we’re going. That place is for noobs. No real Krimmer would set foot in there.” Charlie led the way to a sidestreet that was notably less well lit.

Mitchell looked around for a street sign and didn’t find one.

If he got separated, he could be lost forever. He sped up his pace, almost stepping on Charlie’s heels. He’d be wandering these streets for days, while his body back home slowly died of starvation. Or maybe dehydration. Which one came first? He should have taken Charlie’s offer and upgraded his rig.

Should he ask Charlie what to do if he got lost? He didn’t want to sound stupid. “Avexa, give me directions home,” he whispered softly enough that nobody could hear him. There was no answer.

“You could at least tell us where we’re going, in case we get separated,” grumbled the guy who’d vomited. Felix? Philip?

“It’s the Barley Mow Inn,” Charlie called back. “If you get lost, just ask anyone.”

“And if we want to get back to the gate so we can get out of here?”

“Same thing. Just ask anyone for directions. They’ll either help you or kill you. Either way, you’ll be out of here.” Charlie laughed.

It was an evil laugh. Mitchell shivered again. He should have picked a different outfit, the one with the furs. At least he wasn’t as dumb as the fourth member of their group, who’d opted for a chain mail bikini. As they walked under a streetlamp, Mitchell could see that the guy’s skin was turning blue and his teeth were chattering.

“How the hell does this place stay in business?” asked the vomiter. “I can’t believe that anyone would voluntarily want to visit more than once, much less live here.”

“Oh, it’s got a certain appeal,” said Charlie. “The seriously hard-core role players like it. Also some people who are into heritage crafts, like swordmaking, things like that. It’s actually got a decent economy going. Well, not decent like World of Battle. Actually, it’s been on the verge of bankruptcy since the day it opened.”

“I’m not surprised.” The vomiter spit out a gob of phlegm. “God, what’s the air made of?”

“It’s a fully authentic 1500s London atmosphere,” said Charlie. “Smoke. Ash. Coal dust. Aerosolized horse manure. You’re getting the full experience today.”

He turned again down another side street and a large stone fell from a rooftop, narrowly missing him. Charlie stepped over it and looked back at them. “Watch out for falling stuff. The grid’s too cheap to pay for repairs, so everything’s slowly been falling apart. Also, people sometimes empty chamberpots out their windows.”

“How much further is it?” the chainmail bikini guy asked. “If we’re not there soon, I’m throwing myself on the first sword I see and getting out here.”

“It’s just up ahead. Oh, and they know me as Charlemagne the Magnificent here.”

That was a cool name, Mitchell thought. He needed to come up with a cool name, too.

Then they were there. The Barley Mow Inn. But a giant at the door blocked their way.

Were they going to have to fight their way in? Mitchell felt around for his sword. He’d used one before, sure, but it was in other worlds. Better worlds, where the swords wielded themselves.

“Private party,” growled the giant, then peered down at them. “Oh, it’s you, Chuck. Didn’t recognize you right off what with all the noobs you’ve got with you.” He opened the door and stuck his head inside. “Hey everyone! Chuck the Schuck is here!”

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