Princely Principles

Fletcher Bishop is a good little corporate drone who is in need of a vacation. When his superior manages to secure a week off for his team, he jumps back into Ascendancy Online and finds that much has changed since the last time he played.

Inspired by a request from Blake.

Motes of shimmering light drifted down from the cluster of shimmering crystalline arcane ore affixed to the peak of the vaulted ceiling. The grassy knoll where the two men lay on top of a silken blanket seemed to ripple with waves in the cool, gentle breeze that wafted through the cave.

Both men were naked, watching as the little shimmering dots about them danced among the blades of grass. One of them was rather slight of build, almost effeminate in a way, with curves that could put a maiden to shame. The other was built like a true warrior, with a firm chest, strong arms, and a hard stomach.

The two held each other in a loving embrace, the more slender of the two tracing his fingers with feather-light touches along the other’s hip. They leaned in for a kiss, eyes fluttering closed as their lips approached each other.

An unwelcome voice cut through the ambiance of the night. Its high-pitched shrillness felt like nails on the chalkboard, and served only to fray nerves. "Fletcher!" said the voice. "Fletcher, I’ve been talking for the last ten minutes. Are you even paying attention? Hello! I’m talking to you."

The pleasant daydream that Fletcher Bishop had been enjoying at his desk shattered right before his eyes. It drifted away like ashes in the wind, scattered by the irritating voice of Natalie, his supervisor. Despite his imagination, Fletcher could not find a job doing anything other than being a good little corporate drone.

Years ago, Fletcher would have found the idea of squandering his arts background, slaving away as a desk jockey, to be reprehensible—contemptible, even. But sue him. For all the effort he’d put into it, the arts just couldn’t put food on the table given the economy. And so he’d succumbed to the one thing he’d always told himself he never would: the relentless, merciless machine of unregulated capitalism.

With a sigh, Fletcher turned to Natalie and said, "No. Sorry… I kind of zoned out." When they told him at university that jobs like this were soul-sucking, he’d thought it was mere hyperbole. He’d learned otherwise quickly enough.

Despite the fact that Fletcher was actually working on video games, closer to the arts than most other corporate jobs he could have taken, there was no passion in his company’s projects. He found it incredibly difficult to actually give a fuck about anything going on around him.

"This is what I’m talking about," Natalie ranted. Over the last few months of his employment, Fletcher had learned to mostly tune her out. For some reason, Natalie had pegged him as a friend she could rant at despite him being some lowly grunt and her being part of upper-management.

Fletcher suspected his being openly gay had something to do with it. He figured that he probably played into Natalie’s fantasies of having a gay bestie for some reason when he’d never really put any effort into the relationship. "You’re losing it, Fletcher. It’s like I’m talking to someone who isn’t even there. Probably because the big wigs keep insisting on working you all to death."

"Yeah," said Fletcher, more out of reflex than anything else. He’d already pushed Natalie out of his mind and had turned his attention back to the tickets that needed looking over.

"Well, you’ll be glad to know that I finally managed to put my foot down," said Natalie. Again, the words sort of just slid off Fletcher’s consciousness, failing to register despite the meaning behind them. "Are you paying attention? I’m trying to tell you that I got you a week off."

The gears slowly grinding away in Fletcher’s head came to a screeching halt. He turned toward Natalie, his neck stiff from staring at a computer screen all day. "Week… Off?" he said, rolling the words around in his mouth as if they were foreign.

"Yeah, Fletcher!" said Natalie. She giggled. "I got you and the team a week off. I told the execs that we launched two weeks ago and that they shouldn’t still be forcing you guys to crunch. I might not have played entirely fair, but who cares? You get a whole week to do nothing! Everyone’s already gone home, and you’re the last one here."

Fletcher practically launched himself out of his chair. The chair swiveled as it rolled away from him. Raising himself onto the tips of his toes, he looked over the walls of his cubicle and saw that the office was completely empty. "Huh," he said.

"Well, aren’t you excited?" said Natalie. She seemed concerned, almost as if she expected a different reaction from Fletcher. "Fletcher, say something," she said.

It took a further thirty seconds for the reality of the situation to register in Fletcher’s mind. When it did, he grinned. He gently took Natalie by the wrists and spun her around so that her back was to his cubicle and he was in the walkway between the desks. "I’m getting a week off!" he exclaimed.

"You’re getting a week off!" Natalie screamed. She jumped up and down in excitement. It was a bit more than Fletcher had expected. Her enthusiasm took him a little bit aback.

"I guess I’ll go, then, if no one else is here," said Fletcher, grabbing his coat from the back of his office chair. "Thanks, Natalie," he said. "Fuck. I’ve needed this for so long," he added, reaching back into the cubicle to grab his bag and sling it over his shoulders.

Without giving Natalie another opportunity to say anything else, Fletcher took off down the aisle. His coat snagged a few times on office chairs and the like, but he didn’t let them slow him down. He was mere minutes away from freedom, and he needed to make a hasty escape before Natalie tried to plan out his next week for him.

Natalie tried to catch up to Fletcher. Fortunately for Fletcher, she was wearing her "I’m-having-a-meeting-with-important-people" high heels, while he was wearing his everyday sneakers, making it difficult for her to make up the distance. Before he reached the end of the aisle, Natalie called out after him, "Hey, do you maybe want to go out for a coffee next week?"

Fletcher looked over his shoulder and waved goodbye to Natalie. "I’m not sure!" he said. "I’ll think about it! I’ll text you if I’m feeling up to it!" Before Natalie could even guilt-trip him into making a commitment, Fletcher dashed toward the elevator and punched in the ground floor as his destination. There was nothing quite so satisfying as watching the doors close while Natalie tried her best to power-walk toward him.

Fletcher picked up dinner on the way home. He would have loved to make more meals at home; homemade was cheaper per meal, and likely a lot healthier. The problem with homemade was time, and he got precious little of that away from the job.

As soon as he’d peeled off his shoes and tossed his work bag on the couch, Fletcher made his way to the kitchen. If not for the fact that his job actually paid quite nicely, the fact that he had to buy dinner most nights would have eaten a sizable chunk into his budget.

Fletcher pulled up a chair, set the paper bag down on the counter, and fetched a pair of chopsticks. He peeled open the plastic tub of broth and poured it into the plastic bowl of soup, adding a dash of soy sauce to taste.

The last of the noodles were slurped up in up relative silence. Fletcher didn’t even bother taking his phone out to watch videos as he stuffed his face. He didn’t need the distraction. He just needed to eat. He brought the bowl up to his lips and gulped the last of the soup down, as well.

Having had his fill, though a bit disappointed at the portion size, Fletcher tossed his garbage in the appropriate receptacles. The chopsticks, he briefly washed before returning to their holder. He placed his glass in the dish washer, to be washed the next time he’d mostly filled it up.

Fletcher set a timer on his watch for thirty minutes and made his way to his home office. He attended to emails that he had been meaning to get to for a while. Most of them weren’t work-related, but still important business that needed addressing.

When his watch chimed, Fletcher got up, went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth and flossed. He returned to his office and sat down. He glanced at his computer and looked at the time. It was still only 7:30 in the evening, and despite being tired, he still wasn’t sleepy.

The VR pod in the corner of the room drew Fletcher’s attention. Ever since he started his current job, he hadn’t really had the time to play his favorite game. Not only that, but Ascendancy Online happened to be published by his current employer’s biggest competitor.

Fletcher placed his fingers on the cool acrylic of the pod door. It was probably in poor taste to play a game published by the competition, but he did miss the world of Eiras a fair bit. He was also curious to know how much the game had changed since the last time he played, since he hadn’t been able to keep up with the updates.

"Screw it," said Fletcher, under his breath. He stripped down to his underwear and turned the pod on. It wasn’t technically necessary to strip down, but it was recommended. Fletcher actually preferred it, as it helped the VeriTech system better immerse him in the game world.

Fletcher strapped himself into the support structure of the pod and made sure that all the moving parts were still in working order. He pushed the two earpieces into his ears and pulled the headset over his face. His skin tingled as the neural interface adhered itself to the base of his skull.

Fletcher felt like he was being torn from his body as he was plunged into a familiar pitch-black void. A glowing hologram, tinted faintly against the darkness, presented a login form. Fletcher filled in his username, AshVal0r, and password.

The form shrank into a glowing blue orb that approached Fletcher and sank into his flesh. Light enveloped him as his body was transformed into that of his character’s. Armor and equipment materialized out of the ether, settling onto his flesh with a comfortable familiarity.

What seemed to be stars ignited in the distance, though they were quickly smeared out into streaks of light as Fletcher was pulled through the void toward them. His body bobbed and weaved, picking up speed as his path was angled toward one of the stars in the distance.

The star, twinkling with a faintly red light, grew in size as Fletcher drew toward it. "Welcome back to Eiras, AshVal0r," said an ethereal feminine voice. "The world awaits your blade, and evil trembles in the face of your Mysteria. May you find strength and friendship on your path to Ascendancy."

A flash of light briefly consumed Fletcher’s field of view. When the afterimage burned into his eyes finally faded, Fletcher was standing on top of a grassy hill. The earth was soft and loamy, causing his feet to sink slightly as he shifted his weight. The air was cool, but tinged with the smell of soot.

As Fletcher looked out to the horizon, where the rolling plains continued until it reached the treeline of a forest in the distance, he felt a profound sense of loss. It was a familiar sensation, but one that he had never felt in such a tranquil place before. Fletcher pulled up his HUD just to make sure that he wasn’t hallucinating or mistaking the sensation for something else.

As expected, one of Fletcher’s passive skills, Radiant Aspect: Terra Historia, had activated. Looking at the details of the buff it had endowed him with, he learned that a rather large battle had taken place within 5 kilometers of his current position, and within a fortnight of the current time.

Fletcher could see no evidence of such a battle in his field of vision, but it didn’t take him long to realize that the wind was blowing from behind him, and that it must be carrying the smell of soot from there.

Apprehension settled into a cold knot in the pit of Fletcher’s stomach as he turned. The first thing to catch his sight was the half-burnt banner gently fluttering in the wind. It bore upon it the standard of New Restlyn.

The dirt of the battlefield was dark with dried blood. Carrion birds hopped from one armored corpse to the next. Beyond the gruesome scene was the husk of the city of New Restlyn itself. Thin plumes of black smoke rose from behind the scorched and broken stone walls.

Fragments of the ruined city gates squealed on their hinges as the wind blew through the entrance. Fletcher hadn’t played Ascendancy Online in a while, but he could still discern the telltale signs of Searing Mysterium in the scorch-marks that streaked across the stone of the gatehouse.

Terra Historia indicated that the city was ransacked shortly after the battle just outside its walls, though the passive skill provided no indication as to what faction was the cause of all the destruction. The smell of decay was sweet and cloying in the air, tempered only by the acrid scent of smoke.

The streets were strewn with rubble, jagged stones both big and small. Most buildings had collapsed in on themselves, beams and walls charred black. Every now and again, Fletcher encountered a corpse splayed on the ground in a pool of dried blood. The temptation to use Radiant Mysterium: Spirit Inquiry was great, but he felt that the people had probably suffered enough.

Fletcher remembered that burial rites were rather important in this part of Eiras, but there were too many dead to accommodate. He did his best to send the souls of the departed on, casting Radiant Mysterium: Cleansing Flame upon the bodies that he encountered, lingering only to watch the iridescent embers left behind rise to the heavens.

A chill ran down Fletcher’s spine as he strode into the lower town square of New Restlyn. Radiant Aspect: Sense Malevolence had tipped him off. He wasn’t alone in the ruins of the city.

With his hand on the hilt of his sword, Fletcher used Radiant Mysterium: Evilseek. The ability dropped a single marker on his mini-map, right in the middle of the palace courtyard. Fletcher took a deep breath. He was excited. It had been a long time since he fought anything in Ascendancy Online.

As he walked up to the broken palace gate, Fletcher had the strangest sense that he was being watched. He was certain he had seen a pair of gleaming red eyes watching him from the shadows of a nearby alleyway, but there was nothing there when he looked.

Fletcher was pretty sure that he wasn’t just hallucinating, which left two options: he was being followed by something that at least wasn’t evil, or he was being followed by an extremely powerful evil that could hide from his Temple Knight abilities. Either he had nothing to worry about, or he needed not bother worrying because he was screwed anyway.

Since nothing immediately jumped out to attack him, Fletcher decided that his stalker was nothing to worry about. The other option didn’t even bear thinking about.

The moment Fletcher stepped into the ruined palace courtyard, a ring of jagged black demonic runes, glowing faintly red at the edges, went up around the perimeter of the area. It seemed he’d wandered into a boss fight, and it seemed his opponent was a demon. Before the boss manifested, Fletcher quickly used Radiant Mysterium: Iron Courage and felt strength flow into his body.

Dark clouds swirled overhead, casting a pall over the courtyard. Cracks split the pavement in the middle of the area, spewing globs of glowing red-orange lava from the fissures. Black iron chains tipped with wicked hooks plunged from the gathering clouds into the ground and pulled out a massive entity made of molten rock and obsidian.

The creature’s muscular arms bulged as it struggled against its bindings, which glowed with heat before shattering. The broken chains sent globs of white-hot molten metal scattering across the courtyard.

The enemy unfurled its enormous demonic wings and roared at Fletcher, fixing him with its infernal gaze. Fletcher drew his sword and beckoned for the beast to come closer. He might have been rusty, but he was confident. A balor was exactly the kind of demon that a Temple Knight like him was best suited to lock blades with.

The balor summoned its blade of molten rock and shadow just as Fletcher used Radiant Mysterium: Celerity. Glimmering streaks of light lingered in Fletcher’s wake as he dashed with supernatural speed toward his target. He slashed four times in quick succession at the balor’s legs before running back out of range before Celerity’s duration ended.

The balor limped as it turned to face Fletcher. It raised a hand reddish-black hellfire gathering in its palm. Fletcher immediately recognized the attack as Infernal Mysterium: Megiddo Flare, something that a normal balor had no right to be using.

As he knew there would be no escape from the Mysterium, Fletcher held his sword out in front of him and used Radiant Mysterium: Blade Aegis in the hope of limiting the damage that he would take. His sword gleamed with golden light just in time as the ball of hellfire shot out from the balor’s palm toward him.

Chunks of pavement were torn up from the ground to either side of Fletcher as the hellfire slammed into the blade of his weapon. The heat was intense, and the force of the attack even more so. He could feel his hands sizzling despite the protection of his Mysterium.

When the ball of hellfire finally dissipated, the middle four inches of Fletcher’s sword were glowing cherry-red. The balor’s lips twisted into a menacing little smirk before it blurred and disappeared. Fletcher recognized the attack as Awakened Warrior Mysterium: Flash Strike, and barely had a second to react as the balor’s blade descended on him like a guillotine.

Fletcher was able to parry the blow, but his sword shattered while the balor’s blade was rebounding. Fletcher staggered backward from the force of the attack, and was caught off-guard by the hoofed foot delivered sharply to his midriff.

Fletcher shot across the courtyard, slamming into the invisible wall of force formed by the boss arena runes. Red-black lightning struck him before he dropped to the ground, causing searing pain to flood through his body.

That singular kick, on top of the damage he’d already sustained from the Megiddo Flare, had reduced Fletcher’s health to almost zero. The pain was so intense he struggled to push himself up onto all fours.

Before Fletcher could regain his composure, the balor grabbed him by the hair and lifted him off the ground. He would have screamed, if he could have managed the breath to do so.

Just as he thought his end had come, Fletcher felt strength flood into his limbs. He felt restored, revitalized, and even better than he had felt upon first logging in. The demon’s eyes grew wide, and as it cursed under its breath in its guttural native tongue, it dropped Fletcher to the ground.

Fletcher stuck his landing pretty handily. Without a weapon, he would have no chance to win. Luckily, one of the last things he did before his hiatus from the game was to Awaken his Radiant Mysterium.

Raising a hand over his head, Fletcher called upon his Awakened Radiant Mysterium: Sacred Arms. A shaft of golden sunlight blasted through the dark clouds swirling overhead, and a sword made of pure radiance materialized in Fletcher’s hand. "Now we’re talking," he said, launching himself at the balor with a feral grin.

Fletcher was bleeding profusely from a couple of places by the time that the demonic runes marking the perimeter of the arena exploded into clouds of ash. The balor’s corpse had fallen in the middle of the courtyard. Its sword, snapped in half, was lying nearby.

Since he was there anyway, Fletcher took out a few crystal vials from his inventory and filled them with the demon’s molten blood. He got a total of four vials’ worth of balor blood and, after a few minutes of work, managed to retrieve five pieces of balor obsidian from the rapidly-degrading corpse.

With a hunting knife, Fletcher hewed off the balor’s two horns and stowed them away. As soon as all the loot had been taken from the corpse, it dissolved into ash but for a dull red stone roughly the size of a fist that was wreathed in red-black hellfire.

Fletcher used Radiant Mysterium: Quell to extinguish the hellfire and render the demon core usable. It dropped to the ground with a soft clink. Fletcher picked it up and examined it. From experience, he could tell it was an extremely high-quality specimen, something to save for crafting or enchanting his end-game gear.

As he straightened, Fletcher winced. Now that the adrenaline was gone, pain from the damage he’d sustained through the battle became much more apparent. He placed his hand on his chest and used the last of his Mysterium Essence to use Radiant Mysterium: Healing Light, to take care of the worst of his injuries.

"Ho, sir knight!" said a voice, from across the courtyard. Fletcher looked up. A young man, wearing scuffed and dented armor emblazoned with the crest of New Restlyn, staggered out of the front doors of the palace. His left arm was limp, flopping against his side. It was dislocated, most likely.

"Stay there," said Fletcher, before the young man could attempt to make it down the front steps of the palace. He quickly jogged over and helped the guy to the ground. The young man was rather attractive under the grime, though he did look positively filthy and did smell somewhat.

"That was amazing how you took down that balor alone," said the young man, as Fletcher fussed over him. The guy was just an NPC and probably didn’t deserve the effort that Fletcher was putting into treating him, but Fletcher liked to act as if all the people in Ascendancy Online were real. The technology behind the game certainly made it easy.

"It’s what temple knights do," said Fletcher, giving the young man a small smile. He put a leather strap in the young man’s hand. "Bite down on this. This is going to hurt."

As soon as the young man had obeyed his instruction, Fletcher pushed the dislocated arm back into place. With the arm fixed, Fletcher could finally heal the guy. Since he had run out of Mysterium Essence, Fletcher had to use one of his Blue Ichor Potions to ensure he had enough to call upon Radiant Mysterium: Healing Light.

"What happened here?" said Fletcher. "I’ve been away for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to come back to a destroyed New Restlyn."

The young man shook his head. A tear rolled down his face. "Two months ago a new Demon Lord rose in the east. Its army cut a swath of destruction straight through the province as it marched on the capital. New Restlyn just happened to be in the way. Hundreds of adventurers came here to reinforce the garrison against the horde, but there were too many."

"And you’ve been here all this time?" said Fletcher.

The young man shook his head again. "No," he said. "Father forced me to ride for the capital before the demons arrived… The heroes finally put down the demon lord for good two weeks ago, and I thought… I thought I might be able to come back and rebuild."

"Your father?" said Fletcher. He was familiar enough with fantasy tropes that he could guess who this young man was. "You’re not Lord Gedric Coppridge’s heir, are you?"

"I am," said the young man. He held out a hand, which Fletcher shook. "Tristan Coppridge, lord of burnt homes and broken walls. Pleasure to make your acquaintance…" he said, with a rueful smile.

"I wish we could have met under better circumstances," said Fletcher, helping Tristan up to his feet. Even though he’d taken care of most of Tristan’s superficial injuries, Tristan still looked dangerously gaunt. "How long have you been here?"

"Couple days. A week. Maybe two," said Tristan, weakly. Right about now, Fletcher imagined that the will to survive that had been keeping the young lord going was wearing off. "Blasted demons ate every damn bite of food in the palace and fouled every well…"

No wonder Tristan looked like he was on the edge of death despite healing. "How did you get past the balor?" said Fletcher, as he helped Tristan down the stairs. "I hope you don’t mind that I’m taking you out of the city. I don’t know what else might be hiding here and I’d like to make sure you don’t die."

"Didn’t," said Tristan. "Tried to fight it. Got my ass handed to me. Ran away and hid until it got dragged back to the hell trap that was set in the courtyard."

Fletcher shook his head. He needed to get Tristan somewhere safe to administer proper treatment. He had everything he needed, except time. "Why didn’t you try and leave the palace through another route?"

"Tried. Blocked," said Tristan. Fletcher was carrying considerably more of the young lord’s weight now than he had been at the top of the stairs. "Trapped."

"Alright," said Fletcher. "I think that’s enough questions for now. Hang in there for me, Tristan, alright? We’ll get you fixed up. For now, just rest."

Unlike most games that Fletcher had played in the past, which dealt with the issue of inventory and equipment through an abstract interface, Ascendancy Online had a much more concrete approach. Each character had a certain weight that they could carry, and characters could only ever lug around as much stuff as they could fit in their bags. Fletcher remembered his days of fretting over how well-provisioned he wanted to be, and how much loot he wanted to carry back.

Fletcher supposed one of the benefits of being high-leveled was having access to an enchanted bag that let him store things with impunity up to a certain weight threshold. If not for that, he didn’t think he’d have been able to carry around the tent that he was currently setting up.

For the time being, Tristan was lying on a blanket by the fire. Since passing out halfway through the ruins of New Restlyn, Tristan hadn’t regained consciousness. Fletcher had managed to stabilize Tristan enough that the young lord was in no danger of spontaneously dying under his watch.

After putting the tent together, Fletcher rinsed out the cauldron he used to brew his potions of healing. He dumped the water out the side of the clearing and suspended the cauldron over the fire. HE filled it with water and tossed in a few root vegetables and pieces of meat.

The food was more for Tristan’s benefit than his. Ascendancy Online did let players experience the cuisines of Eiras, but it didn’t actually feed them. On the other hand, NPCs clearly needed sustenance or they would die.

Once he had the stew on, Fletcher turned his attention back to Tristan. As it was likely to get in the way, Fletcher slowly pulled the plate armor off Tristan, undoing the buckles and loosening the straps as was proper. Though significantly damaged, Fletcher was sure Tristan wouldn’t want the armor to be treated carelessly.

Tristan was filthy, which wasn’t too surprising considering what he’d been through. Fletcher carefully peeled off the layers of clothing that were stuck to Tristan’s skin by some combination of sweat, grime, and blood. Once he’d bared Tristan’s upper body, he used a wet sponge to wipe the young lord down.

Fletcher flushed as he felt a stirring in his groin. Underneath the muck, Tristan was a fine specimen of masculinity. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular. His chest was firm, and his stomach cobbled. For all his desire to stick to the professionalism of the Temple Knights, he couldn’t help but run his fingers over Tristan’s rippled stomach.

Tristan groaned in his sleep. Fletcher flinched. Fletcher snatched his hand back and forced his baser thoughts down. He cut away Tristan’s breeches and undergarments, leaving the young lord naked on top of the blanket.

Warmth settled into Fletcher’s stomach as he washed the dirt off Tristan’s lower body. The young lord certainly had the form of a warrior. His thighs were thick, his calves strong. It was, however, the endowment between Tristan’s legs that drew Fletcher’s eye. It was sizable, and he was more than a little curious to see how big it was erect.

Putting aside his not-unwelcome lechery, Fletcher rolled Tristan over. He cleaned Tristan’s corded, muscular back as much as he could. By the time that he was done with them, Tristan’s legs were spotless. Tristan’s tight ass, Fletcher left for last. He rubbed the supple globes clean, and paid close attention to the cleft between them.

Once he was done, Fletcher sat back and admired his handiwork. He palmed himself through his breeches, his cock rock-hard against his thigh. He shook his head and forced his lust down. It was wrong to take advantage of someone else’s vulnerability. Even if it was just to look.

Fletcher called upon his Radiant Mysterium: Summer Balm. A warm summer wind wafted across the clearing as Tristan’s body glowed with faint golden light. The Mysterium was usually used to thaw characters suffering from the frozen condition, but it worked equally well to dry a person who’d just been given a sponge bath.

Fletcher pulled out a second blanket from his bag and draped it over Tristan to give the young lord some semblance of privacy and dignity. Then, he placed a hand on Tristan’s head and called upon his Radiant Mysterium: Revitalize.

Tristan woke with a quiet groan that sent a shiver down Fletcher’s spine. "O-Oh," said Tristan, his cheeks taking on a tinge of pink as he realized he was naked. He pulled the blanket around him as he sat up. He seemed tense as he looked around, but his shoulders visibly slackened as he saw his armor lying nearby. "Thank you, sir knight. For everything."

"Don’t mention it," said Fletcher. He pulled a wooden bowl and spoon out of his bag and ladled some of the stew that had been cooking into it. He handed the bowl to Tristan and said, "Call me Ash, my lord. It’s best you eat slowly since you haven’t had anything in your system for a long time."

Tristan nodded and took a bite of the stew. Not long after, Tristan puffed out his cheeks and blew a few clouds of steam out of his mouth. Fletcher almost felt bad as Tristan gingerly chewed on his food, but that was what Tristan got for sticking a spoonful of steaming stew in his mouth.

After swallowing his mouthful, Tristan looked at Fletcher and grinned. "This is nice. Also, call me Tristan if you do not wish to be called sir knight for the rest of our time together."

"Alright," said Fletcher. He could certainly do that. He didn’t want to call Tristan "my lord" for however long they were stuck with each other, anyway.

Despite being of noble birth, it seemed that Tristan wasn’t self-conscious about nakedness in the least. He had made no effort to cover up while eating, and seemed blissfully unaware of the effect he was having on Fletcher.

Once he had had his fill, Tristan looked up at the stars twinkling in the sky above them. He seemed melancholy. "Are you alright?" said Fletcher.

"Yeah," said Tristan. He looked down from the heavens, his gaze locking with Fletcher’s. His eyes, a mellow purple color, shone with tears unshed. "I was just thinking of my parents. It didn’t quite land that they’re gone until just now… I miss them."

Fletcher placed a hand on Tristan’s shoulder. "I get that," he said. He didn’t think there was a comparison to be made between his having to bury his parents a few years past and Tristan’s parents being slaughtered in a demonic invasion, but he did understand what it was like to not realize someone was really gone for a while after their death.

"The dead are never truly gone," said Fletcher, pulling on a piece of advice that he had received after his mother’s passing. "As long as we can tell stories of their lives, they continue to live on. If not as people, at least as memories."

Tristan smiled. He reached up and placed his hand on Fletcher’s. "Father was always a warm man," he said. "And I do not mean that figuratively. Mother said that when I was young, I would always ask father to pick me up during cold winter nights because his hands were always so hot. It wasn’t difficult to see why the people loved him."

"Mother might not have been of noble birth, but she was more noble than many of the self-titled who turned up their noses at her for her commoner blood," said Tristan. "She taught me how to wield the sword and call upon Mysteria. She taught me to rise above the petty politics of the inferior houses…"

"They were good," said Fletcher. "They did not deserve to die as they did."

"No," said Tristan. He leaned into Fletcher’s touch. "No, they didn’t. But it was how they would have wanted to go. They would have laid their lives down for their people, even the ones that hated them to the bitter end."

"Your loss is the world’s loss," said Fletcher. "I’m sorry."

Tristan was silent for a moment. Tears rolling down his face glistened in the firelight. They fell upon the blanket, forming dark splotches in the linen.

Before Fletcher knew what was happening, Tristan had grabbed his face and smashed their lips together. Taken by surprise and not entirely opposed to the idea anyway, Fletcher kissed back until he lost his balance and fell on top of Tristan.

Fletcher’s cock was hard in his breeches, but he knew better than to get involved with an NPC, even one as lifelike as Tristan. "No," he said, pulling away when Tristan let go of his face and broke the kiss. "No, we can’t," he said. "You are of noble birth and I…"

Tristan reached up and traced his hands along Fletcher’s shoulders. "You are Chosen," said Tristan. "When your world, your life beyond Eiras calls to you, you will leave me to return only at your earliest convenience."

"Tonight, I have need of companionship," said Tristan. He cupped the side of Fletcher’s face with his hand. "My forlorn heart yearns for the touch of a man that can make me forget my sadness. I want only to feel your warmth."

Fletcher’s heart was beating fast in his chest. He tried to pull away, but Tristan grabbed one of his hands and pulled it down to his chest. He could feel Tristan’s heart pounding as fast as his was. "If this were not the will of the gods, then why would they make this feel so right?" said Tristan, his voice low and sultry.

Fuck it. Fuck it. Fletcher straddled Tristan’s tight, tapered waist and worked his tunic over his head. He was lucky that he had taken his armor off earlier, before making dinner, otherwise disrobing would have been a pain in the ass. "Ah, what the hell?" said Fletcher, under his breath, helping Tristan push his breeches off.

Fletcher leaned down over Tristan, their cocks rubbing together as Tristan’s hand wrapped around the back of his head and pulled him in for another kiss. Yet again Fletcher was reminded that Ascendancy Online wasn’t merely a game. It was an experience. Tristan felt warm and real against his body, despite being little more than just data on a server somewhere.

Panting, Fletcher pulled away from Tristan and sat up. He adjusted himself so that his cock was pressed up against Tristan’s. He grabbed both of them in one hand and pumped his fingers up and down.

Rolling his hips, Fletcher moaned, eliciting pretty little sounds from the young lord underneath him. Tristan’s stomach flexed and clenched between Fletcher’s legs. Tristan’s face was cherry red, his hands up by his head, akimbo. "Am I to be your first?" said Fletcher. "How old are you?"

"By mother’s last—nnnh—reckoning, I was twenty summers old a year ago," Tristan managed, between the moans. His hips were moving, too, in opposite rhythm to Fletcher’s. As Fletcher was thrusting his cock into the ring of his fingers, Tristan was pulling out, and vice versa. The friction was intense, the pleasure every bit as real as Fletcher could have ever imagined.

Briefly, Fletcher let go of his and Tristan’s cocks. He crawled over Tristan and reached for his bag. He had some holy oil which normally he would use to consecrate his weapons, but he figured it would do well enough as lube.

Returning to his earlier position, Fletcher unstoppered the vial of oil and drizzled a generous helping on Tristan’s cock. Setting aside his own pleasure for a moment, he wrapped his fingers around Tristan’s shaft. He worked the oil onto the young lord’s manhood as he said, "You didn’t answer my question. Am I to be your first?"

"No," said Tristan, moaning as Fletcher stroked him up and down. "But I have not had many. And I have never been the one to penetrate," he whispered.

Fletcher grinned. He let go of Tristan’s cock, satisfied that it was sufficiently lubricated. He reached behind his back and slid his fingers into his hole. It was easier than he expected, and he couldn’t help but moan as he worked himself open for Tristan. He hadn’t gotten laid in a while, and even if Tristan was just an NPC and this was just a game, that cock felt real enough for him.

"Stay down," said Fletcher. "You aren’t fully recovered, and I prefer to take the lead, in any case." Well, at least he thought he did. He hadn’t had enough experiences in real life to say for sure.

Fletcher perched over Tristan’s hardness, his hole hovering inches above the glistening head. He braced one hand against the blanket by Tristan’s side for stability, while the other one he placed on Tristan’s chest so that the young lord wouldn’t attempt to sit up.

Fletcher lowered himself onto Tristan’s cock and moaned as it breached him. Tristan was big, but not overly so. His girth stretched Fletcher’s hole, the burning sensation serving only to make the pleasure Fletcher felt at being filled more intense. Inch by inch, Fletcher swallowed Tristan’s cock until it was buried into him all the way to the hilt.

"Fuck," Fletcher moaned. "You feel so good." After giving himself a minute to adjust to Tristan’s cock, Fletcher rolled his hips. He worked his ass back and forth on Tristan’s member, moaning as it rubbed against his prostate, savoring the pretty little noises that the young lord made as he did so.

Fletcher had bottomed before. Not often, but he did have some experience. He didn’t think he’d ever felt as good as he did now. Something about the way Tristan was squirming helplessly underneath him, writhing as he worked his ass up and down Tristan’s straining shaft, that made it feel ten times better.

"Gods above," Tristan gasped. "Had I known how good it felt to be taken advantage of in such a fashion, I would never have sought pleasure elsewise!"

Fletcher grinned. Emboldened, he increased his pace. He bounced his ass on Tristan’s hips. Harder. Faster. Every thrust sooner than the last. It felt good. So good.

If not for the hand that Fletcher kept on Tristan’s chest, the young lord would have sat up. As it was, Tristan was powerless, his fingers tangling in the cloth of the blanket underneath them. His shoulders were tense, his stomach clenched. Every slam of Fletcher’s ass down on his cock made his back arch off the ground and his toes curl with pleasure.

Fletcher threw his head back and rode Tristan as if he were doing so for dear life. He bounced his hips and rolled them, fucking himself over and over and over again on Tristan’s cock as he felt the orgasm coiling in his groin.

The ache of the workout in Fletcher’s thighs only drove him to orgasm faster. He moaned, feeling his cock strain and swell, his hole clenching and unclenching around the shaft of Tristan’s cock. Cum boiled over in his balls as he hit the edge and went right off it.

Fletcher slammed his ass down one last time, eliciting a high-pitched moan from Tristan as his cock blasted all over the young lord. His hole clamped down around the base of Tristan’s cock, keeping it in place as it swelled and spurted.

Thick ropes of hot white cum shot out of the tip of Fletcher’s cock, painting Tristan’s firm chest and cobbled abs with jism. Panting, his legs feeling like jelly, Fletcher collapsed on top of Tristan.

Tristan’s softening cock slipped out of Fletcher with a wet pop. Fletcher felt a trickle of cum dripping out of him, and it made his cock, pinned between his and Tristan’s bodies, twitch. "That was… Beyond words…" whispered Tristan. "Already I crave more. I beg you, Ash. Allow me to accompany you."

Fletcher froze, snapped out of the post-orgasmic bliss by Tristan’s earnest request. "Tristan, I want to say yes, but… You said it yourself. I’m Chosen. I will need to leave, and I can’t guarantee when, or even if I come back."

"I understand that," said Tristan. "And yet I implore you all the same. I am not some despondent, helpless damsel. If it seems that you shall not return then I shall stop waiting. There is nothing for me here. I cannot rebuild my home alone and penniless. At your side I will learn more than I ever will by my hands alone."

Fletcher looked into Tristan’s eyes. Shit. He really shouldn’t have done that. For something that was ultimately just a string of ones and zeroes, Tristan’s eyes carried more emotion than most of the people he had to deal with in his daily life. "Alright, fine. You can come."

Fletcher’s HUD pinged as a notification popped up on the side. "You have gained a new follower: Tristan, Lord of New Restlyn (Lover)," said the notification. Fletcher rolled his eyes.

"Be honest. You’re only after my ass," said Fletcher.

"I cannot say that it was not one of my considerations," said Tristan, sounding far more cheery than Fletcher thought he had any right to be.

Fletcher felt a strange resistance as he logged out of Ascendancy Online. Usually it was a pretty smooth transition, but this time it felt like his mind was wading through molasses.

When he saw what time it was in the real world, Fletcher figured that the sluggishness of logging out probably had everything to do with how tired he was. It was 2:00 AM. He’d gone a second round with Tristan, despite his better judgment, and had only logged out once the young lord was asleep and he’d properly secured the perimeter of the camp against monstrous intrusion.

Fletcher disengaged the neural link and pulled off the straps that kept him attached to the support system of the pod. The button to open the doors didn’t work the first time he pressed it, but after a few jabs at it, the pod finally opened.

Stepping out into his home office, Fletcher reached behind him. He slid his hand down the back of his underwear and rubbed his fingers over his hole. He already missed the feeling of Tristan’s cum running out of his hole. But oh, well. He was off for a while. He at least had a week to enjoy being with the young lord.

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