Sep 8, 2023

The markets of Rosenburg thrummed with noise. The air shook with the sound of merchants calling out their wares, of laughing, of shouting, of things being pushed and pulled, falling over and breaking. A chaotic swirling mess. Makeshift stores set up out of the backs of wooden carts lined the main street. Gleaming sets of armor and exotic-looking weapons caught the light and sent odd colored reflections onto nearby buildings.

There must have been hundreds of players here. A lot of them were in parties of four or five, but even more of them were walking in pairs or alone. To say nothing of all the merchants, assistants, crafters, runners, harvesters, messengers, and every other job that players could find for themselves in Infinity Saga Online. Broad human warriors wearing impossibly heavy box-shaped breastplates alongside elves in light leather brigandine. Bright jackets, flashy skirts, hats, turbans, and anything else you could imagine.

Gin took a moment to close his eyes as he walked, to let it wash over him. To enjoy the feeling of being buried deep inside of something that could think, move, and scheme.

“I’m sorry, could you run that by me one more time?” Lala pushed her way through the crowd beside him, a look on her face like she was fighting off a tremendous headache.

“The girl I saw in the forest is the same girl who was on the side of that bus. I looked her up online, and she’s someone called Haya—”

“You’re mistaken.”

“I’m not mistaken. I’m telling you, that’s her.”

“You do understand that couldn’t possibly be the case.”

Gin looked over at Lala, who was still shaking her head. “What… Why not?”

“Do you know who Hayami Kana is?”

“Sure. Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Besides being on that bus, there was an ad with sunglasses or something… I think. She was in Seki’s magazine, maybe?”

Lala groaned. “Sometimes I hate you. You send me like a million messages telling me to log on to help you find somebody, and you don’t even know who they are. I’m not asking if you know who she is, I’m asking if you know who she is, you spaz.”

“That’s literally the same—”

“Listen, the Hayami Kana you’re looking for, they call her ‘the prodigy’. She’s been a model, a voice actress, you name it. I mean, she’s the same age as us, and she’s already done more than we’ll ever do in our whole lives.”

“I’m not really sure I want to be a model—”

“Just this last season, she had this tiny role in a crappy anime about feelings or something, and just that was enough that she got picked as one of the top five VAs to look out for.”


“So she is legitimately famous. I don’t mean like some live streamer or net idol. She’s the real deal. How the hell do you figure that somebody like that knows somebody like you? Why would she even be involved in a video game like this? Shouldn’t she be busy with… Hell, I don’t know, being an idol?”

“I don’t know. And I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if she was the top five, or top three, or whatever. I know what I saw. It wasn’t an NPC, or some poser with a vanity avatar. It was definitely her. I can feel—”

“I beg of you, don’t tell me you can feel it. You’re already crossing the line into creepy with this whole wild goose chase. I swear if you ask me to track her down in real life, I’m calling the police.”

“I’m not a stalker!”

“Seriously! It was bad enough when you thought this ghost of yours was a real girl, now you think it’s Hayami Kana?”

“I already told you. I don’t think it was her. It was her.”

Lala stopped shoving the crowd aside and turned to face him. It looked like she wanted to say something but all that came out was the sound of gnashing teeth.

“Look, can we just keep asking around today? Please? I promise if we don’t get any leads I’ll give it up and we can go back to the Bol Spider quest.”



Lala pushed her hands into her back and looked up into the sky for a few seconds. Finally, she exhaled and let her body deflate.

“You are infuriating! Fine! I’ll help!”

“Great! I knew I could count on you!”

“That doesn’t make me happy at all.” Around them, the crowd continued to flow by, not paying them any attention at all. “Tonight. Just tonight I’ll tag along. But can you do me a favor and not ask about her by name?”

“Why not? People will know who we’re talking about quicker if we do.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“You’re just being precious.”

Of course, it wasn’t like he didn’t understand where she was coming from. And even Gin could acknowledge that just asking around randomly was probably going to be a waste of time. But he’d already sent private messages to all of the information brokers he had on his friends list. Until they got back to him, as little as it was, this was the most they could do.

Ahead of him, Lala gestured toward one of the quieter ends of the markets. “Why don’t we start out by asking over there? Maybe those guys have heard something.”

“Ah, really?” Gin made a face.

“Now who’s being precious? Come on, they’re better than nothing.”

Lala was pointing at a modest courtyard hedged in between two large warehouses. Sitting around small barrels set up as tables were seedy men with ratty beards and curling moustaches, dressed in garish clothes, jazz handing the sky as they talked.

Data traders. A few steps below legitimate information brokers. Gin had a hard time thinking of them as anything more than gossips.

“Oho? What have we here?” One of the men looked up as he saw Lala and Gin stepping out of the main street and into the courtyard. He was almost spherical.

“We’re looking for someone,” Lala said, voice level.

“There are a lot of ‘someones’, my friends.” The fat data trader grinned. “Even here in this little courtyard there are quite a few ‘someones’. So tell me, which ‘someone’ in particular were you interested in?”

Hearing this, another of the data traders stood up and glided in front of the ball-shaped one. He was thin and had one of those three-prong mustaches that had been distributed as free personalization items a year or so ago. He was also wearing a colorful green fez that reminded Gin of cucumbers.

“Oh, it’s a person you want information on?” The weasel-faced data trader chuckled hungrily. “There’s a lot of that lately, isn’t there, Jon? And in any case, you should ignore this fellow and maybe talk to me instead. When it comes to people, there’s a lot more that I could tell you.”

Gin tried not cover his face with his hands. All the theatrics were part of how these people did business, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with.

“I really don’t care which one of you I talk to.”

“No need to be snappy, my friend. After all, you’re the one who entered our office. So why don’t you tell us who you’re looking for? Maybe we’ll be able to, mm, help?” The fat trader tapped his fingers together and stared at Gin and Lala like he was trying to figure out how much money they were carrying.

Gin sneered. “We’re looking for a girl. She would have been confused about where she was. She looks like, ah…” He looked over at Lala who rolled her eyes and waved a hand about vaguely. “She looks like Hayami Kana.”

At which point Gin was expecting the greasy-looking men to laugh at him or try hurry him off for wasting their time. What he hadn’t been expecting was for them to slump their shoulders and head back dejectedly to their tables.

“What, this again?” The weasel-faced one clicked his tongue.

“Wait.” Lala stepped forward. “What do you mean ‘again’?” Which might have been a mistake. Realizing there might still be something to gain from this exchange, the data traders looked back at them. The fat one grinned slyly.

“Oh? Maybe it turns out our friends don’t actually know which someone they’re looking for?”

“What do you mean ‘this again’?” Gin pressed them. But it was too late. The traders had already decided there was money to be made.

“I’ll tell you, but first you tell me, how much is that information worth, mm?” the fat one’s bright white teeth peeked from between his fleshy pink lips, before the weasel-faced one stepped in front of him.

“Or you could talk to me for half the price.”

“If you’re happy with knowing half as much.”

Gin looked back at Lala, who shrugged again.

If there had been more time, Gin would have left the traders to their own devices. But he had already promised they wouldn’t chase this any longer than today, so he shouldn’t pass up on having information potentially fall in their lap almost as soon as they started looking.

“Fine, let’s see how much this information is worth,” Gin grumbled. He reached in into his pack and took out a long pouch made of light brown leather. He could feel the traders staring at it like hungry children staring at a leg of chicken.

Rather than offering them anything, Gin helped himself to a seat at one of the barrels the traders had been using as tables. Wordlessly, he took out a handful of coins and piled them in front of him. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it wasn’t a ridiculously small amount either.

Drawn by the sound of clinking coin, the traders gathered around the small table and looked at the decidedly slightly-better-than-average pile Gin had made.

“That’s all you’re offering, friend?” The fat trader chuckled. “I’m afraid that the information we have is worth a little more than—”

Gin looked impassively up at the fat man and swept two pieces of silver from the table back into his pouch.

“Wait, what are you doing?” The fat man’s brow crumpled together in the confusion.

Gin slid another piece of silver back into his pouch.

“Hey, hold on—” a boggle-eyed trader with a wispy orange beard started saying, but stopped as another price of silver disappeared into Gin’s bag.

At this point, Lala laughed to herself.

“I have no idea how much this information is worth, so how about this. First one of you to tell me what I want to hear gets however much silver is on the table. Every time one of you morons opens your mouth and nothing useful comes out, I’ll put another piece of silver back in my purse.”

This caused a little uproar.

“That’s not fair!”

“Shut your mouth, idiot!”

You shut your mouth!”

“Someone just tell him and we’ll split the money!”

Gin flicked four more pieces of the rapidly dwindling pile back into the small pouch as the traders kept on bickering.

“Enough!” The fat trader shouted, silencing the others. “You think that if you pull this kind of stunt we’ll be more inclined to tell you anything at all? Just make a proper offer!”

Gin scooped another four coins in his fingers. The pile was already a lot smaller. He was about to sweep the coins back into his money pouch when the weasel-faced looking merchant put his hand over Gin’s.

“A girl came here yesterday. A real newb. Probably a level one. She was asking the same kind of thing you are: looking for somebody who looks like Hayami Kana. We told her that was ridiculous. Hell, we figured it was one of our rivals putting her up to it. Told her to scram. So she just went away and we forgot about it. Then today, maybe just half an hour ago, I saw her again, only this time she was with some other guy. He was leading her some place.”

“Eugene, you traitor,” the fat one growled, but Gin waved him and the others off with his free hand. Sneering unhappily, the rest of the data traders went back to the other end of the courtyard.

“Where did they go?” Gin pressed the weasle.

“No idea. I only noticed because it was that same newb as the other day. They were heading toward the West exit though.” He pointed through the bustling market. “I mean, assuming they were leaving town. Otherwise I couldn’t say.”

“You know the other guy?” Lala leaned over the table.

Eugene’s gaze darted between Lala’s face and her bust. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head. “Haven’t seen him around. And he stood out, like his hair was lime colored. I figure I’d remember if I saw him before. Probably from out of town.”

“That’s all? He didn’t say anything?” Lala looked down at the data trader.

“Nothing I could hear. Seriously, that’s all I know.”

“What about the newb?” Gin asked.

“Just a newb. A fae, though. Blue hair?”

“Is that seriously going to be your description of these people? Their hair color?” Lala snapped.

“Give me a break! She was, ah, she was short.”

“You’re useless.” The elf folded her arms and made a point of looking elsewhere.

“A fae with blue hair?” It didn’t escape Gin that the data trader’s anemic description matched the newb he’d run into the other day.

“Yeah, yeah, but that’s all I know, I swear.”

Gin pushed the small stack of silver coins toward the trader anyway, who grinned happily with his meagre earnings, and stood back up. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

As they headed back into the noise of the market, Lala clapped Gin on the shoulder. “Well, we tried. Can we do the Bol Spider thing again now?”

“What are you talking about? We only just started! And now we have a lead!”

“That’s a pretty thin lead. It’s not even about the person you were looking for.”

“Sure, no, but it does prove that it’s not just me, doesn’t it? Somebody else is looking for Hayami Kana too.”

“As disturbing as that might be. But that doesn’t give us much to go on, does it? I mean, it’s next to impossible to find two people just wandering around town.”

“Yeah, but… That might not be the case, exactly…” He trailed off and looked vaguely at Lala’s boots.


“That newb? The fae? I think there might be a slight chance I maybe bumped into her yesterday.”

Lala’s eyes narrowed into razors. “I’m going to go do the Bol Spider thing again.”

“No, no, no! Wait!”

“Oh come on, man! What are you, a coincidence magnet?”

“No? But seriously, I think I might have already run into that newb once, not far from here. I mean, it sounds like she’s been trying to do the same thing as us, right? If we find her, then maybe we can find out a little more about what Hayami Kana was doing in the game! Right?”

“Not so loud! And if you already met her once why didn’t you ask her about your ghost then?”

“I didn’t know yet! But come on, isn’t it almost like fa—”

“If you say ‘fate’, the next time I see you I’m going to slap you.”

“Please!” Gin clapped his hands to his side and bowed so low the top of his head was pointed at Lala’s exposed midriff.

Lala shifted her weight from one foot to another and finally groaned, “Ugh. Whatever! Fine! I said we’d look until the end of the night, so we’ll keep looking until then. Just promise me we won’t waste more than a day on this? And quit that stupid emote! People are going to think you’re asking me out.”

“You’re the best!” Gin straightened up and grabbed her shoulders. “No more than tonight! I promise!”

“Yeah, yeah. Let go already. So? Where do we look for your newb?”

“That data trader said they were headed toward the West Gate, right? If we head that way maybe we can catch them.”

“Doubt it.” Lala looked at the stream of people flowing through the market. “It’d be hard to catch them in this mess. And they have a pretty good head start on us.”

Gin looked around at the endless stream of players around them. It’d be slow going unless they wanted to take a long detour around the top end of the city, or through the docks. Even if they took the express lanes, it was still a lot of ground to cover and every second they were delayed here was a second their target got farther away.

“Yeah, we’re never going to catch up with them at this rate,” Gin huffed and was about to suggest that they try one of the back alleys when he heard a quiet voice drift to him from below.

“I could help with that. If you want.”

When Gin looked down, he was surprised to find somebody standing in his way. He hadn’t noticed them at all until they’d spoken. A haltingly thin man wrapped from head to toe in a thick, dark cloak fastened close to the neck with a plain copper clasp. He was almost two heads shorter than Gin, and from underneath the shadows of his cowl was the bottom half of a pale grinning face.

“You two. You’re looking for that girl, aren’t you? The one that’s been running all over Rosenburg asking about the other girl. I heard you talking to the data traders.” A soft voice floated up from under the cowl.

Gin and Lala looked at one another, then looked back at the man who had stopped them.

“What about it?” Gin asked.

“It just so happens I have a good idea of where she might be.”

“Oh?” Gin could practically hear alarm bells ringing in his ears. “You just so happen to know that, do you? So where is she?”

“Too far to track by now. At least, I don’t think you’ll find them by just wandering about.”

Gin shot a glance at Lala.

“What are you looking at me for?” Lala grumbled. “Just about everything to do with this stupid thing has been fishy. Now out of nowhere this dude shows up and says he’ll take us right to the person you coincidentally met yesterday?”

“You think he’s lying?” Gin raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not lying,” their new acquaintance tried to interrupt.

Lala took a step back to get a better look at him. “Just hearing him say ‘I’m not lying’ makes it sound even more like he’s lying.”

“Alright then, tell us where—”

“I could take you,” the pale man said before the elf could finish.

Lala let the statement hang there for a second before answering. “So take us.”

“I said I could take you. I didn’t say I would.

Gin ground his teeth.

Is there a single person in this city that doesn’t want to make a quick buck?

He grabbed the front of the man’s cloak with both hands, pulling him up to the tips of his toes. Somewhere toward the back of his skull, he could hear a soft chime: the system reminding him if he took this any further it would be considered an unprovoked fight. “I’m starting not to care if you’re telling the truth or not.”

The man chuckled and patted the tops of Gin’s hands with his thin white fingers. “Relax! Relax! All I mean is, you help me out and I’ll help you out. I’ll take you to where she is right now. It’s just that I want you to help me with something once we get there.”

“Sketchy,” Lala noted.

“Ok, fine. So start talking.”

“Sure, sure, but how about we take it somewhere else? We’re starting to draw a crowd.”

Sure enough, more than a few players had stopped doing whatever they’d been doing and were looking over. Gin wasn’t at all convinced it was a good idea to take the pale man at face value, but it didn’t feel like a better offer was going to fall into his lap any time soon. He loosened his grip, and the pale man settled back down, brushing his hands lightly over his front. As shady as this character was, he might be their only real shot at making any progress in finding the newb.

“Fine. Let’s get out of here.”

“Excellent. I’ll fill you in on the way.”

“You’re just assuming we’ll help you? Aren’t you afraid we won’t hold up our end of the bargain?” Lala said.

The sound of soft laughter bubbled out of the dark black cloak. “Think of it as a well-calculated business risk.”

The stranger motioned for them to follow and quickly led them toward the edge of the market. The pushed past the curious eyes of other players and into one of the hundreds of side streets that snaked farther out into the city.

“Wait, weren’t they headed for the West Gate? This is the complete opposite direction isn’t it?” Lala craned her neck, looking around them.

“This way is faster. The name’s Turin, by the way.” He said without looking back. “Let’s get a little farther out before we talk business. I’d rather make sure nobody overhears.”

“Turin,” Lala spat.

“That’s the one.” Turin flashed them a smile over one shoulder and kept on leading them quickly away from the markets. Before long, they had left the busy streets behind entirely and were quickly making their way through a maze of deep, twisting alleyways.

“I’m Gin and this is Lala. Are you sure this is the right way?”

“You can turn around if you want,” Turin said without stopping. “Look, I mean we’re already here.”

“Already where?”

They had arrived at the end of a wide alley. Three buildings enclosed a dead end that reached high up above them. Featureless grey walls without windows. It seemed like somebody had decided to use this area for storage, or maybe a dumping ground. Dull grey wooden barrels, each one half as tall as Gin, were stacked up on top of each other in rows.

“This way,” Turin chimed and disappeared behind one of the stacks.

For a second, Gin felt the hairs on the back of his neck prick up and wondered if he hadn’t been led into an ambush. You could probably hide more than a few people behind those barrels. His hand reached towards his shoulder until he remembered there wasn’t anything there anymore. Maybe Lala had the same notion, since he could see her unbuckling the case she kept her halberd folded up in.

But when they cautiously stepped around the barrels to see where Turin had gone, there was nobody waiting for them besides Turin himself. He was standing by a round wooden door, about the size of a small cart. It looked like it led down into a long, dark tunnel. “Through here,” he said, and darted through.

With one last hesitant glance between them, Lala and Gin dashed in after him. Inside, they couldn’t see Turin at all, but they could hear his footsteps leading them forward. It was dark, but not pitch black. From above, they could see shafts of pale orange light spilling in through small grates wedged into the ceiling. Gin could hear the familiar sound of people talking, laughing. It took him a little while to realize Turin had led them underneath the market.

“I have to admit I’m a little impressed. I never knew this place existed,” Gin murmured.

“Not to brag, but I’ve spent more time exploring below Rosenburg than most other players. There are way more secret passages underground than you’d imagine. I’m pretty sure I’ve soloed further down in the sewers than any other player, too. You definitely can’t do that without knowing a few shortcuts.”

“That was totally bragging, by the way,” Lala threw in from behind.

Turin didn’t seem to mind. The three of them walked steadily forwards, making use of the little light there was.

“So, what is it you want us to help you with? Surely nobody’s going to overhear us now.”

“No, I suppose not.” Turin ran one hand against the wall. “I guess the short version is I want you to help me kill a group of players and take their stuff.”

Gin stopped in his tracks and felt a small bump as Lala walked into his back.

“Ow, hey what are you doing, idiot?”

“You need our help PKing!?” Gin hissed at Turin, ignoring the elf.

Turin stopped and looked at him quizzically. “Is that a problem?”

“W-well…” The memory of being ambushed by those bandits the other day flashed through his mind.

Turin snickered. “Oh, don’t tell me you’re one of those players.”

“He is one of those players, FYI.” Lala piped in from behind.

“Shut up Lala! I just think PvP should be, umm… Like it’s best in arenas and duels and stuff.”

Turin’s chuckling floated past his ears in the dark. “Relax! It’s not like we’re going to hunt down the vegetarians gathering crafting materials or anything. That guy with the green hair the data trader told you about? He’s camped out with a group of mercs just outside town. He’s also sitting on a pile of stuff that has got to be worth a lot. No questions asked. With the three of us it’ll be easy-peasy. We can take them out before they know we’re there. We split the loot three ways, and you’ll get a chance to talk to that newb. If it makes you feel any better they’re not exactly nice people. Practically bandits.”

“Wouldn’t PKing them make us bandits!?”

“Do you want to find that newb or not?”

“I… Why would she be involved with a bunch of mercs anyway?”

Turin shrugged. “Like I’d know? Couldn’t tell you why she wound up following that creep around, but I don’t think she knows what she’s walking into.” Another short pause. “So? You in?”

Gin tried to appraise the dark shape in front of him. Even if they were about to go mug a group of bandits, he didn’t like the idea of attacking other players if he could help it. And more importantly, if the newb really was one of the people they were about to ambush, how was that going to make her any more inclined to talk to him?

Moot point if I can’t find her in the first place.

“Fine. Fine! Let’s just get it over with.”

“I am so pleased we got over this moral dilemma together,” Turin went back to leading them down the dark tunnel.

Gin followed in silence until after what felt like miles, the dark path sloped back up, and they arrived at a second door just as wide as the first. Turin pulled it halfway open with both hands. Blinding light flooded in from outside. Making sure Gin and Lala were still with him, he pushed the door the rest of the way with his shoulder and led them back to the surface.

“Oh!” Lala exclaimed as she stuck her head through the door.

They were no longer in the city. They had come out of the tunnel in the middle of a leafy green forest. The three of them were surrounded by tall trees, branches locked so tightly together you could barely see through to the sky. The door they had come through was set in the side of a small incline, hidden in a cluster of mossy green boulders. There was a packed earth road leading away from the wooden door, but it was overgrown and would have been easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.

“It’s an old trading route,” Turin explained. “I think. I mean, it used to see some play, but even the devs have forgotten about it these days. Hasn’t really come up in any quests I know of.” He pointed through the trees. “If we go in that direction, we’ll catch up to them.”

Gin motioned for him to continue. The three of them scampered up the side of the incline and began weaving their way through the forest.

Even though it was as dense as Gin had ever seen, Turin managed to slip through the undergrowth as easily as if it were an empty road. More than a few times Gin saw mobs wandering through the trees, but the route Turin chose skirted past all of them without drawing so much as a curious glance. Once or twice the shadowy stranger stopped and looked about him as though he were trying to find something on the floor, but only ever for a few moments, and then they were off again.

“I left breadcrumbs,” he explained when he saw Gin looking at him.

After a few more minutes of zipping through the forest, Turin finally came to a stop behind a large overturned tree trunk and motioned for Gin and Lala to do likewise.

Below them, the cackling bark of men’s laughter bounced up into the leafy canopy.

As they huddled quietly behind the enormous fallen tree and peered over the top into a tiny clearing aside a narrow stream, they slowly began to realize what was happening.

“Oh,” Lala breathed. “That’s not cool at all.”

Books 1 & 2 Available On Amazon

Want to get ahead of the re-serialized version? Have no faith in my ability to maintain the release schedule? I feel you. Really I do.

Lucky you! The first two books of Infinity Saga Online were originally published as The Ghost, and are available from Amazon. To buy a copy for Kindle or in paperback follow the links below: