I get up and rub my eyes to clear out the confusion. Wow... the real world is such a bummer… It’s more muted, less vivid than I remember. Even my thoughts are slower than they should be. A crash of pots and pans alert me to my parents' presence downstairs. They'll be making themselves some food before they head back outside with their friends. They belong to a group of people who reject a lot of the modern technology available. They refuse to use autocars, relying on dumcars when they were legal, and bikes now they aren't. They harp on about the new generation of smartphones being "too smart", and long for the time when all they’d use a phone for was games, web browsing and chatting. New technology like the neural interfaces and AI-like assistants are nothing but waste of resources better spent on social activities and drink. It's one of our big points of contention. I go out to see if there's anything to eat yet, and am met with two grown people staring at their phones, tapping away. I roll my eyes and try to get to the fridge undetected.
"Hey Sharon, how's life in the all-consuming machine?"
My father, the failed hipster quips without looking up from his phone. I sigh and open the fridge as my mother looks up.
"What's going on with your hair? Have you been sleeping? It's the middle of the day! How was your appointment with Dr. Peters?"
Oh good, she's learnt to feign interest.
"He says I'm fine and shouldn't worry too much about stuff. Same as every time. Hey, I'll be busy in my room for a few days. I've got a new job online."
Best not to mention too much about tech experiments to these two.
"I'll get up to Basic 1 for the duration, so I can add more to the rent for a while."
Also a good idea to keep the amount of money to myself. My parents give each other a look I'm not sure how to identify.
"What kind of job? Online? In your room? Are you involved in online porn?"
My face warms up as blood rushes in.
"No mom, I will be field testing some new technology for a company. It's not a big deal, but I need privacy when I'm working."
"Okay... Just set your account to active so we know you're alright"
Yeah, and so you can access my money when you need to. Pragmatic as always, dad.
The conversation drops off rapidly, and I escape into my room with some high nutrition bars and water. I've never seen the point in fancy food or lots of sweets. Where all my surplus weight comes from is anyone's guess. I duck back into my fortress of solitude, lock the door and log back onto the website. This time I can use the headset to navigate. It's running on low immersion, as the cooldown period won't expire for a day. There is an avatar on the site that seems way too chipper for its job.
"Hi there! I'm Melody! Welcome to the interactive manual for the Below. Would you like to start with the beginners tutorial?"
Okay. That'll do. I indicate yes.
The fairy-like creature spins in place, waves a wand and the website transforms into an interactive guide.
It turns out to be less in-depth than I'd have preferred. It goes through the simplest theory, the basic premise of the game, some legal stuff about sharing of information. Seems that private forums are frowned upon, with in-game taverns being the best source of game lore and rumours. The world is comprised of various planes of existence, with the one most players inhabit being the Prime plane. There are three meta planes surrounding the prime, which are the astral, ethereal and echo planes, each representing the merging of the prime plane with one of the Elemental forces. The Elemental forces are more basic than the classical elements, like a fantasy version of quantum theory. There is the Physical element which is the primary element of the current cycle, the Essential element which is in decline, and the Magical element which is in ascendance. Each cycle can last millions of years, and changes when a champion of the ascending element defeats a champion of the current element. The current element goes into decline and the declining element gains the ability to choose a new champion. There are also Affinities for each of the elements, and planes based on those, but I decide to wait until later with that. All this theory is making my head foggy. I spend the rest of my day painting. Dark colours with grey shadows, two yellow orbs surrounded by a white smokey collar. I cry myself to sleep.
When I log back into the game, I can't find Ephraim anywhere. As I search for him, I look around in amazement at how real everything seems. I bend down and feel the water. Cool and fresh, little whirlpools form in the wake of my hand.
"Welcome back Shae!"
The voice is sudden, startling me.
"Aah! Don't sneak up on people like that! You'll give me a heart attack!"
"Oh, please don't worry about that. As a member of the undead, your heart has already stopped. You're pretty much immune to all normal diseases. Watch out for fungi though, that'll be hard to get rid of."
Oh, great. Fungus. Wait, do I rot? I clear my voice to ask the question but Ephraim beats me to it.
"Well, yes and no. It's time to continue the lessons about your body. Please come with me."
I get the feeling of being in a moving car as my point of view flies towards him. I'm turned around and get the opportunity to look at my new body in more detail.
"As you can see, your hair falls out when you pull at it, your nails fall out and go away and, as you can probably imagine, wounds do not heal on their own. All this conspires to make for a poor sentient race, or at least not a long lived one. That is why your race has been gifted with an Elemental affinity to Magic even though you are physical creatures. This affinity lets you absorb Mana from your surroundings and use it to keep your body in repair. There is a basic upkeep cost based on your physical development and age, so if your Mana handling abilities fall behind your age or progression, your body will eat itself and rot. In that case, you'll either become a non sentient skeleton, or cease to exist. However, if you go the other way, and gain too much Mana in too short a time, your body might change, allowing your spirit to exist beyond the Prime realm. This also means your jaunt in this body ends."
"Huh... so I'm all about magic and physics then?"
"Not exactly... First, it's Elemental Magical and Elemental Physical. Second, as a Prime creature, you also have a spark of the Essential in you, which is where the concept of gods and divinity comes from. Your constraints on Mana generation and storage means that the path of a Mana user would be extremely difficult for you. I'd say you were more about the managing the Magical and holding on to the Physical for dear life."
"Fine, fine, can we get to the actual learning? I still have a lot of attunement to accomplish before I'm considered fully integrated in the game."
I'm tiring of all the theory. Ephraim smiles... Wait a minute, is he more real now? Instead of the 2d sprite, there was a fat little green tinted cherub flying in his place. Very blocky, like an old fashioned video game.
"Ah, yes. As your attunement increases, you will see me more ... correctly. This is my penultimate form. The next one will be a real charmer."
He winks at me as he finishes the sentence.
My movements feel much more natural now. I'm given small tasks by the system, like 'pick up 5 sticks' and 'throw sticks into pond', all intended to make me understand the game system better. By the time I've gotten sick of this, I realise I've increased strength, agility, endurance and even luck, besides some minor skill increases.
|Skills increased: Body control, Aim|
I feel very cool, even from this simple progression. After these simple tests, I pick combat as my next trial. Ephraim has me beating a poor spider to a pulp with a stick I find on the ground. Afterwards, I get to make a basic club from spider silk, a stick and a rock I found. Each step of the process, every action I perform takes my breath away, and my muscles ache after even the simplest effort. Finally finished, I wipe the sweat from my brow and look at Ephraim. I gasp as I realise he’s turned into the most beautiful vision I've ever seen. Golden curls, chiselled bronze skin, alabaster wings. Where a fat little cherub had stood before, a full grown angel stood in its place. His smile makes me tingle.
"Well done Shae. You have completed the trials set before you and have achieved a high degree of attunement to your new avatar. With this accomplishment, the right to travel the world Below on your own has been earned."
"Oh, wow, Ephraim... What will happen now?"
I felt a touch of panic come on. Alone in this mysterious world?
"You will do fine here, Shae. You will follow your desires and shape your future in this world. From here on out, you will be in the Prime, and not in this bridge realm. That means that time will become dilated, and for every minute spent in the world Below, 20 seconds will pass in the world Above. This is one of the gifts we offer the tethered souls who visit."
I take one last at little azure pond. This place doesn't look quite so real anymore. The sheer colours are starting to feel overdone and tacky. There is no life here, other than the trees and flowers. Not even wind shifts the scene. How did I not realise this before? Maybe it's the attunement speaking…
"Before you go, I have some parting gifts for you. A cloak to keep you protected from the elements of nature. A celestial stone which will provide you with fire when you need it. And this."
He hands me a silvery chain, the locket the length of my hand. I open it and see a perfectly preserved alabaster feather.
"With this, you will always have me near. I will always be around your tether, honouring your mandate to the world Above of course. But always keep that close, and I will be able to help you when you need it most.”
My eyes started a little, as I couldn’t find the words. His smile brightened, and the world grew faded into the radiance. And with that, my adventures truly began.
After the flash of white light, the world comes into focus. I'm in a forest. Deep inside, by the look of the trees. The biggest ones created a green canopy high above, with smaller trees and bushes in between. The ground is dry and reddish brown. There's the taste of cold in the air, with a hint of soft decay. I have a look around and notice my HUD. There is a comfort metre, letting me know I'm perfectly comfortable right now, but getting less comfortable by the minute. There's the ripcord handle, waving slightly from the attention I give it. No inventory screen, no health bar, no mana, spell book, minimap or compass. I do notice a small question mark. I focus on it, triggering a message.
|Would you like to learn more about your HUD?|
|Yes (full tutorial)|
|Yes (short tutorial)|
|No (all tutorials are available offline in a non-interactive form)|
I focus on the short tutorial. I've never had patience for walls of facts, or video tutorials. If it's not taking me on an adventure, I will not be interested.
|Your HUD is designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. You can change your settings from the settings menu. The only icon which will always be available is the ripcord handle and comfort scale. General health and mana values are available as they become necessary, and you can turn them on in the settings screen. You will need an Orienteering skill to use a compass. A map is needed to display the minimap. To make a map, the map making skill is necessary.|
Huh... it knew what I wanted to know and kept it short. Useful. I dismiss the box and begin to explore my surroundings. The forest floor is remarkably uncluttered. I expected broken branches everywhere, wildlife around me and leaves. As I kneel to the ground, I realise the leaves are flattened against the ground, creating a carpet over the ground. The weather makes me thing that soon the leaves will turn yellow and fall and create another layer. As my head is closer, I notice the sound of scratching. I try to brush some leaves away, and a large flake comes loose. From underneath, a mouse scampers, fleeing away from me and into a hole near a tree.
|Skill Discovered: Perception - Subskill: Forest Perception|
I stand up and start inspecting myself. I find the club I made, hanging from my belt, the cloak around my shoulders, the fire starter and the amulet in pouches on my belt. Adjusting my equipment, I begin walking in a random direction. A whole new world! Sadly, the new world is entirely composed of brown trunks, red/yellow/brown ground, and in the distant heights, green. I quickly get tired of the scenery and decide to try my hand at climbing. I find sturdy tree with low branches and pitted bark. How hard can it possibly be? I rub my hands together, for no better reason than I saw it in a movie once, I grab the tree with both hands, and try to pull myself up. There is no effect. I'm too heavy for this approach, and the angle is wrong. Turns out, I've never climbed a tree before. I bet my parents would get a good laugh out of this. I reach higher, trying to find purchase on the tree, and discover an indentation a bit higher up. This lets me climb to the lowest branches. I grab a hold of one and try to get a leg up. There's a loud crack, followed by a brief period of vertigo and a short stop against the ground.
|Damage received - 20%.|
|Stunned effect gained (30 seconds)|
|Skill discovered: Climbing|
I lie perfectly still for 30 seconds, moaning softly. I could move, probably, but everything hurts, and the universe seems to want me not to. Best to oblige. When the effect finally fades away, I'm left with a general soreness.
"Gee, I'm glad nobody saw that..."
I look around to confirm, and spot something that looks like a squirrel. It shakes its head slowly, then runs back up the tree. I ignore it and try again. On my next attempt, I get to the lowest branch. At least the part I didn't pull off the tree. I manage to use the branches to get higher, being careful not to put all my weight on a single limb. I make it to the canopy, ignoring the screaming pain in my arms.
|Skill reached level 1: Climbing|
The canopy is much sturdier, and fresh forest green. I’m slightly higher up than the surrounding trees, allowing me to see a wide area around me. I notice I'm close to a large grassy area. I look the other way and see I was mistaken about how deep in the forest I was. It got vastly deeper and greener, and then darker and blacker. In the vast distance it looked like a storm of some kind was brewing. Definitely not going that way. I decide that I’ve seen enough, and try to lower myself down to the first branch, but can't find it with my feet. As I try to look down, I realise exactly how high up I am. A feeling of lightheadedness comes over me as I stare at the abyss below me, branches in the way, nothing but the hard ground to catch me. My grip slips for a second, and I fall backwards off the canopy. There's pain and crashing sounds and a very sudden shock as I manage to grab hold of a branch.
|Failed resistance check: Vertigo|
|Skill Discovered: Athletics.|
|Succeeded skill check: Athletics.|
|Damage received: 35%|
I take a deep breath before continuing my climb down. As I finally make it to ground, I sit down with my back to the tree and close my eyes for a minute, calming myself down. My heart is racing, my body aches, my back is bruised and I think my hands are bleeding. And I've been in this world for the grand total of 30 minutes. I don't really see how it's possible for this to get any worse, so better times are definitely ahead. I get up and stretch a little. My health is creeping slowly up, and I'm already at 90%. My skills are improving, however gradually and... What the hell! Right in front of me is the squirrel from before. Shaking, waving its paws towards me.. pointing? I swear he's laughing at me. I feel the flush of anger and embarrassment as I pick up my club and throw it at him. The club impacts right above him, making him run to the ground, turn towards me, stick his tongue out at me, and promptly get thwacked as the club falls to the ground. Stunned, I stare at the scene.
|Attack successful: Seanan Squirrel hit by sneak attack for 100% damage. Seanan Squirrel has been vanquished.|
|Skill Discovered: Sneak Attack.|
|Skill increase: Sneak Attack|
|Skill Discovered: Improvised throwing weapons.|
|Skill increase: Improvised throwing weapons|
Whoa... Uh... I mean...
"Take that you little shit! You hear me forest? Don't mess around with Shae of the Undead!"
I spend more time than I'm proud of, shouting profanities to the memory of the squirrel, before I go over to check my winnings. A different game would probably give me a pop-up window, giving me skins and any other drops. This game gives me a limp, slightly smelly body of a squirrel thing. Seeing as I don't have anything to carry it with, and nothing to cook it with, I may as well leave it behind. Little shit. I wind up to throw it away from my position when I see them staring at me. Eyes in the forest. It looks like someone bedazzled the darkness between the trees with diamonds, except there are teeth. Mouth agape, I drop the corpse as I survey the scene. There's hundreds of them, maybe thousands. As I focus on the biggest one it gets a label.
It moves closer, snarling. Its fur is a darker brown than the one on the ground. Much bigger as well. Maybe this is some sort of warrior squirrel? Then did I kill its mate? Son? King?
|Skill Discovered: Zoology|
Hm... apparently, reasoning about what's happening can unlock skills for me. That's really useful to Oh Crap!
The Bakrin squirrel barks at me, then runs down the trunk towards me. The horde moves as well, except the few who decide to pelt me with acorns and pine cones. I decide to do the tactical thing and flee in terror. I've never been a good runner. Ask the other kids when I grew up. My temper was a thing of legends, people would wind me up to see me explode, but they always knew they could outrun me. The squirrels were learning this lesson fast. My lungs are burning from a lack of oxygen, my legs from lactic acid, the soles of my feet aching from pounding against the forest floor. System messages were popping up warning me of exhaustion, of sprains and skill checks.
|Body control skill increased|
|Skill Discovered: Running|
|Running skill increased|
|Warning: exhaustion reaching critical levels|
|Status gained: badly exhausted|
I could still hear them behind me as I burst out of the forest into the clearing I saw earlier. I make it 10 more steps before my foot hits a rock and I go flying over the plains.
|Skill Discovered: Acrobatics|
|Acrobatics check failed|
|Damage incurred 10%|
|Status gained: Stunned (29 seconds)|
|Resistance gained: Stun|
As I'm lying there, I sense the impending doom of a million squirrels, angrily barrelling down on me. I make my peace with the universe, happy knowing that I took one of them with me at least. 10 seconds pass. My stun fades at 29 seconds, allowing me to turn around and sit up painfully. Countless squirrels are staring at me with hate in their eyes, but they won't come any closer, like an invisible line in the world they just can't pass.
"What's this? Did I leave your aggro zone? Not allowed to follow me out here? Little shits, take this!"
I pick up a stone as I'm talking, and throw it at the first Bakri I see. It gracefully evades my rock, and goes back to its original position, still staring. I notice a different squirrel, another Seanan, pointing at me. No, behind me...I turn around slowly, half expecting to see a monster, half expecting a horde of sadistic squirrels to overrun me. I'm half right. A large furry monster, a cross between a ferret and a grizzly, is standing not 3 metres away from me. As it exhales a blast of moist air scented with rotting meat, I get a system message summing up my feelings perfectly.
|Resistance check result: Marginal|
|Marginal success, bowel control retained|
|Marginal failure: frozen in place|
Unable to do anything else, I try to focus on the monster, but nothing comes up. It must be way out of my league. It takes a step forward and roars, and every squirrel present flees. I promptly fall over into the foetal position and make myself look unappetizing. I stay like this for a minute before I realise my continuing existence. I anxiously look up, right into a tiny, pointy, furry face. It tilts its head to the side, and licks my face with a rough, pink tongue, decides I'm not food, and sits back on its rear 4 legs. I slowly sit up and shake my head to clear it out. Was this the child of the monster? Where did the monster go? It has eight legs, like an arachnid ferret. Light brown flat coat of fur, and something that looks like a third eye, a smooth dark jewel in its forehead.
"What fresh hell is this..."
I sit up and look at the creature.
|Creature identified as an OctoFerret|
Okay then. OctoFerret.
“Please don't be aggressive...”
I stand up and look around. My exhaustion effects are still present, and everything feels more and more sore as I start moving, but at least I seem to be in a reasonably safe place at the moment. I take a moment to catch up on system messages.
Warning: You are no longer welcome in any stronghold of the Atrani Squirrelfolk. Any attempt to enter will cause a call to arms to vanquish you.
|Title gained: DoomFlinger - For having slain a royal Atrani Seanan with a carelessly thrown club, you will be considered more dangerous by the dwellers of forests. Your temper will be the target of careful observation from now on|
Okay then... The octoferret comes over and scratches my leg a little. I bend down to his height
"What's the matter little guy?"
He sits up on his rear 4 legs and looks at me, rubbing his remaining paws together in an almost expecting way.
"What? Food? I don't have any food. Aren’t you afraid of me by the way? And where did the big thing go... was that your mother?"
The little furball points to himself, raises himself onto two legs and extends his top 6 paws to make himself big. He retracts them and waves at me to follow.
"Okay... you're the boss I guess. I'm lost."
The ferret brings me to a hollow under a large, conspicuous boulder some way away from the forest. There's a surprising amount of space underneath it. Dry twigs on the ground, some evergreen branches in one corner for sleeping, I guess.
"Is this your home then?"
He nods vigorously, spins around in place twice, then points further into the hollow. A small burrow extends into the wall. I follow him into the deeper areas of the den. As we get to the inner chambers, his eagerness fades. In one corner of the new room is what looks like a white driftwood nest, with 8 eggs in it. 7 of them unhatched, one of them in pieces. I get closer, and notice that the nest is actually the skeletal remains of a very large creature. Eight legs, lithe body and a skull with a hole in it. I look closer and realise the central gem is gone. The critter looks at me, looks at the remains and the eggs, then hides its face in its hands.
"Is that your mother then?"
He nods eagerly.
"And those are your brothers and sisters?"
He looks more distressed.
"They were to be your brothers and sisters..."
He nods sadly, then goes to the side of the room. The darkness is deep here, but a soft light emanates from his third eye, and a face appears on the wall. Long hair, stubble, deep set eyes and a feral grin. The image changes to a simple representation of a person going towards a large lump of fur. The person sticks the lump of fur with a sharp stick and the lump falls over. The person pries something from the dead lump and goes away. Shortly afterwards, the lump decays to white, and eight eggs appear to the side. One white, seven black. The white egg seems to hatch, and a smaller brown lump emerges. The show ends, and the ferret looks at me.
You have discovered a quest: Avenge the OctoFerret! An unknown person has killed the OctoFerret matriarch and stolen her Source gem, rightfully belonging to her children. Accompany the offspring OctoFerret on its quest to recover the gem and avenge its mother. Rewards: Variable based on your performance. Punishment for declining: OctoFerrets everywhere will regard you with disdain. Drop in approval from Natural creatures of the plains.
"I guess you'd want me to come with you?"
The ferret nods excitedly.
"Okay... I guess I'll go then. But I'll need some way of addressing you. What's your name?"
He spins in place, runs back to the dark wall, and puts up an image of claws, tearing at something, pulling it apart.
"So... I should call you Mr Snuffles then?"
I smile at my own wit.
That was the first time he bit me.
- Stranger in a strange land
Software developer by trade. Games developer by uni course. Shopkeeper in a previous life.. don't ask.
I took a look at my life recently, and realised I read too much. I watch too much tv. I play too many games. I consume too much. It was time for me to create instead, improve the balance of things. So I wrote, and I wrote, and I managed to finish a first draft. Then I went back to the beginning and started rewriting it, while working on the sequel.
If you like my work, or are a fan of litRPG/Gamelit, please check out https://greatlitrpg.com
You'll find my book there, and a bunch of other authors worth your time. Vote for what you like, and help make it a definitive collection of unbiased reviews.