As we got to Loes place, I realised the vast nature of a Weke burrow. In principle it was just a hole in the ground, but the scale was tremendous. Each structure reached into the ground a dozen or more stories. In the center was a large cube of slightly warm stone. Around the cube was the stairwell, leading to landings every floor. Upstairs you’d find the common rooms. Kitchens, storage, dining rooms and the like. Subsequent landings consisted of common living quarters. On the lowest floor was a giant fireplace. Apparently, to cool down, they’d light fires underground. This would cause heat and smoke to rise up through the hollow central pipe, and fresh air to be pulled down through a series of vents in the stacks of rooms. I couldn’t tell if this was game magic or based in science. Either way, it was pretty neat.
As we entered the apartment, about halfway down the stairwell, Loe took me to a room in one corner of the flat.
“So this your room for now. I won’t need for a while, no mates ready for poor Loe. Only freedom and time to practice my crafts.”
He really didn’t look that torn up about it.
“Well, this is pretty nice..”
I put on my best fake smile. The bed was filled with grass and hay. Fresh enough to see the insects crawling around. Can’t beat the price though.
“Do you mind if I go around and explore a little? I’d really like to find a merchant or alchemist to check out some of the items I’ve come across.”
Or looted, stole and pilfered. Loe smiles and sends me on my way with instructions to speak to a couple of members of his little community. A man called Hakat, who might be able to take some items off my hands for me, and a woman called Perot, who was wise in the way of herbs and salves. His words, not mine.
Wandering the streets, I realise the village has a very laid back attitude, even to a dead, infested stranger like myself. Children were playing in the streets, some Weke were wandering hand in hand along the streets. Sickly sweet, to be honest. I hurried along to the shop.
Hakats store was another one of the few overground buildings. Made of real, if not very fresh, wood. The door was poorly fastened to the frames, and when I moved through it, it nearly fell off. A gruff old Weke grunted at me from behind a counter. The entirety of the scene was such a perfect image of a shop in any busy fantasy game. I couldn’t help but think that maybe this is a remnant from the core algorithm that created this world, before the valley was segregated from the rest of the world.
“Whaddya want, smoothskin?”
The elderly hairball barked at me when I’d stood in thought for a little too long.
“Oh, hi, I’m Shae.. I’d like to..”
I felt very flustered for some reason, and must have stammered more than I’d expected.
“Out with it youngling. I’ve only got another couple of winters left before I shuffle off to the next world. I’d rather not spend it staring at your mug.”
I was stunned for a second, until my instincts took over. I slammed my hand down on the table in front of him.
“Listen here, asshole!”
The familiar anger rose through my soul as I stared him down.
“I’m a customer here, and I seem to be the only damn one you have. I’m bringing new goods from outside the valley, I want to buy some basic supplies, and I want to be treated with some basic fucking respect or so help me I’ll make this building uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.”
There might have been some spittle flying towards the end of the sentence. The poor old man just stared at me for a few seconds after I’d finished, blinking. Then he burst out laughing.
“Ha! I was afraid there wouldn’t be any fire in you at all. Young’uns these days will just let you walk right over them, or run away at the first sign of trouble. But you’re alright kid.”
He slaps my arm an gives me a toothy grin as my confused rage struggled to find an outlet.
“So what can I get ya for?”
I bite my tongue, breathing and relaxing for a moment. Dr. Peters had tried to teach me some anger management techniques to use when I was getting overwhelmed, but I’d never bothered with them before. In this moment, however, I didn’t want to ruin what seemed to be my only chance to get some trading done in this village. He tilts his head looking at me when I don’t speak for longer than I meant, when I finally get myself under control, smile, and begin my negotiation. We go back and forth a bit on the items I have. He offers to throw away my makeshift club, but I hold on to it for now. He really wants my gladius, but again, not parting with that, or my fancy boots. I find some coins in the heavy pouch from Lesiraxans tomb, which he’s willing to accept as payment. I manage to sell him my old boots and cloak, in addition to the collection of clothes and the bronze amulet from Huntex’s stash. The clothes were useless, and the amulet was garish with no obvious magics attached to it. I’d rather get my hands on some of the items the old man offered.
I end up with a small pile of silver and copper coins for my troubles. I give it all over in return for a set of leather adventurers clothes. Trousers with reinforced knees, linen shirt with padded elbows, leather vest and a neat new backpack. I get a refill of my quiver, and as an apology for his previous behaviour, I get a new bow, more designed for beginners than the hard strung hunters bow I stole from Huntex. We shake hands, and I walk out of there feeling pretty good about the trade.
Your relationship with Hakat the Weke has improved to Friendly. Your standing with the Weke township has gone up to Cautious Skill discovered: Barter Skill increased: Intimidation
Finding Perot's hut takes me a bit longer. Located on the outskirts of the village, out past the hunting lodges and the tannery, it was way outside of any commonly used paths. At first, I’m unsure of how she can put up with the horrible smells. When I get closer, I realise that the offal and tanning fluids do an admirable job of covering up the smells that emanate from her burrow. As I approach the entrance, a high pitched voice calls from inside.
“Come in dearie, don’t stand out there and catch your death from this cold.”
I look around me, observing the merciless sun and the stifling heat, shrug, and go inside.
Perot's home is a hole in the ground. I mean, most of the homes here are, but in this case, someone dug a pit. They put the earth around the edges of the pit, cemented it with a mixture of sap, dung and spit, pissed on it for good measure, and covered the entire thing with a tarp. A firepit was burning in the center, with a hole up high to allow the smoke out. Over the fire hangs a giant cauldron filled to the brim with a greenish substance. Things are bobbing around on top, but I try not to pay too close attention to that right now.
“And how are you going to do that?”
Her voice is really shrill. Almost like nails on a board, except I fear that I’ll have to listen to this voice for a bit longer still.
“What? To do what?”
I tilt my head questioningly.
“Oh, I’m so sorry my lovely. I get ahead of myself sometimes. How can I help you.”
Her grin is unnerving. She comes over to stand right before me.
“I’d like to —”
I stammer, barely able to get my words out before she finishes my sentence.
“Sell me some herbs perhaps?”
Another mind reader?
“Yeah. Wait, how’d—”
She interrupts again.
“I know that? Don’t worry about that too much my sweet.”
I can feel a sweat run down my back now. I decide to fall back on what I know. I close my eyes for a second, summon my anger and rage, and let it flow out of me like a wave of red bile.
“Listen here crone. Stop your mind games right now, or I’ll put you in your cauldron and leave you there for supper.”
Something feels wrong even as I say it. My spirit isn’t in it, or it’s not connecting, somehow.
“And how are you going to do that?”
Her voice is suddenly the only thing in the world. Noise I’d never noticed before is suddenly quiet, and I’m desperate to hear it again. She’s so close, but she hasn’t moved an inch.
“I think you’re going to go outside, sit down, and contemplate your attitude for a few minutes. Then you’re going to come back inside and introduce yourself properly to a poor old woman. Am I making myself clear?”
Her voice is right in my ear, she’s whispering it right besides me while I’m staring right at her.
Resistance failed: Compulsion. You have been entranced.
I come to my senses sitting by myself outside the hut. I’m shivering in the heat. I look at my hands, and they’re black with frost. Steam is coming off them as they thaw in the sun.
I stumble to my feet, and remove my hood. I fix my hair, and wipe my feet before knocking on the doorframe.
“Come in dearie, don’t stand out there and catch your death from this cold.”
I step inside and everything is the same as before, except for the looming sense of this little woman's true power. I do much better this round though. I apologise for my behaviour, even if I feel she provoked it. I ask her if she needs any help around the house, and am immediately rewarded with small quests.
Clean the floor. Bring in firewood. Chastise Mr. Pointy.
Each quest gives me a small amount of reputation with Perot, and with the township as a whole. Mr Pointy turns out to be some strange hybrid creature called a Burox, a mix between a fox and a donkey. Apparently, he’s quite fond of whatever is in the walls of her hut, and will happily eat away at the sides until something falls down. This leads into another quest to get more building material for the hut, and a little fencing, then some herbs for Mr Pointys poor tummy. By the end of the quest chain, I’m sitting outside the hut, enjoying the sunset.
Skill discovered: Carpentry Skill discovered: Mud Construction Skill increased: Herbology
While exhausting, the increases in skills were really worthwhile. And the experience was excellent. I can’t remember being so content before, just letting my conscious mind wander while my body took care of the work. Perot comes out of her hut with a mug of something clear.
“Drink up my dear. You’ve done good work. I had my doubts about you, but you’ve done well.”
I accept the cup and drink. It tastes clear and sweet, nectar mixed with dew.
“Thank you mother Perot.”
I don’t know why I used that honorific, but it seems to have been the right one. She nods sagely.
“When you’re ready, come inside, and I’ll show you what you can do with those herbs you’re carrying.”
I sit for a few more minutes before I get up, wipe my feet, and enter.
Sugarharness: Sweet herb used for flavouring drinks. Known effects: can be used to purify water if ground in mortar. Rainleaf: Succulent leaf. Known effects: Can positively affect mana regeneration when chewed. Rotwood: Mushroom that looks like rotting wood. Known effects: can be made into a poultice that will hide the user from the undead.
“How about these Moonsilver roses, mother?”
I take out the rare beauties, and her eyes shine in astonishment.
“Where did you come across these, child? They represent a thousand years of growth in an age that no longer exists..”
She handles one with care and reverence, making me feel guilty for the way I’ve just carried them around in my backpack.
I tell her about Lesiraxans tomb, and the darkling I met there. She listens in rapt attention, asking questions when I slow down, and soon I’ve told her about Rip, about Huntex and the Titan bear, about Ephraim. She smiles a kindly smile and strokes my cheek.
“These roses are a great boon, and have many uses. You’ve given one to the elders, and that will keep the valley safe for a while, when it seems like evil will win. The rest, you must keep to yourself for as long as you can. When there is no other option available to you, you must crush the rose in your hand, and powers older than the world we live in will come and assist you.”
I wipe a tear I wasn’t aware of, and smile at her.
“Thank you, mother Perot. You’ve been so wonderful. How can I repay you?”
“You can be true to yourself, always. You can do the things only you can do, make the right decisions when it matters, and you can learn from your mistakes. And if you come and visit this old crone once in awhile, I’d appreciate that too.”
We stand up together, and she gives me a lingering hug. We say our goodbyes, and I walk back to Loes home. He’s not particularly happy about the smell, but he forgives me when he sees the food I picked up from Hakats store on the way home. Home…
I decide to log out. I’ve been online for too long already, and I just know I’m going to be achy all over.
Returning to real life is such a pain. I've been under for ... 16 hours. New record for me. As I stretch and get ready to leave out of bed, everything starts hurting at once. I realise there's been an accident while I was under as well. I quickly clean up in the bathroom, before going downstairs. It's so quiet now. Midday I guess, so my parents are probably out again. In the living room I find several boxes of stuff addressed to me. It’s the gaming supplies I ordered previously. Excellent delivery service. I check the receipt, and see my father signed for it, giving a pretty mediocre tip. No more great service for me I guess. Cheapskate. I unbox the parcels, and examine my haul. A DIY catheter. That would have been useful earlier. Special bed sheets that help prevent bedsores. Supplements that are supposed to help my muscles fight atrophy. A selection of sleeper gamer foodstuffs, scientifically engineered for maximum nutrition. According to the box at least. Not a bad haul at all. As I’m carrying it all up to my room, I notice a piece of paper stuck to my door.
[Sharon, You've been sleeping for a long time, and we don't know if we should wake you up when you're wearing those glasses. Please let us know when you're supposed to be awake. Love, Mum.]
I sigh in exasperation, writing an answer on the other side of the note.
[Do *not* wake me up when I'm playing. Just stay out of my room.]
Nosey old people. I finish loading my stuff and go downstairs to leave the note somewhere I know they’ll find it. As I move to stick it to the fridge, I see a small pile of pamphlets on the kitchen counters.
[Is your kid addicted to FIVR?]
Placing my note under a magnet, I pick up the pamphlet to check it out. Already, I can feel my hackles rising. A list of ‘warning signs’ were prominently displayed on the first page. Mood swings, long immersion, poor decision making. Several options for contacting them for support and advice were available at the end of the literature. I try the anger management techniques again, breathing deeply, calming myself. It has no effect this time, and I angrily stuff the piece of paper down the garbage disposal, turning it on for a brief moment before storming out of the door. I desperately need some fresh air, and going back under so soon isn’t recommended. Slowly, as I stretch and move my body, the tension in my muscles releases and I’m able to gather my thoughts properly. I’m old enough to make my own decisions, and Basic 2 is enough to get a decent lawyer if they try anything. I force myself to stop thinking about it as I observe the world I used to consider real. The colours were weaker here, more washed out. Heading back home, I feel less angry about the pamphlet. What else could I expect from those two.
When I get back, I run into my mother. She has her favourite rucksack on, going on about how it’s ‘retro’. I groan internally just thinking about it.
“Hello Sharon. So nice to see you up and about.”
She almost beams with sarcasm, grabbing me and squeezing me too tight. I escape her hold, and she almost looks a bit confused. Maybe some of my unarmed skills are rubbing off on the real world.
“Hi mum. Can I get past?”
I mumble as I try to pass by her.
“Now listen here sweetie, I’ve barely seen you for a couple of days now. I was about to call doctor Peters when your father found you in your room.”
She’s wagging her finger around while she’s chastising me. I try to escape into my happy place, but her voice just penetrates everything.
“I know you enjoy your little games, but it’s important to spend some time outside with real people once in awhile”
I snap to attention at this, fixing her with a withering stare.
“What do you mean, little games? Real people? The people I meet down below are more real than anyone I’ve met up here.”
She’s taken aback by my outburst. I press my advantage.
“I make more money than either of you playing these silly games, and I pay rent for the privilege. So why don’t you two mind your own business and leave me alone. Go out and get drunk with your ancient millennial bros. It’ll keep us both happier.”
I stare her down, and her shock is palpable. She never expected her little dormouse to bite back.
“Okay then. Just.. be careful, okay.. We both love you, you know”
I reach the stairs before she’s stammered the last of her sentence.
You’re not going to push me around anymore.
I lock my door when I go into my room. My adrenaline is still going, and it’s hard to get settled back down on the bed. I spend a little too long trying to fit the high tech catheter, then lie back onto my fresh, new sheets feeling very organised. The catheter must have been more painful than I thought. My eyes are tearing up. I log back into the OS, deciding to check out the forums before I go back down. I do some searches about fungal creatures, elder spores, and Weke, but nothing comes up. I check out my new skillset, Planeswalking. As it turns out, the skill is extremely rare, only available from other players, or from very rare skill book drops. And of all of them, the Shifting skill is the rarest, only four players are confirmed to possess it, though anecdotal evidence points to dozens. Very cool. I'll be very popular when I get nearer to civilization. I mentally engage the game, and the world fades to white once more.
The world begins to fade in slowly. Sounds and smells are just as I left them just a couple of hours ago, relatively speaking. Just as I start to feel like I’m at home, the world begins to fracture. Static fills my vision, like the world was assaulted by magnetic interference. When the flickering ends, I'm in a clean, white room, on top of a metal table. Bare walls, no doors visible, only me, the bed, and ominous screens on the walls.
I say more as a question than a statement. There’s no echo here. I look for the ripcord, and realize with a cold certainty that it’s been disabled.
“What the hell is going on here.”
I speak louder, but I can’t summon my anger. I’m too scared right now. I’m unable to move. It feels like my arms are restrained, but there’s nothing holding me back. I struggle for a bit longer until I can’t take it anymore and let out a scream that starts at the angry part of the scale, and bottoms out in despair towards the end. Suddenly, I feel an arm on my shoulder. My head snaps to the side, and I see a familiar sight.
“Ephraim.. What’s going on? I can’t move. Where am I? It’s so good to see you.”
As I’m babbling, he raises a finger to his lips in a ‘shush’ motion, and my terror grows deeper than I thought possible. His hands glow bright white for a moment, and he touches my wrists, one after the other, and I can move again. I get up, and am about to wrap him in a hug when I realise something is off about him. He’s blurry, fuzzy, like he’s not really there, or only mostly there. He grabs my shoulders and whispers in my ear, his voice hollow and far away.
“Shae, you must listen to me now. Close your eyes, focus, and feel the spot on the wall to your right. Just let your senses wash over it. There’s a soft spot there. You have to find it, fast.”
I do as he says. I close my eyes, and everything is darkness, at first. Then I can see some colours in front of me, coming from Ephraim. As I focus on him, I find I can see further, beyond the beacon of his form. I can see a thick silvery string attached to me that is flopping about around, like a live wire looking for ground. I can see the walls, solid, unbreakable white static wall. And on one of those walls, I can see depth. The soft spot.
“Do you see it?”
His voice is further away now than before.
“Yes, it’s right there, now tell me what’s going on.”
I’m trying to keep calm, but my volume keeps increasing on its own. The clinical white lights around me shift to dark red, and a voice emanates from all around us.
“Alert. Subject is awake. Alert. Aggressive scan initialised”
“What does that mean?”
Feeling overwhelmed by the entire situation, I wave my hand towards everything.
“There's not enough time to explain, please, go to the soft spot and activate your shifting skill. Hurry!”
He’s pleading with me, but I can’t deal with this right now.
“I’m not going anywhere until I have some answers.”
I stop in front of the soft spot and stare right at him. His body language shifts, and he seems to accept the defeat.
“You’ve been redirected. You’ve been caught up by the Spider, and we’re running out of time. If he feels you’re about to escape his stasis web he’ll—”
As he finishes his sentence, he suddenly turns solid, bending over in pain.
“Intruder detected. Lock acquired. Initialising Intrusion Countermeasures.”
The voice was dispassionate, clinical, and I hated it.
“You have to get back to the game, Shae. It’s so much more important than you can imagine. They made me watch you, spy on you, but I managed to hide so much from them. They took me off your tether, but your searches on the forum triggered the Spiders trap. I’ve scrambled your entry points again, but you need to keep a low profile, and you need to go, now!”
As he shouts the last word, he pushes me, and I grab his arm as I activate Planar Shifting for the first time. The soft spot shatters with a deafening crash, and I fall backwards into the void. Ephraim's form is angelic, eternal, wonderful, and before we escape, it’s struck from behind and shatters. As I’m falling, with Ephraim's hand in mine, what’s left of him dematerialises. A cloud of green flows around my wrist, forming an armlet. My last memory of him.
The live wire attached to my body goes into overdrive as I’m falling through nothingness. Suddenly, I fall out of the grey cloud I’ve been inside, and I see the tether web all around me. Silver strings in the thousands. Hundreds of thousands, going from the cloudy layer above to the murky depths below. This is a sight that no human eyes were meant to see. My tether attaches itself to other one, and everything fades to white.
I open my eyes again, back in the bed in Loes house.
Skill discovered: Planar Sense
I stare at the message, considering my next move.
“What the fuck was that..”
- 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.