I can smell cooking. Something savoury. I didn’t realise before, but the place between had no smells at all. I breathe in deeply, and let it out with a rattling sound almost gliding into a sob. I catch myself, and feel my left wrist. There’s an armband there. It’s green, and it’s engraved with a single word in an ancient language. I know what it says. Ephraim. Standing up, I start pacing the room. I need to think, I need.. I need a plan.
What do I know?
Pretty much nothing. An AI tried to capture me and managed to hijack my connection, blocking my exit. I quickly checked to see if the ripcord was still there, sighing gratefully when it shifted a bit from my attention.
Ephraim is gone. Or rather, changed? I absentmindedly fondle the wristband while pacing. This kicked off before I logged in last time.. So the trigger was me searching the forums? But somehow, the AI isn’t able to find me now that I’ve changed connection. It probably has to follow certain rules.
I grunt in annoyance. I’m not getting anywhere! I just didn’t know enough. Why me? I stop suddenly as I realise I have one option for getting more information. The elders. They’ve been around for ages. Maybe they can give me some kind of clue on how to proceed. As I dashed out of the room and upstairs, Loe tries to greet me, but I deftly evade him for now. I don’t really have time for pleasantries. If I postpone this too long, I might realise how insane staying in game actually is.
I make my way to the barn at the center of town, and push my way inside. The guards standing outside make some noise, and I get a little negative respect in the town, but I’m on a mission. The smell of rot and moisture is as pervasive as ever. I reach the grimy pool and start shouting.
“I need to talk to you guys. Hey, wake up!”
The lump in the middle of the pool seems to rearrange itself a little, and the little girl answers.
“It’s the topsider again, the dead one. Have you finished your tasks already?”
“I have not. I need some answers, and I don’t know who else to ask. Do you know about an entity called the Spider?”
The elders stay quiet, seemingly ruminating on my question. The old woman finally breaks the silence.
“We know little about the one called Spider. His is the provenance of order and communication. He lives in the places between and outside, where mortals are not permitted, and he himself is not permitted outside his own domain. Why do you ask about this?”
“The Spider, it captured me, intercepted me when I tried to journey back to this land. When I escaped, he killed a friend of mine who tried to rescue me.”
My voice is angry, but the tears in my eyes betray my true emotions.
“Then you’re luckier than most. Most people taken by the spider ends up a puppet, or a meal.”
The gruff man sounds thoughtful.
“Why would he take me? How can I avoid being captured again?”
The little girl answers in a singsong voice.
“The spider is old and wise and patient. He won’t grab for the flies who are watchful. He’ll make a web and listen. When you touch the strands, he’ll know, and when you realise your mistake, you’re already sticky.”
The old crone continues.
“But the spider is also slow, and overly cautious. He won’t come back for you again for a while, and all you have to do is stay out of his threads.”
I look down, rubbing my bracelet, taking a deep breath.
“And how do I kill him?”
The room goes perfectly quiet. Even the light bubbling from the pool stops. A new voice, hoarse from screaming, dripping with venom and misery, whispers to me.
“The spider isn’t for the likes of you to kill, wasteling. But I might know a way you can do it anyway. Finish the tasks we set you to, and come back to us, and I will give you what you need. But be aware that others will be looking for you. The Spider may be restrained by his rules, but others are free to break them when they deem it necessary. Your past will come back to haunt you before your journey is over.”
More confused than when I began, I turn to leave when the silence grows oppressive. Before I reach the exit, the little girl's voice reaches me, small and uncertain.
“Your bracelet. Do you know how it works?”
I look at it, then turn around to face the pool.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a special artifact. There aren’t many of them around. The elder gods would take them away whenever they were found. If you make a connection to it, it will help you on your journey. It still has part of the engrams it had before it was destroyed.”
Nodding as I hold the bracelet, I say my thanks and leave.
Back in the sunlight, I sit down on a field near some children playing a football analogue. Rubbing the bracelet, trying to slide it around on my wrist, rotate it or remove it fails. It’s set in place. I consider the words she told me, and remember what Ephraim taught me in his final moments. Closing my eyes, I reach out with the planar sense skill he taught me, and the world changes. Everything is outlined, highlighted. The world has been reduced to shades of green, blue and red, and everything around me seems much more solid than before. I focus on the bracelet, and I can see it’s different from me. Where my body is mostly blue with red streaks, it’s a deep, clear green. Altering my senses, seeing the world in such a different way, it showed me what new senses feel like. I remember one of the first conversations we had, where he taught me about psychic abilities, and I extend my mind towards the shard around my wrist. Slowly, agonisingly, I can feel my consciousness stretching, reaching out towards this little piece of jewelry on my arm. The world around me changes again, and in a blinding flash I can see perfectly every mind around me. I ignore everything but my one task. After what feels like hours, I finally touch it with my mind. And from the other side, he reaches back.
I wake up several minutes later, staring up at the sky.
Ability increased: Focus Skill discovered: Mind Sense Skill increased: Plane sense Warning: You are running low on mana. Warning: You are out of mana. Warning: You are afflicted by rot: mild.
I hold up my arm, and notice I’m lacking several fingers. My mana is locked at 70%, and my health at 90%. I sigh and close my eyes.
“How may I be of assistance?”
I snap to attention, sitting up straighter, and wheel around, looking right at the disembodied head of Ephraim. His visage is tinted green, and he has a vacant look in his eyes, but there he is, large as life. Well, a little bit smaller than life.
“Ephraim.. Is that you?”
He takes a few seconds to think about this.
“I was, before. My core personality modules have been destroyed. My memory banks are mostly intact, and my processing ability is running at somewhere between 60 and 75%”
No… I had you back. And now I lost you all over again. I look up and mentally pull the ripcord as emotions threaten to overwhelm me completely.
Back in my room, I remove my visor and let the emotions come. I feel stupid for reacting like this for a program I didn’t even know that well. But he came to help me even though it meant risking everything. And I got him lobotomized with my stubborn refusal to leave when he said to. I need to talk to someone. I pick up my phone and dial out.
“Doctor Peters? I need to see you. It’s about the video game you gave me.”
I barely keep my voice calm. He agrees to see me later that day, and I remove the paraphernalia attached to my body. Ordering an autocar, I manage to sneak out without my parents noticing.
“I’m serious, I think she’s becoming addicted to that thing. She’s never snapped at me like that, and she spends all time in her room. And where’s she getting the money for that kind of equipment? I’m telling you, something's going on here.”
My father, always the pragmatist, replies in his usual, cool voice.
“Don’t worry babe. She’s just going through some stuff. Remember when you were that age? The way you just knew you were going to be a youtube sensation, spending all your time recording yourself and everyone around you? She’s just going through a phase. It’ll pass soon.”
I left before they continued the talk. I feel bile rising in my throat. How can they just talk about me like that? And comparing me to her? I’ve never been that kind of evil in my life…
I simmer in my own rage the entire trip to Doctor Peters’ office. It’s pretty late in the day, so his receptionist isn’t in. As I enter his office, I notice his coat and briefcase in a heap on the couch. He’s never this messy.
“Welcome, please, come in. I’m glad to hear from you. Now what’s this about the experiment?”
He seems a bit nervous, but he’s so easy to talk to. I tell him about Ephraim. I tell him about Rip and I tell him about the Spider. As I talk, he makes notes in a little paper pad. Anachronistic. He asks questions along the way, but never makes me stop my story, and soon I’ve told him everything I’m comfortable with. I avoid talking about the Weke, about Perot and Loe and Hakat. As I finish he tilts his head to one side, as if listening to something as he’s thinking.
“Sharon, I think you’re making wonderful progress. You’ve reached out in a new environment, you’ve made and lost friends, you’re feeling responsibility for the results of your actions, and when you had concerns, you came to me immediately. This would have been impossible for you just a month ago.”
I nod slowly. He’s not wrong.
“I have very little access to the details of the experiments, but I think that your experience with the Spider was a scripted event. I can’t imagine exactly what they were trying to accomplish, but I’m certain there’s a way to reconstitute your friend.”
His words are soothing. I calm down, and we talk some more. He listens to me complain about my parents, and tells me a joke about chipmunks and cheesecake that makes me giggle in an embarrassing way. As I leave, I make a new appointment for a month from now. I feel a little silly for my paranoia earlier, but I guess that was the point of the event, to try to put me into a state that made me look at myself properly.
When I get home, I decide to take the rest of the day out of game to get some more movement and exercise. Weirdly, after being submerged below for a few days, I’ve become leaner than before. My muscle definition is terrible, but what can you expect lying around for so long.
I come back to the game when my ripcord timeout expires. I’m still sitting on the field where I left. Ephraim's head is still floating next to me. I focus on him a moment, and a small menu pops up. Apparently, he works as a recorder, playback device and data processor. There are a couple of menu options that are garbled, which gives me hope for his future restoration. As I dismiss him, I hear a crash, and some mild swearing. An older Weke is standing in the street with a limp burlap sack in his hands. Around him are apples. Like, a lot of apples. He sighs while he surveys the damage, then starts to pick them up again, one by one, painstakingly. I walk over to him and clear my throat.
“Hi, do you need..”
He startles and turns around faster than I thought him capable of, and flings an apple right at my head. I see it approaching in slow motion, and deftly execute a matrix dodge, leaning aside, watching it fly right past my nose, noticing every bruise and blemish on the red skin.
Fine, the apple bonks me right on the noggin, and I fall over with apple sauce on my face.
Athletics check failed: You caught the apple.
The damage to my health was minor. The damage to my pride was pretty bad. As I’m trying to get up and wipe apple off myself, the old man comes over with a thundering attitude.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, running around and scaring old men. I could have had a heart attack! Now make yourself useful and pick up those apples. I need to be home before dinner, or my wife won’t make her pies.”
Somewhat shocked into submission, I keep one eye on him as he’s tapping his foot, and one eye on the apples. The burlap sack being broken, I end up balancing two dozen apples in my arms.
“So my name is Shae, and..”
“Nice to meet you Shoe. Come along now, you slowpoke.”
I let out a suffering sigh as I scramble after him, barely losing any apples on the way. As we’re walking, he’s ranting. Apparently, his neighbours are the worst. Especially the children, oh how they scream and cry all day and night. It’s enough to lose your wit over, apparently. And I shouldn’t get him started on the quality of bread these days either. I feel I know more gossip than I ever wanted to learn by the time we reach his home. He scurries indoors to fetch a basket to collect the apples, and points to the road.
“Well, you’re done here, so git.”
Out of nowhere, a wooden ladle appears and smacks him on the top of his head.
“Don’t be such a misery, Jo’an. I bet the only reason you dropped the apples was that you got distracted by young Leyreen, you randy old goat.”
Chastised, he mumbles something in return and goes indoors.
“Please forgive my husband. He really are a kind soul when you get to know him. It’s just too bad about the ten inches of jackass covering it up all the time. Oh, you’re that young woman who’s been helping mother Perot, aren’t you?”
We spend some time chatting about the Weke village, about the things that people do around here, and what sights are worth seeing. I ask about my quests, and I finally get a solid lead.
“Well, these things are all symbols of our past here, our heritage. The Weke were a simple folk once. We lived on the mountainside near the fieldrunners. Sometimes we ate them, and sometimes they ate us. One day, the elder came to us, and he helped us move from the caves to the plains. He showed us how to grow our food and defend our houses, and things were good for a while. One day, we ventured too far into the forests, and we encountered the Dryads. The green demons took great pleasure in tormenting us. We were once again hunted, and our weapons were useless against them. The elder came to our aid once more, and showed us the iron that fell from the sky. We mined the western bogs for metal, and with cold forged weapons, we could vanquish them. The surviving dryads ran east, and have not been heard from since.
For a long time, things were once again good, but then the weather turned, and we were besieged by wicked winds from the north. A terrible giant had decided he wanted our lands, and convinced the winter winds to attack us. When none of our warriors could defeat him, our elders made a deal with the Summerling, and ancient creature of nature and light. They traded their bodies for the help we needed to deflect the winds and wound the giant. But just before it’s defeat, the monster captured the Summerling, and took it with him to it’s cold northern mountains. Neither has been seen since.”
I nod in understanding.
“Thank you ma'am, your stories have been very informative. I think I know where to start looking for the items I seek now.”
She beams at me.
“And before you go, you’re going to get one of my pies to take with you.”
A crash is heard from inside.
A shout emanates from the old man. The lady shouts over her shoulder.
“Because my husband is such an old idiot he never even thanked you for your assistance!”
She turns back towards me.
“Besides, you need all the strength you can get. You look a bit.. Dishevelled, as it were.”
The pie took a few hours to make, and the sun went down before I got back to Loes home. I found him in his small living quarters. We shared the pie, and as I retired to the guest room, I could see my status ailment disappear as if by magic.
I leave the village the next morning. I sneak out before Loe wakes up, and find myself at the town limit just as the sun comes out. I have my bronze gladius with me, a bow, and all the arrows I should need. I’m going down south, and I’m going to hunt fieldrunners. I’m not entirely sure what they are yet, but I’m sure they’ll let me know. I run for a long time. The sun climbs slowly, inexorably towards the middle of the sky. I decide to have a rest by a little lake on the plains. There’s a river coming down from the north-east that seems to end here. Around the lake are various animals. They all seem to be wary of each other, and a group of rabbit like rodents run away like mad when I get too close. I sit on a rock for a few minutes while enjoying the sight of buffaloes drinking from the lakeside. Just as I’m thinking things couldn’t get any more idyllic, the entire herd, as one, looks up from the grass. Large eyes rolling around in their sockets, wildly looking around. Something has them spooked in a bad way. Without further warning, there’s an explosion of earth from besides one of the buffaloes. The rest of the herd stampedes away, but when the dust settles, one remains. It’s hovering a little above the ground. In its side, there two blades are sticking out. Blood gushes out, and the animal still has some fight left in it, but counterhooks prevent it from sliding off. Soon, the buffalo loses the game of life, and succumbs. Behind it is a large, mottled brown insect. The bottom half looks like an ant. Many legs, segmented thorax and all. From the front up, it’s all praying mantis, with vicious looking blades. As soon as the buffalo stops moving, the creature lifts it up over its head, and takes off. It’s like watching the road-runner, just meep meep zoom. I guess I found a fieldrunner.
At least following it is easy, considering there’s a sticky trail of blood. After half an hours walk, I notice a familiar smell in the air. I’m closing in on someones butchers pit. As I get closer, skeletons start covering the ground around me, and the runner I saw is standing in the middle of it all, disassembling the buffalo.
Fieldrunner: Insectoid. Known for their high stealth skill and propensity to ambush creatures much larger than itself. Solitary hunters, pack creatures. Where one is found, often more will be close by. Single females may be encountered after mating, as this is fatal to their partners.
Interesting. That means this might be a post-coital female. Maybe feeding to prepare for egg laying, or gathering food for its young? No matter. I get my sword and start stalking towards it. As I get closer, the ripping and tearing of flesh is getting more frantic. It doesn’t seem like it’s about cutting off meat, it looks more like searching for something. I get close enough to touch it, and stab my sword towards the center of mass.
Sneak attack failed. It knows where you are now.
The runner pivots on a needle-like leg. Slashing at me with one of it’s blades.
You have been slashed for 5% damager.
My neat new vest! I drop back to what I assume is a defensive position, with my sword ready to stab. I curse myself for not bringing some more defensive equipment. A shield, some real armour. I parry one attack successfully, but on the next one, it feints, and I’m struck down by the blow.
You have been slashed for 20% damage, You are prone.
Not good. I manage to get up, and start moving around more. Whenever I try to flank it, it begins a series of attacks that inevitably ends up with me another meter backwards. It’s like it’s trying to herd me towards a mound behind us. While I don’t know what’s waiting there, I do know I don’t want to find out as long as this bitch is alive. I focus my mind and make a break for it, to the left. Like clockwork, it starts it’s attack sequence, and as soon as the first slash is completed, I activate Light Manipulation. In a dark cave with nothing but torchlight, this wasn’t a particularly effective skill, but in the noonday sun on the plains, it may as well have been a laser.
Attack successful. FieldRunner is stunned. FieldRunner is blinded
It blindly continues it’s attack pattern, but avoiding it suddenly became a cinch. I step in between it’s blades, timing it horribly.
You have taken 10% damage
I sink my blade into its thorax, and rip it upwards with a sawing motion, spilling it’s precious bodily fluids all over myself, finally felling the beast.
Congratulations on defeating your first foe in combat. You have discovered the skill Short Blades Strength has increased.
Wait, first combat? I guess it is.. Every other fight has either been an accident, environmental kill or just sorta fizzled out on its own. I spend a few minutes feeling proud of this. The light manipulation attack too a large amount of mana. I had 30% left when I finished. Not a bad skill to have, but damn that’s expensive. I begin digging through the fieldrunner. It takes me 20 minutes of wading through gory sludge before I realise the heart I’m looking for isn’t here. I sigh and look around me. There must be a reason for why it came here. And why it was herding me towards this little hill. I walk around it, looking for anything that stands out, any kind of clue, and am rewarded by a skill increase.
Skill discovered: Plains Perception
I find a hole in the ground, covered by old rotting planks. When I open it up, I see a long shaft descending into the darkness. The walls are made of black rocks.
You discovered a dungeon: Fieldrunners Nest Class: Uncommon. Age: Immature.
Not seeing any other entrance, I guess I’ll have to put my climbing skills to use. I sit on the edge, shuffle around a bit, manage to lower myself down a bit, and start searching for purchase. Hanging by my fingers, I realise that there is nowhere to put my feet. I also realise that the stones are slippery. As I fall, I notice how sooty my hands are.
Climb check failed. You do realise you have rope in your backpack, right?
- 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.
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