The guards outside are on high alert, ready for anything. When they see it’s me, I’m let through without interference. Going through the doors, I notice the place is undamaged, but still muggy. I approach the elders pool as before, and they all speak at once, an eerie cacophony.
“Did you get the ingredients?”
“We need to craft the crown now. The enemies are closer than we thought!”
I raise my hands, motioning them to calm down.
“I’ve got it all, don’t worry.”
I remove my backpack, withdrawing the ingredients. A withered lock of dryads hair, and a small, glowing orb. I place them both by the pool and step away. A green glow emanates from the depths, accompanied by smoke, crawling low against the surface. I hear a splash as the lump of bog-iron surfaces, with the heart of the fieldrunners bobbing right behind it.
Quest updated: Cle$Cle$Cle4n up your#S]-[1t Having completed all the requisite tasks, the crown is being assembled as we speak. Protect the Elders against attacks until they finish. Reward: Crown of the Valley
The fog covers up all the items for a moment. When it withdraws, all that’s left is a small pouch, an amulet and a pair of leather bracers, very similar in style to my boots. I pick them up to investigate.
Dark Leather Bracers Amulet of Containment
As usual, not a lot of information. I really need to figure out how to identify magic items. I mean, sensing minds and planes is cool and all, but One of these days I’m going to end up equipping a cursed item. I scoop up the pouch containing happily jingling coins, wistfully thinking about the future, when I finally reach a real town. I’m gonna go on a shopping spree. Local delicacies, weapons, a new cloak, belts, new camping gear.
“Still got the fashion sense of a bum I see, Shazzy.”
My blood turns to ice at the mention of my old nickname. I turn around slowly, looking around for the source of the taunt.
“At least the hood hides your ugly mug better than the hand me downs you used to wear to maths. I’d hate to look into those runny eyes in this world as well.”
Panic seizes my body and I crouch next to the pool, scanning my surroundings. I can’t recognize the voice, but the words he’s using are familiar. I flash back to middle school. Constantly being taunted by everyone, feeling their eyes on me as I enter the room. Someone would laugh, the next person would point, something got thrown. Sometimes I’d make it to my desk without being hit by anything, and I could sense their resentment at my brief respite.
“What’s the matter, Shazzy. I’d ask if the cat got your tongue, but you’re so fugly even cats won’t come near you.”
He punctuates the taunt with a mocking laugh. I can’t see him anywhere. There are rafter up high, too far away for me to reach from here. Not that it matters, I can’t even move. Slowly, my eyes drift to the exit. If I run for it, I might make it to safety before they catch me, before they put me through more of this.
“No, wait, you did have a cat didn’t you?”
I stand up shakily, slinking off to the wall, keeping the room in front of me as much as possible. There’s too much open space here, and his voice is thrown around. Only a few more meters to the exit.
“I guess the poor thing killed itself to get away from you.”
My eyes water as I make my move, dashing towards the exit. As I reach the doorway, three arrows slam into the frame, making me wince, forcing me to a crouch again. I turn around slowly, to see a figure at the pool, peering into the fog where the crown is being crafted.
“I didn’t say you were allowed to leave yet, Shazzer. You’re being very rude, as usual. Always missing the simplest social cues.”
He picks up my backpack, looking briefly through it as he continues his verbal assault.
“There was always the rumour that you were.. Let's say ‘developmentally challenged’.”
He looks straight at me. He looks so familiar, so strange. Human, cloaked, bow and arrows, a player. Clad in green, leather armour. A ranger?
“Maybe that’s what actually happened. Did you pull a Lenny? Did you get a bit excited with the poor fluffy cat, squeezing it too hard? No wonder your parents sent you off to the looney bin after that.”
I fall to the ground. My tears flow freely now, as I hug my knees tight.
He casually strolls over while slowly digging through my backpack, throwing out my herbs as he goes along.
“Look, you obviously don’t have a place in this world. Clearly, you don’t have one in the other either.”
He’s right in front of me now, kneeling down to look at me. I’m unable to raise my eyes to look back at him.
“Maybe you should just do what everyone wants and leave. I mean, even the talking soup over there sound like they’d rather die than be seen with you.”
My voice is the barest whisper, but he hears me perfectly. Turning around, he keeps talking.
“Oh my god, even your voice is grating. Why? Because I can. Because I’ve scraped things off my boots in the real world that had more value than you. Because in the end, all you’ll ever be good for is feeding worms. Now fuck off, don’t make me suffer your presence anymore. I’ll take care of this village, make sure it’s ready for my expeditionary force.”
He stops what he’s doing, throws away the backpack, turns back towards me.
“What’s this, I don’t think I gave you permission to..”
I stand up, shivering with rage.
“You don’t get to..”
He stops me with a backhanded slap across the face. He’s so strong. I’m thrown to the side like a ragdoll, and he laughs. I can’t defeat him in hand to hand combat.
“Oh, Shazzie darling, you’re barely in a position to tell me the time of day, let alone dictate what I don’t get to do.”
He can’t be stronger than the Summerling, than Huntex or either queen, but he doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses I can exploit. As he equips his bow, I realise I won’t be able to defeat him in ranged combat either. I need a way to even the odds, to cancel his advantages. Anger isn’t going to help me here. What do I have available? I’ve got my magic, I could blind him if the ambient light was stronger. But wait.. I feel for the ball of light I saved from the fight earlier. It’s still in the backpack, wrapped in cloth, hidden from his eyes so far. I stand up slowly, shrinking away from him while I do so. If I challenge him too aggressively, he’ll smack me down again, ruining my concentration. The ball slowly levitates out of the backpack. It’s lost some energy, from leakage or lack of skill on my part, but hopefully it’s enough.
“So, will you do as I say or..”
I draw my sword, exaggerating the shaking in my hands. He seems almost pleased by this, sighing happily.
“I guess not. Not a problem, I’ll send you off myself. Then I’ll find you again, and send you off. Each time you come back, I’ll let you make some friends, kill them, and then you.”
He draws a long, thin dagger, getting ready to end me there and then. The orb is floating now, but it’s too slow. In desperation, I trigger my racial ability. The sound makes him stop in his tracks, eyes wide open in shock. The smell makes him laugh, then cough from the impact.
“You shat yourself? That is hilarious! Shazzy, I’m filming all of this. It’s going onto every site available! Oh man, it’ll be associated with your real life identity before you know it.”
As he stands up, he dries a tear from one eye. I take the time I bought to split the orb into two. The action makes the cloth finally fall off, and bright light fills the room. Surprised, he turns around, throwing his dagger straight ahead. It flies straight across the room, embedding itself in the wall above the pool. My two balls of light do a short charge forwards, entering his skull through his eyes, then detonating with an audible pop. I scream as I step forwards, jabbing my sword into his back, straight through his chest. As I push him forwards, he falls to the ground, grabbing at his eyes.
“I can’t see! What the fuck did you do? The light..”
I grab his cloak, pulling him with me as I move. My red hot rage has changed. In its place is a cold, white hate directing my actions. I pull him towards the pool as he moans in pain. He attempts to kick and grab at me, but I’m just out of reach.
“Help me out here.”
The elders get my meaning, and fungal growths appear, creating a ramp up to the edge. Pulling him up towards the slimy waters, he fights harder, grabbing on whatever he can reach. Each time, the growths turn to dust in his hands. It’s clear which fighter these guys are backing. When I’m unable to pull him up the ramp, they helpfully elevate the other end so I can get him to very edge. He tries to get to his knees, but the floor is slick with his blood.
“I don’t know who you are, asshole. I don’t really care either. When you get back above, you can do whatever you feel comfortable with, I can’t touch you there anyway.”
He stands up, listening for my voice. His eyes are a mess, blown out of his skull. There’s an inner glow in the cavities, fizzing and twinkling.
“But if you come into my world and try to fuck with me, you’d better be ready for the punishment.”
He roars, betraying his intentions even starts his charge. I pirouette around his attack, and he manages to stop before falling in, teetering on the edge. I grab the handle of my sword, holding him in place in front of me.
“I don’t actually have time to deal with stalkers like you, but since you’re so sweet, I’ll make an exception. Now get off my land.”
I push him off my sword, into the roiling waters of the elder spawning pool. The initial splash showers me with the boiling liquids, which hurts like hell. His splashes and screams tell me that he’s hurting more, and I smile.
“I hope you’re still filming this. It’ll serve as a warning to the next jackass who wants to challenge Shae of the Undead.”
I watch as his splashing subsides. I watch while his screams stop. I watch as his body floats to the surface, and I watch as it dissolves into the vital nutrients the elders enjoy. Then I step down from the edge, exhausted. I sit in the corner of the room and wait for the crafting to finish.
It’s another two hours before I hear a bell alerting me to the finished item. The fog retreats back to the pool and I stand up. I’m all cried out now. His words really hurt me. They cut into all my insecurities, like he’d researched me, like he’d been informed. I shrug it off as I reach the edge once more.
“Shae, your bravery and resolve have no equal in this valley. You have shown yourself worthy of the respect of all Weke.”
The man sounds respectful for once. The little girl continued.
“I’ve never seen anyone take a beating like that and still win. And he was really tasty too!”
“Your reward for these tasks is your rightful crown, the Crown of the Valley. With it, we offer the friendship and allegiance of the valley. Will you accept?”
I hesitate for a moment. I’m not sure if this is what I want, or what was promised. Weren’t they supposed to deal with this themselves once the crown was finished?
“Without the crown, you will never be able to take on the Spider in a meaningful way. Put it on, and defend us from the other travellers coming to kill us.”
The fourth voice screeched hoarsely at me, biting me to the bone. Spider. That’s why I can’t stop fighting, isn’t it. To restore Ephraim, or at least avenge him. I sigh, and pick up the crown. It’s a simple construction, a band of iron, like a circlet. An intricate design highlighted by glowing strands of dryads hair. In the center, the heart of the fieldrunners. The look doesn’t actually fit my general style but I guess I’ll roll with it. I remove my hood, running my hands through my hair. Raising the crown to my head, I gingerly put it on, adjusting it a little to make sure it fits properly. I needn’t have bothered, it’s like it was designed for my skull alone. I stand around for a bit, waiting for anything to change, anything to happen.
Quest completed: Klen oup juur sh!$ Having completed the Crown of the Valley, you now have access to its powers. Reward: Crown of the Valley
My reverie is interrupted by a high pitched noise. Coming from everywhere at once, it’s intensity increases by the moment, broadening as it goes. From a single tone to a broad static, it fills my entire consciousness. It’s not so much painful as uncomfortable. Then the world begins to flicker in and out. At first, it seems like the graphics failed, and everything goes grainy. Then devolving to wireframes, pixels, static, darkness. Nothing remains but the sound, fading away gradually. Soon, there’s nothing at all. Somehow, it reminds me of the start of the game, the first moments when I played.
Reboot complete. Reinitialising systems.
The world fades back in as if I’d just logged on, sans the feeling of descending. I move around a little, trying to see if anything's changed. My body is still undead, still don’t need to breathe. Health and mana seem normal. No new buffs. In the corner of my view is something new, however. A button depicting a square, segmented into equal squares, green, blue, brown colours crossing the borders. I activate it, and the world moves around me, as I ascend through the roof of the barn. I can see the guards standing around, children playing. The wounded have been removed. As I look around, I notice dark areas around the village, places I can’t see. Some of them are greyed out, some of them are black. I look for Perots hut, finding it on the outside of the village. As I focus on it, looking for her, I fly towards it at alarming speed. Just as I’m about to smash through the roof, I try to cover my face. I realise I have no arms to do so with, and pass through the building with no issues. Inside, the room is as I remember it. The colours are bright and vibrant. Perot is hunched over a pot, boiling something. Around her are the wounded. I see Loe, badly injured, missing a leg, sleeping restlessly. I turn to Perot and try to speak, but I have no mouth. I look for the icon again, and activate it. The world fades away quickly, leaving me back in my own body, slumped on the ground in the elders room. I turn to the shrooms.
“A birds eye view is pretty amazing, but how is this going to help us save the valley?”
“The crown gives you more than a view of the valley, Shae. It allows you to see anything your allies see. We will teach you one more ability as well.”
You have discovered a skill: Telepathy
“With this, you can communicate with anyone you can see. Normally, that would be short range. With the crown, you will be able to communicate across the valley instantly. It will allow you to coordinate the defences much more efficiently. Now, find a place you can be comfortable, and help us.”
I focus on the new ability, using my senses to search out any nearby sentient creatures. The only ones I find are a circle of nodes in the elders pool and a body towards the bottom which I guess is the interlopers remains. Setting my thoughts to broadcast, I send my first message to the world.
“Testing, testing. Can anyone hear me?”
The world wallows in silence for long minutes before I get my reply. I can see clearly now that the transmission is coming from the elders pool.
“We are programmed to receive.”
Enjoying my new powers, I play around with it for a while. I send messages to random people around the city as I see them with my mindsense, enjoying the burst of confusion they experience. Then I gradually increase the volume of my broadcast, expending massive amounts of Mana, until the shrooms blast me with a shout of their own, telling me to be quiet. It makes me giggle a little. Then I notice the second layer of power when I use my mindsense. A constant link of thought between me and the elder pool. As I focus on it, I can feel it’s tendrils in my brain, digging around. Is this the way they keep reading my mind?
“Yes Shae, that is the manifestation of our ability to read your surface thoughts. Do not be alarmed, it’s simply a convenience for us. Now that you’re aware of it, you should be able to prevent it from happening.”
As if on cue, the strand snaps, retreating to the pool. Creepy.. I keep my mindsense up as I equip my new accessories, the amulet and the bracers. I notice the boots are so similar to the bracers, I’d be surprised if they weren’t part of some kind of set. I take my leave, trying to wrap my mind around these new developments. Am I supposed to treat this as an RTS now? Considering safehouses, I think the safest place would be either Loes or Perots. I decide to visit Perot first, for some advice and to check up on Loe in person.
The hut smells like death, but different from the death I’ve become familiar with. The sickly sweet smell of wounds trying to heal. I can see a few forms covered by sheets in one side of the room. On the other, the patients. I exchange greetings with Perot, and offer her the divine herbs I found earlier. She’s happy with the find, complimenting me on the curing work. We chat for a little while about what’s happened since we met last, and we get to the crown and what I need.
“I see what you mean. Communicating across such vast distances would be an impressive advantage for any army. I can offer you a place to leave your body while you send your mind out into the valley, but it wouldn’t be a good permanent solution. An army needs to see it’s leader to avoid morale dropping. You need to find a way to be present while still being able to direct troops.”
You have received a new quest: Throne of the Valley. You got the bling, now you need the real estate. Find or make a worthy seat for the ruler of the valley./tr][tr] Rewards: Improved morale for the Weke village. Increased powers for the crown.
“But I’m not a leader! I’m hardly an adventurer. I’ve had a few fights go my way through luck more than planning, but I was the only one at risk. Now I have the entire village on my shoulders, the entire valley? I don’t think I can do this. And with the new mental ability, I’ll run out of mana quicker than ever.”
I look down, dejected. Perot smiles gently, taking my hand.
“Look, child, you’re missing the bigger picture. The luck you had winning your fights were only one part of the equation. Every step of the way, you found a way to take the next step. Often through pride, stubbornness or anger, but you got there. Wherever you’re going, you’ll get there. Whoever you face when you get there will regret pissing you off. Then you’ll find a way to take the next step. It’s not in your nature to give up.”
She leans over to a sack on the floor, pulling it towards her with a clinking sound. Out of the bag she pulls a bottle of blue liquid.
“As for the mana issue, I have a store of these little beauties. Mana potions. They’ll restore your pool when you need to. I can administer them while you’re on your mental travels. If you can watch over the children, they can harvest more herbs so we can make more.”
You have received a new quest: Herbal remedies. Perot needs large amounts of herbs . Rewards: Steady supply of potions. Type depends on herbs gathered.
I sit still for a while, thinking. As I reach my conclusion, I smile, accepting the potions.
“Okay, let’s make a deal then. I’ll handle the communications and leadership nonsense. You take care of my body and the patients. In addition, you will be in charge of letting me know what’s needed in the village. Morale, food, weapons and the like. Together, we’ll be much stronger.”
We shake hands, and she leads me to a comfortable heap of pillows in the corner. Laying town, I adjust my clothing, make sure my crown is in place, and soar into the heavens.
- 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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