I worried, briefly, that I’d found too many reasons to solve this [Blight] problem. It was as if I couldn’t think of anything but upsides. There had to be problems with this but nothing seemed notable. So what if we died? I’d come back later. There were still movies to watch, some exercise to get in, and everything else in the real world. Plus there was always Sunday.
The game had taken notice of my statement and prompted me toward great heights with a snarky quest box. I read it over while the other two stared at me, slack-jawed. Or whatever look youngsters had when I wasn’t paying attention.
Details: [Widow’s Children] is a classic reoccurring nightmare for Travelers. Every time someone cleans the place up, it gets all messy again. Find the source of the corruption and stop this endless cycle once and for all. Or don’t. Maybe you’re a weird druid who thinks undead nastiness is natural.
Reward: As a druid you should be happy knowing you’ve returned nature to the correct cycle. Where cougars eat young bucks for dinner. But if you need material rewards, there’s some of those too. Somewhere. If you take responsibility for solving perversion and don’t walk away.
The text bothered me. Maybe it was a sly jab at all the characters I’d re-rolled over the years. There was merit to the statements but sticking around to solve quests was not the same as putting up with cruddy unneeded drama.
“I mean, I know you’ve played before, but have you dealt with this kind of stuff?” StoneMason asked. He waved a meaty arm toward the building. Even the windows dripped with goo. “You don’t have enough mana to cure this place. And whatever is at the core, is probably Ranks above us. Otherwise we couldn’t use this place for the gamble. If it was so easy to race to the center and kill the final boss, DapperSeed couldn’t have convinced Pile Driver to do this.”
“Well, I’ve seen it before in other places. Or something close. There’s always a cause. It’s always solvable. Though if we can do it in”—I stopped to check the time—“three and a half hours, I’m not sure. Johnny might have found something. Check the map. He always finds weird stuff.”
Johnny had been the one to find my staff for the priest version of Friday. The shorter man kept on scouting. During our fight he’d explored another twelve rooms and a few hallways. There were extra notes like [Steal this] in some places. Probably something bolted to a wall that his character couldn’t pry off. I flicked through them searching for what might be a source to this corruption, but our map hadn’t been filled in enough. The secret room he hadn’t explored would be our best bet.
Rose cleaned off her daggers, stuck a hand into the undead dogs we’d killed, and felt around. She’d clearly played enough to be desensitized. I could have done it too. Having my hands inside a person’s bleeding body was far more unnerving than a virtual rot dog, no matter the realism. Rose dug through the corpses looting who knew what. Probably some foul substance to serve as poison for her kitchen knives.
“Stone’s right,” Rose said. “It’d have to be something way above this place’s Rank. Only stuff beyond the norm can actually transform an area. This is something undead, clearly. So, ritual gone wrong? Hell portal? Phylactery for a low-level lich maybe? I’ve met a few necromancers, and this is the kind of stupid stuff they find hilarious.
“I saw it once with a fire elemental plane. Creatures that were aflame would spread out from the center. Took a raid three weeks to push everything back,” She shook her arms to get gunk off.
“They were probably farming items,” StoneMason said. “Most guilds will milk those places for materials. You know how they are, new stuff gets their crafters all hot and bothered.”
Rose’s eyes rolled at the bad joke and she stood up. She pulled a rag out of player inventory and wiped off her hands. I longed for the fantasy version of latex for gloves but there wouldn’t be enough time to get any from an auction house. “They were. Or at least, that’s what I was told. Last boss dropped a nuke on the place as he died. Killed half the raid group. It was neat.”
“Oh, I heard about that. Like a year ago back on the east continent. Think they tried to take over a kingdom using an army with flaming swords.”
I didn’t know if they meant a year in game time, or a year in reality. Either way, their conversation went on for too long. I zoned out and studied my mana. If healing in the real world had been as simple as tracing a pattern, I would have been a fantastic doctor. Wars would have taken on a whole new spin if we could cast spells.
“You sure about this, Friday?” Rose asked.
“It’ll be hard, but I’m game. There’s bound to be all sorts of goodies. Maybe secret quests. Sometimes these are chained.” Rose thumbed her blade and frowned. Apparently it wasn’t sharp enough.
“Let’s go then,” StoneMason said. “We’re behind on points.”
They weren’t wrong. This would be tough, and we were sucking. Next to our score were four others, belonging to the other groups we were competing against. We weren’t dead last but at this rate we’d probably lose whatever money Johnny had or hadn’t paid into the pool.
“Clear the yard or stick with the plan to get inside?” StoneMason asked.
I couldn’t figure out why they asked me. Maybe it was a group consensus thing. I rarely played in groups since most of my Fridays were on a mission to get drunk.
“More dogs. This time you keep their attention, and give me one to heal again,” I said.
“Maybe,” Rose said.
We veered for a pack of dogs. The one I’d healed stayed behind with the recovering tree. I’d banked on healing more and maybe they’d form a safety pack or something similar. Knowing my luck, players from another group would charge by and murder the friendly dogs, but it might also unlock more.
The third battle went smoother than the first two. I used less mana on stray lightning bolts. Rose managed to disable a dog through some rogue ability I didn’t know about, and we healed it. Sure enough, like the first dog, it circled around for a while then went to join its companion.
“More?” StoneMason asked.
Rose thought about it while I studied the tree in the distance. “We’re not in last place. We can do another hour out here while DapperSeed scouts, then go inside?”
StoneMason nodded. We pulled three more packs over about twenty minutes. StoneMason’s new tactics of throwing a stick to distract one dog while we murdered the others helped us greatly. As the last dog converted to a furry Doberman, the remaining packs changed their patrolling actions. Three packs, all at the far edge of our sight, turned in our direction.
My lumbering pal didn’t notice. “I’ve never healed before. How does that work?”
“Badly. Pay attention.” I pointed then remembered how little we’d noticed when StoneMason tried to alert us at the start of our dungeon. “The other packs are doing something.”
“So are your friends,” Rose stated.
The five dogs we’d separated and healed were all standing, side by side.
“Event?” StoneMason asked. “Triggered from pushing back the blight?”
“Neat. That means we’re on the right track.”
“With twelve versus eight,” I said. “And patrols. And a boss. There’s always a boss.”
“Wave event,” Rose said.
Wave event was a fancy term implying we’d be stuck fighting monster after monster until something big and scarier than the rest confronted us. I didn’t like them. They were annoying in old shooter games and Continue Online made them worse by adding things like pain, slobber, and deafening sounds.
“Kite?” StoneMason asked.
Rose shook her head.
“I can distract one?” He hefted another stick. The baby-faced giant had a metric ton. The would-be druid in me twitched at the thought of so many uprooted trees. Luckily, this was a video game.
“And the others?”
“Dogs. I can get three. At a time.”
They were trying to figure out ways to keep us all alive. I wasn’t entirely sure what the mechanics of this event would be. We had maybe half a minute left to figure it out. We might not even have that much. Howls, disgusting and garbled due to rotting bodies, echoed around the huge yard.
I mimicked his short sentences and said, “Just do that big spin again. Alone. By yourself. Over there.”
Rain started pouring. It was almost perfect. The extra water might be enough to help my mana regenerate faster. It would also leave me miserable and suffering a cold that no amount of heals would remove. If we’d had a few more actual hours to play it might be easier to come up with strategies, but I’d essentially been thrown into this with barely any time to get ready.
“I got this,” I muttered. “I can do this.”
Dogs ran in our direction. “Intercepting!” StoneMason shouted.
Rose backed up and eyed the charging creatures. They were tightly clustered and aimed for the tree and normal dogs behind us. StoneMason threw a branch, one of the dogs got distracted and chased the stick.
“On it.” Rose leapt for the separating dog.
We’d done this a few times already. StoneMason took on the pack. Rose ran up behind the stick chaser and incapacitated the stray with a kick to the creature’s well-presented balls. I winced in sympathy pain but ran over and traced the outline for [Branch of Healing] on its side.
A single heal didn’t work as fast as casting two but I didn’t have mana to stack a second one on top of the first. The lone cure should be enough by the time the dog recovered from Rose’s violent stun.
“Clearing the area!” StoneMason announced.
Rose cursed. I stepped away in case our tank’s sudden spin almost caught us unaware. I flashed back to one of the morbid jokes from my military years. It was a variance on Murphy’s Law, friendly fire, isn’t. StoneMason’s beat stick would hurt us all.
Undead dogs gave garbled yelps. StoneMason’s stupidly huge tree spun a sloppy three sixty. Bits of monsters were sent flying. I eyed the tarnished remains of one while Rose promptly went to war with one of the survivors that had been knocked out of StoneMason’s whirl of doom.
I wouldn’t be able to heal this one and convert it. Rose couldn’t stun them back to back. Not for lack of ability to swing a leg, but timing and opportunity. Knives were also terrible weapons against dogs, but I hadn’t wanted to explain it to her. Based on her knowledge of spell types, she’d probably played a mage or dabbled with casting on a past character. Melee was a whole different game.
My mana slowly recharged. Thunder cracked in the distance. StoneMason stomped with reckless indifference on two of the dogs he’d knocked over. His weapon thudded to the ground and I could see that one spin had drained him.
Undead monsters held no fear of being stabbed. Rose moved quickly to dodge the snarling maw coming at her while I eyed my mana again. A few seconds had done nothing to give me energy.
The dogs still stood by the tree, watching the approaching enemies. Another pack came snarling around the corner of the house. I groaned. The game seemed intent upon throwing multiple dogs at a time. I would have been happy with a hound master or some other humanoid creature who might be easier for Rose.
Two guys chased after the pack of dogs. I blinked. One of the other parties had shown up, fighting our waves of monsters. That would work for us since another two hounds were coming at us from across the field.
“Stoney!” I spoke in a calm voice. “Distract that pack toward them.”
“That’s dirty,” Rose said and coughed weakly. She looked terrible but the dog she’d been fighting had lost the battle. I lifted a hand to form a heal. “Keep it. You don’t have enough mana.” A frown crossed her face. “If we can use them as a distraction we’ll have a bit of breathing room.”
The young woman was right. I mean, I had enough to heal but not enough to keep us going. Healing at ranks after walking into a wave event sucked.
StoneMason pulled another stick out and threw it at the two dogs coming from the field. “Fetch!”
One of the two coming from our left chased the tree branch, right through the small pack coming from around the building, and into the two unaware players. The other dogs, which had been coming for us, turned and attacked the players who had been chasing them from behind.
“Shit! Shit McFucker face!” one player shouted.
“Nuke. Nuke it all!” his friend demanded quickly. Their words turned garbled as at least four dogs attacked them.
I watched them fight then scanned the yard. We were clear for a few seconds at least. The two other players weren’t going to get far. I would have vaguely thought about saving them, but we were competing against each other and they’d respawn a real day later. By then I’d be drunk, happy, and even if they held a grudge, I’d delete myself to start over.
Clearly, my own judgement was impaired, but it fell back to reality versus a game. This place meant nothing compared to leaving a squad member behind on the field. This place meant nothing compared to seeing children die. It was an escape from reality. Pain meant nothing, I survived it.
Looking at Rose reminded me that not everyone felt the same way. She winced and held her side. One of the knives had fallen to the ground. StoneMason’s face flinched, as if he saw something I didn’t. I saw the spreading red patch on her leg and the torn pants. Broken teeth on the ground and a dead dog. Rose moved on as though none of it registered. Based on my understanding, she gave zero fucks about StoneMason’s gaze.
We had different stances. I didn’t like seeing people in pain, but I knew we could suffer through a lot. It fell back to that stupid quest text, nature versus nurture. I could coddle, and that did no good. Instead, I was here to help with the pain if she wanted. Just like at work, just like back in the service. All those hours as an intern, in school, my job was to remove pain if people asked. That had to be the right answer.
They recovered for a half minute while the other party fought. Apparently, they had a third partner who cast spells. I’d probably know more about the other parties if I paid attention to our competition screens. While I brought up the screen to check out the competition, two dogs died under the barrage of flame.
They’d picked a crappy place to approach from. Yet another pack of dogs raced at them. Their points kept jumping but it didn’t look good.
“More dogs. Do we lure them too?” StoneMason asked.
I shrugged. StoneMason threw a stick and pulled yet another pack over to the competition. One man had fallen completely. I could see he had zero health, even from here. His friend, a mage with some morning star butchery for a weapon, went down next. The third ran. Soon their team dimmed off the screen and they were out of the race entirely.
“Hey, fuck you guys!” he shouted.
The remaining dogs tore into him. I almost felt dirty, but we were all competing against each other.
That left us with five half demolished dogs returning to the original goal, the tree with some healthy hounds under its vaguely withered branches. We could take them one on one based on numbers alone, but this game would throw some stupid boss at us.
“Any guesses on waves?” I asked.
“Three? Five? Normally one of those,” Rose said. She stood slowly and rolled a shoulder. “Had eleven in a raid once.”
Rose was being stupid about the legacy system. If she kept quipping about their prior lives in the game world then Continue would start linking things together. Heck, the system even brought in facts from other games in the Online vein. I’d once had a weird mix of superhero and fantasy, which presented as psychic powers. My eyes rolled and the tangent of thoughts went away.
StoneMason shook his head. “That was at least four smaller packs. We’ll get one more. Then the boss. Unless another party does something. Hard to say. Might deviate.”
Rose glared at the sky. “Please don’t.”
Then the leftover dogs were on them. Rose dove for one. StoneMason spun again while dogs, both undead and fully functional, barked. My ears overloaded. It briefly reminded me of being a kid. There’d been a neighbor’s dog that always dug holes under the fence. The annoying mongrel barked at me through the fence. Dad had yelled back.
How many years ago had that been? I shook it off. Stupid Continue always seemed to bring up the oddest flashbacks. I checked bars then proceeded to be useful.
“Two heals left,” I announced. “Call if you need them.”
The other two might have heard me. Maybe they didn’t. I checked their bars, both were above half health but clearly wounded. If my [Basic Medic] skill elevated I could get more details but there hadn’t been enough time.
My eyes fluttered. That flashback might have been an inspired hint. The dogs could help.
“Dig, dig!” I waved at them and hoped they’d understand me with training, game logic, or [Druid] powers. Pooling water would help me use this affinity and get enough mana to heal. Maybe I could turn into a lightning bolt machine and crank out damage and heals like some crazy mage with [Arcane Band-Aid]s.
They ignored me. “A hole. Dig me a hole,” I shouted at the dogs. Clearer commands didn’t help. I hoped for a moment that they might be waiting for a command, but they didn’t care. They were biding their time for some other event.
I spun and searched for cover. There wasn’t any. We were out in the open, save for trees scattered around. No other enemies were in the yard so maybe these were our last stragglers before the boss.
What then, were our dogs waiting for? They were all weakened based on their thin reedy bars. They were also being loud. Maybe [Panicked]. I really need a solid inspect skill if I wanted to be a healer. It’d help me get more focused spells. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time for last minute skill gains. There weren’t magical pop-up screens that would occur at just the right time. This was a game that treated everyone with the same casual indifference.
If the dogs weren’t helping, and nothing was out to kill me, I’d use the last of my mana to heal the others. They’d need to be in fighting shape. I ran to Rose and the dog she fought. Her other hand held the mutt down. My fingers wove the pattern for [Branch of Healing] over where she pressed down on the undead dog.
She pushed weakly. I ignored her and watched as the spell managed get both her nicked arm and the dead creature. Rose fell back as the healing worked its magic.
StoneMason stomped on the undead with his bare feet. I cringed but searched for any still unliving beast to be turned into a hound for our team. There were none. His whirling tree of doom combined with uncaring footwork had finished off the already hurt dogs.
“Couldn’t have done it. Without that mage,” StoneMason said between huffs. “Lucky. The other group. Not so much.”
“You did fine. Just heal up.”
“More bandages,” he agreed.
“Next wave will be here soon.”
“Those guys have to be here to help with the boss,” Rose said.
She looked like crap. That didn’t feel exact enough, if I were to really describe Rose, it was put through a blender, poured out, badly baked, then thrown off a cliff for birds to pick at below.
My stomach growled. Once we finished this boss I’d have to get back to real life for a bit of food.
“You’re almost out of mana,” she commented.
“Yep. Needed a hole. Can regen in water.”
“You’ve got a de-buff too. Something about mana being halved?”
I blinked as her reminder hit me. The reason my mana was going so fast as a healer didn’t have anything to do with my Rank. It had to do with my fifty percent loss after teleporting through a river or raincloud or whatever.
“You can see it?” I asked.
“How much time is left?”
“Too long. Ten minutes.”
StoneMason rubbed his head. The grating sound irritated me. “Surprised we’re still alive.”
“Me too,” Rose responded.
“Where’s the boss?” I asked. This courtyard was too dark, and stars and moon only did so much to illuminate it.
They ignored me. Maybe I hadn’t spoken out loud or they were too busy trying to recover. StoneMason had actual bandages and wrapped them around Rose’s slightly less broken body with surprising gentleness. His head shook the entire time.
She winced and checked her arm. Bandages were weaker than actual heals but it’d stop the bleeding while the last of my [Branch of Healing]’s regenerative effect finished. Her health couldn’t go back to full unless I found a better spell, but she’d be close to three quarters up.
“That’s probably the boss for this event,” Rose said. Both of my party members turned to look at the manor. I checked the map and noted that Johnny had added an [Ewwww] to the area Rose and StoneMason seemed to be staring.
A single bright light flared before dimming to a steady glow. The glow traveled down a hallway, lighting up a vague form behind dirty glass. All three of us, and possibly the hounds, watched as the lumbering creature proceeded to the far wing’s doorway.
“Clearly related.” Rose sounded winded. “Unless one of the other groups triggered something. Fuck, I hate being uncoordinated like this. Guilds are so much easier to raid with.”
“Boss?” I asked. “I need time. I need more mana to heal.”
“We’ll be fine.” I didn’t believe her. We’d all die here, and I’d fail to get my money, my staff, and a drink. This Friday would be utterly ruined. The rest of Saturday was in jeopardy too.
I almost felt urgent. Games rarely got me worked up, but this strange siege had high enough stakes for me to care. Maybe it was getting to heal people in the game after being extra useless during the work week. It felt almost like a job I’d actually thought would be rewarded. I’d wanted to be a family doctor, gained a degree, and did the internship before technology relegated my field half pointless.
Here, I was fixing stuff without the Voices trying to shove their righteous nonsense into my ear. Sure, it was all digital, but curing this [Blight] had more value than driving some panicked kid to the emergency room because he’d tried weed for the first time.
“There.” StoneMason pointed. “Its coming out the door. So, humanoid. With a lantern? Is that?” He nodded happily, and that childish grin took over his face. “Maybe we can loot it. I could use a light source.”
“You forgot to bring something?” Rose asked. “Because so did I. I haven’t been this low Ranked in ages.”
They were right. None of us had brought anything to see with. The only person who might be able to explore a totally dark house without some source of light would be Johnny. Supplies for dungeon runs were not my area of expertise.
“I doubt it’s luck. Or a coincidence,” StoneMason added.
“You’re right. The game’s throwing us a bone by supplying a light source. If we can survive long enough to take it.” Rose snorted then outright laughed. It was a choppy bark reminding me of years gone by. I’d dated a few women with the same infectious laugh. Every time it made me smile, even now, years later.
The figure coming out of the manor held up an old-fashioned lantern. They were too far away for me to make out their face perfectly. They had the same-ish build as StoneMason, but a bit more twisted and slack on one side from a rotting form.
A few quick strides brought him closer. His lantern cast an ugly picture. One arm hung loosely like it’d been dislocated and never popped back into place. His face slacked on one side and merged awkwardly with a neck made of boils.
“Mom,” he shouted with an entirely too whiney voice. “Someone’s beated up the dogs!”
Another voice in the mansion screamed. A long, loud noise that carried over the landscape. The recovered hounds on our side whimpered. The tree’s weaker leaves fluttered into the distance.
The party crashing hulk nodded. “Okay, Mom. I’ll beated them up back!”
He lumbered in our direction.
Rose put up her kitchen knives and got ready to, I don’t know, block a fist that was bigger than her head. StoneMason stepped forward. I checked my mana, found it wanting, and searched for a puddle to jump in. If my water affinity had been higher, maybe a storm could have helped me regen mana, but having wet clothes wasn’t enough.
“Always fucking giants. It’s like the game thinks bigger is scarier or something,” Rose muttered.
“Size matters,” StoneMason responded.
Rose’s mouth opened but I shook my head and waved away her retort.
“Us boys are stupid. We already went over this,” I said. “Let’s kill the boss and move on because I’m not about to argue over penis size without a few drinks in me.”