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“That’s our boss, and then we can rest,” Rose said. “That’s the best part. After a huge boss battle, taking a nap. Or going pee. Voices, how I love the break afterward.”

“Or death,” StoneMason said.

Rose shrugged.

Ugly got uglier as it approached. He probably had some cool system name like [Mush Mouth the 5th] but I’d never find out. The boils on his neck popped and oozed as he moved.

“Eww,” Rose said.

“Undead are gross,” StoneMason agreed.

I rolled my eyes. Gross was subjective. They weren’t wearing shoes and StoneMason’s feet still squished with eyeballs from defeated dogs. At least I had an excuse for lacking footwear. [Druid]s had [Natural Vibe] which theoretically helped me sense the area. It might have worked too but I’d been distracted since getting the ability.

Drunk me would have a blast playing with these new abilities. Come next weekend, if I stuck with this Friday, I’d probably have a few new random tricks on top of the old ones. Sober me had less creativity. I envied the young who asked stupid questions and tried ridiculous combinations then came out with abilities.

The boss stopped at thirty feet away while the other two readied their weapons. I rubbed my forehead and wondered when we’d get to the get good part.

“Is he attacking?” Rose asked.

“I don’t see any mind tricks,” StoneMason answered. “So no illusion checks.”

“We’re Rank Two, or whatever,” I chimed in. More accurately, they were Rank whatever, and I was only a Two. “The boss won’t be that complicated.”

They both backed up a step. Their toes wiggled. I got the sense they were apprehensive about fighting such a large creature while being low on resources.

Our foe lifted two sausage fingers up to his lopsided face, puckered his cheeks, and blew.

The small map I had to the side of my vision flooded with notes from Johnny. [Dogs], [Dogs!], [OH SHI-] and so on. They marked a crazy trail across the building as Johnny clearly fled.

“Incoming,” I said.

“No shit,” Rose answered.

“Undead digestive tracts don’t work right,” StoneMason added.

Right, a whistling giant clearly was summoning even more mongrels. I hoped that us clearing monsters, along with the other groups fighting, might buy us time. If this had been a single group instance or some other video game quirk it might have been harder. Or easier. Heck, I didn’t know.

“We can do this,” I said as an idea hit me. “Stoney!” His head snapped toward me as the sharp noise faded. I waved to the ground. “Dig me a pit for the water!”

His eyebrow went up. “What?”

“Do it!” Rose shouted then ran for the boss.

My head hurt. I’d been logged in for almost three hours of real time and needed a longer break. Events were moving too fast. Rose reached the boss. A stream of dogs came cruising around the corner in a sluggish stream. StoneMason grunted, stopped digging the hole he’d barely started, and intercepted the mobs.

Thankfully mana regenerated. I thought it’d take longer to get enough for a heal or two but it seemed to be recovering slightly faster the closer to the bottom my bar reached. With this, I could heal a dog. Maybe two or three if they were beaten into submission near each other and the splash effect of my heal got lucky.

Then something happened I didn’t expect. The boss, easily three times Rose’s size, turned and ran away.

“What’s he doing?” Rose demanded.

StoneMason didn’t answer. He spun in a wild circle with his stupidly large tree trunk.

“Sick ‘em,” the overgrown man-boy shouted. His voice grew sharper as he whined new instructions while running. “No. Get her! Get the ugly one.”

Rose stopped chasing and turned toward StoneMason. She picked a new path to get behind our meat wall team member. I mentally clapped and searched for dogs to heal.

There had to be a reason [Druid] spells turned undead into friendly, healthy, and useless dogs. There had to be a critical mass that our team’s dogs could reach. There might have been key items inside. We might have skipped a quest. I should have had a higher Rank.

All those thoughts flashed through as Rose got into position. The stream of dogs ran toward Rose and right into StoneMason’s swirl. A few dogs made it through the bulk of his weapon and latched onto his arms. Others turned into chunks, adding more mass until StoneMason was covered.

“No! Puppies,” the boss shouted. He’d fled fast, reaching around twenty feet away from StoneMason and Rose. His fingers lifted in another whistle.

“Jesus,” Rose shouted, looking at the mess covering StoneMason’s body. Parts from a dozen dogs clung to him like filthy armor.

His health bar sat at half from one wave alone. I ran for him then fell back as a loud sound deafened me. Flames billowed and black clouds covered the sky. Either the event had gone crazy, or one of the other parties did something. I saw the kill count for two groups skyrocket past our score.

Johnny popped a dozen notes onto the map. I didn’t have time to read them and waved the annoying screen closed. The boss was still in action. More undead mutts were coming. He shouted a new order to the oncoming mass, “Get the handsome one!”

I had to heal our tank. My legs wobbled and messages popped up telling me I was debilitated somehow. It didn’t matter. I’d moved under real gun fire, eventually, a video game didn’t matter. It didn’t matter dammit.

StoneMason huffed. Rose was somewhere screaming angrily. I didn’t know exactly when I’d reached StoneMason, but the half giant grunted at me. My fingers traced a healing spell. The bar drained what little had recovered. Even in the game I was crappy at being a doctor.

I wasn’t good at anything. My life was a series of attempts to be worthwhile followed by mediocrity chased by alcohol. When the government allowed me to drink and when bartenders weren’t quick to card everyone. Technology made it harder to be irresponsible.

We were going to die because I couldn’t heal us enough. It was only a game and it should have been well within our means. Only Johnny had brought us somewhere insane and I’d barely trained. It was joining the military all over again. No amount of training or foreknowledge could have prepared me for coming up woefully short.

His dogs were everywhere. Ours sat under the tree watching the fight with ears perked. Their heads pointed in unison toward us. I ran in their direction.

“The hounds!” Rose uttered half an idea. I’d figured out the dogs were important without her bellowing.

“Ignore me,” I responded while waving my arms wildly. They disregarded my frantic movements.

StoneMason had the next idea. He swayed out of his latest spin. “Use his command!”

The boss had said “Sic ‘em.” My shoulders lifted in a shrug.

The command sounded goofy when the boss said it.

“Sic ‘em!” I shouted while pointing at the boss. It sounded stupid when I said it. A dozen wet, muddy, and slobbering canines dashed by, straight for the twisted hulk of a boss.

“Bad dogs!” the boss whined. He dropped the lantern and ran.

“Good dogs!” StoneMason echoed immediately.

The hounds ignored them both and continued chasing the boss. That left us with a mob of enemy undead.

Rose caught onto the boss mechanics before I did. “We’re in an attrition battle. Our side versus theirs. Quick, heal more dogs.”

StoneMason was doing his spinning thing but his attack was no longer a neat pretty circle. Not that it ever had been. He stumbled, bumping into creatures. Enemies leapt over the branches and scrambled over each other to get to his face.

“With what mana?” I demanded.

They didn’t hear me. It would take five minutes, or more, before I had enough for another heal. That was the trouble with games like Continue Online. They were high paced at the wrong time. If we survived, I’d have a few skills or traits to help regen energy faster, but now there was nothing.

I sat down and started digging a hole. If no one else was going to do it, I’d work on my own.

It wasn’t like planting seeds. My fingers ached after the first few seconds. Rose screamed something at me but I tuned it out. It was easy with all the barking dogs attacking.

The top layer felt gross. Like digging through rotting flesh. It squirmed and itched. A foot down, the dirt changed. Something softer made my arm tingle. Delirium had set in. A handful of seconds passed, and I’d made myself a foot-deep hole without much width. Either being a [Druid] helped or the dirt here had grown soft.

I studied the hole for a moment. There was a clear separation between two types of earth. On top was something that could only be described as filthy earth. In the real world it might have had a use, bred bugs and moss which would air the soil. In-game, it was a sign that whatever undead trait had saturated the place only infected the surface level. A plague of earth.

Water already pooled. I stuck my foot in and hoped it counted as partial immersion. Or maybe the game would think I was planting myself. I could have stuck my head in but ignorance helped no one.

“One with water,” I muttered.

A message flashed. Something happened. I felt, weird. A cross between sick to my stomach and on the verge of a sneeze. My toes curled tight enough to make a muscle cramp. Images of my first battle hit me and I retched.

“Gross,” Rose said.

I don’t know why that came through clearly. Nothing else did. Everything about me was madness. Dead dogs. Healthy dogs. Two players who were hardly more than children. They were young, naive, and full of themselves. I’d been the same way before going to war.

That was it. It had been coming all along. I closed my eyes, traced the [Branch of Healing] spell upon the ground and prayed, not to God, but to the universe as a whole, that the world would simply let me be. That was the problem with the world. The past went with us, no matter where we ran to or how different reality had become. Continue Online’s feedback, the smell of rotting bodies, festering wounds, and puss filled corpses had been too much.

The spell did nothing.

I cast it again and ignored the mess I’d made of my new player tunic and crappy pants. It didn’t matter that the hole I’d dug might be filled with who knew what.

“Goddammit,” I muttered.

The haunting image from the river who might have been my mother popped up. She frowned, and I felt a vague sensation of someone telling me real men didn’t need to cuss. Her opinion meant shit. I’d been alive far longer, without her, then I’d ever been with her alive.

I traced the spell again with my eyes closed. Nothing happened. No tingles of energy or dips in my mana bar. No changes to the squishy ground. I clumped dirt together, because of course stupid me hadn’t even prepared a real weapon. [Druid]s could probably use the earth to attack but it’d require mana. With the de-buff, without the skills, without the right time to prepare, I’d fucked up.

“I’m worthless,” I whispered then clamped a hand over my mouth. Those were my father’s words, not mine. They had fucked up his life, not mine. I didn’t have kids so there was no possible way for me to be a failure like him.

“Too many,” Rose said. She huffed next to me, seemingly oblivious of my plight.

The boss still ran from our dogs. There weren’t enough to swarm him properly. If I’d had more mana, we could have had three or four times as many dogs. Running with Rose would have taken work and left me exhausted, but I’d also have a full mana bar instead of this limited one.

“Gwah?” StoneMason said.

“English, motherfucker,” Rose responded halfheartedly.

My body shook. The sick feeling hadn’t gone away. I scribbled [Branch of Healing] again on the ground, on myself, on everything nearby and got nowhere.

“Newb healer,” Rose muttered. She readied her blades. “Could have been fine. I wanted that lantern. It would have been neat.”

“We’re not any better,” StoneMason said. “Another week of training. Or two. Maybe.”

“Fucking DapperSeed,” she said.

“He means well,” I defended. Johnny was my only real friend, in-game or out of it.

“He’s your friend. Where is he now? Spamming notes we’ll never see because we’ll be out of the game. We need our fourth!”

She might be right. I’d turned off the map. The next wave of undead dogs came around the corner. Somehow the boss had summoned two more despite being chased by our hound pack. At the rate his health was dropping, we were screwed.

“Going down fighting,” StoneMason said.

“Last stand bonus. It’s that or lose more stats,” Rose added.

They were talking about one of the game mechanics. Resigning to fate and simply dying came with a larger hit to everyone’s stats upon death. If we, the three of us, struggled hard enough, we might not lose much when we were able to log back in a day later. A day in reality, not the four in-game that came with weird time compression.

Rose continued, “I may be starting over, but it’s a bitch to do all this from scratch.”

“You don’t need to cuss,” I said and hated myself instantly. My mom was long gone but what little advice I remembered had stuck with me.

“You’re not my dad,” she responded.

StoneMason snorted.

The enemies reached the halfway point between us and the house. I failed to cast [Branch of Healing] again but got a small window pop-up that was brushed aside. Status windows during a fight would lead to death even faster. With my other hand, I grabbed a clump of dirt and pebbles to throw.

Right then, when we were ready to give our last stand, is when one of the other groups started screaming. What they screamed, I couldn’t say. The tone was a mix between gibberish and some sort of taunt. It sounded like they may have been insulting all the monsters’ mothers.

“Is that?” Rose paused as her face scrunched. “Are they coming to kill steal?”

The dogs, which had been charging at us, were infuriated. They all spun in place, digging grooves into the fouled earth with their legs and tumbling over each other in the rush to attack the newest group.

“One of the other parties,” StoneMason responded and pointed. “Look at Johnny’s notes.”

“Too lazy,” she said.

StoneMason relaxed and stepped back. His large head swiveled side to side multiple times. He shrugged and poked the air.

“Says baited. Dapper baited them. Let them take the small fries. Go for the boss!” He pulled out a much more sensible stick and charged for the fleeing hunchback.

I swallowed a lump and poked my interface to bring up the map. Johnny had a note on our group map. It read [Hah] followed by [Suckers], [DS is best!], [50g plz]. Our fourth member had done something useful by luring more people our way during the boss fight. Even if it cost us a share of the loot, it was still better than in-game dying.

“Pigs, pigs, pigs!” the other Travelers shouted.

“Go,” Rose told me.

I finally regenerated enough mana for another heal, which meant my earlier poor calculations had been off. I kept my foot in the water and hoped to get enough for a second heal. The bar went up too slow for my liking.

We were lucky that every other creature had been distracted. The boss by healthy dogs and the unhealthy dogs by other Travelers. Their party landed on the wave of undead dogs. I debated tossing a lightning bolt once there was enough mana, to stun them all and get points, but the game would probably give me a [Backstabber] trait. It had been bad enough to suggest StoneMason lure dogs to the prior, now dead, group.

“Cats, cats, cats!” they shouted.

It must have been a taunt. The dogs were being easily distracted by the other group. A mage wearing three eyepatches on one side screamed while waving a burning gauntlet. His partners had flames on their weapons. That didn’t look like a low Rank ability.

StoneMason struggled to catch up to the boss but stumbled. Shadows of dogs danced around as the boss continued to flee.

“Stop it! No fetch. Go play somewhere else,” the boss said.

A burst of flame scattered the shadows. I turned and noted two more undead had been murdered. There were five people but none of the others looked that well put together. Not that I was one to talk with my foot in a hole.

“Off with their heads!” they shouted in unison and lifted their weapons to the sky before turning, as an oddly well-coordinated unit, to the remaining undead. We had half a minute, tops, to murder the boss.

My head wasn’t in the game. I gave up on my mess filled hole and ran for the boss, throwing my mud ball ahead of me. It missed and hit one of the friendly dogs. StoneMason threw his weapon, managing to get the stick between the fleeing boss’ legs. The misshapen boy stumbled and fell with his arms spread wide.

“Nooo! Mommy,” he said in a squeaky shrill. He immediately whaled on the ground with his fists. Rose scooped up the lantern he’d dropped and a second later the area went dark, save for the mansion lights and the fire mage’s latest spell.

StoneMason tackled the boss, I think. It was hard to tell. Lumps moved. Dogs snarled and barked. There were tearing sounds. The giant cried and hammered the ground. I could make out the health bars for Rose and StoneMason, they were dimmed because of our reduced visibility but our tank wouldn’t last long.

“Mommy!” he whimpered. I twitched. People in pain shouted for their parents when it had grown bad enough. It didn’t matter how old they were or how long their parents had been deceased.

“Mommmmmyyyyy,” he wailed as StoneMason’s bar continued to plummet.

Something in the mansion screamed back. A booming sound that shook the landscape. It reminded me of artillery fire, but this fantasy world wouldn’t have those kinds of shells.

I had a single heal spell. One damn attempt to put together our tank and hope he outlasted the thrashing damage piling on him. By the time I reached them, his health had almost hit ten percent. The bar flashed. I grabbed the largest lump of flesh I could find and traced through [Branch of Healing].

“Ducks, ducks, ducks!” the other group shouted.

They ran around. Flames lit up farther away from us. Either they hadn’t noticed the boss or didn’t care once we dog-piled it. Something else exploded in the mansion and walls rattled. Our yard lit briefly, and I saw a mess of dogs tearing into the creature.

It sounded worse than it looked. Or maybe it looked worse than it sounded. I couldn’t tell if my healing spell had done anything. StoneMason’s bar hadn’t moved an inch.

“Pigs, pigs, pigs!” came the faint voices in the distance. Then nothing.

We stayed quiet a few minutes, waiting to see if anything else would happen. Only the sound of steady labored breathing filled the air. Mine maybe, I couldn’t tell for sure. Darkness had finished setting in and we played by the light of stars and moon. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust.

“You’re not going to like this,” StoneMason said.

“He’s a doctor. I’m sure he’s seen worse.”

“Probably. Doesn’t mean I like it. Continue tends to give me—detailed graphics.”

I put a hand toward the source of noise and cast my spell again. Green light flared, and StoneMason’s bar went back up. There were messages, but I ignored them as everything wrong in the world assaulted my senses.

It was the rot. Not simply from the dogs but the boss. A smell of fecal matter as he died and everything slid out his butt. In reality, the body didn’t break down that fast. Muscles took a bit more time to loosen up. Colons didn’t just release everything at high speeds. However, real world studies didn’t involve the effects of undead flesh and decay speeds.

The healthy dogs around us grew quieter. Either the pack had completed what it cared to and started to fade into the darkness of the manor, or they were going back to the tree to lay down. I didn’t turn to figure it out.

“We clear?” StoneMason asked in a whisper.

“Other team’s gone, I think.” Rose’s voice came from over my shoulder. Light flared as she brought out the lantern. It lit the area and my eyes drifted immediately to the boss.

The boss looked almost human. Smaller. Rail thin. With a hole in his stomach that had entrails coming out in ribbons of flesh. I felt sick but had nothing left in my virtual stomach. Video game gore. A kid who had been twisted by whatever undead magic rampaged over this place. I wondered, briefly, if I could have cured the boss like we did those dogs. How many spells would it have taken?

I stood slowly, ignoring the squelching sound. StoneMason grunted and stood.

Rose stepped ahead of me. Her bare feet couldn’t feel any better about stepping around in this mess than mine. Everything was so goddamn gross. Maybe being a [Druid] gave me unnatural sensitivity.

“You okay?” Rose asked.

“No,” StoneMason and I responded at the same time.

“My side hurts,” he continued.

“My brain hurts more,” I said while rubbing my temples. “I just want a damn drink. All this bullshit and killing virtual kids just to get drunk. I miss the old games where everything was on a screen and I didn’t have to loot by digging through an actual dead body.”

“You must get rough feedback. I just get a loot interface and the system does the rest,” Rose said.

“Sounds nice,” StoneMason added.

Rose shrugged. “Paths help. My prior self had all sorts of quick ways to loot. I used to party with a guy who could run through a field of dead and barely touch anything. He’d come out the other end with all the gold.”

“He had a looting skill that focused on gold?” StoneMason asked.

“It was neat. But different Paths are more vicarial in their visuals, or so I’m told.”

That was it. The Paths made a difference. Not only that, what we’d seen in real life seemed to make a difference as well. Gore factors changed depending on play style. Over the course of twelve characters I’d noticed that what I saw wasn’t always the same. A dead rat on my [Priest] was a detached thing, as if the body didn’t matter. A dead rat on the [Warrior] was a pulpy blood strewn mess that needed to be bashed some more. The [Druid] must be making me see the unnatural angle of these tainted creatures.

“Class aside, a drink would help,” I said.

“You that big of a lush?”

I shrugged away Rose’s question.

“Any loot?” Rose asked.

StoneMason bent over the boss. “Pants. Dirty. Need to be cleaned. Watch. Points somewhere. Compass watch?”

“You don’t have an identify skill do you? Friday doesn’t either. Useless.”

“Johnny will know,” I said.

“And charge us.” She was right. Johnny would demand a share of the profits. He might also turn up with items of better value than other people. His [Treasure Hunter] skill worked wonders.

“Speaking of Dapper. Where is he?” Stone asked.

“Follow the notes,” I said.

Johnny always left notes when he grouped with people. We’d been commenting on them before, and during our fight Johnny had clearly been busy. I brought up the map and checked. [Druid ++ here], [Basement], [Get staff & this]. The last note had been placed on the map along with a half dozen pins highlighting a route for us to follow.

I couldn’t wrap my brain around what had happened. He knew [Druid]s were great here? He’d planned this? Johnny never seemed like the planning sort. Most of his schemes were a step or two deep, nothing more, nothing less. Had he decided on coming here after finding me, and knowing I wouldn’t pick a priest as a healer again? How could he even predict I’d be a [Druid] though? There were [Field Medic]s, [Life Enchanter]s, [Body Mages], and god knew how many other mixed classes to fix up a person. [Druid] Path players were uncommon.

StoneMason shuffled away. I almost wanted to look at the loot but there were more messages from Johnny worth caring about. The latest few read [Stole back stff]. [Quick. PD wants m ass]. Based on the bad spelling, Johnny was being chased and didn’t have time to leave full notes.

“Why is he leaving chat messages on the map?” Rose asked.

“I don’t use party chat,” I answered. A system was available for groups to talk to each other. I simply didn’t care. The health bars were enough for me. Noise, which is what I considered party chat to be, aggravated me. Plus, it ruined my drinking.

She pursed her lips and glanced at StoneMason. The battle torn giant shrugged and winced. His fingers waggled in the air.

That likely meant they’d be talking behind my back in party. I didn’t care. I’d gotten over what other people thought of me during high school. They’d called me the angry kid whose mom ran away, and dad who drank himself to sleep every night. One thing I learned in the service was everyone had a fucked up backstory.

I came here to get away from all of it and simply play but Continue Online had a way of making me reflect. Beer though, beer solved that problem handily. We needed to finish our adventure, get the gold and my staff, then I could drink myself silly and unwind at long last.

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