Rose filled the silence with yammering. “What do we do? We’re third in the race. Two teams are gone which means we’re last despite all those dogs. Guess they don’t count for much to the ranking crystal. Loot’s nice, but if we can get more gold to go with it, that would be better.”
“The staff. Dapper mentioned. It’s for healing. Right, Friday?”
“Yeah, we should go get it. It’ll probably double my effective rank.” The staff would help a lot with healing. It had a few minor enchants geared specifically for healing. It’d come from a quest chain on my [Priest] version of Friday. I’d made it up to Rank Six then had the game throw a Voice at me in some vision.
I didn’t want to admit that the whole [Legacy] system was kind of confusing. Some days I felt as if there were a dozen ways to trigger it. I could scream out loud, that I was “Friday” who’d slept with a princess. Then the game would go “so you are” and I’d suddenly have all that baggage. I could think about it too hard and that might trigger results too. Either action was like a sneaking doom.
But I’d discovered with the prior character that religion did not excite me at all. God had done no good in the real world despite all the crap I’d seen. Video game Gods might be far more hands-on, but I didn’t want to work with—or around them. I’d deleted my character after calmly hiding all my gear in a waterproof bag in the well.
I’d wanted to pick it up on this character, but Pile Driver beat me to it. If Johnny managed to steal it back that’d be one problem solved. Especially since I’d stashed a perfect quest item inside the staff. The longer Johnny held onto on my staff, the more likely he was to find the treasure, steal it, and try to turn it into more gold.
It was an item I didn’t want to sell—ever.
“Arcadia to Friday, you there?” Rose asked.
I blinked and pulled myself out of dwelling on mistakes. The downside about a game like Continue Online, is that the moment I stopped paying attention, things slipped away. They’d probably been talking for a while before I tuned back in.
“Friday?” Rose asked again.
“Here. Give me a second to check my notices. You should too. We probably got something useful from all that.”
“I cleared mine.”
“Yes. That,” StoneMason said.
I shook my head, traced out a [Branch of Healing] spell on Rose and gestured to the mansion. They’d lead the way while I cleared out my notices. A few told me I’d gained some basic stats. [Knowledge] stayed the same but my [Druid] Path went up a Rank. It came with slight bonuses to healing, reductions in mana costs for [Nature] spells, and [Animal Understanding] jumped up a Rank.
That meant nothing aside from getting a vibe on how creatures felt. I could look at a bird and hear stupid bits of information like “Food. Food. Food.” probably in the same chant as the party from earlier. I turned that bit of interface annoyance off. Then flicked it back on, then off, and finally found an option that let me keep the [Animal Understanding] skill on for anything deemed “important.”
“Anything good?” Rose asked as I flicked fingers through the air to wave off pop-ups.
“Natural Vibe went up. I think we can use it to feel where the nastiest part of the area is. Maybe even to find more monsters before the other teams do. Or another boss, after I get my staff.” Walking into another boss encounter without the extra abilities would be digital suicide.
“Natural Vibe? Is that like a boss radar?”
“Kind of. Its—” I paused and read the text yet again. It confused me because the skill didn’t match anything I’d had on other characters. “Similar to Stony’s thing. When I’m wearing unprocessed clothes and stuff, I can get a feeling for the wrongness of an area. I guess. Or wearing no shoes.”
I still hadn’t put them back on. They were originally put away as part of my traveling by water spell and hadn’t been re-equipped. If the game wanted me to play without shoes, then I’d use them as projectiles to hit annoying people.
“Passive intuition abilities are a bitch,” Rose said. “Wrong half the time. Don’t work in the heat of battle. Can you imagine the Voices shoving bits of information into your head but not exactly in a way that’s clear? I’ll stick to boxes and my own thoughts.”
“Sounds gross,” StoneMason said.
“It’s not my first intuition ability. Johnny has a ton of them. Ask him some time, it’s how he smells money. He told me it’s like smelling mint ice cream. The more gold something has, the stronger the smell. Treasure is like citrus.”
“All smells?” StoneMason asked.
“That’s how most intuitions work. They use a sense besides sight to key you into the neat stuff,” Rose said. “The Voices want people to use more than their eyes. Which is great because out there in reality it’s like all we have is sight and hearing. The internet, ads following us around stores from speakers. I like being reminded there’s more to life than digital screens.”
“While inside a game,” StoneMason said.
We reached the building. Our path didn’t go through the roof or a window like Johnny had. We took the well abused pathway all those dogs had come from. Rose scouted ahead, searching through desks and corners. StoneMason stood next to me with a stick the size of his arm, which was the size of my body. Inside we went, where Rose continued to explore the corners. She found stuff, I didn’t want to know what, in some of the corners that had clearly been messy kennels for undead.
Then she surprised me with a shout.
“Holy hell,” Rose uttered from one of the corner rooms. “Puppies!”
“In here?” StoneMason asked. “Are they undead?”
We walked into a room with crates piled awkwardly around the entrance. It looked as though this area had been used as a storage wing for the house, mixed with a home for the dogs. There might have been real valuables in here once, and the dogs might have originally been put here to guard them. Then the place turned evil and undead.
“If they’re undead. Friday can heal,” StoneMason said.
That reminded me to check my bars to see if enough time had passed. My reduced mana notice had cleared away sometime during the battle. It had only been a restriction for an hour, but that hour had sucked. Knowing my mana had come back meant more to me than the knowledge there were healthy puppies somewhere in the dungeon. Dogs and I didn’t get along. Animals in general were frustrating. I’d been attacked by too many while in the service and trying to help fetch people in the ambulance.
Low noises came from the room. I stepped inside as StoneMason waved forward. “Hey, Friday. You should see if one of your druid things works on them. They keep growling at me.”
The room itself was a mess too. Broken crates. Stuffing torn to shreds and scattered all over the floor. Wood with chew marks.
“So, they’re not puppies,” I said.
“Okay, like four months. Maybe five?” Rose shrugged. “They’re not full grown. They’re not closed eyed wiggly babies. That’s still puppies?”
“I guess,” I said. It was the dog version of a seven year old. They were children dogs, which was somehow worse than regular dogs.
StoneMason nodded. “Old enough to be weaned. Perfect for training. We could all try to get a pet. I’ve never had one before.”
“Me either,” Rose said.
There were five ugly monsters with the same general colors. Most dogs I knew of had patterned fur, these creatures were all one solid color halfway between gold and a pallid white, if such a coloration was possible. It made me sick to look at them.
“They don’t seem very healthy,” Rose said.
They shuffled slowly. Their tiny noses digging into corners of the room they’d been left in. Two huddled together. One lay quietly, eyes closed and chest barely moving. Obviously they weren’t doing well.
“Given where we are, did you think they’d be healthy?” I asked. “And what are the odds we’d come across them and have the ability to heal them?”
“You should cast the spell,” StoneMason said. “I doubt bandages. Would work on these.”
“I could. Then the game would give me a chance at a companion pet.”
“That’s neat, you should do that. Maybe you could get an entire pack.” Rose jumped in place and clapped excitedly. “Druid and dogs. You could command them in battle to do the damage for you. And even resurrect them if they’re companions. Or resummon them.”
The idea had merit, except for one small fact. I’d be deleting this character if it got too annoying. Leaving companions attached to a character who suddenly didn’t exist fell under “cruel and unusual.” It used to be okay in the old games during my childhood because those people weren’t aware of time passing. They didn’t know anything when the game world hadn’t loaded.
Continue Online didn’t operate like that. When you left for too long, the Locals remarked on it. They got upset. They turned bitter. I’d had it happen once and swore off anything that stunk like a companion ever since.
So, I said, “I don’t do companions.”
“Gross, who’d do a dog?”
“I know a guy,” StoneMason said while glaring up thoughtfully. He shuddered.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said and crossed my arms. The two puppies huddled together started to fade slowly, as if they didn’t have the strength to keep standing. It made me sick.
“Yes, it is,” StoneMason responded with his blank baby face. He acted as though he didn’t know he was arguing with a man twice his age, but he totally knew.
My throat felt dry.
“But they’re just puppies. You need to heal them, we could take them to the pack outside,” Rose said.
“If they’re still there and some Traveler hasn’t killed them for points. Those guys will kill anyone to get ahead. And that would put me further away from Johnny and the staff and being able to heal better. And Johnny’s messages are getting annoying.”
[Hllep] one said. [PD butthurt] another read. I flicked the badly written messages away. Johnny would survive. He was the player equivalent of a cockroach.
“Oh,” StoneMason said.
“Heal them,” Rose demanded.
I had regenerated enough mana to toss out a few heals, sure. After this I’d need to stick my head in a bucket of water and breathe in to regenerate anything fast enough. The feeling of drowning would be a bonus.
My shoulders lifted with a deep breath. Cynicism served no purpose. It didn’t even make me feel better. Beer, virtual or not, would put all my problems to one side until Monday and the week started over again. Then I’d rush another dozen people to the emergency room, watch people die before they made it, and if I was really lucky, I’d get a handful of helicopter moms upset over their child’s sniffles. I didn’t know which was worse.
But I could heal the puppies. After that, nature would take its course. That brought me back to the stupid quest text. Which was better, to plant a seed and let it grow, or to stay and tend the garden? The same question could be said of puppies. It didn’t matter, doctors didn’t get to be invested in any one person’s life. At least, not in my experience.
“Get them together. I’ll do two heals. If you have food, that should help. Afterward, we should rescue Johnny.” Getting the staff would be just as good. Part of me would be okay if Johnny died and I got my item back, since it had been his fault I lost it in the first place. Part of me liked Johnny. Part of me wanted to body slam him from orbit. It’s how I knew we were friends, or as close as I had anymore.
Rose cooed while grouping the dogs together. They were so weak they didn’t even bark. One growled and attempted to back up but the room they’d used as a den didn’t have enough space for a real escape. It was hardly bigger than a walk-in closet.
“Think this is a reward?” StoneMason asked. “For killing all the undead dogs?”
“Doesn’t make sense. Might be a hidden event.” Rose shrugged and pushed the pile of puppies closer together.
“I doubt it’s either. I bet if we left the room they’d be full grown and undead in a day. Then there’d be more, and more, and more. Where do you think all those dogs we fought came from?” My fingers traced the [Branch of Healing] spell over the grouping.
They yipped and nipped at my fingers. Their jaws were too weak to do real damage. A flash appeared showing the [Toughness] icon. Being bitten by puppies didn’t mean I’d grown stronger but it would increase the skill if I survived being nibbled. [Animal Understanding] flashed as well but didn’t increase. I liked this style of interface the most. I could make it so the game simply flashed icons as stuff increased or worked, but it wouldn’t flood my eyes with +1 to [Annoyed] over and over every time something happened.
I traced it again and took note that the [Branch of Healing] spell also flashed its icon. It should be working toward an elevated version of the spell after casting it in real battle situations. Skills were fun that way. They grew into new stuff.
I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to trace both the [Branch of Healing] spell and the [Tiny Lightning Bolt] to see if that’d form a ranged version of the spell. Knowing my luck, the damage and healing would cancel each other out and I’d get a green sparkling spell with a short stun and terrible aim.
“They look better already,” Rose said. She reached for one of the dogs, but they backed away from her as a pack and moved closer to me. Soon my lap was swarmed by barely functional puppies seeking refuge. They were even younger seeming after the healing. Able to walk, able to bite and nose around, but they’d do a lot of growing in the next few months, assuming they survived.
“They’re better, and we need to save Johnny from Pile Driver’s group. They can’t come with us,” I insisted.
Rose’s face twisted and for a moment I thought she might stab me. “No. They’re babies. They need us.”
“They’re video game baby dogs. They’re virtual. They’ll be repurposed to something else if you leave them. We leave the room and in two days they’ll be fully grown and ready to eat someone’s face.”
I’d had to correct myself. Video game dogs didn’t follow real world animal timelines. These wouldn’t take months.
“You’re a shit druid,” Rose said.
I sat there with a lap full of dogs. They fought each other for the most comfortable spot while I tried not to wince as their dull claws dug into my pants. Rose berating me without even attempting to understand my reasoning was aggravating. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that when she’d been in diapers, I was out getting shot at. She was a child.
Rose kept going, oblivious to my attempts at restraint. “I’m serious. You should care about animals! Nature! Trees and all that crap. But you barely tried while planting those seeds. You barely tried when foraging and made DapperSeed do all the work. Now you want to leave puppies behind to die. You don’t care about anything.”
“I care. I care more than you might think.” I was shit at dealing with people without a drink in me.
“Bullshit,” Rose said.
“Guys,” StoneMason cut in.
“Are we being attacked?” Rose snapped.
“No, but…” StoneMason’s words died as Rose glared at him.
“Then shut up. I’m telling this guy he sucks as a druid,” she said.
It was my turn anyway. “I’m crappy at a lot of things. But I’m smart enough not to take on responsibilities I won’t be around to fulfill. I restart characters a lot. Think about your old characters. Both of you. You deleted and started over. Don’t tell me you didn’t have companions on them. Don’t tell me you didn’t have Local friends or Travelers who you knew.”
I waved at them in annoyance. The puppies yipped and chased my arms in awkward stumbles.
“I’ve done this more than once. The others we’re against, probably some of them are re-rolls too. All that shit you left out there depended on you. What happens when you delete this character too? If I take these puppies, raise them, and delete again, then these dogs are left alone.”
Nature versus Nurture II
What’s better, a tended garden or a wild one? This is a question which druids across the world argue over. Is it better to be a caretaker, or know that in order for one life to live, another must die? There is a circle to existence, after all. Does saving a life make you responsible for it?
As a [Druid], you’ve argued for the natural path, that is, each life must strive on its own. This runs counter to your actions of half-hearted nurture, that is, you’ve saved lives that would have otherwise ended. Which then, is the true path?
[Nurture] skill gained!
[Nature] skill demonstrated
+2 [Depth] added
You’ve acknowledge that Friday had prior lives. Their [Legacy] await your calling. Declaring yourself an heir to those past Fridays comes with ample rewards and their unfinished business.
“Dammit,” I cursed and tightened my eyes.
“Legacy trigger?” Rose asked.
I nodded and bit my lip. It was an annoying system that probably triggered from my brief speech about prior companions. Friday the Second had one. A sprite with blaring gossamer wings who followed me around since freeing it from a cage. We’d actually been locked in together and it didn’t really matter except I think that the sprite didn’t have any other friends.
That had been almost six months ago as real life went. Game time wise, two years. It probably found another Traveler to glom onto. These puppies would as well. Heck, one of the other groups running around could bond with them and come out of the dungeon with a dog pal.
“You can’t avoid them forever. The game’s set up to carry over everything between the five different programs. It all ties together.”
“I don’t want to deal with them. That’s the whole point of restarting,” I said.
“You’ve got to commit and stop deleting yourself,” Rose said. “Even I know that this”—she gestured to herself with her hands—“is only temporary. Eventually I’ll have to reclaim the old character eventually and deal with the problems.”
I sighed. Trust a young and dumb child to think life was that easy. As if we could simply go all in on this sort of life and never look back. She didn’t even care that she’d deleted her own character because she expected to go back to all that drama.
“Whatever,” I said. It seemed easier to cave instead of sitting here and arguing with children. We were only here for a few more hours then we’d go our separate ways.
A half hour later we walked through the rundown mansion with five puppies following behind us. I had no clue what to do with them after tonight. I’d be forced to log off soon and be out of the game for four and a half real days. That was almost two weeks in-game. Puppies would starve by then. Even if I had some magical [Druid] ability to do… something.
I racked my brain for abilities. Most [Druid] knowledge I had was second hand while drunk. Maybe we could drop them off in town and kennel them. Other players might want to buy them as consolation prizes. I’d have to make sure the people taking the puppies actually cared because Rose seemed ready to stab this character, and I wanted to eke out a few more drunken weekends before re-rolling.
“Maybe you can teach them tricks,” Rose suggested.
“That would take hours,” I whispered back.
We were still in monster territory, but Rose’s mind wasn’t in the game anymore. Once we’d encountered the young dogs, she didn’t care about anything else. Going somewhere, killing monsters, it was secondary to adorable.
“I’ve always wanted a puppy,” she said.
“I’ve got five. Take them. Free me from this burden of cuteness.”
There weren’t too many monsters inside. The other groups must have cleared them. Their points weren’t increasing that fast. It might have been that we had too many people here at once and simply wiped out everything.
“That’s funny,” StoneMason said.
“I don’t think they’ll let me into a bar with five dogs,” I added another point against the puppies.
“You’d get free drinks. Maybe women. Dogs are great conversation starters.”
I stared at the giant man-boy and blinked slowly.
“Really, guys?” Rose frowned briefly then poked her head into the next room. Nothing screamed so we were in the clear. I hoped we’d go faster but named locations often liked to surprise unwary players. The minute we started running, a ton of monsters would pour out of the walls to attack us.
“You probably could use a drink. Or ten,” he said.
The next room was empty too. Rose stopped and waved a hand through the air. By now, I knew the movement was likely her checking the map and messages left behind by Johnny.
“DapperSeed’s notes are out of date already.”
“It’s been almost an hour. I assume the other groups have rogues or trappers who could have cleared some of the items Johnny marked. We could speed up and try to intercept Johnny’s path.”
I stared at the map, glanced down both hallways in this building of endless rooms, and anchored myself against the map markers. One of the best things about being in a group with Johnny is that none of us needed to rely on our own mapping skills. He had all the support roles, besides healing, covered. He also charged players an arm and a leg if given the chance. I suspected he had an ability that let him turn gold into bonuses for skills like [Lockpicking].
It might explain how he was constantly broke despite all of his schemes and thievery.
Rose opened another door, and dove into the room. Something squished. Our points went up by a measly one, leaving us dead last.
“Anything else?” StoneMason asked.
“Fuck it. I’m running to Dapper,” StoneMason said. Off he went, down the hallways, ignoring all the other doors.
“He’s the tank.” Rose ran off next.
“But—” They were gone before I could finish telling them that a gaggle of puppies might not be able to keep up. I glanced at the pack following me then back down the hall where the others had gone. Three dogs cocked their heads at me. The other two were trying to bite each other on the nose.
“Go!” I said to them.
Two stared at the ground. One stood and wagged its stubby tail. I rolled my eyes and jogged after my party. The puppies kept up surprisingly well, but I’d lost track of Rose and StoneMason. Their footsteps echoed in the halls ahead of me then faded.
I stopped. Small bodies piled into my legs. Their nails scraped along the floor as a few spun out and immediately fell over nibbling each other. After a quick count, I found I still had all five.
We’d stopped in a sort of kitchen wing. The mansion had too many rooms but this one might have food. I searched for signs of dead monsters, food, and reviewed Johnny’s notes for the area. A few notes required gold to get more details. I scanned them, and looked toward the puppies’ location.
“No! Bad. Trap,” I shouted at one of the puppies. The dog in question halted and turned its head toward me while yawning. “There’s a trap in there.”
The dog yipped, wagged its tail and circled around. He went for the cabinet with a bit more care. I hoped that meant the virtual dog understood me.
“Trap. Don’t stick your nose into it.”
The young dog didn’t stop.
I leaned over and pulled the squirming creature away and put him into the pile of his litter mates. They mobbed him.
Brooms were in a corner. I picked one up and eyed the end. It’d serve as a staff, which I could use. The other broom would be my trap trigger. That’s when I noticed the pop-up that apparently didn’t fit into all the system filters I’d set up.
Or is that Gone-Dogged? We’ll figure it out later. For now, five pups follow you around. They look up to you as a one of their own. Remember that nature versus nurture argument we were having? It’s like that. Only with dogs. Nurture them. Or abandon them and let nature take its course. Either way, what you do will shape their lives.
There’s no reward for this one. There’s no quest. It’s simply reality. What you do or don’t do has consequences. Such as deleting a character.
My stomach dropped. The game knew. The fucking game knew what I’d been doing and how I’d been solving my problems. It judged me for those actions and wanted me to care about puppies of all things. I found it weird but didn’t have a clue on how to deal with it right now. Especially since my team had run off to find Johnny, were in the middle of a shared dungeon in an effort to win prizes and glory.
I wondered briefly about the nasty tone. Maybe I’d read too much into the text, but it felt snide. It read snide. I put the message to the side and saved it along with my [Litigating Lightning] text. As I moved the message, the puppy I’d relocated broke away from his family and ran for the spot Johnny had labeled as a trap.
My mouth opened enough to utter a word that never came. The dog’s nose poked into a cupboard and opened it. I heard a yelp saw the puppy fall to one side as a bang went off. Dog food scattered everywhere across the room. Five dogs stopped their fighting and chased the edibles, yipping the whole while.
I blinked. There were no other options. My face hadn’t melted in a fiery doom. Losing health to the skittering mess of kibble and puppy claws barely phased me.
“Shush,” I said.
They ignored me and barked at everything. When they weren’t barking, they were busy crunching food that could have come from any store.
“If we’re not quiet, monsters will come.”
They kept barking. My fingers brought up menus as I tried to figure out where my party members were. Neither of them had markers, which probably had to do with missing skills. In a few days of being grouped in a dungeon, they’d pick up abilities to increase group communication. We weren’t there, none of us.
“Really, guys?” I asked, unsure if I was upset with the dogs, my party, or myself for joining this expedition.
Quitting would be one way out. I could take an “oops” bathroom break and let everyone else deal with the fallout, but that didn’t seem right. Being annoyed and leaving was an option but only after the current task finished.
I opened party chat and sighed.
The others were talking. Johnny, Rose, StoneMason. There were walls of text. I couldn’t take the time to roam through it all and didn’t want to. Somewhere in there would be words about me and I had no desire to know what they thought. Peoples’ opinions were like buttholes, in that everyone had one and only useless crap resulted. My fingers were partway through a message when footsteps echoed down the hall.
“This is entirely too noisy,” a newcomer said, stepping in from one of the many branching rooms.
I turned around. The four puppies backed over each other into a corner, shying away from our new visitor. The fifth had a pile of kibble in its front paws and chowed down. He remained oblivious to our potential enemy.
“You will need to quiet those mongrels immediately or they’ll wake the missus.”
The newest man was clearly some twisted undead butler. White nasty eyes, boils on his skin, and a hook nose that managed to turn up an extra notch. He didn’t even look at me, but the puppies.
“Told you guys,” I said to the dogs.
They whimpered and took turns barking. The fifth chewed on his meal.
“Shhh,” I said, knowing they wouldn’t do any such thing. They’d bark madly until the monster triggered and attempted to kill us all.
“No doubt you’re one of these ruffians. Come to kill the missus and her children. It’s a shame really. Every month we have to deal with your kind. Sneaking in. Barely understanding what we’re trying to do here.”
I rolled my eyes. This was a chatty person. It might lead to any number of events. There were lots of ways to play it. I could try to heal the butler and see if he turned happy. I could offer to simply take the puppies out. Or I could even try to kill him and rack up points. None of which would let me go get drunk in a bar without death or some stupid additional quest.
“Would you kindly go outside and dig yourself an appropriately sized hole to jump into?”
The butler stepped closer. I couldn’t tell if he was high level or weak. He got closer and kept looking down his nose at us. The dogs mostly. They crowded around my feet. Despite the fur, my toes felt like they were dripped in slime.
Healing was my class. [Natural Vibe] gave me the impression he was sick. Deeply sick. Snot bubbled out his nose and popped, a situation he seemed content with.
“You’ve got something right there,” I said, pointing to the grossness.
He nodded and did nothing to wipe off the mess. “Yes. It’s all proper given the situation. Now, shall I escort you willingly to the field for burial, or shall I be forced to call the authorities? One requires significantly more cleaning and given the state of our staff at the moment, I’d have to mop up your entrails myself.”
“Option two sounds disgusting. Option one?” I kept glancing at his icky nose. It was that or follow his hand to the torn up dead bodies lying around us. I’d spent the entire trip following after Rose and StoneMason mostly ignoring the defeated creatures left behind by other players.
“Then turnabout, you mud dweller. Take these dogs with you. They can help dig.” The butler pointed at the doorway behind us.
I finally found space to pull out cloth from my inventory. Normally they were used for barrooms to clean a table, but they served as snot rags. My hand brought it up. “Yes, here’s… here’s a tissue. If I could just…” I stalled while bringing the rag toward his nose.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the butler asked. His head reared back, and he looked at me for the first time. I lifted the object to block his vision. “This is highly irregular.”
Five dogs barked in unison. The sound distracted the butler even more. By the time he pushed the cloth to one side, I had already traced out most of the [Branch of Healing] spell on his chest. My pointer finger pressed the final dot down and green energy flashed.
I healed the undead butler.