Reality for last week had been crap but ended on a high note with lots of drinking and zero hangover. This latest work week had been worse and I’d hoped to end it with an equal level of reckless imbibing.
“Unskilled labor” which is near what my job was, could be required to work insane amounts simply to afford enough to pay rent. I envied those whose parents had left behind fortunes for them to squander. One day I might be able to retire from this repetitive hell. Day jobs were like school but worse.
A crappy week grew worse as I logged into a slew of unwelcome system notices. I picked through then found one that made me bang my head against a tree trunk. I'd fully activated the [Legacy] system. All of it. I'd somehow claimed twelve prior Friday's worth of characters and didn’t feel up to sorting through these notices in a rush.
Some die hard who cared about numbers would have combed through every single item searching for power ups and new spells. I swiped the piles of messages to the side, sighed heavily a few more times, banged my head against the tree repeatedly, and wondered how soon my virtual life would turn to shit. Both eyes tightened and I berated myself for even thinking a curse word. Then I hated myself for feeling bad at being upset.
There were plenty of things I couldn't do about this mess, but there was hope that I could ride this out for a bit longer. Long enough to make a difference with that darn [Widow’s Children] location. If nothing else, I wanted to do at least that right.
It simply depended on what would show up next. I stood up and looked beyond the stupid system messages and my own mental navel gazing.
There were tall trees all around me. Not one or two. I'd gotten lost in a lush forest and didn't remember it. Around and around I spun searching for a sign of town. That didn't get me anywhere. I flipped through the skills I'd gained for anything that might give me a sense of direction. None of the ones I'd gained helped with that. I had [Portal], [Shadow Movement], and [Cheap Drunk]. My virtual life and real life were both rudderless and without direction.
Tall trees. Short trees. No bushes. No squirrels, or whatever fantasy creature passed for nut hoarders in this region of [Arcadia]. I wandered around searching for anything familiar. Worst case I'd delete myself and start over. Sadly I'd left behind all my food and drink for the dogs before logging off. Hopefully they were alright. I'd find someone to adopt them soon.
"Hello?" I questioned while rolling my eyes. [Druid]s may be all about nature, but I'd gotten sick of being lost in the woods a few Fridays ago. The impulse to not think about prior Fridays got quashed. It didn't matter anymore now that I'd triggered everything.
"I hate being lost," I mumbled.
Barking filled the air. I spun to find a pack of dogs rushing at me. They moved quick, dodging around trees with practiced ease.
"Nice doggy!" Both hands went up in defensive. I'd had spells and abilities to stop from being attacked but they were lost in the sight of endless slobbering maws.
I fell back. Dogs piled onto me.
Protests flew forth. "No! Biting bad. Don't bite. Don't bite. I'm not tasty at all."
Tongues assaulted me. Long wet carriers of goo and slime and dirt. I convulsed wildly, torn between trying to get away and losing my mind at not being eaten by monsters.
Paws poked me in the side and groin causing me to cry out.One dog pushed past the others and nipped at my hand. I jerked it back and attempted to find any sign of life beyond the animals.
Help wasn’t arriving. I reached out for one of my floating screens in an effort to log out.
“Behave!” a woman shouted. The sudden sound made me pause. “Rocky, heel!”
The sudden shouting made me pause. Four dogs ran off to the other voice, barking happily. The fifth collapsed next to me and curled up to take a nap.
I vaguely recognized the patterns on their backs. The one next to me had to be the laziest one of the group, that kept lagging behind while we were in the manner. With one hand I reached out to pet the startlingly half grown canine. These dogs were all easily double the size they had been before, triple even. I’d been on a bender for most of our time together so I couldn’t tell for sure.
The new woman had a mob around her. “Sit. Sit. No, sit. Sit your not going to get any food.”
The four dogs padded around, bumping into her and fighting with each other for attention.
I stood up slowly and gave the situation a once over. “They like you,” I said.
“I like them. But they’re liking me is part of the gig. Animals and dryads,” she said while pressing a hand against her green chest. Her brown armor didn’t cover up an eye catching valley. “Goes together. Mostly. More of a city girl myself but nature has it’s appeal. Plus these guys are cute.”
“I can see that,” I said. She put out a hand and two of the hounds immediately fought over it, then tumbled over each other onto a distracted fourth.
She rambled. “Love dogs. Way better than cats. I detest cats. One ruined my prom dress and I’ve hated them ever since.”
“Well thanks for keeping an eye on them.”
Someone else had been taking care my dogs. Not that they were my dogs really. They were wild creatures I’d left to fend for themselves for a few weeks of game time. Only they’d survived. Did that qualify as nature, nurture, or simply someone else being a decent person?
No pop up box answered my half-joke of a thought.
“Which one is Rocky?” I asked.
A box popped up. It asked if I wanted to name a dog Rocky. A brief glow outlined the one with sharper features. Rocky must have been the leader. The box implied that her names hadn’t been accepted by the system, or the pack of slobbering animals.
“Rocky,” she said while pointing to the one I’d seen an outline on. “Their leader. The one with a clever look in his eye. But he doesn’t listen to simple commands, even after a week of trying to train them. So far all they want to do is chase people and eat.”
“Well. Rocky isn’t his name.”
“It is too,” she insisted.
The situation really hit me and I needed to blink slowly while my brain reset. Those were my five hounds from the [Widow’s Children] location. They were alive. A green skinned woman with bark for clothing stood amid a mess of yapping dogs. She wanted to name one of them Rocky.
“Sit. Sit or I’ll use the vines!” she shook a hand. Bushes around us twisted into new positions. The rustling made the dogs perk in unison and jerk their heads toward the moving plants.
I’d never run into a dryad as a player. At least, I was fairly sure this other person was a player. My interface had been disabled during my drunken bender so any indications on which person might be a Local or a Traveler had been banished.
It was time to start over. Like the decent person my mom had told me to be.
“Hello. I’m Friday.”
“No. Today’s Friday. You’re not a day. Because only an idiot would name themselves after a day.”
Her slip confirmed the players status for me. [Arcadia] thought today was Thursday, but only because of the weird time compression rules. I’d bet money on her name being something equally stupid but it wasn’t my place to point out hypocrisy. It never went well, especially when arguing with a female.
I gave a brief smile then moved on.
“Well, once again, they’re still alive, so thank you,” I said. Dad had raised me to be polite, or so I told myself. He hadn’t done much of anything aside from make sure I didn’t starve and had a roof over my head.
In hindsight, it was more than I’d ever realized. The thought made me cast my eyes down for a moment. This damn game was like that, something in here would trigger a stray thought of the past and for a moment time would skip.
By the time I returned to the conversation, the dryad had moved on. “My daughter said they needed to be watched. I didn’t have anything to do today so, dog sitting. I love dogs.”
She was gushy. I couldn’t get a feel for age based on green skin, but the woman in front of me carried herself like a confused teenager.
Ditsy or Demanding, Dryad’s Domain
I swiped away the message without reading much beyond the title. Whatever it said probably didn’t matter compared to everything else. If it became an issue, I’d track back and give it a once over.
First stop, I’d get back to town. From there I could find Johnny. Then we could probably go check out [Widow’s Children] with my new and improved ranks. The old butler there might give me an actual quest.
“There a road nearby?”
“It’s that way. Maybe a minute or two if you sprint, can’t miss it. Then that mess of a town’s that way a few miles.” She kept trying to point but the dogs were jumping for her arms. “There’s loggers though. They keep invading and I’ve been leaving my autopilot on to fight them.”
Once again, her word choice confirmation the player status.
“It’d be useful if you left yours on too. Then we might keep this place in one piece. Though it’s got too much power for most of the low ranks,” she suggested.
I couldn’t figure out how I felt about that right now. My autopilot would probably flop around and drink heavily. She’d said this place had a lot of power which made sense given my skills had probably jumped.
“Probably my fault,” I mumbled then brought up my windows again. I’d ignored them all due to the vague sense of impending doom.
There it was, [Druid] Path, Rank ten. I’d shot a lot of ranks in my brief absence, and regained a few minor Paths. Apparently I’d gained [Cook] back as well, which would help if I had to feed dogs. I couldn’t figure out how all my other stuff managed to actually bump up this new Path though.
“Yeah. If this is tied to my rank it would have sky rocketed while I was gone. And,” I squinted at the screens. “Apparently this is my grove?”
I didn’t understand that at all. I mean, I did, but I didn’t remember setting up a grove of any sort. The quest to find my mentor still hung there, waiting for me to finish it. It’d help to track down the [Stellar Druid] that might be my mentor and ask questions about this class.
Maybe he’d want to have a few drinks. This was the weekend after all. In real life.
“Don’t know! Might be mine. I planted my tree over there, so don’t be a dick and chop it down. Or I’ll have to get my daughter to stab you. She’s been really into stabbing people lately.”
The dryad might have been joking but I didn’t know for sure. The woman stared at me past a mob of bouncing dogs. They leapt up in the air trying to bite at her arms for attention.
There was something disturbing about having her glare at me so intensely. I put a mark in the “delete this Friday soon” box. I could come back as a some other character that hadn’t met the clearly thriving dogs, this forest, or any other bit of possible annoyance.
“Well? You going to fuck with my tree or not?”
“Not?” That seemed like the right answer but pop quizzes from women were often laden with traps. There were multiple reasons I didn’t date anymore, and a decade of failing relationship cues was only one.
“Good.” She nodded.
Green, I decided, made noses look pointier than normal. It also shimmered more from sweat than the normal array of colors.
“Good,” I echoed slowly then sped up. Her bubbling words were contagious. “My grove. Your tree. Lots of dogs. Loggers. Right outside town. It’s a perfect family.”
My stomach sank. That had been a stupid thing to say.
Her nose wrinkled. “I have a family, thanks. If I wanted a new one I wouldn’t pick a part time flake like you.” She put up a hand while I considered asking her name again. “Oh. Gotta go! Rose will be on in a bit if you want to group with her. Maybe a few hours in here?”
Her arm waved in the air, pressing at a box I couldn’t see. The woman paused to lift an eyebrow at me.
“I do have some quests,” I said slowly.
Her daughter was Rose? I did mental math and realized this woman must be older than I’d expected. Maybe close to my age. That would be a little bit more my speed, except for older women often came with miles of baggage, which is why I’d decided, at some point I was sure, to be single for the rest of my life.
The color about her faded slightly, turning bright green and sweaty kind semi pasty. I had to assume that sudden shift happened because of her autopilot taking over.
“Come on puppies! Good puppies. Let’s go stop some loggers,” she said, then ran off.
Next to me, the fifth dog got up slowly, licked my face, then ran off after the other pack members. Their barking filled the air.
“Bye?” I questioned again.
The game had blind sided me with that whole mess. The chances of a dryad race character moving into a grove I’d planted last weekend were low. It was also unlikely that she’d like dogs and be Rose’s mother.
I frowned, put away thoughts of some grand conspiracy, and chalked the whole mess up to Continue’s crazy way of making stuff fit together. Players contributed to the world, and each other, more than any grand story lines created by the computer.
“At least she took care of the dogs,” I said while nodding.
All in all, I almost liked her. Even if the rest of this character went wrong, I could be sure she’d keep the animals safe.
Off I went.
The trees were thinner and the road itself became pretty obvious. With a little effort I could have found it myself. I shook my head, ignoring the braying of hounds in the distance, and marched in a direction that probably went to town.
I checked my inventory on the way. According to the game interface I’d left myself with zero liquor, food, water, and gold. If I’d really claimed my [Legacy]s, I’d find myself in the negatives quick. Bartenders didn’t give tabs to [Criminals] or people with [Debt]
[Cook] came with known recipes. There were a few for poorly roasted animals and some that might make a passable drink next weekend, but none of them would let me magically assemble a beer from nothing.
Or would they? I poked around the windows searching through some of the weirder stuff I’d picked up over a dozen characters. My [Enchanting] from the first Friday had unlocked, giving me a whole two glyphs. Those were fancy spells I could trace onto items.
I’d park those for later. I’d never tried to use them on a higher Path character before so maybe they’d be useful or it might be like farting in a whirlwind.
Some of these skills would let me sneak around easier. I’d done that on two characters and those were useful. [Dimensional Magus] seemed to have unlocked something that had been blurred out by my interface. I barely remembered how any of that worked.
My hands waved in a vague outline of a beer. “Summon liquor!” I tried again, taking care to sketch out a rough handle. My fingers glowed a bit but nothing happened. [Summoner], [Foolish Summoner], [Dimensional Magus], and [Cook] did not automatically give me an ability to summon drinks. It should have.
What I couldn’t figure out, is how [Druid] had jumped so much. Being a Rank five [Priest] might play a part since they both healed, but nature and the Voices were way different in this game. It didn’t make sense.
Maybe I needed to combine some of the spells. The one’s I’d learned for [Enchanting] were drawing based, and [Druid] spells could form in the air. I attempted to trace them out and trigger a result but apparently combinations didn’t work like that.
Sometimes the game world annoyed me. Everything we did in here had to go with a sort of mental trigger, or action taken. Mages cast almost everything by chanting [Lithium] or using prepared spells. Everything I’d learned as a mage in that crash course college, which was essentially a cram school, had been about math and angles and reflections.
Granted, I’d also taken courses focused on summoning a hole into another dimension to return the favor of crapping on a monster. That had required me to take courses proving a connection between Continue Online, Advance Online, Progression Online, and so on.
They were connected. Apparently with enough levels, or Ranks, I could have opened a portal straight back to the superhero world of Progression and simply had my skills transfer over.
Instead, they’d joined me here. I checked the abilities again and tried to remember how to cast everything from a year ago. If I’d put more effort into gaining Ranks, I might have been able to open a portal straight to town.
A whole bunch of half formed mishmashes occurred during the walk to town but none of them solidified. I’d play around with it more with a drink or two in me.
The hounds barked as they ran through the woods ahead of me. The dryad’s form chased after them. Green energy flowed from her fingertips and wind rushed through the trees.
My head shook. This forest had probably gone insane because of both our Path’s. One of the dogs circled back to me, jumped up and licked my face.
All this walking, and they were still beating me places by running around like wild animals. I reaffirmed my belief in not caring about micromanaging skills right now and continued on toward the town.
Maybe that was part of the [Druid] path. What would happen, would happen. Trying to nail down every single aspect of the world and how events might turn out had been a mage trait.
Town loomed on the horizon. I heard my dogs barking in the distance. They weren’t stealthy, at least, two of them weren’t. I’d been fairly sure that with five dogs there should have been a lot more noise.
The noise of the dogs brought back memories. I’d worked with canines before in the service. Not directly, they had handlers, but those guys had been everywhere when we were out and about. Canines were still better bomb sniffers, and couldn’t go down when someone scrambled the technology.
Life had been simple then. Scary, but straight forward. People told me when to sleep, when to eat, when to go back to something vaguely civilized and rest. Even when I’d been put on a medical rotation, it’d been more of the same. Check people over, change their bandages. Apply goop. Wipe goop off.
Now I had bills. My dad hadn’t prepared me for bills. Or children. Or anything.
“What are you staring at?” someone shouted.
I blinked a few times and tried to figure out an answer to his question. There were four mules, or something close with hairier legs. They were staring at me.
They had not been my focus.
There were lots of trees nearby, but there were stumps too, freshly cut with wood shavings all over the place. The wooded area thinned out considerably, giving way to the player town.
“Right,” I responded. Pack animals for players and Locals were fairly close to earth standard versions. In the front north they’d had these stocky creatures that were like six legged ostriches.
Players out at the edge of the woods shouting at each other. One had focused on me. Nervous looking guards had crappy swords at the ready. The best thing about town guards is their skill levels were almost always obvious based on their gear and how they stood. Players, not so much.
“Ignore him. He’s clearly some low rank training his wilderness skills. He’ll be off adventuring in a week or two.”
“This close to town? That’s stupid. We shouldn’t even be a starter town.”
“Hey! The council voted on it so we’d get bonuses and cheap labor, like you.” He pointed at the other player with his cheap wood saw. “Besides, everyone starts somewhere. Now let’s get these damn trees down while the dogs are distracted.”
“Damn dogs!” the other player shouted in agreement. He lifted an equally shitty hand saw and put it to the base of a tree.
“Hey!” I mimicked his earlier tone. “No logging.”
The player stared at me in confusion.
“Because I said so” never went well with players. People, I’d found over the years, cared little enough in real life. They cared even less in a virtual world where most things could be walked away from. Me as a solid case and point. Normally I wouldn’t care either, but that dryad had asked nicely enough and the dogs were happy and well fed.
I went with logic. “The forest is a path of mine. Gives bonuses. You really want to chop it down?”
I felt fairly sure I’d been speaking English. Or whatever language we used here in the virtual world.
“This is my grove,” I said.
“Well, I need a new house!” the player shouted back. “And who the hell are you?” His cry rallied others nearby.
“The druid who owns this place!” Logic was failing.
“Bullshit. No druids are high enough rank in town to have a grove this big.”
“Am too. I even got the bear feet to prove it. And a bunch of other mighty druid powers.” I gestured to my feet. Thankfully they were only bare feet, not bear feet. Plus, I could drink like a fish. That had to be a [Druid] power.
Really, I was still reeling from rejoining the game, finding a dryad, dogs, and all the woes of my past.
“Well these trees are growing all over. They’re going to ruin the town!” the first loggers aid.
“They already ruined my house while I was gone. I need a new house.” The second one pointed above me.
I turned briefly and glanced up. There was a house, if anyone could call it a house, caught between tree branches at least twenty feet off the ground. It looked more like an outhouse with a “Wecleome” sign. I briefly wondered if the mispelled sign was the game being mean, or the player being bad at [English].
“You gonna replace my house mister fancy pants druid with raggedy clothes? Bet you ain’t got a silver in your pocket!”
I didn’t. I’d drank it all away last weekend.
“Yeah, give him back his house! And I need wood to level up my carving skills.”
“You can level it fine using broken branches. Until at least Rank three.” I’d done exactly that. Even now, I could probably do it again since I’d inherited that Friday’s leftovers. My eyes tightened in brief worry. That tree would probably find me again in another month. I did not have the mental fortitude to deal with the evil-exs I’d carved onto it.
“Well I’m rank three now!” the second man jabbed himself with the saw then winced in sudden pain. The tree felling instrument hit the dirt as he danced around cursing. “God damn this game!”
They hadn’t been playing long. At least, not if they were jabbing themselves with weapons they hadn’t put away. Part of me felt confused that people were still new to any of the Trillium games. After almost six years, nearly anyone should have at least spent a few hours inside virtual reality.
But I’d also banged myself with my staff upon recovering it, so what did I know?
“Don’t chop down my trees or I’ll make them grow legs and attack you.”
“Try it! I”ll get a raid on your forest and burn it all down.”
“Then you won’t have lumber for a house.”
I waffled a bit on how much it really mattered to me when a box popped up.
Naturalist Naturally Numb?
While a bit of a stretch, it’s interesting to note that you’re still walking a fine line between nature, that is letting a place like this grow wildly all on it’s own, and nurture, that is, caring enough to put up a token effort to stop people. Maybe that makes you a true druid. Maybe it makes you an indecisive idiot.
It’s less about what you do each moment, but what you’ve done with your life as a whole. As your [Legacy] shows, you’re a man somewhere in the middle. You want to be left alone, but still want to be with people. You want to help others, but still see the futility of it all.
Find your mentor and ask what they think. Or don’t.
I sighed, swiped the notice away, and waved off the loggers. Right on cue the hounds barked, stomping through the trees.
Mules brayed and kicked up clods of dirt. They ran. The two loggers threw their hand saws at each other and took off. Even the shoddy guardsmen backed up wearily, hands on their swords.
I gave my [Portal] spell from a few Friday’s ago a whirl and managed to open up a thumb sized gateway to fecal matter land, right in front of the fleeing men. Crap poured out onto the ground, which the man promptly stepped right into and slipped forward.
Their escape turned into a comedy of errors.
My head tilted briefly. Had my pack of hounds really become that scary? Maybe the autopilot dryad with them made a difference, or being in a grove. I felt sure the answers were somewhere in the depths of all my windows but I’d only been back in the game an hour or so.
Reading and doing math took way too much focus for sober me. [Speed Reader], one of the skills I’d gained, only did so much. [Studious], [Bookworm], and [Focused] would matter if I cared to sit down.
In the army I might have been willing to sit down and piece it all together. That was the problem with growing older, the stuff I cared about narrowed. It was freeing, in a sense, to realize how little much of life mattered.
The dirty road would have bothered me before the military. Now it simply reminded me of being on patrol.
The loud sounds all around would have bothered me, but I’d grown used to teenagers screaming and people freaking out in the ambulance. This chaotic player based city failed to impress me.
I wove through town heading to the most likely place to find Johnny. If he was online, he’d be selling his services at the [Adventuring Hall], which is the fancy name for our town’s rally point. Raids on bosses started there. People put up fliers asking for resources. Crafters hawked their services.
If I felt like carving some wood statues, I could sell them there. I’d been good at it too. My better works could make cold nights warmer, buff up perception, act as sentries. It had been a lot like enchanting, but involved doing something with my hands. As long as I didn’t carve a tree with my ex girlfriends faces on it again, it’d be worth resuming the skill. It probably figured into the [Druid] path growing.
Johnny stood on a corner of the road hopping back and forth. His eyes drafted from player to player searching out his next mark. If I let him be, he’d soon be hounding someone about betting on wyvern races and citing how he knew which dingle tingled wrongly today.
“Johnny!” I shouted.
He head whipped around so fast that his entire body ended up doing a three sixty.
His feet came to a bumbling halt. “Friday?” he questioned then scrunched up his face.
We were too far apart and the other players were loud. I walked close so his voice would be clearer. The shorter man with his hairy feet glared up at me then squinted even harder.
“What happened to your face?”
[Beat With Ugly Stick] happened to to my face and the rest of me. I didn’t rely on my looks to get by. Oscar Award winner material I was not. Players walked by but they ignored us. Neither of us were wearing decent clothes and in most regular people’s eyes, we were probably newbies. I had been sort of one last weekend. Now my stats were all skewed and wildly higher than before.
“Fell down some stairs,” I answered.
Johnny snorted. “That drunk huh? Because it looks like you fell up the stairs too. I think I have some cream for that. Put color back in your cheeks. Forty gold.”
“No thanks. These lumps add to my charm.”
“Charm’s not a stat.”
He reached out and patted a player’s rear. The man turned around and glared at Johnny. He shrugged. I felt fairly sure he’d stolen some of the players money but the other man wouldn’t notice.
“Sure it is,” I insisted while pretending nothing had happened. “And swagger. And moxie.”
“Got a cream for your archaic sense of word choice. Ten gold.”
That reminded me of an old joke I’d heard while in boot camp. One of the guys I bunked with used to repeat the same line every time I used too many out of place words.
“You can take the city out of the girl,” I stopped talking. “Darn. Can’t remember the rest of that one.” Johnny’s eyebrow lifted slowly.
I shrugged then said, “Guy I knew in the service used to spout it.”
Johnny shook his head. “Got a cream for your bad jokes. One for your lumpy ass too. Those one costs more. We’ll have to raid a guild’s headquarters for the bad joke cream though. IT’s a high demand item.”
I snorted, which devolved into full chuckling. Johnny joined in. He’d been joking, which was a far cry from last weekend, where he’d been all but begging me to help him out. Whatever the fallout from our half baked caper had been, he’d clearly come out ahead.
“Tell you what, you get us some drinks, I’ll supply the additive, and we’ll go fight ourselves a dungeon.”
“What?” Johnny might have meant “why do I have to get the drinks?” but I pretended to misunderstand him. With my Legecy’s recovered, there was a large chance that I’d be denied at every bar in town. Having criminal points made getting a bar tab hard.
“Widow’s Children. I want to go back there.”
“You want to, what?”
Johnny’s jaw cranked slowly like I’d broken some essential function in his brain.
“I want to fix that place. We can go back and stop that curse, prevent the whole teraforming. Remove the dungeon entirely.”
“I thought that was just a lie you told the others to sound cool. Stoney didn’t say you’d actually been serious.”
Trust those kids to think I’d been joking. I shook my head, waved at Johnny, and wandered off in the direction of [Widow’s Children]. Somewhere along the way I remembered I had a map. It didn’t look that far to walk.
“Seventy gold! No, two hundred!” Johnny’s frantic hopping knocked over another players, still he kept on trying to wheedle money of out me. “Friday! For three gold I’ll find us another way in. Come on man. I need the money.”
I turned to march steadily toward the instance. The sooner I explored that place and solve it, the sooner I could feel like I’d done one shitty thing right in my life.
“Friday!” Johnny yelled. “Come on man. I’ve got five kids to feed.”
My bold stride off to the edge of town faltered. Johnny had kids? No, I decided. He was probably tossing out one of his half baked bits of nonsense to distract me. I checked my money in case, but realized it still said zero. I didn’t have a copper to my name and that would be alright, as long as Johnny brought the drinks.