We went in through the servants wing, which turned out to be another entrance separate from the dog kennels or the main doorway. There were too many rooms to keep track of and this [Widow’s Children] instance probably boasted more square footage than a royal castle.
Rose followed Johnny around trying to figure out how he got around without being murdered by every monster on the map. The dogs followed me around hoping for snacks. I, for my part, followed a string of dead monsters left behind an angry young woman while mourning my dwindling supply of liquor. Occasionally we fought monsters, which I sucked at.
All these hallways looked the same. It’d been the same during the war. Every house had the same air about it. Tired. Run down. Empty with a lingering echo of muted terror. There were signs that these belongings had been cared for once, a long time ago. Dust piled high on unpolished wood. Frames hung askew on the wall. The paintings they may have housed were either torn or stolen, probably by Johnny.
Sarge barked quietly then licked my hand. He seemed to be asking how I was doing.
“I’m tired. Everything here is dull and lifeless.” I tipped over my cup. “And the drink’s run dry. I don’t know why I do these things. It’d be easier to stay in town and take up a trade like, healing sick villagers.”
There was a thought. Rather than delve into the combat oriented dungeon with a misfit band of dogs, I could lay back and offer healing services on the roadside. Of course, doing so would probably come with taxes. I’d bet a paycheck that these players had figured out how to charge business owners for breathing their town’s rarefied air.
Sarge barked. Ball and Chain lifted their heads and turned to stare back down an endless hallway at us. They’d been scouting ahead. Trap always seemed lost in one of the side rooms. Sleepy stumbled next to me, using my legs as a prop. Their leader, Sarge, barked again and Trap poked his head out of a doorway. He growled softly.
[Animal Understanding] meant I generally understood what was happening. Sarge’s single barks reminded me of a status report demand back in the service. Trap was like a grumpy scout who wanted to be blowing stuff up instead of talking. That growl probably meant we were about to be attacked.
“Filthy!” a distorted female voice shouted. It grew closer and twitched violently. “Paw prints everywhere. Dirty. So much scrubbing.”
I sighed. That bark had been right. Rose had missed another monster.
“It’ll never be clean as long as these mutts roam the halls.”
“Cleaning never ends,” I agreed.
The maid ignored me.
“Look. Look.” She stumbled over nothing and slammed into the corner of a table. I was pretty sure I’d banged into that same tiny table last time we’d visited here.
A limp wrist and barely functional arm lifted in my direction. “This is your fault.”
That was monster speak for “I will kill you”.
“Probably.” The cup hadn’t refilled itself.
I pondered striking first but I had the battle instincts of a lump. A decade out of the service had dulled me. Machines did all the work now anyway. They’d taken my dream job as a doctor and left me as the equivalent of a sandwich artisan.
“Unwanted guests must be removed.” She shambled forward.
I stared blankly. So far I hadn’t done much personal fighting. My spells were a mess. [Branch of Healing] was my cheapest recovery spell. There were still [Tiny Lightning Bolt]s and a [Negatively Charged Bolt] which I didn’t understand. Knowing my luck I’d use it and zap myself.
Sarge barked. The maid changed targets and increased speed toward him. He lowered his head with a snarl. As he neared, Ball and Chain step behind the maid and grabbed her legs. She went face first into the ground. For the final insult, Sleepy went over and sat on the flailing maid’s back. Her pale broken face somehow went whiter. The wildly moving arms went limp.
“Nice.” I clapped.
Sarge barked in what felt like pride. Ball and Chain growled but kept their teeth locked around her calves. Sleepy curled up and settled in for a nap.
I wandered over calmly and used [Branch of Healing] followed by two more healing spells. Like a few strays I’d already run into, this maid showed no signs of recovering. Those dogs had healed. That butler had healed, but these maids didn’t change at all. I couldn’t tell if my rank was too high now, which would go against logic but drunk me thought it made sense.
The creature’s body flaked at the edge. “This one too huh?”
Sarge grumbled then pawed at her decaying head.
Killing the last one had left a corpse of a corpse. The one I’d healed before that turned to dust just like this one. I hadn’t figured out why [Branch of Healing] or any other spell turned them into flakes, but whatever. The game did it’s thing and I could only start over as a new Friday or go along with the weirdness.
Trap growled in warning. We had company. Sarge commanded everyone into positions.
Ball and Chain let go of the decaying maid and ran to corners near furniture. Their black fur seemed to merge with the small shadows. Sleepy stood up and shook wildly. Ash from the fading maid fluttered everywhere creating a cloud.
I clapped then throw a [Tiny Lightning Bolt] through the cloud.
It hit nothing. My eyes rolled. It was easier to simply focus on healing my little yapping party of puppies.
Ball and Chain hit the first maid to come out. She twisted flipping the dogs into each other. The girls became a tangled mess. I traced out every healing spell I had gained. [Lesser Light] from being a [Priest]. [Branch of Healing] and [Bough of Regeneration]. The system even flashed me another message telling me I’d cast enough healing spells in a row to do something.
I didn’t have time to stare at it as the animals continued to fight maids.
The lot of them kept my dogs healthy and so filled with regeneration spells their skin glowed. Sleepy sat in the middle of his dust cloud with utter chaos him. He stopped to scratch his ear while Ball and Chain spun across the floor rending a maid limb from limb. They reminded me of alligators doing a death spin, but with canines.
Sarge barked sharply a few times.
Trap, resident growler, dove into the side of another maid.
I threw more healing spells, sure they’d either turn the undead into ash or make the dogs glow. One maid clawed at my legs and I bonked her in the head with my staff.
Rose screamed. My head pulled back as the sheer sharpness of her unhappy yell made my mind go blank. The dogs whimpered, so did one of the maids as she turned to ash.
My eyes were blinking unevenly. The walls spun. Ash, or dust, or whatever the hell had been in Sleepy’s fur settled slowly.
There stood Rose, in the middle of a mess of decaying undead and confused dogs.
I rocked slowly then waved with the free hand. My other pushed the staff against the ground to keep me propped up and vaguely steady.
“What happened here?” JOhnny asked.
He was inspecting one of the short hallway cabinates for whatever. Trap nosed over next to him, driving them small man’s hands out of the way. Both struggled to peer behind the small door.
“I made friends.”
Johnny whistled into the desk. The sound echoed inside.
“Would you believe this is a secret tunnel?”
“Yeah we shouldn’t go down there. I’m claustrophobic. Ever since that thing with the sand worms.” Johnny shuddered.
Sarge licked a paw. Ball and Chain were circling around the lot of us searching for whatever they expected to find. Johnny threw something into the piece of hall furniture he’d been inspecting hastily closed the door. Trap growled for a second then something went boom and the wall shook.
I stared at the lot of them and tried to figure out what the hell just happened. Rose and Johnny had shown up from nowhere, found a secret tunnel, thrown an explosive in it, and my dogs were all okay.
That sounded like a win but it would have been easier if I understood what happened.
Fridays Freaky Healing
You’ve shown yourself to be a journeyman of at least three types of healing.
That’s great for you, better for everyone else.
Keep it up.
The message went on to tell me some more useless knowledge about how my healing spells would get a bonus and people might actually seek me out to help cure complicated problems. I took that as game code for “Now we have a reason to give you weird quests, and it’s because you flailed wildly in a dungeon using too many spells”.
My mana was a mess.
Rose shook her head. “Dogs dog-piling zombie maids is fucked up.”
“It’s hilarious.” Johnny pulled out treats and threw them to the circling dogs. Sarge refused to eat enough enough supplies had been prepared for the other four. Ball and Chain ate theirs side by side.
“I like it.” My shoulders lifted in a shrug. I eyed the decaying corpses and whistled.
Sarge barked and ignored an outstretched finger pointing at the monsters. Trap dove for the body and dug through for functional loot. He tore off some pants and brought them back with the rest of the corpse still inside. I shook the clothes at arms length and let the leg fall out. A leg fell out which Ball and Chain fought over. Sleepy stayed on the ground staring at a foot like it should be jumping in his mouth.
It’d be gone soon. I’d cast enough healing magic to hit every single maid, and apparently there’d been a lot more than the three I’d noticed. I pointed at the next corpse. Sarge barked again and cocked his head. Trap went to work and found me one shoe.
Rose shook her head. “Seriously. You’re not even playing the game yourself. Makes this whole thing kind of boring.”
“Lots of loot though!” Johnny fed the dogs and eyed every item up and down the hall. His fingers waved in the air making notes appear on our shared map. He snagged items well before the dogs even noticed and put them into his bottomless bag. We all had a player inventory, but those only held so much. Johnny’s run down sack seemed to hold way more than it should have.
My hands balled into fists which I held up slowly. “I’m so overpowered.”
I wasn’t really that strong. I just had a lot of little ranks and a few really high ones. I got lucky that they went together well. All my skills had apparently secretly been kind of the same. Summoning, or portals, and medical skills. Basically I got around and could fix people. I didn’t have any real skill with weapons or rogue skills beyond being a bit sneaky.
“That’s only three groups. We should have found a lot more.”
Johnny cupped his hands and shouted into a nearby room. “We’re sneaky!”\
“Jesus. Really? Friday can’t you control your friend?”
“For thirty gold I’ll do whatever you want.”
“He would do anything for gold.”
Rose pointed down the hallway. Another shambling maid walked by. Her clothes were a wreck along with the rest of her body.
Johnny’s face puckered. “But I won’t do that.” He waved short arms at the undead.
I chuckled dryly. The liquor had worn off but everything still amused me. “Sure you would. For enough gold.”
He licked his lips then started counting on fingers. Finally he said, “Nope. That’s a trap.”
One of the dogs perked up. They were already clear on their names. I hadn’t even tried to train them. [Druid]s apparently could cheat when it came to training dogs they’d rescued from the evil countess whatever’s home.
“We looking for anything specific?” Rose asked. She’d been content enough to stab monsters for the first hour or so but that was starting to get old.
“I ran into a butler here last time. Said I wasn’t strong enough to cure this place. I figure now with eight more ranks in my main path and all these little side paths, maybe I can do something.”
“Any ideas on how to find your quest giver?”
“Drag the dogs around making a mess.”
Rose chewed her bottom lip in thought then nodded. “That must be why the maids are attacking us.”
Rose and Johnny were far sneakier than me and the pack of dogs. They continued to range ahead while the rest of us made a mess. We exploded nearly every room, went upstairs and downstairs, found more monsters than a mansion this size should house, but no sign of the butler or any other boss. Our journey had sent us in circles that were utterly useless.
Finally we gathered in a cleared room and took a real break. Virtual reality didn’t excuse the need to use the bathroom or stand up and stretch. There were creames that could remove a lot of the soreness from extended play, and I remember hearing that some of the richer people could afford what were essentially suits that kept up muscle tone and health. Somehow they’d make the person move around while their mind got feedback from virtual reality. It gave them safe exercise in the real world and adventure in the fake one.
I couldn’t afford that kind of stuff. Maybe if I’d been a real doctor much sooner.
Real life needs taken care of, I logged back into Continue Online and found the others babysitting my dogs.
Rose scratched Sleepy’s ears. His leg thumped. “Wait until they get bigger.”
“They’ll get bigger?” Johnny had an endless supply of treats. Ball and Chain sat in front of him, tails wagging in unison.
“Probably. Companion pets can be huge.”
“Friend of mine had a T-Rex. The thing ate sheep for meals. He’d learned this conjuring spell that let him summon a sheep for gold from a farmer out in West Vale. Was Anyway, during lunch time he’d summon a sheep, give it a ten second head start, then take bets on how long it’d survive.”
Johnny rubbed his hands together. “That’s a real money making idea.” He turned and noticed I’d logged back in. “Say Friday, can you do that?”
I slowly parsed what they’d been saying. Going from my real world bathroom back to whatever virtual place I’d parked in always threw me off for a minute.
“Maybe. Though I don’t think I can summon sheep,” I said. “I only learned summoning magic to do one thing.”
Rose smiled then grimaced as Sleepy collapsed on her legs. His half sized paws were clearly sharp enough to dig through clothes. She said, “You’ve got to be careful with any extra planer summons. Sometimes you’ll get epic versions and they’ll kill your pet.”
“No,” Johnny said. His eyes went wide. “Your friend with the sheep?”
Rose laughed. “Oh it’s exactly what you’re thinking. Sheep versus T-Rex, and the sheep won! We actually saw the damn thing level up, or whatever animals do. Rank up. Went from a monster called Baa Baa the Bad to Baa Baa the Everliving. It’s fleece turned gold and those horns were practically platinum. Took a quick ten man raid to bring it down after the sheep went mad with power.”
We ate a meal in game. The dogs were still half grown and apparently knew how to beg, which made Rose laugh herself. I got the impression that she’d been looking for an excuse to relax and have fun. Murdering monsters had a certain amount of catharsis but laughter won.
“So Dapper. You’ve told me all about Friday, but nothing about yourself. What’s up with that?”
Johnny froze. Eventually he gave a rueful grin and glanced away from us.
He didn’t like sharing about his life. I’d never asked Johnny. I’d never wanted to know what his story before we met had been. The only reason we knew each other in real life was a few visits to a veterans clinic, where we both went for checkups now and then. It was kind of messed up to think that someone I saw in passing was the closest friend I had.
He also still hadn’t answered.
I sighed and rescued him. “Johnny’s not a fan of talking about himself, but he’s a good guy. He got me started on Continue and the wonders of digital drinking. All the affect, none of the hangover.”
He snorted then shook his head. Sarge barked and the dogs all stood up and circled around him. They barreled the short man over and attacked with wet tongues.
Rose chuckled. As to the topic of Johnny’s past, she seemed wise enough to let it drop.
We needed to get back on track. I’d had a few thoughts while in the bathroom, aside from wondering if green skin felt like regular skin in a virtual world, but one of them had been how to find the snobby butler.
I started us off. “Alright. I’ve got a plan.”
Johnny’s hands both went up in a full stop motion. “Whoa. Is it better then trying to ride a kite off the castle walls right?”
That had gone better than I’d expected. One of my Fridays, the madly running field medic, had been all about finding bodies and dragging them back to safety. At some point I’d run out ropes to people then attached them onto our soldiers so they could be pulled to safety. I’d also tried to get a kite and ride it down to the battle field. The whole mess had been inspired after my [Tinkerer] character.
“That was a great plan. It got me out in the field almost three times faster.”
“You mean you crashed in the field three times faster.”
Rose smiled softly. She seemed a bit subdued after stepping on Johnny’s virtual toes. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Dog tracking!” My shoulders lifted in a long shrug.
They both stopped to think about my brilliant idea of using the five dogs to hunt down the butler.
She nodded. “That might work.”
“Are any of them trackers?” Johnny asked.
I pointed at him accusingly. “You’re a tracker and it’s done you no good.”
Johnny laughed. “You didn’t pay me enough.”
“I don’t have any gold!” He’d taken all of it. I’m fairly sure the only reason he’d led PileDriver to my stuff was so he could follow PileDriver around long to steal all his gold too. And his friends. And their bases. I still didn’t know what Johnny did with it all.
“So, the dogs.” Rose said.
I nodded then whistled. Sarge barked and the five dogs meandered over to me. I scratched Sarge on the head, then went for Ball, or Chain, but her sister butted in demanded to be pet at the same time.
“Remember the bad man last time? The one who didn’t like you guys tracking mud on the floor?”
Sarge barked happily then chased his tail for a second. Ball and Chain ran off to fight over a bone that had survived my healing apocalypse. I worried about their diet but filed it away for later. Digital dog pets could probably eat anything. Real dogs certainly did.
“Well go get him! But no biting. We need him unbittened.” My eyebrows wrinkled. I’d said a word that didn’t exist and it hung in my mind as a distorted echo. “Go!”
Sarge barked repeatedly then dashed off. Ball and Chain followed shortly after. Trap went slower, sniffing at every doorway.
I glanced down at Sleepy. “Well?”
He yawned at me.
“Okay?” Rose echoed.
“He’s got a lot on his plate. Being a dog is hard work.”
Johnny laughed then hefted his backpack over a shoulder and took off after the dogs. They rounded a corner that I felt fairly sure I’d been around a million times already. This bonkers maze of a dungeon made zero sense to me. Of course, being drunk enough, I might have done loops through the same three floors.
Johnny stood in a doorway. The Trap growled on the otherside. Johnny turned to me and pointed through the doorway. “That’s not a butler.”
I walked to the door and leaned over Johnny’s shorter frame. The dogs had found cat sized termites instead. Dozens of bugs crawled upon walls. Johnny held a lamp up and the bugs skittered around.
Sarge barked happily at me and wagged his daily.
“Wrong,” I said.
Sarge barked again with a slightly sour note.
“The butler. Not the bugs.”
They both started with the same sound. Maybe his puppy memory couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t have a solid grasp on how long they’d been in that room bumbling around compared to running around the forest with Rose’s mom.
“I hate bugs,” our third said. She had her back pressed against the far wall away from the doorway. “They need to all burn.”
The bugs were clearly offended because they waved their antennas back and forth then charged like a tide.
There were more than a few up on those walls. There were dozens.
Johnny rummaged in his bag. He’d pulled a bomb out of there last time. What came next might be worse, or better.
“Out!” I shouted at the dogs.
Sarge ran out. Ball and Chain were already down the hall. Trap was nowhere to be seen and Sleepy dozed against the wall next to Rose.
Rose shuddered. I’d expected her to be more a of a veteran to ugly encounters.
Sleep ignored my cry and snorted. One leg kicked unsteadily.
Clicking noises came from my side.
“Fire!” Johnny shouted.
Heat flared. I fell back. Sleepy leaned over and licked my face. Johnny cackled madly as bugs started to squeal.
“Burn them all!” Rose danced in spot, accidentally stepping on Sleepy’s paw. He yipped and stumbled to the side.
My eyes were overloaded from the sudden shift in lighting. The bugs squealed like giant pigs. Hisses and pops came out of the room while the dogs barked loudly. Sleepy whimpered. Trap dug at the wall behind us.
Johnny laughed madly. He spun the fire to the side, burning the door frame and bugs seeking to get out of the aflame room. A small hoard tried to poke out the other side but were burned by Johnny sweeping the flame back and forth.
Sarge barked for attention. I turned and found him huddled near Rose. He pushed himself back against the wall and kept flicking an ear back. Fur on his neck stood up. Sarge gave off a vibe of annoyance and wariness.
“It’s okay.” My fingers stretched over to rub his head. “Johnny won’t burn us all to the ground in madness.”
I forgot at times they they weren’t full grown dogs like the ones I’d worked with in the military. These were still essentially puppies. Just large ones that were in bodies beyond their age, likely because of my sudden jump in [Druid] ranks.
They shared that trait with the grove. Essentially springing up overnight. I counted myself lucky that Rose’s mom had taken them out hunting so much in the last week. That’d be a few weeks game time, which explained why they worked so well together. They’d probably dealt with traps from players and whatever monsters spawned as a result of the grove growing out of control.
“That’s all of them.” Johnny thumbed his nose. “Knew a rank of exterminator would be useful.”
The fires sputtered. My body flushed. Hair stood on end. I felt annoyingly sober and piled by dug sized puppies.
I wanted to hate kids but couldn’t help liking the five of them. It might have been an illusion caused by the game feeding information in my mind, or it could have simply been dogs. I’d been thinking about getting an animal for years but found it impossible with my work schedule. Animals needed time and room to run.
Virtual pets hadn’t seemed like an alternative. I’d assumed they were like Local women in that regard. Only sort of real but mostly impossible to see in both worlds. I wanted a literally real relationship.
“It’s okay boy. You’re doing great.” My fingers were numb from rubbing the two dogs heads.
The heat died down. Trap stuck his nose into the doorway and sniffed around. He glanced both directions then woofed softly. Sarge yipped happily. I picked up a vague feeling of emptiness and satisfaction, which was warm and cold and weird. It reminded me of lonely nights standing watch. Emptiness has that sort of feeling, and the dogs conveyed it.
Rose stuck her head in. Johnny put away his items into the bag and went inside as well.
I eyed the still smoldering remains of dead bugs. They were hot. The air tasted sticky and the walls shone with remains. With this much fire the entire place should have been lit aflame. “Why didn’t it burn down the entire building.”
“Game logic,” Rose shrugged. “Place is old. Wood’s wet and rotting. Won’t catch fire that easily. Bug guts are fire retardant. Magic. Take your pick.”
“Bugs guts are?” Johnny perked up and eyed the charred remains. “Might be able to use that.”
“Like you used the, what was that, aerosol?”
“Magic aerosol. Magic lighter. Stole them from some Marquis bedroom.”
“Hair sprays been banned longer than you’ve been alive.”
Rose put a hand on her hip. “I do go to college.” Her eyes flickered down briefly. “Did. Had to stop recently. Not enough time.”
I stood up slowly. The dogs collapsed. They were getting tired. I could feel it as surely as I felt my own exhaustion. Everything had been going so well as we fought packs of monsters but now I wanted nothing more than a nap. Maybe some ice cream, or a movie, or another drink.
Trap growled. Sarge barked then scrambled to the forefront of the hallway.
Roe came back out of the room with a gold candlestick. She stared down the hall with me.
“More zombie maids.” Rose spit on the ground. “This place is so messed up.”
“Nothing wrong with maids,” Johnny said from the room.
“Please. It’s a fetish.”
“Nothing wrong with fetishes.”
“How much for you to tape your mouth shut the rest of the weekend?”
Johnny didn’t miss a beat. “Eighty gold.”
I shook my head and decided to ignore their conversation. Anything else they added would likely be inane at best because Johnny was a master at distracting people.
“Check your pockets!” I pointed at the young woman’s waist. She might not have noticed but I wasn’t checking.
“What?” she asked.
Johnny distracted everyone by pointing where I’d already been looking. “Who’s that?”
“What?” Rose asked a second time.
Poor girl. Poorer, after Johnny got done. I’d have to buy my own drinks for the rest of the weekend. Somehow I doubted that Rose had picked up any of the good loot when completing with the shorter man.
She’d already forgotten my warning about Johnny stealing her gold.
There were a lot of the zombie maids coming around the corner. They moved in stiff jerking motions that reminded me of elderly people with legs that didn’t work right. One fell against a wall. Their skin had a strange pinkish hue to it that didn’t fit.
“Get ready for a fight.” She pulled out her weappons.
Another man came around the corner. His eyes were lined with puckered black skin and clothes were a tattered mess. The frown only made it halfway across his face. I’d seen stroke victims act much the same.
“What manor of violence are you planning for my staff members?”
“No violence. We’re just polishing sir!” Johnny saluted quickly. “For ten gold I’ll even spit.”
Rose’s mouth hung open then clamped shut. She shook her head slowly while sighing. Away went the knives. She waved me forward.
“How uncouth,” his words drug.
It registered that this was the man we’d been looking for.
“Hey. Mister Clean! We found you.” I put both hands up in a cheer. Some dogs jumped around excitedly while Sleepy dozed off. Ball and Chain had come out of nowhere to join.
The butler frowned and stared at me.
“Mister Clean?” Rose asked.
Johnny frowned. “He’s got all his hair though.”
“Hey, we’re not here to quibble about male pattern baldness.” I cast my ranged heals. “We’re here to see a man about a quest.”