"Their heads are cut off!" Qian said as she stepped back from the cage. Who could've done this? Five horses each with six legs paced back and forth across the cement floor.
"They couldn't have been," Prasuna said. "Look how calm they are." She leaned against the bars and pet the black one's mane. "It's their natural state."
"But how can they be alive? They have no brain."
"Maybe it's somewhere else, like in their necks," Prasuna said.
"Why do they even have a neck?" Qian said.
"For balance?" Prasuna shrugged her shoulders. "The tops of their necks are absolutely adorable." She tousled the tufts of black hair sprouting from the rounded top.
"Where'd that come from?" Qian said.
"From its mouth?" Prasuna said.
"But where is it?"
Prasuna brushed her hand through its mane and all over its neck, but didn't find a mouth. "Oh no, look at this huge scar."
Qian shuffled up next to Prasuna and bent forward to look through the bars. A wide swath of scabs and scar tissue ringed the neck. "How horrible. They were chained up."
"It's okay, little one," Prasuna pet the neck of the shortest horse. "What's your name?"
It tossed its head and nickered.
"Mits? Its name is Mits!" Prasuna said, wide-eyed. "I heard it in my head."
Qian's jaw dropped. Then her in-game clock caught her eye. "We've got to head back. Only ten minutes left." She spun around and her belt banged on the bars. A shuriken popped off and clanged against the bars before hitting the ground.
Mits reared up on its hind legs.
"Watch out!" Qian grabbed Prasuna's arm and yanked her away from the cage.
"You're going to spook them with sudden movements like that," Prasuna said and frowned.
"Look, we've got to get back." Qian stooped over and picked up her shuriken.
"But we can't just leave them," Prasuna said.
"We have the Ostrokars back at camp. We don't need any more pack animals," Qian said.
Prasuna took out her tanto and started sawing at the combination lock on the cage.
"What're you doing?" Qian reached out and grabbed hold of Prasuna's biceps. "You heard me."
The horses started to whinny and stamp their feet.
"See?" Prasuna started to cry. "They want to escape. Just like the poor cats and dogs"—she wiped her eyes with her sleeve—"at the shelter." She sawed at the padlock even faster.
"You know your tanto blade's going to snap in half before you make a scratch in that lock," Qian said.
"Then use your Decipher skill," Prasuna said.
"No way." Qian crossed her arms. "That's a digital lock, it's going to use up all my chi."
"Please?" Prasuna grabbed Qian's hand. Qian felt Prasuna's rough hands, calloused from holding brushes to make the manes and fur of every kind of known animal shiny and beautiful. She yanked her hands out of Prasuna's as a spine-tingling shiver ran up the nape of her neck. The game had replicated that detail?
"Please"? Prasuna grabbed for her hand again.
Qian spun around and walked away. She didn't want to feel. Holding the padlock in her hand, she said, "preview pick lock."
IQ = 89 * 0.01 = +0.89%
Chi = 138 * 0.05 = +0.98%
Success probability = 7.79%
I can't take this chance. Even with all my chi... Qian dropped the padlock.
"Underneath that straight-laced demeanor is a kind and caring heart." Prasuna said.
Qian closed her eyes and took a deep breath. That wasn't it at all. And what did Prasuna really know about her. They'd only met in college six years ago. "I can't waste chi points. It'll take me almost a half a day to regain them. What if we run into trouble?" Qian said.
"Look at them, it's the right thing to do and you know it." Stretched through the bars, Prasuna's hand caressed Mit's silky mane. He nickered, rumbling soft and low.
In sympathetic syncopation, a tic resonated in Qian's cheek. Qian gazed upon the headless horses and picked the padlock back up. "Execute decipher with max chi."
Standard skill test: You suck! But, hey, when you have a spare moment, I'd love to help you out. ^_- Ping me. @aika
Result = Dismal failure
Chi (Updated)= 138 - 138 = 0
Qian clenched her hands into fists. Aren't these hardcoded system messages? Who's mocking me? Her face flushed red. Is this twit Aika a developer? A dungeon core? She slammed her fist into the bars.
Mits neighed and reared up, his massive hooves flailing in the air like morning stars.
"Shh, Mits, nobody's going to hurt you anymore," Prasuna said.
In a lightning strike, a hoof crashed down on Prasuna's forearm.
❄ ❄ ❄
Gideon backed up. I don't think your average warehouse security would wear battlefield armor. In addition to the faceplate, they were wearing greaves and gloves with metal plates stitched into them. They probably had a chestplate underneath their trench coats. Bandits. NPCs or players? It didn't matter. Sarge had told the whole team to treat everyone else as an alpha player. Otherwise, they might get caught off-guard and PK'd. "What're you doing in here?" Gideon snarled, "I'm going to call security."
Flanked on each side by three others, the tallest said in a man's resonant baritone, "Don't play dumb," and stretched his hand out, palm up, to Gideon and Stef. "Just hand it over and no one gets hurt."
"Standards?" Gideon pointed to the safe. "In there, but I don't have the combo."
"Look, do you wanna get hurt like those guys outside?" In a well-practiced quick draw, the man whipped out his wakizashi and sliced it through the air inches away from Gideon and Stef's faces.
They stumbled backwards and fell down. Stef leaned in close to Gideon's ear and whispered, "They're going to kill us. Give it to them."
Shit, they got Jeremy, Peter, and Greg. Gideon held the bag up to the man.
Wrenching it out of Gideon's hands, the man yanked it open, and thrust his hand inside. Pulling out a crystal-encrusted black rock, he stared and laughed at it. "Closer." He waved over one of his men who was holding a glow stick. After resheathing his wakizashi and taking a cutter's lens out of his inner pocket, the man squinted through it as he examined the rock in the palm of his hand. "Jackpot!"
After dropping it back into the bag, which he then stuffed into an inner pocket, he pointed to Gideon and Stef. "Tie them up and frisk them."
"We don't have any more," Gideon said.
"Shut the fuck up!" the man said.
The rope cinched tight around Gideon's wrists, Shit! He grimaced. Why does the websuit hurt so damn much? I only set it to the midpoint, five. "Pain threshold," he subvocalized. Nothing displayed. Calm down, remember, you're trapped. At least I won't piss my pants.
"Nothing else?" the man said to his men. They shook their heads. "How disappointing." He loosened his helmet strap. "What's your level?" he said to Gideon and Stef sitting next to each other on the floor with their backs against the wall.
Gideon eyed him. Level? If we're higher than him, he might kill us for the XP. Leveling up is pretty easy, but I'd better not take any chances. "Zero."
Gideon nudged Stef with his shoulder. "Zero," Stef said.
"That's it? Not even level five? Even if you just joined today, it only takes a few hours. We've been in-game for three days now and we've already hit level twelve." He scowled at Gideon and Stef. "Worthless pieces of shit." He started to turn around. "Let's go."
"But, you told us..." two of his men said at the same time.
"You know, the XP gain is only worth a menial encounter," the man said. Seeing their hard faces, he sighed. "I think it's a waste, but go ahead and have your fun."
The two men grinned like maniacs and unsheathed their tanto. They gripped Gideon and Stef's hair and jerked their heads back to expose their bare white necks.
"Wait, wait, I can open the safe for you," Gideon said through gritted teeth.
"I got what I want," the man said and patted his trench coat above the pocketed bag of quantite. "Nothing could be more valuable than these babies."
"No, no, there's more in the safe," Stef said.
"You think I'm going to give you a chance to pull a fast one on me." He walked over and slammed his fist into Stef's face.
Stef grunted as his head snapped back. The cracking of cartilage echoed off the walls.
"No one treats me like an idiot." He cleared his throat and spat a green glob of mucous in Stef's eye. "Let this be a lesson to our would-be competitors and let our exploits strike awe and fear into their hearts." The man unstrapped his helmet and his faceplate. From the sides of his head, two red-striped ears coated with fine hairs popped out and twitched. From the back of his head, a braid sprung out like a flame, and his beard was a raging wildfire all across his face.
He pointed at Gideon. "You, be my messenger. Tell everyone it was Hiro of the Flaming Fox Brigade."
The color drained from Gideon's face. Just our luck, out of the hundred players, we just had to run into the Flaming Fox Brigade.
Hiro bowed to Stef. "You, be my example. I wish you better luck in your next spawn." With a flourish of his hand, Hiro proffered Stef's neck to his men.
Tanto blades caressed Stef's neck and he screamed.
Stef twisted his head away from the blade and he yelled at the top of his lungs, "log out, log out!"
Seconds ticked away in silence. They'd all tried it before, but Stef had panicked.
Hiro's men had dropped their tanto to their sides.
"Oh my fucking God," Hiro said as he knitted his brow. "Everyone, check your logout menu," Hiro said.
While Hiro's men fumbled around exactly like Gideon and everyone else on Sarge's team had days ago, Gideon slid his wrists up and down to loosen the rope and whispered, "execute escape with max chi."
Standard skill test: You suck too! Boy, you guys are having a bad day. Ganbatte, Foxy!
Dex = 66 * 0.01 = +0.66%
Chi = 90 * 0.05 +4.5%
Success probability = 5.91%
Result = Utter failure
Chi (Updated)= 70 - 70 = 0
I forgot to allocate my twenty free attributes from leveling up.
"Did it work?" Stef whispered, his voice hoarse. The smooth cut in his neck dribbled blood onto his black bodysuit.
Gideon shook his head.
"Fuck, me neither," Stef said.
Not one of Hiro's men could log out, connect to chat outside of their party, or take off their VR helmets or websuits. "Dammit, I'm at level zero!" one of Hiro's men said. "Me too," said another.
"Well, I'll be ass-fucked," Hiro said.
Gideon chuckled to himself. Only now did they figure out they couldn't log out. Hiro sure likes to talk. If I could keep him talking until Sarge gets here, we could get the quantite back. "It's the rumor." Gideon smiled.
"What rumor?" Hiro said.
"How could you not hear?" Gideon said.
"We don't get a lot of Internet access in the Alcatraz of the Rockies."
Gideon and Stef gave Hiro a blank look.
"Do I have to carve it out of your gut?" Hiro said and slipped a tanto out from his belt underneath his trench coat.
"No, no, we heard that players are getting stuck in the game," Gideon said.
"That's fucking nuts. I don't believe it."
"Then why can't you log out? Why can't anyone log out?"
"How the fuck am I supposed to know?" Hiro said.
"Maybe they immobilized our bodies?" Gideon said.
"Whatever," Hiro said. Then his eyes hardened and he smirked. "When I was locked up, some guys—they were from Arizona or Nevada or somewhere out West—said they had their own land until it was stolen by the government. They said it was their right and they were going to fight for it. So, I got to thinking about having my own plot of land away from the city—and the cops." He chuckled. "There's a lot of free land here." Sheathing his tanto, he glanced up at the ceiling. "Shit, I've been running at the mouth again. Their friends could get here any minute." He turned around and took a step towards the door.
"But what about them?" the man who'd almost slit Stef's throat said and stabbed his tanto in Gideon and Stef's direction.
"What the fuck are you smoking? Or maybe your brain froze over because obviously you forgot we're down to level zero." As Hiro reached for the door knob, something bumped against the wall.
Hiro took several steps back. "Form up on me!" They formed a V with its open end facing the door and Hiro at its apex. They waited, each one in a middle-position fighting stance, a wakizashi in one hand and a tanto in the other.
Hiro's gang waited for the attackers to charge through the door, but Gideon knew Sarge was patient.
Gideon and Stef yawned.
Hiro and the two men on either side of him swayed back and forth like they were drunk.
"Sleep spell!" Hiro pushed the men on either side of him towards the door. "Prof, you next. Charge!"
A man threw the door open and they all piled through, one stumbled. Two baseball-sized fireballs rocketed across the open doorway and exploded with loud bangs. Harmless sparks splashed into the room and sputtered on the floor.
Hiro's gang disappeared down the corridor.
Sarge, Marge, and Rox strode into the room. Greg limped in after them. Rox bent a glow stick and set it down on the desk. Both of her hands were singed.
Marge set the first aid kit down on the ground and cleaned up Stef's face, including his broken nose.
"Keep watch outside," Sarge said to Greg and Rox.
"We've got to go after them!" Gideon said.
"No need," Sarge said. "Ken's trailing them."
"I'm sorry," Gideon said as he hung his head, "they got it, the quantite."
"All of it?" Sarge said.
Sarge smacked her fist into the palm of her other hand. "Dammit, who are they?" Sarge asked.
He told her about the Flaming Fox Brigade, how they hadn't realized they were trapped in the game, and that they were reset back to level zero.
"Isn't that just dandy, the Flaming Fox Brigade's on the quest too," Sarge said.
"Those guys are bloodthirsty killers," he said. "They wanted to cut our throats just for the pleasure of it."
"I know, Hiro's a gang-banger," Sarge said. Then she said to herself, "I thought they put him away and threw away the key?"
"Yeah, they said they didn't have Internet access in Alcatraz," Gideon said.
"That tourist spot?" Sarge said.
"Uh, what did he say exactly?" Gideon said and tilted his head.
"'Alcatraz of the Rockies'." Stef said.
"Great, that's the Florence Supermax." She ran her hand through her hair. "They must all be hardcore criminals. How could they let jailed convicts into the game?"
Gideon covered his eyes with both of his hands. He felt like shit. How could he had let them get away? It was because he was a coward. He'd been afraid of being killed not only in-game but also in real life. He didn't know if his body would die without his consciousness. Then, to his horror, he remembered. "Sarge. Greg, Jeremy, and Pete were in back—"
❄ ❄ ❄
"Didn't you see Greg?" Betsy said. Poor Gideon, he's still in shock and groggy from Marge's sleep spell.
"Greg?" Gideon searched the room.
"Hey, Gideon," Greg said from the doorway. "Over here."
Gideon's face lit up, but then he frowned. "What about Pete? And Jeremy?"
Qian rushed into the room. "What happened? Where's Gideon and Stef?"
"Everyone's fine," Sarge said and stood up straight. "Report."
Qian glanced around. "Prasuna's—"
Prasuna plodded in, her arm wrapped in a makeshift sling.
"Marge, help her," Betsy said.
"Where's Ken?" Qian said.
"He's on recon," Betsy glared at Qian. It wasn't like Qian to get flustered like this, but Betsy had to reestablish order. "Report. Why weren't you at your post?"
I—I'm sorry, Sarge," Qian said. "I decided we had to let the headless horses out."
"Headless horses?" Sarge said. She knew it was a fantasy game, but with all these new creatures and species it was getting to be a little too much to process.
"It was..." Prasuna said and started to stand up from the chair, but Marge put her hand on Prasuna's shoulder and continued to ice her forearm.
"Yeah, they were some kind of weird creature, but I take full responsibility," Qian said.
"Don't worry about it," Betsy said, sat down in a chair at the desk across from Prasuna, and crossed her legs. She stared out into space.
Qian turned to Marge. "What's going on?"
After Marge brought Qian and Prasuna up to speed, Prasuna shook Betsy's shoulder. "Hey, Sarge, what're we going to do?"
Betsy stared at nothing. How could I have let this happen? Jeremy and Pete are gone. We're all trapped and now there are gang-bangers in the game. Did I make the right decisions? I should've charged into the room. I should've known they'd be at level zero. But Greg barely got away. What if they hadn't been level zero? We might all be dead. Did she really have the mettle to be a leader? The goals was to get as many of them out of the game alive as she could, nevertheless it was a given that some would die. She'd been too cautious, too unwilling to risk even one of her friends dying. They would simply disappear. No corpse to bury. That's what Greg had said. He'd been shaken to his very core. On the one hand, without a corpse, it wasn't real. They could still hope they were alive, but on the other hand, there was no closure and the hope and the fear might eat her team alive. She brought up her in-game clock. It was day four. She propped her elbow up on the table, rested her chin in her hand, and massaged her temples. Their only hope was Ken. If he could follow the Flaming Fox Brigade to their base, then her team could raid them and retrieve the quantite.
The door flew open. With Ken's arm draped over Greg's shoulder, Greg dragged Ken's slumped form into the room and lowered him into the chair across the table from Betsy.
Ken rested one hand on the table and pushed himself up. The broken shaft of an arrow protruded out of his chest through his blood-soaked trench coat. "I lost them."
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)