When I got in to Pellan that night, everyone was waiting for me around the little camping device.
“Hey there slowpoke! What took you so long?” asked Dana teasingly.
“Nothing, just chores,” I said.
The reality was that I had needed alone time to work through the day in my mind. Karen was starting to occupy more and more mental real estate and it was taking a toll on my mood.
“Alright. We’re all here, let's get moving!” commanded Liam cheerily.
We began walking. We didn’t really have a destination, just a distance we wanted to get from Dailsil. The forest today was lit by a late morning sun that filtered through the canopy, turning everything it touched a blazing gold colour. It had rained a little the night before by the looks of things, small puddles dotted the forest floor and the air was thick with the smell of evaporating moisture. The forest in these parts consisted of more than just redwoods. Copses of pine and conifer fought for space against the mighty giants, huddled for protection against the superior height of their enemies.
This changed the dynamics of the forest. Where before one could see for a hundred or more meters through the great trunks, now our visibility was down to less that half that at any given time. The forest monsters took ready advantage of this fact, surprising us out of nowhere constantly. The monsters we fought were still predominantly corrupted wood sprites of various descriptions, but some more mundane bears and wolves had been trying their hand against us as well.
We were walking through a particularly dense section of forest when we heard these horrendous snapping booming sounds. With sidelong looks at each other we took up formation facing the commotion.
Like a hurricane of steel, stone and vegetation, something erupted from the forest in front of us. The trees in its path exploded into whirring splinters of wood that narrowly missed impaling us. The air became thick with dust and debris as the hulking monstrosity surveyed our small party. Then it did something we did not expect, it spoke. We couldn’t understand it, but the voice it spoke with was surprisingly high pitched, at least considering we had all been expecting a rumbling earthquake of a voice.
The thing spoke in a language that was liquid and almost musical, the words flowing seamlessly together like a bubbling brook. While it spoke, the dust cleared and we could make out what this huge creature was. The thing looked to be built out of chunks of masonry that had been blasted off some art deco building. The whole thing was held together by twisting bars of metal and clinging vines. Clothing the huge golem was a side cape over one shoulder, like it was a matador or something. Across the whole beast were flowing lines of glowing energy, much like the ones I’d seen when the wizard from Dailsil had made my spell. It’s face was four huge holes bored in a square into the chunk of stone that made up its face. The lines of power swirled even up there, and the holes glowed with a dull green light.
With no warning, it’s voice shifted from high to low, like we’d originally been expecting, and it began chanting at us. It chanted at us for no more than five seconds before suddenly it swung viciously with the huge stone pillar it wielded as a club. We all dove for the ground and the club swept over us, obliterating a pine tree its path like it was made of glass.
This time we weren’t so lucky with the large shards of wood that went flying. I saw everyone take minor cuts from the debris, but Col took it the worst, being impaled through the stomach by a large chunk of wood. He howled in pain and I rushed to him. Carefully, I pulled the wood out, healing him with my other hand as I did so. I was struck again by how disturbingly realistic this game was, I could see blood and more through the hole in his stomach.
I heard the others engaging the golem behind me as I worked furiously to bring Col back from the brink. He watched me with pain filled eyes as I at last pulled the wood from his gut. When it was out, I began healing him with renewed vigor. I had the presence of mind to place a glowing circle of healing on the ground that not only helped Col but also my other teammates.
When I finally got Col back to full health, he still looked shocked. I did the only thing I could think of to help him, and in hindsight the very feminine nature of my reaction made me happy. I hugged him tightly, pressing my face to his chest. I only held the hug for a few moments, our friends needed our help, but it seemed to have worked. He smiled tentatively down at me from his huge height.
“Go blast that stupid thing. Revenge time!” I told him with a wild grin, before I spun to join the fray.
It became quickly apparent that we were severely underleveled for this guy. Nothing we did worked, my shards just bounced off the thing, while Col’s spells pinged harmlessly off its magic infused stone hide. Conventional weapons were even less effective. Karen and Dana were doing nothing but blunting their blades as they chipped away at its legs. Amra’s arrows were by far the least effective however, and she quickly stopped using her bow to conserve arrows until we figured this thing out.
I like to think we would have figured it out anyway. We never got the chance. Tendrils of darkness lashed out from behind the thing with the same ferocious abruptness as its original entrance. The tendrils glowed with internal pinpricks of starlight like they were cables woven of a galaxy. Wrapping around the huge creature they pulled it backwards with a violent tug.
We all stood transfixed with awe as a majestic creature with feathers that appeared made from the same galaxy launched itself up into the air, a leap that would take it crashing down on top of the enraged golem. As large as the golem itself, the thing looked like an enormous cross between a dragon, and eagle and a fennec fox. Huge glowing green eyes bore down on its foe with steely determination, while its car sized bushy tail was fanned out behind it for stability. Its back bore two large feathered wings that it used to drive itself down onto the golem with increased force.
Using front paws that were strangely hand-like, the dragon fox thing tore the stone club from the golem’s grasp and hurled it with incredible strength into the forest. We heard a distant report as an unfortunate tree ceased to exist as a coherent whole. The dragon fox using one of it’s huge clawed hind legs to kick the stone giant repeatedly in the throat. The golem began to recover enough to throw the dragon off itself and into a large redwood tree.
A very feminine voice cried out in pain from the dragon as she yelled, “Fuck! You asshole, now I’m pissed! Shouldn’t have gotten lost in random portals buddy!”
She opened her maw wide and with no warning whatsoever, a beam of roiling and shuddering energy leapt from her mouth. The dark, star studded beam slammed into the golem’s chest and tore through it like a cop through a box of donuts. I thought of that analogy because the golem now looked like a donut, with a big glowing hole straight through its torso.
It tetered there in the forest, and we saw the glowing lines going out one by one until it finally collapsed into nothing more than the rubble and vine it was made of. The dragon fox lady reached out and nudged the thing with a front leg.
“Yup, finally dead as a doornail.” she said, then turned to us, “This guy gave me quite the chase. Sorry to scare you. I’ll just be going now.”
She lept into the sky without any preamble, and we were left staring at the charred and smoking remains of the battlefield in shock.
“Um,” mumbled Amra.
“Who was that?” asked Karen quietly, “Was she a player? I swear I’ve heard her voice before?”
“No idea, but she was pretty powerful. Surely no one has gotten to that stage already? Right?” asked Liam tentatively.
Dana had moved closer to the dead golem, and she nudged it with a foot, “Maybe we should see if we can loot this thing?”
We nodded in agreement and went forward to do just that.
We didn’t get very far. Nothing on the thing seemed useful, the stone was just stone, the metal was corroded and warped, and the vines were, well, vines. We didn’t find a core or anything either like you’d expect from a golem.
It was with bemused disappointment that we continued our trek away from Dailsil. Walking through the forest next to my friends, I searched through the menus and actually did find a screenshot feature. It would email the pictures to your account. I managed to take advantage of this by capturing Karen as she decapitated another corrupt sprite. It was a great shot and I knew I was going to be painting it.
When we figured we were far enough away from Dailsil, we changed how we were walking. We followed the terrain up any rises we came across, looking for a nice hill to build our little base on top of. Something that would allow us to keep most enemies at bay with the terrain alone instead of relying solely on the claim altar. We didn’t find a spot we were happy with that night and logged out for school.
I dashed around my home printing off my screenshot and shoving toast in my mouth. Getting ready as a girl took a hell of a lot longer than it had as a boy. Gosh.
When I got to school that morning I saw Zach again. He was trudging up the driveway with the same bent backed weariness and I decided to walk up next to him and say hello.
“Hey Zach!” I chirped.
He grunted in surprise and turned to look at me, “Um. Hi?”
“We have physics first, may as well walk together. We do sit next to each other,” I said with a smile I hoped would lift his mood a bit.
“Oh. Yeah. Sure,” he said despondently, turning forward again.
We walked in silence after that and made our way towards the science block. I saw Kegan chatting to some of his rugby mates and avoided eye contact straight away. Zach noticed.
“Got a crush on big rugby boy?” he asked with an eye roll.
“Fuck no! He keeps trying to talk to me and it’s creepy,” I shook my head emphatically.
“It’s cause you’re pretty. Lots of people have been talking about you,” he stated with indifference.
“Wait, people are talking about me already?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yup. Saying you’re a lesbian and shit. Seen you making out with some girl or something. Guess they were right judging by your reaction to the rugby star,” he smiled. Just a small smile.
“I mean… they’re wrong but they aren’t. I wasn’t kissing anyone yesterday or the… Well. Hmm,” I said, realising I had been kissed by Feslia.
In any event, we arrived in class, where discussions like that had to stop or the other classmates would hear.
I made it through physics okay, and arrived in painting early for once. As usual, the desks had randomly shuffled around, and I picked one close to the glass wall again. I got out a thick A3 piece of paper that would be able to hold paint without warping. Next to it I set my pencils and my reference picture. I gazed at my set up for a while as the class filled in. Dana ponked down next to me with a hmph and looked over.
“Going to draw Karen?” she asked with a cheeky grin.
“Yes Dana I am going to draw Karen,” I rolled my eyes at her. Let the teasing begin I guess...
“It’s a good picture. I wonder if it will look anything like that by the time you’re done picassoing it,” she said teasingly.
“Thanks for your praise Dana! Picasso was a great painter!” I said with a grin of my own.
“Alright, lets see you go at it then,” she laughed.
We both got to work and I felt myself go into a little thing I called the artist trance, where I was just studying the lines and shape makeup of an object, drawing absently as I tried to capture a likeness of my subject.
It was ten minutes later when I zoned back into full consciousness and realised something was different. I looked at my drawing carefully. It actually took me longer than you’d think to notice the difference, because the change was that my drawing wasn’t crap. In fact my drawing was really good. Not perfect mind you, but for a 16 year old it was easily top marks material if I could keep it up into the painting stage.
“Um, Dana…” I said hesitantly.
“Yeah, what’s up- Whoa! Syl! How did you get so good? Did you use magic?” she exclaimed.
“What? No! I was literally just zoning out and drawing!” I said amazed.
“Well damn, keep doing that cause it looks great!” she said with a proud smile.
I returned her smile and we got back to work. My skills with the pencil decided to stick around and I could not be happier. Karen in all her warrior glory was being captured in graphite on the page. It was another twenty minutes when I heard a voice over my shoulder.
“Wow Sylanna your line work is damn impressive! Your previous school must have really taught you a thing or two,” Mr Yossan said enthusiastically.
“Actually sir, this is the first time I’ve ever been able to draw like this. I have no idea what’s going on,” I told him truthfully.
“Well, I’m certainly going to be nurturing that talent! I’m very interested to see what you can achieve with brush and paint young lady,” he told me happily.
“Thank you sir! I am too,” I laughed.
Mr Yossan moved on, but Dana continued the conversation, “Seriously Syl, what do you think has changed?”
“To be honest, when I used to draw before, my big fat fingers would jumble each other up and it was hard to get the lines how I wanted them,” I thought and spoke at the same time, “Oh, and because I’ve been pumping my dex up in Pellan it might be translating over here too!”
“Wow, I’m actually really jealous,” she said with a note of awe.
I managed to get my drawing looking pretty damn good by the time class finished and it was time for morning tea. I trotted along next to Dana as happy as can be as we made our way to the others. I spotted Karen as we walked by the math block, she seemed to be making her way into the building, away from both her group and mine.
“Karen!” I waved with a smile.
She looked up with a start and then jerked her head to the side, looking away without acknowledging me. Her face when I had seen it had looked drawn and upset, and she rushed off into the math block. I abandoned Dana as I gave sudden chase, but when I turned into the corridor she was nowhere to be found.
I rushed into the next corridor, and the next, but I found no sign of her in the gridlike math department. My heart had been steadily dropping in my chest as I looked for her, and when I gave up and slowly walked back to Dana I was confused and upset. My heart had grown as cold as the cinder blocks that they built the math block out of.
Why did she run away from me like that? What did I do? I just said hi. My mind reeled from the idea that Karen had avoided me. Run away from me even. Dana tried to get me to talk to her when I got back, she could tell something was wrong. She’d seen the interaction between Karen and I just now. When I refused to respond with much more than shrugs and grunts, she turned to her phone, flicking out messages to someone. I didn’t try and message Karen, even when Dana urged me to. I was too afraid of making whatever I had done worse.
I had social studies next, a class that was compulsory and that I had not had yesterday due to the mysteries of bot generated timetables. I barely interacted during class, and got reprimanded for ignoring the teacher at one point. When class ended, I hid in the library during lunch time and didn’t even look at my phone when it went off. I was too busy working myself up into a frenzy of sadness, imagining all the terrible things my mind could come up with about what had happened to Karen and why she might hate me now.
The day wore on, and since I didn’t have any friends in my classes, I had no one to distract me from my own spiralling thoughts. During 4th period Chemistry, Kegan made another pass.
“Why were you hanging out with that Zach guy? Doesn’t he smell kinda bad?” he chuckled.
“Um, because I think he’s a nice person who needs a friend?” I asked tentatively.
“Oh, you’re into those weird, Nice Guy types are you?” he snickered.
I felt my sense of caring overwhelm my shyness, who the fuck was this dude to judge Zach? It was clear at a glance that something real and terrible was troubling him. Plus! I was a lesbian!
“He’s not one of those people, but even then, I’m not into guys at all,” I said giving him a glare.
He laughed, “Whoa so the rumours were true, you were hooking up with that Karen chick from year twelve? That’s hot.”
“No, I was not. She’s a friend of mine and nothing more,” I said quickly, my heart beginning to pound in my chest. I wish we’d been hooking up.
My eyes widened as I realised that Karen would be affected by this rumour too. Oh no. That’s probably why she was upset.
“What is it?” He asked when he noticed my change in demeanour.
“Look dude, no offence, but it’s none of your business. Please leave me alone,” I said, my voice and confidence wavering.
“Whoa no need to get all bitch mode on me dyke,” he said with a roll of his eyes.
Dyke? Really? What is this, the ninetys? Get a better insult, I thought but I didn’t dare speak it out loud. My ability to talk back had died.
I was saved then from having to interact with the dick head next to me when Ms Eviet told us both to shut up. I sighed as I played the conversation out in my mind. Guess I was out of the closet at school now. One of the closets anyway.
When class ended, I leapt from the room and towards my last class. As I rushed away, I checked my phone. I had messages from Dana, Greg and even Jeremy. The one I was looking for though was Karen, and I opened her message.
Karen: I can’t talk to you at school. I’m so sorry. I’ll explain in Pellan.