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A note from Vincent Archer

It's time to see what's around Fanduk. Next chapter is on wednesday.

(Y6, July 10th)

 

The team had collected planks far faster than expected. One of the larger buildings on the outskirts of the village seemed to be a workshop-cum-storage building, and there were tons of planks. Small, long, large, all kinds. Plus a barrel that, once opened, seemed full of a tar-like black substance.

Quandocor had made a brush using a stick, and made cursive signs, to the astonishment of his teammates.

“So? I do tinker, and I learned to paint signs back when I was in high school working out summers. It’s easier with a cutout model, but I can do it well.”

The first three went on their respective houses. Then, they put large signposts at the west and east entrances to the village. They called the town Fanduk.

Fanduk

Est. July Y6

 Then, it was time to go what east would offer them.

 

East of Fanduk, the plains started to sport clumps of trees. The team followed Vantegaard who kept track of his major leyline. Having both an Absolute Compass and a leyline underground meant that they were going in a straight manner that would have been harder on Earth unless you kept looking at your magnetic compass.

 

The first hint of trouble came not long after they left the village’s outskirts. They crossed a small ridge of dirt when they spotted a group of wolves coming out of one of the copses.

“Five Canis Curiosus ahead, to the north.”

By then, Vantegaard expected the question “What’s that.”

“Wolf-style beast. Usually just curious about things.”

The five wolves started loping toward them.

“I don’t think they’re just curious.”

“Battle time. Launch those debuffs!”

Birkathane didn’t have any long-range actions, but the two men started doing Cold Grasp and Impose Load while she prepared to take the assault. The combination even allowed Vantegaard to fire a pair of Rock Darts before the pack came crashing on them.

 

Vantegaard pulled out his new dagger while Quandocor raised the medium-sized staff they’d improvised back at Fanduk. Then it was hit and melee. One on Vantegaard, two on Birkathane, and a pair on Quandocor.

Despite the numbers, it was a moderately easy fight. Birkathane kept pushing the regeneration on Quandocor, and he used his drain skill every time, to keep his hit points from dropping too fast. Meanwhile, she punched left and right, turned the bites away.

Once finished, Vantegaard moved straight to the wolf that Quandocor was focused on, helping to finish it.

A third wolf – Birkathane’s number one – dropped, then in quick succession both the remaining ones.

 

“Every time we get these fight, it’s a lot of points.”

“How many?”

“I got 4 levels. I’m at 12 now.”

“Congratulations on your first Canis fight then. Don’t forget to drain them, then…”

Vantegaard pulled out his old knife and handed it to Quandocor.

“What for?”

Skinning. Remember, you got the skill yesterday. Your very first skinnings.”

“Ewww.”

“There needs preparation for the leather after, but good skins make good gear. Usually. Or a pelt at home on Earth before a nice fireplace.”

For a while, Quandocor looked at the knife in his hand, and the five corpses lying next to him. How was he supposed to do that…

But the movements came more naturally than he thought. It still felt hard work, and like he was on the edge of ruining everything. Which happened once, on the fourth wolf, when the knife cut started wobbling and sliced diagonally across the skin. But in the end, there were four long skins and a hash of torn pelt at his feet.

“I’ll take that”, said Birkathane.

“Uh?”

“Gotta strain that Carry the Load. It’s too bad you don’t have an easy grindable skill, Quan. You’d level soo much faster.”

“So, who gets a new skill? You Quan. You shot up during the fight. I’m one short” lied Vantegaard.

“One short as well” added Birkathane.

“I have… an ambiguous skill? Is that like during Setup?”

“Oh goody! Yes, it’s like that, but less focused. It’s any kind of skill. Any stat, any tier. It’s good to focus on your build. Like, if you get anything that sounds like necromancer or staff, go for it.”

 

Ambiguous skill

Sense Life and Death. Tier 2 Perception. Living, dead, all of them are a presence in your mind.

Weave Strike. Tier 4 Dexterity. The strike follows the strike, the hit follows the hit, and the foe falls following the foe.

Impose Fear. Tier 3 Presence. The most imposing figures are the ones who generate despair.

 

Apparently, Quandocor was not locked or prevented from doing anything. So he simply spelled out the choice presented to him by the Interface.

“Any ideas?”

“Sounds like two Necromancer skills and a melee skill. Possibly a staff one.”

“I concur. Weave Strike sounds like martial combat, so unarmed or staff.”

“Or maybe sword? Do you remember seeing it on your forums, Quan?”

Quandocor had no idea if it could be. Hopefully, he wouldn’t make a mistake here by pretending either way and being proven wrong later.

“Nope. You might be right. Anyway, do I shoot for the best tier?”

“That sounds like a good choice,” opined Birkathane.

“In doubt, pick the high tier works in Setup, and it’s good advice even after, I think.”

 

Sense Life and Death

Tier 2 Perception

Passive, Triggered

Living, dead, all of them are a presence in your mind.

 

It gives an automatic sense of the local creatures, living, non-living, or formerly living. It also provides rating information.

 

Current max range: 8 m

Incertitude: 9.2% error per rank above 8

Incertitude: 2.7% error per level above 32

Skill level 8 (base 1)

Advancement: 98%

 

“Whoa, immediately gained a lot of experience. Nearly a full skill.”

“Do tell.”

“I can get the exact rank of the enemies. But… well, it’s not a necromancer skill, if I’m right. No death cost.”

“Strictly speaking, it’s not. It fits the theme, though.”

Quandocor almost mentioned that he felt people’s level as well when Vantegaard’s level struck him.

Level 31.

Didn’t he just said he was missing points for his next skill? Quandocor wasn’t a math genius, but basic calculus was fine. And 31 left enough points for a skill gain.

So what was Vantegaard’s play here?

Quandocor was experienced enough to know that, once you got into people’s secrets, it was easier to worm your way into them. Vantegaard’s secret would remain a bit of a secret, at least until he figured out how to use that.

“So, all of our enemies were rank 8, it seems.”

“How far can you detect them? Like the other skill, Lay of the Land?”

“No, it’s a very short range. 8m currently.”

“Ah. So not good to find out enemies from away.”

 

Vantegaard insisted on cutting flesh from the wolves. He promised a new culinary experience for this evening, wolf meat after the cat. Everything packed, they kept moving eastward.

 

More and more of the grove-like tree groups kept appearing along the path. They saw a Curiosus’ head pop out of the wood once, but this one was not curious enough to bother them. Their health hadn’t regenerated that much from the fight, despite regular infusions from Birkathane, so they were not too anxious to pursue new prey.

Vantegaard had located a new major leyline ahead, though. That was surprising. He thought leylines were hard to find. Of course, with a sense to detect them, maybe he was biased. Or maybe he was in the leyline country.

The ones he would be interested in were the World leylines. That was definitively something he would need to investigate during recess. He knew the basics, but the World leylines promised… well, untold power and all that. Or at least high tier skills.

Still, if the leyline they were following did join the new major leyline he felt from the east, that might give him one more data point about the possible configurations of leylines.

 

Birkathane was feeling a bit happier than yesterday. The mounting realization that she was, indeed, far from anything, and her friends were out of reach was crushing. But she’d met two earnest guys, and it was still a bit like a vacation. An adventure. Partying in a fantasyland was better, but there was something to be said for being the first to set foot somewhere.

Even if it was fake. She wasn’t going to admit it, after all of her argument to the contrary, but she was more of a “virtual adventure” gal. The whole setup and skill system was very, very much an indication that the world existed for them. And really for them – the entire system used base 10 and the SI. How much more obvious could you be.

She had no idea what the others thought. Quandocor… Quan was very reserved. It felt like he was there on a dare. Someone who didn’t fully fit, and was way over his head. Did he think it was some kind of… Total Recall adventure, without the Martian superspy bits? Or something completely different. She realized she had no idea exactly what moved him. Maybe the gym story was that simple. Go in Northworld, get ribbed, break world records?

Vantegaard… Van was a nerd. A well-shaped, well-balanced, muscled in the right places nerd. He said he’d spent a year preparing for this. He was completely serious, totally committed to Northworld. Maybe Quandocor wouldn’t come back once back on Earth. Maybe she wouldn’t. Not until she could find out how to find the rest of her friends. But Vantegaard? He would come back. Over and over. He was the Gater breed, the one that spent all their time until adaptation sickness, and the least time on Earth.

And her? She was a Druid and a Wuxia martial heroine. Maybe.

She had a week to decide who she was. In a week, respawn would be an option. Admitting defeat or not.

 

Again, it was Vantegaard – with its marginally higher Perception – who saw the border. He pointed out the thin line at the edge of the horizon to the other.

They made it through the rest of the way before looking down.

The gorge was probably at least one kilometer wide, and half that deep. There was a river meandering at the bottom, snaking between huge rock outcroppings. The border was irregular, plunging deeply then falling off. There were hints of sand or gravel down, among sparse vegetation.

It looked like the Grand Canyon if the Grand Canyon had been shrunk twenty times.

The other border looked forested. A dense canopy of trees, ending right at the canyon’s border.

Vantegaard was frustrated. His Sense told him the major leyline was just ahead. Of course, in the middle of the canyon. Too far for the leyline interference.

 

“There’s a bridge.”

“What? Oh shit.”

“That’s awesome.”

The “bridge” was a stone formation. An arch, really, reaching over the entire canyon. It was diagonal across it, not set straight between two closest points.

They moved toward the rock passage.

Birkathane was the first to remark.

“This is very convenient. A rock formation, just in place.”

Quandocor pointed out.

“It’s not natural.”

“What do you mean, it’s not natural. It’s a big rock arch bridging over the canyon. So what?”

“Look at the start. Do you see?”

Now that he was pointing out the features, it was more obvious. There were two rock outcroppings, on both sides of the arch. They both looked square-ish.

Then they looked at the arch itself. There was a… depression in the middle. A regular, straight path, with raised stone on both sides.

Vantegaard drew the obvious conclusion.

“It looks like it used to be a bridge. A construction. But it’s turned into stone.”

“It might have been stone build. But yes. It’s now more like natural stone than masonry.”

They looked over the bridge’s sides. Now that they had the idea, it looked more like some half-melted stone bridge than a natural stone span. The stonework had somehow melted and flowed, removing the artificial straight lines and leaving a slightly smoother rock.

Vantegaard knelt and scratched some lichen growth.

“Ok. Now that’s definitively not usual.”

“How so,” asked Quandocor.

“There are lots of ruins all over Northworld. Like the ones we found already. But that’s the first I’ve ever heard of ruins that… reverts to natural stone?”

“It looks melted.”

“It’s not melted rock. I’m a geologist. I can recognize rocks. Even without a skill telling me about them. This looks more like a normal, weathered rock. Melted rock is very, very different. You get pumice-style rocks. Or a glassy rock. Not… well, ordinary rock.”

“Do we check what’s on the other side?”

“It can’t hurt.”

 

“Ok. Now, we back up slowwwwly, don’t turn around, don’t look afraid. I hope it’s not interested in us.”

Less than 50m from the end of the bridge, among the tree, was a reddish looking bear. With a fur crest running along its spine.

“That’s a big bear.”

“And it’s recognizable. That, guys, is Ursus Jubatus. Crested Bear.”

“Dangerous?”

“For us, certainly. The lowest ranks are something in the upper 20s. If there’s only one, we might survive if we had full life or a full-blown healer – sorry Birka. Otherwise? Forget it.”

They retreated slowly to the bridge. As the bear didn’t seem interested, they collectively blew their breath and turned around.

 

“So, ok. Bear is not good.”

“The location behind that bridge is far more dangerous than the western plain. If there’s Jubatus, then there’s probably plenty of predators in the same vein.”

“That means it’s our frontier?”

“I don’t see us adventuring beyond the gorge for quite some time. We need level 100 or higher to risk it. A couple of weeks at least.”

Birkathane hesitated.

“There are all kinds of creatures we’ve met and you know them all so far. Does this mean we’re close to civilization?”

Vantegaard realized this was a good question. After giving it a thought, he decided to answer.

“That’s a… thought. I mean, if I remember right, Ursus Jubatus hasn’t been spotted in Beta ever, while you can find lots of them all over Alpha. Even in Gamma, it’s mostly on the south part.”

“So we’re next to Alpha. Or maybe Gamma. I hope it’s Gamma.”

“Why? Oh, your friends.”

Vantegaard decided not to point out that the range of Jubatus covered probably thousands of kilometers. Next to Gamma might mean far from, instead.

 

They decided to take their lunch break next to the bridge. It was nearly time to head back to town anyway.

“You know, it feels weird to be in this wilderness, on a new world, and eat out of a tin can from Safeway.”

“ICA for me, but yea.”

Vantegaard warned them.

“It’s practical, but not too useful. Most Northworld-made food gets slight benefits. I think no one noticed, but the Serpo steaks I made yesterday got out stamina regen up by, like 0.1/s. It’s over once we finished digesting it, but while it’s going on, it’s a plus.”

“So we’re better out using local food rather than… imports.”

“Mostly, yes. That’s why I stuffed your bag with those wolf steaks. If we can find a smoker, we can make some kind of jerky to take with us. Don’t know what the benefit of that one will be, but it’s always better than Earth stuff.”

Birkathane guffawed “What? You don’t know? There’s something you don’t know about Northworld?”

“Well, I didn’t expect to do the cooking. Most of the time, you bring raw food and people with actual skills do it. I mean, I do Earthside cooking ok. It’s just… not expected.”

“Not adventurer enough, you mean,” said Quandocor.

“You got me. I just remember what’s poisonous, not benefits.”

“So you know what to pick and what to leave.”

“Exactly.”

 

They put a sign next to the bridge.

 Fanduk

Hopefully, it would last a while. Quandocor commented that an untreated, unvarnished wood sign shouldn’t last more than a couple months. If the town boomed, they would have to replace it with something sturdier at one point.

Vantegaard looked forlornly at the gorge. Somewhere in the middle of this was the point where the two major leylines intersected, and possibly a new Earth magic skill. But unless he had levitation or Birkathane’s climbing skill, there was no real way to get down there for now. The bridge was too far from that to let him test the interference. His 10 free points taunted him.

But no. One Juggling was enough.

 

The return trek was more or less uneventful.

At one point, Quandocor’s Sense Life and Death came into play unexpectedly, when he felt a rank 9 creature coming upon them. The sneaking Leopardus Serpo was very surprised to get a dose of Cold Grasp, followed by the group unloading on him, nearly obliterating him under the combined attack. Most predators on Northworld tended to underestimate the invading bipeds’ capacities and paid the price.

The cat’s skin and meat went into Birkathane’s backpack, finally brining her over her carry capacity and allowing her to stretch her skill.

Finally, the tower rose over the horizon, and they made it straight toward home as the daylight was dimming.

“Dinner in 30. Let’s see what the wolves taste like.”

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A note from Vincent Archer

Well, that's it for the east side. They're West of Eden, and the way to Eden is barred and guarded.

PS: The RR formatting isn't that good if you don't do bluescreens. But that's real panels, not Interface bits. So, meh.

Oh, one for the bestiary.

Ursus Jubatus (Crested Bear) – A midsized bearlike creature with a large fur crest along the spine. Far stronger than its normal rank indicates. Typical ranks 27 to 38.


About the author

Vincent Archer

  • France

Bio: Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.

Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.

Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.

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