The trio silently walked between the trees. In the deep darkness of the forest, it would have been easy to lose oneself and even go in circles, but thanks to the Absolute Compass, they moved in a straight line away from the pyramid.
Twice, sounds of something prowling in the night reached them. But whatever made those didn’t spot them or wasn’t interested. Quandocor never felt anything within his range.
After an hour, Vantegaard called out for a stop.
They ended up rotating a watch as they’d done during the entire trip. It was more tiring, after the adrenaline of the combat, and with only three standing watch rather than nine people. But the night went more quietly, with no more than the distant noises of the forest.
Once the light was enough, they broke camp, without taking any breakfast or anything. Better put as much distance as possible between them and the deathtrap of a pyramid. None of the guardian spirits had pursued so far, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t.
As the danger slowly receded, Vantegaard began to relax a little. The trio was still in shock after the death of the expedition, but the immediate threat was likely over.
Which, of course, was when the black cat dropped from above on Birkathane.
She reflexively activated an arcane Weakness. She’d re-stocked on arcanist combos after the Pyramid; each combination of individual arcane skills took time to prepare and locked some of her power. A target at contact meant the easiest 1-skill combo worked well enough.
She punched at the feline who was slobbering all over her vest. A vague malaise told her that the saliva had probably some debuffing properties… ah, a Light Neurotoxin effect, indicating that any speed or dexterity-related skill would be only about 60% as efficient. Did that apply to her prepared arcane Speed combos?
A staff strike on its head dislodged the dog-sized cat. That and the Fatal Distraction necromantic assault by Quandocor refocused the felinoid on the first target he saw, namely Vantegaard, who had started to open up the distance to fire his spells. The cat tried to jump but failed under the brunt of Impose Load and Cold Grasp. But sprinting even in slow motion worked, and Vantegaard waited for the beast with his usual dagger drawn.
He blocked the first slashes, empowering himself with Armored Earth. The scratches that passed thru dealt relatively little damage. Meanwhile, the others were already active, trying to do as much buffing as possible. Shore Weakness and arcane Precision-Speed from Birkathane, a Pull Mastery buff from Quandocor who disengaged to quickly prepare an Auspicious Omens fast ritual.
Then it was a more standard rotation of attacks, as the beast hesitated between its two main targets of Vantegaard and Birkathane, letting Quandocor pump more staff blows, Wizard Breach damage-debuffs and other drains. The cat kept attacking though.
“What’s your reading, Quan?”
“Sense Life and Death says 33.”
“We’ve done that before.”
“Yes, but its health is still dropping slowly.”
“I think he’s avoiding too many physical attacks. Focus on spell damage.”
The new strategy worked. Quandocor wailed on the cat, attracting its ire, and both Birkathane and Vantegaard took their distances and pummeled the predator with Rock Darts. A few heals later, the cat finally dropped, skull caved by a final staff blow.
Vantegaard contemplated the creature.
“Pretty cat now that it’s not slathering us with its drool,” remarked Birkathane.
“Prettier pelt, in my opinion. Let me drain and skin it, and we move,” added Quandocor.
They stopped after a few hours, as midday was approaching.
“Time to figure out what we do now.”
Quandocor spoke first.
“What do you mean, what we do now?”
“Well, first of all, we’re okay so far. We’ve survived the worst, which was those pyramid guardian thingies.”
“What was that anyway?”
“I think it’s some kind of control base for Northworld. The whole thing with five races holograms and the occupancy map scream ‘we’re the ones who made Northworld and got you here’. Why? No idea. How? No idea.”
He added, “but sometimes you get a peek behind the curtain. I just wish it hadn’t cost so much.”
Quandocor insisted, “People are dead. Dead. For a ‘peek’?”
Vantegaard countered, “I’m not callous, but people die all the time. Maybe not as much on Earth, because Earth has been tamed. And mostly for the last two centuries. But people die in Northworld, yes. Usually by being stupid, but sometimes, by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Like we did.”
Birkathane added softly, “But we survived.”
Quandocor looked dubious.
"And you're not bothered by that?"
“Northworld isn’t safe. You get challenged here, truly. I was talking with Vasili a few days ago about our Tower guardian, and he was telling me about how thirty 2k-ers, people with more than 2000 levels banded up and raided a similar construct. And six people died then. But… for them? It was worth the risk. It wouldn’t on Earth, but it does if you really live here.”
“Six dead. Like us, then,” snorted Quandocor.
Vantegaard ignored the barb.
“We got lucky. We do have abilities that kept us alive so far. Even if others did not. At the moment, we’re safe, but we’re stuck. We’ve got four days at a minimum until we can attempt to Recess and tell anyone what happened. And even then, we’re still in the middle of nowhere, and we don’t have any backup.”
“So what’s the plan?” asked Birkathane.
“Before we even think to report, we have to move.”
He waved back toward where they encountered the Herpailurus Spumantis.
“This forest may not be the Pyramid, but it’s definitively not that safe. And so, we have two objectives. Recess and getting back to safety.”
“Why both? We can simply pack up and leave for Earth. We’re done.”
“Northworld hasn’t won yet, Quan. I know it feels like that because we’ve been in a bad spot and people died, and that’s something none of us ever faced.”
Speak for yourself, stupid boy, thought Quandocor. I’ve been there. I’ve seen perps die already. This wasn’t a game, and this isn’t either.
“I can’t force you to stay. Or Birka. We have Recess coming up in four days and once Recess opens up, you can take it at any time .”
Vantegaard added, “But I haven’t given up on Northworld. We can still move. Well, you can. If both of you decide to Exile, I’m kind of screwed. You both have some forms of healing or self-healing, but I don’t. Given the ranks around, I might be able to survive one mob solo, but if I get attacked twice, I’m dead. So it’s really a majority decision.”
Birkathane put her hand on his arm.
“I’m not giving up either. Don’t worry.”
Quandocor still looked troubled.
Vantegaard added, “However if you decide to Exile, it’s definitively over. We probably won’t stay in place, so if you want later to spawn back on Northworld, you’ll be on your own.”
“Anyway, it’s for the future. Right now, the only thing we can do is trying to get to safety. Going back to Fanduk is mostly not an option. It’s close, but that 50+ rank slice is not something I want to cross, even with us three. We need at least a month or two grinding levels and skills until we can afford to go there as a group. This 30+ rank area is already dangerous on its own if we get multiples.”
Birkathane agreed silently.
“So what’s left is that we can push forward to Gamma. Maybe there are a bunch of higher-ranked sectors and we’re fucked, maybe it’s ok. And we can grind skills and combat along the way, and push ourselves so we aren’t too vulnerable. After all, we have way more skills than normal, so we can level slightly faster.”
They were slowly making their way northwest, between the trees.
“Thanks, Birka. You know, without your Absolute Compass, we’d be completely lost.”
“There’s still the sun to orient with.”
“Not too practical in this forest. You can see it only at times.”
They kept silence for a while, looking at the sullen man in front of them.
“I’m worried about Quan,” said finally Birkathane.
“I know. I mean, he’s the most… casual of us three. He’s way unprepared, and over his head, I think. We’ve had our near thing back at the Stones of Fanduk, but this has opened his eyes to the reality of the Northworld. The wild Northworld,” said Vantegaard.
“Mine too. I mean, I knew my friends had adventures and fought monsters, but I never realized you die when you do that.”
“Adventure is something that happens to someone else, far away, and you only hear about the good bits afterward.”
“You do like that, don’t you?”
“Yes. And no. I don’t want to take risks all the time. We’re young, but I do know I’m not immortal. It’s the thrill of doing things few or no one’s done that brought me here.”
“Well, I think you got what you wanted in spades…”
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.