(Y6, August 9th)
The Equus Esuriens rank-30ish pair would have been a mortal threat three weeks ago when they had left out from Fanduk. A week ago, it would even have been dangerous. After two weeks of relentless grinding, those carnivorous horses were well within their range now, if they avoided a pack. They were a well-oiled monster killing machine now that their levels were climbing.
They still had made slow progress. Vantegaard wasn’t a professional Cartographer, and he didn’t really know exactly how much ground they’d covered. They were probably halfway to Gamma, 250-300km away. But the zones they crossed weren’t high rank, so it felt like the right decision. So far. Vantegaard was wary of jinxing it all.
By his account, the first of them might get into Adaptation Sickness in a few days. Which meant that they absolutely had to find a safe spot to recess. At least the area wasn’t infested with large Esuriens packs as it had been 10 days ago.
“Finally, made something good. Those horses weren’t wasted.”
Fur Notched Belt (lvl 11); Requires 32 Resilience. +1 Presence.
With a flourish, Quandocor presented the furred strip to Birkathane.
“For our best healer. May she heal me more, because everyone around hates the necromancer.”
“You know what? I’m going to look like a real Gater one of these days…”
“And we aren’t?” asked Quandocor.
“We still look like newbies. Don’t we, Van?”
“Everyone tries to purchase some gear as soon as they can. Every little bit helps. That’s what we’ll do as soon as we’re at Hilltop Samms.”
Birkathane took a snotty voice.
“Are we there yet, daddy?”
Both men tried their best not to explode laughing, barely succeeding. The fact that they could joke now showed that the mental wounds of the Pyramid were slowly scarring.
“Let’s keep going. We still need to find a good place for the Recess. At least, it looks like we’re leaving the plains. No horsies anymore.”
The small gorge had one big advantage. It was relatively enclosed, and few creatures seemed to use it. At least there were no tracks, no traces of occupancy.
“I think that’s the best we can get for camp” advanced Vantegaard.
“The area is relatively lowbie. The last creatures we saw were all mostly 25. Nothing higher since the horsies,” commented Quandocor.
“Finally!” exclaimed Birkathane.
“Then I suggest we mark our camp here and plan for the Recess. It’s going to be a full one, though.”
“The last three days with only meat from kills have been not pleasant. I never thought I’d look forward to Earthside cooking again.”
They all sat down. The last two weeks had all been about wading through the wilderness, and the idea of stopping was an abrupt change.
“Ok, so, let’s plan,” said Vantegaard.
“First, normal wisdom is about 4-5 hours per day spent on Northworld. It’s been 20 days now. If you don’t do that, the adaptation sickness starts on schedule… based on your previous incursion. Which is usually before you can respawn back.”
“So, basically, we need to take a full 4 days or more to be sure to purge all of the adaptation,” said Quandocor.
“That’s right. The second point is that, well, it’s always slightly dangerous to spawn in the outdoors. Most of the time, there’s nothing, but you can spawn next to a creature, and they don’t like the surprise. And you never see them on your Silvergate. Just the location, nothing else.”
“That’s why you insisted on the lowbie, secluded area.”
“That, and the fact that we need to leave the Skillstones here and hope no critter comes to steal them.”
“Skill stones are far too linked to the Interface to survive on Earth. You keep them in your bag when you Recess, they’re going to be pretty marble slabs within an hour. So, I’ll bury my bag to lower the risk.”
“Gee. Any other surprise?”
Birkathane snapped her fingers.
“I have an idea. We can probably do one better and synchronize on Earth. You set the exact time, and we all go in at the right hour.”
“That’s what Vasili organized. He said the expedition always had someone late.”
“Yes, but we can coordinate better. A smartphone chat group and we can confirm we’re good and ready, then we spawn all at the same time… of course not the same location.”
Birkathane added, “I’ll set that as soon as I Recess. Give me your phones, both of you, and I’ll set up a chat on our app.”
Didn't expect that, thought Quandocor.
“Chatcomm handle, Vantegaard, of course.”
Quandocor enumerated his private phone. He had no idea if you could trace the professional phone to being an FBI one, so it was better to be safe. But the handle on the virtual phone for Vantegaard was a frustration. Not impossible to get thru, but not easy.
Then he thought better. If people were like everyone else, then they probably used the same pseudonyms everywhere. Find their Northworld handles, find their handles in the real world’s various electronic haunts.
“Ok. So, here’s another thing. If we spawn, we put a stick up in the ground. You can’t see the person, and you can’t see the stick moving, but if you see two sticks up, then you know the first two are already there. And if you’re delayed and you don’t see the sticks up… then we’ve already left.”
“Normally, we won’t need to do it. I mean, if we are on a chat, we can confirm we’re all ready, and go in short succession.”
Vantegaard looked at his two friends.
“All set? Then pick a place for the spawn, and try to avoid moving through the others’ when you come back.”
They spread out.
“4 days and some. 100 hours exactly, on the mark when we respawn. See you.”
He waved and activated the return option of the Interface.
Jasper blinked his eyes. He hadn’t noticed but… the darkness in the apartment was less pronounced. The Interface might be off on Earth, but Night Sense did leave its mark. He hadn’t noticed on the first recess, but maybe it was because he simply had arrived during the day. Did the effect slowly fade after being on Earth?
He stretched. The tiredness felt a bit strange, after weeks of not suffering from real simple fatigue. Life was truly easier in Northworld.
He might as well try to sleep for now. He’d start making his report tomorrow. It had waited for so long already, it could wait a few hours more.
He didn’t expect it would come easy. Writing it down would bring the memories back. But he had a duty. He owed it to Vasili. To Maelia. To all of the expedition.
And a responsibility. Because the news that alien life might exist, there, in Northworld, that was a big one. That responsibility, he also inherited from the six fallen.
“I didn’t expect to see you on recess.”
Alan Bismarck looked fit, tanned and composed. Apparently, his initial newbie sojourn on Northworld had already produced tangible changes.
Most people would dismiss them, but any Gater could recognize the effects of leveling.
“Got back three days ago. I’ll spawn tomorrow. And you?”
“Using four days as well, but just in.”
“Are you close to… Gamma, you said.”
“That’s a bit complicated.”
Jasper ended up explaining slowly everything. The Pyramid, the wipe, the long trek on their own.
“That’s… kind of epic.”
“Adventure is something that happens to someone, a long way, and you hear only about the good bits.”
“And there are four other species of Gaters. Like us, but aliens. Real aliens.”
“The kind that Hollywood wouldn’t even do. I think the furry one is the best looking of the batch, but they all scream ‘wrong’. In a way that even Northworld weird fauna doesn’t.”
“You’re going to be a major celebrity when this comes out.”
“Me and the other two. I kinda wish the fame would have fallen on Vasili, though.”
They sat in silence, drinking their beer.
“So, where are you?”
“At the moment, I’m at a place called Sixty Steps. That’s in the north part of Beta if I understood right. Nice place for a newbie. Picturesque lakes, fjords, pine forests. You can solo all you want, and head back to town to stock on potions. They say it’s been founded in Year 1.”
“I’ll be on Gamma in two weeks, counting Recess. But Vasili said… wait a sec…”
Jasper pulled a small paper. It had simultaneously the feeling of something hastily made, and yet a precision of the pen… the work of Maelia. Jasper winced at the memory of the diminutive woman and her pencils and easels.
“That’s a rough map of the whole known world so far. So, you see, Gamma and Beta aren’t too far away. 400km he said.”
“So, once you’ve finished your epic, you can come to visit your friend Mortefury?”
“That’s your handle? You said…”
“I’m sticking it to Morden. He always said he regretted not picking an epic name like that one.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Next month in Northworld.”
“Well, it’s almost certainly going to take longer. But next month. In Northworld.”
Health: 1095/1095 (recovers 192/day)
Stamina: 1256/1256 (recovers 2.8/s)
Psy: 920/920 (recovers 2.5/s)
Power: 1686/1280 (recovers 1.6/s)
Aether: 269/2690 (base 269; drift 14.9/min)
Mind over Matter 49 (39%)
Absolute Meditation 42 (68%)
Sprinting 27 (77%)
Sense the Leyline 27 (31%)
Blocking Strike 22 (30%)
Aetheric Sense 21 (50%)
Door Knocker 17 (11%)
Sure Strike 17 (1%)
Level: 149 – 83%
Unused points: 1
Henry felt every single drop of hot water cascading on his face. The advantage of having moved his recess home was that the shower was 10 secs from it. And three weeks of relentless combat… that took a long time to unwind.
The clock displayed 4 am. But his internal clock told him that it was still late afternoon. He was a bit tired, but he doubted he’d be able to sleep yet. Jet lag between worlds. Who would have thought that?
Not him. That was the strangest thing. He took it for granted now. Unfazed.
Vantegaard had told him that the average Fortitude for people was around 21. His… was… shit, no Interface. Well, ok, he remembered. 41. Double the mental stability, calm, whatever that the average person would display. Unflappable Henry Esteban. Taking it all without a problem.
And that still frightened him. Because he understood now far better how Gaters came changed.
He lifted his staff, moved in the center of the living room and started katas. The staff moved with effortless grace. Steady Grip. Dodge Blow. Deflect Strike. They came and went. Shadows of a Northworld skill. Would he take bojutsu after this was over? Would bojutsu be good enough?
He would probably go to the office at first light.
He hoped there were some of the other Swordfish agents. Because they probably could understand what he would be talking about, but he doubted anyone else could.
Sammael looked at the business card.
“Hank, do you want to pull out?”
“It’s still not a bust, boss. So far… it’s been doable. But yes. Fuck. Six dead, like that. Sliced by alien Terminators.”
“The standard procedure when anyone is involved with someone killed in an action is to be put on leave and psych support. I don’t like…”
“We do that, it’s over for me.”
“We have four days. Either I show again and try to get there to use my reputation on that ‘Google’ darkweb company, or I bring the Silvergate back and it’s over because they won’t stay there waiting for me forever. If you order me to stay, I’ll do it. But we DO need to get to those Cartographers, and fast.”
Henry added, “How have the rest of the crew been doing?”
“Well, they haven’t had the… adventure you have. They all – what you call it… recessed? – yes recessed last week.”
“And how goes the hunt so far?”
“Most of them get the cold shoulder treatment. ‘Prove yourself, newbie’ kind of talk. Johnathan and Malika have been recruited in some kind of guild. No suspicions so far. You’re a Gater, you’re a right guy, like we thought Swordfish would go.”
“So, the intel on the biggest of the Gater guilds is our most precious asset so far. Because those guys are going to fuck everyone’s chances.”
“I admit you’re right about their importance. Okay. You go to that town you’re supposed to, you try to get in. We’ll see about psych leave later.”
“Will do boss.”
Henry stood up and added, “That’s how infiltration always goes. It’s the long term. If you pull out at the first incident, you’re wasting it.”
Sammael Rosenby and Vernon Balder looked at the closing door.
“Do you believe him?” began Vernon.
“I wasn’t going to say it to his face, not when he’s motivated like that. It’s kinda hard. I mean, aliens? Really?”
“Hank is a good guy. Not the kind of lying or inflating himself needlessly.”
“I’m not saying he’s lying. Northworld fucks with you. But… if the incident he describes happened that way, it’s probably bad for any agent. He might be taking it too seriously and personally.”
“You said it, boss. We should put him on psych leave. It’s a requirement for Traumatic Events.”
“And it’s optional during personal infiltrations. The worst thing is, he is right about being in the best place of the whole Swordfish. Aliens or no, he’s the best potential we have.”
Sammael looked again at the business card. It looked like any ordinary business card. The logo – a scroll wrapped behind a stylized globe – and name were mundane. The only weird part was that the name was a single word “Maelia” rather than a full name and the unusual “Mapmaker” profession. That, and of course, the .onion site name for the “company”.
“At least we’re starting to get leads to chase while our Swordfishers plunge into the deep waters. So let’s see what Hank can drag from the depths.”
Vernon snorted. The boss took the fishing metaphors a bit too far.
Health: 1128/1128 (recovers 204/day)
Stamina: 1314/1314 (recovers 2.9/s)
Death: 1604/1604 (recovers 0.011/s)
Mana: 1390/1390 (recover 2.3/s)
Ritual: 1105/1105 (recover 1.1/s)
Unseen Meditation 53 (99%)
Auspicious Omens 44 (54%)
Fatal Distraction 34 (44%)
Lay of the Land 27 (92%)
The Dawn of Light 26 (88%)
Endurance of Death 24 (46%)
Draw from Life 23 (73%)
Cold Grasp 23 (35%)
Level: 161 – 48%
Unused points: 2
Erika hadn’t expected to find over half of the Valkyries on Recess.
“Wow. We tend to gloat on the epic explorations and dungeon dives, but you win the prize.”
Siri Nordquist, the unelected leader of the Valkyrie dungeoneer guild, slammed her shot glass on the table.
“To the future best of us!”
“To the best!”
“Hey. I’m just level 141.”
“That’s more in nearly a month than Tullia after her third recess. But think of the glory. The Girl That Found the Five! One of us!”
The rest started to pound the table, drawing annoyed looks from the rest of the – sparsely filled – bar.
“So, you’re not too far from Hilltop Samms?”
“Probably a week… maybe one and a half max. We haven’t seen any zone too high ranked so far. It was touch and go at the beginning, but we’re looking good. If that holds, we’ll probably push it fast.”
Greta added immediately “I’ve checked the guides. There’s a ten-day trail between Hilltop Samms and Mount Talbor. There’s also a regular caravan route between Samms and Varionisia, up north of Gamma, which goes thru Talbor. If you join up, it’s easy since you have a bunch of veterans to guard…”
She saw Erika’s face fall.
“Sorry. I didn’t think.”
“No problem. It’s still a bit raw, and I still see that swordsman with his guts open despite my heals, telling me I couldn’t help him.”
She turned pensive long enough that Siri shoved a new shot glass in her hand.
“Sorry. We all tried to tell ourselves that if our best skills had been a bit better, maybe we could have survived that. Odin knows I’ve grinded my Infuse Vitality since. But there was no way we could have made a difference enough.”
She swallowed the Brännvin.
“Anyway, I think we might have to stay a bit on Hilltop Samms. The Russian said his guild would organize a big raid to get back to the Pyramid and clear it, and I’m the one with enough Absolute Compass to guide everyone there.”
“You tell us. But if you’re not busy, we’ll be waiting for you. You know, an Archmage is kinda top for our kind of challenges.”
Health: 1054/1054 (recovers 180/day)
Stamina: 1206/1206 (recovers 2.5/s)
Lifeforce: 1491/1491 (recovers 0.24/s)
Power: 1626/1245 (recover 2.2/s)
Arcane: 42/936 (894 in use; recovers 5.8/s)
Meditative Cultivation 41 (93%)
Infuse Vitality 37 (21%)
Shore Weakness 35 (91%)
Arcane Precision 35 (65%)
Draw on the World 20 (58%)
Absolute Compass 20 (16%)
Arcane Weakness 17 (80%)
Rooted Existence 16 (87%)
Level: 141 – 1%
Unused points: 5
Armangest looked at the message exchange log. A cold fury was slowly rising. The watch officer on the Discord was still talking.
“So, yes, boss. That’s it in a nutshell. The probbie claims that Vasiliy was killed in action, everyone in the expedition was killed in action, and only the lowbies survived. Using a skill that’s not in any reference wiki. Oh, and they couldn’t recess until now because it was too dangerous.”
“And Vasiliy hasn’t reported yet.”
“The revised schedule for the expedition that he posted last time called for their recess over a week days ago. Neither he nor Maelia has logged in.”
“Any of the other expedition members?”
“No login since five weeks ago. But they’re guests, not members, so they don’t have to check all the time.”
“It certainly looks like they did get killed, boss.”
“The whole story feels like a crapton of bullshit though. A hidden pyramid with the map of all Northworld? Four alien races of Gaters spread all over the world? Terminator guardians?”
“I revoked all his privileges.”
Armangest opined, “That’s the right action to take. But there’s no way a trio of lowbies could have wiped Vasiliy and the rest on their own. They had help, or they had skills to hide their real levels. Anything on our databases with those handles?”
“Nothing. There might be 2k-ers that we don’t have an entry for, but that’d be a first. We have pretty much anyone that ever made waves.”
“It still screams setup. Although why someone would want to kill our expedition… the Gamma-Beta one has reported no difficulties?”
“They’ve arrived in Beta two weeks ago, no great difficulties. Just a delay because they wanted to check dungeons. The route description is already on the wiki. Map guide ready for sale when you want to open the market.”
“I’ll see about that later. Now, they say they’re still trying to reach Gamma?”
“According to that Vantegaard guy, yes. Assuming they’re in the wilds, and not back at that Fanduk town. Or somewhere else.”
“I want a group at Hilltop Samms. When they arrive – if they arrive – I want a full investigation, and a complete level, stat, skill, gear scan, everything. Find the right inquisitors skills. Hire any mercenaries necessary. Stuff them with control and truth potions until they spill their guts. I don’t care if they get poisoned.”
Armangest concluded “If they killed Vasiliy, I want them buried alive, and then their respawn found if they survive Bane. I’m pretty sure some of the Earthside authorities will love getting a tip on Gater scum, especially if those Gaters are also murderers.”
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.