(Y6, August 21st-23rd)
“Okay. We escaped. Now what do we do?” asked Quandocor.
“I think the priority is to get as far away from those guys as we can. I don’t think they’re pursuing us yet, but they’ll probably try. Especially if they made sure we’re unable to Recess for now.”
“Can they find us?”
“I think we can apply the Northworld proverb: there’s a skill for that. I’m sure there are some skills or combos that can track us to a certain distance. So the further away we are, the safer. And we’ll Recess as soon as possible because I’m pretty sure anything that can track us specifically will be broken by going to Earth and back again.”
“I’m not too keen on running away into this forest. Not again.”
“I’m not either, but we may have to risk it anyway.”
Quandocor countered, “I won’t be able to see anything at all soon, but I can follow you. If you don’t run, and call out for obstacles.”
“The problem is any hostile that shows up.”
“They’re less hostile than the guys pursuing us.”
Half an hour later, noises broke out to their right. Before they had time to react, a cat dropped on them, quite surprised to see three bipeds at that time of night.
The Leopardus Venator was, unfortunately, quite under-ranked against a group of 3 mid-lowbies, and they dispatched him with a minimum of problem.
“Hopefully, this hasn’t made too much noise.”
“I think so. But we can’t go on. Quan, do you have any perception of them.”
“Lay of the Land doesn’t work like that. At the moment, the only thing I’m aware of is Hilltop Samms. And some kind of micro-dungeon area not too far from here, slightly to the southeast.”
“Micro-dungeon?” asked Birkathane.
“One item that I can feel and a tiny group of under 25 rank critters.”
“So… no idea if the bad guys have broken pursuit or are like 100m behind” was Vantegaard’s conclusion.
“And Night Sense is helpful, but limited at 12m at the moment.”
“And we get tired faster at night,” added Birkathane.
“Time to take a break. Let’s try to get some sleep, and start moving again as soon as dawn comes.”
“I take first watch,” said Birkathane.
The morning saw them all bleary-eyed. They still had their sleeping bags from the dungeon trip, but the adrenaline down hadn’t helped them sleep. For Quandocor, who had taken his usual mid-watch, it was even worse.
“So. I asked last night. What do we do now?” repeated Quandocor.
“No Recess yet, so we need to move away from Hilltop. If they catch us, I’m sure they won’t be taken by surprise again. And it will be harder to lose them in the daytime,” said Vantegaard.
“I suppose we can’t simply talk to them.”
Vantegaard shook his head.
“That… Inquisitor guy. Karseerteal. He said everyone knew and liked Vasili. And we survived when he did not. So now, they don't seem to be disposed to listen to reason.”
“I think we should have expected it. I mean… people who know us, they believe us. Because they trust us. But some people coming out of nowhere saying ‘we found aliens! Real aliens! Gaters like us! Oh, and by the way, all witnesses are dead!’… is a bit hard to take on face value.”
She added, “My friends did, but they know me well enough. I’m not the kind to make big jokes like that.”
Vantegaard confirmed, “My friend Al… Mortefury, yea. He liked the idea of some kind of a First Contact, and knowing a celebrity involved.”
Quandocor grimaced “I didn’t talk too much about that. I guess…”
He fell silent.
“Hey. It doesn’t matter who believes you or not on Earth. We all know the truth. That’s what matters in Northworld,” said Vantegaard.
“It would be easier if your Cartographers didn’t judge us guilty already,” said Birkathane.
“We have to establish our innocence. Without taking risks,” added Quandocor.
“So, who are the legal authorities around here, Van?”
Quandocor took Vantegaard’s silence in stride.
“None, eh. It’s the wild west. Each local sheriff’s word is law.”
“There’s no global law. There’s not even global police. I know there are places where you have local enforcers, but that’s more like a militia rather than police.”
Birkathane asked, “Can the Cartographers really do…”
“They’re one of the biggest and more powerful guilds in Northworld. There are one or two raider guilds with a bunch of 2k-ers that have as much influence, and probably the largest mercantile houses. But those are usually limited to a single area. The Cartographers are everywhere, and they have lots of money. If they don’t have the force, they can hire some mercenaries to hunt us. And nobody will stand against them.”
“The Valkyries might help.”
Both men turned toward Birkathane.
“My friends… they’ve got a strong guild going. Nearly all veterans and Randgridda is even in the thousands. They can send a bunch of hunters after us, but it’s one thing to run three lowbies, and it’s another to face over twenty veteran dungeon runners skilled, experienced and geared.”
“Speaking of which…”
“We all have our gear on us, Van.”
“There’s still the 30+ box that I left at the…”
“Who cares. We have all the gear we can use right now. And I have my money on me, thanks to our sales. So, fuck off with the gear we left at the inn. What’s important? Escape or gear? Don’t tell me you’re worried about a bunch of knickknacks we can’t even use.”
“Whoa Quan. Keep calm,” said Birkathane.
“Sorry. Thanks for the interruption.”
Vantegaard waited a bit before speaking again.
“We need someplace to escape to, in any case. The only friend I know is in Beta. You, Quan?”
“My friend… I think… they’re all over the place. And they’re probably… not the kind of friends who will risk anything in Northworld for you. Probably.”
“So, right now, we only have one potential hideout. Birka’s Valkyries. Where are they?”
“They operate out of Mt. Talbor. It’s not that far from here, relatively speaking. A ten-twelve days trip.”
“Nothing compared to what we’ve done before.”
“Well, it’s a bit more civilized. We may encounter other Gaters on the way. But… well, we can do that. I’ve looked at the general maps they have, and with my Absolute Compass, there’s no problem going there. The terrain has some rough passes, but there’s nothing reported over 30. Easy peasy compared to the wilds.”
“The only risk will be the Cartographers’ goons then,” noted Quandocor.
“If they start distributing bounty posters” added Vantegaard.
“Gee thanks,” said Quandocor drily.
“Guys. Cut it. Down.”
“Okay okay. We’re all angry about the situation. But we made it through before. We’re going to make it thru again.”
Vantegaard stayed on the defensive.
“I don’t see any immediate options than following Birka’s lead on this. At least until we can Recess. The best case is… we can have your Valkyries act as intermediates. Negotiate with the Cartographers for a neutral investigation, without anyone holding anyone hostage or anything.”
“That can work… if your Cartographers are reasonable. If they're all baying for blood like that Karseerteal, that’s not good. They’re probably not going to be very rational on this for a while.”
Quandocor didn’t add that even with cops who were professionals, whenever a fellow officer got injured or killed, the suspects tended to fare worse than usual, due process be damned.
“We can try. Unless we do, we’ll never know if it’s going to work or not.”
One hour in, the forest started to thin.
“I don’t like it,” said Vantegaard.
“Me neither,” confirmed Quandocor.
“Straight to Mt. Talbor is that way. But we may drift a bit and follow the forest’s edges,” said Birkathane.
“Depending on what skills they can muster for this, it might be safe. Being unseen is probably more important than arriving at the destination faster.”
“Plus we avoid those guys. I absolutely, totally, completely hate horses these days.”
Quandocor was pointing toward a small group of quadrupeds. From distance, they were obviously a pack of Equus Esuriens. So far they had not spotted the trio who was still partially in the forest. But if they came out… the horse pack would probably smell dinner.
“A few of them is not a problem, more will be. And I had hoped we’d left those behind.”
The trio started back toward the northeast. The plains to their left had several packs roaming. At one point, they saw from a distance a pack of six Equus falling on a small group of Buffalus Percurro. The hapless bovines were caught by surprise, but one managed to run toward safety.
Namely, the forest edge where the three adventurers stood.
“Don’t attack, he’s fleeing. He might not harm us.”
“I’m more worried about the horsies chasing him,” said Vantegaard.
The streamline bison crashed into the forest 50m from them, with lots of snapping sapling and branches noises. All three kept weapons readied in hand – or none in Birkathane’s case.
“I think… they’re too busy.”
The six horses were busy tearing strips in the two downed Percurro. They looked very efficient in that, each keeping to a different part of their respective bison.
“That looks like a big waste.”
“Probably wanted only one, but if there are two, all the better.”
“Fighting the full pack might have been highly dangerous.”
“Hopefully, they won’t bother us.”
“Still, let’s not expose ourselves. Come on, we need to keep moving.”
As noon neared, Vantegaard started taking stock.
“What’s your ration status?”
“Got enough for two days,” said Quandocor.
“Same here,” added Birkathane.
“Ok, so we can move pretty much for two days without worrying too much, but we’ll have to hunt something at one point.”
Birkathane started mentally checking the map she’d memorized.
“Right now is ok. The thing is, we’re still heading east to avoid this Equus plains, but pretty soon, we’re heading into the non-explored side of Gamma. If I remember right, the ranks there are said to be quote-slowly ramping up-unquote.”
“So… we probably need to change directions.”
“Yes. Unless you want to turn back south/southeast and try to bypass Hilltop Samms from the south side.”
“Which is risky, and will add weeks to the trip, I guess,” said Quandocor.
“So. We keep following the forest’s edge until tomorrow, then we try going northwest instead of northeast.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Birkathane.
“Okay, we haven’t seen much in the way of packs. Let’s try to cross these plains. Anything on your radar, Quan?”
“There are two areas eastwards, near my max range. But nothing significant in the other directions. And I’ll remind you that I don’t feel any groups with Lay of the Land. It’s strictly significant locations.”
“Yea. Just checking in case. So, let’s see if we can get into a decent zone fast. We can go fast a bit since we can use our meditations to regenerate Stamina, but once we get Famished…”
“Hopefully, we’ll have Recess available again before that,” said Birkathane.
“I’m hoping so as well,” said Quandocor.
Karseerteal was brooding in the Obvious Tankard’s main room when the door opened. But instead of the usual small group of locals looking for a break, there were two people with dusty travel clothing and Carmelli.
Karseerteal put down his beer and stood up, as Carmelli spotted him.
“Hello. Vinogradman, skillmaster, and psi. And the lady here is Zachrakal, tracker and alchemist.”
“Greetings. I’m Karseerteal, head of the first team. I’d say welcome to Hilltop Samms, but I’m not in the mood these days.”
“Carmelli was telling us that they’d escaped you.”
“About three days ago. We had made sure they couldn’t recess using some Bane’s Grasp, and we were intercepting them as they came back from a dungeon trip.”
“Who the fuck had the bright idea of starting them on Bane’s Grasp?” growled Zachrakal.
Carmelli said, “HQ suggested it. Said it was too risky to let them initiate Recess if cornered.”
Zachrakal sighed dejectedly, “and that’s why you leave that to the specialists. Successive doses of the Grasp have less and less effect. And you need them locked or kept in coma until you’re sure they don’t have any Neuralizer in their system. Then you start the real interrogation with the truth drugs.”
She looked at Carmelli.
“Next time you want to take initiative, don’t.”
“Hey, it’s not me. You have a problem, take it to the HQ.”
Vinogradman tried to keep it calm, “Stop that. Someone fucked up, we move on. And by the way, what happened? I mean… you’re 1300. I assume the rest of your team is also Thousanders. At worst, you should have beaten them to an inch of their lives and taken surrender then.”
“What happened… Hmmm, you’re in psionics. Mortarban – he’s one of my team – did notice that one of them was using a psi skill and thought it might be some kind of attack. But instead it… literally opened up a hole in the wall. They slipped through the wall, and the stone reformed, closing us in. By the time we ran out, they had a good headstart.”
Karseerteal tilted his head with the question.
“Do you have any idea of this is possible?”
Vinogradman thought about it.
“I don’t know… but was it Mind over Matter? Did you get the exact skill used?”
“I’ll ask Mortarban when he’s back, but I think he gets only the skill domain, not the full details. You know about it?”
“It’s a recent rare skill. There’s one newbie in Alpha who got that during setup and it’s been posted on at least one forum nearly three weeks ago when I was on Recess. But it sounds like what you described – it lets you cross solid structures.”
Karseerteal sat down and gestured for them to take a seat.
“They came well equipped. I still can’t understand how they do it. They’re looking like recent lowbies. They were level 170-180, but Mortarban says they have too much Aether, meaning too many magic skill levels. One of them was skirting the 400 total levels.”
He continued, speculating.
“Plus that damned escape skill. It’s as if they’ve got special builds, but…”
Carmelli added, “Told you. It looks like they used a dozen or more Skill Stones. And not cheap ones.”
Karseerteal snapped his fingers.
“Of course. You’re right. We know they sold over 15 Skill Stones and assumed that they were the payment. But if you can afford to give 15 skill stones as payment, you can probably afford to provide requisite skill stones to prepare your agents. Even if I can’t see them killing six veterans even skillboosted. Not possible.”
“No, but that gives us more information.”
Vinogradman smiled, “Like, who can afford to spend dozens and dozens of skill stones including rare tier 1 for one mission.”
“The only ones I can see able to do that are the big mercantile. The Gold Crescent, the Weightscales, the Cotton Road. Those type of guys, depending on how important it was.”
Carmelli added his own opinion.
“And it makes the motive a bit clearer. There’s really something important out in the wilds. They might have been farming it for a long time, and it’s so precious, they are willing to use murder if they think someone might discover it.”
“What if it’s the source of those Skill Stones? We’re so sure we’re the first to cross… maybe there’s some new dungeon that spouts Skills Stones by the dozens regularly instead of only when virgin? And they found out that the expedition was going to pass thru.”
Karseerteal interrupted the speculations.
“Okay, we’re getting there, slowly but surely. Right now, we have three fugitives to track. The evening is almost there, but I can get my team together within an hour, two at most. How do you want to do it?”
Zachrakal said “I’m good. Give me that hour to get some decent civilized drink in, and we can try to see. Three days is bad, but sometimes people start running in circles and think they covered a hundred km when they’re ten from where they’ve started.”
“Not these ones. One has Absolute Compass.”
“Yech. That’s the best next thing to a GPS. So no, they’re not going to be lost. Although… if you’re going to go traipsing in the wilds between the areas, it’s a very nice skill to have.”
“At least, I have Bloodhound, and I can follow their tracks, even if they’re a week old. And I have enough stamina potions to keep us running.”
She added, “Do we have anything more about where those lowbies are supposed to be from?”
“There’s some stuff on the Spellwranglers website on the town they’re supposed to be from, Fanduk. Things about a raid tower dungeon and some magical ruins everywhere. And if you believe what’s said, everyone apparently had a mage build with Meditation down there,” said Vinogradman.
“Is that why they have tier 1 Meditation? It thought the only people who have one got those from Skill Stones like the ones they sold? Does this mythical town even exists?” wondered Wastehot.
Mortarban confirmed, “I've heard the report from Vasili on it. A 290 rank Fabrico Vividus and a copy of the Stones of Tarquar. So yea. The town exists.”
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.