Alf stared up at the giant centipede, unable to believe his eyes. It was wearing a saddle? How tough did a creature have to be to have a giant centipede as its mount?

He leaped to the side as it plowed into the ground behind him. Planting his feet, he slashed at the creature, leaning into the blow to maximize the force of his swing. The sword felt like an extension of his arm as it ripped through the centipede’s pulpy flesh. The rattle and twist that normally accompanied his strikes was gone. The three points he’d added to swordsmanship might not have made him stronger, but the nanite assist had been quadrupled, making his strikes an order of magnitude more effective. Before increasing the skill, he’d barely been able to scratch the surface of the monster’s cuticle, but now his sword was leaving deep twelve-inch gouges, each strike as smooth and effortless as a hot knife cutting through butter.


He turned at Blix’s cry. The first monster had doubled back on itself and was streaking towards her.

“Over here!” He leaped over the intervening centipede and sprinted after the monster threatening his friend. She was trying to reach a clump of vines, but the centipede was too fast. “No!” He watched helplessly as the monster rose up like a wave and crashed down on top of her.

He leaped onto the monster’s back, slashing down on it with all his might. It doubled back to attack him, but he hit it again and again and again until a dialog obscured his vision.

Congratulations! You have defeated the Laopede.

Reward: 300 EXP

The ground rumbled behind him, but rage had overwhelmed all reason. He launched himself at the two remaining monsters, slashing and stabbing and hacking until he was covered in goo.

Congratulations! You have defeated the Laopede.

Reward: 300 EXP

A dark shadow appeared behind the translucent dialog, he leaped aside but the beast smashed into the side of his leg, pinning him to the ground. Reaching out in blind desperation, his hand closed around the creature’s antenna. A jolt passed through his arm as he was lifted into the air. He swung at the monster’s head, but his blade glanced off its cuticle. His hand was slipping. He swung again only to cut the antenna off at its base.

A piercing shriek rang out as he hit the ground and rolled. He tried to climb onto his feet, but his leg buckled beneath him, sending him sprawling to the ground. All he could do was protect his head and brace himself for the next strike.

But the attack never came. He lowered his arms and sat up. The monster was thrashing around blindly, rolling over and over like it didn’t know up from down.

Dragging his leg behind him, he crawled over and easily dispatched the beast.

Congratulations! You have defeated the Laopede.

Reward: 300 EXP

Their antennae were their Achilles’ heels. If only he had known that before.

Crawling around the bodies, he made his way to where Blix lay still face down on the ground. Her legs and hips been crushed. Too much blood stained the ground. He reached towards her neck to check her pulse, but it didn’t matter. Pressing his hands to the part of her leg that was bleeding the most, he cast major healing, gritting his teeth against the burning pain that engulfed his body.

The second the pain began to recede, he moved his hands and cast the spell again. Over and over, he cast the spell, each time taking longer than the last.

A deafening screech penetrated his brain. The hurricane force swoosh of beating wings, but he kept on pushing. Something had flown over them. One of the winged riders from the volcano pit? Had it seen them?

“What is it with you?” Blix’s drowsy voice cut through his thoughts. “Every time I wake, you’re feeling me up.”

A tearful gasp escaped his lips. Then he was laughing and crying like an idiot. He eased her onto her back, brushed the hair from her eyes. “Are you okay? Where does it hurt? What should I do?”

“Did you kill the centipedes?” Her eyes were wide and wondering—like she was watching a ten-car pileup.

A lump formed in his throat. He nodded his head, tried to explain, but his words had all evaporated. “You okay?” he said in a choked voice.

“I won’t be walking any time soon, but—”

Pulling her off the ground, he crushed her to his chest. “It was my fault. I never should have taken you with me. I should have—”

“Stop!” She pushed away from him. “We’re partners. I’m the coach, and you’re the player. Where you go, I go. That’s final. End of discussion.”

“But you could have been killed.”

“Of course.” She sounded angry now. “This whole thing.” She swept out an arm. “Our new reality was modeled after RPGs. Everyone dies in RPGs. It’s designed into the game.”

“But what if…”

“The moment the aliens invaded our reality, I was already as good as dead. You’ve raised my odds of survival a tiny bit, but they’re still not very high. And yours aren’t very high either. The only way either of us get through this is if we stick together. And even then it’s more a question of how long we can put off the inevitable.”

“We can’t think like that. We have to focus on survival, and me dragging you to the most dangerous areas of the game is not survival.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” She was calmer now, more self-assured. “The only way to survive in an RPG is to keep getting stronger. And the fastest way to do that is to keep taking risks. I know it seems counterintuitive, but we don’t have the luxury of playing it safe. There’s an entire army trying to kill us. And who knows what’s going on at that volcano. It looks way too Lord-of-the-Rings for my tastes. The world is going to keep throwing stronger and stronger challenges at us. If we don’t grow at a fast enough rate, I can promise you: neither of us will survive.”

Crap Alf looked up, but it was too dark to see the stars through the trees. “While I was healing you, I think one of those winged rider things flew over us. I don’t know whether it saw us or not. The dying centipedes made a lot of noise.”

Blix stared right through him. Ever since he’d known her, he’d never seen her at a loss for words.

“What are you thinking?” he asked after an eternal minute.

“We don’t want to lead new enemies back to our camp, but we need to alert them to the danger. We don’t have time to waste bringing everyone else up to speed. We need to get you leveled up now. With all this dinking around, it’s taking us forever. This world is broken. Twenty-foot centipedes should be giving us thousands of EXP. Three hundred is just ridiculous.”

“So what do we do?”

She stared up at the canopy a few seconds before replying, “First, we get you to level seven. Then we head back to camp and check on the others.”

He had to cast major healing on his leg before it would take his weight, but three minutes later, they were circling the forest, searching for centipedes in an ever expanding spiral. Finally, after searching for over an hour, they were forced to give up. There weren’t any more centipedes in the area, and they had no idea how long it would take them to respawn.

“This is just wrong,” Blix griped. “How are we supposed to level up if the mobs are impossible to find? The aliens should have done some playtesting before releasing this travesty on the world. Everyone would have told them the mobs were too sparse and too difficult and gave way too little EXP.”

“Maybe they were just trying to be nice?” Alf suggested as he headed back towards their camp.


“The monsters are big and tough, but they have some glaring weaknesses. My ninety-four-year-old grandma can move better than that orc. Once I got behind it, the battle was over. And once I cut off the centipede’s antenna, it was helpless as well. Once you know their secrets, they really aren’t that—”

A flash of gray interrupted his thoughts. Wolves.

He plodded to a stop, drawing his blade in a single fluid motion. This wouldn’t take long. There were only a few of them, and he was finally starting to get used to the sword.

A jolt to his left side sent him crashing to the ground. Pain cut into his left forearm. The wolf yanked him off balance as he tried to climb to his feet.

He lashed out with his sword, but he didn’t have enough room to swing.

A bite crushed his ankle. Another one to the back of his thigh.

His forearm tore open as he ripped it from the wolf’s teeth. He hacked at the retreating monster, continuing the swing until he felt a jolt and heard a satisfying yelp.

Blix thudded down beside him. She was clear of the harness. He sat up and slashed at the wolf mauling his ankle. Once, twice, the third blow sank into its neck and a dialog appeared before his eyes.

Congratulations! You have defeated the Dyre Wolf.

Reward: 60 EXP

Blinking it away, he bashed another wolf with his pommel. “Get down!” he shouted and swung at the wolves coming at Blix from the other side. Another swing and he was on his feet, swinging the sword wildly, fighting to clear the space.

He moved to stand over Blix, and systematically cut the remaining four wolves down, one by one until they were all dead. All that remained was the dialog reminding him that he had just leveled up.

Congratulations! You have attained Level 7 and have been awarded the following:

+ 3 Attribute Points

+ 3 Skill Points

“Those weren’t normal wolves,” he said through clenched teeth as he dropped to his knees and started searching Blix for bites.

“I’m fine.” She pushed him away. “Do yourself first.”

“These wolves gave sixty experience.” He gasped as the healing spell surged through his forearm. “The last ones only gave forty-five.”

“Are you sure?” Blix pinned him with a serious look.

“Positive. They were all called Dyre Wolves, but these were a lot tougher than the last ones. And I’ve increased my sword by three levels.”

“We should go.” Blix clambered onto his back.

Alf turned to help her into the harness, but he swatted his hand away.

“Now. Monsters in normal video games don’t level up. If these are the exception to the rule, we’re in big trouble.”

* * *

Name: Jane

Level: 7

Class: Paladin

Health: 123/225

Stamina: 137/210

Mana: 574/784

Exp: 101/3600


Attr Points: 3

Skill Points: 3

ST: 14

DX: 16

CN: 15

IQ: 28

CH: 16

Combat Skills:

Faire du Canne 7: (Effective Skill: 10.5, Basis: ST+DX, Enhancement: 31.5%)

Grappling 1: (Effective Skill: 1.47, Basis: 2ST+DX, Enhancement: 4.4%)

Swordsmanship 5: (Effective Skill: 7.67, Basis: 2DX+ST, Enhancement: 23.0%)

Archery 1: (Effective Skill: 1.53, Basis: 2DX+ST, Enhancement: 4.6%)


Non-Combat Skills:

Woodcrafting 1: (Effective Level: 2.2, Basis: DX+IQ, Enhancement: 6.6%)

Lock Picking 1: (Effective Level: 1.6, Basis: DX, Enhancement: 4.8%)

Command Attention 1: (Effective Level: 2.2, Basis: CH+IQ, Enhancement: 6.6%)


Spells: (Basis IQ)

Minor Healing 5: (EL: 14, Cost: 25, Freq: unlimited, Effect: 42 points)

Major Healing 2: (EL: 5.6, Cost: 35, Freq: 1/hr, Effect: 200cc tissue regen)

Taunt 1: (EL: 1.6, Cost: 5, Freq: 1/min, Effect: 4.8%)


About the author


  • San Francisco Bay Area

Bio: Once upon a time I was a full-time, multi-published author. My books even won some awards. But I couldn't handle the deadlines, and I couldn't handle Ms. Purrfect, my own personal demon who told me every word I wrote was crap.
I won't lie. It's scary to be putting myself out there again. A level one troll could probably take me out in one hit. But I'm hoping to find a supportive community, a team of critics and encouragers and friends that can help me track down my long-lost mojo.

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