The nondescript wooden door led out onto a sunlit meadow dotted with trees. Fred blinked in the bright sunlight. His first thought was that it didn't look very much like a dungeon, at least, not any dungeon he had ever seen. He was hardly an expert but in his experience they were usually underground. Rocky. Dark, with stones and iron bars. That sort of thing. Some of the more exciting ones had fluffy manacles. He wandered out into the meadow looking around curiously. The sky overhead was blue and speckled with puffy white clouds. Far in the distance purple, snow capped peaks clawed at the sky. A warm breeze ruffled his hair. Flowers of red and pink and yellow bobbed gently.
A small spider started to chew on his leg.
Fred screamed and jumped back. The spider stayed where it was, looking up at him with all eight of its beady eyes. Its body was about the size of his fist, round, black and strangely cartoonish, as if someone who had never seen a real spider had drawn one with a stubby crayon and then it had, somehow, magically come to life. Blood trickled down his leg where it had bitten him, twin fang marks of red side by side. It hurt a lot. Fred took a step back and the spider scuttled towards him. He froze and the blasted thing froze, as if they were playing some absurd game of statues.
"What the fuck!" he said to himself, then remembered the door he had come through and looked back over his shoulder. It was gone, vanished as if it had never been. There was nothing but meadow with a couple of trees dotted here and there. He moved backwards again and tripped over a small wooden signpost that was hammered into the ground at ankle height.
THE MEADOW OF BEGINNINGS, it proclaimed in wide cheerful letters. There was something sinister about it, but it was probably just the comic sans*. Fred shuddered and then leapt up as the spider advanced. He backed away from it nervously.
"Squish it with your spoon," someone said from the closest tree. Fred wanted to see who it was but he dared not take his eyes off the approaching arachnid, which was now looking at him with dinner shaped eyes.
"I said, SQUISH IT WITH YOUR SPOON!"
Without taking his eyes off the spider he managed to undo the strap of his satchel, one handed, and draw out the ladle. He waved it vaguely toward the spider. It seemed unimpressed. Fred didn't blame it. It was a spoon for God's sake.
"Oh, that's a nice spoon," said the tree.
"Thank you," he said, his gaze pinned on the spider. Drawing in a deep breath he lunged at it, bringing down the round end of the ladle with all his might. The creature squished, as if it was made of rubber, or indestructible jelly, wobbling slightly and then pinging back into its original shape with a snap. It scuttled towards him, its eyes flashing red.
"Shit," said Fred, and ran towards the tree.
Grabbing a low branch he swung himself up into the leafy green. He scrambled up the trunk, pulling his feet up after him and came face to face with a young woman.
"Hello," she said.
"Hi," he said, a little out of breath. This was mostly because running from the spider had winded him, and absolutely not because the young woman in question was draped fetchingly across a branch in her underwear and little else. Her face was romantically framed by leaves and she looked almost exactly like a forest nymph. Or what Fred imagined a forest nymph should look like if they moonlighted as Victoria Secret models.
"What are you doing in the tree?" he asked, which in retrospect seemed a very silly question. But then, it had, he conceded, been an odd morning. Less than two hours ago he had been walking the passageways backstage at the Royal Opera House and now here he was sitting in a tree with a half naked lady he had only just met.
"I'm hiding from the spider," she said. Her voice was pitched surprisingly low for a woman, and very calm. It was a soothing voice. She did not seem bothered by the situation and lounged on the branch with perfect grace. By comparison, Fred suddenly felt gauche and uncouth. Sweat dripped from his brow and his stupid trousers were rumpled and torn. He smoothed them over his thighs feeling self-conscious. Focus. He needed to focus. What had he been worried about again? A pain in his ankle reminded him. The spider.
"Can the spiders not climb trees?"
"I don't know," she said. "I'm new. The spider stopped running after me when you showed up."
"Oh," said Fred. They both looked down. The spider was halfway up the trunk and gaining. "Oh dear. Why did you tell me to bash it with my spoon?"
She shrugged. Fred held on to the branch with all of his knees, two didn't seem to be enough, which was odd because normally he had excellent balance.
"I thought it might work," she said. "Do you have a better idea?"
"We could stand on it? Kick it?"
She wiggled her naked toes at him and Fred looked down at his own threadbare sandals. They didn't look very robust.
"Perhaps, if we both bash it with our spoons," he said, "I mean at the same time?"
"It won't work."
She showed him her spoon. It was a teaspoon, pretty and serviceable enough but it looked more suited to the spooning of sugar than the bashing of bloodthirsty spiders. The handle was enamel and painted with pretty pink and yellow flowers.
The spider was almost upon them. Fred leaned down and whacked it thoughtfully a few times with his ladle. This had the effect of slowing it down but didn't seem to inconvenience it greatly.
"Perhaps you should name your spoon."
"What? How will that help?"
The spider was almost upon them.
"Just try it!"
"Fine." It was all feeling like an increasingly bad dream. He would have just curled up on the ground and gone to sleep if it wasn't for the sharp pain in his ankle where the spider had bitten him. He waved his ladle in the air.
"The Spoon of Destiny!" he muttered, feeling like a prize idiot. A majestic swell of music swept across the meadow and Fred nearly fell off his branch. The ladle glowed blue and then faded back to its usual dull chrome.
[The Spoon of Destiny +1 HP]
"It worked!" said the nymph. "See if you can get it now!"
Fred clobbered the spider with slightly more enthusiasm. His first strike left an encouraging dent in the creature's carapace. Three more whacks and the spider stopped moving, although its legs continued to wriggle in the air. Fred winced and leaned down for one fourth and final whack. Juices spurted and hissed where they landed in the grass. The hairy black legs stopped moving.
The spider was most definitely dead.
[The Fredinator +1 XP]
There was a sound like a tinkling bell.
"Thank God," said Fred, staring down at the rapidly cooling corpse. He was about to poke it with one sandal but then thought better of it, as he remembered his exposed toes. In death, the spider looked smaller – deflated almost. Like a wrinkled, hairy balloon carcass left on the sidewalk with no hope for a future, except perhaps, if it was ambitious, the pollution of waterways and the choking of some poor innocent sea life. As Fred watched, the spider shriveled in on itself and dissolved into the ground with a slight sucking sound. The earth closed over it with a pop and it occurred to Fred that he might be in shock. What he really needed was a nice cold beer and a sit down. Or perhaps a nice cup of tea.
"I say," he said, to the woman in the tree. "You wouldn't happen to know where we could find something to drink? I'm Fred by the way."
"Fred? Is that your real name? Or your game name?"
"My real name," said Fred, drawing himself up to his full height. "Well, Frederick but everyone calls me Fred. My game name is The Fredinator." To her credit the nymph did not laugh, for which Fred was grateful.
"I'm Joan," she said, with a half smile. "Joan of Snark."
Fred choked down his own mirth.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi," said Joan.
She jumped down into the grass with a surprisingly solid thump, and straightened, looking unconcerned and as fresh as a daisy. Fred followed her down, tripping over a branch on the way. Unfolding to his full height he realised she was surprisingly tall, her hazel eyes parallel with his own, which put her at about six foot high. Her hair was long, falling about her in an auburn waterfall so that the fact that she was in her underwear was less noticeable. At least Fred tried not to notice.
"Would you like my shirt?" he asked.
"What on earth for?" she turned away, peering across the meadow. "I think I saw a stream or something over there," she said. Fred blinked. He was after something stronger than water but a drink from the stream would probably make him feel better while he hunted for a cuppa.
"I wonder if there's a town somewhere," he said. It was, he felt, rather better to focus on a beverage rather than the bigger, more insidious questions that kept creeping into his mind. Questions like what on earth was he supposed to do now? Was he really dead and what the hell was going on? And why was there a naked man running past, screaming? This last one seemed too important to ignore, especially when the subject in question was rushing toward them in all his flapping, terrified glory. Spiders, Fred could take in his stride, but he wasn't prepared to deal with such a sheer quantity of doughy human nakedness so early in the morning without at least one cup of tea. Clothes, Fred thought clinically, were underrated.
Fred and Joan turned their heads in concert, as if they were watching a race, swiveling as the man crossed their field of vision from left to right. The apparition did not stop to acknowledge them in any way, a fact for which Fred was profoundly grateful.
"I say, why do you think that man is naked?" asked Fred after a while. "Do you think we should be concerned?"
He was beginning to wonder if he was asleep again, but his legs had never ached so fiercely in a dream. Any moment now, he pondered, the cast of Spamalot were about to pop out of the bushes and start singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". The meadow remained disappointingly free of singers and continued to contain only the trees, himself, Joan and the offensively nude gentleman. Although, Fred thought, critically, this last part was up for debate.
"Nah," said Joan, the very picture of unflappable nymphitude. "A spider is chasing him, that's all."
They watched him run with academic interest. Fred clutched The Spoon of Destiny tightly to his chest, and eyed the sprinting spider warily. He had never felt more grateful to possess a ladle, a bucket, and a pair of ratty trousers in his life. The screaming tapered off as the pursued and pursuer disappeared into the long grass in the distance. The meadow was returned once more to its previous state of bucolic innocence.
"But why is he naked?" Fred said, after a pause. He could not get the pallid vision from his mind's eye. He kept his actual eyes on the ground and tried to think of fluffy kittens and field mice sleeping in tulips instead. "It hardly seems fair?"
"Life isn't fair, why would you expect death to be any different?"
"I suppose. I mean I assumed there would be some rationale? Some sort of system?"
"Oh, I'm sure there is. I imagine it depends on what he did in his last life," said Joan.
"What? In his...oh. Oh. You mean they outfit us according to–"
"According to your stats, yes. Isn't that what they said? In that office place we started in? The one that smelt funny."
Fred glanced down at his awful trousers and the horrible sandals and suddenly felt less proud.
"I guess I didn't do very well," he said. "In life, I mean."
Joan looked at him, surveying him from bucket to sandals.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," she said. "You probably died young."
"Youngish," he said. "I'm twenty-five. I guess I never really achieved much."
"You were twenty-five," she corrected. They walked on in silence. "At least you have a bucket and trousers," said Joan after a while. Fred wondered if she was trying to cheer him up. "I don't even have a bag."
"Why don't you have a bag? That's just mean."
"Let's just say I was never really one for ...possessions," she said, thoughtfully, drawing out the word as if it was a foreign concept. "Or storage. So I assume that's why I didn't get given a bag. I just have to carry my spoon around until I can find something to put it in."
"Ah right," said Fred, mournfully. "You were probably into all that minimalist living stuff. Twenty pairs of socks? Not necessary! Doesn't spark joy! Very sensible. Think of all that beautiful shelf space. You probably had one of those minimalist houses where everything is cream and perfect and the toilet is hidden in a cupboard."
"Something like that."
"So what did you do?"
"What did you do, you know, in life?"
"Oh," Joan seemed a little taken about at the question. "Errr... I was in forestry. How about you?"
"Dancer," said Fred. "Ballet."
The grass swayed and a spider burst forth in a flurry of badly drawn black squiggly lines, but Fred knew what to do now and dispatched it with a few brutal blows.
[The Fredinator XP +1]
The tinkling bell rang out, making them both jump.
"Good one," said Joan, looking at the cooling corpse.
"Right," said Fred, wiping off his ladle. "So let me get this straight. Stats. So if I had lived longer, and eaten more ice-cream, I might have had a better pair of trousers? Or something?"
Joan shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know about ice-cream specifically. But perhaps if you walked a really long way when you were alive you start off with nice shoes? Or if you have talked a lot you would have high levels of...charisma? Or persuasion?"
"I mean that's just like real life," said Fred.
"Yes, in a way, but I mean more like you'd be more likely to get a good price for something in a shop. Maybe. I'm just guessing I have no idea."
There was a thoughtful silence, accompanied only by the distant hum of bees working on the blobby flowers.
"So if I had done more things, if my score was higher, I would have a sword instead of a spoon?" Fred glared at his ladle.
"Huh. So if I had died older..."
"I mean, it goes without saying that someone who is twenty-five wouldn't amass the same kind of stats as someone who died at say, ninety. Imagine all the things you can do over the course of ninety years."
"That is monstrously unfair," said Fred.
As if to prove the narrative point, the grasses parted to reveal an apparition in gleaming silver plate armour. The metal suit sparkled in the sunlight, the feathered plume of the helmet wafting gently in the breeze. Fred and Joan stared in awe until Fred got a grip and his brain kicked into gear.
"Aren't you a little short for a knight?" he asked.
The figure said something and the sound was muffled inside the metal helmet. The knight lifted its visor to reveal the softly wrinkled face of an old lady, her eyes milky brown and her cheeks dusted with roses and smiles.
"That's better," she said. "Can't talk through the blasted thing. Hello dears, are you alright?" The armoured nonagenarian was holding a double headed battle axe as casually as if it were a feather duster. The sharp edge dripped with black, sticky spider ichor. As they watched a drop fell off the blade and sizzled as it hit the ground, burning a hole in the earth, (or whatever was passing as earth) the size of a penny. She raised one small, snowy eyebrow. "The spiders didn't get you?"
Fred and Joan nodded mutely. "Goodo." She snapped her visor with a business-like click. "Mind where you step! There's hundreds of the little buggers."
And with that the old lady ambled once more into the undergrowth, her axe at the ready. The sounds of grunts and whacks emanated from further in the meadow accompanied the now familiar tinkle of the XP accumulating.
Fred shut his mouth. Then opened it again.
"Monstrous," he muttered weakly and heaved a great sigh. "Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here."
They walked off into the distance, Joan trailing close behind Fred as he played whack-a-spider with the Spoon of Destiny, the soft tinkling of XP gains wafting into the air after them.
* Royalroad is classy, so it doesn't have a Comics Sans font option. You will all have to use your imaginations.