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Name

Gwen Baird

Armour

3

Class

Hunter

Health

5

Level

1

Dodge

1

Species

Half-Elf (Wood/Human)

Species Skills (Half-Elf)

 

Strength

5

Elf Sight

1

Agility

5

Base Skills (Hunter)

 

Body

5

Stealth

1

Mind

5

Perception

1

Sense

5

Tracking

1

Charm

5

Archery

1

 

It had been five minutes and Guinevere Baird, hacker, thief, survivor of the End of the World, was hidden up a tree, hiding from a monster. This was not how she had expected her first day to go.

But then, she thought, hanging onto the  lichen-covered bark of the tree and watching the strange beast tear up the grass beneath her, she hadn't really known what to expect. Maybe this was how this was supposed to go? The media had been full of wonder and awe when the news came that they weren't all going to be trapped on Earth as the sun blasted Earth's atmosphere with radiation. Hearing about it she had been perhaps a little quick to celebrate rather than finding out more about what was going to happen.

A brisk wind came through the branches at that point, shaking the tree slightly and making her force her fingers even more deeply into the thick, orange-red bark of the Scots pine. Her nose was choked with the scent of it and hopefully, the creature below her would be similarly inconvenienced. But she didn't have much hope for that. As a member of the Hunter class she had gotten a point in the Stealth skill to start off with, that was probably the only reason that she hadn't been found. But whether or not she would be spotted or heard was not the most important thing. A more pressing issue was that she was losing the strength in her fingers and she wasn't sure that she would be able to grab a better hold without alerting the beast below her. One point of stealth could only get you so far.

And the tree was big, but even in the real world bigger trees than this were victims to wild hogs and even more to beetles and given that the creature was some sort of combination of the two, well. She really wasn't holding out much hope.

I need to put more points into Strength, she thought. Definitely need to fix that at my first level up.

However, that first level up wouldn't come until she had gained a hundred experience points which seemed like a veritable mountain while she sat at the bottom with zero. And then, of course, once she got that first hundred she would need two hundred to reach level three and then four hundred to reach level four. Because, to level up, each level needed twice as much experience as the one before it. By the time she reached level ten she'd be needing tens of thousands of points to get any movement.

She looked down at the beast, it looked like the godsforsaken offspring of a beetle and wild pig. Its six legs were a mix of trotters and feet with hooks, and behind the bristly brown face of a boar was a black shiny carapace. Currently, it was tearing into the ground with its tusks.

Goring, said her mind, not-so-helpfully, if it's got tusks it's called goring. And if that's what it's doing just to your smell on the grass, then it'll rip you apart if it catches you.

Not helpful anxiety-brain, she thought caustically back at the voice.

Gwen breathed in the air that smelled of pine – and increasingly of ripped up grass and broken earth – and tried to concentrate. What do I do? She thought about what she was carrying: I have a sword and I have a bow. There's no chance I'm going to be able to use the bow and still hold on to this tree, but the sword...

She looked at the monster. It was a little over two metres below her. Close enough that she could hear the tearing of the grass roots, the growling of its breath, and see her reflection in the shine of its carapace. That wasn't so bad a distance to fall. She grinned.

The simple sword she had been given at the start of the game hadn't come with a proper scabbard, just a loop of leather to attach it to her belt. That would make things easier. Trying not to grunt too loudly, she looped her elbow around the hilt and pointed the sword at the back of the creature's neck, above the carapace and below the hard bone of the skull. Then she waited for her moment. Her arms were starting to really feel the strain, the bark was starting to bite under her short nails. Then the creature reached out, stretching its short neck and creating a perfect target.

She let herself fall.

A millisecond later she told herself that she was an idiot and that this wasn't going to work. She had five points of health godsdamnit, did she really think that -

Then she hit the beast, her sword hitting first, skewering into the thick flesh and muscle around its neck. She landed on the slippery carapace, the arm she had been holding the sword with felt like it was on fire, the pain was so intense. The sword hadn't slid through the creature's neck, instead, it got stuck into the meat and muscle of it. And all the excess force was reflected back onto Gwen. Her gaze whited out for a second, and by the time that it returned her vision was glowing with numbers warning her about the amount of damage she had taken.

Too many numbers, she realised, too much damage. They were glowing red with a fluorescent and accusing glare.

And, rather than dying from a sword into the back of the neck, the creature just seemed to get angrier. It let out a squeal so loud its echo was alike a ricochet and started to run. Still stunned by the impact, Gwen only had the brainpower to hold onto the sword, scrabbling with her free hand onto the pommel and gripping on for dear life. She laced her fingers around it, making a pained noise as her hands came into contact with one another. The hand which had been gripping the sword as she fell was a mass of so much pain that being made aware of it once more was enough to make her tremble.

She felt sick with the pain and with the motions the creature was making as it tried to knock her off; luckily its attempts to smash her into a tree were fruitless as she was so much smaller than its wide back that it was doing more damage to its own sides than to her. But that didn't stop it from trying.

Its blood was doing a better job of dislodging her, thick rivulets of greyish green were running over her hands from the wound she had inflicted. It smelled like rotten flesh and Gwen gagged and retched as it coated the back of the creature and her. It wasn't like any sort of blood she had come across before, instead it seemed to have the consistency of egg whites.

As she held on, she grimaced as she realised that a nearly empty bar was floating at the top of her vision. What had dragged her notice to it was the rapidly sliding into red of the bar. The green was gone before she had a chance to get used to it.

The gambeson she was wearing had done little to soak up the damage, the rest had whipped through her five points of health leaving her with two.

Another one flickered and disappeared as she watched.

"Well that's bad, that's definitely bad," she said through gritted teeth.

Struggling to keep her balance on top of the slick beetle back, Gwen tried to stick her knees into the side of the neck, all while holding onto the sword. The creature kept running around the clearing, but it did seem to be tiring, or at least slowing. The trees whipping past her vision were doing so at a slightly less breakneck pace. Whether that was from the exhaustion caused by a rider, or from blood loss she wasn't sure, but either way, it was probably the only good news she had.

She breathed deep, trying to ignore the pain; she left her good hand holding onto the sword, both to keep her place on its back and to sustain the damage it was dealing, and with her agonisingly aching hand she took a dagger from her belt. The weapon wasn't long, not even the length of her middle finger from hilt to point, but it was sharp enough to cut through the bristly hide of the creature and into the flesh. Heart in her mouth, terrified that it would be smart enough to try rolling, she started to stab at the neck. Again, and again, and again. The blood was falling like a grisly wedding train behind them, it didn't seem possible that one creature could be filled with so much and it seemed impossible that it should lose so much and keep running.

She didn't bother keeping track of the flickering notifications telling her how much damage she was doing, five points here and three points there, the numbers swooped by her head seeming to disappear behind them as the monster kept running.

Then it wasn't. It didn't stop gracefully, rather slowing until it could run no more and falling to its belly, before shuddering out its last squeal of anger.

It felt like hours had passed, but the time from her fall to the creature halting was probably only a few minutes. Gwen ached, her arm felt like the muscles had started to fray and new aches sprung up as she sat on the corpse. Her belly for one, it had not liked receiving the brunt of her fall's impact.

She didn't bother standing up or climbing off the thing's back. Part of her doubted that it was even dead, she was sure it was tricking her. But mostly she stayed on the creature's back so she could breathe and give the world around her the chance to catch up. Part of that, she knew, would entail letting go of her sword, but she wasn't quite brave enough.

In the end, it wasn't her decision to let go, the game made it for her. The beast disappeared in a shimmer of greasy looking smog and she was dumped in the flattened grass. She dropped the two blades she carried. The blood had not gone with the body and so she was crouched in a muddy pool of it, her hands covered and the sleeves of her shirt soaked. She pushed on her wobbly legs until she was a few feet out of the blood puddle and there she dropped to the ground and tried her best to clean her hands on the grass.

***

It took her longer than she would have liked to recover. By the time her shaking legs could hold her the green in her health bar had climbed from a sliver to a healthy chunk, from a barely hanging on one point, to a solid four. In practical terms that meant that while her arm was stiff, it no longer felt like there was any threat of it falling off.

The new peace gave her a first proper chance to look around: she had materialised sitting in the grass of the clearing, had had all of half a minute to admire the pine trees and blue sky before she had heard the creature in the bushes. An instinct that she hadn't known she had, or perhaps had been given as part of the game, had told her to run. She had grabbed her things and bolted to the nearest tree with low enough branches. Now, however, she had time to look about her.

The long branches of Scots pines were interwoven into a thick canopy; lichen covered the trees in the lightest of blues and mixed with mosses on the trunks to hide much of the bark. Except on the tree that she had climbed. She walked over to it and could see the marks where her scramble had scratched the tree, breaking off moss, lichen, and even some small patches of bark. Guilt curdled in her stomach, she reached out and patted the trunk, "Sorry about that, thanks for keeping me safe," she whispered.

The feeling that came back was soft and cool, yet welcoming, like a glass of water when your throat is dry and the road is dusty, and before her mind could be dragged down that road too far she snatched her hand back in surprise.

"Oh!" Sheepishly she lowered her hand, "Right, half-elf," she tucked some dark brown hair behind a pointed ear and turned away from the tree, "I need to remember that that's a thing that can happen." Pulling her mind from the in character parts of the game, she looked instead to the least in character thing she could think of.

As Gwen opened the notifications menu, it was like getting hit in the face by a blizzard made from letters.

"Ah, fuck," she said, waving her hands about and attempting to sort through the masses of beeping, flashing notifications. After a few minutes it seemed to settle down and she was able to make sense of the system that organised them.

Feeling a bit like someone trapped in a high spin wash, surrounded by odd socks and too many bubbles, she grabbed onto the one that seemed to be flashing the brightest, hoping that that meant it was the first one she was supposed to be reading. As she thought about reading it a letter seemed to manifest in her hands, the paper was a heavy, golden-toned parchment, and there was a gold wax seal stamped with the image of dove holding frayed wires in its' beak, rather than leaves. Gwen ran her fingertips over the image, it felt like wax, but also, somehow, colder and harder, as if it were made of metal, after all.

Running her thumb under the seal she popped the letter open and started to read.

"Welcome Adventurer to the world of After!

While the world you have come from is soon to be destroyed by an astronomical disaster, this is your safe harbour from the fear and worries which have no doubt plagued you for the past several years.

You will likely have many questions. Statistically, these are the three answers you are most likely to want to know.

News from outside After is impossible to receive, by the time you are reading this you and the rest of the passengers will be in space and the solar flares may have already begun to hit, preventing any other communication. While it is to be expected that you will be curious about what is going on in the 'Real World' please do not seek it out. Once the solar flares cease the communications blackout will drop between us and the other ships in the evacuation process, but until then we will be on minimal contact with the rest of the evacuation fleet.

The world was designed using a physics engine that mimics Earth's, so no need to worry about getting used to a stronger or lighter gravity, you should do just fine.

As an Adventurer your life will be full of wonderful advantages, for example you can no longer die, or to be more exact when you die you pop up again with the next dawn! What a relief that must be! You will also heal in a new and improved fashion: whole limbs can be regrown if lost and healing magic is available to speed up the process if necessary.

During your character creation phase you were given several choices about the kind of role you would take on in the world. To help with that you have been set on a path that includes character type and species.

You have chosen:

Half-Elf (Wood Elf/Human) as your species and Hunter for your class.

The world of After is a vast place, full of mysteries and adventure. It is recommended that you explore as much as you can and experience everything that you are able. Consider taking up new hobbies, or perhaps this is the chance you've been waiting for to enjoy a few fantasies?"

For a sudden moment Gwen felt like there was an elbow nudge in her ribs and a wink from the paper, but that strange shadow of a thought was as gone nearly as quickly as it had come and she was able to continue reading the rest of the letter.

The letter continued:

"The world of After is filled with Non-Player Characters who will in most cases defer to your judgement. They will seek your approval and hold your words in high regard, so don't waste them! Of course, there are also lots of NPCs who won't agree with you so easily, but it will be up to you to figure out how to work with or against them. A good Charm score is likely to smooth things over if you aren't sure of what to do, but there will always be some fights you can't talk your way out of, so make sure you practise those fighting skills as well!"

 

The rest of the letter was a brief summary that seemed to be mostly telling the newcomers to role-play heavy games how the game worked, but she'd played enough of them to skip that part. Gwen looked around at the world she was standing in, well, there was the whole being able to touch things and feel pain, and so on. That was new.

Virtual reality had been coming in leaps and bounds in the last few years, but this was the kind of jump that most people would need a jetpack to achieve.

Reading through the rest of the letter was an odd experience since the parchment didn't get any longer, but her eyes could keep going down it to another line and another line; she didn't find anything that shocked her. So, she folded the letter up and pushed it into one of the numerous pouches on her belt. It seemed like something she should keep handy.

At that point, more letters started to appear in her hands. These were much smaller, more like the telegrams she remembered from movies than full letters with wax seals like the first one had been. The messages on each of them were all pretty much the same. The first one she read was, "Congratulations, your Perception skill has reached level 2!" and then there were more, for Perception, for Climbing, for Stealth, Sword Fighting, Knife Fighting, and Grappling. All in all, she had more than a dozen notifications for skill levels, and once she had sorted through them all she found something even more surprising.

"Three class level increases?" She asked, shaking her head as she looked at the black ink on the thin strips of paper. She read one, "Congratulations, you have reached level 4! Your health and stat points have been increased!" Looking over to the now dying grass where the strange beast's body had lain, she murmured, "What the hell were you, if fighting you was enough to put me up to Level Four and give me a load of skill levels as well?"

The yellowing grass and sticky lines of mud said nothing.

She looked at the final notification, one which had been buried under the avalanche of the rest. She grinned.

"Do you wish to activate the Find My Family Quest?"

"Yes," she said, a little of the tension leeching out of her shoulders as the small paper scroll dissolved in her hand. There was a moment where the ground seemed to blur, and she realised it was a prompt to use her menu. Blinking under the eye strain, she flicked onto the menu; a wall of texts and buttons appeared like a blanket was chucked over her head. One of the icons was blinking, a simple picture of a compass rose. She nodded at it and exited the menu again. For a moment the world was as it should be and then four arrows started to hover over the ground, looking like there were gaps in the trees letting in odd-toned light. For a split second they were each visible as separate objects, then three of them coalesced into a single arrow pointing in one direction, while the last one pointed off by itself. It was directing her towards a clump of mountains in the distance, though something in Gwen told her that Marina was probably not as far away as that.

"And there we go," She murmured. "Marina must be close by, Mum, Dad, and Holly, are a bit of a ways off though. But they're together, which is, I guess, what was supposed to happen?" She asked a little louder, before she shook her head. What was she thinking, that Dove, the ship's AI, would answer her? Dove had a spaceship to navigate and a Virtual Alternate Reality to run. She didn't have time to talk to worried players. Almost certainly.

Instead, Gwen turned back to her Menu and started applying the stat bonuses she had gotten. All characters started off with 5 in each stat and you could add as many as you liked into any of them.

Gwen blew out a breath, a lock of hair that had escaped her braid whipped back and forth. "What am I going to do, what am I going to do," she muttered. "I'll level up first, thinks will feel a lot less stressful without all of these notifications flashing at me," she decided.

There was also the threat that while she was working out what all the numbers meant some horrible monster would creep up behind her and take a chunk out of her while she was distracted.

Well the tree worked once, she thought with a shrug.

Pulling herself back up into the tree she settled on the branch again, this time managing a cross legged pose that kept her steady and was a lot comfier than her previous grab.

"Right, let's take a look at this, shall we?" She said this out loud, knowing that no one could hear her, or more accurately hoping that no one could hear her.

Opening the notification page in her mind she looked through what it told her. As she had seen before she had gained three levels from her fight with the beetle monster. That meant she had three skill points to assign and what a choice she had in front of her. Strength, Agility, Body, Mind, Sense, and Charm. For the most part it was pretty obvious what those stats gave her, Strength was about brawn. Useful for players who planned to carry around axes and swords that weighed as much as a small motorbike, but less so for characters like her that relied on speed and stealthiness. For that she would need high Agility.

In fact, she noticed, Agility was her main Attack Skill. If she wanted to increase the amount of damage she did she would have to either get much, much better weapons, level up a whole lot, or put a bunch of points into Agility. "Alright, clearly high Agility is good for anyone in the Hunter class who wants to do damage to their enemies. But what else is it good for?"

The answer seemed to be nearly everything. Or, at least, everything that she personally found useful. Sometimes it was in combination with one of the other stats, like climbing was a combination of Strength and Agility, but for the most part it seemed that Agility was a good investment.

While she was flicking through the list of bonuses that Agility gave her one caught her eye. Dodge Skill. It was haloed in a green glow, apparently it was special for her class. "Alright, well aside from the obvious, what does that do?" She said softly.

"The Dodge Skill acts as an additional Armour point for those of the Hunter Class. As such all attacks must exceed this score plus your armour score to do damage to your health. In addition to this, when in fights you purposefully ignore your ability to dodge you can use your dodge skill points to increase your attack skill. You gain one Dodge Skill Point for every five Agility Stat Points you have. Currently you have 1 Dodge Skill Point."

"Oh, I like that," she said with a smile, "Easier time of getting out of the way when someone comes at me and the opportunity to do extra damage if I want."

She thought over her choices for a moment. "Well I shouldn't put all of my points into Agility straight away, it will be better to keep a little more balanced than that. I'm not just playing this game, I'm living it. I can't afford to have dump stats when it's my life, or at least my not feeling massive amounts of pain, that is on the line."

Body was the stat that gave her health and which fought of diseases and poisons. It even played into balance, which was bound to come in handy as a Hunter. She was managing OK in the trees right now, but she hadn't exactly done anything very exciting. Climbing up, falling out, climbing up again. Hardly the stuff of legends. So Body would be a good one to put points into as well, even ignoring the fact that it gave you more health which was something that everyone could agree was a good thing to have more of.

After that was Mind. And while her points in that stat were still relatively low she felt that being smarter was probably a good idea. "Definitely not one to be cheap with," she said to herself. Again she looked at the list of bonuses it gave to obscure things, and the side of her mouth kicked up, "And it gives an increase to the amount of experience you get when you learn new skills? Well I already didn't want to be dumb but that is a very good reason to add to this stat when I can."

Sense came next. Remembering how it had saved her bacon when the beetle boar had come out of the woods she could recognise that this was definitely not the optimum dump stat choice. "Best to keep that pretty high as well, or else everything and their tap dancing auntie will be able to sneak up on me."

It was also supposed to have some sort of effect on the logic skills, or basically, the player's Common Sense. So not one to let get too low if I can help it, she mused.

Finally, the last one was Charm. As it was the stat that held control over the player's ability to lie, to persuade, to find friends and soothe enemies, it seemed pretty important too. Though, I guess that wi8ll all depend on how much time I get to spend around NPCs. If I have to spend all of my time in the woods with no one to talk to then I guess it won't be the most important skill in the world, unless I can learn how to talk to animals at some point?

She started digging through the information on her character class.

The Hunter was a god all rounder, not the best fighter and far from the best mage, but if you wanted something that would survive nearly anything this was the one you took. It also had a bunch of different skill trees you could follow if something particularly appealed to you. One seemed to be the archetypal Assassin, another a Confidence Trickster, and more for every type of distinction possible within the class. But there was one that caught her eye in particular, Arcane Archer. It leaned more into the nature loving side of the class and prioritised being as far away from what was trying to kill you as possible. Which she could appreciate.

And most importantly, it gave you access to all sorts of interesting magic that otherwise would be locked away from Hunters unless you paid through the nose for spell scrolls or made deals with eldritch beings.

"OK, so if I choose this path," she ran her eyes along the skill tree, "Then after level, what level, oh, level 6, I can start learning some spells. Nice one." It was only one spell per level at that point, but the first three you got to pick from (which were helpfully linked to as examples) were Shadow Step, Spider Climb, and Poison Barrage. "Nothing that gives me the ability to speak to animals, but I guess that might come later." She exited out of that rabbit warren of research and looked once more at the stats.

"Right, let's be sensible about this. I have three points to spend and six places to spend them. When I was hanging from that branch all I wanted was another point in my Strength. It would for sure have come in handy when I was trying not to fall off the back of that monster, too. So one point there." The image of the stat counter in her mind glowed for a moment and Strength increased to 6. Her body felt a little lighter as it hung from her bones and she let loose a breath.

"OK, next choice. Pretty much the only thing that saved me just now was the fact that I heard the monster coming. So Sense for my second point and hopefully that will help the luck keep coming," again the numbers glowed and this time Sense increased to 6.

"And for the last one," she pursed her lips. There were too many options. Body would come in handy, but so would Agility since that was her main attack stat and the one that kept her from getting hit, Mind would be good, too. Especially, since it helped to speed up learning new skills. The only one she hadn't used yet was Charm, so for now it could be put to the side. In the end, it was Mind that won her over. Being faster at learning would be most useful at the beginning of the game, she had so much to learn.

Maybe it is a little meta-game-y to boost the stat that helps you learn and level faster, but I don't want to be dumb! She reasoned. And better to do it now when I have so much to learn than to leave it until I'm all levelled up and finding new skills is harder.

So she nodded once and with the glow lighting up once more she added her final point to Mind.

With that she left the levelling page and with a crack of her neck returned to her body. The world already seemed different. The leaves on the branches around her seemed more delineated, as if the colours had become more vibrant. The wind whistled louder and she could hear how the branches moved and creaked in reaction to it. Also she was struck anew by how extremely bloody stupid it had been to aim yourself out of a tree at a monster. She winced.

For a moment she wobbled dangerously on the branch she was sat on as the combination of stat increases had her balance going haywire. Being able to see further and hear more was all well and good, but it turned out it could also make you feel a bit nauseous and dizzy.

"Right, next time I need to remember to be on the ground before I fiddle with my stats again," she shook her head. The rippling waves that seemed to be rolling through her head were lessening and she was able to pay attention to what was going on around her again.

"Not the worst thing you've ever done, but that's a low bar to trip on," she said, shaking her head. First things, first, though, "I have to find Marina," She blinked and brought up the arrows again. Marina's was still as bright and still pointing towards the mountains.

Climbing the tree, Gwen grabbed the backpack she had flung over a branch and tugged it down to the ground. After checking that nothing had broken in her bolt up the tree, Gwen put the bag over her shoulders and started off in the direction the arrow was pointing her in, hopeful that Marina would be doing the same thing.

***

It was the sound of angry yelling and the thump of metal against flesh that made her run. She didn't need the glowing arrow, Gwen recognised that voice.

She pushed through the last heavy boughs of the forest and popped out on the verge above a road. Standing in the middle of it, with a strange wolf-like creatures lunging at her, was Marina. Marina had opted for a heavier armour than Gwen, one with metal plates sewn into the fabric gambeson and a pair of metal bracers where Gwen wore leather. She was also carrying – and currently hitting an odd creature in the snout with – a heavy mace.

Gwen wasted no time in jumping into the fray, her sword was in her hand and swinging into the belly of one of the creatures before she had even drawn breath to announce herself. The sword felt different than it had before, it felt more familiar. She cast the thought away, assuming that that was the new level of Sword Fighting at work. Though it was a little worrying that it was not just making her foes easier to fight, but making her a better fighter. But she didn't have time to think, or worry, about that, so she boxed it up and pushed it to the back of her mind like a winter coat.

The blade sank into the monster and this time she was free to spot the numbers that seemed to jump out of the wounded creature in shades of steadily darkening red. 5, 7, 3!

The creature on the end of her sword squealed, before falling to the ground. Gwen must have hit something important then. "Go for their bellies," she said.

Marina jumped at her voice, but brought down the creature fighting her before she turned to look at Gwen. "Thanks. Where have you been?" She lunged at another creature that was trying to take off her arm, her mace cracked it a stunning blow round the head, then she gave it a good thumping blow into the stomach. Something cracked.

"Up a tree mostly," Gwen said, "I got cornered by one giant beastie, luckily it didn't see me go up and it had a bit of a surprise when I came down again."

"Oh, so the welcoming party is normal?" Marina asked, giving her creature a skull smashing blow to the back of the head. "And here I was feeling special."

"Seems so, though yours is different from mine, so at least you have that," she pinned the creature in the shoulder with her sword, then stabbed at it with her dagger. 9, 6! It fell to the ground, dissolving as it hit the grass, though the blood left yellow marks where it had fallen.

Marina finished off her own creature, "Well, I'm glad that means there aren't that many scorpion-tailed wolves scampering about the countryside."

"There's certainly less than there were before," Gwen said, before bounding over the grass to give her sister a good hug.

Marina let out a laugh and hugged her back, there was more strength in the arms that embraced Gwen than there had been when they had been in the real world. Someone had obviously taken character creation as an opportunity to improve certain matters. Well, can't blame her for that, I've done the same, Gwen thought. With one last squeeze, she stepped back and took a look at her sister. She frowned, "You gone for the warrior or the priest route?"

"Priest, of course, when have I ever denied myself the chance to get shouted at when people need a healer?" Marina said laughing, "Though it does also mean I get some magic, which is nice, and I really like the mechanic for faith." She took a look at Gwen, "Well, you've not got any obvious instruments, so there goes my first bet of you being a Bard. What's the stealthy one called, a Hunter?"

"That's it, and yes, that's me," Gwen said, unlike in real life there was no shame in admitting to a preference for cowardice and thievery. They had been a team from the womb, there was no point in stopping a good thing now.

"My second guess," Marina said, swinging an arm around her sister's shoulders, "You've never met a fight you didn't try to wiggle out of with some fast talking."

Gwen leaned into her, she hadn't seen her twin as much as she would have liked lately. If they had ended up staying on Earth they would probably have spent every moment together, unsure of how long either would survive after S-Day, but with an escape route planned they had each had other priorities. Marina had spent the time helping to get her students, kids in their first year of school, ready for the trauma of leaving Earth and most of their family behind. It had meant that they had only seen each other in passing before the week leading up to their cryogenics appointment.

They had each done their best, spending their weekends together, scratching off lines on their bucket lists. Eating lavish meals at fancy restaurants, watching classic movies that they had never seen but had always meant to, had always thought they would have more time for. But eventually, the time had run out.

Marina, took a second good look at her sister, staring keenly into her face "You doing alright? How's your anxiety treating you?"

From most people this would have gotten a rude answer, usually limited to a single piece of nearly universal sign language, but this was Marina. Marina got an actual answer, "Not great, but not as bad as I was expecting. Might just be too busy for panic attacks," Gwen offered, she raised an eyebrow, "And how about you? How are you dealing with this?" She waved a hand at the landscape around them.

"I haven't had time to feel anything but adrenaline yet," Marina said, "I had barely landed when those wolf-spider-things appeared." She frowned, "I thought this was supposed to be a mythology-based game, no one said anything about arachno-canines."

"My thing was half beetle, half boar, so I guess evolution in this world is a bit less particular about where it gets its DNA," Gwen shrugged. The genetic make-up of monsters didn't seem particularly important, "I had heard people say that this was a mishmash of a bunch of different half-finished games as they tried to get everything done before it was too late."

"Well I can't say I'm particularly fond of them," Marina poked the grass with the toe of her boot. "They've really made a mess of the grass too. Look, it's dying around the blood."

The grass was fading, and it gave Gwen an uneasy feeling. "That's probably just to make us want to fight them even more, especially since they don't seem to drop any loot," Gwen shrugged, and changed the subject. "Have you come across any people yet? Or a road? If there's a road, there must be a village, I can climb a tree and see what there is around?"

"Well that is the first rule of RPGs: find the NPCs to get quests from," Marina said.

Gwen remembered the Quest list blinking in the corner of her vision, "Oh, that's right, I've finished the quest to find you." She brought up the notification and skimmed over the cheerful greeting.

"You have completed the Find Family Quest! Congratulations! Here is your reward: 1 Experience Point."

That done she shrugged, "Well, I'm sure I'll be happy to have that extra one Exp at some point." She took her bag off her back, handed it over to Marina and looked for a good tree to climb. Her Elf Sight came in handy for this, one tree in particular seemed to glow, showing off its strong branches and the short distances between those branches. "Right, this'll do nicely," she said, before walking over and jumping up to grab the lowest branch and pull herself up. The extra Strength really showed its use as she made her way up the tree, with the occasional "helpful" comment from Marina below her.

"Are you sure about that branch, it doesn't look very strong," Marina's voice floated up to her.

Gwen rolled her eyes, "Elf Sight says it's fine," she called back. The branch was more than strong enough to hold her and she wiggled along its length to get a good look around the local countryside. There were hints of the road they were on and in the distance smoke was rising in the many tendrils that indicated a village or town. Nodding, Gwen started back down the tree, taking care to use all the branches Marina had doubted.

By the time she had reached the ground her Elf Sight Skill had risen to Level 3 and her Climbing Skill had reached 4. That gave her enough to put a dent in what she needed to reach Level 5 but at this point she wasn't going to level up just from using her skills for a few minutes.

"Right," she said, brushing the dust of disturbed lichen off her hands, "There's definitely some kind of settlement and it seems to be on this road, so we just need to follow it and we should get there without too much hassle."

Marina didn't seem bothered by that, "Thank goodness we both took orienteering, huh?" She said brightly.

Gwen looked at her sister with an unimpressed look. "You took it once for an hour and a half, because you thought Jenny who ran the club was hot."

Marina winked, "And, boy, did I learn a lot from her."

"Ugh," Gwen groused, "Come on this way. At least I did orienteering for a few months and didn't give up at the first obstacle."

Marina handed Gwen her bag and followed her as she started down the road, "The way I see it, I got what I wanted from my club membership and I learned how to read an old fashioned paper map and use a compass."

"Ugh," Gwen said, more pointedly this time.

Marina laughed, "Alright then, Ms Hunter, show me how you do it."

Gwen rolled her eyes and wished there was a path she could take her sister down that would make her regret that heavy armour, where were bogs and thin ice when you needed them? "Come on, hopefully there'll be somewhere for us to spend the night."

The old angst over the orienteering wasn't really a big deal. It had just stung because, at the time, Gwen had thought she had found something they could do together. Important at a stage of their lives where they weren't even taking most of the same subjects any more, and in the few they did share they were on different timetables.

It had not been comfortable to find out that her sister had been so keen on joining up to the club because she had wanted to flirt with the club leader.

But Gwen at least had learned something useful from the misadventure that that had been. She knew how to read the world around her and figure out a vague mental compass. Given that her tracking skill was still low she would need the real life skills to back her up and to stop getting them both lost.

"Right well, if the physics is all supposed to be the same as at home, then I guess we can expect the sun to rise and fall in the same way, too," she muttered, looking at the way the shadows fell and trying to figure out where the sun was and what approximate time it might be. It felt like mid-morning, but that could just be because she had just arrived in the world not too long ago. And that might be a foolish assumption to make, but on the other hand Dove had seemed far too sensible to give people a weird Virtual Reality form of jet lag.

So, trusting in Dove and dimly remembered navigational tricks, she started off in what she thought was probably the right path. In the back ground a notification went off about her Tracking Skill rising again and she thankfully pocketed the Exp but didn't let it break her concentration.

"Are you not going to look on the trees to find out if there is a special moss growing on one side?" Marina asked, following behind her and swinging her mace around.

"No, because that only works in America, or maybe just in American movies? It sounds like movie nonsense, like people getting electrocuted and you seeing their bones," Gwen said absently, jumping over a downed tree.

"Fair enough," Marina paused for a moment as she scrambled over the fallen tree, her heavy boots scoring lines in the moss. "And you're right, this place, well, it almost feels like home, doesn't it?"

Gwen looked at her twin. Then she looked around the forest they were standing in. There was something faintly Scottish about the feel of the place. "Maybe," Gwen allowed, "It does look a bit like Scotland, I suppose. But Scotland via Hollywood green screen and New Zealand, more than actual Scotland."

Shrugging, Marina looked around too, "You're probably right. There's no tourists complaining about how terrible the weather is, so it can't be home."

Rolling her eyes, Gwen shoved Marina, who laughed and then pretended to swoon. "Oh, oh your cruelty knows no bounds, sister!"

"Well, nice to see you haven't been able to change the way you can't act, despite going through a character creator where that skill was an option you could take," Gwen mused, as she walked away.

"Rude!" Marina called back to her.

"Maybe, but shouldn't we be quiet? All sorts of things could be sneaking up on us," Gwen said, joking at first, then looking around suspiciously as she realised what good sense she was making.

Marina seemed to think about this for a moment. "You're probably right on that front, but let me live, why don't you? I've felt like the sword of Damocles has been hanging over me for what, two years now? At this point there's fuck all that I can do about it, and that's honestly a relief."

That was true. "It is good not to have to worry about dying horribly, or you guys dying horribly," she admitted.

"A touch grim, there, Gwen. But, yeah, not having to worry about everyone you love dying, that's worth celebrating, don't you think?" Marina swung her arm around Gwen's shoulders. It was the moment that Gwen finally realised what had been bothering her.

"Are you ... are you taller?" She asked, gobsmacked.

"Yup, you're not the tall twin now," she said grinning down at Gwen. "What, it's a fantasy game, right? Well this has been one of mine for long enough!"

Outraged, Gwen stomped on ahead, scoffing loudly the entire way.

The laughter rang through the forest and followed her.

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About the author

K Mackay

Bio: I used to lurk on here, now I've got some writing up. It's been a novel experience.
I love Science Fiction, Fantasy, and everything in between. I tend to get overprotective of characters who are not mine and should have been treated better. Catch up with my life updates at my website, www.watchedplotneverboils.com

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