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Name

Gwen Baird

Armour

3

Class

Hunter

Health

25

Level

5

Dodge

1

Species

Half-Elf (Wood/Human)

Species Skills (Half-Elf)

 

Strength

6

Elf Sight

3

Agility

5

Base Skills (Hunter)

 

Body

5

Stealth

2

Mind

6

Perception

2

Sense

6

Tracking

4

Charm

6

Archery

1

 

When Gwen woke, up the night before rolled under her eyelids like a movie: she was surprised to find she didn't regret a moment of it.

Not even using one of the precious stat increases she got when she levelled up to boost her Charm. Her Agility and Body were still on the base 5 that she had started off with, which might be something she would come to regret. But right now she couldn't find it in her to do so.

This was for three reasons, the first being that it turned out that in the game a night's sleep was all that was needed to wash away the aches and pains of the previous day: a very handy trick when it came to hangovers. The second was the simple fact that if she was going to live with these stats rather than just play with them, then she was going to need to be able to talk her way out of trouble. And third, well, she had made worse decisions while drunk. Like hacking into the trust fund of the obnoxious twerp in her class at Uni. And that had ended up alright. At the very least she hadn't gotten into any trouble for it, and it had shown her that Higher Education had not been for her. Which had been a valuable saving in time.

But, drunk Gwen tended to be pretty lucky and in a world where luck was a recognisable skill, it made sense to capitalise on the actions which precipitated it. Though it might be wise to wait a bit before she got that drunk again, even if her liver was immune to being pickled.

Gwen sat up, bright eyed, with a familiarity with the local landscape gained from the locals and the knowledge that if she picked twenty-one rose hips a very nice lady called Renna would give her six silver. This didn't seem very much when compared with the beer, but it was early days yet, so there was probably nothing better to hope for than noob fetch quests.

She was pulling on her clothes, having woken up enough at some point in the night to scatter her clothes to every corner of the room, when, a touch sheepishly, Marina walked in. Her hair was a mess and she seemed to have put on at least one part of her armour on backwards.

Gwen let loose a snort, "And what time do you call this, young lady?" she asked, putting on a fairly good impression of their mother.

"Oh, don't start. I've been having a horrible time the last few months, I needed to find a way to work out my stress," Marina said, uncaring of the smirking judgment that Gwen was sending her way. She paused as she started to pull off her armour. "S-Day, might," she said slowly, "have been a wee bit tougher than I was letting you know."

"What do you mean?" Gwen asked, her smirk slipped away as she paused doing up a buckle.

"Well, it's never easy saying goodbye to the kids when they're leaving, whether it's for the next year or because they're moving, or whatever, but watching them go to leave Earth was heart breaking," Marina rubbed a hand over her face. "A lot of them were leaving their parents behind, and it's not like people took care to make sure kids ended up on the same ships as their friends or more distant relations. Apparently, it was hard enough to make sure that kids got on the same ones as their siblings and cousins, anything further out than that and they were shit out of luck. And the kids knew that. There were five- and six-year-olds going off into space knowing that they would never see their parents again. That their best friends would be leaving too, but on a different ship and maybe heading in a different direction entirely. It was agonizing to watch them be so brave. Especially since none of them wanted to be any extra trouble. It was like they had all taken a pact to not be a hassle. They knew all the adults were working really hard to keep them safe, and kids are smart and empathetic enough to not want to add onto that."

Gwen's heart ached, "I'm sorry Marina, that sounds," she closed a fist, not quite able to bring the right words to her tongue, "hellish," she said finally.

"It was," Marina said. Then she stopped and looked around as if checking there weren't any spies hidden in the shadows. "The worst thing was that in my class there were a couple of kids whose parents had refused to let them be put on the ships." She whispered the words.

A bitterness flooded Gwen's mouth, "That's murder."

"They say because Earth will still be mostly liveable that it's not. They want to keep their families together, which I can understand, but..." She shook her head, "I'm sorry I shouldn't be dumping all of this on you. It's not fair of me to leave all of my baggage on your shoulders."

Gwen walked over and brought her sister into her arms in a tight hug, "That's what I'm here for, dummy."

Marina hugged back for a moment, "Come on, we need to get ready. I'll process my angst by ignoring it and doing something useful." Marina was making it clear that she knew her decision to do so probably wasn't the healthiest one, but it was the one they had available, and she would not be taking any commentary on the decision.

"Okay," Gwen stepped back after giving a last squeeze, "I'm pretty much done, so I'll go grab something for breakfast and see if we can get some lunch for the road."

Marina gave her a watery smile, then moved to the bed where the rest of her things had been flung the night before.

Gwen let herself out, and as she walked down the stairs to the tap room she couldn't get Marina's words out of her mind.

It both was and wasn't murder. Some would survive the end of the world, she didn't doubt that. Humans had managed to live through a tonne of things they shouldn't have, a sudden cessation in modern tech was unlikely to kill everyone.

But the odds weren't good. Especially for kids who would always be the most vulnerable when times were tough. Choosing to keep your child with you on a planet as it went through a century of shit, well, was it better than murder? But was it better to send them off on a spaceship that might, might, come back in a century? If the planet wasn't too devastated by all the left behind nuclear bombs people had forgotten about, or the natural disasters that could spring up, but now without the benefit of unnatural remedies. Plus, there was all the even weirder stuff that she had caught hints of when she hacked government servers to show off. People had been coming up with new and stranger ways to kill each other for every moment of humanity's existence, and an apocalypse was the perfect chance to try some of them out. She wasn't naive enough to hope that everyone would work together and be a big friendly community. Earth hadn't even managed something close to that in less stressful times.

And people wanted to keep their kids in the midst of that? How scared of the alternative did they have to be to think it was worth the risk? She didn't have any kids, so it had never been a choice she had had to make. And she was very, very glad of it.

The tap room was quiet, one of the barmaids, Nora, was scrubbing down the tables, and she grinned as Gwen came in. Gwen went over to her and smiled, "Do you have anything that I could have for breakfast, oh beautiful siren of the ales and wines?"

"That depends, do you want a liquid breakfast or a solid one that will set you up for the day?" she asked, looking a little impressed that Gwen had made it downstairs so early after the drinking that had gone on the night before.

"I would like something that'll stick to my ribs, if that's possible, I think I had enough booze last night to keep me going for a long while," Gwen said with a smile.

"Thank goodness, because if you had asked for anything stronger than milk I would have had to tell you to go elsewhere for it. You and your sister damn near cleared us out last night," Nora said, "come on, there's a pot of porridge cooking this way. It'll stick to your ribs alright."

Gwen laughed, "That sounds perfect."

The kitchen was a cosy nest blocking out the rest of the world. The beams that ran along the ceiling had bundles of herbs and dried spices hanging down, so that the whole space had the smell of a thousand meals waiting to be made.

The elderly woman making the porridge was introduced to Gwen as Amy, the barman's mother and the cook for the inn. Over a sweet porridge that felt like it was enriching her from the soul outwards, Gwen got to know her. They talked about the girls, including Jessica – whose farm was the goal of their quest mission – and Gwen got a better picture of the family in her mind.

They were the same as most of the people in the area, mostly human, but with a thin scattering of elven traits. It meant that Gwen and Marina were able to fit in without too much fuss, but, by the sound of it, Jessica had never had quite an easy a time there.

"Oh, she was always an independent one, our Jessica, she figured out how to walk just so she could get away from her parents all the faster. We thought after her David died she'd come back, but she didn't want to leave the life they had built together," Amy said as she got started on the soup for lunch.

Gwen, having finished with her breakfast, moved instinctively to help, picking up a knife and starting to peel the carrots. It was a lot easier than in real life, the added points in knife skills seemed to pay off in the kitchen as well as in the battlefield.

As always as she started working through a new skill the notifications came quickly, so she tucked them out of sight and concentrated on the conversation she was having.

"I can understand that, sometimes if all you have left of a person is a place, leaving it behind can feel like losing them all over again." She passed over the carrots.

"Thank you, dear. And I suppose you have a point; I hadn't thought of it like that. I thought she was just being difficult," Amy admitted bluntly. She took the carrots gratefully and started chopping them up, "Could you do the onions, dear? I get the worst reaction to them."

Gwen nodded, peeling then slicing the onions into thin slivers. It felt like being at home. Food had always been important to her family, not just the actual eating part, but making it too. It had been a chance to pull everyone in and be creative together. I must have more memories of cooking than I do of eating in that kitchen back home, she thought with a distant smile. Who knew what that kitchen looked like now? Her smile disappeared.

Marina's boots clicked their way into the kitchen, "Morning." She slid in beside her sister. "Got a knife for me to use?"

"Sure!" Gwen said, then handed her own over with a smile.

Marina just rolled her eyes.

"Amy, I would like you to meet my sister Marina; don't let her get you in any trouble," Gwen said with a grin, "I'm going to the little half-elves room."

She left the pair chatting as she went to the toilet where, she was relieved to find out, that while the amenities were rudimentary, they were not historically accurate for the medieval period.

 

***

 

They left soon after, dawn had already passed, though it was hard to tell, given how shadowy the forest was. But with their half-elf vision they were able to see easily with even that little light. Gwen had managed to get a sturdy lunch for them, fresh rolls and cheese, which would keep them going on the long walk through the woods. Knowing that there were beasts out here that meant them ill was enough to stub out any talk between them.

Gwen's growing Elf Sight felt like it was being bolstered by every breath of fresh air she took. The outlines of living animals and plants, she found, glowed when she blinked the sense into place over her normal vision. She could see the birds waking in the trees and the mice scurrying through the leaves and bushes on the ground. Even with the threat of the weird animal insect hybrids on the loose, it was a dreamlike sensation to walk while seeing both the leaf-filled branches and the birds hidden in their embrace.

After a little while Gwen also realised that the way she was thinking about it all was becoming a little too poetic. This, she thought, must be why elves in books and movies and games were always singing and dancing around the place: seeing life in this way was like a particularly friendly high.

At that point she decided to take the filter off her gaze, it wasn't particularly helpful for finding the path. It had helped push her up several Tracking levels, and her Perception was close behind, but walking through a forest was a slow way to build up levels in anything.

The road to Jessica's farm hadn't been travelled much, so grass covered it and more than one industrious shrub or small sapling had grown up over the ruts. Something hanging off one of them caught her eye. Frowning, Gwen knelt, giving a low hum to alert Marina to what she was doing.

Marina walked back to her, "What is it?" she whispered.

"A piece of cloth, trapped on this bramble here," Gwen said, picking it off the branch. "Someone else has been this way and in enough of a hurry that they didn't care what tore as they went."

Marina nodded, looking around. She shifted her stance and pulled her mace free.

Gwen put the scrap into a bag on her belt. "How far is it to the farm, do you think?"

Marina shrugged, "They said it was fifteen miles. We're fit and have a good walking speed, so that's three hours of walking."

"And we've been out for an hour or so," Gwen said absently, "So this can't have been off someone on the farm."

Marina nodded, "Other locals, or some Adventurers, do you think?"

"Well," Gwen stood back up from her crouch, "Locals don't seem to travel out this way much. But we haven't seen any other Adventurers." She moved her hands in a balancing motion. "It could be either."

Marina pursed her lips, "I hope it's some more Adventurers. I'd feel safer if we were in a bigger party."

Gwen nodded; she could definitely agree with that.

As they turned back onto the road Gwen kept running her fingers over the knife sheaths on her arms and the hilt of her sword on her hip. The forest felt darker, even though dawn was now well under way.

That was when Gwen realised something, something a country girl like her should have noticed far earlier. Though the birds were sitting on the branches, they were not singing. They were just sitting there, as if they were too afraid to draw attention to themselves. Even the starlings, which seemed to make up about two thirds of the local avian population, were silent. They sat hunkered down on the branches like there was a storm coming. Utterly silent, utterly still.

Marina raised a hand, catching onto the back of Gwen's cloak.

Gwen started to ask her what exactly she thought she was doing, then she caught sight of the look on Marina's face. Her head snapped around to look at whatever had caught her sister's attention.

Earlier, a branch of the nearby stream had left off the main body; it followed the shape of the path, a muddy bank and ditch separating the two. But here something had broken the lines of the bank, making the ditch a muddy pond for a few feet around it.

Some of the liquid on the road was the oddly gleaming mud that came from the blood of the monsters.

And, of course, in amongst the mud were several footprints. All about the same size and shape, so probably the same person. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, deep in the mud, like the weight of the fall had punched down into it, were a pair of handprints. There were no secondary ones that might have suggested the person then struggled out of the mud. Just the two, deep, handprints that had been there long enough to start weathering, and for the ground at the bottom to be obscured with muddy water.

Gwen's hands went to her weapons and she gave Marina a nod.

After that they walked more quietly and Gwen concentrated hard on keeping her breathing even and near silent. Somehow, she knew how to move her feet to make less noise on the grassy road and how to avoid the many twigs and branches that crossed it. Her steadily growing mastery of Stealth was probably to thank for that. She wasn't far off hitting level five already.

Marina was having a bit more of a struggle with moving quietly, her heavy metal armour was not exactly made with stealth in mind, and a Priest wasn't a class that prioritised stealth like a Hunter did.

The walk through the woods didn't become any less eerie the longer they spent among the trees. Hours had come and gone with nary a peep from the birds. The animals in the underbrush too were silent and more focused on hiding than any Gwen had ever seen before.

The closer they got to the farm, the more used the road looked. They started passing empty fields, surrounded by low stone walls and hedgerows in a pick-and-mix configuration. The branches and trunks started to become thinner, the trees out this way younger. There were stumps of old trees mixed in among them, evidence of a presence in the woods that was not entirely natural. But care had been taken to keep the landscape as close to a healthy balance between what humans wanted and what the forest needed.

The elf in Gwen found herself approving.

The human was very disconcerted to find out that there was an elf side to her that hadn't been there before.

Eventually, they turned the last corner on the road and could see the farm. There was a small yard in the centre of a dozen or so patchwork looking fields. The fields were enclosed with neat hedges and stone walls and a stream had been coaxed through three of the fields to water the animals that should have been there. "Should have" being the operative words, since the creatures standing in the fields were not from any farmer's field.

The fields were full of monsters, between twenty and forty from Gwen's brief count. They all, with an eerie synchronicity, turned to look at the twins.

Gwen gulped and almost turned tail and ran, but Marina caught her by the wrist. "No look, look at the farm, at that wall!" She said pointing to a spot on the nearest wall.

A hand, waving frantically, was trying to get them to come closer. Gwen was tempted to answer it with a shouted swear, but she didn't want to startle the monsters into charging. They were just looking, for now, and she would rather like to keep it that way.

"Okay, what do we do?" Gwen asked, barely breathing out the words, she was trying to stay so still and so quiet.

"I think we're going to have to book it up the road to the farm," Marina whispered back, clearly trying her very best to look like an oddly shiny tree.

"That is suicide, there's a tonne of the damn things and only two of us; we can't hope to fight them off by the time we get to the gate into the farmyard," Gwen whispered back fiercely. And it was true, the large heavy, gate that bridged a gap between the high stone walls of the farmyard looked like it had been pried off a ruined castle. Or at least, that's how it seemed to Gwen whilst she was far way and on the wrong side.

"Maybe, but they're all further from the gate than we are," Marina hissed, "look at them, they're all circled round the farm, but they are furthest from the gate. If we run, really, really run, we can do it." She paused, "Especially if I do this." Marina concentrated for a moment, her hold on Gwen's arm becoming firmer. A shiver seemed to travel down the arm and hit Gwen like bucket of cold water. It also seemed to be the signal to the monsters to attack, which was even less pleasant. But even as they all leapt forward and started to run, they looked like they were running through quicksand.

Marina, on the other hand, was moving like she had been blasted out of a cannon. She was sprinting down the road in the direction of the gate with the arm-pumping determination of someone with a grudge against the world record holder. Gwen did her best to keep up, but her sister was outpacing her.

"What the hell did you do?" she shouted, keeping a wary eye on the nearest beasts, which all seemed to be running through treacle to get them.

"At this level I can give out a blessing once per day, this one's called Blessing of the Falcon, nice isn't it!" Marina said, not turning her head.

Gwen could admit it was, it was also the only reason she was escaping an especially ugly-looking creature that was half-rat half-earwig; she decided to show how much she appreciated the buff by conserving her breath so that she could stay alive.

The pair thundered down the path, not caring about the sound they made because speed was so much more important than stealth. Soon, they were within jumping distance of the gate; Gwen was starting to wonder if that was the only way they were going to get in, but the gate opened, just enough for one person to lean out and send a swathe of spells over their ducked heads and for another person to pull them in. The gate was slammed shut behind them and they both slid to a halt. Gwen, wobbled for a moment, then fell to her knees, while Marina turned pale as the aftershock of the spell ran through them.

"They're running off," a high voice shouted from the wall above them. Gwen looked up, a short kid was sat on a ledge pulled out of the wall and looking out at the monsters outside.

She turned her gaze to the people the kid was speaking to, they were both non-human and probably Adventurers. She recognised the tailoring of their clothes as Dove's work.

Dove's crafting was exceptional, everything fit perfectly and there was never a thread out of place or a fold of cloth that fell wrong. But everything was made out of the plainest material that could exist and it was made even plainer by the complete lack of ornamentation. There wasn't a bit of trim, or embroidery, or even thread in a contrasting colour. The buttons were universally dull and practical. Compared to the locals you could pick out a newly arrived Adventurer by their aggressively beige (even when not actually wearing beige it still had a beige quality to it) but beautifully put-together clothing.

One appeared to be a dwarf: dark-skinned, he was broad not just across the shoulders, but everywhere, and had an intricately braided beard. The other was a devilish looking woman, she was middle-aged, with light reddish-purple skin, two twisting ram-like horns, and a tail ending in a fistful of blue-toned purple feathers, which was waving back and forth behind her.

"Good, we don't want them to think we're weakening," she turned from the kid on the wall to the twins, "I'm Jin Ae, this is Theo. We met in the forest and took shelter here when the monsters wouldn't leave us be. Were you in a similar predicament?"

"Not exactly," said Marina, as Gwen was still sitting gasping on the ground, "We faced off with some yesterday but made it to the local village. The inn owner-"

"You spoke to my father?" Another voice, this time from a woman standing in the doorway of the nearby barn. She was dressed in an outfit that could have been lifted from her father's wardrobe it was so similar in style, but it had clearly been made for her and had been kept in good nick by dint with hard work from a needle.

"Jessica?" Marina asked. The woman nodded, "Then, yes, your father asked us to come out here and check up on you. After we told him about the creatures we had faced on our way in to the village he grew concerned with the length of time since he had heard from you. So he asked us to come and see if everything was alright, but, uh, clearly, it's not."

"An understatement," Jin Ae said, lashing her tail against her legs in agitation. "We've managed to pick off a few of the creatures, but there's too many and they've figured out that they should not group together within range of our spells."

Theo spoke up, "But I'm glad you two made it here, we really needed more fighters to help, and," he said with a warm smile, "at the very least, it's nice to know that there are other Adventurers out there. I've been here a few days and I've only seen Jin Ae."

Jessica stepped out of the barn's doorway and came over to more natural speaking range. "I think you two could do with a chance to sit down somewhere a bit more comfortable than my farmyard, why don't you come into the house so we can talk?"

"That would be wonderful," Gwen said, standing up and brushing some hay off the seat of her leggings. "It's lovely to meet you, despite the circumstances." They were shown across the farmyard and into the tidy little house on the other side from the gate.

Jessica nodded to show that she had heard but said little else. She seemed distinctly ruffled by the presence of so many new people on her farm.

Or perhaps I'm being unkind, Gwen thought. She did have thirty-odd beasties trying to kill her and her family, that was worth a fair few ruffled feathers.

Jessica continued to stay silent as they walked into the kitchen, everyone stopping to take off their muddy boots. She moved towards the large, wrought-iron stove that filled what seemed to be half the kitchen; on top of it was a big pot of steamily boiling water, from which she took enough to fill a tea pot. "How do you take your tea?" she asked.

"Strong and sweet, if it's no bother," Gwen said. Marina echoed her.

Jessica nodded and spooned some tea leaves into the pot. She took a deep breath and turned to speak to them, "Thank you for coming, I know you've put yourselves to a lot of bother and danger to come out this far, but..." She took a breath, "I'm not leavin'."

"What?" Gwen and Marina asked in the same moment.

"I have cows and sheep in that barn that won't survive if I leave them. My husband and I raised them, I can't just waste their lives by leaving them to starve to death or be picked off by the animals of the forest. Those creatures out there don't seem to be interested in them, but there's plenty else that is. I am not leaving them, especially when it would be suicide to leave the walls of this farmyard anyway." She shook her head, "I'm sorry that you've come out here for no good reason, and I'll be happy to put you up until the monsters leave, but I'm not going."

"You'd put your children in danger that way?" Marina asked, her temper rising like the red in her cheeks.

Jessica seemed surprised by that tack, but squared her shoulders and looked her in the eye, "What's more dangerous, keeping them here or sending them through a monster-infested forest?"

Marina had to look away after a minute of them holding each other's gaze.

"Jessica, you have a point. But you have to see that this isn't sustainable. Your animals can't stay in the barn forever. You need to see to your crops. I can't imagine they're doing alright without minding," Gwen kept her voice friendly.

"If we just wait them out I am sure the monsters will leave, there's plenty of other places they can go in this forest with easier prey, so I don't see why they should stick around here," Jessica answered. She moved the teapot closer to the middle of the table and went to get some mugs from one of the cupboards.

Nothing they said changed her mind. Jessica was stubborn and her mind was made up. Eventually, when their tea was drunk and they had no arguments left to make, the two left to go speak to the Adventurers out in the yard.

Marina was still fuming, but Gwen was preoccupied with other thoughts. When the argument had seemed lost, something else that Jessica had said had prompted a rethink. "Marina?"

"Damn, stubborn... Yeah?" Marina said, her shoulders up around her ears and her face turning puce.

"The monsters are not going after the farm animals," Gwen said pointedly.

Marina seemed confused for a moment, then the words sunk in and her eyes widened. "No, they're not."

"They're after, what? Specific people?" Gwen asked.

"Or, specifically, Adventurers," Marina said, her eyes narrowing in suspicion, "when there were two inside and two outside, they all were paused. They didn't know what to do."

"Well, shit," said Gwen. "Let's tell our new friends, shall we?"

Marina sighed and nodded, following her into the barn.

 

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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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