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Name

Gwen Baird

Armour

4

Class

Hunter

Health

25

Level

5

Dodge

1

Species

Half-Elf (Wood/Human)

Species Skills (Half-Elf)

 

Strength

6

Elf Sight

5

Agility

5

Base Skills (Hunter)

 

Body

5

Stealth

7

Mind

6

Perception

5

Sense

6

Tracking

6

Charm

6

Archery

6

 

Several hours later the quests were still coming. They had moved from getting the miserable amount of weaponry among the villagers to those who could use them most effectively, to helping to create a barricade around the village. None of them had the heft of experience that would put a dent in the hole left by her death, but she was slowly getting back to where she had been before.

Mostly Gwen found her time filled with helping the villagers make the two lines of houses and shops to the north and south of the Inn into a barricade. There were plenty of gaps between the houses, things that might have been alley ways in a bigger place but here were just holes where buildings weren't. But it was easy enough to fill those gaps with the flotsam and jetsam of village life. Tables, chairs, numerous barrels in various states of repair from the inn, everything went into creating a barrier for the villagers to hide and attack from behind.

Gwen was helping to push a wagon scuttled on one side into the gap between two houses when she heard it.

The sound made her heart sink and it felt like a cold hand had tightened around her throat.

The birds in the trees around the village had stopped singing.

It felt like the air pressure dropped in the moment after she realised. The stillness seemed sharp against her skin. She paused, raising a hand. The others around her, villagers, no one she had really been introduced to, all stopped to look at her.

She slowly started wave her hand back towards the inn. They stood unsure of what she meant for a moment, but then, out in the woods somewhere, something let loose a growl. That had them scattering and bolting towards the inn, the cart left shaking on its side where they left it.

Gwen gave it a push, making certain it was wedged into the gap as securely as she could make it.

The sword on her hip bounced, the weight of it an uncomfortable reminder of what was likely to soon come.

She ran for the west side of the village; a gateway of sorts had been built up between the temple that stood on the outskirts of the village and the nearest houses. Most of the inn's benches and tables had been propped up there and nervous villagers stood behind them looking over with long pikes and spears in their hands. If anything got too close the defenders were as likely to cry in fear as not, but she was confident that even through the tears they would manage to stab their enemies a few times.
Wylla had ignored her mother's orders and had lodged herself on the low roof of one of the buildings that overlooked the gateway. She had a bucket of stones beside her and a sling in her hands, she spared a look at Gwen as she sprinted by, but Gwen was more interested in what was happening in the forest.

Only after seeing Wylla waving vigorously at her did Gwen trot up to the building where Wylla leaned over the edge of the roof to call down, "a flock of birds just went up. Straight up, didn't make a noise, and then were off as fast as their wings would take them. Whatever was on its way, it's here now."

The best moment for a panic attack was half an hour ago, Gwen thought, too late to start one now, I suppose I'll have to schedule it for later. She let out a snort. Right, better remember that, one breakdown or panic attack scheduled for whenever there aren't monsters about to attack.

Wylla was looking at her askance, she had obviously seen the mess of thoughts crossing over Gwen's face. "Right, well go do something, somewhere else, now, please, Adventurer."

Gwen blushed, she had forgotten Wylla was there and made a fool out of herself. Oh, but what else was new? She stepped back, "Stay safe up there." She tried to look and sound confident, her hands on her waist and her body in full superhero pose.

"Since you asked so nicely that I not get myself killed, I'll do my best, just for you," Wylla drawled.

Well, I probably deserved that, Gwen thought and retreated to the front line where she was less likely to make a fool of herself. At least the monsters haven't shown any evidence of learning sarcasm yet, she thought with relief.

The villagers had been full of plots and plans, each more complicated than the one before, and each needing either a month to prepare or a proper engineer to pull off. Some of them needed both. In the end Gwen had pushed for something simple yet effective. Walls and sharp things to keep the monsters out.

Once Gwen had been in hiding from a minor mob boss with a major grudge and she had taken important notes from the experience. The most important thing being that smart traps are only useful if the person you are going up against is smart enough to follow them through, but not smart enough to realise there is a trap. Plus, don't assume your enemy is an idiot just because it would be useful for them to be so. Also, screaming bloody murder is a surprisingly ineffective way of getting help from the populace at large and it is more likely to get you sworn at by passers-by.

Then the first monster stepped out of the shadows behind a tree and her heart dropped, slamming into her guts and kidneys along the way, making her feel as if she'd taken a punch.

Nikolai eased into the periphery of her view and said in a low voice, "Just checking, but that's..."

"Not the same kind of monster that we faced at the farm, no," she said at the same volume.

"Right, thought so," he stepped back again.

The monster was about seven feet tall, and while it had definitely borrowed bits from the previous versions it was about ten times as terrifying. It looked wolf-like in most aspects, except that it was standing on its hind legs, legs that looked like they had been broken and twisted to force it into some kind of balance. The arms were made from branches, while chitinous insectoid armour covered its chest like a breastplate and long antlers rose from its scalp. Along with all of these non-canine additions to the body, a greenish, black substance seemed to be dripping from anywhere there was a join between the wolf parts and the non-wolf parts. It looked worryingly like blood and Gwen truly hoped that the monsters weren't some sort of grafted-together Frankenstein's creation, because she had enough nightmares to be going along with without adding that to the mix.

The monster stepped out of the shadows thrown by the forest, its limbs were too long, stretched in places with more of that greenish, black goo covering the parts that seemed to grind and move against each other. Tendons and muscles that should have been hidden by flesh were open to the air, just coated and slimy with goo.

A silence lingered. It seemed to be watching them, judging them and looking for weakness, perhaps. But Gwen found herself shying away from its notice. The creature felt wrong, it felt like a giant hole where there should be something. Like a wrong note in a well-known song. Like a nail left sharp and deadly on a cycle path. Trouble just waiting, that was what it was. Trouble that hadn't found a target yet but was happy to sit and wait for one to come to it.

Neither the villagers nor Gwen broke the silence. Partly it was shock: the monster, the antlered, chitinous, branch-armed, wolf-bodied, thing, was not something that looked like it belonged to a living thing, all the bits belonging to the same organism. It looked like a taxidermist's odds-and-ends drawer come to life. It looked like a nightmare.

Whatever it thought of them it either couldn't show or it didn't care to. It lifted it's muzzle in a choked howl that sounded as alien as the beast looked.

From all around the village more of the howls came. Some sounded musical, like wolves made out of flutes were calling. Others sounded like the last gasps of a broken and wheezing throat.

A notification came up.

Gwen flicked it on:

 

 

The village of Starlingrise and its defenders are now under the Afraid De-Buff. Healing has been reduced by 10% and attacks by 15%.

 

That felt like the cherry on top of the icing on top of a very large pile of shit.

It would mean that she would be fighting like she had an Agility score of four, since that was her stat for determining that. She wrinkled her nose, fighting as if she was worse than when she had started? Fantastic.

A villager near her, a big guy (a red face and old armour was all she could make out), started to step back. "Don't even think about it, mate," Gwen said. She already felt exhausted. Pulling her borrowed sword from her hip she raised it above her head and let out a battle cry of her own.

It was less impressive than that of the monster. And the tremulous cheers that went up from the villagers around her were even worse. Changing her grip on her borrowed sword she held it higher and tried to give off an air of confidence, "hold the wall!"

Around her the shout turned into a chant. It wasn't a very impressive speech, but apparently the attempt was recognised, or maybe Dove was just feeling kind.

An answering notification to the one that came up at the monster's howl popped up:

 

 

The village of Starlingrise and its defenders are now under the Battle Cry Buff. Bravery is increased by 17% and attack accuracy is increased by 4%.

 

 

"Fantastic," she repeated in a mutter, "how helpful." But no one noticed, they were all distracted by all the other monsters starting to come out of the forest.

Gwen pulled the bascinet down so that it settled more comfortably on her head and started to run. Her eyes were fixed on the big monster. The one that was either the leader or just a charismatic spokesmonster. Either way she wanted its attention on her.

If the monster could have shown surprise, Gwen thought it might have done so then. It took a half step backwards, before it let loose a growl and started to lope towards her. As it started to pick up speed it grabbed one of the small saplings that stood on the outskirts of the wood and pulled it free from the damp ground. The curious sound its roots made as it was torn out could have been a scream or a whimper, but Gwen didn't have the attention to spare for anything but the coming battle.

She spun on her feet, turning her back on the beast as it ran for her and sprinting instead towards one of the smaller creatures. That was relative of course, it might be smaller but nothing she was facing could be called small.

Both of her hands were wrapped around the hilt of the sword. Gripping the hilt tightly, Gwen landed the edge of the blade on the unprotected neck of the creature. Blood sputtered out and the monster fell before her, thumping into the ground with the speed of its run turned into a fall. It kept skidding, it might have ran over her feet had she been stood still, but she was already bolting onwards.

Her fighting stats might be suffering, but the added accuracy more than made up for it.

Monsters were coming out of the woods in a long line, and so she ran along the line to meet them. She gripped her sword with one hand over the other, she ran, her blade sliding and skidding over moss, chitin, fur, wood and bark, and sometimes sinking beneath the surface to drag out the blood that lay beneath. Monsters dropped, some died, but it was barely a glancing blow to most of them. It was more about claiming first blood so decisively that no one on her side could feel any doubt that they were going to win.

A cheer went up. Gwen retreated, dancing out of the gushing spouts of green-black blood and the claws and teeth that were coming for her. A claw came close, but was rebuffed by the metal of her bascinet. The extra point in her armour coming to her rescue.

She grinned under her helm. It was more of a baring of teeth than a friendly smile. She sent a look over at the big monster, it had stopped again, looking at her in angry confusion.

Gwen shot it a wink. It howled and ran for her; she spun again and ran back to the wall. She heard it growl behind her, and lodged her eyes on the gap opening up before her and the defenders. She could hear the enemy soldier was catching up. The thumping of its feet against the ground. The dragging of the sapling by its side.

She knew she shouldn't, it was an incredibly stupid thing to do. One of the things she knew you were always warned not to do.

She did it anyway, she looked around.

The blue of the sky and the green of the leaves behind it were hidden by the mass of its solid body and the anger it carried in its snarl. It lifted the branch of an arm that was carrying the sapling, the tree was long enough that when it was let loose again it would hit her. She knew it. Her heart seemed to clatter to a halt, even as her legs kept going as fast as she could... The monster was met with a spinning rock that smashed it between the eyes that sent it sprawling.

Gwen spotted Wylla, sling making a slowing loop in her hands as she looked on from her spot above the heads of the rest of the crowd.

Waving her thanks, Gwen trotted back into place on the line of defenders. A line of bigger, tougher fighters with shields closed in behind her as she made it by. They would hold back the monsters from those of them who were better suited to running and jabbing than being a shield wall. She settled into a spot by the priest who was shaking his head at her.

"So, do you particularly enjoy pissing people and monsters off, or is it just a thing that happens around you," Nikolai asked, looking at the roaring and snarling line of monsters coming towards them.

"Honestly? I think it's one of the things that makes life worth living," she said with an easy laugh.

Whatever he might have said next was hidden under the crash of the monsters hitting the shields of those in front of them. Jumping up, Gwen stabbed a monster over the shoulder of a villager.

Talking wasn't an option after that, instead she ran along the line, stabbing into the unprotected necks and faces of monsters, and crouching down to stab at their bellies from between the villagers. She rarely killed anything by herself and so she only got dribs and drabs of the potential experience, but her sword fighting skill was rising and if it kept going up at this rate she was certain she would level up soon.

But even as monsters fell to the ground and dissolved, or fell back and loped a few metres off to wait for a better chance, there didn't seem to be any let up in the numbers. It wasn't that they were growing like some unconquerable force or a wave at high tide, they were just a steady never-ending push.

Biting her lip and wiping monster blood off her hand, Gwen leaned against the wooden log wall of a cottage. It felt like hours had passed since the battle started. Maybe it had, it was hard to tell when she didn't feel tired in the same way as in real life. At least she didn't have to worry too much about her health, it was hovering in the late teens giving her a pretty good buffer from danger.

Her eyes flicked over the crowds at the gateway. The shield wall was holding firm, the more mobile fighters were doing what they could to stab and push over and between their allies and thin the monsters, but it wasn't enough.

Why wasn't it enough? Perhaps it was. The villagers were not being overrun at least, rather the shield wall would push onwards a metre or two, then get pushed back in turn. Like a tide, she realised. But a tide that was being controlled by something else.

But if that was it then she needed to find out what was the moon in this situation, she needed a better look.

Turning to the wall behind her, she jumped up, using the lintel of the nearby doorway to push her way onto the roof. The logs and planks were large and bulky enough for her to sink her toes into the gaps between them, or to push her hands off the ledges made by the wood that was crammed together. The roof was a shallow hill of heather and branches and river reeds. Pulling up, she swung around to sit, her legs dangling off the edge.

Her climbing skill popped up a level.

There she had a better view. And she realised she was right.

The forces of the villagers and the monsters they faced were not evenly matched. Even with Nikolai, Edgar, Wylla and the makeshift walls to add to their strength, there were dozens of monsters all clawing at each other to get a chance to enter the battle. And maybe that might have been enough reason for the villagers' continued success: that the monsters were as willing to hurt each other in their attempts to get to a victim as Gwen would be to open a door on a midnight snack run. But there was worse.

It was in the ways the monsters were moving. In sync with the movements of the villagers. One side would swing their weapons, the others would swipe with their claws, one after the other. Like a dance dully choreographed. Or a chess game, one side moving only after the other has taken their turn. It was enough to make you want to scream.

She watched as one villager gave a clumsy swipe, in return the monster he had been swinging at gave a claw tipped lunge that hit just as badly. They weren't doing anything to each other. And yet neither side was apparently tiring. They were just swinging at each other like clockwork boxers. Or like the chess pieces she had thought them earlier. No matter how many games of chess you play, no matter how many losses and how many wins, the pieces stay the same.

Gwen, on the other hand, had kicked some of their asses, she knew it; she'd stabbed at least two of the monsters in their faces, as horrible as that was to think about (it had not been as squishy as she had expected and that had somehow made it worse). The fact was that when she had stabbed them, they had fallen and they had not gotten up. Their bodies eventually dissolving into the nasty sludge that turned the grass yellow and was a slipping hazard for even the dead's allies.

So monsters could be killed by Adventurers? And they can kill us, which is fair, I guess, she thought begrudgingly. But what if they can't get hit or hurt by the locals and the locals can't do shit to them? Oh gods, this is going to be one of those morality things that games put in front of you where they know you're going to do the evil thing because the good thing is boring, isn't it? She pinched the bridge of her nose. She didn't like those kinds of games, she preferred games where the puzzles were less philosophical.

At least then when the puzzle was done it was behind you, you didn't have to carry it with you wondering if you had done the right thing or if there even was a right thing to do.

This sort of moral conundrum had always been more Ana's deal: her ex had liked dissecting every motivation and working out what she thought, and what the game developers wanted her to think, and then, finally, what the character in the game in that moment was most likely to think. And then Ana would figure out what she wanted to do from some arcane formula built on the bones of those three ideas. Watching her play any kind of RPG had been an exhausting, if generally entertaining, event.

What in all the varied hells – hells that were no doubt a part of this game – was Gwen supposed to do after finding this out? Was she supposed to ignore Dove's warnings? The AI had seemed pretty clear that something shady was going on. And she hadn't liked dying. If anyone was allowed to have a little bit of a grudge it was going to be her. But that wasn't how real life worked and it didn't seem likely that that was how it was going to work here, either.

She groaned, am I going to have to fight all the monsters myself? Just be a one-gal band who runs around until the others get back? If they're going to get back? I can't do that; the stabbing alone will give me repetitive strain injury! Gwen ignored the fact that Adventurers were immune to such ailments thanks to their healing with every dawn.

That was the moment when a stone whizzed by to where a wolf had been attempting to climb the wall and caught it in the snout.

Wylla didn't seem to be having any difficulty smashing in enemy heads. Wylla – Gwen looked over at the girl – was also one of the few locals to look at her askance when Gwen was being weird. That had begun to be a novel experience all in itself. She was, in fact, looking that way at her now.

Gwen could see Wylla studying her. She was tempted to give a wave. But that seemed a touch to silly for the current situation and Gwen wasn't quite ready to completely make a fool of herself in front of people, on purpose, yet. That sentence had a lot of qualifiers in it, and, she thought, I meant every one of them.

Wait, her head shot around and she did her best to follow it on the precarious perch she held on the thatched roof. A snout trying to get over the wall? That wasn't part of the usual pattern.

There were more monsters now. Enough that Wylla would surely be running out of rocks in that bucket she had lugged up into her own perch above the general eye line of the villagers and the attackers.

Gwen grinned. The not-really-killing-each-other thing, it was probably just a way of minimising the amount of work for the servers. It wasn't some terrifying answer to a question she hadn't known to ask. And it wasn't the first step in a worrying path to an enlightenment she didn't want. She was just letting the world get to her. What a relief. There had been enough moral questions in her last few months left on Earth, she didn't need more of them to come and show themselves she was done with considering the long-term repercussions of her actions. Done. With. It.

And in the spirit of that thought, Gwen took a breath, looked at the distance between the cottage and that of the building next door. It was another cottage, someone's home presumably. It probably had a fairly sturdy roof.

She heaved herself up onto her feet, balanced herself as she wobbled. And then, with a grace she had definitely not had in real life, ran along the heather thatch, jumped at the last possible moment, and cast herself into the suddenly endless chasm between the two buildings. It was almost like, for a moment, the other cottage was on train tracks and being pulled faster away from her than she was able to travel towards it.

Then she landed, her knees sinking into the thatch and her arms flung into the embrace of a scratchy hug. Her face landed smack in the midst of a sweet and musty smelling bundle of dried grass and twigs. It wasn't as bad as it could have been. But for all that she had jumped a fair few feet, she was aware that jumping down from the roof and just running along the road probably would have taken less time and would have taken her further.

It wouldn't have been quite as much fun, though, she had to admit that. And, given the handful of notifications that popped up on the edge of her attention, the successful leap had somehow managed to garner her an impressive amount of experience. She had levelled her Climbing skill again, her skills were starting to look terribly unbalanced. Even with all the killing that she had been doing her Swordfighting Skill was behind her nine levels in Climbing at Seven.

Which said something odd but interesting about the way that experience counted. More evidence that the game is biased to those who the do the stupidest thing they can think of, I suppose, she thought, as she spat out bits of straw.

That out of her system, Gwen jumped down from the roof of the building she was now on, and ran the rest of the way to the break in the wall where the monsters were doing their best to make it over.

By the time she got there it was like a dam had broken. There were monsters streaming out of the woods determined to break down the walls the villagers had encircled their homes with in any way they could.

Gwen ran from one broken part of wall to another, stabbing and slicing at any limb, be it wolf-like, insect-like, or made up of branches, that came through the gaps. It felt like there wasn't going to be an end. Noon passed, the shadows shrinking and growing as she watched.

Stepping back from the fight for a moment, Gwen pulled her helmet up a touch so she could wipe the sweat from her brow.

The latest push at this side of the village had been thwarted, a trio of burly villagers came running up behind her with tools and wooden boards to fix the hole that the monsters had made in the wall.

We need breathing space; things can't keep going like this forever. There can't be enough monsters for them to keep coming at this pace, she thought.

"Gwen!"

She turned, it was Nikolai running towards her, "They've got into the village."

Her shoulders slumped, of course this was what would happen just as she was wishing for a chance to rest. "Where?" she ran over to Nikolai.

"On the Southern side, behind the inn. They've been chased away from the wall, so they can't bring it down any more than they already have and we've got folks defending it and rebuilding. But we don't know what to do about the handful that got in. We aren't managing to do much damage to them."

Gwen tried to remember the geography of the village; she had not been there long but there wasn't much of it to remember. "That's near the bit with the stables, right? It sort of makes a wonky rectangle with the hay shed at one end?"

He nodded, "But they're not there yet. They're running around, causing mayhem. Got any ideas of what we should do?"

She huffed out a breath, "If we could steer them into that rectangle, we could at least keep those ones contained. It would give everyone a bit of breathing space."

"At the moment we can't really ask for much more than that," he agreed. Then cast a look half-way between imploring and exasperated up to the clouds, "Anyone listening?"

She jumped at that, before realising that he was talking to his gods and not Dove. There was definitely something weird about her assumption that the majority of powerful beings in the world lived in one direction, but that would have to be interrogated some other time, when they were not under attack. She took a step forwards, then stopped.

"Uh, Nikolai," she asked, her cheeks heating with embarrassment.

"Yeah?" He turned to look at her.

"I've got a bit turned around; can you point me in the direction of the inn?"

He rolled his eyes and pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. "That way, the direction I just came from."

"Right, of course, sorry," she said, before starting to run in the direction he had pointed.

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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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