I check my map. I see a red person shaped icon very close to a cave icon, surrounded by trees and little blue lines, probably creeks. I must be close to Chronos’s cave, finally.
After I had stepped back into my virtual reality pod, I saw the golden morning sun stream in through the knobby brown branches and evergreen needles above me. I followed the creek and even fought a few forest critters on the way to the cave, practicing Melon Crusher and a few other of my skills. Every fight was easy, likely below my level.
I smile, thinking about what I had done with the two hours I spent outside of the game. Dan had got me thinking about Helga earlier and the maintenance budget. Then the encounter with Francine tipped me over the edge. I am done worrying about what might happen. I chose the nuclear option. Helga would find out about it soon enough. In the meantime, I will enjoy my time in Incrementum before I get kicked out of my apartment.
I stop smiling when I hear voices. They aren’t the pleasant booming drawl of Doc or Dan’s rapid and excited intonations. I didn’t want Doc and Leonard’s company and I certainly do not want to meet any strangers in the middle of an ancient jaguar infested forest. I jump into the two meter deep creek, my foot sinking several inches into the mud, water and stone. The water splashes up onto my leather skirt before I crouch down and sink my hands into the orange-brown clay-rich earth, pushing the rest of my body against the creek bank to avoid detection. Oh no, my sweater! Stupid nature getting my things dirty. I push back slightly and look down at the white spider silk sweater Vitalia gave me. Not a piece of clay or dirt in sight. Perpetual cleanliness must be a hidden attribute.
As the voices get closer I make out more of what they are saying. “I don’t want to be out here either but you heard him, we have to scout out the surrounding area so he can figure out the best plan,” says one voice. He sounds male, maybe middle-aged.
Another voice, likely younger says, “And we get the short straw looking into a cave we probably can’t even clear out by ourselves? I know he’s a big deal or whatever but we’re pretty good at games too. This is a waste of time.” What a whiner. He keeps going, “People are getting way ahead of us in levels. This sucks. I bet he got two or three levels while we stomp around in a forest. Did I mention this is a bad idea?”
I hear their footsteps now, breaking branches and dry pine needles. It sounds like they are coming towards me. The deeper voice drowns out the cracking branches. “Quit your whining. We could be making a level here and a level there but we definitely couldn’t be raiding a whole town. Now quiet before I frag you again, you’re scaring all the game away.”
I wait for their footsteps to continue. Instead, all I hear is a light wind stirring the branches above me and a toad downstream jumping through the stream. My shoulders tense up, this is the jaguar all over again. I push back enough to tilt my head back, looking over the saplings, giant pine roots and into a man’s eyes. His shaggy brown hair surrounds a week old beard, yellowed teeth, and a flat mouth. I see the top of a bow rising above the edge of the creek. He has an arrow ready, its sharp grey metal head drawing my attention away from the white feathers at the other end.
He says, “Step out of the creek now.”
I stand up and raise my arms in an automatic gesture.
“Mind if I toss my staff up onto the bank?”
He nods and gestures with his bow to the ground. Another day I might have taken this time to try and talk my way out of the situation. See if I could join their group or something. Today, I’m angry. I’m not going to talk to them from a position of weakness, looking up into an arrow like some mark on the street being mugged for their implants. I pull the staff up off of my back with one arm as if I’m going to place it on the creek bank. Once the staff is parallel to the ground, I tense my shoulder and turn my hips to the left, sweeping the staff into the man’s ankle, leveraging my considerable body weight and the torque generated by my hips.
The man’s black cape flutters into the air as the rest of his body falls towards my staff. A red twenty-five appears above his head along with the Joint Breaker disabled icon. A chunk of my own hit points fall away and I feel a slicing pain across my ribs. I glance down at the gash in my side as I turn to the north and sprint away, hoping the increased Dexterity that let me hit him first would also get me out of here. My steps take me ten meters before I feel a stabbing pain in my left knee. I can’t bend it properly on my next stride and I realize this running away plan will not work. I’m a dummy, running from a man with a bow when all I have is a staff and nothing to hide behind.
I turn around. The man with the bow stands on the edge of the creek, another arrow pointed at me. His face is red and he’s leaning heavily on his leather clad right leg. A black cloth cape drapes down his back and hangs off his trailing arm; the one pulling back the cord to shoot me again. Another man, probably Whiney, pumps both arms while running towards me, kicking up pine needles and brandishing a wood club above his head. The third, who must be Mopey because he didn’t say a word earlier, stands behind the one who shot me. He’s wearing a black and white animal fur, draped over one well-muscled shoulder and cinched across his waist. His arms are crossed across his chest.
I start spinning my staff in front of me in a One-Handed Spin for the added block and deflection chance, hoping I can stall them to try and figure out what is going on. Running away from a person who can shoot you from a distance was a dumb idea, I need to stall before I make another bad spontaneous decision.
“Sorry about the ankle but there is no way I’m putting down my weapon in the middle of the forest with three strange men. Why don’t we all put down our weapons and talk about this? You all first of course.”
More blood rushes to the caped man’s face, turning it as red as a beet. He snarls and I hear the cord of his bow snap. My spinning staff hits the middle of the flying arrow, causing the metal tip to whip past my face and off into the underbrush. I can feel my hands start to sweat and my blood pressure rise. That jerk almost cut my face!
I stop spinning my staff, waiting almost a whole second before I regain my balance enough to grab the end of the staff with both hands. Whiney jumps into the creek bed, splashing and almost toppling over. He takes a few more steps towards me, almost in range of my staff. He’s wearing a silver earring with a dull green stone and some sort of animal bone stuck through his earlobe below the earring. I aim the for animal bone, swinging my staff as hard as I can. I spin almost all the way around and do not feel a vibration in my hands. Whiney must have ducked under the blow. I jerk forward when what feels like a thirty-pound weight dropped from the second floor of a building hits between my shoulder blades. I can see my health bar drop below half.
I keep both hands on my staff and spin around. I plant my staff in the ground behind me quickly, lean against it and launch a Side Kick at Whiney, knocking him back a full meter. I swing the staff again with both hands, aiming for Whiney’s hand where he holds his club. The crack and snap sounds come from my staff and his knuckles breaking, a small notification icon pops up in my view. He drops his club and shakes his hand. I wind up again, this time aiming at his left shoulder, hoping he ducks again. The crack of my staff and spray of fluid indicates I guessed correctly. Whiney is on the forest floor, his melon crushed, and I don’t think he is going to get up.
I hear another twang and look down at the burning sensation in my stomach. It’s centered around a thin piece of wood with a white and grey feathered end. Time seems to slow down, I stare at the tiny wood grains running down the sand colored rough wooden shaft and the dark red, almost purple blood seeping through my perfect white sweater. I barely notice my hit point bar is down to ten percent.
I look up. Black cape reaches back to grab another arrow, a smirk covering his poorly groomed face. Behind him, a black rent appears above the head of the fur-covered man. He uncrosses his veined brown arms, lifting one above his head towards the rift. The trees around the two men look like they are leaning towards the hole as if they are being sucked out from this world to another. It is impossible for me to hear anything over my own beating heart but I imagine there is a sucking sound as air flows from Incrementum to somewhere else.
A sewer plate sized bear’s head pushes out of the center of the rift, its eyes aflame with a golden light, meeting my gaze over the long brown snout with an apple-sized black nose. The leaves and pine cones rattle and hop as the apex predator stretches its mouth wide, ivory teeth and long red tongue parting to unleash what sounds to me like an ancient jet engine, shooting sound and air in my face until my hair can’t decide if it’s burning off or pulling out at the roots.
The man who shot me is turning now. Even focused on killing me, he can’t ignore the heavy presence behind him. The fur clothed man’s standing directly below the rip in space still holds his arm aloft. I can see claws sprouting from his fingertips and the skin of his palms darkening, stretching and blackening. From wrist to elbow, golden brown fur erupts from his dark skin. His bicep and tricep grow to double their previous size, but the changes stop there.
The black caped man stands perfectly still, I cannot see his face. I’m not sure I would be able to move after hearing that bear and standing no more than one meter away from it. From the tilt of his head, it looks like the shooter is looking up at the bear’s face. The bear-armed man’s expression has not changed, still impassive, cold, almost judging. His cheek muscles bulge as he rips the transformed dinner plate sized hand down through the air and bludgeons the cape’s face, his new claws tearing through skin and hair. The torn head of the caped man speeds to the forest floor like a pool ball just hit by the cue. His body does not move.
I see the golden fur recede back into the man’s arm, the claws retracting and his muscles shrinking back to their already impressive size. He steps over the man on the ground, walking towards me, his bare feet seeming to have no problem with the forest floor. I’m down on one knee now, shaking and holding my stomach.
The furred man jumps down into the creek bed, red-brown mud splattering on his calves. Yep, iron feet. He crouches down in front of me. I’m looking down now and see his brown hair tied in a long braid going down his back.
“I knew these two were bad guys but drawing an arrow on a woman alone in the forest? My mother raised me better than that. I’m sorry this happened. Would you allow me to treat your wounds and provide you with some food? They will heal in time but the game imposes a penalty if you have an arrow sunk into you like that, it’s best if somebody removes them.”
“You aren’t going to paw me are you?”
“My boon won’t be usable for quite some time either so you don’t have to worry about getting bear pawed. Pretty awesome, isn’t it? It took me three hours to convince Animus to let me have Bear’s Paw for just five seconds, but it was worth every minute of arguing.”
I nod my head, the shivering making it hard to speak. I see spots of black and then nothing.