I open my eyes to a small orange fire dancing over a bed of red and blue coals -- grey ash in a wide circle around the active coals. The smoke irritates my eyes as I look around and notice a human-sized lump on the ground underneath a giant brown fur blanket. Wait, that’s not a blanket. That’s a whole bear fur, and a long brown braid of hair sticking out from underneath it. Ah, the bear-paw guy that saved me earlier. I sit up, another bear fur, black, falling down into my lap. What does this guy do, hunt bear all day? I make a note to ask him.
I don’t know where we are. I cannot see past the trunks and branches that barely reflect the orange firelight; the farthest being no more than five meters away. I can hear chirping, hooting and howling from the natives in the night, a snuffling sound the loudest of all, coming from my left.
The night doesn’t bother me. I enjoy the savory scent of the wood burning fire. The government regulates wood consumption tightly back home, attempting to keep the reforestation of the earth on as fast a pace as possible. I notice there are more notifications for me to read. No time like right now.
Congratulations! You have completed hidden quest Visitors Are Not Sacred (Level 1)
Only the gods are sacred. Visitors shall not receive any protection from the wilds or other players. For a limited time, visitors receive extra rewards, courtesy of the gods, for slaying other visitors.
You Have Reached Level 9!
+5 Attributes Points
Congratulations! You have invented a new skill: Knuckle Cruncher (Level 1)
Targeting an enemy’s hands, and landing the blow with enough force pulverizes their knuckles, leaving them unable to hold a weapon for some time. At higher levels, this skill will gain effects.
Wait, no penalties for fighting other players? And you get a Faith Point? And a lot of experience? I bet a lot of people are trying to level up quick just by fighting other players. That’s not exactly a good long-term strategy if you actually want to interact with other people, but I could see it being a shortcut. I wonder if the penalties for being killed by another player are as bad as the rewards are good, or even worse? Would I get a quest reward each time I killed another player or is that a one-time time thing? I guess I’ll find out sometime. This new skill is pretty good. It would be good even without the inventor’s bonus. If I’m up against one enemy, and they are holding a weapon, I’m definitely going to try to break their knuckles.
A loud crack behind me causes me to swing my legs, plant one hand and jump to my feet. I put my left hand behind me and feel that my staff is still there. I face the noise, prepared to fight anyone. A giant leg, orange from the campfire, steps into the light, the equally excessive leather vest soon following. I relax.
Another small foot encased in a black leather boot precedes the small leg above it. I hear the familiar sounds of Dan’s leather and metal armor and my shoulders slump. His face pushes out of the darkness, looking like it is under orange dyed water -- the wavering firelight reflecting off his skin before reaching my eyes.
“Go away Dan, I’m still mad at you.”
“Hold on Samantha, just give him a minute,” Doc says.
Dan’s eyes stay focused on me. He clasps his hands in front of him.
“I’m sorry Samantha. I had no idea Francine was that exhausted. She’s not the warm and cuddly type. No excuses, what she did was unacceptable and I shouldn’t have brought you into that situation. I yelled at her for treating you like that. She will apologize if you give her a second chance and come back to Athens. We really need you, Samantha. The town only has one week of immunity left and we’ve apparently been marked for death by a God. Null Division has a God Given quest to kill everyone in the town. I know it seems silly but Francine is terrified her villagers will be killed. When you made that comment about her town and Bonesy said he wanted to eat some villagers, it just set her off. I never told you but her husband and business partner of fifty years, James, died several months ago. It was really hard for us...”
Dan stops talking, maybe the first time he has stopped talking voluntarily since I’ve known him. Is he crying? It’s hard to tell in this light. I’ve had a rough year but it sounds like hers might have been worse.
“Doc told me some of that. Not the part about James...Ugh, so what I’m the bad girl for being mad at a widow?”
“No, no, you should be upset. I’m just hoping you will look past her bad behavior and still think about helping us.” Dan says.
I really am too much of a pushover. It’s why I’m still in a terrible job -- until The Board reads my note anyway.
“Fine Dan -- I get it. I’ll give her another chance.”
Dan lunges forward and hugs me. My are breasts resting on top of his head.
“I said I’d give her another chance, you’re still in trouble!” I step back, dislodging his head from my body.
“I thought you were just looking for a friend and trying to help out fellow players, but you had an agenda the whole time we were playing together. Any other hidden agendas Dan?”
“No more secrets, I promise, pinky swear.” He grins, holding out his pinky to me.
Doc says, “This is touching and all, and a gentleman like myself wouldn’t interrupt normally, but this fellow has an axe to my throat.”
Looking back to the fire, I see the brown bear fur is flat on the ground. I focus my gaze on Doc. My rescuer holds his grey metal axe head against the stubble on Doc’s neck.
“Uh, Doc, Dan, this is...well I don’t know his name, but he saved my life earlier.” I look my rescuer in the eyes and ask “, What’s your name?”
“Kuruk. Are these guys friends of yours? Sounds like it but I can’t take any chances. The men I was with were surprisingly quick to violence, these could be no different.”
“They are, please let him go Kuruk.” Kuruk takes the axe away from Doc’s throat, placing it back in a holster attached to his belt.
Doc says, “You can back off now....”
Kuruk screams high pitched at first and then deepening into a bellow. I see a small man-shaped form distinguish itself from the forest background, right behind Kuruk. Leonard? The firelight reaches Leonard but my eyes can’t quite grasp him. The edges around his form are blurry as if the night shaded forest is painted on parts of his skin and clothing. His right and left arms are covered with thick, orange tinted blood. Leonard steps to the side as Kuruk’s form falls backward, both legs hamstrung, bleeding into the forest floor.
Kuruk rolls onto his stomach and starts shaking. I can hear him chanting, perhaps a healing chant? No, not a healing chant. Brown fur is breaking through the stained skin on his legs and arms. My own arm hair stands on end when Kuruk growls. His torso has expanded to four times its regular size and I see nothing but bear fur. He stands up on four limbs, his back to me, and he arches his back slightly before lifting his head and roaring into the jungle. Kuruk turns his new ursine form, facing Doc, who summons an orange ball of fire in his hands. The fireball is a deep red, rotating clockwise, tight like a coiled snake.
Dan just stands there, arms at his sides and mouth open. I’m less shocked. Maybe experiencing the roar of Animus The Bear God Himself makes Kuruk’s less fear inducing, or maybe I’m just mad at these idiots for fighting for no reason.
Kuruk drops his snout to the forest floor, snuffling and looking side to side. Looking for Leonard maybe? After a few seconds and no success, he raises his red vein shot eyes and stares at Doc. The meter long muscles in his hind legs bunch and then extend as he launches himself at Doc. A fireball meets him in the air.
I smell burnt meat and my stomach feels like I drank engine oil. Orange and red fire run over Kuruk’s chest and front shoulders. Doc steps backward but Kuruk reaches him, tearing into Doc’s left leg with his giant paw. Doc shouts and tries to backpedal, but he doesn’t move fast enough. Kuruk raises another paw but drops it with a growl. Leonard’s form is clear again, riding atop Kuruk, both daggers planted into the bear’s back. I’ve seen those daggers, I don’t think they are long enough to get through all that bear blubber but it has to hurt.
Kuruk rolls onto his side, clearly intending to smash Leonard, but the small nimble man hops off the bears back and runs to Doc’s side, both daggers held in front of him.
“Can you testosterone filled wastes of grey matter stop diddling each other’s tiny penises for two seconds? Is that too much to ask? I’m trying to enjoy my gosh darn time in this stupid game and you gas filled skin bags, you giant testicles, are ruining it! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?”
Kuruk’s fuzzy head turns towards me. I had never seen a bear before today. I’ve now seen a bear and a surprised bear. Leonard smiles and starts clapping before giving me a thumbs up. Doc, one arm on Leonard’s shoulder, leaning on his one good leg, says “That was impressive slander, Samantha. You keep that up, nothing Leonard likes more than a good insult. What I think we have here is a big misunderstanding. I’m sorry, Mr. Kuruk. Leonard flies off the handle a bit when anyone threatens me. There was this time at a rundown bar on the Gulf Coast twenty, oh maybe thirty years ago when this kid with ratty dreadlocks sits down next us, he sits down and....”
I say, “Not the time for stories Doc. What the heck! Is this how you guys convince me to join up with you? Kuruk saved my life from two men who pointed an arrow at my face before even saying hi. And here you two go and first stab him, then light him on fire. What have you all done besides apologize and try to make nice?” I pull at my hair, these people are so frustrating.
Dan says, “I think you might have just discovered a skill, Samantha. I couldn’t think about anything but attacking you just now.”
Huh, I see a notification.
Congratulations! You have discovered a new skill: Slur to Spur (Level 1)
Nothing spurs your foes into action like a slur. Using targeted verbal insults will force your foes to attack you before others.
“Can I see it?” Dan asks.
“Maybe later, Dan. Leonard, apologize to Kuruk. Right now. You didn’t have to stab him. That was mean. Kuruk, say sorry to Doc for the axe to the throat.”
Leonard frowns, rolls his eyes and then bows from the waist. Kuruk snorts in Dan’s direction. I sigh, not good enough.
“Come here, Leonard.” I crook my finger, beckoning him in closer. “Come on, I won’t bite.”
I keep bending my fingers as Leonard walks towards me around the fire. One he’s almost in arms reach, a reach out and smack him in the ear.
“Don’t stab my friends. Next time it’s the staff,” I say. Leonard rubs his ear and frowns at me before walking back over to Doc.
“Dan, get Vitalia in here to repair these dummies.”
“You don’t just walk up to Vitalia, Mother of Life and say ‘get in here.’ Of course, I had the foresight to request several boons that are perfect for this little scenario...”
I talk over him, it’s the best way to deal with Dan’s propensity to prattle. “Here’s my deal Dan. You stooges help me incarnate Chronos, stop doing stupid stuff like that,” I wave at all four of them, with their stab wounds, burns, and bruises, “and I’ll come back to Athens and fight for you.”
Dan’s smile is all the answer I need.
“One other thing Samantha, we need to rescue Mary Jorgdaughter too. We have a quest for it, here, check it out.”
A prompt appears in front of me.
Rescue Mary Jorgdaughter
Lady Francine the Sharp’s cowardice and selfish desires forfeited Mary Jorgdaughter to Decrepit’s pawn, Null Division. Secure her safe return.
“Huh, looks like the game AI pegged Francine. Sounds good to me. So Chronos, Rescue Mary Jorgdaughter, then save Athens, should be easy.”
Leonard walks forward and taps on Kuruk’s snout. The bear looks down into Leonard’s eyes. Leonard takes his right middle and pointer finger, spreads them, points them to his own eyes, then Kuruk’s, before he fades into the night again.
As Dan heals everyone’s wounds, I realize something. They listened to me. It’s been a really long time since anyone has actually done what I said. It feels good, real good.