We crouch behind a thick cluster of blue flowered thorned bushes, Null’s camp sits forty meters in front of us and five below. The large fire pit, covered in black bits of wood and gray ash, centers sixteen tents. Three people kneel on the ground around the fire, working with both hands, banging on metal and stitching leather. They’re probably the crafters of the bunch. Another man, with a long hafted axe strapped to his back and a bone necklace hanging off his chest, snores from under a leather hat tipped over his eyes. A woman with nice leather armor I’d really like to have crouches several feet away from him, tying a bow string to a longbow. Two men with similar features swing short swords at each other, running and jumping around the campsite, using the trees to their advantage as they laugh and taunt at each other.
“Remember, Null wants us to kill his allies as part of his agreement with Francine, so if we don’t engage him directly, this should be easy,” Dan says. He’s taken to repeating things. I don’t understand why my -- memory works.
“I know -- David, Kuruk, any of these people look familiar to you?”
“Sorry Samantha, none of these people were here when I was, it looks like maybe a few more people joined up with Null, and some others must be out adventuring because nearly a dozen I know are missing. You guys sure we really need to send all these people back to whatever Homesteads they came from? Null didn’t mention anything to me about raiding a town.”
“Yes, we’re sure. The two Kuruk was with before he watched as they almost skewered me, knew about the town, so we know Null’s recruited at least some of these people to help destroy Athens.” I say.
“Please, you had it under control, and I Bear-Paw’d StealthLightning’s head off his shoulders didn’t I?” Kuruk says.
“Wait, his name was StealthLightning?”
“Yeah, pretty lame right?” Kuruk smiles and I notice his yellow-brown eyes and the floating flecks of green. I break eye contact first. It’s getting harder to deny his avatar’s pretty hot and the last thing I need is for him to realize I think he’s cute. I still want Robert back and who knows if I’ll even be playing this game after we take care of Null and I know Dan and Francine will be ok.
“Ok, I’m going in. Just follow my lead.” I say, walking forward through the bushes before anyone can stop me. Kuruk starts to say something but then just grunts as he stands up to follow.
We walk towards their camp, me in the lead, Dan several steps behind, Kuruk on my right, Doc and David on each side of Dan and Leonard...somewhere. If nothing else, the two large dirty people with axes and a staff should be somewhat intimidating.
We stride within ten meters of their camp before the bow-wielding woman looks up, stands and knocks an arrow and says, “Hold there, I haven’t seen you all before. Here to join up with Null?”
The sleeping axeman wakes and rolls over, falling on his face before pushing up on both arms, standing and facing us. The red veins in his eyes and the set of his mouth let me know he would rather be sleeping. The two brothers, or at least good enough friends to make nearly identical avatars, stop playing and walk up behind the woman.
I stop and say, “Hi, not exactly, I’m Samantha and this is Dan, David, Doc and Kuruk.”
“Oh, I’m Clara and this is Humphrey,” she says and gestures with a thumb towards the grumpy axeman, “ and those two clowns are Clyde and Corvin.”
“What about them?” I say, pointing to the crafters. One of them runs a stone against the edge of a rough blade, while the other two stitch the same torso shaped piece of leather.
“Don’t worry about them, they barely know we exist. Ever see a craftsman so focused on their work the rest of the world disappears? Apparently, that’s easier to do in Incrementum.” Clara says.
“Fair enough, so, how many of you are planning on burning Athens to the ground?” I say.
Clara’s brow wrinkles.
“What are you talking about? Where’s Athens? We’re here to explore the frontier and ride Null’s coattails a bit. The Central Homesteads bored me.”
“That true for all of you?” I raise my voice and run my eyes over the other three members of Clara’s group. The two brothers nod their heads and the axeman, Humphrey, says “Sure enough.”
I glance back at Dan and shrug my shoulders. “What do you guys think?”
Doc says, “If I may? I’ve known many liars in my day, and that man is surely lying.” He points at Humphrey. “Clear as day. Steppin’ from foot to foot like that, bet he’s already sweating too.”
“What? No. Null mentioned Athens to me of course but I wasn’t going to burn it, why would I do that? I mean take a little loot sure...” Humphrey stutters, backing away from us.
“Clara, I think it would be a good idea for you and your two friends here not to get involved,” I say.
She opens her mouth to respond but before she can I run at Humphrey and pull my staff out, opening with Joint Breaker on his left knee. He rips the axe off his back, its blade bigger than my head, and swings it at my shoulder. I see a translucent green line, tracing the path his axe will take. It must be my new boon, Instant Tracers. I sway out of the path of the green outline, dodging his axe swing. Humphrey needs to invest in a lot more Dexterity before he’s fast enough to hit me when all I have to worry about is him. His eyes dart left then right. Humphrey turns around and tries to run, his left leg not bending as much as a run requires.
I hear two ‘I-got-its’ from behind me. Humphrey jerks to a stop, a hook-shaped icicle protruding from his back and curving from around his front, as if he’s a human-sized fish, caught by an ice giant’s frozen hook. An orange streak whizzes past my head, solidifying into a liquid fire whip wrapped around Humphrey’s neck. I turn and see Doc pulling back hard on the whip he now holds with both hands before Humphrey screams and falls to the ground. His body disappears and I imagine someone standing outside their VR pod throwing things at the wall of their apartment.
Clara and the brothers wisely take my advice and stand with weapons drawn, not attacking, just wary. I put my staff on my back and hold both hands up.
“Sorry about that. We don’t want to send you guys back to your revive location but we would have if you knew about Null’s plan to burn our city to the ground. Well, his stated plan. His real plan is to screw everyone, us included, by having us kill you all, then essentially enslave Athens to build his gear for a few months. Not secret information, by the way, tell anyone you want,” I say.
Dan looks at me sideways. I don’t care. Keeping this information to ourselves provides no benefit I can see and sharing it might just get us a few new allies.
Clara’s eyes widen. “So that’s what they’ve been whispering about. Null and most of his fanboys went to raid a village deeper in the Unexplored Lands to the north. They didn’t invite me because I don’t bow down to his majesty. Kuruk, what’s the deal with these tower people? They ivory or what?”
“They ivory, but not that bad. I’d hear ‘em out, especially legs here, she’s got a brain on top of that body.”
I shake my head and blush. “Tower people? Ivory?” I say.
“It’s what we call you people from up in the scrapers, sitting in your ivory towers looking down on us, blocking out the sun and sniffin’ at our basic incomes,” Kuruk says.
“You’re from below? Woah, that’s cool. My building manager got rid of all our cleaning machines lately and hired a bunch of people from below.”
“Yeah, that’s getting common now, we're cheaper than robots,” Kuruk says, his eyes losing some of their sparkle.
“Why didn’t you say you knew these people?”
“You don’t give people much time to say what they need to say. If you had gone after Clara, Clyde or Corvin I would have stepped in, bear-style.” Kuruk says.
Should I ask what bear-style step-ins are? No. I turn back to Clara. “I’d have to double-check with our cleric extraordinaire and his boss, but I can tentatively offer you membership in the Athenian Empire. That comes with numerous benefits including a revive location in Athens instead of wherever you all are bound to closer to the Central Homesteads. The only condition is you have to side with us when Null comes to Athens at the end of Homestead Immunity. It also comes with reduced taxes, free perishable provisions and fair prices on all goods purchased from Athenian vendors. That goes for big hairy over here, ” I point my thumb at Kuruk, “ and team oblivious, “ gesturing at the crafters. “ You know them by the way?”
“Yeah, they’re family,” Kuruk says. I wait for him to explain but no luck.
“What do you say?” I look at Clara, Clyde, and Corvin.
Clara doesn’t bother checking with the two brothers. “We’re in, for now. Null is a twit, he lost any respect I had for him when he showed up with that girl. Smart one she is, had most the camp jumping to her tune -- pointed out all the deficiencies in the camp here, and Null’s lack of leadership when it came to basic camp practices. Null’s a cold fish but by the time they left his jaw was clenched so hard I could see the apples in his cheeks.”
Dan smiles, “Sounds like Mary -- you should see her teaching the kids back at Athens. She says jump they say how high...most of the time. That deal is fine with me, Samantha. Francine should support it too; she needs more sworn players to expand the Empire. Crafters are a bonus. Clara, head to this location on your map. I’ll give you a note to provide to Lady Francine which should clear the way. Just try to be gracious when you meet her, she can have a short fuse and is under a lot of pressure.”
“Ha, that’s an understatement,” I say. Everyone stares at me. “What, it’s true.” I hurry with my next question, a little embarrassed with everyone’s attention. “Do you know how many players are with Null, Clara?”
“Only five. There’s another group of four somewhere but I think they went rogue.”
“Who are they?”
Clara spits on the ground before saying, “A bunch of twiddle-bums if I’ve ever seen one. There’s Null’s pet Cleric, Rosebud. No surprises there, I think he’s around level 20. Then there’s Farshot, Jaws, Marbles, DeathHead and John, all about the same level, hoping Null will rain items and experience upon them.“
I shake my head, “People really shouldn’t be able to name themselves in games, Dan named himself Rothlington, can you believe that?”
Clara laughs, “Did you give yourself an epitaph, ‘the Wise’ maybe?”
Dan mutters, “the Magnificent.” Clara, Clyde, and Corvin laugh, causing all of us to chuckle at Dan’s expense.
“Ok, so what can that group of knuckleheads do?” I say.
“Farshot shoots things, I’ve seen him hit ten shots in a row in the exact same place, speed up his draw and even bend an arrow around some obstacles. He wouldn’t tell me but I think he must have boons from a God of Archery or something -- a total waste. I’m focusing on skills for Archery and using my boons elsewhere. Where was I? Right, Jaws sucks. He’s really the worst player I’ve seen in the game. He’s convinced that his ‘hand jaws’ are going to revolutionize melee fighting. It’s as dumb as it sounds. He’s got metal jaws on each hand that he tries to ‘bite’ you with, and then tear open the wound or pull you to the ground. Do I need to waste your time explaining why that’s a terrible idea?”
I shake my head, no. I’ll just hit him with my staff while easily staying out of reach based on my dexterity. When would his strategy work? Kuruk would just try to chop his hands off, Leonard would easily evade him and stab away, Doc would burn him before he got close, and David would shred him with ice in any number of ways. Maybe Jaws could get ahold of Dan and bite him with his hands but if all you can do in this game is beat up a Cleric you’re not playing it right.
“Good. Marbles...Marbles scares me. He fights with a giant mace and no remorse. I look into his eyes and wonder if anything is going on in that head of his -- it must, the way he moves in a fight but trying to talk to him is like high-fiving a tree. I’d take him out first if you can.”
“DeathHead’s your run of the mill necromancer. He’ll try to weaken you with poison and disease while sending undead minions to tear you apart. He’s a real piece of work -- not sure if he realizes we’re in a game still or if he’s gone full native in just a few weeks.”
“Then there’s John. You ever saw a perfectly calm pool of water? Bathtub? Anything? John’s like that. Even in battle, he moves with complete ease, not fast, not slow, just fluid, one movement to the next. His God must be Placid but he doesn’t speak much. His short swords could be a problem for you -- death wrapped in serenity. Should be a fun scrap for you all.” Clara picks up a sleeping fur below her, shakes it off and says, “Where’s this Athens? We better be off. Clyde, Corvin, wake the tool monkeys and stop looting Humphrey, you didn’t frag him, we’re outta here. Kuruk, you get tired chasing after those chicken legs you come give me a holler.” Clara sticks out her hip and winks at Kuruk, who cracks a huge grin.
“More like Ostrich legs, look at the size of ‘er, Clara.”
I can feel my face turn a deep red. Dan interrupts.
“I just sent you the location on your Map, Lady the Francine the Sharp is who you want. Send me the location of this Unknown Village -- let’s go, everyone, come on Sam, she’s just joking.”
I glare at Clara who brushes a brown lock out of her eye and raises her eyebrows before turning around to nudge the nearest crafter, disturbing their work and earning a confused blinking stare.
Kuruk puts his arm around my shoulders, “You got nothing to worry about legs.”
I don’t shake his arm off this time, not yet anyway.