We didn’t need the map marker that Clara shared with us; the pillar of smoke and fire led us right to the village, even with the sun going down behind the trees. Three flame covered wood structures with thatch roofs obscure the center of the village. A calico goat with singed fur and red eyes runs towards us, bleating and galloping as fast it can. It doesn’t stop to acknowledge our presence, brushing against my leg as it runs farther into the forest away from its old home. The fire snaps and pops, drowning out noises from deeper in the village.
“I think we can safely guess Null and his followers are somewhere in the heart of that. The smoke should be to our advantage, best case for us we can knock off a few of them before the others know what is going on. Leonard, can you go take a look around? Let us know the best way to pick off a few?” I say.
Leonard nods and then fades from sight.
“Why are there villages out here Dan? I know there are AI like the villagers at Athens, but why are there more out here in the middle of nowhere?” I say.
“Still haven’t learned anything about the game sweetcheeks, don’t worry, at least Dan the Wise did his homework. The makers of Incrementum didn’t release much about the history of the world. Just that it’s a land with a scattered human population, fearing the Gods too much to attempt to band together into any meaningful nation or state. That’s where we come in.”
“Ok, Dan the Wise, have you asked them why they fear to band together?”
“I wonder...maybe they did in the past.”
Leonard blocks my view of the village. His deep, grating broken voice starts to say something but I waive him off.
“Relaying through Doc was working great, that doesn’t sound like it feels good...”
Leonard nods and walks up to Doc, explaining something in his ear.
“Leonard found them. A few are scattered in the village, poking through huts and looking for loot. The rest, including Null sit in the town center, talking and resting amidst a pile of the previous villagers.” Doc says.
“Ok...does anyone have boons or skills for keeping a character quiet? It would be best for us if we can pick off the scattered players before engaging everyone in the town center.”
“Bears and stealth aren’t really a thing, count me out,” Kuruk says.
“Leonard says he can sneak up on them and get the first attack off, but he can’t promise they will stay silent before dying,” Doc says.
I look at David and Dan, they shake their heads.
“Hmm, ok, I guess we can just try to attack all at once so they don’t have time to make noise before expiring. It’s risky, though, they might see us before we can finish it...Are there any huts that aren’t burning Leonard? Maybe David and Doc could get on top of one so they can see who to attack before they are spotted.”
“There’s one he thinks might work,” Doc says.
“Ok, here’s the plan, Leonard, go take Doc and David over to the hut you are thinking of, you two will get on the roof. Then come back here, and lead Dan, Kuruk and me near one of the wanderers. We’ll get as close as we can without risking being seen. After that, you do your sneaking thing, and as soon as you pop out and stab them, Doc and David will let loose, hopefully killing them instantly. If not, me and Kuruk will rush in to try and finish the job. Dan, you look pretty and heal us if we need it.”
“Done and done,” Dan says, puffing out his chest.
“If for whatever reason it doesn’t work out, and they make enough noise to alert the rest of the party, let’s play it like we did the Soul Essence Warriors. Leonard tries to sneak and kill any ranged / weak players, maybe Farshot, Kuruk and I get up close and personal, and Doc and David rain fire and ice down on everyone. Null might join the fight but it should be halfhearted at best.”
Leonard leads David and Doc into the smoke. The two meter plus tall Doc attempts to sneak by hunching his shoulders and walking on his tiptoes -- I laugh. Intermittent pops and sounds of tumbling wood mask the sound of Doc’s giant footsteps.
I’m happy with my plan and the team. I expected someone to tell me my ideas were bad, with no logical reason why, just like back at work, but it didn’t happen. I voiced reasonable ideas and the team accepted them. It makes sense, that’s how teams should work -- it’s just never happened to me before. I could get used to this. But if I keep playing Incrementum, what am I going to do for work? Or tell Mom? I can live off a Universal Basic Income but I’ll likely end up below, and certainly not hold the prestigious position she always wanted for me. I’ve heard of professional gamers, like Null, making good livings off of streaming and competitions, maybe I could cash in on--
Leonard appears in front of us, interrupting my plans. He waves us forward. We creep between two burning huts, tip-toeing deeper into town. The smoke thickens and I hold my hand over my mouth, partly to fight off a cough and partly to block smoke. Once we pass the two huts, we step into what must be the main street of the village, a long hard-packed dirt path, five meters wide, extends to our left and right into the smoke. Leonard points to the right and makes a circle figure in the air, which I take to mean village center, and then points to the left, at a two-room shelter the fire has spared. He points to the building next door and then gestures at me, Kuruk and Dan.
We dash to our designated building and step inside. There’s a pile of grey and brown furs, a dozen baskets and a wooden instrument that reminds me of a guitar. A few baskets contain flour, or a similar powder, another rocks, and yet another scraps of leather. Someone called this hut a home; Null and his friends just steamrolled the whole thing for their own benefit, taking loot and lives with impunity.
I kick the furs to see if anyone is hiding in them. No people, just a small doll. I remember Doc’s description of a pile of villagers at the town center and grind my teeth before pointing out the doll to Kuruk and Dan. Their faces clench. The tendons in Kuruk’s arms stick out through the corded muscle. I pick up the doll, tucking it into my belt. Hopefully, Null and his allies aren’t complete monsters, and I’ll be able to return the doll to its owner.
I stick my head out of the door jamb so I can see the entryway to the two room hut. A man steps out. The rigid boiled leather armor pieces covering his body remind me of a turtle, each red-brown curved piece a part of his misshapen shell. The metal jaws on each hand give him away, this must be the aptly named ‘Jaws.’
Leonard stabs both his daggers into Jaws’s waist, pulling out his right dagger and attempting to stab it back into his back. I’ve seen him use this skill before, where he walks up his enemy's back with his daggers, finishing them with a slash to the throat. Jaws’s thick leather armor proves too much for Leonard, and he drops back to the ground behind Jaws as the overgrown turtle turns and roars in pain. A spear of liquid fire stabs into his leg from below, and a thin ice needle enters one side of Jaws’s neck before pushing through the skin on the other side, sliding straight through, coated in blood.
Jaws’s leaves his mouth open, his breath arrested by the surprise of the ice and fire attacks. He almost clamps a hand jaw on Leonard’s shoulder. The hitpoint indicator over Jaws’s head drops, showing only thirty percent left. I go for broke, taking aim and swinging my staff with both hands at his head, hoping the shock of the unexpected attacks will stop him from dodging Melon Crusher. I blink my eyes shut right before hitting him, the spray is most unpleasant. The vibration of my staff and the thud of Jaws’s body hitting the ground let me know he did not dodge in time.
I motion at Leonard and Kuruk to get back into the building, in case Null and his allies heard Jaws’s initial bellow of pain. Once we’re inside I say, “That went well. You should consider some more points in strength Leonard. I bet with some more strength you would have been able to walk your daggers up his back, even through that leather armor.”
Leonard nods his head in agreement. Kuruk crouches next to me, his head tilted to the side, listening for anyone who might have heard Jaws scream. A minutes passes -- no sound.
I stand up and poke my head out the door again, surveying the area until I hear Doc scream. Doc, standing on the roof of a fire-free hut, clutches an arrow sticking out of his hip. David shouts down to us, “We can’t see whoever shot him.” I mime lying down to him. If they aren’t standing up, they shouldn’t be able to get hit, but if Farshot can shoot through this smoke, who knows what else he can do. If we just sit here, Farshot will fill us all with arrows. I know from playing shooter games over the years, that it’s never a good idea to let the enemy surround you and attack from a position of strength, or worse yet, where they can see you but you can’t see them. We have to dictate the terms of this fight, not them.
I grab Dan and say, “Go! Get close enough to heal him. Leonard, stealth, find Farshot and keep him busy, or better yet kill him. Come on, Kuruk, follow me, let’s give the rest of them a reason not to pay attention to Leonard.”
I run out of the building but take a hard left, hugging the side of the structure, and coming out behind it. No reason to run right down the main road if we don’t have to. After passing two more huts, we come to the village center. A car-sized burning pile of wood in the middle of the twenty-meter circular space releases a pillar of smoke into the air. A line of corpses, lying shoulder to shoulder, runs from a hut on one side of the village center to a shelter on the other side. Two men -- one wearing a black robe and other wearing tan cloth pants and a loosely tied shirt -- bend over the bodies, putting their hands inside pockets and patting down limbs for hidden loot. On the far side, directly across from Kuruk and I, a man with a giant two-handed sword strapped to his back and a leather duster wrapped around his body, sits with his back against the wall of a hut. To one side, a young woman sits. She jerks her arms about in sharp angry gestures, her mouth opening, and closing, in what I imagine is an impassioned speech against their brutality. On the swordsman’s other side, another man sits, rather unremarkable besides the slight white aura surrounding him. Null, Rosebud and Mary Jorgdaughter, most likely.
An archer, with a dozen arrows stuck in the ground, pulls back the drawstring on his massive two and a half meter tall bow, then releases the arrow. A large man with a spiked mace hanging off his belt stands with cross arms over his chest, a slight smile spread across his face. Do we really seem so unthreatening to these people? Maybe Null’s presence is what gives them so much confidence. Or maybe they haven’t seen all of us. They haven’t spotted Kuruk and me, yet.
We shouldn’t attack Null first, that would be a deathwish, forcing his hand into smiting us instead of sticking to his own plan of letting us clear out his allies. Rushing Farshot would get David and Doc out of danger, allowing them to get closer and start releasing fire and ice on the rest of these players, but if that’s Marbles standing next to him, then Kuruk and I might be delayed for too long. The man in a black robe, stooped over the corpses is closest to us, and if he’s Deathhead, the necromancer, he’ll also go down the fastest. That’s our best target.
I tap Kuruk’s shoulder, pointing to Deathhead, then the other looter, likely John, then Marbles and Farshot. He nods his head in agreement and grins, making a kissing motion with his lips before unholstering both his axes. His eyes turn a darker shade of yellow, and the hair on his arms double in number, width, and length. A deep growling sound builds in his chest before he lunges into motion. His long legs carry him nearly to Deathhead’s position before I start to move. He raises both arms above his head and brings his axes down in a chopping motion, one on each side of Deathhead’s neck. A green flare of light burst out from Deathhead, stopping Kuruk’s axes before they reach his skin.
The necromancer stands and says, “Nice try meat, you’ll be sorry when my--” My staff blow to his ankle cuts off his grand denouncement and Kuruk’s next axe blows cut large gashes into his chest. No green flash, his shielding boon must be spent. Before we can swing again, Deathhead’s eyes go green, and two corpses rise in front of him. I know his allies will be here soon, so I grab my staff on one end with both hands, jump, and slam it down between the newly risen corpses, catching Deathhead in the chest and tossing him to the ground. I hope it’s enough to take him out of the fight completely. Kuruk says, “I’ve got these two zombies, you take the rest.”
Gee, thanks. I turn to my right. John walks towards me along the trail of corpses, shortswords in each hand. Marbles and Farshot turn my way. Farshot looks at Null and says, “You going to help?”
“Why? It’s 3v2. If you all can’t win such an easy engagement you don’t deserve to group with me.” Null says.
Great guy that Null. “There are two more up on a building over there. And why only 3v2?” Farshot says.
Null glances to Rosebud and sighs, “Fine, 4v2, Go. Finish these two as fast as you should and it will remain 4v2 when you confront the other two.” He pushes Rosebud towards us.
Marbles runs towards me, his mace held over one shoulder, ready to swing. I plant a leg and Sidekick him, his body flying back four meters with my increased strength. John just walks forward, swords still at his waist. I start Two Handed Spin and hope to deflect enough attacks for Kuruk to finish with his zombies and the rest of the team to arrive.
Snap, an arrow cuts across my right shoulder; my spinning staff must have thrown it off course just enough to miss a more damaging location. John stops only a half meter outside of my spinning staff, regarding the kinetic barrier. He slowly raises a single sword and points it towards me, his face still. As if hearing a starting horn meant only for his ears, John darts the single sword forward, accepting a strike to his own shoulder in return for the tip of his blade lodging in my side. He must have a high Dexterity like myself, and some uncanny ability for timing a strike. I keep spinning my staff, forcing John to step back and deflecting Marble’s first mace strike.
My hitpoint bar decreases twenty percent. Time to stop messing around. I think about my new boons, Energy Sink and Electrical Conversion. My whole body tingles and drops several degrees centigrade. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end; I feel like I’ve just rubbed my feet on the carpet for an hour.
Two wet thumps come from beside me, but I can’t spare any concentration to see how Kuruk fairs with the two zombies. Marbles circles to my right side, attempting to get behind me.
Crap. I stop my Two-Handed Spin, and pause for nearly a second to recover my balance and get my staff into a new position. John notices and steps forward, smoothly striking with both swords in a cutting X motion, drawing two lines across my chest and cutting through my leather armor. I think of Electrical Shunt and sending the energy into John. John jerks and freezes momentarily. Forty percent of the energy he put into cutting me just got sent into his body in the form of electrical energy, awesome.
While he’s frozen I turn back to the right, just in time to dodge out of the way of Marble’s mace. His swings seem slow, but I suspect they will hurt. He had to put his points somewhere if he didn’t put them in Dexterity, and I think that place is Strength.
A sharp pain stabs out from my left shoulder blade.
“Keep her busy boys, one pin cushion coming up,” Farshot says.
The electrical energy I captured from his arrow crackles across my skin. I haven’t shunted it anywhere! I’m not touching Farshot, only his arrow. That leaves me with one option, oh well, might as well try it sometime. I shunt the energy to Bonesy.
“What a delightful sensation, like a tickle in a warm bath,” Bonesy says.
John and Marbles shuffle their feet, stepping back one step with a confused expression on their faces. Bonesy can have that effect on people. What a rip, Chronos said to trust him that shunting energy to Bonesy would be good, how is giving him a warm tickle bath good?
I lash out at Marbles with my staff, doing a modest fifty damage and resetting in time to block a stab from John. Another arrow lodges in my thigh so I shunt more energy to Bonesy. I only have seventy percent of my hitpoints by now, the energy capture and shunting help tremendously, but not enough to keep me alive if Farshot gets enough time to shoot seven more arrows.
John says, “Marbles, on my count, one, two three.” On three, John stabs towards my left side and Marbles swings his mace at my right shoulder. I sway out of the way of John’s sword but Marbles mace crashes into my ribcage. It feels like I got hit by a car, and I barely manage to shunt the energy to Marbles through the pain. He stumbles backward, losing thirty percent of his own hit points.
“She has some sort of static shield, it’s throwing my aim off too.” Marble says.
How could it throw off their aim? I don’t shunt the electricity into their bodies until after they make contact with me. Something doesn’t add up but I don’t have time to think about it. Farshot lands another arrow, this time in my right forearm, I shunt the energy into Bonesy.
“Could really use some help here Kuruk,” I say, glancing at my hitpoint bar, nearly half depleted.
My skull vibrates as I hear the unmistakable roar of a giant bear followed by a loud squish, thump, and another roar. Fur brushes against my back before his bear form passes me and Kuruk swings one giant paw at Marbles. Marbles raises his arm and stops Kuruk’s swipe mid-swing, before pushing the half-ton bear back and swinging his mace into the furry left shoulder -- taking a pound of flesh. He’s stronger than a bear? Marbles must have put nearly all his points into strength. His hitpoints are under fifty percent just from my Electrical Shunt and pushing a bear like that has to require huge amounts of strength.
John punishes my lack of focus, slashing two blades across my calves, and spinning to cut me across each thigh before I can reposition my staff and block his next strikes. I use Electrical Shunt to send some of the damage back into him, but I’m hurting with only thirty percent of my life left. Twenty percent, after Farshot’s next arrow, hits me. John’s hitpoints still show above fifty percent.
I launch into Flurry of Blows, hitting John in the chest with the end of my staff and stunning him. I can’t afford to take any more damage from John before Dan can come heal me. If Farshot lands three arrows while I’m busy keeping John stunned, so be it.
John’s hitpoints surge to one hundred percent, a green glow surrounding his skin. Rosebud lowers his arms. Kuruk roars and I hear the thunk of a mace on flesh but I can’t turn to see how their battle is going while maintaining my Flurry of Blows.
Leonard appears behind Farshot, finally. He raises both daggers in front of him before a black mist envelopes his hands. The mist disappears and reveals a black metal wire connecting each of his dagger handles in place of the blades. Leonard kicks the back of Farshot’s right knee forcing him to fall backward onto Leonard bent knee. Leonard brings his arms forward and then drives them down on each side of Farshot’s neck. His bow falls to the side, forgotten as Farshot tries to grab the black garrotte pushing against his throat. His struggles only get him deep cuts on each hand. Farshot tries to roll to the side but he can only flail his legs, lacking traction with his back forced into Leonard’s knee. Rosebud starts glowing, but before he can invoke a boon to heal Farshot, Leonard forces his arms all the way to the ground, releasing a spray of blood.
Leonard stands, Farshot’s limp corpse falling to the side. Our silent assassin smiles and points at Rosebud, before fading again. Rosebud’s face goes white before he runs back to Null’s side.
John dodges one of my stunning strikes and lashes forward, cutting into my arm and interrupting Flurry of Blows. He flows to my right and feints with both blades, keeping me off balance. I resolve to take the fight to him but before I can strike he accelerates, sliding behind Kuruk and cutting into his back left hamstring. Kuruk’s hindquarters drop to the ground as he bellows in pain.
Kuruk’s hitpoints are only at ten percent! I open my mouth to try and taunt John and Marbles away from him -- my hitpoints are low but not that low, and I have Chronos’s boons to help me absorb and return damage. Marbles, seeing the bear brought down, swings his mace, sinking it into Kuruk’s snout. Kuruk can’t even roar before his mighty form falls onto the ash covered ground.
I scream, leap into the air and slam my staff on the ground. Staff Quake knocks John and Marbles back over a meter, dropping Marble’s health down to five percent. If John hadn’t interfered, Kuruk probably would still be here, and Marbles would lying in the dirt. I launch into Two-Handed Slam, caving in Marble’s chest, then Leg Sweeper, tripping John as he’s trying to stand, then Joint Breaker, Knuckle Crusher and Two-Handed Slam again, my longest Ability Combination yet. John scoots backward on the ground, but I’m not having it. I leap forward, holding my staff vertically in front of me with both hands, and driving it down into John end first. He lies still, no hitpoints left, my staff buried in his stomach.
A warm white glow surrounds me, accompanied by a humming sound and a rise in my hitpoint bar to seventy-five percent. David, Dan, and Doc stand at the edge of the clearing, their eyes wide as they take in the scene.
Null still sits with his back to the largest hut’s door. Rosebud stands next to him, shuffling from foot-to-foot, with Mary on his other side. She clutches a peach colored woven blanket around her shoulders, her chin lifted high. A stack of notifications waits for my attention, but I don’t have time for that now. I walk towards Null, stepping over the line of corpses laid out in the center of the village center.
A reflection from a plate of polished metal on Null’s chest where the edges of his leather duster have parted hits my eye. There’s something strange about his two-handed sword -- it has runes on it. This is really bad.
I’m only two meters from Null now. I stop and say, “Leonard, now would be a good time. Mary, no arguments, run, now.”
Leonard materializes behind Rosebud, he stabs the cleric in the back six times in rapid succession. Rosebud starts to glow and turn towards Leonard, but another six rapid stabbings prove to much for him and he collapses to the ground. Mary hurries past me, going to stand behind Dan, David, and Doc.
Null laughs. “Bright girl.You can leave now and save yourself a death penalty. I would. I’ll just end you and your family tomorrow.” He stands up and brushes the dirt off his leather pants before continuing.
“Where’d you get the sword and breastplate, Null?” I say.
“Why would I tell you?” Null says.
“The chief of this village kept family heirlooms from his ancestors, in the times before they displeased the Gods. The chief said there was a whole civilization here some time ago; he didn’t tell us when. The chief traced his ancestry back to Carver Gorefiend, a warrior so fearsome even their own God feared him.” Mary says.
Null frowns, pulls back his duster, revealing an ornate metal breastplate with etched blue runes and ravens running across the top of the pectoral plates. “A pity his pathetic descendants only managed to save his sword and chestplate; I’ll have to waste all types of time completing the set.”
Null takes the sword off his back and holds it with one arm, spinning it in a circle slowly, like he’s warming up to play sports.
“There will be more villages, more heirlooms, if not entire ruined cities and dungeons. I will find my gear there. I don’t want to fight you now and tomorrow, it’s a waste. Defeating you once is more efficient.” Null says.
I hold up the doll I found earlier. “Did you kill them all? Even the children?”
Null looks confused. “We cleared the village. That’s what you do in games, you clear the area and loot the bodies. I didn’t come across any children myself but they might have.” He points with his sword towards his fallen allies. “Besides, they’re monsters. See the tusks?”
I turn and look closer at the line of corpses. The closest body to me, a man with bushy eyebrows, wide shoulders and a split cranium has two finger width tusks emerging from between his blood coated lips. I scan the row of corpses, they all look adult sized to me.
I tuck the doll back into my belt and turn back to Null. He looks bored.
“Can I take my nap now?” Null says.
“No.” I heft my staff.