The last rays of sunlight shone through the big windows of the crowded common room at the Hive & Harrow, Holgate’s one and only inn. The sunlight lit up the hair of the tall blonde girl sitting across from Phil, creating a halo around her head.
She looked like an angel.
It was either the magical sunlight or the multiple flagons of ale Phil Gardner had quaffed…
“Hey, you guys, here comes Lukas. I think this is it!” The blonde girl grabbed the hands of the recruits on either side of her and squeezed them excitedly.
A few hours ago, Phil and three other recruits had returned from a long day of being twinked by some of the senior members of the Golden Hawks, the most popular and desirable fellowship in the game. There had been a kerfuffle first thing in the morning when their fifth recruit, a little twerp named Justin, somehow managed to get Chad killed and Tyson almost killed by bringing a psycho NPC into their camp. Luckily, there had been a ton of Hawks around the training grounds so Chad got rezzed and Tyson healed up pretty quickly.
After that rough start, they hit the quests hard, and by the end of the day, they had all earned their daily max, and everyone was well beyond halfway to level 2.
Phil couldn’t complain.
“Well, Dannay, how are our little pledges doing?” Lukas strode over with a big smile on his face and put his arm around the tall blonde girl. “Anyone pass out yet?”
“Uh, Linds is looking a little green. She turned towards the mousy-looking girl sitting next to her. “You doing okay, honey?”
“Yeah, just a little tired,” Lindsey said.
“What do you have to be tired about?” asked Seth McCafferty. “You were in the back most of the day.”
Lindsey’s expression darkened. “I am a scout, Seth! I’m supposed to stand in the back!”
“Hey, kids, no drama, okay?” Lukas put his hands on his hips. “You all did outstanding today. Really outstanding. Chad’s very excited for all of you.”
He turned to Phil. “Phil, you did great too, but unfortunately it looks like we’re going to need to pass this time around. Sorry, bro.”
Phil couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Hang on, what are you saying, Lukas? I’m not in the Hawks?”
“It was a tough call. It really was, Phil. You have a lot of potential. It’s just that the slots we have open right now just aren’t a good fit for you.”
“I don’t get it. Tyson said you needed battle mages. I thought I was doing well. I did more damage than anyone else. I took out the ratkin boss—”
Lukas shrugged. “Yeah, I think it was more a chemistry thing. You know, Chad is looking for people who’ll fit in really well. We’re splintering off a few sub-fellowships and he needs everything to be pretty tight.”
Phil looked around at the other recruits around the table. The only way they could be ‘fitting in’ better was because they were young. This was bullshit.
He drained his beer and stood up.
Lukas said, “Listen, Phil. For what it’s worth, you can keep the staff and bracers. They’re good until you hit level 3.”
“What am I supposed to do now?”
The tall blonde, Dannay, came over. “I heard that the Twitch Bitches are looking for a baby battle mage. They’re up in Northfleet, and they recruit out of Skelheim. You should go up there and see what’s up.”
Phil felt numb inside. He couldn’t even think straight.
“Yeah, Doni Sullivan is the leader. It used to be all girls, but they’re starting to let guys in. And she’s your age. You guys would totally hit it off.”
“There’s a caravan leaving soon,” Lukas said. “Heading north to Marby. Jump on that, bro. Good luck.”
An hour later, Phil found himself walking beside a string of six wagons along with a dozen NPCs—mostly guards and drovers. They were on the road to Marby, a narrow track that ran between the edge of the forest and the river.
The caravan master said they would stop for the night in about an hour and a half. Holgate was too small to accommodate all the wagons, so they needed to camp outside of the village tonight. He assured Phil that they would make it to Marby tomorrow. And the caravan master predicted that the fresh-baked trout pie at the Whiskered Piffle would make Phil forget all about the hardships of the road.
Yeah, but would it make him forget being dumped by the Golden Hawks because he was too friggin’ old?
But he didn’t feel old, that was the thing. Since entering the game yesterday, he felt great. Better than great. He felt like he was 25 again. Or 30 at the most. His back didn’t hurt, his feet didn’t hurt, and he had perfect vision—even without his glasses. Plus, last night was the first time he had slept through the entire night without waking up and having to take a piss. He was strong. He was solid. Chad made a big mistake by not taking him on.
Maybe that kid Justin was right to jump ship.
The horses plodded along and Phil plodded right there with them. He looked up at the night sky as he walked. It was cool seeing a night sky free of satellites and planes and drones. Just stars. Just the way it was supposed to be. And the air was so clear, and everything smelled so good.
He should just forget about the Golden Hawks—not even let it get to him. It would be interesting to see Marby. One of the guards had told him that Marby was twice the size of Holgate. And the city of Northfleet, which was way up there to the north, was ten or twenty times as large. That would be cool to see sometime.
Eventually the caravan master called for everyone to stop and make camp not far from the shore of the river. It took about an hour to get everything settled. Phil helped rub down the horses and do some other chores in exchange for the use of an extra bedroll and some dinner. By midnight, the camp was quiet, and Phil gazed into the flames of the campfire until he fell asleep.
The sounds of shouting and screaming woke Phil up. The camp was under attack. At first, he thought he was dreaming, but then he caught a glimpse of a big warrior dressed in black running his sword through one of the caravan guards.
Phil scrambled under a wagon and shook his head to try to clear it. It took him a few moments to make sense of everything.
In the half light of dawn, Phil could see a handful of attackers—all big sturdy-looking guys dressed in black banded armor. One had a crossbow, a few more had swords, and there was at least one battle mage, blasting away with magic bolts. They were decimating the guards and drovers.
But who were these guys?
He quickly inspected the closest one.
:::::. Francis O’Neil. (Scout). Player, Level — .:::::
That was weird. He was a player, but his level wasn’t showing up.
Phil didn’t have time to inspect anyone else because the scout spotted him and yelled out, “There’s one under the wagon!”
Crapola! Phil tried to scurry out the other side, but one of the big men cut him off.
“What do we have here?”
Phil inspected him.
:::::. Rod Marcino. (Warrior). Player, Level — .:::::
Another guy without a level. This was very strange.
Before, Phil could do anything, Marcino grabbed the front of his tunic and dragged him out from beneath the wagon.
“Who the hell are you, grandpa?”
“Me? No one?”
“Everyone’s someone,” another of the attackers said.
“I’m just a guy. A newbie. I was trying to get to Marby.”
Marcino glanced over at the other attacker and grinned a chilling grin, then turned back to Phil.
“Hmmm, well, I wouldn’t count on that, old man.”
And then he slammed his fist into Phil’s face.
When Phil regained consciousness, he couldn’t move. And he was staring at the boots of the attackers.
Son of a booger!
He was buried up to his head in the ground.
“He’s awake,” one of the men said.
“Hey! Let me out!” Phil yelled.
“No can do, hoss,” Marcino said. “We need you out of commission for a few days. You’re too weeny to die. That wouldn’t work, would it now?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Maybe you do or maybe you don’t. We just can’t take that chance.” He turned to one of the other men. “Hit him, VH.”
“Gladly. I’ve been itching to try out enfeeble.”
Enfeeble? Phil recognized that spell, but it was a 10th level DoT spell. This didn’t make sense. No one in the game was powerful enough to cast 10th level spells. Not yet. He quickly inspected the mage.
:::::. Ed Van Hester. (Battle Mage). Player, Level — .:::::
Another guy with no level. Very odd.
Motes of mystical light swirled from the battle mage’s hands and then he made a sharp gesture towards Phil. The swirls of light turned into what looked like a swarm of black flies. They streamed towards him and Phil shuddered as the flies flew into his face, buzzing inside his nose and mouth.
A scream erupted from Phil’s throat but was cut off as the magical insects clogged his windpipe.
And then he felt all the life drain from his body.
But in the throes of agony, some small part of his mind realized the truth. Not all of his life would be taken from him. The enfeeble left its victims the tiniest spark of life energy (and magical energy). Just enough to prevent Phil from slipping away and rezzing at the nearest Life Tree.
“Gag him and let’s get going,” commanded Marcino. “We’ve got to get to the gate before dawn.”
A rough wad of cloth was stuffed in Phil’s mouth and another was pulled tight around his head. And then one of the men laughed and placed an empty crate upside down over Phil’s head, shrouding him in darkness.
After a time, the sound of the men faded away and the only thing Phil could hear was the pounding of his own heart.
Hours passed, maybe days. He had no idea.
He wondered what would become of him and how long he would be stuck here—just barely alive. Phil vaguely remembered something he had read: you can survive three weeks without food, but only three days without water. If Greystrand worked like the real world, that meant he could be stuck here, buried, for three days before he became dehydrated enough to die.
Three days. That was a long time. Maybe he’d go insane before then.
He tried to cast a spell, a magic bolt, but nothing happened. He didn’t have enough energy.
Eventually he must have fallen asleep, or passed out, or something. But then he woke up when he felt something crawling on his cheek.
He shook his head violently and knocked the bug off. Then he tried to go to sleep again. How many days had it been?
At some point, he felt his mind wander away.
Phil pictured himself back home in Peoria in the little house he grew up in on West Hanssler Place. He imagined himself walking to school, down the tree-lined boulevard that ran through his Center Bluffs neighborhood. Even in April they had some humid mornings, and Phil could feel the warm air and hear the chirping of crickets and other insects.
Sometimes, if he was early for school, he would stop by Henry Olin’s house, and sit on Henry’s front stoop waiting for his friend to come down. If Henry was running late, Phil would take a library book from his backpack and read for a while.
One of the first books he remembered reading was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Even at age eight, Phil didn’t find anything scary about the story of the little girl and her dog being transported to a magical world. On the contrary, he thought it was the coolest thing ever.
He visualized himself in a hot air balloon floating far above the countryside. Below him were fields and orchards and dusty roads with wagons every once in a while. The clouds parted and a shaft of warm sunlight touched his face. It felt comforting and filled him with hope.
But then a storm rolled in. The clouds clenched and swirled and the balloon’s basket began to lurch. Phil grabbed on to the sides, trying to steady himself.
Could this be a storm… a storm that would send him to another world?
The wind blew furiously and he felt it whipping against his face.
Wake up, wake up, wake up…
Phil opened his eyes and saw a Chinese man kneeling over him.
The man slapped him.
“Hey!” Phil croaked out.
“Get me out of here.”
“I need to heal you first.”
There was a chiming sound and all of a sudden Phil felt better. Less dead.
But the Chinese man frowned. “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you heal?”
He scrambled to try to dig Phil out.
“Hang on.” The man stood and stepped away.
“Don’t leave me!” Phil cried.
But the man returned a minute later with a length of wood pried from one of the wagons. He used it as a shovel and twenty minutes later Phil was free of his earthen grave.
The man was a healer and his name was Ni Tien, but he told Phil to call him Ten-Spot.
“How did you find me?” Phil asked. He was slumped on the ground and could barely talk, let alone move.
“I don’t know, man,” Ten-Spot said. “I saw the wagons. Everything broken, destroyed. I wondered, ‘what the hell went on here.’ Then I saw the box.”
“The box over your head, dumb ass!”
Phil started to laugh and then his side hurt.
Ten-Spot said, “There’s something wrong with you, man. I tried to heal you several times, but it didn’t work.”
“They cast an enfeeble spell on me.”
Ten-Spot shook his head, not understanding.
“It’s a DoT—damage-over-time. It keeps draining my health and my energy.”
“How do we stop it?”
That was an excellent question. Phil had no idea. Maybe find an enchanter who could dispel the magic. Who knew?
“We need to get to Marby,” he said. “Maybe there’s someone who could help me there. An enchanter.”
Ten-Spot nodded. “I don’t have a horse. We’re going to have to walk. But don’t worry. I’ll keep you alive.”
It took them nearly ten hours, but they eventually arrived at the town of Marby. Phil felt more dead than alive, but he would have been all dead if it wasn’t for Ten-Spot healing him every hour or so.
“Thanks, man. I mean it.”
“We’ll find an enchanter for you,” Ten-Spot said.
They got lucky at the Fin and Sickle tavern on Maberon Street. After inspecting all the patrons, Phil found a 5th level enchanter named Ursula Crowley. She was tall and thin with frizzy red hair and a pale complexion.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked.
Ten-Spot said, “A bad mage attacked him. Hit him with something really nasty. It keeps draining him, so I can’t heal him all the way.”
Ursula tilted her head. “Did you say drains? That’s not good.”
Phil slumped in a seat near the bar and caught his breath. He felt incredibly weak.
Ursula examined him.
“You’re right,” she said. “He’s got a DoT on him. It’s pretty powerful too. I don’t think I can dispel it on my own.”
“Enfeeble,” Phil croaked.
“He cast an enfeeble spell on me.”
“That’s a tenth level spell. What kind of mob did you go up against?”
Phil shook his head. “Not a mob, a player.”
Eventually, with the help of two other enchanters, Ursula was able to dispel the enfeeble spell and Ten-Spot and another healer got Phil back up to full health. He was still starving and dehydrated, so they moved over to a big round table and got some food.
After several helpings of potato and onion soup and chicken pie, Phil started to feel somewhat normal again.
“So start at the beginning,” Ursula said. “Who were these guys?”
“I told you, I had no idea. They attacked us in the middle of the night.”
“Yes. I was the only player in the group. Everyone else with the caravan was an NPC. They were all slaughtered.”
Ursula pursed her lips. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Phil went on to describe how when he inspected the attackers, their level came up as blank.
“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” Ursula said. “Did they say anything to you?”
“Just kind of taunted me. Called me ‘old man.’ Stuff like that.”
“What were they after? Was there some special cargo in the wagons?”
“Not that I know of.,” Phil said. “I just was traveling with the caravan for protection. A lot of good that did me.”
They talked and conjectured for another hour or so, and then Ursula took her leave.
Phil turned to Ten-Spot. “I never asked where you were headed.”
“Uh, Cotter’s Mill, I think.”
“What’s in Cotter’s Mill?”
“Hopefully a fellowship that will accept Chinese people.”
Ten-Spot told Phil how he had tried to get into the Golden Hawks, but Chad made it pretty clear to Ten-Spot that he’d be better off with an Asian fellowship.
Phil shook his head. “What a tool.”
“I know, right?”
“The Hawks wouldn’t accept me because I’m too old. Can you believe that? How old do you think I am?”
Ten-Spot looked him up and down. “Fifty?”
“Forty-six! Do I really look fifty to you?”
“You have an old face!” Ten-Spot grinned.
“Gee, thanks. You know what we should do? We should start our own fellowship of guys who weren’t accepted by the Golden Hawks.”
Ten-Spot nodded. “The Rejects!”
Phil said, “The Golden Rejects!”
They both laughed.
“I need new clothes,” Phil said. “These are pretty much shot.”
“You might want to get a bath while you’re at it,” Ten-Spot said. “You reek, bro.”
“Yeah? You try spending an entire day buried up to your chin and see how you smell.”
They left the tavern and wandered through Marby. It was a bustling town with several market squares and much more substantial buildings than Holgate. The streets were all cobblestone and everything looked well-cared for and secure. Near the center of town was a large pavilion with covered walkways and fountains. There Phil found a bathhouse as well as a few shops where he bought new clothes and boots.
The afternoon went by quickly and Phil felt more normal with each passing hour. He really liked Ten-Spot and the conversation flowed easily, even though Ten-Spot was a good twenty years younger than Phil. They mostly talked about Greystrand and OmniWorld and some of the other games they had played, since there was an unspoken rule among gamers not to ask too many questions about real life, or—as the kids say—RL.
At as the sky darkened, they sought out a tavern to get something to drink, but the sound of singing from a place called the Stone Finder’s Inn caught their attention.
Inside, a wandering minstrel sat on a small makeshift stage and entertained the inn’s patrons. At a break between songs, Phil and Ten-Spot found a table near the front of the common room. The minstrel nodded to them with a welcoming smile. He was a young man with red hair, and as he tuned his lute, Phil thought there was something familiar about the guy. He sang with a strong voice.
“Sit in silence, for I shall sing
The tale of a land both far and near
Where motes of time like birds take wing
And shadows form a gossamer bridge
See the moon dance betwixt the spheres
And crystal stars glitter as night diamonds
While the wisest among us marks his fears
Beyond a veil of iron and of tears.”
They listened to the minstrel for a few hours, captivated by his songs and then Phil left a generous tip for the young man.
“Thank you kindly, sir,” the minstrel said as he wiped down the strings of his lute with a cloth and began to pack it into a sturdy-looking case.
“I really liked that song about the old man who discovers the faerie kingdom and becomes young again,” Phil said. “That was something.”
“The Lay of Wulf is an ancient tale to be sure, but it gladdens me that I was able to bring new life to it.”
“Well, you know what they say. If it’s new to you, that’s all that matters.”
The minstrel looked at Phil intently. “It appears that you yourself have seen some trouble of late, good sir.”
“How did you know?”
“Your eyes tell a sad tale.”
“Yeah, well. I actually did have a run-in with some criminals on the road south of here.”
“They messed him up pretty bad,” Ten-Spot added.
The minstrel nodded and then reached in his lute case and withdrew a small object. “For you,” he said and handed it to Phil.
It was a small bell, made of copper or bronze, and tarnished with age. Phil turned it over and saw that a scrap of leather had been jammed into the bottom to prevent the bell from ringing.
“Thanks,” he said automatically.
“A man rather like Wulf gave it to me once. Told me it might provide an escape from danger.” He nodded knowingly.
Okay… this was a bit odd, but Phil decided to go with it.
“I appreciate it,” he said, and tucked the bell into his belt pouch.
“And now I must take my leave,” the minstrel said, as he pulled a cloak over his shoulders. “The road is long and winding and, in truth, I’m not certain where it will lead me this night.”
“You travel at night?” Ten-Spot asked. “That seems crazy.”
The minstrel shrugged. “Sometimes the night shelters villains, sometimes it shelters good men. Good luck and I hope to see you soon.” With that, he took his leave.
“Well, that was interesting,” Phil said.
“Yeah, and at least you got a bell out of it.”
“I know. Maybe it’ll be a lucky token.”
They hung out for another hour or so and then exhaustion finally caught up with Phil. He told Ten-Spot that he wanted to pay for his lodging.
“No way, man. I’m good. I’ve got plenty of loot.”
“I insist. It’s the least I can do. If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be buried in the ground, an inch away from being worm food.”
Phil got them two rooms and they agreed to meet in the common room the next morning.
“Good night, Ten-Spot, and thank you again,” Phil said.
“Don’t worry about it, bro. I just feel lucky that I wasn’t the one who ran into those assholes.”
Phil’s room was small and drafty, but the bed itself was soft and relatively clean. After his ordeal, he’d be happy enough sleeping on a rock—as long as he was above ground.
Of course, he didn’t dream. He was getting used to that by now, but the experience of sleeping like a baby all through the night was unfamiliar to him. And it was vaguely unsettling to wake up in the morning without any sensation of time passing. It was like he closed his eyes at night and then opened them a second later and it was morning.
Oh well. He did feel rested. That was something.
Phil got out of his bed and pulled on his new clean clothes. After splashing some water on his face and using the privy in the yard, he returned to the common room where Ten-Spot was already digging into a breakfast of fresh-baked barley bread, cold sausage, and a hard cheese which kind of tasted like cheddar but was pink-colored.
“You sleep okay?” Phil asked.
“If you call that sleeping…”
“I know. It’s pretty odd. Well, I guess you can’t dream inside of a dream, right?”
Phil noticed that his friend looked a little down. “You okay?” he asked.
Ten-Spot stabbed a piece of sausage with his knife and popped it into his mouth. “Yeah,” he said with his mouth full. “Just getting used to things.”
“I’m right there with you. I mean, the first couple of days everything was amazing, but what I went through yesterday…” He sighed loudly. “That’s not going to be good feedback for the guys who run this place.”
Ten-Spot nodded, but he didn’t say anything.
“Anyway, I was thinking. I don’t really know anything about this fellowship in Skelheim and don’t really care one way or another, so how’s about I come with you to Cotter’s Mill?”
“But didn’t you have something lined up already?”
“Nope, not at all. The Hawks were just throwing me a crumb. Or maybe a line of bullshit. I’m not sure which.”
Ten-Spot thought for a moment, then he asked, “You sure? Cotter’s Mill is a long haul—clear on the other side of the Loop.”
“What’s the Loop?”
“There’s a map in the hall. I’ll show you.”
After paying for their meals, Phil and Ten-Spot went out into the front hall, where a large framed map of the area was mounted on one wall across from a row of windows.
“How did I miss this on the way in?”
“I don’t know, man. I think that’s why this place is so popular. Here’s what I was talking about.”
Ten-Spot pointed to where they were now. “Here’s Marby. Then Skelheim, Vexham, and Cotter’s Mill. It makes a big loop. Someone told me that all these towns are between ten and fifteen miles apart.”
Phil said, “It was twenty miles from Holgate to here, according to the caravan guys at least.”
“Yeah, but you can see right here that the northern towns are closer together.”
Phil extended his fingers between Marby and Skelheim and did some rough measurements. It was tough because the road snaked at one point, but it looked like it was close to twenty miles to Skelheim.
But as he roughly measured the distance between Skelheim and Vexham and Cotter’s Mill and even Jodrell, he saw that Ten-Spot was right. The northern towns were closer together. But it looked like it was at least 40 miles from Marby to Cotter’s Mill. Several days travel at least.
Then he got an idea.
“What if we just cut across, straight west?” Phil asked. “Look, Cotter’s Mill is almost directly opposite us.”
Ten-Spot moved closer to the map. “Uh, what about this?” He pointed to an area about ten miles west of Marby.
“These are mountains, bro. Or at least big hills. No wonder the road goes north and not west.”
Phil took a step closer and saw some faint lines on the map. Ten-Spot was right. They were mountains for sure, but the lines had faded in the sunlight.
“Hmm, I guess you’re right.”
It looked like the hills or mountains or whatever they were extended clear up to Skelheim. Except…
“Look at this. It’s a pass right through the mountains.” There was definitely a break with a road or a path or something running in a squiggle between them.
Ten-Spot squinted and traced the faint dotted line with his finger. “I think you’re right.”
“That could save us a half day at least, maybe more,” Phil said. “And it would keep us off of the road.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
Phil shrugged. “It is if it means we can avoid those guys who kicked my ass.”
“I don’t know, man. You’re only level one and I’m just level two—”
“What? You made level two already? Wow. Congratulations, buddy.”
“Yeah, but now I’m a day behind because I saved your sorry ass!” Ten-Spot smiled at him.
“Well, I’m two days behind, at least. And I bet we’ll get some decent experience by going that way. Heck, we might even get some exploration bonuses. That wouldn’t be too bad, would it?”
“If we survived…”
“Of course we’ll survive. We’re not talking about the Dark Tree here. Skelheim and Cotter’s Mill are both starter towns like Holgate. The mobs will all be level one. Probably the worst thing we’d see out there are ratkins.”
“We’d be crazy to do this.” Ten-Spot was trying to keep a straight face, but Phil could tell that his friend was into the idea.
“I don’t see any downside, Ten-Spot, my friend. Even if we do run into something that could kill us, we’ll just rez at the nearest Life Tree. No big deal.”
“Except losing stuff. Don’t forget about that.”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have much to lose. And besides I know a hack we can use.”
“What do you mean ‘hack?’”
“When I was adventuring with the Golden Hawks, this one girl Lindsey was getting killed a lot. So one of the guys—maybe it was Lukas—told us that you can prevent the game from taking all your money by converting it to expensive clothing.”
“What?” Ten-Spot’s eyes widened.
“I’m serious. The game won’t take your clothes, no matter how much you die. So you buy really expensive clothes as a hedge.”
“I’m still not getting you.”
Phil took a deep breath and spoke slowly, like Ten-Spot was one of his students. “You buy expensive clothes. That means most of your wealth is on your body. And if you die, you don’t lose those clothes. Then once you’re in a safe place, you sell your expensive clothes, and maybe take a little hit on the transaction, but it’s a lot better than losing half your money every time you croak.”
Finally, realization dawned on Ten-Spot’s face. “That’s genius!”
“It sure is. The only issue is that it doesn’t work in starter towns because they don’t have really expensive clothing vendors. But we’re in Marby. That place we went to yesterday had shirts with gold embroidery and ruffles that cost as much as a horse.”
They spent the next hour or so shopping. Between them they had close to 2200 gold. That ended up buying some seriously expensive clothes.
“You look like a pimp, bro!” Ten-Spot exclaimed once Phil had changed into his suede jacket, silk britches, gold-encrusted belt, and velvet cap.
Ten-Spot sported a maroon suit and a sash with a black cape. He twirled his cape like a superhero. “Sweet!”
In addition to their fine threads, they scored some basic equipment, including a tent, bedrolls, mess kits, three days of rations, and a rope and grapple. Phil had just enough left to buy a potion of healing, which would come in handy in case Ten-Spot got seriously injured and was unable to heal him.
They also spent an hour looking for quest givers, but everyone—from the captain of the guard to a crazy beggar—told them they’d have better luck in Holgate or Skelheim.
“I guess that’s what we get for playing out of our zone,” Phil said.
Ten-Spot adjusted his cape. “I don’t care about grinding. I’m kind of over that. This thing we’re doing—exploring, seeking adventure—that’s what this game is really about. I’m really glad you talked me into this.”
“I talked you into this?” Phil smiled. “I thought it was your idea!”
Ten-Spot laughed. “Let’s get going. We only have about seven or eight hours of light left.” He handed Phil a loaded backpack. “Here, you get the heavy bag. You’re bigger than me.”
“No problemo, my friend. No problemo at all.”
They friended each other and grouped so they could monitor each other’s stats and then set off.
Less than a mile north of Marby, the road forked. Straight north, about 20 miles was Northfleet, one of the three largest cities in Greystrand. But off to the northwest, the road twisted into foothills. This was the way to Skelheim and also to the pass that was a shortcut to Cotter’s Mill.
They hit their first bit of trouble in the late afternoon, maybe five hours out of Marby.
The sun was nearly on top of the rocky ridge that ran parallel to the road, and Phil and Ten-Spot walked in silence, having run out of things to say to each other.
Phil kept himself busy by trying to notice as much as possible about his surroundings: the tree bark scored by elk antlers, the little forget-me-nots that only grew on one side of the road, the damp, earthy smell that seemed to get stronger whenever the road dipped into a valley.
Because he was paying attention, Phil happen to notice some movement on the ridge fifty yards up. He wasn’t sure what he saw exactly because he was looking right into the sun. It could have been a goat, or a small deer, or some sort of monster.
But everything became clear ten seconds later when he heard the thwang of a bow and felt an arrow whiz between him and Ten-Spot.
“Holy shit!” Ten-Spot cried. “Get down!”
Another arrow flew at them, missing Phil’s leg by less than a yard.
“They’re shooting at us!”
“I know! We need to find cover.” Phil’s eyes darted around frantically, trying to find someplace safe.
“This way!” Ten-Spot called.
With arrows flying past him, the healer sprinted towards a big boulder under a thick oak tree on the side of the road, about 40 feet behind them. It was the only cover in the area.
Phil glanced up at the ridge trying to get a bead on the archer, but it was too damn bright. And he was too far away to inspect.
“Phil!” Ten-Spot had taken shelter behind the boulder and was motioning for Phil to get over there.
Whoosh! This time the arrow was so close it actually knocked his new cap off his head.
Son of a bitch! That was expensive!
Heart pounding, he sprinted in zig-zag pattern, trying to make himself less of a target.
“Hurry!” Ten-Spot yelled.
He was almost at the boulder, when the realization dawned on him.
The archer was missing on purpose.
He was only 50 yards away and he’d already shot a half dozen arrows. But none had hit.
This was a trap!
“Ten-Spot, get out of there!”
But it was too late.
A weighted net dropped down from the tree, ensnaring Ten-Spot, and then a man wielding a club jumped down from the tree right on top of Ten-Spot.
The attacker ignored him—just savagely started pounding on Ten-Spot.
Rage coursed through Phil’s body. He threw his hands out and concentrated on casting a magic bolt at the attacker. This was going to be close. He knew that there was a good chance that he’d hit Ten-Spot, but there weren’t any other options available.
Phil felt a tingle that ran down from his shoulders to his hands and then a morphing ball of magical plasma energy winked into existence at his fingertips. A second later it flew away from his hands towards the attacker and exploded into the man’s chest.
Direct hit! He must have rolled a 20 with that shot!
The attacker flew backward, knocked off his feet, and sprawled on the ground, motionless.
“Hang on, Ten-Spot!”
Bloody and obviously injured, Ten-Spot still struggled to free himself from the net.
Phil raced over towards his friend, but he didn’t get more than ten feet before a sharp pain exploded in his shoulder and causing him to stumble to the ground in agony.
He’d been shot!
The arrow hadn’t impaled him—it sliced through the edge of his arm, but the pain was excruciating. Phil took a deep breath and tried to concentrate. He needed to cast one more spell before he passed out.
His mind focused. Ran through the vertices. Channeled the energy.
And he felt it. His skin hardened like clay, then wood, then metal, then stone.
Another arrow hit him—right between his shoulder blades. But this time, it just glanced off him.
But Phil had an idea.
He let out a groan and threw himself down on the ground like he had been dealt a death blow. Then he closed his eyes almost shut and focused on not moving a muscle.
“Phil!” Ten-Spot croaked in a hoarse voice.
“Play dead!” Phil hissed.
Ten-Spot collapsed in a heap and lay motionless.
They both kept still for several minutes and then Phil heard footsteps on the dirt road.
“Graydon?” a voice called. “You okay, mate?”
The footsteps drew closer.
Phil prepared his spell. Focused on the target. Fourteen feet in back of him, slightly to the left.
He rolled and aimed at the bowman.
The bolt crackled through the air and slammed into the target.
Another direct hit!
The bowman’s insides exploded as if he had been microwaved—splashing guts and viscera everywhere.
:::::. Victory! +300 Experience .:::::
Phil scrambled to his feet and limped over to Ten-Spot.
“I got him! We’re in the clear!”
But Ten-Spot remained still.
Phil untangled his friend from the net, but Ten-Spot’s body was limp. Phil kneeled down and felt for a pulse.
“Hang on, buddy!”
Maybe he could revive him with the healing potion. He focused on Ten-Spot and said the word ‘group’ to himself. An overlay popped up:
:::::. Group: Ni Tien (Dead) .:::::
Damn it! It was too late.
Phil almost lost his balance and his vision started to go dark. With his last remaining bit of strength, he pulled the cork from the healing potion and downed it.
Immediately life force surged through his body and he felt the pain wash off him.
Off on the side of the road, the attacker with the club groaned as he started to regain consciousness.
Oh no you don’t.
With newfound energy Phil snatched up the club and positioned himself over the man.
“No!” the man cried.
But it was too late. Phil’s face twisted into a mask of rage and he smashed the club down on the attacker. Over and over again until the man was a bloody, pulpy mess.
Then Phil staggered back, catching his breath.
:::::. Victory! +300 Experience .:::::
This was too real. Way too real.
He vomited suddenly, just barely missing his expensive trousers. Then he fell back on his butt and just sat there. For what seemed like hours.
Eventually Phil noticed that it was getting dark. He was worried that he hadn’t heard from Ten-Spot. He had no idea where the nearest Life Tree was.
He decided he should make camp somewhere near the road in case Ten-Spot decided to walk back and try to find him. But he didn’t want to camp right here near the corpses of the highwaymen. In fact, he was so grossed out by the one he had bludgeoned, he didn’t even try to loot him. But he did check the body of the archer and took a pouch of 700 gold and a jeweled dagger. That should more than make up for the arrow hole in his new hat.
Phil hiked another hundred yards or so northwest and found a flat spot off the road. Then he made a campfire and pitched the tent.
C’mon, Ten-Spot. Come back safe.
He decided to check the group’s status again. This time the overlay popped up something different:
:::::. Group: Ni Tien (Undamaged, Energized) .:::::
Well, crap in a handbag, at least he was alive!
“Message to Ni Tien: Where are you, buddy? I managed to survive and take those assholes out. We got 700 gold and a fine-looking dagger. I’ve set up camp just up the road from where they ambushed us. Let me know when you are on your way.”
Phil sat on a rock near the campfire and ate his rations. That encounter was pretty close. But he was feeling pretty uber for surviving. He should have inspected the bodies of those highwaymen. Maybe they were even level three.
After his dinner, Phil walked around the perimeter of the camp to make sure nothing was stalking him. Then he stretched out on his bedroll and rested. His plan was to stay away until Ten-Spot returned, but after a few hours his exhaustion got the better of him and he fell asleep.
Phil woke up freezing and damp, but alive. The morning light was gray and dim and could barely penetrate the rain and and the mist that had enveloped the road.
After pulling on his boots, Phil ventured outside of the tent to take a piss and look for Ten-Spot.
This was really weird. He should have been back by now. Unless he rezzed back in Holgate or something.
Phil popped up his group overlay, but got an error message instead:
:::::. No Group Available .:::::
What the heck? What had happened to their group?
“Message to Ni Tien: Hey did you get into trouble walking back? Message me. I just got a weird error for our group.”
He broke down the tent and tried to shake off as much water as possible, but there was no way around it, he was going to be wet today. After packing up as best he could, Phil decided to walk back to where they had been ambushed. But when he arrived at the boulder and the big oak tree, there was no sign of his attackers. The bodies were gone. The net was gone. And even the arrows were gone.
Phil smiled to himself. This place must have some pretty efficient night janitors.
Well, shoot. What to do?
He could go back to Marby. He could definitely make it back today. Or he could continue on the road to Skelheim. As best as he could remember, it was about ten miles to the north.
Or he could continue with the original plan and try to find the pass. That’s what he should do. If the map wasn’t totally wrong and the pass existed, he could wait for Ten-Spot there. Otherwise, they’d just take the long way up through Skelheim.
As he hiked, Phil munched on some of the rations he had purchased yesterday. They were some weird kind of energy bar made of dates and grain. More of a log than a bar and kind of tough to eat. Would it have killed them to put a little chocolate in?
An hour later, he saw another traveler: a young woman with short blonde hair riding a chestnut-colored horse south towards Marby.
:::::. Calista Leifer. (Enchanter). Player, Level 4 .:::::
He flagged her down.
“What’s up?” She looked at him kind of suspiciously and kept her distance.
“Sorry to bother you, but I’ve never been on this road before.”
“I could have guessed that.”
“I was just wondering if you knew anything about a pass that led to a shortcut to Cotter’s Mill.”
Phil explained about the map in the inn and how he and Ten-Spot had seen the pass, but Calista didn’t know anything about it.
“I’d stick to the roads if I was you—especially at your level. You shouldn’t even be up here.”
Phil wanted to ask more questions, but Calista said that she was late and took off at a brisk trot. But before she got too far away, she turned in the saddle and cast a spell on him.
“Just in case!” she called and then rode away.
Phil inspected himself and noticed he had a nice protection buff. Cool.
He continued hiking and keeping his eye on the rocky cliffs to the west. He didn’t know much about geology, but the cliffs looked like they could be basalt or some other volcanic rock.
Then an alert popped up.
:::::. New message from Ni Tien. Listen? .:::::
He heard Ten-Spot’s voice saying “Hey, Phil. I’m really sorry about not getting back to you. I wasn’t exactly sure how this message thing even worked, but Keith showed me how. Anyway, so I actually got this new quest up here in Skeheim—which is an awesome place by the way. And these guys from the Cabal of Correctitude are going to help me out. It’s the first big healer questline and I get some sort of phylactery thing at the end of it—which is cool. So, it doesn’t look like I’m going to Cotter’s Mill any time soon. I hope I didn’t totally mess up your plans. Let’s keep in touch. I’m sure we’ll meet up again. Thanks, man! See you!”
Aw, man that sucked. Phil felt like he’d been sucker punched. He thought Ten-Spot was his friend.
Well, that’s probably the way things worked here. Everyone was kind of out for themselves.
Oh well. What could he do?
Eventually, the rain let up and the mist started to burn off revealing a stunning view to the east. From his vantage point up on the ridge, Phil saw a wild meadow that stretched below him for miles, dotted with colorful wildflowers. Beyond that was a huddle of low hills with forested ridges of four shades of green. And even farther to the east rose sharp, primeval mountains with jagged peaks that touched the clouds.
It was like being in a freaking Lord of the Rings movie.
Best of all, right up ahead was the pass.
He almost missed it because it was just a dark gash in the cliff face, no more than ten feet wide, but there was definitely a path there.
Whoah, this was intense. It was like a super-narrow canyon overhung with vegetation. Phil took a few tentative steps inside and immediately felt a change in temperature. In the shadowy gap, the air was cold and damp.
He couldn’t really tell how far the path extended. It could be miles. But he was heartened to see both bootprints and horses’ hoof prints. At least someone had been through here recently.
What the hell and why not? He had nothing else to do. And, as Ten-Spot said before he flaked out, this game was supposed to be about adventure. And what was more adventurous than taking a mysterious dark path through the mountains?
Phil hiked as quickly as he could through the pass. It wasn’t just that it was cold and spooky in here. He was also worried about having to spend the night in such a confined place. He had heard stories about hikers being drowned in slot canyons in Zion National Park and it was making him a little nervous. What if it started raining again?
He pushed the thought out of his mind and forged ahead, not even stopping for lunch or anything. Phil must have gone four or five miles, but there was no end in sight.
Maybe this was a mistake.
Well, there was not much he could do about it now. He needed to continue onward. And, who knew? The canyon could open up after the next turn.
But it didn’t.
If anything, it grew darker and more oppressive. Little dribbles of waterfalls dotted the canyon walls, and the path he was on became softer and muddier. He was still able to see the tracks of whoever came before him, but that was only a small assurance.
Noon came and went and as he hiked, Phil noticed that the sun sunk lower and lower in the sky. He completely lost track of time.
Up on the ridge on either side of him, the shadows started to play tricks on him. He wasn’t sure if he was being stalked by giant dire wolves, poised to pounce, or if the shapes were simply rocks and bushes.
He received an alert that the protection spell Calista had cast on him was almost expired.
Now he had nothing.
And then he saw something that froze his heart.
A huge section of shadow—maybe 100 feet tall—just moved unnaturally.
Phil staggered back and had to prop himself against the canyon wall.
The shadow separated from the wall and all of a sudden, Phil could see massive tentacles snake out in all directions. And then the creature itself emerged. It was gargantuan—the size of a ten-story building with snake-like tentacles as thick as telephone poles. It looked vaguely like an octopus, but it had a wide, almost horned head and two eyes that smoldered red.
Those eyes quickly found Phil and the creature moved closer, its tentacles slapping on to sections of rock, dislodging boulders and scrubby bushes.
This was bad. This was really bad. The thing moved so quickly, he could never outrun it. He quickly activated his overlay and inspected the creature.
:::::. Katulu. (Legendary). Hostile. .:::::
Phil’s eyes darted around, looking for a place to hide, to hole up in, until the katulu passed.
He spotted what looked like a little cave, but it was actually closer to the monster, at the base of the northern cliff. But it looked like that was his only option because there was no shelter behind him, just open canyon.
Phil took a deep breath and cast stoneskin on himself—not that a level one spell could actually protect him from that monstrosity.
More boulders bounced off stone ledges as the katulu moved closer.
It was now or never!
He sprinted forward, trying to keep his body low—
But all of a sudden his ankle wrenched in pain and he went flying, plowing face-first into the sandy ground. As he struggled to get back up, he saw that his belt pouch had come loose and his possessions were scattered on the ground, including his Circle of Reckoning, his money bag, and the bell the minstrel had given him.
Without warning, a shadow blotted out all the light and Phil saw the creature looming right over his head. He caught a glimpse of its gigantic maw—the size of a barn door—opening and closing and making a sickening slurping sound. A horrible smell wafted down, a combination of rotten eggs, garbage, and burnt rubber. And then a stream of viscous saliva dripped down from the katulu’s maw, hissing and bubbling when it hit the ground.
Was that freaking acid?
Phil’s stomach lurched. He would never make it out of here.
A thick sinuous tentacle smacked down less than ten feet from where Phil lay, causing the ground to tremble. Not knowing what else to do, he grabbed at the small metal bell and tugged the leather scrap loose so the bell could ring.
Please work, please work, please work—
With all the force he could muster, Phil rang the bell. Instead of a single note, he heard several distinct notes, forming a magical chiming sound.
And then a bright green light pulsed from the canyon wall ten feet away. Gritting his teeth at the pain, Phil lurched towards the green light. As he drew closer he saw that the light was melting a hole in the stone.
Thunk! Another tentacle slapped the sand a yard away and started groping towards him.
At the same time he saw sunlight stream through the hole in the canyon wall and he caught a glimpse of a desert landscape beyond. A breeze of warm air issued from the hole and Phil thought he could smell juniper.
This must be a portal!
He dove through the opening just as the katulu let out a chilling screech and landed a flurry of tentacles on to the spot where Phil had been a second ago.
Phil lifted his head and gaped in amazement. He was on a shelf of rock in the middle of a vast desert. The sky above him was purplish and streaked with wispy clouds. Two suns hung in the sky.
“Are you hurt?” called a voice.
Phil turned to see a young man in a silver jumpsuit and a grey cloth tactical vest. He had a shock of red hair and a familiar face.
It was the bard from the inn in Marby!
“What is this?” Phil gasped.
“No time!” the bard said, extending a hand.
Behind him, a beat-up machine that almost looked like an old World War II fighter plane—but without any wings—hovered a few feet off the ground. It was as if the machine was suspended by some kind of force field.
This was crazy!
“We need to get out of here!”
Phil nodded and reached for the bard’s extended hand, but something jerked him backwards.
The bard’s expression widened in horror, then the man fumbled for something at his belt.
Phil twisted around and saw that one of the tentacles was reaching through nothingness and encircling his leg. It began to constrict and Phil felt his bones snap.
“Don’t move a muscle!” the bard yelled.
He gripped a high-tech pistol in both hands and squeezed the trigger.
There was a loud humming sound and a fiery beam of energy shot from the pistol and struck the thick tentacle just inches away from Phil’s leg.
Phil felt the pressure around his leg release and he stumbled forward. Bolts of sharp pain lanced through his body.
The bard fired again and Phil heard an unearthly wail as the tentacle vanished back into the other world.
“That was close,” the bard said as he helped Phil into the cockpit of the hovering machine. The man fished something from a pocket on his vest—a small metal device the size of a phone. He pressed it against Phil’s shattered leg and immediately the pain drained away.
“That’ll keep you from passing out before we get to Wibley Station.”
Phil still couldn’t believe what was happening.
“Where are we?”
The bard started up the vehicle’s engines, which made a loud noise like an old tractor.
“The Mesaran Wastes. Near Bonshi.”
“I’ve never even heard of those places. Are we still in Greystrand?”
“Greystrand? No. You’re in the StarRim Empire, of course.” He kicked the vehicle into gear and they sped across the sand flats at what felt like 100 miles per hour.
“I didn’t think it was possible to move between games,” Phil yelled.
“It isn’t —for most people. But I’m not most people.” He grinned.